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.

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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."

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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.

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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.

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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.

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