February 6, 2012
Most Oscar awards make sense, even if presenters have to explain what Sound Mixing is every year during the ceremony. (The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which began handing out Scientific and Technical awards in 1931, separated that potentially confusing area from the telecast long ago.) Surprises may pop up in the Foreign Film and Documentary Feature categories, but otherwise the nominations seem to be drawn from a small pool of fairly recognizable titles.
Except for shorts, which receive awards in three separate categories: Best Animated Short Film, Best Live Action Short Film, and Documentary Short Subject. These are the real dark horses at the Oscar ceremony, films that almost no one has seen because so few venues schedule them. ShortsHD has recently started arranging theatrical releases for the short nominees through a program called The Oscar® Nominated Short Films. Last year’s grossed over $1.3 million; this year’s, released through Magnolia Pictures, will run in over 200 theaters starting February 10. The films will also be available on iTunes starting February 21.
In the early days of cinema, all films were shorts. In fact, the first films consisted of one shot that lasted sixty seconds or less. As films matured they became longer. The early blockbusters A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery lasted 14 and 12 minutes, respectively. Since titles were sold by the foot, exhibitors adopted a shorthand of one-reel and two-reel subjects.
A reel consisted of 1000 feet of film, roughly ten minutes. Feature-length movies in the silent era could run anywhere from six to eight reels, with exceptions for epic productions. Filmmakers and studios gravitated toward bigger and longer movies, but short films remained an important part of the industry.
First, obviously, shorts were cheaper than features. Everything from casting to processing cost less for short films. Second, shorts were a sort of minor leagues for the industry, a way to test and train talent before moving them up to features. In recent years this role has been taken over by film schools, advertising and the music video industry, all of which provide a steady supply of writers, directors, cinematographers, and actors. Third, shorts were a way to introduce new technology to viewers, like Technicolor, 3-D, and IMAX.
That still doesn’t explain why shorts are so popular with audiences. In their heyday, short comedies and cartoons could outgross the feature attractions they supported. Theaters would advertise Laurel & Hardy or Popeye shorts to attract viewers, and some theaters showed only short subjects.
Up until the 1950s, shorts were an expected part of a theater program, along with trailers, newsreels, and cartoons. They covered a wide range of topics, from MGM’s “Crime Does Not Pay” series and patriotic films from Warner Bros. to nature films released by Walt Disney. Algonquin Round Table wit Robert Benchley made hilarious shorts like The Sex Life of a Polyp. The government helped sponsor political films like Czechoslovakia 1918–1968. Shorts gave opportunities to experimental artists like Stan Brakhage and Robert Breer. And who doesn’t love cartoons?
We may not be as familiar with today’s Oscar-nominated shorts as audiences were back in the 1930s, when Hal Roach, Pete Smith, The Three Stooges, and Our Gang were household names. But in a sense, shorts are just as popular as they always have been. We just don’t call them shorts anymore.
Think of a short film or a newsreel as a ten- or twenty-minute unit of entertainment. Today’s network news broadcasts and sitcoms, minus commercials, run roughly 22 minutes. An average talk-show segment runs seven to ten minutes, the length of most cartoons. 60 Minutes segments vary in length, but are generally under 20 minutes long.
Basically, the broadcast television schedule is made up of shorts and then longer-form dramas. (Right now I’m uneasy trying to equate documentaries with reality shows.) And by interrupting shows with commercials every seven to ten minutes, broadcasters are giving viewers the equivalent of one-reel shorts.
TV schedules even duplicate the programs movie theaters used to offer: a newsreel, a short either humorous or instructive, then the big feature. Or, in TV terms, a news show, a sitcom, then The Good Wife.
I’d even argue that television commercials can be seen as shorts. Poorly made and incredibly annoying shorts for the most part, but we can’t deny that some advertising campaigns over the years have been clever and well-made. In fact, big-ticket shows like the Super Bowl and the Oscars have become showcases for commercials, like this Honda ad that updates Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
Next week I hope to go into more detail about this year’s shorts nominees.
