Samuel Goldwyn was famous for amusing malapropisms, but one of his most famous quotes actually makes some sense: "Pictures are for entertainment; messages should be delivered by Western Union."
Not that he always lived by that statement. Some of Goldwyn's best movies offered both entertainment and a message. ("The Best Years of Our Lives," anyone?)
But movies with messages certainly predate Goldwyn's influence. In fact, they date back to the earliest days of cinema.
And there is bountiful proof in a new DVD box set released this week, "Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934" (National Film Preservation/Image/Sony, b/w, four discs, $89.99).
These are primarily short films though there are also a few features and featurettes from the turn of the 20th century through the mid-1930s. Most are silent, some are sound, and occasionally there is color, along with a couple of cartoons.
The subjects are vast, ranging from organized crime to juvenile delinquency to terrorism to abortion to immigration restriction topics we still debate (and see in films) today. In fact, few of the topics addressed in these 48 extremely rare films are outdated, and those that are make for fascinating history.
I have often made the case that even in the most frivolous old-movie entertainment there is a sense of history the clothing styles, the cars, the character stereotypes and the slang they use. But that is driven home in a much more specific way in these "message" films.
They are not all documentaries; some are obviously determined to entertain (even a few recognizable actors show up, such as leading-man Richard Dix and comic Jimmy Durante). And they are not all dour; some are quite amusing.
Also, if there are references or phrases or subjects you don't understand in a film, there are plenty of explanations in audio commentaries, onscreen text and even a 192-page book that comes in the set (along with postcard photos).
For example, in a one-minute end-of-Prohibition film, "First Repeal Gin Shipped," Durante is described by a narrator as wearing a "disguise" (it's his costume from a film he was then shooting). Then the comic makes two now-obscure remarks that were understood by 1933 audiences. First, a riddle: "What did the governor of North Carolina say to the governor of South Carolina?" referring to two of 10 states that held out against Prohibition. Second, "Everybody is happy here except the druggist," referring to a Prohibition loophole: Alcohol could still be prescribed as "medicine."
It's that kind of thing that makes this more than just another collection of early movies. It's history in a box.
And the medium is so inherently vivid, so literal even when things are staged that the "message" is driven home in a way other media can't touch.
It should also be noted that the music added to each of the silent films is more than appropriate, another example of the meticulous care given this entire set by the National Film Preservation Foundation, along with the various entities that have helped bring these movies to the general public.It's difficult to single out favorites; everything is fascinating. But here are a few:
• "Redskin" (1929, 82 minutes), one of Paramount Pictures' last silent films, is tinted and has some three-strip color sequences. A DVD option will play surviving sound discs the studio added to the film for a later re-release. Using authentic locations and American Indian extras, this fictional story looks at life on a reservation and explores integration into "white" society in a way that is surprising in its sympathetic view (despite clunky plot points and non-Indians in Indian roles).
• "The Hazards of Helen: Episode 13, 'The Escape on the Fast Freight"' (1915, 13 minutes) is one chapter in a 119-episode serial, although in its entirety, "Hazards of Helen" is more like a weekly series. Here, Helen, a no-nonsense feminist, loses her job and eventually goes on a chase after the robbers responsible. A daring train stunt was apparently typical of this series.
• "How They Rob Men in Chicago" (1900, 27 seconds) is a snippet, really, but with a hardy punchline, as it begins with a typical crime story and ends with a finger pointed at police corruption
• "Eight Prohibition Newsreels" (1923-33, collectively 13 minutes) observe what theatergoers saw as "news" about the title subject, ranging from bootleggers being raided to the aforementioned comic monologue by Durante.
You get the idea.
Obviously, at the $90 price tag, many people aren't going to be able to purchase this set, but libraries, schools and, yes, video-rental stores should definitely do so.These films should be accessible to everyone.