Combustible Celluloid
Search for Posters
Own it:
Search for streaming:
Netflix Hulu Google Play GooglePlay Can I
With: Ronald Coleman, Dorothy Gish, Joseph Jefferson, Mary Pickford, Rin Tin Tin, George Bernard Shaw, Gus Visser, etc.
Written by: Various
Directed by: Alice Guy Blache, William K.L. Dickson, D.W. Griffith, Gregory La Cava, Ernst Lubitsch, Edwin S. Porter, etc.
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Running Time: 573
Date: 18/03/2013

More Treasures from American Film Archives: 1894-1931 (2004)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Fifty First Dates

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most exciting things about the DVD revolution is that it gives older films a chance to be restored and re-discovered. In 2000, the National Film Preservation Foundation released what is still one of the most essential DVDs yet produced. It collected fifty of America's most historically important, entertaining and educational short films and feature films from the early days of cinema and converted them to digital so that anyone could enjoy them, at any time, forever.

While watching these films one feels not only a sense of joy, but also relief at knowing that these treasures -- there's no better word -- have been saved.

Now the NFPF has released a follow-up, with fifty more films on three more DVDs. The box set comes with a booklet and each film includes its own interactive essay, providing just about everything anyone would ever want to know. All of the silent films come with newly recorded music scores, and many of the films include commentary tracks by scholars and historians.

Disc one begins with an amazing experiment, a sound film made by Edison employee William K.L. Dickson in 1894, approximately 33 years before The Jazz Singer. It runs only 15 seconds and consists of a man (Dickson himself) playing violin into a giant megaphone while two other men dance.

One of D.W. Griffith's many 2-reel shorts appears here, the miraculous little The Country Doctor (1909), which, as far as I can tell makes its DVD debut here. Beautifully shot by cinematographer G.W. "Billy" Bitzer, the story unfolds as the title character must tend to two terminal patients at once, with tragic results. Griffith's rhythmic editing and use of location and depth of field is in full display in an early attempt at a "realistic" story; though for some reason one family displays the American Biograph logo in their home. Mary Pickford stars.

Quite a bit less talented than Griffith was Otis Turner, whose The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1910) is included. Running 13 minutes, this baffling little film is notable for being the first screen adaptation of L. Frank Baum's novel. But fans of the 1939 film will have a hard time deciphering what's going on.

The new set contains several cartoons, notably the 6-minute spoof The Breath of a Nation (1919), directed by Gregory La Cava (My Man Godfrey, Stage Door). The film makes fun of prohibition while referencing D.W. Griffith's epic from four years earlier.

Animators extraordinaire Max and Dave Fleischer give a sample of their handywork with the strange Now You're Talking (1927), which appears to be a public service message to Pacific Bell customers, urging them to treat their machines with more care. In the cartoon, an abused phone goes to the hospital and we learn about his various grievances.

Often overshadowed by his producer brother Max, director Dave attempted a solo career with his "Inklings" series. Contained here is "Inklings #12," which consists of clever little animated puzzles and a tribute to canine star Rin Tin Tin.

One of the set's few talkies is a five-minute "greeting" by playwright George Bernard Shaw (Pygmalion), shot in 1928, which is an obvious historical gem. Another talkie is the truly bizarre Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (1925), running 90 seconds. It has to be seen to be believed.

The set does a nice job of combining entertainments and historically important non-fiction films, such as the Ford Motor Company's De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb (1920). San Francisco archivist Rick Prelinger provides a commentary track.

Disc two starts with five minutes of amazing "documentary" footage shot on the streets of New York City in 1901 and 1903. Shot by Edwin S. Porter (The Great Train Robbery), these films have an incredible realism not often seen in silent films, and depict people from 100 years ago during their daily lives. One segment takes place in the fish market, and it's stunning to see two casual passersby collide into one another; neither takes the slightest notice and both keep going. Another wonderful portrait of New York comes from amateur filmmaker Jay Leyda and A Bronx Morning (1931), a combination of documentary and avant-garde experiment.

A silent newsreel from 1926 provides a look at the headlines of the day, from a strange sport that involves horses and a giant rubber ball, to footage of Mussolini. And a 30-second 1897 short features Thomas Edison himself at work in his chemical laboratory, though his actions were staged for the camera.

Perhaps the strangest two-reel comedy ever made, There It Is (1928) features writer/director/star Charley Bowers as a Scottish detective -- complete with kilt and bagpipes -- who tries to solve the case of a haunted house, infested with a strange little man with a big beard. He takes with him MacGregor, a stop-motion animated insect who lives in a matchbox.

Disc three begins with the short Rip Van Winkle (1896), which historians cite as starring the earliest-born actor to ever appear in a film. Joseph Jefferson (1829-1905) was an enormous stage star, best known for his portrayal of old Rip. W.K.L. Dickson directed with G.W. Bitzer at the camera.

The box includes a film by one of the cinema's earliest women filmmakers, Alice Guy Blache. The 12-minute Falling Leaves (1912) is a primitive but strangely touching melodrama about a sick woman and the miracle that saves her.

Finally, one of my favorite shorts is the strange From Leadville to Aspen: A Hold-Up in the Rockies (1906), which was shot from the point of view of a passenger on a train. We see the scenery rolling by as the tracks disappear at the bottom of the frame, and we see people entering and exiting the passenger car from the vantage point of one of the seats. Not so strange when the notes reveal that this little film was actually meant to be shown on board a train. This American Biograph production runs 8 minutes. Bitzer was the cinematographer.