January 27, 2012
While writing Wednesday’s post, I got into an argument with my editor about The Artist. I wanted to write that moviegoers don’t like it very much, and he countered that the film has received 10 Oscar nominations as well as generally excellent reviews.
And yet average customers—the ones who may not read film reviews and who may know next to nothing about silent film—have shown little inclination to see The Artist. At the same time, they are showering hundreds of millions of dollars on films like Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol. The Weinstein Company must be feverishly arguing about what is holding people back from The Artist. Are moviegoers afraid of black-and-white movies? Are they afraid of silent movies? Or are they afraid that The Artist is the kind of “art” that tastes like medicine, something they are supposed to take because it’s good for them?
It’s difficult to reconcile the two approaches to cinema, roughly art vs. commerce. Is a film that makes a lot of money a success? Or should we judge a film by the awards it wins? If the former is the answer, then Avatar, Titanic, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows—Part 2 are the best films ever made. If it’s awards that count, put the 1959 Ben-Hur at the top of the list, along with Titanic and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.
The industry itself is confused, and you can trace that confusion back to the very first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929. Hollywood executives awarded Wings, a popular aviation epic, something called “Outstanding Picture, Production” and Sunrise, an F.W. Murnau drama that is considered a classic now but which did poorly at the box office, “Unique and Artistic Production.” A similar situation arose in 2009, when box-office champion Avatar competed for Best Picture against critical darling The Hurt Locker.
I had a blast at Avatar and Titanic, but I don’t think any critic would argue that they are the best that cinema can do. And Ben-Hur is probably my least favorite William Wyler film, one that damaged his career. (As his daughter Catherine Wyler told me in an earlier post, “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film.”) For that matter, I am ambivalent about several other acknowledged classics like Shane, Gone With the Wind and The Birth of a Nation.
Viewers are too, and who can blame them? When they’re supposed to be watching The Hurt Locker, they are more likely to be found at Avatar. Like how I’ve managed to read every Elmore Leonard novel without yet cracking open my wife’s copy of Greek Tragedies.
Critics often aren’t much help, pushing films that regular viewers don’t like while ridiculing box-office hits. In effect, they are questioning the ability of moviegoers to distinguish between good and bad. Action films in particular face a critical bias. Back in the 1970s, long before he received Oscars for films like Unforgiven, Clint Eastwood used to receive the same drubbing critics would give to Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, and Jason Statham. (“God forbid!” Bosley Crowther wrote at the possibility that A Fistful of Dollars would have a sequel. Renata Adler said The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly “must be the most expensive, pious and repellent movie in the history of its peculiar genre.” And here’s Roger Greenspun on one of Eastwood’s signature roles: “Dirty Harry fails in simple credibility so often and on so many levels that it cannot even succeed (as I think it wants to succeed) as a study in perversely complimentary psychoses.”)
To be fair, even blockbusters can leave a sour taste. Although it earned over $800 million, director Michael Bay admitted that Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen wasn’t very good.
On the other hand, no matter how hard critics insist that one film or another is deserving, customers can still ignore them. The New York Times wrote several articles about The Social Network, promoting it early on as “the film to beat for best picture at the 2011 Academy Awards.” Voters felt differently, giving the Oscar that year to The King’s Speech instead. Is one film better than the other? Viewers didn’t care much either way. The King’s Speech came in at 18th on the box-office rankings for 2010, behind Megamind and Little Fockers; at $96 million, The Social Network did even worse, falling below Yogi Bear and The Expendables.
The history of cinema is littered with films that should have been hits but weren’t. In 1944, producer Darryl F. Zanuck released Wilson, a close to three-hour biopic about President Woodrow Wilson, and spent a ton of money on publicity. Wilson received ten Oscar nominations, and won five awards, including Best Original Screenplay, but it was a resounding flop at the box office.
