September 26, 2011

Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938

Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Rating (out of five): *****

The National Film Preservation Foundation, located in San Francisco, has been quietly releasing extraordinary DVD box sets over the past ten years, entitled the "Treasures" series. There isn't a better word for it. These sets are packed with little gems that had to be dug up and assessed before it could be determined how valuable they were. The first set (Treasures from American Film Archives), from 2000, came with fifty comedies, dramas, experimental films, cartoons, newsreels, documentaries, and tons of other stuff, all historically valuable as well as entertaining. Volume Two, from 2004, had more just like it. Volume Three focused on Social Issues, and Volume Four looked at Avant-Garde Film.

It makes sense, then, that the NFPF would want to devote a box set to that most popular of American genres, the Western. The fifth and newest set, Treasures 5: The West (1898-1938), does include some Westerns, but more specifically focuses on the history of the area that makes up the western section of the United States. Typically of the NFPF, the box covers a wide range of topics, including features, shorts, comedies, action movies, and dramas, movies that explore the issues of the downtrodden and the marginalized, newsreels, promotional films, and movies that were once lost but are now found. The selection of forty films seems like an almost complete history in itself.

Perhaps the set's most exciting film is Victor Fleming's Mantrap (1926), starring the irresistible Clara Bow, just a year before she became the "It" girl. Based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, the action begins on a burned-out divorce lawyer, Ralph Prescott (Percy Marmont), who becomes fed up with women and decides to go away with a friend (the great Eugene Pallette, who would later be known for his frog-voice) for an extended trip to the woods. Meanwhile, the rugged he-man, Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence) decides to leave the wilderness for the big city; he hasn't seen anything more than a woman's ankle in years.

When he arrives, he goes for a haircut and meets the pretty manicurist Alverna (Bow). Before long, they're married and living back in Mantrap, in the middle of nowhere. Eventually Alverna meets Ralph and begins throwing herself at him, hoping for a ticket back to the big city. Bow's character is slightly despicable, but she's nonetheless appealing since Fleming more or less celebrates her free will and unquenchable spirit; she even has some great "dialogue" written for her in the title cards. Neither of the men are very attractive, but they bring an earthy, honest quality to the movie, and all the moods, from the lightest jokes to the heaviest romance, come from an organic place.

My old colleague Michael Sragow, currently the film critic for the Baltimore Sun and author of Victor Fleming: An American Movie Master, provides the excellent commentary track.

Based on a Bret Harte story, Salomy Jane (1914) -- a romance/revenge thriller, but with a strong female lead -- is another of the box set's feature films, discovered in a complete version in 1996. An unusual find, it was made at a time before feature films were typical, and in San Francisco, rather than Hollywood. There's also the 65-minute The Lady of the Dugout (1918), starring real-life "outlaws" Al and Frank Jennings, and directed by a young W.S. Van Dyke (also known as "One Take Woody," the future director of Tarzan and The Thin Man). The story shows the bandits discovering a woman and her hungry son on the way to their hideout.

The last feature in the set is incomplete, Womanhandled (1925), directed by Gregory La Cava, who is best known for his comedies (Stage Door, My Man Godfrey, etc.); only about 55 minutes of the original seven reels exists. It's also a lighthearted tale, with a modern-day setting, about city slickers who head out to a real ranch.

Last of the Line (1914) is historically fascinating: produced by Thomas Ince and running 26 minutes, it's one of a series of Westerns focused on American Indians. It has some very striking cinematography, making lovely use of depth of field. Moreover, Japanese-born Sessue Hayakawa, a future Hollywood star and Oscar nominee, plays one of the Indians. In a similar vein, the set also includes films devoted to Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, as well as The Girl Ranchers (1913), dedicated to intrepid women characters.

Another surprise is We Can Take It (1935), a promotional film for Franklin Roosevelt's Civilian Conservation Corps, a program designed to alleviate unemployment during the Great Depression and to conserve and develop natural resources. Imagine such a program today!

Mack Sennett's comedy The Tourists (1912) was shot at D.W. Griffith's Biograph company, in-between their more serious films, and just before Sennett left to found his Keystone company. Griffith himself also contributes to the box set with Over Silent Paths: A Story of the American Desert (1910), shot on location.

The first Western star, Gilbert M. Anderson, a.k.a "Broncho Billy," is also here with one of his 125+ films, Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress (1912) -- a fairly unique mix of comedy and drama. We also get a one-reel Tom Mix movie, Legal Advice (1916), which was much more interested in action and stunts. (Mix was considered a much more "genuine" cowboy than Billy.)

The Sergeant (1910) was thought lost until 2010, a full century after it was made. It was shot in Yosemite, and uses that stunning landscape to beautiful effect. Sunshine Gatherers (1921) was produced by the Del Monte corporation to help sell fruit, but it's such an elaborate, gorgeous movie that it goes beyond mere advertising. Additionally, there are also a handful of fascinating newsreels, promotional films, and other little documentaries, including some films from Thomas Edison's studio.

The total running time is something like ten hours, spread across three DVDs. Each film comes with a new music score and an optional commentary track by various experts. 

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Posted by maian at September 26, 2011 4:36 PM
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