It’s always an event when the National Film Preservation Foundation issues a new anthology, but the fifth volume in their series of DVD box sets, “Treasures 5: The West, 1989-1938,” is perhaps the richest and most revelatory of their collections yet.
As in past volumes, feature-length narrative films take a back seat to other, often overlooked forms of moving image production, which in this case include travelogues,newsreels, home movies, industrial films and government propaganda shorts (among the latter is a wonderfully deadpan production from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, outlining the natural process by which water just flows into the greater Los Angeles area — it’s like the missing first reel of “Chinatown”). Out of this material — aided and abetted, of course, by fiction films — comes a vivid, step-by-step history of how the West assumed its place in the American imagination, with some gentle assistance from Theodore Roosevelt, the Santa Fe Railroad and Del Monte Foods.
Because the authentic West overlapped to a significant extent with its romanticized counterpart, some of the most compelling material in this collection straddles the line between documentary and invention — the reformed outlaw Al Jennings playing himself in a freely adapted episode from his brief career (“Lady of the Dugout,” directed in 1918 by W.S. Van Dyke); the Oklahoma sheriff Bill Tilghman re-enacting his capture of the Wild Bunch in a surviving fragment of the 1913 feature “Passing of the Oklahoma Outlaw”; the astounding “Ammunition Smuggling Along the Mexican Border,” a 40-minute re-enactment film from 1914 produced by a Texas sheriff to tell his side of a controversial incident that had happened only weeks before.
Auteur interest is provided by D.W. Griffith’s 1910 “Over Silent Paths,” a revenge drama with a fiercely effective performance by Marion Leonard; an incomplete but perfectly comprehensible version of Gregory La Cava’s 1925 modern west comedy “Womanhandled,” Victor Fleming’s 1926 Clara Bow vehicle “Mantrap”; and the hitherto unknown “Salomy Jane,” a 1914 feature co-directed by Lucius Henderson and William Nigh that is the only surviving production of the California Motion Picture Corporation (that’s a frame enlargement from it above, showing its charismatic stars Beatriz Michelena and House Peters).
Particularly tantalizing is the 1910 Selig one-reeler “The Sergeant,” one of the group of films discovered last year in the collection of the New Zealand Film Archive; shot on location in Yosemite with great visual assurance, it suggests that its director, Francis Boggs, might have become a major figure in American film if he hadn’t been murdered, one year after making this film, by a deranged property master.
I’ve got more details here, in my New York Times review.