Or take Dodsworth (1936), one of the most mature and compelling portraits of a marriage ever to come out of Hollywood. Based on a Sinclair Lewis novel, produced by Samuel Goldwyn, and directed by William Wyler, the film received seven Oscar nominations. And yet Goldwyn complained later, “I lost my goddam shirt. I’m not saying it wasn’t a fine picture. It was a great picture, but nobody wanted to see it. In droves.”
Even D.W. Griffith struggled with his titles. He had so much trouble with 1916 epic Intolerance that he extracted an entire movie from it, which he released as The Mother and the Law.
How studios get you to spend money on their movies is too broad a topic to cover here. But it’s worth pointing out that producers use several strategies to try to gauge a film’s success, like focus groups who discuss their likes and dislikes after preview screenings. Exit polls told executives that The Social Network was not clicking with viewers (who recently gave bad grades to Steve Soderbergh’s Haywire). Exit polls come too late in the process to salvage films, but they are a good indication of whether to continue pouring advertising money after them. Many directors disdain focus groups, some insisting on contracts that give them “final cut” no matter what the polls say. But the practice extends back to the silent era, when comics like Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton would test their films before audiences in order to refine jokes and gags.
Each polling methodology has its flaws. One of the most notorious sneak previews in Hollywood history took place in March, 1942, when RKO executives showed a 131-minute version of The Magnificent Ambersons to viewers in Pomona, California. The reaction was overwhelmingly negative. As RKO chief George Schaefer wrote, “It was like getting one sock in the jaw after another for over two hours.” While director Orson Welles was off working in Brazil, RKO took an ax to the film, whittling it down to 88 minutes and releasing it as the second-half of a double bill with Mexican Spitfire Sees a Ghost. The lost “director’s cut” of The Magnificent Ambersons ranks with the nine-hour version of Greed as prime examples of lost masterpieces.
The choices for this year’s Best Picture Oscar may not be as stark as in earlier years, but it will be interesting to see if the winners reflect the tastes of Academy members or of the larger moviegoing public.
January 4, 2012
It’s been a less-than-stellar year for the film industry. Box-office receipts are down 4.5% from 2010, a decline that’s worse than it looks because of the inflated ticket prices for 3-D movies. While the industry will make slightly over $10 billion in North America, overall attendance dropped 5.3% (after falling 6% the year before). Executives have to be aware that the sales of the videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 topped $400 million in a day. That’s more than Harry Potter and the Deathly Shadows Part 2—the year’s top earner and also the last installment in the franchise—made all year.
How will studios respond? Mostly by continuing what they’ve been doing before. The top seven (and if Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows continue performing, make that the top nine) releases in 2011 were sequels. According to Ray Subers at Box Office Mojo, “There are at least 27 sequels, prequels or spin-offs already scheduled, which represents roughly 20 percent of the nationwide releases” for the 2012 calendar.
I’ll go more into upcoming releases next week, but for now I’d like to point out that sequels, remakes, and adaptations are an easy, if not especially creative, way for studios to protect themselves against fluctuating viewership. They don’t require as much development or publicity funding, and producers can make them relatively cheaply, apart from recalcitrant actors who keep demanding more money.
Another way to limit exposure and potential losses has become increasingly popular over the past four decades, and that is to share production costs with rival studios.
Studios executives were once bitter rivals, particularly in the early days of cinema. In 1908, Thomas Edison tried to put other moviemakers out of business by claiming that they were infringing on his patents. Troupes decamped for locations like Florida and California that were theoretically outside Edison’s reach. (Better weather was another significant factor.)
Producers routinely poached from each other. In 1910, Carl Laemmle, later to head Universal, lured Florence Lawrence from Biograph to his new IMP studio. Sigmund Lubin often duped films from Europe and even those made by the Edison studio and released them as his own. If that failed, he would peddle his own version of a story to theater owners, who could choose either an Edison or a Lubin Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1903.
