One hundred years ago, the motion picture industry was in its infancy and the Old West wasn't very ancient. When movie-making first came to California and other Western states in the early part of the 20th century, the first films that were produced revealed new worlds that had not been seen before by movie audiences.
Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, a collection of silent film shorts, feature-length dramas, documentaries, and promotional footage put together by the National Film Preservation Foundation, is out this week in a DVD boxed set (three discs, $59.98, not rated). It's the fifth release in the Treasures from American Film Archives series. Some of these films had been presumed "lost" and many have not been seen by the public for nearly a century.
The settings for many of these films are striking. Life on the Circle Ranch in California, from 1912, was one of the first documentaries about ranching, and the ranch land is in the soon-to-be-developed area of Santa Monica. A 1910 short film by D.W. Griffith, Over Silent Paths: A Story of the American Desert, places its melodramatic story of a young woman avenging her father's death amid the sagebrush, sand, and cacti of what is now the suburbia of the San Fernando Valley. The actual houses and crafts of Navajo and Hopi Indians are shown in 1912's The Tourists, while the ancient pueblos and cliff dwellings of Northern New Mexico can be seen in The Indian Detour, from 1926.
Given Hollywood's long and deplorable history of slandering Native Americans as marauding savages and Mexicans and Mexican Americans as lazy layabouts and evil banditos, it's fascinating that some of these early films challenge a modern viewer's expectations about such depictions. The Better Man, a short drama from 1912, shatters stereotypes by having a Mexican bandit, who is wanted dead or alive, risk his life to help an American mother find emergency medical treatment for her sick child, something her gambler of a husband (an Anglo) wouldn't do. Similarly, in Mexican Filibusters: An Incident in the Real Uprising, a 1911 film about the Mexican Revolution, the heroes are a group of Mexicans and Mexican Americans who are smuggling arms for the revolutionaries from Texas. (The term "filibuster," though now used to describe a delaying tactic in the U.S. Senate, originally referred to pirate or other illegal activity.)
As for Native Americans, the remarkable Last of the Line (1914) is one of a group of Westerns produced by Thomas Ince that starred real Indians in sympathetic leading roles. Shot in what is now the wealthy Los Angeles neighborhood of Brentwood, the film casts members of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe, including Joe Goodboy as the chief, in a drama about the return home of the chief's son from "the white man's school," the non-reservation government boarding schools where Indian children were sent to be educated, and assimilated, by whites. That the young Indian man who returns home dressed in a jacket and tie and drunk on liquor was played by Japanese-American actor Sessue Hayakawa is even more striking. (Hayakawa became a major silent screen star in the United States, though he is best remembered for his Oscar-nominated role years later as the Japanese prison camp commandant in 1957's The Bridge on the River Kwai.)
Some of the movies here are just plain fun. Mantrap, a feature-length comedy from 1926 directed by Victor Fleming (the principal director in 1939 of both Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz) and based on a novel by Sinclair Lewis, helped make the 21-year-old Clara Bow one of Hollywood's biggest silent-screen stars. She's simply irresistible as a flirty flapper from Minneapolis who marries a man from the Canadian wilderness (with California's Lake Arrowhead area standing in for Canada.) The Baltimore Sun's fine film critic, Michael Sragow, provides an erudite audio commentary.
Although the women in many of these films were often depicted as civilizing agents from the East who tame the unruly men living in the unruly West -- roles that continued throughout movie history -- Bow's character can hold her own in the wilderness. So do the women in Over Silent Paths (1910), Salomy Jane (1914), Broncho Billy and the Schoolmistress (1912), and Legal Advice (1916). The last two films also helped introduce movie audiences to Gilbert Anderson and Tom Mix, respectively, two of the first Hollywood Western stars.
The West also features some interesting travelogues, commercial documentaries, and other non-fiction shorts offering views from the 1890s through the 1930s. These include films extolling the bounty of California agriculture (produced by the Del Monte corporation), the abundance of water in Los Angeles (produced by L.A.'s Department of Water and Power without mentioning the political chicanery it took to get the water there), and the tourist attractions of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks, California's Lake Tahoe and Arizona's Castle Hot Springs.
With more than 10 hours of footage assembled from archives all over the world, an excellent catalog by series curator Scott Simmon of the University of California at Davis describing the films and their creation, and audio commentaries by scholars and other experts on film history and the history of the West, this is a remarkably thoughtful and enjoyable compilation.
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