DVD Review: Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938

Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938, National Film Preservation Foundation, 10 hours on three discs, 2011, $59.98

Frederick Jackson Turner may have proclaimed the end of the frontier in 1893, but as this latest release of Treasures from the National Film Preservation Foundation shows, many of the landscapes and key figures and certainly the ethos and myth of the American West endured well into the 20th century. This 10-hour anthology is a patchwork of 40 films and narratives (both silent and talkie) spanning four decades of early cinema, “presenting the West as it was recorded and imagined."

As with its previous Treasures releases, the NFPF has drawn on the deep collections of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the George Eastman House, the Library of Congress and National Archives, the Museum of Modern Art and the UCLA Film & Television Archive, as well as recently repatriated gems from the New Zealand Film Archive. Packaged with the three-disc boxed set is a 110-page booklet of program notes that guide the viewer (albeit heavy-handedly in spots) through the story lines and background of each production. To score the silent films, the producers brought together 11 composers to creatively interpret each segment without detracting from the imagery. The result is more romantic Hollywood than down-and-dirty Deadwood. If you’re curious about the “reel West” that immediately followed and, in some cases, overlapped the real West, you’re in for a treat.

As filmmakers and actors, Bill Tilghman and Al Jennings made fine gunmen, but their respective “documentary” shorts still fascinate from a historical perspective. Here in the flesh (saddle-leather flesh, in Jennings’ case) are the actual Oklahoma lawman and outlaw from the day. The set doesn’t include their 1908 film collaboration, The Bank Robbery, with Tilghman directing, Jennings re-creating one of his heists and Comanche Chief Quanah Parker in a walk-on role. But you will see Jennings as he waxes Robin Hood in The Lady of the Dugout (1918), using the loot from a bank robbery to sustain a starving mother and child in a rude prairie dugout and then return the pair to the bosom of her family in Arkansas. Puh-lease! responded Tilghman to such glamorization of the outlaws he’d devoted (and would give) his life to prosecuting. The set includes the surviving reels of Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw (1915), in which Tilghman, as himself, presented the lawman’s hard-line perspective on crime.

Filed under educational is the charming How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat (1917), demonstrated by a real working vaquero from the 101 Ranch. Another surprise is the oddball travelogue Deschutes Driftwood (1916), a ride-along look at the newly completed Oregon Trunk Railway from “the point of view of a hobo.” Other narratives are hit-and-miss, including a timely docudrama about arms smuggling across the Mexican border (no, not titled Fast and Furious), two shorts about Los Angeles–area water projects, several Indian newsreels and tourism clips touting Yellowstone, Santa Fe and points in between.

Ah, but the real strength of this set lies in its classic silent Westerns, including a trio of engaging romantic comedies. Top billing goes to Mantrap (1926), a 71-minute romp across the Canadian prairies starring 20-year-old Clara Bow—the “It Girl” of the 1920s. The plot centers on a burly backwoods trader (Ernest Torrence), who’s sick of the manly West, and a Manhattan divorce attorney (Percy Marmont), who’s tired of the feminized East. On a visit to the big city Torrence meets flirtatious but bored flapper Bow and brings her back to the sticks. The trouble begins when Marmont shows up on a camping trip, and Bow turns it into a fishing expedition, using herself as the lure. On the final disc Tom Mix steals the spotlight as a clumsy cowboy smitten with a, gasp, female lawyer in the slapstick short Legal Advice (1916), while in Womanhandled (1925) Richard Dix and Esther Ralston turn in sweetly innocent performances as two love-struck Easterners not as taken with the West as they feign to be. Such innocence—lost or imagined—is part of the frontier myth and what makes this collection so appealing.

 —Dave Lauterborn

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