No social issue was taboo for early American movie screens, and a new collection of long-unseen films, cartoons and newsreels reflects the unrest of the early 1900s. The set — Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film — includes films on atheism, communism, the women's suffrage movement and experimental marriage.
Scott Simmon, who curated the collection, says he thinks viewers will be surprised by the range of issues that weren't off limits in the early to mid-1900s.
How were filmmakers able to get these films made? Simmon tells Deborah Amos that early films weren't censored as heavily as they are now. And the commercial pressures that often dictate whether today's movies get made weren't present then. For example, the collection includes movies about veterans' rehabilitation, workplace discrimination and homelessness.
"I doubt if many films are made about them anymore," Simmon said.
"A film like Where Are My Children?, which is about abortion, made by, then, a major studio, and still — Universal Pictures — it's just not something anyone would touch with a 10-foot pole anymore," Simmon said.
Many of the films in the collection were ripped from the headlines, Simmon said. For example, The Black Hand centers on Italian mafia members in New York; they were captured by detectives who staked out their suspects by hiding in a freezer.
"It was too good a story not to film, even in 1906," Simmon said.
Another film is a "send-up" of a proposal about trial marriages. "It became a slapstick comedy, with some man trying four trial marriages — all of which were worse than the previous one," Simmon said.