Thursday, Apr 26, 2018
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Fast forward: Jewels from bygone days


A scene from the 1910 film <i>The Wonderful Wizard of Oz</i> shows Dorothy, the Scarecrow, and other characters. The work, preserved by the George Eastman House, is the first surviving film of the novel by L. Frank Baum.


"My name is Calvin Coolidge and I approved this message. I didn't want to, though. My advisers said I should do this thing because of these newfangled talkies and all."

Silent Cal, as he was known, never actually said that. He never said much of anything. But you can read it on his glum face and the terse, deadpan way he snaps off his agenda to the camera in President Coolidge, Taken on White House Grounds, a four-minute 1924 newsreel - but in truth, the first modern campaign ad.

Coolidge was not happy to perform for a movie camera. He reads his notes. He rails against high taxes. He sympathizes lifelessly with farmers, "the manufacturer, the professional man, the clerk." He explains that the government's operating budget is $7.5 billion and how he knows very well "such a sum is difficult to comprehend." He stalks off.

Coolidge was in office a year when he made it; think of it as further proof that politicians are always campaigning. With about six weeks to go before Election Day, the thought of yet another campaign spot might sound unpalatable. This one is revealing.

So are most of the remarkable early 20th century short subjects, comedies, serials, documentaries, advertisements, cartoons, and forgotten features curated and compiled on More Treasures From the American Film Archives: 1894-1931 (Image, $79.95), a three-disc follow-up to the National Film Preservation Foundation's 2000 collection. There are 50 films in all, adding up to about nine hours of footage. Some are less than 20 seconds, like the first syncronized-sound movie, shot in New Jersey, of two men dancing. The longest is 89 minutes, the rare 1925 Ernst Lubitsch silent, Lady Windermere's Fan. It's without a doubt the most ambitious and addicting DVD set this year - it's also not academic.

Which could be deadly.

More Treasures feels more like, well, a treasure chest of carefully considered antiques. More than a dozen historians

and preservationists provide background-loaded commentary tracks for the collection. The soundtracks are period-approriate and varied rather than the usual tinkling pianos heard on new videos of old films. The 186 pages of program notes are absorbing, accessible, and opinionated.

What holds you, though, is the variety of surprises: Footage shot in 1928 by Zora Neale Hurston as she traveled the South compiling black folk tales; 20 seconds of the real Annie Oakley demonstrating her skill (she misses two plates); the only surviving reel of 1921's Lotus Blossom, the first Chinese-American feature (and a response of sorts to years of stereotyping); Clash of the Wolves, a rare Rin-Tin-Tin adventure from 1925; a surreal 1910 adaptation of The Wizard of Oz; and 1903 footage of 23rd Street in Manhattan and scores of men holding their bowlers to their heads as a wind kicks up. (Martin Scorsese later appropriated the poetic image for 1993's The Age of Innocence.)

The Suburbanite (1904) is first genuine sitcom - the real irony of it is that a still-urban American regards the suburbs as a kind of lower-class slum. Jay Leyda, a Dayton native who moved to New York and became one of the first film theorists, provides A Bronx Morning (1931), a kind of matter-of-fact travelogue of Depression-era New York. Hollywood hadn't yet become the center of American filmmaking at the turn of the century, so a disproportionate number of these works are from the east coast.

My favorite, though, comes from a trip to Europe taken by some Fox filmmakers to see George Bernard Shaw. Shaw speaks to the camera with a mischievous gleam in his eye. The playwright reassures us he's a swell chap. Despite what they heard.

Years before, Shaw refused to allow American filmmakers to adapt his work. Studio boss Samuel Goldwyn mailed him a plea to reconsider and got back this:

"The trouble is, Mr. Goldwyn, you are interested in art, whereas I am interested in money."


MR. SMITH GOES TO JERSEY: There are those who wonder how director Kevin Smith lost himself - how a previously edgy filmmaker traveled so far afield from the inspired profanity of Clerks (1994), newly available as a preening, two-disc Clerks X: 10th Anniversary Edition (Buena Vista, $34.99), only to land a decade later pushing flat Ben Affleck romantic comedies like Jersey Girl (Buena Vista, $29.99) on soccer moms.

And there are those who feel he never traveled very far to begin with. There are those (like myself) who see Smith's career as a constant striving for the middle of the road. This split is nothing new; Smith himself proudly acknowledges it. But I think he hides behind that criticism and uses it to justify affected dialogue and sitcom tendencies.

Clerks X, however, is as much a package on low-budget filmmaking as it is a DVD of Clerks: Extras include two versions of the film, Sundance diaries, outtakes, reviews, Smith's Tonight Show shorts, and magazine articles that inspired Smith to make that first feature, Clerks. I don't deny his sincerity.

Only his timid ambitions.


YOUNG AMERICANS: In retrospect, why wasn't Angels in America ($39.98), the immensely moving HBO adaptation of Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize-winning play, released in theaters last fall?

If it had been, with a little creative editing to bring its six hours down to a mere four, this sprawling take on '80s America and the first stirrings of AIDS would have almost certainly taken the Best Picture Oscar last winter.

Mike Nichols directed. Meryl Streep plays the ghost of convicted traitor Ethel Rosenberg (in addition to three other roles).

Al Pacino plays vile lawyer Roy Cohn, and Jeffrey Wright steals the film as a nurse who goes toe-to-toe with Cohn, a gay-bashing presidential fix-it man (who was gay himself).

On the other hand, at six hours, a world envelops you, and what's an Oscar when you've got a genuine masterpiece instead?

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