One Year Later and the Dust Settles

Last year,  on this very night, I was writing a really cool gag post on London After Midnight.  I knew it would be a perfect thing to post for April Fools Day.  This is also Lon Chaney’s Birthday…

I cooked up an  elaborate fraud and posted it, neither the first nor the last of such things,  and I made it really sound believable.  That was the problem, I guess.

It wasn’t the first one of these I’d done.  I always posted something cool on the old alt.movies.silent newsgroup, but that’s now been overtaken with spam and endless posts about whether Irving Thalberg was the spawn of satan (I kid you not on that last piece… I gave up on it after about 20 of those.)

I’d never done London After Midnight because it’s so obviously bogus,  but I had a couple of nice pictures and a good lie cooked up, and what fun it is for April 1st.

To add to the fun, and make it clear that this was a joke,  I added a news item  about the Dr. Film show being picked up by TCM.  If you follow the blog and the site at all, then  you know that this is something that is likely never going to happen, and that was the whole joke of it.

Well,  the TCM message boards got hold of it, and they went nuts.  I got emails from all over the world, my readership skyrocketed (only for a day, mind you), and people told me that I was the spawn of satan (and here I thought it was Irving Thalberg.)

Of course,  I didn’t post it to the TCM board, and I wasn’t even a member. I had to become a member to post a response to my lambasting.  It was generally felt that I was trying to get publicity for a weak and/or failed web site and that this was going to put me on the map.

Genius idea… wish I’d thought of it.  Didn’t work anyway.

The net result was that my blog posts have gained some traction, but only later in the year, I still get an occasional nastygram from someone on the TCM message boards (which I can’t do anything about), and Dr. Film didn’t get any more recognition than it had ever received… and that was pretty minimal from the start.

Oh,  yeah, there’s one more upshot.  There’s going to be no April Fool joke this year.  I can’t stand the noise.  I had a good one, too.

Last year’s blog:
HERE

And the firestorm from the TCM board (again from last year…  note that this is reverse chronological order from newest to oldest.)
TCM HERE

Will the April Fool return next year? I’m not sure yet, but I wouldn’t count on it!

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants | 6 Comments

The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome

 

Of all the things I encounter in the film world, vinegar syndrome is one of the saddest.  It’s a deterioration that hits acetate film and turns it into a smelly dry plastic that smells of a rancid salad.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  The film gets brittle and unusable.

The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable.  It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable.  Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.  I sometimes post about this in various groups and inevitably I’ll come across someone who just hammers me about it, calls me an idiot, and propagates the same untested beliefs.  It’s gotten to the point that I get a little sensitive about the whole topic and don’t discuss it much.   Lately, however, a bunch of people have asked me to cover it in a long blog.

Now, the problem with this is that film people, almost by definition, are not technical people.  They don’t understand the technical aspects of why the film has started to deteriorate.  There’s also a problem between the archival and the presentational aspects of film history, too. I’ll discuss that a little as we progress.

I have this problem, you see.  I come from a technical background.  I’m an engineer.  I love to test things.   I suspect that there will be a lot of controversy and some people will call me a blasphemer in the religion of vinegar syndrome.  If it gets too nasty, I’ll just disable the contents on this post.  I love blogs.  You may notice a bit of hostility here, and I assure you that it’s because I’m really tired of having to defend myself.  I’ve done the tests and shown the saved films in public.

Since I’m flying in the face of established religion, I’ll steal an idea from Galileo, a guy who flew in the face of established religion in 1632, when he wrote his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.  He had a character named Simplicio advocate for a earth-centric model of the universe, while saner heads debated him.  So I’ll do the same thing here.

Simplicio: What is vinegar syndrome?  I hear it’s a disease that spreads from film to film and destroys them

Dr. Film: Vinegar syndrome is a problem associated mostly with tri-acetate film.  As the film ages, it outgases a little bit of acetic acid, which is vinegar.  As it accelerates, the film base becomes thin and brittle, and the film may buckle, tear, and become unprojectable.

Vinegar syndrome is not a virus, not a disease, not anything but simple chemical deterioration.  It affects different films in different ways.  If a film was developed poorly,  stored in bad conditions, stored with things that caused it to deteriorate, or is on unstable stock, it will tend to go vinegar.

I have had prints go completely vinegar while sitting right next to other prints that have not gone vinegar at all.  I therefore dispute the claim that it spreads… however, exposing prints to vinegar is not a great idea in general.

Simplicio: Why is that?  Does that make the disease spread?  Shouldn’t you quarantine the films that are vinegar in sealed cans?

Dr. Film: No, vinegar is an acid.  In solution (that means the air around the film), it will tend to eat at the film base, like any acid would, which causes the film to outgas more vinegar.

Putting vinegar prints in sealed cans is a sure way to kill them.  The vinegar builds up, and eats at the film, causing more vinegar to be expelled, but there’s no place for it to go, and it becomes an autocatalyzing process, meaning it gets worse and worse.

Is this tested?  Sure.  For many years I wanted to test the theory and I wondered if there was someone who’d accidentally done the test for me.  In 1998, I discovered that someone had done the very test I’d wanted without knowing it.  I went to an auction that had a bunch of 16mm films for sale.  Many of these were films from the 1930s from Goodyear.  They had been stored in a milk crate for 40 years or more, and the auction house hadn’t even bothered to remove them.

What did I find?  The films that were in the cans, without exception, had some degree of vinegar syndrome decomposition.  The films that had been stored in open air had NO vinegar decomposition.  And the films without the cans, in many cases, were older than the ones in the cans.  I realize that this is an anecdotal one-off answer, because it does not take into account that this particular set of films may have had a unique temperature/humidity range for storage that caused this reaction.  However, in subsequent years, I have repeatedly found this same situation in collections from all over the world.

Simplicio: I was told by my favorite archive that you could put in Kodak’s molecular sieves and it will stop this problem.

Dr. Film: The idea behind the molecular sieves is to neutralize the vinegar in a sealed can.  Whatever chemicals are in the sieve react with the vinegar and take it out of the air surrounding the film.  In theory, the molecular sieves are a wonderful idea, but they don’t work out so well in practice. If you have a huge supply of them and you change them every 6 months to a year, then great.  It’s perfect and it will help.  Otherwise, the sieve and the vinegar end up completing their reaction, and you have a full (now essentially chemically inert) molecular sieve and the vinegar syndrome marches gleefully on.

Simplicio: So when a film gets vinegar, we should just throw it away, right?  There’s nothing that can be done.  That’s what my friend told me.

Dr. Film: You can do what you want, but there are things you can do to slow down the progress of vinegar syndrome, regardless of the conventional wisdom.

Knowing about these various methods and working with deteriorating old film, I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t.  I decided to do a control study.  That’s where you make a test and change only one thing in the test to find out if it helps.  Several years ago, I bought a 35mm print of She Couldn’t Say No (a 1950s movie with Robert Mitchum) which was affected by vinegar syndrome and warp. I bought this because I didn’t particularly care about the film, and I figured that I could use it for control tests: one reel left alone, and each reel treated with something else.

There are these things that I have personally tested:

1) Vitafilm: this is a film cleaner that is quite nice in some circumstances.  It has a STRONG pine smell, enough that some people gag at the first whiff.  No one is entirely sure what is really in Vitafilm, so I can’t answer for what it does chemically.  I can say that in tests, these things happen:
a) The film becomes more pliable and warp tends to flatten out (this may require rewinding several times, but it does work.
b) Tape splices (other than Kodak tape) loosen and must be reapplied.
c) The cleaner will dissolve most other plastics, including reels, cores, and a lot of projector rollers.  Do NOT project a wet print; it could destroy your projector.  (Take it from someone who has learned this!)

2) Glycerin: this is a plasticizer that evaporates into the air around a film within a can.  Again, it does take vinegar out of solution and it does make the film more pliable.  Since it’s liquid, it gums things up, and it cannot be put in direct contact with the film (it makes the film mooshy).  However, I have successfully used this on a number of films.  It was particularly helpful on a trailer for The Robe which was so stinky that it would knock a normal human down at 30 paces and was actually getting sticky from base melt.  Glycerin stopped it in its tracks and the print is still around.

3) Camphor (solid).  Camphor is used as a spice in Southeast Asian cooking, and it still used (in small quantities) in cough syrups.  It is a plasticizer, but in people it is also a vasodilator, which means it causes a person’s blood vessels to dilate a bit. This is great for sinus conditions and coughs, which we associate with camphor’s strong smell.  Unfortunately, it is possible to “OD” on camphor (look it up) by ingesting too much of it, so it’s now on the FDA’s bad list.  Fortunately, there are a lot of Asian grocery stores that still stock it, and it’s wonderful stuff.  Why?
a) Camphor works, like glycerin, as a plasticizer, but does not affect the film if in direct contact!
b) It does not dissolve splices, affect other plastics, etc.
c) It’s self-limiting, which means that you can throw camphor in with your prints and the camphor will vaporize and be absorbed to just the level that the print needs.  A desperate print will suck it up faster than a print with no problem.

Simplicio: My friend at the archive told me that camphor is just a stunt and it will reduce the long-term stability of the film.  It really isn’t good for the film at all, and it doesn’t stop vinegar syndrome.  

Dr. Film: This depends on how you define “long-term.” An archive isn’t in the same business I am.  I am in the business of saving and sharing filmsAn archive is in the business of saving films.  The archives were charged with the responsibility of saving copies of films for future generations, not particularly with making them available for anyone to see. (That’s not a criticism… that’s what they were intended to do.)

Archives are also notoriously underfunded, so a print may languish in storage for years until someone gets around to inspecting it and getting it ready for preservation.  This means an archive is understandably nervous about any chemical coming in contact or proximity with the film.  They don’t know what it is, they don’t know what the long-term effects are, and the whole thing is just very, very scary.

Now, again, I’m not in that business.  Sure, I collect rare films, and in most cases these are films that are beneath the notice of the major archives.  They archives are so busy preserving mainstream history that they miss the little rivulets of the story that fascinate me.  This is not intended to slight them: I’m glad they’re out there, and they do a wonderful job of what they do.  It’s just not what I do.