But as the industry matured, its leaders realized that some cooperation among studios would be necessary. Like athletes, performers and writers were signed to long-term contracts. Studios would farm out talent for individual projects, as MGM did with Clark Gable for Columbia’s It Happened One Night. And while titles couldn’t be copyrighted, they could be registered so competing films wouldn’t confuse customers. When he made Some Like It Hot, Billy Wilder had to clear the title with Paramount, which had released a Bob Hope comedy with the same name in 1939.
In some instances, a film franchise would switch from one studio to another. Charlie Chan appeared in almost 30 mysteries at Twentieth Century-Fox before the series moved to Monogram Pictures. Similarly, Tarzan went from MGM to RKO.
In some instances, even closer cooperation was required. Walt Disney struggled to get his cartoons into theaters. He relied on studios like Columbia, United Artists, and for several years RKO to distribute his pictures until establishing the Buena Vista subsidiary in 1955.
Some projects are just too risky for one studio to undertake. In these instances, two or more studios will align together to share costs. The most famous coproduction may be Gone With the Wind, released by Selznick International and MGM in 1939. Producer David O. Selznick was forced to let MGM distribute the film in order to obtain Clark Gable, under contract to the studio.
Other coproductions occurred when too much money had already been invested for one partner to pull out. Warner Bros. spent $390,000 on The Tower, a novel by Richard Martin Stern; while at Twentieth Century-Fox, producer Irwin Allen shelled out $400,000 for the similarly themed The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson. The two teamed forces for The Towering Inferno (1974), released in the United States by Fox and overseas by Warner Bros.
The studios switched roles for Ladyhawke (1985), a Richard Donner fantasy starring Matthew Broderick, Rutger Hauer and Michelle Pfeiffer, with Warners picking up domestic distribution and Fox assuming the overseas release.
Splitting release territories became a common tactic in coproductions. Paramount Pictures and Walt Disney Productions did it for Popeye in 1980 and again for Dragonslayer the following year, although Disney then formed Touchstone Pictures to handle its more mature fare.
The biggest coproduction in recent years is Titanic (1997), jointly released by Paramount (US) and Fox (overseas). The film was originally going to be distributed solely by Fox, until the budget started creeping over the $200 million mark. (A 3-D version of Titanic is scheduled to be released on April 6, 2012.)
Today, coproductions are routine. Take Warner Bros., for example. Of their 22 releases in 2004, 16 were coproductions. In 2009, only two of 18 releases were wholly financed by the studio. This season’s performance capture film The Adventures of Tintin was originally a joint production of Universal and Paramount, but the former dropped out early on in the development process and was replaced by Columbia Pictures.
December 2, 2011
Several recent articles have reached the same dismaying conclusion: film as a medium is doomed. First came a report that, starting in 2012, Twentieth Century Fox International will no longer ship 35mm prints to Hong Kong and Macau. Only DCI-compliant digital formats will be available. Then came Debra Kaufman’s sobering article for Creative Cow: Film Fading to Black, a detailed account of how companies like ARRI, Panavision, and Aaton no longer manufacture film cameras. (Devin Coldewey added his own take on Kaufman’s work for TechCrunch.) Several sources reported on financial difficulties facing Kodak, one of the most storied names in film (try WHEC.com’s “Is Kodak in trouble?” for some hometown perspective.)
Julia Marchese of the New Beverly Cinema in Los Angeles went so far as to start a petition, Fight for 35mm, stating that, “The major film studios have decided that they eventually want to stop renting all archival 35mm film prints entirely because there are so few revival houses left, and because digital is cheap and the cost of storing and shipping prints is high,” adding that, “I feel very strongly about this issue and cannot stand idly by and let digital projection destroy the art that I live for.” (As of today, she has collected over 5,700 signatures.)
In a more metaphoric than practical sense, New York Times critic A.O. Scott weighed in with Film Is Dead? What Else Is New?, citing doomsayers like Roger Ebert (“Video commands the field”) and Anthony Lane (“Enjoy it while it lasts”) before suggesting that film is “fragile and perishable” in part because it is based on nostalgia.
