Gifts for Trekkies, Anglophiles, and arthouse obscurists
Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934Image Entertainment, $89.99
In the land of the silents collection, the commentator is king. Or queen, as is the case on disc two of the National Film Preservation Foundation's Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934. New Women, the set's second program of four (presented on as many discs), showcases author Margaret Finnegan on "A Lively Affair," "On to Washington," "The Strong Arm Squad of the Future," and "A Suffragette in Spite of Himself," for a total of 17 minutes and 20 seconds. They are memorable. Finnegan comes on like a well-off academic's Sarah Vowell, her distinctive voice and dry asides helping to illuminate "how films can participate in larger conversations between popular culture and political life," as she puts it during 1912's gender-role-reversing "A Lively Affair."
Later, the measured tone of Jennifer M. Bean helps steady the pulse as we rubber-neck "The Hazards of Helen, Episode 13: The Escape on the Fast Freight," during which the hyperintelligent University of Washington professor admits that the film's "recklessly daring working-girl heroine," actor and co-director Helen Holmes, "quite frankly looks good to me." Next is University of California-Santa Cruz historian and Lois Weber expert Shelley Stamp explaining why the writer/director's pro-conception, anti-abortion Where Are My Children? "continues to stand as an important landmark in cinematic activism." While intertitles concerning the souls of unwanted babies bearing the sign of the serpent flash amid images of smoke, gates, angels, crosses, and pillars, she quotes Weber as saying, "I'll tell you what I'd like to be, and that is the editorial page of the Universal Company." Tyrone Power stars as a district attorney and "great believer in eugenics" in the 1916 melodrama that did boffo box office. Really.
At 65 minutes, Where Are My Children? here joins three other efforts as a feature-length highlight: 1920's William Desmond Taylor-Julia Crawford Ivers collaboration The Soul of Youth, which includes an appearance by legendary Denver "kid's judge" Ben B. Lindsey; Cecil B. De Mille's The Godless Girl (1929) with commentary from Eastman House curator Patrick Loughney and the director's granddaughter Cecilia; and Redskin, Victor Schertzinger's stirring 1929 adaptation of Elizabeth Pickett's Navajo.
But with upward of 40 films (among them newsreels, animation, and educationals) making for more than 12 hours of viewing, the deeper you dig into Treasures III, the greater the reward. Like its predecessors, this anthology is extraordinary. For every boring bauble, you'll find valuables such as "The Usurer's Grip," a 1912 cautionary tale about bad credit you might see between episodes of judges Judy and Joe Brown, and 1900's "How They Rob Men in Chicago," which, in a mere 25 seconds, manages to portray with remarkable realism a man being clubbed in the back of the head and robbed. One of the collection's few cynical moments follows when a passing cop combs his unconscious body for more loot; all told, these are works of optimism, products of a time when this country had reason to be.