For me, if I have a film that cannot be shown, then it’s not of much use.  If it’s too shrunken, brittle, or ripped to run, then it may be saved but not necessarily shared.  These are the kinds of films I may donate to an archive in the hopes that someday they might be duped or something…

However, if I can do anything to extend the projectable life of a film, then I’m on board.  Does that mean it might be projectable for another 10 years but it will shave 10 years off the longevity of the print?  If that’s so, then I’m still on board.

Let me give you an example: I have a print of The Ford in Your Future, which is a really cool short that promotes Ford’s new 1949 cars.  It’s a Technicolor print, and a real stunner in Technicolor.  It shows off the process well, and shows why it doesn’t look the same as it does on video.  I also am well aware that this is not the only print in the world (in fact, I’m sure it’s on YouTube in a highly compressed, muted color version).  When I got the print, it was horrible: warped, vinegary, shrunken, etc.  Some careful treatment with camphor for a few months, and the whole thing was vastly different.

It was, in fact, so different, that my lovely assistant, Ms. Greiff, said, “When did you get a new print of this?  It looks so nice!”  I informed her that this was the same print that has caused focus flutter and heart failure in a projector just a few months before.

If that takes ten years off the overall life of the film, then it’s fine in my book…

On the other hand, I don’t think it probably will.  Again, I don’t know for certain, because we don’t have tests, but…

Camphor has been known about as a plasticizer for years and years.  In fact, when we get old 1920s prints on diacetate or single acetate film stock, it was commonplace for a projectionist to throw a chunk of camphor in with it.  Some cans even had a little holder built in for a chunk of the stuff.

So we know that camphor has so far not particularly hurt the longevity of 1920s safety film.  We also know that camphor was used on nitrate.

Does it hurt triacetate?  I think probably not, but I don’t know that.  I’m not going to contribute to the hoodoo nature of this by speculating without tests.

Several people have told me that camphor, glycerin, and Vitafilm don’t help because the overall acidity of the print doesn’t change, given that they’ve tested them with A/D strips.  These are little strips of paper (I think… I’ve not seen them) that test the overall acidity of a print.

I have not tested this, nor do I know of a good place to get A/D strips.  I know that from personal experience that I’ve gotten years use out of warped, brittle prints, and I can absolutely state that several have lasted 8+ years with camphor.  Some have graduated to not being with a piece of camphor all the time and they live out in the open air again.

I know that some people are very nervous about vinegar and so test everything with an A/D strip before purchase or sale.  If someone would point me to a source of these, then I can test them.

Again, I say that the base deterioration may continue, but the print is useful for a long period, and so this is still a good call for me.  My untested “gut reaction” is that in some cases the base deterioration slows or stops, but I have not tested this to find out.

Simplicio: There’s a new film cleaner on the market that says it stops vinegar syndrome.  What do you think of it?

Dr. Film: I haven’t tested it.

Simplicio: So you’re advocating against the use of film cans and for the use of camphor, just the opposite of what the archives do.  You must hate the archives.

Dr. Film: No, I love the archives.  I also love the safety of what film cans give you, because I’ve had films ruined by external factors that cans could protect against.  However, it’s been my experience that films need to breathe and dissipate their vinegar vapors, and so I don’t use cans.

And I’ve explained why I do use camphor.  A few little blocks of it in a film can works miracles.  I do use film cans for camphor treatments.

Simplicio: Has anyone reported problems with any of these treatments?

Dr. Film: Some people report a white powder that forms on the film.  This is probably a residue of wax or anti-line treatment that is dissolving.  I would advocate a good cleaning if this occurs.  In no case has this damaged the film.

Simplicio: You’re a radical, mean guy who is dangerous to the world of film and all it portends.  You scare me.

Dr. Film: I’ve heard that a lot.  Don’t believe it.  Test it first.

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants, Views and reviews | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

The Top 10 Film Preservation Stories of 2013

I hate lists like this, but I know people love them.  I’ve deliberately not included material that’s long been available but recently released on video.  These are all things that have never seen the light of day and have been rediscovered this year.  So, for example, Ben Model’s Musty Suffer series doesn’t make the list, because those films have been out there and known about for years (I’ve seen a number of them).  On the other hand, his Accidentally Preserved DVDs do make the list, because they highlight previously unknown films.

I’ve also plugged my restoration of King of the Kongo quite enough for most of you.  We’re doing another chapter, and I’m sure there will be more plugs to follow.  The fact that we’re reuniting the sound and picture for the first time since 1929 is still quite cool.

cinecolor

A print that appears to be three-color, but with distinctive purple Cinecolor edge lettering. Cool!

AND NOW, THE LIST!
10. Hey, is that SuperCinecolor?  This is film preservation and history for geeks, but in 1948 there was a strike at Technicolor that caused a slowdown in their production of prints.  For a while, Warner Brothers had Cinecolor print their product for them, to the point that a few cartoons from this period are actually credited as being “IN CINECOLOR.”  But Cinecolor was a two-color process, and Technicolor was a superior three-color process.  All the Cinecolor cartoons, when seen today, are three-color.  What’s the story?  Well, this year, a few cartoons popped up on eBay that show all the earmarks of being in Cinecolor (reddish/purple edge codes for one), but are definitely three-color, because they have vibrant blues and greens in the same shot, something regular Cinecolor couldn’t reproduce.  Even stranger, these are 16mm prints.  Cinecolor eventually employed a process called SuperCinecolor, a three-color process, but that didn’t find its way into theaters until the 50s, and then always in 35mm.  So why are these prints in SuperCinecolor several years before?  I’m not sure, but I suspect it involves avoiding patent lawsuits with Technicolor that didn’t expire until a couple of years later.  Wanna hear more about this?  I can elaborate!

motm

One of the Monsters of the Moon (1939).

9. Monsters of the Moon (1939).  OK, this is a film that I found, but I’m excited about it.  A couple of aspiring filmmakers made a long promotional film based on their idea of Martians invading the moon.  It was a clever mixture of stop-motion and live-action.  It plays like a long trailer, but it was supposed to attract the attention of big-time Hollywood producers.  Unfortunately, the producer it attracted was William Pizor, a bargain-basement filmmaker if there ever was one.  Pizor bought the footage and put his name on it in dim hopes that he could raise money to finish the film. (It should be noted that Pizor was the producer of Murder by Television, which was highlighted in episode one of the Dr. Film TV show, which you’ll see if I can ever sell it!)   Monsters of the Moon never went anywhere.  The only known copy of the film ended up in the hands of Forrest J. Ackerman (long-time monster fan and editor of Famous Monsters of Filmland), who took the footage, recut it a bit, added some girly footage at the end, and showed it at the first WorldCon in 1940.  He lost the film afterward, finding it again a few years later, when he gave it to (please hold your hisses) movie mogul Raymond Rohauer, who added some titles, showed the film once, and kept it.  Ackerman saved stills of the film and touted it as one of the great lost films.  It showed up on eBay this year, in its original form, with Pizor’s name on it, proving that there was actually more than one print struck.  What will become of this?  Stay tuned!

8. Accidentally Preserved.  Ben Model is a marketing genius.  Many of us who do film preservation work have stacks of one-off films that aren’t “cool” enough to merit video releases.  In many cases, they’re the only surviving prints of a particular film, but, as I always say, “It’s the law of supply and demand.  You may have a unique film, but if no one cares, then it still has no value.” Ben and I agree that an important part of preservation is presentation.  If no one sees the films you’ve preserved, then they might as well be lost.  Ben has done something I’ve never been able to do, and that I’ve not seen anyone else do, either.  He’s made people care about oddball silent shorts, and he’s getting people to buy DVDs.  That’s really, really great, folks.  It means that more stuff like this will become available.  It helps everyone.

stooges-brophy-hello-pop7. Hello, Pop (1933)  This has been a great year for recovering Technicolor footage.  Few people know that The Three Stooges worked for MGM before they went to Columbia, the studio where they gained fame.  MGM even made a few early two-color Technicolor shorts with the Stooges and their then-leader, Ted Healy.  The MGM Stooge shorts tend to be highly variable, and  today Ted Healy comes off as abrasive and annoying.  Still, this is an important stepping-stone for the Stooges, and there are very few two-color Technicolor shorts that survive.  Always a poor judge of comedic talent, MGM fired the Stooges and kept Ted Healy.

6. Whoozit (1928) If you know me or read this blog with any regularity, then you’ll know that I’m a huge fan of comedian Charley Bowers.  Among the most neglected of silent comedians, Bowers’ work has been passed over because nearly all of it has been lost.  Over the past 15 years or so, bits of his work have been popping up piecemeal, and they reveal an artist unlike anyone who came before or since.  That’s not superlative, folks… Bowers was unique.  Whoozit is Bowers’ second film under his contract with Educational Pictures.  He’d been with FBO the previous year, and those films had been successful, but they bounced him out anyway.  Contemporary reviews claim that this film is better than There It Is (Bowers’ first at Educational.)  Given that There It Is is now considered a minor classic of silent comedy, I have high hopes for Whoozit.  Thanks to preservationist Serge Bromberg and the EYE Institute for digging up this gem.filmdaily4344newy_0718

5. Dearth of a Salesman and Insomnia is Good for You (both 1957) These are both short films featuring a young Peter Sellers, who was just beginning his career in feature films.  If that isn’t cool enough, they were both co-written by the legendary Mordecai Richler, author of the Jacob Two-Two series and The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.  I  have a feeling that these will be just plain hilarious.

