We tend to think that once something is committed to film we have it forever. The act of recording seems by its very nature permanent, and often we forget that the very materials used to record are nearly as transient as the images they capture. For the reality is that film is a tenuous medium at best, given to disintegration and, in the case of nitrate films, spontaneous combustion. And this is compounded by the fact that cinema itself was for decades considered merely a novelty, an ephemeral entertainment of virtually no great cultural or historical value.
In fact, it is estimated that 90 percent of all films made during the silent era (1895-1929) and 50 percent of all films made before 1950 are lost, disintegrated over time, neglected or willfully destroyed to extract their nitrate content, or simply mislabeled and forgotten, awaiting discovery on some dusty shelf.
The National Film Preservation Foundation, a nonprofit organization created by Congress in 1997, has helped save more than 1,000 films over the past decade. Most of these films are not commercially viable; the audiences they draw at film festivals are not nearly large enough to cover the costs of their preservation and distribution, and there’s little financial incentive for commercial companies to release them on DVD.
So the foundation, through a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, stepped into the void and began releasing many of these rare cultural artifacts on DVD. The award-winning Treasures From American Film Archives series has consistently been one of the best reviewed discs every year in which a collection has been released. The first set featured a sampling of rare films spanning the history and range of the medium; the second focused on the silent era.
This year the foundation has released Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934, another beautifully produced collection of 48 educational films, commercial features, cartoons, newsreels and propaganda films. The four discs each have a theme: urban life, women and women’s suffrage, labor and capital, immigration and patriotism. At $89.99, the price may seem a bit steep, but the set includes four feature films, an illustrated book with notes for all the films, and commentaries and original musical accompaniment for each. And all proceeds support further film preservation.
Viewing these films is like traveling back in time. It’s a uniquely compelling experience to see documentary footage of everyday life 100 years ago, to see everyday people going about their everyday lives—not posed in static photographs, but walking, talking and laughing. And the more formally staged films say just as much if not more about who these people were, about how they thought and behaved, and how they sought to influence and persuade one another. And though the differences between their time and ours are legion, at times the real surprise is how much has remained the same.
100% American (1918, 14 minutes) features the screen’s first genuine star, Mary Pickford, in a film designed to encourage citizens to buy war bonds. The idea of movie stardom and the harnessing of that influence for commercial and political means was new at the time, and there was no more popular figure in motion pictures than “America’s Sweetheart.”
In the opening scene Pickford is shamed by a man on the street selling bonds. “Our boys are sacrificing their life-blood,” he cries, “What sacrifice have you made?” An alien thought in our time, when the popularity of war is maintained only by keeping it at arms’ length. We then watch as our plucky heroine struggles to overcome the myriad temptations of daily life—fancy new dresses, ice cream sundaes, public transportation—in an effort to save her pennies and donate them to the cause. Nevermind that Pickford wasn’t actually a citizen; in her native country the film was retitled 100% Canadian.
In other films it’s apparent that some things haven’t changed over the years. Listen to Some Words of Wisdom (1930, 2 minutes) gives us Mr. Courage and Mr. Fear, chatting amiably over dinner at a restaurant. The Great Depression has Mr. Fear worried about his finances, even though he has just received a raise, and thus he orders a simple meal of crackers and milk. Mr. Courage intervenes, advising Mr. Fear that it is his patriotic duty to spend his money to help jump-start the economy.
While there are many films in the collection that represent progressive causes, then as now film production was an expensive enterprise, so it is no surprise that so many of these films represent moneyed interests. Two cartoons illustrate the point. The first, The United Snakes of America (1917, 80 seconds) is essentially a newspaper political cartoon, brought to life by stop-motion animation as the drawing is inked in, first the faces and bodies of Uncle Sam flanked by an army man and a navy man. The film essentially creates a punchline by presenting the most crucial elements last, as snakes with labels such as “pro-German press” and “peace activists” come into view, attacking Uncle Sam and revealing that the cartoon is in fact a swipe at all those perceived as undermining the war effort. As far as editorial cartooning goes, this is not the least bit unusual. But to whom does this statement of opinion belong? An independent cartoonist? A media corporation—Hearst, perhaps, or Pulitzer? In the final seconds a hand comes into view to proudly sketch in the credit line and reveal the source: the Ford Motor Company.
Uncle Sam and the Bolsheviki-I.W.W. Rat (1919, 40 seconds) is another animated political cartoon in which Uncle Sam protects the gross domestic product from the evil claws of the International Workers of the World, represented by a rat that crawls out of the woodwork to feast on the harvest. The patriotic Uncle Sam, tellingly hiding behind a wall of sacks labeled “American Institutions,” takes a shovel to the head of the dreaded Bolshevik-loving rodent and crushes it. Again, praise be to the Ford Motor Company.
The status quo is again represented in a few films about the women’s suffrage movement. The Strong Arm Squad of the Future (1912, 60 seconds) is a short animated film that satirizes the movement by caricaturing women in roles of power as manly, brutish, and, most damningly, unappealing to men. More objective in its perspective is On to Washington (1913, 80 seconds), a news film that contains footage of the suffragette march on Capitol Hill. In a more commercial vein is The Hazards of Helen: Episode 13, one installment in a long-running serial in which the heroine battles not only villainous robbers, but the evils of workplace discrimination.
This is just a small sample; Treasures III is far too varied to adequately express here. Suffice it to say that this is not just a collection for history buffs or cinephiles; the films contained here offer both entertainment and enlightenment, and more than a little astonishment.
Photo caption: Suffragettes on Pennsylvania Avenue in On to Washington.