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Treasures from American Film Archives,
50 Preserved Films: 1893-1985

     For film freaks this holiday season, it's as festive as smooching 'neath the mistletoe, an equivalent to those vintage Charlie Parker and Louis Armstrong CDs on which jazz fans routinely groove: Treasures from American Film Archives, 50 Preserved Films: 1893-1985.

     This four-DVD box set issued by the National Film Preservation Foundation offers eleven hours of dazzling early film -features,documentaries, animations, experimental shorts-which have been lovingly preserved by non-profit archives across America, from the Museum of Modern Art and the Library of Congress to the tiny Minnesota Historical Society and Alaska Film Archives.

     The $99.99 purchase (www.image-entertainment.com, 818-407-9100) gets you also a scholarly, entertaining book of program notes by Scott Simmons and explanations of the remarkable accompanying music arranged by, and often played by (on piano), our local treasure, MIT's Senior Lecturer in Music, Martin Marks. Marks knows his world music, from obscure medieval composers to turn-of-the-century Tin Pan Alley. A typical Marks five minutes for 1901-1904 shorts includes snippets from Schubert's Moments Musicaux and Scott Joplin's The Favorite, the pop tune, The Sidewalks of New york, and a sampling from Flight of the Bumble-Bee of Rimsy-Korsakov. Marks adds, "I couldn't resist… referring to "Daddy Wouldn't Buy Me a Bow-Wow" (1893), now forgotten but endearingly flippant."

     The super-highlight of the four DVD's is a two-minute sequence within a 1937 WPA documentary, We Work Again, which showcases a Harlem-based stage production of Macbeth for the Federal Theatre Project. What we see, an all-African-American cast and Shakespeare transported to a voodoo-ambient Haiti, is the bold conception of the 20-year-old director, one Orson Welles. Recently discovered, this clip is the earliest filmed record of Welles's artistry: the play's spectacular conclusion, when "Birnum Wood" lands in the lap of Macbeth, here a megalomaniac black ruler probably inspired by O'Neill's The Emperor Jones.

     Other assorted curiosities:

     Her Crowning Glory (1911), preserved by the UCLA Archives, an intro to America's first popular film comedian, round-bellied John Bunny, who died in 1915, and was mourned then around the globe.

     Snow White (1916), a 63-minute, live-action feature, restored by the George Eastman House, starring a woefully over-aged Marguerite Clark, 32. This film enthralled the 15-year-old Walt Disney, growing up in Kansas City. He acknowledged it as the inspiration for his 1937 masterpiece. The early version is a rough-hewn amalgam of sundry Grimm Brothers tales, though the scenes in which the dwarfs (children in white-face?) find sleeping Snow White are not far afield from how Uncle Walt would do them.

     The Chechahcos(1924), the only film of the Alaska Moving Picture Company, and proof that there always have been vigorous indies, far away from Hollywood. This one stars an almost all-Alaskan thespian cast, who are comfortable with dogsleds and glaciers and also take a stab at melodrama: a lost child, mother's abiding love.

     Rose Hobart (1936), preserved by the Anthology Film Archives, the visionary surrealist work of artist Joseph Cornell, and perhaps the first post-modern movie. Cornell did what nobody else had done to that moment: he took a schlock 1931 Hollywood potboiler, East of Borneo, and reshot and reedited it into a discunctive Jungian dream picture, both disturbing and hilarious. Cornell renamed his version for its dreamy, B-movie star actress.

     Negro Leagues Baseball (1946). There's little extant footage of those legendary years of segregated African-American athletes, so this eight minutes of anonymously-made film, preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, is essential. It was shot at Cincinnati's Crosley Field and features the Indianapolis Clowns and their lanky first basemen, Reece "Goose" Tatum. Tatum became far more famous with the Harlem Globetrotters; and much of the ball-juggling here on the baseball diamond is akin to Globetrotters' basketball routines.

     Let me end by noting that two key New England archives are appropriately represented in this collection.

     The National Center of Jewish Film, housed at Brandeis University, the most important archive for preserving of Yiddish films, offers a 17-minute sequence (too short!) from the 1937 Tevye, starring the great Maurice Schwartz as Sholom Aleichem's lovable, future-Fiddler on the Roof, diaryman. You'd swear this film was made in rural Poland, with even a priest speaking shtetl Yiddish. No, try Jericho, Long Island, for a film financed by a New York restauranteur.

     Northeast Historic Film in Bucksport, Maine, carries out a mandate to preserve not only professional features produced in Northern New England but amateur home movies. We are treated to delightful 1936-1937 footage by Archie Stewart, an automobile dealer who filmed his family with a 16mm sound camera. What fun! His two elementary school-age daughters have a tea party, and sporting British accidents, include their large-snouted family dog, who, decades before the canine experiments of William Wegman, is dressed almost like Whistler's Mother.

GERALD PEARY
(December, 2000)

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