4. Their First Misunderstanding (1911) What’s not important about this film?  Pretty much everything is.  It’s an early film from Independent Motion Pictures (IMP), which became Universal over the next year or so.  It’s the first film in which Mary Pickford got billing.  It was directed by George Loane Tucker (Traffic in Souls and The Miracle Man) and Thomas Ince (Civilization).  Oh, and it co-stars Owen Moore, who was married to Pickford at the time.  I can’t wait to see this.

salamander3. Dr. Who: The Enemy of the World and The Web of Fear.  In the 1970s, the BBC stupidly erased a big chunk of the Dr. Who episodes from the 1960s.  The first doctor, William Hartnell, was affected badly, but the second, Patrick Troughton, had the majority of his episodes destroyed. The BBC had sold 16mm prints to TV stations in Africa and New Zealand (as well as others), which is where a few episodes have been found, but there has been a discernible slowdown in recovered episodes in the last few years. Philip Morris (not the cigarette company) has been traveling the world literally being a filmic Indiana Jones to find abandoned TV episodes.  He’s been kidnapped by pirates and arrested many times.  Morris found 9 episodes (almost two complete stories) and returned them to the BBC.  They paint a new portrait of Troughton’s Who, since he gets to play multiple parts in one (and quite well), and we finally get to see the first appearance of stalwart Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart (here not yet ascended to full rank.)  Great shows, so lovingly restored that they look like BBC 2” tape from the 1960s even though they came from 16mm kinescopes.

2.The Mysterious Island (1929) This has been available for years, but only in black and white. The Czech film archive has located an original Technicolor print. Sure, this is a disappointing film, with an early music-and-effects track (and some talkie sequences). Two-color Technicolor was a novelty at the time, and particularly a film that had a measure of underwater footage (although much of it here was faked.)  This is important as one of the first MGM talkies, one of the first Technicolor talkies, one of the first color/sound science fiction films, and it was directed by Benjamin Christensen (at least in part) before he was ousted from the project.

1. Too Much Johnson (1938) has got to be one of the Holy Grails of film preservation.  The only print was thought to have burned in the 1970s, leaving it a big question mark in the career Orson Welles.  OK, we know it’s not a great picture: it was intended to flesh out a play that tanked and Welles was threatened with legal action on it anyway.  It was never shown in public, but what was a movie with the Mercury Theater people shot three years before Citizen Kane like?  The mind boggles.  I haven’t seen this yet, but I’m looking forward to it!

johnson

Posted in Background on the blog | 10 Comments

“That should be banned!”

I remember a play I was in many years ago.  I was playing a Supreme Court Justice in First Monday in October.  One of the main questions in it concerns an obscenity case in which the justices are called upon to decide whether a particular porno movie is so obscene that it cannot be shown.  The justices all gather together and watch the movie,  except one.

The holdout justice insists he doesn’t need to see the movie.  He’s voting for it to be shown, no matter what.  He feels that the First Amendment is sacrosanct and any chipping at it lessens us all.

Amen!

There’s been a lot of hubbub on one of the movie collector forums about Disney’s Song of the South (1946).  This is one of the few films Disney has never released on home video… well, one of the few popular color and sound films.  I’ve never seen it.  Its last theatrical release was a rather sparse one in 1986.

Song

And the cries come out against it: “It’s racist.”  “It’s antiquated.”  “It would offend people.”  “We shouldn’t show it in case it does offend people.”  “It’s not a great work of art, in part because it’s offensive.”

I never understand this stuff.  It cuts across political barriers, too.  Basically, the criterion for banning something is “I don’t like it.”  Books, movies, music, you name it, someone wants to ban it.  It’s often in the name of “the children.”  We wouldn’t want to expose children to this sort of thing, would we?

Let’s look at what this is, instead of our opinions about it:
James Baskett won an honorary Academy Award for the film.
Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel appears, the first African-American woman ever to win an Oscar.
Walt Disney considered Baskett a discovery, one of the best actors he’d found.
The work with animated characters superimposed over live action is groundbreaking, especially in a color film (this was shot with the three-color Technicolor camera.)
It’s one of the last works of legendary photographer Gregg Toland, the cinematographer of Citizen Kane.

Is there racial stuff it it?  Sure.  Is it insensitive by modern standards?  I have no doubt it is.

Should parents plop their kids in front of it without explaining it to them first?  NO!  But that goes for a lot of stuff.  The television is not an electronic babysitter,  nor is the iPhone or any other device.  Sure, there’s a lot of mindless stuff out there that can just be watched, and this isn’t one of them.

I haven’t seen Song of the South.  I don’t need to.  It should be out there to be seen.  If we have to get Leonard Maltin, Whoopi Goldberg, or Bill Cosby to do an introduction, then fine.  It should be seen.

This reminds me of an interchange I had with a friend of mine who I’ll only identify as “Chef Carl.”  I was asked to come up with a program for Black History Month.  OK, I said, let’s show how racism once rocked the movies.  Let’s really show it.  I had some good examples.  They wouldn’t let me do it.  The manager of the theater said it would be perceived as insensitive because I’m white.  OK.

So I thought about all the African-American folks I know and thought, “Who’d be the best one to introduce these pictures and explain the history of them?”  I thought of Chef Carl.  He even agreed to do it.  Then the manager came forward and wouldn’t allow Carl to do it either.  Why?  Well, they were afraid that Carl would be seen as a “token black,” which was bad, too.  I told Carl about it.  I still remember his answer:

“So you can’t introduce the movies because you’re white and I can’t introduce them because I’m black.”  BINGO.  The most accurate response I can imagine.

botnsmallThere’s a similar uproar with Birth of a Nation (1915), which is a DW Griffith film.  Birth of a Nation changed the world.  It was the first time that it was clear that a long, feature-length film could make money and keep making money.  It caused the landscape of movies to change.  Vaudeville houses switched over to movies.  Movie houses changed from flat Nickelodeons to raked, long theaters.  Theaters put in extra projectors to make smoother changeovers.  It was a big deal, and it made money in the North and South, wherever it played.  It’s a good film, it’s a landmark film, and it’s one of the key films in the history of the motion picture.

It also sparked a resurgence of the KKK in America.  There was a lot of racist content, and one of the Klansmen is a hero.  It was true to the book it was based on, which was also racist.  Without even really understanding what he did, DW Griffith made a racially polarizing film in 1915.  It was so polarizing that he got death threats and there were Klan rallies that showed the film to whip up support for a new (and very different) Klan.

Griffith (a child of Kentucky) felt so awful about the film’s reception and what it did that he made a followup called Intolerance (1916) that made the age-old plea of “Why can’t we just get along?”  Just how racist Griffith himself was is the stuff of much speculation.  I can simply state that Madame Sul-Te-Wan (1873-1959) a long-lived African American actress, appeared in Birth of a Nation.  There’s also a reel of home movies shot at DW Griffith’s funeral in 1948.  She’s in that reel, too, crying and needing support from others, the only person in the whole reel who seemed to be moved at the occasion.

If DW Griffith was the evil, racist pig that many modern authors make him out to be, then why was Madame Sul-Te-Wan so moved at his funeral?  She knew him… we didn’t.

Shouldn’t we see the film for ourselves to find out?  Or, if we choose not to, shouldn’t we be free in that choice, too?  There have been protests at showings of Birth of a Nation even as recently as a few years ago, rife with cries of “It should be banned!”

No, it shouldn’t.  The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.  I’ll repeat that, and it’s key: The surest way to perpetuate an idea is to try to stamp it out.

Let me give you an example of what I’m saying.  When FW Murnau made Nosferatu in 1922, he stole it from the novel Dracula.  Let’s be honest, he stole it.  They changed all the names around, but the plot is barefaced and recognizable.  The book was very much in copyright and Murnau was sued.  The studio lost, and the film was ordered destroyed.  All prints, and the negative, too.

Except.

Nosferatu became forbidden fruit!  Film pirates the world over clamored for “the last print.”  There were a lot of “last prints” saved, duped, and bootlegged.  It got way more release in foreign countries than any of other Murnau’s films did.  He became a popular director mostly because of the fame of a movie that no one was supposed to see.

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (left, in makeup) in one of the most famous lost films

Bela Lugosi (right) and Conrad Veidt (center, with cape) in one of the most famous lost films

So consider Der Januskopf (1920).  This was another FW Murnau film pirated illegally from a novel and play.  In this case it was Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.  It became Janus-kopf (Janus head) and the two characters were Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor.  The dual role was played by Conrad Veidt.  Veidt’s butler was played by Bela Lugosi, who was on his way from war-torn Hungary to America.  This is one of his few appearances in a German film.

Historically important?  You bet.  But no one sued over this film, and there was no clamor over its illegal piracy.  No one bootlegged the last prints or the negative, which stayed in storage until it rotted.

Two films, one director, both pirated, one forbidden fruit, and one completely legal.  The forbidden fruit survived.  Stamping out the idea perpetuated it.  Today, you can get a version of Nosferatu on any street corner, in various versions, cuts, tints, and speeds.

And is that different now?  Nope.  Song of the South is forbidden fruit.  It’s out there.  As of this writing, there are 85 copies on eBay for sale.  Those are just the ones who are brazen enough to post them.

Just 10 copies of Steamboat Willie for sale, though.  That one… it’s always been available.  It’s a landmark Disney picture, the first cartoon with sound, the first big Mickey Mouse picture, and 10 copies.

So is Song of the South a great film?  I have no idea.  I might like it, I might not.  I might be offended, and I might not.  My advice to Disney is to make it available and therefore control the dialogue about the film.  Now it’s forbidden fruit.  You can make it a “Never Forget” historical item, which it needs to be.  You can also make sure that everyone knows why it’s historically important.

By the way, I don’t want political comments in the comments section or I’ll shut it down.  “Those liberals” and “Those Republicans” are equally guilty of censorship, albeit often for different reasons.  This isn’t a political forum.  It’s a film forum.

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants | Tagged , , , , , | 11 Comments

10 Questions with Glory-June Greiff

Author-historian-performer Glory-June Greiff is just the sort of multi-hyphenated person that I need to associate with, because there isn’t a lot she can’t do, except hold still.

Glory is the author of two books, Remembrance, Faith, and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana and People, Parks, and Perceptions: A History and Appreciation of Indiana State Parks. These are both available for the best prices from the author (and you can get them signed in time for Christmas!)

Not only does Glory write books, but she does one-woman shows as authors Gene Stratton-Porter andBeatrix Potter. She does presentations on the WPA and CCC, among other topics. She’s written countless National Register nominations, done treks across the country in search of odd history fragments, and she’s always the first to climb into the rafters of an endangered building to figure out how to save it.

