It may look like a grab bag at first--50 preserved films from 18 American archives spanning the years 1893 to 1985 and encompassing everything from documentaries and home movies to experimental films and animation--but this unprecedented collection has a clear focus. It celebrates the scope and wealth of cinema history's "orphans," the films abandoned by the marketplace and left to nonprofit organizations to rescue. This is the proof of their efforts, and only a tiny, tantalizing example of what has been preserved. The "stars" of the set are the features: the startlingly savage 1916 William S. Hart Western Hell's Hinges
and the luscious 1922 two-strip Technicolor feature The Toll of the Sea
(the first color feature ever made) with Anna May Wong. Also included are The Chechahcos
from 1924 (the first film ever shot in Alaska) and the extravagant (if stagy) original 1916 Snow White
. John Huston's stunning documentary The Battle of San Pietro
and Joseph Cornell's obscure but entrancing 1936 surrealist classic Rose Hobart
are further highlights.
But there are wonders to be found throughout the collection, from a trip through Interior New York Subway circa 1905, to the gorgeous avant-garde 1928 The Fall of the House of Usher, to the only film of Orson Welles's legendary 1936 Haiti-set stage production of Macbeth in the 1937 documentary We Work Again. The breadth of work is astounding and all of it is fascinating, whether it's a revealing glimpse of a forgotten social landscape in a home movie; the preservation of theater, dance, and concert recitals in one-of-a-kind records; or an ancient work of pioneering cinema.
The four-disc set is handsomely designed, with easy-to-navigate menus featuring extensive notes and short documentaries about each archive (narrated by Laurence Fishburne), and a detailed, informative 150-page booklet accompanies the set. It's a one-of-a-kind project and a true film treasure. --Sean Axmaker