If you need more concrete proof of how film’s dominance in culture has eroded, take the sales figures for Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3: $400 million in a day. That’s more than most big-budget films will gross in a year, if they ever reach that point. Or read Film Journal‘s How do we win back younger moviegoers?, which presents some eye-opening statistics: the 12 – 24 age group, once thought to be the backbone of the film audience, purchased only 32% of movie tickets in North America in 2010. That’s down from 60% in 1974.
The sudden confluence of “Death of Cinema” reports is surprising, as predictions of its demise have been around for decades. Radio was supposed to kill off movies back in the 1920s, for example, then television was suppossd to do it in the 1950s. In his book 2007 The Virtual Life of Film, D.N. Rodowick argues that, “As almost (or, truly, virtually) every aspect of making and viewing movies is replaced by digital technologies, even the notion of ‘watching a film’ is fast becoming an anachronism.” But “new media” are themselves based on cinema, “the mature audiovisual culture of the twentieth century.” So what we know as cinema will continue to exist even if film is replaced as a medium.
Ironically, it turns out the film is an excellent archival material, far more stable and reliable than any existing digital archival platform. (The photos accompanying this article show A Pictorial History of Hiawatha, filmed in 1902–03 and restored in 2009 by Julia Nicoll for Colorlab. Even in its deteriorated, pre-restoration shape, the film retained its images.) Stored properly, film can last for decades, something that cannot be said about floppy disks or Iomega Zip drives. Two-inch, reel-to-reel videotape used to be the broadcast standard for television. Only a handful of playback machines still exist. For that matter, when was the last time you viewed a 3/4-inch videotape?
Film has a tactile beauty that digital lacks. I guess it’s a similar contrast between print photographs and digital ones, between writing with a fountain pen or on a computer. Few would pass up the speed and convenience of new technologies. It’s much easier laying out an article with InDesign than physically cutting and pasting galleys onto dummy pages, just as it’s easier to edit with Final Cut Pro than with grease pencils and gang synch blocks. But I miss the physical contact that the old methods entailed, the tape splicers and take-up reels, the linen-lined bins filled with strips of film.
Earlier this week, Alexander Payne, director of The Descendants, spoke to me about the film vs. digital divide. “I attend a lot of festivals,” he said. “When I see movies projected digitally, and then I see them on film, they look better on film. Film has a warmer feeling. Flicker is better than glow.”
Payne acknowledged digital’s incursions. “In the US theaters project at about a 50-50 ratio of film-to-digital, Norway is about 90% digital, Iceland I think is 99% or getting there,” he said. The director also admitted that watching film can be a dismal experience “if the projectionist has turned the bulb down to save money, or doesn’t know how to frame the film.
“But I think we’re losing something. I remember an interview Jean Renoir gave about medieval tapestries, where he said something to the effect that the more codified and standardized a medium gets, the closer it comes to death.” Digital processes are “trying to approximate the medium’s representation of reality—’Look how real it is,’ they say.”
Payne had just attended a screening of the restored version of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, calling it a “transformational” representation of life. “Why can’t we have that?” he asked. “I had to fight tooth and nail to make my next film in black and white. Interestingly, I have to shoot in digital in order to give it a filmic look. I’m going to screen black-and-white films like Ordet, not just for the cinematographer, but for the whole crew. I’ll say, ‘I want one shot, just give me one shot that looks like that.’”
On at least one level, Payne doesn’t believe that film is dying just yet. “Say you’re a teenager, and you want to be alone on a date,” he said. “Where else are you going to go on a Friday night?”
November 30, 2011
They reach back to the earliest days of the medium, yet sponsored films are a mystery to many. The genre has attracted filmmakers as varied as Buster Keaton, George Lucas and Robert Altman. In fact, it’s hard to think of a director who hasn’t made at least one: D.W. Griffith, Spike Lee, John Cleese, Spike Jonze have created sponsored films as well. Sponsored films have introduced new technologies, enlivened classrooms, won Oscars, kept studios afloat and influenced the way we watch movies and television.