Glory is what Ben Model calls an artrepreneur, someone who is in the arts and does a lot of things. This is both because she’s multi-talented and because artists need to be versatile in this challenging economy.

When I wrote the pilot for Dr. Film, I created the role of Anamorphia for Glory, because I knew she could play it, that she’d have fun with it, and most importantly, that she’d show up!

Glory has her own web page, which is under construction, but her blog is here.  It is generally a little less ranty than mine, but you’ll probably enjoy it all the same.

•••

Q1: You’re not really a film preservationist, but you do preservation of another sort.  What is it that you do?

I’m not even sure why you want to interview me, although I certainly am a rabid proponent of preserving film!  My work and my passion of the past several decades, however, has been in historic preservation–the saving, interpretation, and appreciation of historic buildings, streetscapes, landscapes, and roadscapes.  I am a public historian by trade.

Q2: You’re also a big believer in slide film over PowerPoint.  Why?

I hate PowerPoint.  I hate most PowerPoint presentations, but that’s really a different story. (You know the ones: the speaker is up there reading the words on the screen to you.  It makes me scream.)  PowerPoint has certain advantages,  such as an interactive component, which are seldom used.  I can count on one hand the PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen that could not have been done the same–or usually, better–using slides and real talk.  And then they would have looked better, too.  Nothing as stunning as Kodachrome slides!

By the way, in the old days I used to create slide/tape programs with all kinds of production elements, like variable pacing, background music, themes, mixed voices.  I used to be radio (and radio production) so I did the narration. People would come and talk to me after saying how much they liked my “movie.”  How satisfying was that!?

Q3: Weren’t you a Kodachrome die-hard?

I was. I am!  I still project my beautiful Kodachrome slides for various talks I give.  And yes, I shot several rolls of Kodachrome after Kodak ceased production (I had stocked up), and was among those who got the last Kodachrome processed at Dwayne’s in Kansas in December 2010.  Heartbreaking.  Nothing like it.

Q4: You have always been a fan of old movies.  How did you get started?

Ah, well.  It’s in the genes, I think.  My mother loved old movies–of course to her, they were the films of her youth and held memorable associations as well.  Her own mother sought escape in movies from a hard life during the Depression and World War II.  My dad liked going to the movies, too.  We’d bundle into the car with a pot full of popcorn on weeknights (cheaper!) and go to one of about eight drive-in theaters in our area–all the way from Michigan City to Mishawaka and Niles, Michigan–we were really blessed!  The one we visited most often was only about three miles from our house on the old Lincoln Highway, but it was wiped out by a tornado when I was a kid!

Of course, that was golden age of old films being shown on television, and one was usually just starting when I arrived home from school.  Mom would tell me when she first saw it and about the actors.  My father liked the westerns and war stories shown at night or on weekends, which I didn’t always enjoy as much, but the adventure movies, like the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, I very much did!  (I think I can still recite most of the dialogue of Captain Blood.)  But the films I most cherished watching with my dad were the late Saturday night Universal horror movies and 50s sci-fi.  (“They’re here!  They’re here!”)

My grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up, and between my mother’s and grandmother’s subscriptions, I think I had access to three or four film magazines.  When I was in junior high, I got a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland.  Always was a pretty weird kid.

Q5: I know that Eric really got you stuck on silent films.  Do you have some favorite films or actors to recommend?

Hmm.  Tough one.  Lon Chaney is a genius, and Eric, who has huge collection of Chaney material, really turned me on to his work–far beyond Hunchback and Phantom, which everybody knows.

I like comedian Charley Chase, who I find to be right up there with his more well known contemporaries.  “Limousine Love” is a scream!  And of course, Max Davidson, largely forgotten today, is hilarious and I never miss a chance to see his films, which are best viewed, of course, with an audience.

I’ve become a huge fan of Charley Bowers, and I had never heard of him before I met Eric.  Actually, I’m quite fond of several silent animators, none of whom I had known much (if anything) about before.  I’m astonished at the content and effects of 1920s animation shorts and cartoons, and I wonder what these guys were smoking!

More prosaically, perhaps, I like Clara Bow a lot.  And the under-appreciated Marion Davies, particularly in her non-costume roles.  To ease my eyes:  early Gary Cooper, hubba hubba.  Buddy Rogers, ditto.

And I love Douglas Fairbanks–love how he moves!  (Mind you, it was his more handsome son I noticed first, but Fairbanks, Sr. just looks like he’s having so much fun in his films!)

Q6. How do you support Eric’s film preservation work and how does he support your preservation work?

We do have a cooperative arrangement that usually works pretty well–unless we each have a gig at the same time, which happens!

And sometimes I’ve sacrificed going to events or even given up getaways; there was this time when we were going to leave for northern Michigan, and suddenly an emergency film restoration project arose.  Personally, I think I should get a credit on the restored version of  Seven Chances!

As a rule, I play the part of the “lovely assistant” and help Eric set up his film showings, run interference when necessary, act as shill occasionally, and answer secondary questions.  I hope the best thing I do is keep encouraging his work, because I think it is important and it is not always recognized.

As for my work, Eric plays a similar part, assisting with my various programs and also coming along and helping with fieldwork and research.  Sometimes we are both called to the same place; this is a usually a closed or underused theater, and Eric pokes through the projection booth while I clamber all over the building!

Glory in character as Anamorphia

Q7: You’re in the Dr. Film pilot episode as Anamorphia.  What was it like to play that part?  You’ve been a fan of movie shows like this for a long time.  How did it feel to be in one?

You know, these are wonderful questions.  I had a dream since I was a teen of doing a sort of vampire woman horror-host TV show–bear in mind I had never seen Vampira or Elvira.  (I grew up in northern Indiana.)  I worked in radio for some years and never had much thought to venture into TV–unless the opportunity had arisen to do a gig like that!

So this is the closest I’ve gotten to it.  I do think my director has me go a little too over-the-top, but maybe that’s appropriate!

It’s fun; I love doing theater of any sort–and I wish someone would pick up Dr. Film so we could shoot more episodes!

Q8: You’re a big supporter of the Dr. Film show, and you want Eric to keep trying to get it out there.  You even wrote a guest blog about it.  What makes you so passionate about the show?  You seem even more gung-ho about it than Eric is.

That was a nice segue from the previous question, wasn’t it?  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have been working in field where you simply don’t always win–in fact, often do not–but you just have to pick up and keep trying because it’s the right thing to do–and you must pursue your passion.

Dr. Film is the kind of show that SHOULD be out there–more so now than ever, I think.   I grew up just knowing about a lot of movies just because they were THERE–but they aren’t there anymore.  We are losing our cultural references.   And anyway, film history is fun!  

Q9: What are some of the craziest things you’ve done to get things preserved, either in the film world or otherwise?  I hear you’re pretty dedicated sometimes.

Crazy things?  Why, what do you mean?   Well, one of my very first preservation efforts involved a beautiful early 1900s office building in downtown Indianapolis.  I set up pickets with signs and a petition campaign.  We made the newspapers, but didn’t win; the forces against preservation were too great.  But you have to keep trying.

A year or two later I spearheaded a campaign to save a beautiful abandoned New Deal-era apartment complex.  We did guerilla renovation on one apartment and brought everyone we could out there to see it to try to change the minds of the powers-that-be.  It took four months of my life, full time, but that remains one of my proudest efforts–even though we didn’t win.   Those apartments were built to last; it took the city months to tear them down at far greater cost than they thought.  Ha!

To this day I am known to run wildly into abandoned buildings and dance along abandoned stretches of old highways.  As for film, how many times have I ridden in a car full of film that smells like a salad? (That would be indicative of vinegar syndrome.)   And about that time I gave up my trip to northern Michigan. . .

10.  What question did I not ask you that I should have asked?  And answer that question, please.

Why do you dance all the time?

Why do you breathe? (Thanks to The Red Shoes.)

Why do I take the old roads and shun interstates?  Same answer.

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants, Views and reviews | Tagged , | Comments Off

Islands in the Stream

I get complaints when I write a blog about the Dr. Film show.  People like the blogs about classic films better.  Someone wrote about the “existential whining” that he didn’t like.  Well, this is going to be another one of those blogs, but it affects what we’re going to do with the show, which means classic films and restorations you won’t see anywhere else.

A lot of people come up to me, especially at conventions, and ask, “When is the Dr. Film show coming on?”  Some think it’s already on.  Some think it should be on, and are surprised it isn’t.  Still only know Dr. Film from the blog.  This blog has gotten surprisingly popular.

The Dr. Film facebook page is pretty popular too, and the show isn’t.  It’s because no one has seen the show.  On the Facebook page, we talk about preservation issues, and there are plugs for new projects and odd copyright problems.  It’s a neat forum. In a very strange way, a way I never expected, I’ve created a community around a show that doesn’t really exist, and a fan base and people who come together over something that has never developed.  I’m not complaining, but it’s surprising.

You see, I put up the blog to promote the show, which I figured would get popular and then we’d have more people clamor to see the show.  And the Facebook page was put up to promote the blog and the show.  But we only have the pilot, which was shot in 2008, finished in 2009, and remastered/recut in 2011.  That’s it.

If you’ve been a loyal follower here, then you know what I mean and how we’ve struggled with this.  We’ve been completely and utterly ignored by cable and broadcast.  Few people will even give us a chance by watching the show.  I really don’t think we will ever be on an over-the-air broadcast or cable network.  I want to emphasize this.  I just don’t think we’re high-profile enough.

There’s been a continuing thing, something that I get asked all the time, “Why don’t you just put Dr. Film on YouTube?”  I don’t do that because I can’t afford to.  YouTube is dominated by teenagers, rich folks, and the chronically unemployed.  I don’t qualify for the first two, and hope to avoid being the third.  The economics of YouTube are awful.  I’ve looked into it, and with the viewership I’m likely to get, it’s impossible for me to make enough money to justify expenses.

