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Where the deer and the antelope play

Posted by Mark Feeney  October 12, 2011 11:21 PM

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07_HowTheCowboy-thumb.jpg(Left: still from "How the Cowboy Makes His Lariat," 1917)

"The Midwest is to nostalgia," the novelist Ward Just once wrote, "as Verdun is to military science." And as the Midwest is to nostalgia, so is the West to dreaming -- not just American dreaming, either. Think of the enormous popularity in Europe of the German novelist Karl May's books featuring the Native American characters Winnetou and Old Shatterhand, or the enormous popularity everywhere of the spaghetti western.

The dreaming has taken so many forms: gold rushes and homesteading and cattle drives and range wars and cavalry charges. The immensity of those open spaces has acted like a lit fuse on the imagination. Especially the movie imagination, and the geographical location of Hollywood is the least of it. No film genre is more American than the western; that's a given. Neither, perhaps, is any film genre more filmic than the western.

The line of succession is as clear, and imposing, as the British monarchy's: from "The Great Train Robbery" to the silent oaters of Tom Mix and William S. Hart to "The Wind" (ever and always, the harshest violence in the American West has been meteorological) to Gene Autry to "Stagecoach" to "Red River" (which gets this blogger's vote for greatest of all westerns) to "The Searchers" to "The Wild Bunch" to (ugh) "Dances with Wolves" to "No Country for Old Men."

Wait a second. The Coens made a western, sure. But that would be "True Grit." Except that it's "westerns," plural. "No Country" definitely qualifies. Make no mistake, the western is so much more about place and space than time and tradition.That said, time and tradition absolutely pertain. Which brings us to "Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938."

Thumbnail image for 11sessue.jpg(At left, Sessue Hayakawa in "Last of the Line.")

As the number in the title suggests, this is the fifth set of movie rarities on DVD that the National Film Preservation Foundation has put together. The first two releases compiled a quite-astonishing sampler of items from US film archives: Groucho Marx's home movies; newsreel footage of Marian Anderson's Lincoln Memorial concert; the earliest surviving adaptation of L. Frank Baum's Oz novels, from 1913; 1897 footage of Thomas Edison in his workshop; and so on. "Treasures 3" consisted of film titles about social issues, and "Treasures 4" looked at US avant-garde cinema from 1947-1986.

Part of what makes the "Treasures" series so satisfying as well as indispensable is how wide a net it casts. We've come to think of film so narrowly in this culture. "Film" means feature-length fictional narrative, with the occasional full-length documentary thrown in like vitamins at breakfast. And that's about it. Maybe this is because we have such an abundance of ways to watch film now that we compensate by narrowing down so radically our conception of what film consists of.

Well, back in the days when people didn't have smartphones or Blu-ray players or multiplexes of YouTube, viewers took a far more catholic view of what was worth watching. So "Treasures 5" has promotional films, home movies, shorts, one-reelers, newsreel footage, propaganda films, and, yes, several full-length features. One of those features, "Mantrap," is a 1926 comedy starring Clara Bow.

Bow isn't the only famous name here. Mix and Broncho Billy each get a one-reeler. Sessue Hayakawa, of "Bridge on the River Kwai" fame, stars -- as a Sioux warrior! -- in the 1914 short "Last of the Line." There's a one-reeler directed by D.W. Griffith, and a 1925 comedy western, "Womanhandled," directed by Gregory La Cava, who would go on to make "My Man Godfrey." (If ever there was a movie that could be called an eastern, it's "Godfrey.") Warren G. Harding shows up in a 1921 newsreel, being visited by an Indian delegation at the White House. Bill Tilghman, maybe the greatest Wild West lawman of them all, reenacts for the camera some of his exploits.

10_LakeTahoe-thumb.jpgPeople are rarely the stars of "Treasures 5." Locale and topography are: Lake Tahoe (a six-minute tour, from 1916; that's a still, at left), Yosemite ("The Sergeant," a calvary-and-Indians short, from 1910), the Columbia River Valley ("Deschutes Driftwood," a 1916 short about a hobo, Weak-Kneed Walter, riding the rails); the California orchards and canning lines seen in a 1921 Del Monte promotional film, "Sunshine Gatherers" (that's a still below). "Gatherers" was shot in a primitive color process, Prizma -- and, boy, doesn't that apricot omelet take you aback. A more amazing sight is in good old black and white. It's the opening shot from a 1914 feature, "Salomy Jane," with star Beatriz Michelena stepping out of a niche in a redwood tree. There she is, just like that, casual as can be, like a California wood nymph. It's a charming, even enchanting, moment, one of many in this three-disc gathering of astonishments.

16_SunshineGatherers-thumb.jpg


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Ty Burr is a film critic with The Boston Globe.

Mark Feeney is an arts writer for The Boston Globe.

Janice Page is movies editor for The Boston Globe.

Tom Russo is a regular correspondent for the Movies section and writes a weekly column on DVD releases.

Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.

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Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer for Boston.com.

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