By broad definition, a sponsored film is one that has been paid for by outside financing: a company or individual essentially hires or funds a crew to make a movie. In his thorough study The Field Guide to Sponsored Films, archivist Rick Prelinger cites “advertisements, public service announcements, special event productions, cartoons, newsreels and documentaries, training films, organizational profiles, corporate reports, works showcasing manufacturing processes and products, and of course, polemics made to win over audiences to the funders’ point of view.” (You can download Prelinger’s book from the National Film Preservation Foundation website.)
Estimates of the number of sponsored films reach as high as 400,000; by any count, they are the most numerous genre of film, and the films most in danger of being lost. Usually they have been made for a specific purpose: to promote a product, introduce a company, explain a situation, document a procedure. Once that purpose has been met, why keep the film?
Who would think to save Westinghouse Works, for example, a series of 1904 films extolling various Westinghouse plants and factories near Pittsburgh? Westinghouse Works was photographed by Billy Bitzer, the celebrated cinematographer who also shot D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, and his work is always fascinating. The collection of about 20 titles, all of them single-shot films lasting at most a couple of minutes each, feature cutting-edge technology, like a camera fixed to a train circling the factory compound, and what is very probably cinema’s first crane shot, taken from over a factory floor. They were also the first films that were lit by new mercury vapor lamps, manufactured by a Westinghouse subsidiary.
As the industry matured, companies formed that specialized in sponsored films. The Worcester Film Corporation, for example, founded in Massachusetts in 1918, produced titles like Through Life’s Windows, also known as The Tale of a Ray of Light. In 1919, it made The Making of an American—a primer on how to be a good citizen—for the State of Connecticut Department of Americanization.
The Jam Handy Organization, founded by Olympic swimmer and advertising expert Henry Jamison Handy, had offices in Detroit near the General Motors headquarters. The auto giant became one of Jam Handy’s most important clients. Master Hands (1936) is a great example of how ambitious a sponsored film could be. It depicts work in a Chevrolet plant as a clanging, clashing battle to turn raw iron and steel into automobiles. Backed by a majestic score by Samuel Benavie, Gordon Avil’s cinematography borrows from the striking lighting and geometric designs of still photographers like Margaret Bourke-White. General Motors was delighted with a film that showed work so heroically, especially since the auto and steel industries were enmeshed in battles with labor unions.
Jam Handy frequently used animation in its films. Sponsors loved animation, primarily because it is usually much cheaper than filming live action. But just as important, cartoons can present messages in concrete terms that are easily understandable by a wide spectrum of filmgoers. The Fleischer brothers made sponsored films alongside their Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Max Fleischer directed cartoons for Jam Handy, while Dave Fleischer continued making public service announcements well into the 1950s.
Studios like Walt Disney Pictures loved sponsored films: they added certainty to budget worries, kept craftspeople employed, and offered opportunities to experiment with equipment. Cultists like to cite The Story of Menstruation for its subject matter, although it turns out to be a very straightforward lesson in biology.
Saul Bass, one of the most famous designers of the twentieth century, had a huge influence on films through his methods of “branding.” Bass helped design credits, posters, soundtrack albums and print advertising for movies like The Man with the Golden Arm (1955). He collaborated with filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick and Martin Scorsese, devising remarkable credit sequences like the perpendicular lines and converge and separate in the opening of North by Northwest (1959), a hint of the criss-cross patterns that would drive the story.
Bass also produced films for sponsors like Kodak and United Airlines. In 1968 he made Why Man Creates for Kaiser Aluminum and Chemical Corporation. Broken into eight short sections, the film used stop-motion animation, stock footage, collage and live-action scenes in what the designer called “a series of explorations, episodes & comments on creativity.” The film not only won an Oscar for Documentary—Short Subject, it had a profound impact on Terry Gilliam, who used similar techniques in his work with Monty Python. The opening credits to TV’s The Big Bang Theory also owe a debt to Why Man Creates.