And then people tell me, “But people will see you and you’ll be famous!”  Well, I don’t care about that.  I want to a) show old movies and b) not go broke doing it.  Those are my goals.  I really don’t care if no one knows who I am.  If I have to be a little more “known” in order to accomplish my goals, then that’s fine.

One of the things I do to accomplish my goals is to study the marketplace, and I see odd things happening, especially in social media.

I noticed my friend Archie Waugh doing something that I’d never even considered with Facebook.  I’ve never met Archie, but I’ve known him for years, even before Facebook, because he is a long-time silent film fan.  But Archie is geeky (I consider this a good thing!) in a number of areas, and one of his favorite ways is that he’s a big Godzilla fan… not just Godzilla, but all of the Japanese monster and TV shows.  Properly, they’re called Kaiju.

Archie hosts a group that gets together every Saturday night and they all pop in a DVD at the same time and then start talking about it as it runs.  They used to use Facebook’s chat function, but they grew into their own chat room that one of the members puts on his own server.  And they’re not making fun of the movie (although sometimes they might kid it a bit), but they’re talking to each other and enjoying the film and sharing an experience…

They’re not seeing each other, but are spread literally all over the world.  They’re a community, and more to the point, they’re an audience.  They love to do this!  I’ve polled them about it.  It runs counter to my way of thinking, because I go to a movie so that I don’t talk to other people, so I can immerse myself in the experience.  I don’t like to share that with others.  But it’s not all about me.

This is a new kind of audience.  It’s a different kind of audience.  I can see why some people utterly fail to accept this.  The texters hate the immersion people and the immersion people hate the texters.  And I hope there’s room for both in the world, because there are just too few people who are interested in some things to make an immersive audience pay off.  If there are 10 people in each big city, then you may get 1000 people in a virtual audience, but go broke doing a movie roadshow.

I hate that.  I love the movies, but I have to face reality.  I hope that some of the texters can become members of the immersive audience and vice versa, but neither is going away.

And that brings me back to Dr. Film.  If YouTube doesn’t work out economically, then what about some sort of internet streaming?  Netflix was not interested.  Well, I’m not sure whether they were interested or not.  I never heard back from them.

I thought, well, OK, we can stream the Dr. Film show on a private YouTube channel and do an Archie-style chat along with it.  I even spoke to Archie about it.  I almost did it, looked like everything was coming in place, but…

People yelled at me.  Some people had seen the pilot that we shot, and a few hated it.  The complaint was not that the idea was bad, but some people hated the feature I’d picked, and a few hated the video transfer I’d gotten.  The statement was that it was like one of the Star Trek pilots… they were good enough to incorporate into the run of the show, but you wouldn’t want to show one for your first episode.  The complaints were loud, and I listened.

Now remember, by this time, years have gone by.  I’m thinking we just trash the show.  It was fun, it was a good idea, but it didn’t work. That idea didn’t set well with people either!  Meanwhile, the blog readership expanded, the Facebook memberships went up, and we still had no show.

I thought, well, OK, we can try to make some more shows.  By now HD has taken over, so we need more equipment and more expensive film transfers.  That’s OK, I can work that out…  I applied for grants, and, gee, I got none of them.  People don’t really understand what I do.  It’s not “art” to them.

I kept thinking that I needed my own internet TV station, and I was looking into that.  I knew that it was possible to make a private station with a dedicated server.  I’ve seen a lot of them, and I know that many are on Roku.

And then there’s this other problem: most of the TV stations on the internet are BAD.  The classic movie stations rely almost exclusively on material that’s been cobbed from archive.org.  I’ve lived through this before: it was like when Goodtimes video came out and flooded the marked with awful-looking public domain movies.  They were cheap, but they gave headaches to those of us to tried to be a little more up-market.  I can’t always be Kino or Criterion; there simply are some things that look bad in the surviving prints, but I’d like to show them anyway.  I just don’t want to be painted with the same brush as Alpha or Goodtimes, who seem to go out of their way to get bad material.

So I thought about offering Dr. Film as a streaming service ala Netflix.  I did a survey there, too.  People told me that they wanted free, please free, we have no money.  Well, that means commercials, which I can do.  But an equal number of people said, NO, please have a monthly subscription.  It was evenly split down the middle.

Ben Model is at least somewhat successful with his Accidentally Preserved DVD sets.  I helped him work on those, so it’s possible that we could just produce Dr. Film shows and put them on DVD.  But I think that’s silly.  We don’t have the kind of following to make that work.  Ben’s DVDs sell because people know Ben and people know that they’re getting rare films on the DVDs.  I don’t think Dr. Film would sell because not enough people know what it is… at least, not yet.

And then I see that Netflix is dropping a chunk of its older movies because no one cares, and no one watches them.  It makes me ill.  I know there is an audience, maybe a small one, for classic films.  And there’s a lot more out there than what gets shown on TCM.

Part of that audience is on the Dr. Film Facebook page.  Another part of it reads this blog.

I have a number of ideas that I’m mulling over.  I need your input on these.  I’ve got technical skills but not a lot of cash.  Please let me know what you’d like to see.  If I initiated a Kickstarter program, I’d also need to know that you or your friends would donate to help cover startup costs.

MY FIRST IDEA: A 24-hour streaming TV channel, all movies made before Star Wars.  We’d have serials, cartoons, shorts, and features, but also shows that were made exclusively for the channel that are about older films.  Everything from film, nothing from archive.org!!!  Movies would be from my collection and from other collections.   Everyone who contributes films will be paid, no matter what!  (It’s important!)  Dr. Film would be a part of this network, and it would air probably once a week.

I could work something out so that we could have a subscription version and a free version of the same network.  The subscription people would see the shows uninterrupted and then have a cartoon at the end of the show, all real content, no ads.

As cool as I think this might be, it is a marketing nightmare.  The problem is that there’s already so much dreck out there that we’d have to find a way to differentiate this network from all the other cheesy networks.  Do you have ideas on how we could promote it?  Please tell me!  It would be a lot of work for me to set this up and maintain it, so we’d have to have some viewership to make it worthwhile.

ALTERNATIVELY:   We just admit that the whole idea is limited, but we have a following with the Dr. Film sites.  And then we have a site that would ONLY be Dr. Film, nothing else, but shows could be streamed on demand with or without commercials.  This one is less work for me, and I suspect less cool for you.  But I don’t know.  You tell me.

I sometimes will just have the TV on in the background and come in and out on it when something caught my interest.  People tell me that this JUST ISN’T DONE anymore.  It’s all streaming on demand, all the time.  You tell me!

In either case, I’d probably expand the Facebook presence a little bit and put in a chat function on the Dr. Film page so that people could discuss the shows as they are watching.

What do you think?  What would you like to see?  Feel free to post here, on the Dr. Film page, or email me and give me ideas.  If this really is a community, let’s let it function like one!

Posted in Background on the blog | Tagged , , , | Comments Off

10 Questions with Mike Schlesinger

This is Mike accepting the Rondo award.  Rondo is on the lower left!

This is Mike accepting the Rondo award. Rondo is on the lower left!

I’ve known Mike Schlesinger for a number of years.  Just how many, I’m not sure.  I ran into him at a film convention some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and laughed at one of his T-shirts.  Despite what he says, he has a collection of odd shirts, always film-related, most I’ve never seen anywhere else.  We also share a fondness for really stupid jokes and bad puns.

Mike is very modest and soft-pedals his various accomplishments.  I can tell you, and without hyperbole, that for years he was the only guy in distribution at any of the studios with a clue about movies made before 1950.  Today, the vast majority of them still don’t have a clue, and many actively don’t care.  (There are more people who care now than when I started, but we can still use more.)

With most studios, it was, “Do we own that?  Is that ours?”  The really inept ones would tell me that they didn’t own the film when I knew they did.  It was too much work to look it up.  Mike would immediately know if a print was on hand, and if the film had changed hands, and he always knew who to call to help me book an odd print.

And while Mike may also downplay his contributions to film preservation (I deeply admire all the guys he mentions), he has done a lot behind the scenes to make things happen.  When he was at Paramount, old Paramount titles got reprinted, and when he was at Sony, old Columbia titles got reprinted.  As I always say, access is half the battle for preservation, and Mike was great about making sure prints were out there and could be rented.


Mike’s trailer for Lost Skeleton of Cadavra
 

Q1. You have a long history with film preservation and working at the studios. Tell us a little about each place you’ve worked and some of the things you’ve done. Are you really Leonard Maltin’s favorite film executive? Does Leonard really exist, or is he a figment of my imagination?

Actually, I’ve never preserved a foot of film in my life. Others, such as Dick May, Grover Crisp and Barry Allen, oversaw all that work. My job was in distribution. I have indeed made suggestions of specific titles, but again, I never had my hands on film. Think of them as the chefs and me as the waiter. I worked at MGM/UA, Paramount and until last December, Sony (Columbia). Each was a unique and largely satisfying experience, though ultimately I’d always run afoul of people above me who didn’t understand what I did and why it was important. Among my most fulfilling experiences (aside from the ones discussed below): bringing out the “director’s cuts” of The Boy Friend, Wild Rovers, 1900, The Conformist, Wattstax, Darling Lili and getting the ball rolling on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; prying The Manchurian Candidate, Broadway Bill and White Dog out of movie jail; the record-breaking 50th anniversary reissue of Citizen Kane, and the extended version of Major Dundee. Striking new 35mm prints of numerous Columbia cartoons and shorts was also a treat. (Plus I made a number of trailers which, if I do say so myself, were, as the kids say, pretty freakin’ awesome.)

It was Roger Ebert who said I was his favorite Hollywood executive. Funny story: When that hit print, I e-mailed him, “Who came in second?” He replied, “What makes you think there was a second?”

Leonard does indeed exist. I’ve even hugged his lovely wife Alice.

Q2. You’re a long-time Godzilla fan. Tell us about your involvement in Godzilla 2000.

Well, that’s not a short story, but I’ll try to make it so. Sony’s distribution chief Jeff Blake (whom I largely owe my career to) happened to be in Japan when G2K opened and was breaking records. Since the Emmerich version didn’t turn out to be the most-beloved film of its generation, the studio was unsure of how to proceed. Jeff felt that releasing G2K here would be at least a place-keeper and at best a make-good to the fans who felt let down by the Emmerich.

