Magazine article Humanities

Saving the Silents

Magazine article Humanities

Saving the Silents

Article excerpt

IN THE DARKENED MOVIE THEATER, THE HEROINE IS RISKING HER LIFE, showing amazing feats of physical strength and agility. The action picks up speed, the energy of the music accentuates the mounting tension, and the audience faces one surprise after another-and whew!-the helpless are rescued just in the nick of time.

The film is episode twenty-six of The Hazards of Helen starring Helen Holmes. The series, which ran for more than one hundred weeks during 1915 and 1916, is one of fifty silent films being revived in a new DVD anthology produced by the National Film Preservation Foundation.

The three-disk set, More Treasures from American Film Archives, 1894-1931, offers nine and one half hours of film with on-screen commentary and a 208-page catalog. It is intended for classrooms, libraries, and home theaters.

The films demonstrate how the first four decades of American filmmaking were technologically innovative and unexpectedly modern. In fact, they were not all "silent." The anthology includes the first sound film, produced in 1894.

The films show women in an unexpected light, says Jennifer Bean, assistant professor of cinema studies at the University of Washington, who provided voice-overs and educational commentary for episode twenty-six of Helen. What was particularly engaging to her was not only the early importance of female action figures but also the emergence of the concept of the film star. "As a movie star," Bean comments, "Helen Holmes and her characters epitomized the modern new woman with stamina-'nerve strength' as courage was known at the time-and unbelievable physical action." In one sequence, as Helen is racing to stop a runaway train, she catapults her motorcycle over an open drawbridge and plunges into the water, performing her own stunt and surviving unscathed.

Annette Melville, director of the National Film Preservation Foundation, sums up the significance of the early decades: "In this period of time, filmmaking in the United States grew from a laboratory experiment to a polished project for entertaining and educating audiences all over the world." The motion picture industry developed from a peep-show curio to the nation's fifth largest industry, and American cinematic themes of prosperity, individualism, and social mobility emerged. Hollywood was born.

The selection includes documentaries, political spots, social advocacy films, product ads, cartoons, newsreels, Hollywood promotional shorts, and avant-garde works. There are also films that were technical tests and six previews of films believed lost.

One of the treasures is the first surviving film of L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz from 1910. Fourteen minutes long, it mirrors the touring stage show of Baum's 1900 novel.

The archivists, historians, critics, musicians, and other scholars who collaborated on this project hope that by making these films more accessible-and by packaging them according to contemporary DVD standards-they have provided a context for both study and popular enjoyment. Film director Martin Scorsese, for instance, researched the sets and costumes for The Age of Innocence by watching the 1904 documentary The Streets of Manhattan.

While the films conform generally to what was known as the "silent era," the synchronization with sound was a goal from the start, whether on the film itself or in live performance. "When these films were made, no one would have stood for seeing them in silence," says curator Scott Simmon, professor of English at the University of California at Davis. Instead they would be accompanied by live music or by an audience sing-along used to discourage chatting during the film.

Many of the films were thrown out when sound came in because they were thought to be too old-fashioned. Of the relatively few surviving, even fewer are available outside archives. "It's an archaeological dig, really," explains Melville. "Only about 20 percent of the silent features survived. …

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