At 41 minutes, Thomas Ince's Western The Invaders (1912) is one of the four longest films in the box. Chester M. Franklin and Sidney A. Franklin's Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916) tops it at nearly an hour. The lovely Dorothy Gish stars in a rare leading role without her sister Lillian around.

One of the box's highlights is the 74-minute feature film Clash of the Wolves (1925), which marks the home video debut of one of the biggest stars of the 1920s, Rin Tin Tin. Rescued from France during World War I, Rinty was not only a brilliant dog who could perform any number of on-screen tricks on command, but he was the only four-legged star who actually had a screen presence and appeared to be acting rather than obeying commands. Watching this exciting film will turn anyone into a loyal fan, pushing Lassie and Benji out of the limelight. Its only flaw is the ridiculous comic relief by Alkali Bill, though these sequences do give the viewer a nice break from the action. Now if only the rest of the Rin Tin Tin films would come out of hiding.

Finally, the best reason to buy the "More Treasures" box is the DVD debut of Ernst Lubitsch's Lady Windermere's Fan (1925), one of his earliest American films, adapted from Oscar Wilde's play. Among the greatest masters of all time, Lubitsch was noted for his famous "touch," which one could easily recognize when one saw it, but which writers and filmmakers have been trying to describe and duplicate unsuccessfully for decades. Lubitsch's touch magically adds back to this silent film what is missing from the lack of Wilde's witty dialogue. Of course, the plot is the same and revolves around ridiculous society people who have but to tell the truth to get out of a sticky jam. But Lubitsch was at the high point of his genius, and he has made a masterpiece not to be missed. Ronald Coleman stars, with Irene Rich, May McAvoy, Bert Lytell and Edward Martindel. Julien Josephson scripted.

That's less than half of the treasures to be discovered. I daresay DVD fans will hardly find a more exciting or significant release this whole year. Certainly it puts the disappointing new Star Wars box set -- in which Lucas officially rejected the original films -- into perspective.

The complete list of films is as follows:

  1. Dickson Experimental Sound Film (ca. 1894)
  2. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Annie Oakley (1894)
  3. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Buffalo Dance (1894)
  4. Buffalo Bill's Wild West: Bucking Broncho (1894)
  5. The Suburbanite (1904)
  6. The Country Doctor (1909, D.W. Griffith)
  7. The Wonderful Wizard Of Oz (1910)
  8. Early Advertising Films: Admiral Cigarette (1897)
  9. Early Advertising Films: Flash Cleaner (ca. 1920)
  10. Early Advertising Films: Buy an Electric Refrigerator (1926)
  11. Early Advertising Films: The Stenographer's Friend (1910)
  12. The Invaders (1912, Thomas Ince)
  13. The Hazards of Helen: Episode 26 (1915)
  14. Gretchen the Greenhorn (1916), with Dorothy Gish
  15. The Breath of a Nation (1919, Gregory La Cava)
  16. De-Light: Making an Electric Light Bulb (1920)
  17. Skyscraper Symphony (1929, Robert Florey)
  18. Greeting by George Bernard Shaw (1928)
  19. The Streets of New York: What Happened on Twenty-Third Street (1901)
  20. The Streets of New York: At the Foot of the Flatiron (1903)
  21. The Streets of New York: New York City "Ghetto" Fish Market (1903)
  22. From Leadville to Aspen (1906)
  23. The "Teddy" Bears (1907)
  24. Children Who Labor (1912)
  25. Early Color Films: From 'Concerning $1000' (1916)
  26. Early Color Films: From 'Exhibition Reel of Two Color Film' (1929)
  27. Early Color Films: The Flute of Krishna (1926), with Martha Graham
  28. Surviving reel of 'Lotus Blossom' (1921)
  29. Gus Visser and His Singing Duck (ca. 1925)
  30. Clash of the Wolves (1925), with Rin-Tin-Tin
  31. International Newsreel (1926)
  32. Now You're Talking (1927)
  33. There It Is (1928, Charley Bowers)
  34. A Bronx Morning (1931, Jay Leyda)
  35. Rip Van Winkle (1896, with Joseph Jefferson)
  36. Mr. Edison at Work in His Chemical Laboratory (1897)
  37. Life of an American Fireman (1903, Edwin S. Porter)
  38. Westinghouse Works (1904)
  39. Falling Leaves (1912, Alice Guy Blaché)
  40. Hollywood Promotional Films: Exibitor's Reel for 'Hands Up' (1918)
  41. Hollywood Promotional Films: Movie Lovers' Contest (1926)
  42. Hollywood Promotional Films: From C-V News - Filming 'Greed' (1923)
  43. De Forest Phonofilms: A Few Moments with Eddie Cantor (1923)
  44. De Forest Phonofilms: President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds (1924)
  45. Inklings (1925, Dave Fleischer)
  46. Lady Windermere's Fan (1925, Ernst Lubitsch)
  47. Cockeyed (ca. 1925)
  48. Prologue from 'The Passaic Textile Strike' (1926)
  49. Tramp, Tramp, Tramp (1926)
  50. Zora Neale Hurston's fieldwork footage of the South (1928)
  51. Trailers for Six Lost Films (1923-1928)

Movies Unlimtied