We had a screening, and there was considerable concern: the pace was slack and the dubbing was pretty dire. Jeff was having second thoughts. I assured him that with some judicious editing and a new dub it’d be right as rain. He said, “Okay, then you do it.” And just like that it was in my lap. He figured, I hope correctly, that I was the only one there who’d actually seen some Godzilla movies and would have the right handle on it. So with a release date breathing down our necks, I dove right in.

Jimmy Honore, then Sony’s post-production czar, provided me with an editor and a sound man. Toho’s local guy, Masaharu Ina, was also involved, as every single change had to be approved by Tokyo. I wrote a new script, hired a swell bunch of Asian-American actors to reloop, and worked with the editor to sweat nine minutes of fat out of the film (over 130 individual cuts) and restructuring scenes to increase the tension. We rebuilt the soundtrack from scratch, adding some new music cues (including a couple of classic Ifukube themes) and creating foley for scenes that had been played in total background silence. I even did directional dialogue in some scenes. The sound guys were brilliant and completely supportive, and very complimentary whenever I came up with a suggestion that worked. Happily, Toho (albeit a bit grudgingly at first) admitted that our version was a big improvement; so much so that they even re-released it subtitled in Tokyo, as well as a few other countries, like India. The reviews here were mostly positive (if sometimes patronizing). It made money. And best of all, I got a six-week crash course in post-production that has served me very well. Even I was surprised at how quickly I picked it up. And I have the unique honor of being the first person to put a line of Yiddish in a Godzilla movie.

It's-All-True-documentary-posterQ3. Wasn’t It’s All True one of your pet projects?

THE project, though more for its importance. After the Kane reissue, I was approached by Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn, who had been trying to put the picture together, but Paramount owned the footage. Balenciaga was willing to pay all costs in exchange for distribution in France, Germany and Italy. So it was basically a free movie. I managed to get everyone into the same room, and after 14 needlessly drawn-out months, the deal was done. The film was completed on schedule. We were premiering it in the New York Film Festival–the first Paramount picture with that honor since Nashville. And then the distribution heads, for reasons still unknown, decided to kill it, and me in the process. It won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Documentary, and no one from the studio came to the ceremony. (I went on my own dime.) It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done…and hardly anyone saw it. :-(

Q4. You picked up Larry Blamire‘s Lost Skeleton of Cadavra at a time when indies were barely being picked up, and it actually got a theatrical release. Few indie filmmakers are so lucky. Let’s hear about your discovery of Blamire and your involvement with his other films.

God, at this rate there’ll be no need to write my autobiography! Cadavra was a happy accident. The American Cinematheque used to showcase independent films on Thursday nights; I read the synopsis in the paper, it sounded fun, and as I had nothing better to do that night, I went. The theatre was packed: over 500 people laughing their asses off. During the Q&A with the cast and crew, they said it cost “well under” $100,000. I said to myself, “That’s it, I have to have this movie.” I got Larry’s and Miguel’s phone numbers from the Cinematheque, and told them I was interested. As the only other offer they’d received was a lowball from Troma, they were naturally thrilled. Jeff agreed that Sony couldn’t get hurt at such a low price and okayed the acquisition, though there again, it took over a year to get the contract signed. The rest is history, though as Larry himself later acknowledged, getting picked up by a major studio doesn’t guarantee success. It really didn’t find a wider audience until it hit cable. Now it’s the world’s tiniest franchise, and I’ve co-produced Larry’s three subsequent films, with hopefully more to come, including the highly-anticipated conclusion of the first trilogy, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us.

Q5. There’s a legend in the film world about your long-lost Godzilla script, which was almost shot by Joe Dante. Please, relate the whole story, down to why it didn’t get made. Is there any hope for it now?

Legend? Seriously? Wow. Anyway, it’s doubtful it’ll ever get made, what with the new Warners version coming out next year. It started, as so much of my life does, with a joke. I ran into my friend Jon Davison one day; he was at Sony producing The Sixth Day. I told him about what Toho was doing with my version of G2K (as related above), and he said, “Yeah, you’re really Mr. Godzilla now.” I laughed, “Yeah, and if these guys were smart, they’d get you, me and Joe to do the next American one.” He said, “Hey, we’re there.” Later in the day, I was pondering this and thought, “Well, why not? Who better to save the franchise?” So I called them both and asked if they were interested. They were, so I went in to the Columbia production head and pitched the idea of a “Wrath of Khan”-like sequel: a modestly-budgeted, man-in-suit picture, using Toho’s effects people, but set in America with English-speaking actors. I said we could do it for $20 million. He was intrigued, but said he really couldn’t authorize it. However, if I wanted to write it on spec, they would certainly consider it if it came out as good as I said it would. That was fine by me.

So I went home and got to work. I set it in Hawaii for various reasons, among them that I’d need no tortured explanation of how Godzilla got there, not to mention the unlikelihood of any actor turning down a feature being shot in Hawaii. (My suggested tagline: “Say aloha to your vacation plans.”) I decided to follow the Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Rule–make the human scenes funny and play the monster stuff straight. I wrote it with genre favorites in mind for the cast: Bruce Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Scott Bakula, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy and of course Joe’s stock company. After jokingly giving it the temporary title of GodzillaEast of Java, I settled on Godzilla Reborn, which referred to not only the franchise but also the storyline, in which he’s killed and eventually resuscitated. Sid Ganis eventually came on board as a producer as well. Everybody adored the script. It shoulda been a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, by the time I finished it, Columbia had a new production head, and he wanted no part of it. Wouldn’t even read it. It takes balls to say that to Sid Ganis, who’s a former Academy president, but he did. And there ya go. Now everyone’s too old for their parts and Warners has the franchise. A damn shame; it would’ve been a monster hit. Pun intended.

Q6. How did your legendary collection of film t-shirts get started? What are some of your most popular?

Huh? I have a bunch of T-shirts, but I’d hardly call it “a legendary collection.” I just buy them like everyone else.

Q7. What the heck is Biffle and Shooster? They weren’t originally your idea, because I found them on YouTube. Who created them and how did you end up with them?

Once again, it started, as so much of my life does, with a joke. Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan created the team, but they hadn’t really done a great deal with them. Then one day, Nick posted a picture on his Facebook page: the two of them holding up an empty picture frame and mugging. I replied, “From their classic two-reeler It’s a Frame-Up, with Franklin Pangborn as the art dealer.” And then I had a brainstorm. After I mopped up, I called them and said, “Hey, why don’t we actually do this? A B&W, 1.33:1, authentic-as-possible 1930s two-reeler, like it was one of a series.” They loved the idea. I wrote a script, went on Kickstarter, fell short by a razor-thin 89%, and then broke the two rules of The Producers and paid for it myself. I rounded up a bunch of the Lost Skeleton people, and filled in the remaining slots with some incredible industry vets. We shot for 4 1/4 days in December, and had the cast & crew screening in early March. The first public showing was at Cinefest in Syracuse about two weeks later–which is where you saw it–and now it’s out to festivals. We’re also treating it as a pilot for a potential internet series, since we have titles and loglines for 19 more. I’ve already completed the script for another and started a third. Nick and Will are each writing one as well.

Q8. If It’s a Frame-Up! is successful, what are your plans for the future? (And if it is successful, could you put in a good word for the Dr. Film show? A bad word would be fine, too.)

Well, part of the original intent was to use it as a calling card to raise money for more features for Larry (and me). But as noted above, an internet series would be fine as well. Worst comes to worst, I figure I can make two more, shoot some bridging material, and create an ersatz feature, The Biffle & Shooster Laugh-O-Rama. That at least I could sell to TV and/or make a DVD deal.

Q9. I think this is a stupid question, but it’s been asked too many times for me to ignore it: Why go back and make a cheap, impoverished-looking 1930s short? Shouldn’t you make one that’s BETTER than they were in the 1930s?

I made a cheap, impoverished-looking short because that’s all I could afford to make. If we get any kind of financing, then we’ll do the “earlier, more expensive” ones. And I didn’t make one better than those from the 1930s because NO ONE can.

Biffle and Shooster fighting the Tong War.

Biffle and Shooster fighting the Tong War.

Q10. I get asked questions by people all the time that aren’t particularly germane or interesting. What question did I NOT ask that I should have asked?

Why does sour cream have an expiration date? Is that when it turns good?

It is part of a global conspiracy.  Expired croutons also become fresh bread.  Hey, you were warned about stupid jokes, folks.

Posted in Views and reviews | 3 Comments

Moving Beyond the Big Four

I was having a discussion, a polite one, with another film historian the other day.  He’s a guy I like and respect, so I won’t sully this conversation by naming him, because I disagreed with his whole premise.  That’s OK, because he disagreed with my whole premise.

To sum up, this was his position:

Comedians other than the “Big 3” are only of academic interest and should not be shown to general audiences.  General audiences are so far removed from the days of silent comedy that they can no longer relate to it in any way and shouldn’t be asked to.  The whole idea that we have the “Big 3” is because the critics have decided that these are the best and most worthwhile comedians to watch, and therefore any uninitiated audience should see them first.  The other comedians should not be run for first time audiences because they are not as good and unique as the “Big 3.”

The Big 3, of course, are Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd.  Some people will call it the Big 4, including Harry Langdon.

Now I’ll sit here right now and tell you that I have absolutely NOTHING against Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd, or Langdon.  I like them, every one.

But I hate this idea to its very roots.

I have this strange and odd counter-idea.  I think comedy should be run because it’s funny.  And I have another strange and odd idea: I don’t believe that there is a Jeffersonian Meritocracy of comedians and that we’ve decided who the good ones are and who the less worthy ones are.  There are just plain too many films that we haven’t seen to judge accurately.

I’ve pointed this up before, but I have to say it again: films don’t necessarily survive and get shown because they are good.  They survive and are shown because they are available, out of copyright, and can be found in nice-looking prints.  Film history is written by the survivors, not necessarily the best films.