One of the most purely enjoyable sponsored films came from the architectural and design team of Charles and Ray Eames. Starting in 1952 with Blacktop, they made over 125 films, smart, compact shorts that are as entertaining as they are technically advanced. They developed their own optical slide printer and animation stand, and devised one of the first computer-controlled movie cameras.
In 1977, Charles and Ray released Powers of Ten through Pyramid Films. Powers of Ten deals with scale, with how the size of an object changes relative to how and where it is viewed. It conveys an enormous amount of information with a minimum of fuss, one of the reasons why it became one of the most successful educational films of its time. One measure of its popularity is that it has been parodied more than once in the opening credits to The Simpsons.
Sponsored films continue to thrive. Chris Paine directed the powerful documentary Who Killed the Electric Car? in 2006. Five years later, General Motors helped sponsor its sequel, Revenge of the Electric Car.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”
August 31, 2011
Dave Kehr recently wrote in the New York Times about how websites like Netflix Instant and Hulu Plus are giving users access to hard-to-find films like Edgar G. Ulmer’s Ruthless (1948). Kehr cited Netflix’s collection of films from Paramount, Universal and Fox, as a chance for users to see movies that have not yet been released on home formats. And Hulu Plus offers titles from The Criterion Collection, one of the most highly regarded video distributors.
Streaming video is an inescapable trend as studios cut back on DVD and Blu-Ray releases. Film buffs especially may resist at first, preferring to add hard copies of titles to their libraries and unwilling to relinquish the notes and other extras that are rarely available from streaming sites. But the home video market is rapidly changing. The economics of streaming vs. manufacturing and distributing tens of thousands of individual units no longer makes sense to studios, some of whom are already limiting releases to on-demand copies.
With plans starting at $7.99 a month for Netflix and Hulu Plus, browsing through old films for cinephiles and casual browsers alike can get expensive. Is there a way to legally stream movies for free? Well, there better be or I’ve given this post the wrong title.
Foremost among all legal streaming sites is The Internet Archive. Along with photographs, music and other audio and almost three million sites, the Internet Archive offers a half-million “Moving Image” titles. These range from government documentaries like The Battle of San Pietro to public domain feature films like The Chase. You can find The Stranger, starring Edward G. Robinson, Loretta Young, and Orson Welles; The Time of Your Life, starring James Cagney in William Saroyan’s play; and 1964′s Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.
The Moving Image collection also includes some wonderful educational and industrial films, as well as sponsored films and actuality footage from the early twentieth century. It has a great print of A Trip Down Market Street, for example, a hypnotically beautiful movie that follows a cable-car route down San Francisco’s Market Street. It was filmed only days before the 1906 earthquake devastated the city. Or Squeak the Squirrel, an absolutely irresistible educational piece made by Churchill–Wexler Films in 1957.
Another fascinating collection can be found at the American Memory site from the Library of Congress. Within its “Performing Arts, Music” category are three collections dealing with the earliest days of movies. Under the title Inventing Entertainment you can view and download some of the 341 films from the Thomas Edison studio, made between 1891 and 1918. They include such ground-breaking titles as The Great Train Robbery (1903), as well as footage of Annie Oakley, Admiral George Dewey, President William McKinley, and Edison himself. Origins of American Animation is just that: 21 films between 1900 and 1921 that show just how this art form was born. American Variety Stage includes 61 films made between 1897 to 1920. They range from animal acts like Laura Comstock’s Bag-Punching Dog to dance and burlesque acts. American Memory also contains sheet music and other ephemera as well as numerous sound recordings.
Many museums make some of their moving image collections available online. The United States Holocaust Museum, for example, offers several entries from the Steven Spielberg Film & Video Archive. Here you can view Siege, a remarkable 1939 short that documented the German invasion of Warsaw, filmed as it occurred by Julien Bryan and then smuggled out of the country.
In coming posts I’ll point out several other online collections. In the meantime, happy viewing.