Preserving rare old films is crucial, but the National Film Preservation Foundation believes it’s just as important to bring them to the widest possible audience. That’s why its Treasures from American Film Archives series is so valuable. Treasures 5: The West gathers an exceptionally wide range of films from 1898 to 1938, including early documentaries, promotional shorts, home movies, newsreels, cowboy yarns, and Hollywood feature films. Together they give us a compelling look at how the real West was depicted in the early 20th century, and how the mythicized West captured the public’s imagination.
The meticulous care that has gone into this release sets a standard for everyone in the archival community. Each film is thoroughly documented, onscreen and in an informative booklet written by Scott Simmon. You can even learn at precisely what speed the—
—silent films were transferred, from original materials held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, George Eastman House, Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art, National Archives, UCLA Film & Television Archive, and the New Zealand Film Archive. Every selection features a commentary track by an expert, including world-class film scholars and Western historians who provide often eye-opening counterpoint to the images we see.
For instance, I found Life on the Circle Ranch in California (1912) an absorbing look at ranch life in the early 20th century, until I listened to Donald W. Reeves, from the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, who revealed that much of the film was plainly staged, demonstrating behavior that no real cowboy or rancher would tolerate. So much for “seeing is believing.” (There is still much of value here, including a living lexicon of cowboy terminology in the title cards.)
In a similar vein, I’ve always been fascinated by the Civilian Conservation Corps of the 1930s, which is promoted in a 1935 silent short, We Can Take It. The film opens with a shot of enthusiastic CCC boys gathered in front of the camera—including some black faces in the crowd. I remarked to my wife that I never realized the CCC was integrated. Then I listened to Neil M. Maher, author of a book about the CCC, who debunked that shot and several others like it by explaining that the camps were definitely segregated. These scenes were filmed for propaganda purposes. Again, the information Maher provides doesn’t negate the significance of the short; it places it into historical context and separates truth from what we might call public relations.
The forty disparate films on this three-disc set offer an infinite number of discoveries—from social, historical, ethnographic, and cinematic points of view. Here is a rarely-seen 1914 feature film based on Bret Harte’s Salomy Jane featuring a Latina leading lady, Beatriz Michelena…an early color short extolling the glories of California fruit (and fruit pickers) called Sunshine Gatherers…a docudrama about hobo life, Deschutes Driftwood…Romance of Water, chronicling the story of bringing H20 to Los Angeles…a demonstration of How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat…the first dramatic film shot in Yosemite, The Sergeant, from 1910…and early examples of Western dramas starring Bronco Billy Anderson, Tom Mix, and real-life outlaw Al Jennings.
There are two slick Hollywood features among these more primitive efforts, transferred from beautiful 35mm negatives. Mantrap (1926), directed by Victor Fleming, stars a radiant Clara Bow as a city girl who impetuously agrees to marry Ernest Torrence and live in his backwoods home. Womanhandled (1925) is a lightweight farce starring Richard Dix and Esther Ralston that plays on Easterners’ romantic vision of the West, as opposed to the reality of life on a modern ranch. The latter film is missing about ten minutes of footage, which doesn’t affect the simple story. (Only a non-profit endeavor such as this would release a partial feature for the value of its surviving content. What’s more, the NFPF was able to license both of these still-copyrighted features from Paramount, which is great news for silent film buffs—and Clara Bow fans.)
As the project has called on a variety of experts, it has also drawn on a number of sources for original music scores, curated by Martin Marks of MIT. Familiar and talented composer-pianists like Michael Mortilla and Stephen Horne are joined here by promising students who are newcomers to the world of silent-film accompaniment.
I could go on and on; each film has its own story and its own particular fascination. You can purchase the new DVD set from amazon.com or barnesnandnoble.com, among others. To learn more about Treasures 5: The West, and view some tantalizing excerpts from the films, click HERE and if you’d like to see an enticing trailer, click HERE.