This whole notion got started in Walter Kerr’s book called The Silent Clowns.  Now, again, I don’t have a problem with Kerr, either.  My problem is that he wrote his book in 1975 when it was just downright impossible to see a lot of the films that we take for granted today.  In 1975, we could say that DW Griffith was the father of film, because everything we could see showed Griffith streets ahead of everyone else.

Now we see that this wasn’t true, that there were others who were doing really interesting work.  It was the fact that Griffith’s films were seen and preserved that put him in such a hallowed position.  And, again, Griffith deserves a hallowed position, just not as the only guy who made movies move forward.

In 1975, there were only a few Charley Chase films available, almost no Max Davidson around, no Charley Bowers at all, and not even all of the Keaton and Lloyd films were obtainable.  The Langdons were spotty.  Kerr had to rely on memories and prints that he could find in private collections (thank you, Bill Everson.)

Arbuckle?  Not much.  Lloyd Hamilton?  A few.  Snub Pollard?  Hit and miss.  Lupino Lane?  Never heard of him.  Larry Semon?  Yeah, there’s some stuff around.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg to me.  I don’t think we should look at Kerr’s book as the roadmap for “this is all we should watch” because he studied it and wrote the book for us.  In my opinion, he’s telling us, “Hey, I’ve studied these films, these are some of them that I like, and here’s why I like them.”

That’s valuable, and that’s why the book is great.  But if we limit ourselves only to what he covered, it’s a sad thing.  It’s like eating only Big Macs at a Smorgasbord.  Hey, Big Macs are popular, some of the most popular food in the world, nothing wrong with them.  But you can find those anywhere, and there’s so much other stuff you could try… even just to nibble on!

I would also make an argument that limiting ourselves to these guys is sad on another level.  Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd and Langdon all had an interesting commonality: they had almost complete control of their pictures and basically unlimited budgets.  Chaplin even had almost unlimited time.

Is it really fair to compare Chaplin, who made one movie in 1925, to Charley Chase, who made 19 movies in 1925?  I’d wager that all of Chase’s movies together cost less than Chaplin’s one.  Does that make Chase a lesser comedian, or Chaplin a better one?

WHO CARES?  Chaplin is funny and so is Chase, and there’s not a fair benchmark to compare them.  Want some laughs?  Watch Chase in His Wooden Wedding.  Chaplin?  Well, you know about him already.  At least I hope you do.  Otherwise, watch The Gold Rush.

The guy that I’d like to see analyzed by the academic types is Larry Semon.  This guy was insanely popular in the 1920s, his movies made money, he had a great following, and his own studio.  And his movies are interesting but not very good when seen today.  It is fair to pit Semon against those other guys, but for some reason, no one does.

And we do other odd things.  The Big 4 are to be revered because they came up with individual comic characters, when no one else did.  Seriously?

chaseChase had a unique character, and we can now see him build into it.  Then, when talkies came in, he became too old for the man-about-town-misunderstood-husband, and he changed the character.  Max Davidson had a unique character, quite unlike anyone who has come before or since.

Oh, but Max had help, you cry.  Leo McCarey and George Stevens worked on his films.  Yeah?  You think those other guys didn’t have brilliant writers?  Clyde Bruckman worked with almost all of them at one point.

Apparently, Arbuckle, who invented a lot of things that got ripped off later, isn’t a genius because he didn’t last long enough into the 1920s, even though he did a lot of directing after the scandal that unfairly sidelined him.

Lupino Lane was too British and was willing to use special effects in conjunction with his amazing acrobatic abilities, so that negates him.

Charley Bowers doesn’t count either because he used extensive special effects, and didn’t have a unique comic character.  It was just a ripoff of Keaton, according to those who are “in the know.”

Seriously?

I have two criteria for judging comic performers:

  1. is it funny?  Does it make me laugh?
  2. is it stale?  If I’ve seen it before done by someone else, then I’m not too impressed, and even less so if you don’t do it a lot better than I saw it the first time.

By this yardstick, I officially love Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, Lupino Lane, Max Davidson, Charley Chase, and Charley Bowers.  And a lot of other comedians, too.

Let me make a slight sidelight for two of them.  As many of you know, I’m a sucker for something different, something I’ve never seen before.  I really hate boring predictable movies, especially if they’re comedies.

This is why I especially love the silent comedies of Max Davidson and Charley Bowers.  Lupino Lane is great too… but he’s an acrobat with a great sense of timing and danger.  It’s familiar stuff done fantastically well.

bowersBut Bowers.  Wow.  I disagree completely with the dismissal that he’s part Chaplin and part Keaton. (He actually looks a little like Keaton, which isn’t his fault, but it’s led to his being dismissed as an imitator.)  Bowers is all Bowers.  He is a reality-challenged go-getter (actually rather more like Lloyd than the other two) who solves problems in ways that no one ever thinks of.  There It Is (1928), which is probably his finest surviving silent film, is so bizarre as to be beyond description.  Now You Tell One (1926) has some of the most haunting ideas I’ve ever seen in a film: Bowers marches elephants into the Capitol Building, and has invented a grafting potion that allows any item to grow from a stem: cats grow from cattails, eggplants sprout eggs, etc.  The sheer volume of ideas that strike Bowers is enough for me to love him.

And there’s nothing like him again in all Cinema.

maxAnd Max Davidson.  Oh, Max.  I’ve come to really love Max as an actor because he pops up in movies all the time.  A shock of hair, a beard, but an amazingly flexible face that can even portray policemen if necessary.  As a cheap Jewish character, Max got his own series along Chase and Laurel and Hardy in the late 20s.  I love Max’s reaction shots.  Max’s reaction to the chaos that often surrounds him is priceless.  He’s every bit as good (and different) as Babe Hardy was at portraying frustration or just plain bewilderment.  Pass the Gravy (1928) hinges on him not understanding a key element of the plot for 15 minutes, and he absolutely sells the idea that he doesn’t follow it.  The guy sells a one-joke comedy for 15 minutes, and it’s one of the funniest films I’ve ever seen.

And there’s nothing like Max again in all Cinema.

I suppose I should sum up by saying that there’s nothing wrong with watching only the big 4 comedians.  I like them all.  But there’s so much more out there today, stuff that’s funny, stuff that does stand up to the test of time, and if only watch the big 4 you’ll be missing it, along with a lot of laughs.

You can still get a Big Mac at the Smorgasbord, but there’s a McDonald’s on every street corner all around the globe.  Wouldn’t it be fun just to taste a spanakopita from Greece?  I love them, too.  Think what you might be missing.

Don’t take my word for it.  Your tastes may vary.  Find out for yourself, and get back to me.

Posted in Dr. Film's Pocket Rants | Tagged , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Guest Blog: I Believe in Dr. Film!

This week’s guest blogger is Glory-June Greiff, longtime supporter of this endeavor.  Her unedited words begin after the period at the end of this sentence.

Dr. Film is discouraged and has for a long time now wanted to give it up, take the website down, move on to other things (not that he isn’t already, having accomplished two significant restorations in the past few years: the two-color sequence of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances and Chapter 5 of the first sound serial King of the Kongo).

“No one cares!” he cries.  I continue to encourage Dr. Film to keep trying, and it has nothing to do with the fact–full disclaimer–that I portray Anamorphia in the pilot of Dr. Film, shot some years ago.  So he challenged me to write a guest blog about why it is important that he continue.

It’s true that a part of it is because I dearly love old films of all stripes and I am concerned that they are simply disappearing from the scene.  Growing up, old movies were all over TV, just THERE, not just relegated to a cable station, or worse, something you find on the Internet and watch on your iPhone.  The loss is personal, but the loss to American art and culture is far greater.  Some arbiter decides that, say, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton are the finest examples of and thus represent silent film comedy, are the only ones worth seeing.  Never mind the others, lesser known, perhaps, not because they are unworthy but because many of their films were lost or, at best, are difficult to find.  The same is true of every other film genre.  There are so many wonderful movies out there and many that are less than stellar but still worth watching.  An example that jumps to mind is a low-budget action movie made in the 1930s called I Can’t Escape, which I caught because Eric Grayson showed the film for his vintage movie series at the Garfield Park Art Center.  The film stars a very handsome actor named Onslow Stevens, whose career slid soon after.  It beautifully captures the desperation of the Depression and boasts some gorgeous Art Deco sets, a nice little picture worth seeing, if nothing else, for the way it presents the context of the 30s so well.  But the way things are, unless you make a heroic effort, you will never see movies like these.  As with much of history (that’s what I do in “real” life), it’s only the winners you hear about.  And “winning” is often a fluke.   In the case of old films, we know about many actors because their films, or at least some of them, made it to television in that golden age I mention.  And the old copyright bugaboo played a huge part in which of the old films became known as “classics” and which lay moldering in a vault.  Or burned.  Intentionally.

Film history is fascinating, but I’m already a convert.  I began to read about old films, their actors and even their directors at an early age.  I was very fond of the Universal horror films and 50s sci-fi, so I actually had a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland, which in turn led me to the library to find out more.  Like many who grew up in the Depression, my mother found escape by going regularly to the movies, and she told me about them and the actors when we watched the old films that, as I said, were always playing on television.  In memory of Mom, I am especially fond of her favorite, Jean Harlow, the sizzling blonde bombshell of the 1930s, who died tragically young at 26.  My father loved the Errol Flynn swashbucklers and westerns, and oh yes, I had fantasies about Flynn (okay, he was already dead, but oof!) and I still can recite about half the dialogue of Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood.  Over time I got to know the character actors, such as Alan Hale and Guy Kibbee and Una O’Connor and Una Merkel.  Though I may have taken it farther than many, the thing is, these films were out there, and the majority of my peers also knew who Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis et al. were.  In those halcyon days, almost everybody knew, too, of the classic horror movies, to the point where plastic models of Universal film characters made by Aurora were immensely popular.  Heck, I even still have a bubble bath bottle made to look like the Frankenstein monster.  On TV local and syndicated characters such as Sammy Terry and Svengoolie hosted classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, interspersed with their endless sequels and B movies featuring haunted houses and raging gorillas.  We were exposed to all of them.

