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Making Noise With Silent Film Classics : A new Kino collection of pre-talkie treasures is part of a growing niche market for titles from the American cinema’s earliest days.

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Lurid, scandalous sex, true-crime melodrama and emotional propaganda have long been staples of American film. Just how long can be found in Kino on Video’s “First American Features,” a revelatory five-volume collection available Aug. 29.

Spanning the years 1912-1916, Kino’s follow-up to its best-selling “The Movies Begin” collection fills in a missing chapter in cinema history, says David Shepard, owner of Sun Valley-based Film Preservation Associates, which has licensed the films to Kino.

“This era of silent film is, for the most part, unknown except to scholars,” he says. “You go from awareness of primitives such as ‘The Great Train Robbery’ to the big Hollywood pictures of the 1920s such as ‘Ben-Hur’ and ‘Wings.’ ”

The stories of how these buried treasures were discovered can be as fascinating as the films themselves.

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Perhaps the rarest jewel in the collection is “Traffic in Souls” (or “While New York Sleeps”), the 1913 melodrama that was the first feature to exploit the sensational issue of white slavery. Long thought lost, it has been restored from the only known original nitrate print, which was obtained from Donald Nichol, a merchant seaman who in his voyages around the world would advertise for and buy old films.

“Regeneration” (1915), Raoul Walsh’s first film, considered to be the first feature-length gangster picture, was in the possession of a Montana meter reader and film buff who found it in 1975 among a trove of films in the basement of a building scheduled to be demolished. “When he went to read the meters for the last time,” Shepard says, “the tenants were gone but the films were still there, so he took them. He called me looking for someone to preserve them.” The video also features Thomas Edison’s 1910 short “The Police Force of New York City.”

Also part of “First American Features” is “From the Manger to the Cross” (1912), the first biblical epic to be filmed on location in the Holy Land, presented with the original color tinting.

Cecil B. DeMille’s “The Cheat” (1915), a sensation in its day, is the politically incorrect saga of a Long Island socialite who, in a jaw-dropping scene, is literally branded as the possession of Asian ivory trader Sessue Hayakawa (best known from “The Bridge on the River Kwai”), to whom she owes a gambling debt. The video also features the short “A Girl’s Folly,” a comic look behind the scenes of a movie studio.

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“Civilization,” directed by Thomas Ince, is perhaps the best-known film in the collection. This 1916 spectacle rivaled D.W. Griffith’s “Intolerance” as the grandest production of its time.

Each volume retails for $30 and will be available in video stores or by calling (800) 562-3330.

Long-forgotten 80-year-old films are not exactly serious competition to such recent rental releases as “Nobody’s Fool” and “Outbreak.” But New York-based Kino has developed all-important label awareness and brand loyalty by establishing its niche as a theatrical and video distributor committed to the restoration and revival of classic American and foreign cinema, as well as the introduction of contemporary independent filmmakers.

Although even Kino’s owner Donald Krim acknowledges that the big screen is still the best way to see these films, those opportunities are scarce with the virtual demise of the repertory theater market.

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“Video has expanded the opportunity for people to see classic films,” he says. “Cable also, but you rarely see silent films on cable.”

Cinema’s centennial celebration this year was a marketing window of opportunity that saw the release on video of such ambitious series as “The American Cinema” on the CBS/Fox Video label and “The Movies Begin” and “The Art of Buster Keaton” sets on Kino.

Unapix Consumer Products, a division of Unapix Entertainment, recently released a six-volume “Origins of Film” collection, a co-presentation of the Library of Congress and Smithsonian Video.

The titles are “African American Cinema I,” “African American Cinema II,” “America’s First Women Filmmakers,” “Origins of American Animation,” “Origins of the Fantasy Feature” and “Origins of the Gangster Film.” Each volume retails for $25; the series is also available in a box set for $140. The titles are available in specialty video stores or from Movies Unlimited, (800) 466-8437, whose catalogue includes an extensive selection of silent films.

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Milestone Film & Video, (212) 865-7449, is also dedicated to the preservation of classic and world cinema. The company made a big noise with silent and animation buffs with the release of the 1920 version of “The Last of the Mohicans,” the 1925 version of “The Lost World,” “Animation Legend: Winsor McKay” and “Felix!,” a compilation of silent Felix the Cat cartoons. Each retails for $40.

Though silent films are a niche market, major labels have paid more than lip service. One example is MGM/UA Home Video with its “Silent Classics” collection, which includes Erich von Stroheim’s “Greed,” King Vidor’s “The Crowd” and “Flesh and the Devil,” starring Greta Garbo. Each retails for $30.

HBO Video’s catalogue includes the Kevin Brownlow and David Gill documentaries on the great silent clowns Charlie Chaplin (“Unknown Chaplin”) and Buster Keaton (“A Hard Act to Follow”).

Silents may not be golden from a monetary standpoint. “When Movies Begin” is closing in on 1,000 box sets sold, Krim says. For a major studio, this would barely register a blip on the spreadsheet. For a company like Kino, however, these are “Lion King” numbers.

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But the rewards go beyond sales goals.

“There are easier ways to make a buck,” Shepard agrees. “But a film doesn’t live in a can on a shelf. It lives when it is in front of people. Video makes these films available on demand just as any novel by Charles Dickens or a play by Shakespeare. They are simply part of our cultural heritage.”


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