Feature: 'Film festival in a box'

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter  |  Sept. 13, 2004 at 5:33 PM
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LOS ANGELES, Sept. 13 (UPI) -- A DVD box-set from the National Film Preservation Foundation containing dozens of early films never before released on video offers a guided tour of the medium's transformation from the experimental stage to a place of eminence in the history of human culture.

"More Treasures from American Archives 1894-1931" has 50 films and six trailers from the period -- including a 1910 film version of "The Wizard of Oz," Ernst Lubitsch's 1925 silent version of Oscar Wilde's "Lady Windermere's Fan" and D.W. Griffith's 1909 film "The Country Doctor."

The collection includes early newsreels, ads and educational films.

The National Film Preservation Foundation is a congressionally chartered non-profit that raises operational funds from privates sources. Foundation curator Scott Simmon told United Press International the collection, the second to be released by the foundation, offers a glimpse not only of the growth of cinema as an art form, but also serves as something of a guide to development of U.S. culture.

"I guess if you have any interest at all in either American history, or sort of the birth of the major American art form of the 20th century," he said, "these films have a lot of interest beyond the entertainment value."

The films are presented with commentary by scholars and preservationists, and musical accompaniment supervised by the foundation's music curator, Martin Marks. He told United Press International much of the music is the original music that accompanied early screenings of the films, but he and some collaborators had to come up with their own music for some of the pieces.

In some ways, that circumstance reflected the reality of theatrical exhibition in the earliest days of the film business.

"Theaters had the option of renting the scores or providing their own," said Marks. "For many scores, distributors provided cue sheets. Most theaters of any size had organists and a chamber orchestra, but theaters in downtowns had big orchestras. These became like concerts."

However, said Marks, theaters in outlying areas typically employed pianists -- and did not always provide them with the approved music scores.

"Thousands of people made money playing music," he said. "God knows what they played."

As part of his research for his 1997 book, "Music and the Silent Film," Marks talked with some of those early silent-picture accompanists. Some told him they benefited from books of movie music that were published.

"But sometimes they would tell you that they would play whatever they had in their head," he said.

Some of the pictures included in "More Treasures from American Archives 1894-1931" were originally presented without musical accompaniment. Marks plays piano on 36 of the films and the six trailers. For the rest he enlisted colleagues at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he is a senior lecturer in music and in the Comparative Media Studies program.

Films such as "The Suburbanites" and "The Good Doctor" suggest that early filmmakers were concerned with issues that are still on the table in contemporary culture. "The Suburbanites" is a comedic examination of upward mobility, and "The Good Doctor" illustrates the difficulty of providing roughly equal medical care among social classes.

The foundation's executive director, Annette Melville, said these films "live beyond their period" -- just as great books or art museum pieces do.

"One of the things that makes them so fascinating is that the issues and problems discussed in these films still have meaning today," she said.

Hollywood's current difficulty in converting to digital theatrical exhibition has a parallel in the story of film's progress during the period covered by "More Treasures." Although there were many experiments in music synchronization during the silent period, uncertainty about competing technologies and the cost of conversion played significant roles in delaying the arrival of talking pictures until Warner Bros. had a hit with "The Jazz Singer," signaling the end of the silent era.

Marks said Thomas Edison had already envisioned sound movies when he invented the phonograph, and even invented a machine to couple them. The 15-second film "Dickson Experimental Sound Film" -- sometimes thought of as the first music video -- shows an early system of sound recording for pictures, a system that turned out to be cumbersome and inefficient.

"The technology of recorded images and recorded sound had both been there," said Marks, "but they didn't know how to couple them."

Melville called the collection a "film festival in a box," since it provides an opportunity for people to see films that have only occasionally been seen at archival screenings.

"We're hoping to use the DVD technology to share the films with a much wider audience," she said.

At that, archival screenings have not always had the finest prints at their disposal.

"They really have looked bad," said Melville. "Badly spliced, they may not have music attached to them. They may not be framed properly."

The films were preserved by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Melville said many of the technicians who worked on restoring the films for this collection donated their services.

Net proceeds from the DVD package will be divided among the participating institutions to help pay for further film-preservation projects.


(Please send comments to nationaldesk@upi.com.)

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