A Reality Check From a Century Past

Do the films of yesterday provide a disquieting reality check on the state of progressive thought in modern day America?

A DVD collection of 48 films released Tuesday is a reminder that perhaps our predecessors were more willing to confront social and political issues of the time using the new and unexplored medium of film.

In more than 12 hours of vintage Hollywood hits, rare Prohibitionist newsreels, classic cartoons, documentaries, anti-union ads and several other genres of film, "Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934" showcases a wide range of issues that faced Americans mostly before World War I.


Viewing the preserved treasures, it's quickly apparent that despite the advent of the 21st century -- seemingly endless technological capability and global interconnectiveness -- American values and beliefs have not necessarily changed that much over the past 100 years.

Issues Echo 100 Years Later

Topics explored include unionization, women's rights, abortion, immigration and religion, many of which continue to take center stage in the current political arena.

These 19th century pictures were the first political statements on film explored during a time marked by reform and voices uproarious for change.

"Competing groups were clamoring for reform of almost every aspect of American life," said Scott Simmon, curator of "Treasures III." "Film was something new, a medium that could reach millions, regardless of education and language. Reformers and their opponents sensed that the movies made issues come alive in ways not possible with the printed word."


This collection, released in cooperation with the nonprofit National Film Preservation Foundation is coming out during a time when again, people are clamoring for reform and a change in current policy.

As the 2008 presidential campaign reaches full swing, candidates are appealing to the electorate with competing ideologies, again using a new medium to make their statements.

"In film's first decades, activists from every political stripe used movies to advance their agenda," said Martin Scorsese, acclaimed director and member of the NFPF board of directors.

In the same way that today's presidential campaign's Web ads and candidate stump speeches advocate 'change,' and a divergent outlook on Washington politics, in many ways these historical films were used as a mechanism to arouse the public and make real progress in the U.S. political and social landscape.


Union Strength, Abortion Stir Controversy

In the educational short cartoon "Uncle Sam and the Bolshevik –I.W.W Rat," Uncle Sam protects "the fine work of our labor" from a rat labeled both "Bolshevik" and "IWW," which represents the small union Industrial Workers of the World.

The film, which was produced by the Ford Motor Company, was created just after the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.


This period in time "saw the largest number of strikes in American history -- involving 4 million workers or about 20 percent of the industrial labor force -- and Henry Ford would have smelled a rat somewhere," said Simmon, who is also a published author and professor of English at the University of California at Davis.

"What makes these films so interesting is the frankness with which they approach the issues," said Annette Melville of the NFPF.

The 1916 film "Where Are My Children," presents the story of a district attorney who learns that his wife and her affluent friends have secretly been having abortions to avoid childbearing, thus causing the protagonist to raise the question "Where are my children?"


Produced by Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley, this anti-abortion rights, pro-birth control drama was a box-office hit. And yet, this film would not likely be produced today.

Censorship Fears

Simmon says he felt motivated to release these movies to the public because he believes in their power.

He suggests that while the films' themes overlap, some of the more controversial issues are no longer addressed in cinema because previous censorship has now been replaced by "commercial fears."

"Even these early films were subject to censorship, said Simmon. "But what's different is that there's more of a commercial fear now about making sure not to offend any segment of an audience so that mainstream entertainment films don't take on some of these issues."


Exploring Sex Discrimination as Nation Ponders Female President

"The Hazards of Helen" illustrates a common thread that still exists in many occupational environments: sex discrimination in the workplace.

But her heroism is only temporary -- the following week Helen must again showcase her competence to garner more short-lived recognition.

This feminist dialogue provided fodder for the women's movement and draws parallels to advancement in modern day women's rights.

Not only have vast strides been made in the role of women and women's importance in the workplace, but the films are being released at a time when Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., continues to top national polls as the front-runner for the Democratic nomination.

Terrorism, Predatory Lenders and Atheism

Other featured films include one of the first films about terrorism, "Voice of the Violin," ; "The Usurer's Grip," a look at predatory lenders in 1912; "The Godless Girl" a Cecil B. DeMille feature about the spread of atheism in secondary schools; and "The Reawakening," an expose that examines the rehabilitation of injured veterans and the government's responsibility for helping those afflicted.

The launch of this DVD collection represents a renaissance of what was first expressed in the advent of the new medium.

It offers an unusual opportunity to look back more than 100 years and examine what issues influenced and advanced reform during the Progressive era. While technology has provided an avenue by which to branch out, the social issues explored in most films share many of the same themes faced in present society.

The films that comprise "Treasures III," never before seen on home DVD, were selected from the archives of the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives, the George Eastman House and the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

This collection is the third set in the Treasures DVD project, a fourth set is expected to be released in the fall of 2008.

"Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900-1934" was made possible through grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress' National Film Preservation Board. The music accompanying the films was curated by Martin Marks of MIT.