Dr. Film is not in competition with old time horror film hosts like Svengoolie, although he takes the idea of humorous hosting from them.  And obviously he is not the debonair Robert Osbourne or Nick Clooney, although he certainly has the chops.  The character Dr. Film may be mildly obnoxious and a figure of fun, but the man under the fez is a knowledgeable film historian.  He knows his stuff and perhaps even more important, he loves films!  The passion is a necessary component, I firmly believe, in sparking people’s interest in films and film history.  And film history is our history.  In addition to being entertained, we can learn a great deal watching films of another era.  Conversely, we can get so much more out of any number of films if we know what was going on in the country at the time.

Dr. Film may love movies, but he is discriminating.  If a film is bad, he will tell you, and he’ll point out some of the silly mistakes and cheap tricks to catch as you watch.  But no matter how bad, he doesn’t mock the film during its showing as some hosts do, a practice I find obnoxious and brought to its nadir by Mystery Science Theater 3000.  Recently, for the first time in decades, I watched The Beginning of the End, a pretty awful 1950s sci-fi of the giant-insects-caused-by-radiation variety.  In the 50s, scientists were usually the heroes, for this was the era of early space exploration; schools pushed all the sciences heavily, and men (and a few women) in such fields as biology, chemistry, and astronomy were admired.  So it was in this movie, even though it had been the scientist, played by Peter Graves, who inadvertently caused the gargantuan locusts who ultimately invaded Chicago.  (I’m not making this up.)  Unintended consequences was the not-so-subtle theme, one that still resonates today.  I bring this up because my viewing was marred by the movie host, who, having  decided the film moved too slowly, would jazz it up with goofy sound effects and comments.  Dr. Film would never do this.  Movies are ever so much more interesting if you have a little background, and that is what Dr. Film provides, gradually whetting your appetite for more.  It may be more Onslow Stevens or more 1920s animation (much of which is truly bizarre) or lesser known works of well known directors or forgotten silent film comedians like Charley Chase or Max Davidson.  I am the richer for having seen these, I clamor for more, and shows such as Dr. Film would like to offer are a means of doing so.  Only, no one seems interested.

I feel like Peter Pan when Tinkerbell was fading away.  If you believe in Dr. Film, clap your hands!

Posted in Background on the blog | 2 Comments

“The History Not Found in Books”

Sometimes, when I least expect it, I hear a nugget of wisdom that just keeps me thinking for days. On March 28, I attended a lecture at Indiana Landmarks about historic buildings. This will be of no surprise to the folks who know that Indiana Landmarks promotes (among other things) preservation of historic buildings. The lecturer was Henry Glassie, a really top-notch guy who gave a smoother lecture than I ever could. (Full disclosure: Indiana Landmarks is also hosting a showing of my restoration of The King of the Kongo in July of this year, but I’m not shilling for anyone.)

glassie

Henry Glassie (picture from Indiana University)

Glassie spoke about surveying historic buildings in Virginia, and he had traced the designs to countries that had had similar designs in Europe.  Barns and houses, primarily.  He noticed that there was a definite pattern in the buildings depending on where the inhabitants had originated in Europe.  He also noted that the folks in the American South had cleverly adapted some of these buildings to make newer and more useful designs, while retaining the original character of the older design.

Then he started speaking about what happened to these buildings over time.  You may know that a lot of barns are endangered today simply because we don’t know what to do with barns, since farming is now industrial and not familial.  And modest old houses are a bit of a problem as we move into larger McMansions to hold all of our stuff.  Glassie noted that all of the houses he had surveyed… all of them… that represented what is perceived as the popular cultural history of Virginia, had been saved, and in many cases restored. The others—the little dwellings, the sheds, the outbuildings—were either gone or in worse shape than ever.

The plantation houses, the houses of the rich, the story of Gone With the Wind and all that goes with it… those were saved. The smaller houses, the ones for poor families, the odd barns, the work buildings… those were being demolished, because no one wanted to deal with them.

“It’s important to save some of these,” Glassie said, “because these buildings tell us of the history not found in books.”

My mind spun!  I loved this idea.  I knew exactly what he meant.  We preserve the popular stuff, the stuff we know about, the stuff we can still identify with, and the rest gets swept under the carpet.  It doesn’t fit in with our idea of the past, so out it goes.  Who cares if it documents a truth that a clever historian can read and decode?  It doesn’t fit our narrative, so begone!

And immediately, I realized that this is the kind of film history I practice.  The film history not found in books.  I realized that this is why the “Holy Quintet” of classic films annoys me a little (Casablanca, The Wizard of Oz, Gone With the Wind, Citizen Kane, and Singing in the Rain.)  Those stories have been told.  They’ve been retold.  They’re part of our narrative of film history.

This is why, in popular culture, Gone With the Wind is the first Technicolor film ever made.  Who cares that Becky Sharp came four years earlier?  And what of the two-color Technicolor that dated back to 1917?  It may be true, but it doesn’t fit our narrative—out it goes.

The trouble with this is that what doesn’t fit the narrative doesn’t get seen, and what doesn’t get seen doesn’t get preserved.  It’s the same with films and buildings.  In the words of Hannibal Lecter, “We covet what we see.”  And if we don’t see it, then we don’t care.

OK, it’s a little granule of a thought, I admit, but it’s a powerful one.  The history not found in books.  Wow.  I began to realize that I fight very hard to tell film history not found in books.  I find so many fascinating nooks and crannies that I want to share them.

I’m kind of the opposite of the traditional film history guy: If the story has been told, then I want to move on to a new story.  Yeah, I know about the script troubles in Casablanca or Buddy Ebsen in The Wizard of Oz.  What else is there?

I remember when I first started showing the pilot for Dr. Film.  People screamed at me.  “OK, we like what you did with the characters, we like how you did the show, but the feature you picked, Murder by Television (1935) is terrible!  You should take that out and put something good in, something like White Zombie (1932).  That’s about the same length and it’s at least a decent movie.  And since it stars Lugosi, you’ll only have to re-shoot the ending, so it’ll save the whole show.”

But I didn’t want to do that.  I refused to do that.  I have a very solid concept for Dr. Film and White Zombie wasn’t it.

I like White Zombie.  It’s a fine film.  Lugosi is great in it.  It would make a fantastic episode of Matinee at the Bijou.  And, for the record, I like Matinee at the Bijou.  But Dr. Film isn’t Matinee at the Bijou.  It’s seeking to tell the untold stories.

In the opening credits, the members of the Midnight Film Society slink into their chairs and the narrator solemnly intones, “…they screen the unseen…”

White Zombie isn’t unseen.  It’s one of the most common Lugosi films out there.  If you’ve seen 15 Lugosi films, you’ve seen White Zombie.  Since I don’t have a fantastic rediscovered print like Tom Holland found, I didn’t have anything unique to show.

As this little nugget of truth continued to worm its way into my skull, I came to realize just how much I love the untold stories in film history…

I lobbied last year (and this year) to restore The King of the Kongo because it represents so many untold stories: What was Boris Karloff doing in movies before he was famous?  What were the early sound serials like?  Did early part-talkies use undercranking?  It isn’t a great movie either, but it deserved to be restored.  It needed to tell its story.

Max Lerner once said, “History is written by the survivors.”  Film history is too.  I love DW Griffith, but is he really the father of film?  We’ve found out recently that other people at the same time were doing innovative work as well.  Griffith had the advantage of being preserved and available because of MOMA and Library of Congress, but it’s only recently that we could see early works by Raoul Walsh or even Cecil B. DeMille (whose early work is really cool… before he started making stale costume dramas that made more money.)

We know Fritz Lang (survivor) but not Paul Wegener (most films lost).

We know Willis O’Brien (survivor) but not Charley Bowers (many films lost).

We know Laurel and Hardy (only one short lost) but not Max Davidson (fewer shorts, and several missing).

The stories of Cecil B. DeMille and John Ford are changing as we find their early work to be more interesting and significant than we had thought.

MGM star Clark Gable we remember, but what of MGM star Lee Tracy?  There was a time when Tracy was a much bigger star.

I find myself drawn to these kinds of things.  I find that the films in the popular culture, the ones written about in books, are often no better than the obscure little pictures we’ve never seen.

Alternate title for Merry Go Round from 1932

Alternate title for Merry Go Round from 1932

A couple of years ago, Universal reprinted Merry Go Round (1932), which might as well have been a 1945 film noir.  Universal had a stupid policy in the 1960s and 70s: if it wasn’t a monster movie, or it didn’t have Bob Hope, Abbott and Costello, WC Fields, or the Marx Brothers in it, then it wasn’t worth reprinting.  This meant that scads of great titles from Universal and Paramount (Universal owns the Paramount library from 1929-47) are sitting unseen in vaults because they were deemed unmarketable.

Merry Go Round was a great story of double dealing, corrupt city officials, shady lawyers, bed-hopping, etc.  Just the kind of thing that would be great cinema in 10 or 15 years.  And we’d never heard of it.

Because we’d never seen it.

Because its story wasn’t told in books.  (And there was no reason to tell its story in books, since no one had seen it.  Sitting there in a film catalog, it doesn’t look particularly interesting.)

OK, maybe I screwed up in showing Murder by Television on Dr. Film.  I personally find this an “are you kidding me?” moment in Lugosi’s career.  He’d just done The Raven at Universal, and now this?  Why?  And you unravel the answer: he needed  cash, so he would take work anywhere.

Sure, it’s a bad film.  But why it’s a bad film is really fascinating.  And I find it a fascinating film to see for its badness.  That doesn’t mean I only want to show bad films.

And it certainly doesn’t mean I want only to show good films.

It does mean I have no interest in showing Casablanca, Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Singing in the Rain, and Citizen Kane.  Come to think of it, lump White Zombie in with them.

I’m still fascinated with film history–obscure but interesting and worth revisiting—the history not found in books.  If Dr. Film ever makes it to air, then you can expect to see more of these kinds of stories.  I’m happy to leave the mainstream to Robert Osborne.  He’s better at that than I am!

Posted in Background on the blog | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments