Category Archives: Background on the blog

The Invisible Man Returns

People from around the world gasp in spontaneous indifference at my absence.

I haven’t written a blog in some time.  In fact, it’s been so long that Google has de-indexed me.  I’m getting emails asking for links to some of my best-loved blogs.  (For what it’s worth, those seem to be Plan 9 from Out of Sequence, Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People, and The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law.)  There’s a subtle plugola that might get just those blogs reindexed!

People are also asking me where I am.  I’m on Facebook and on the Dr. Film Facebook page, but no blogs.  Why would that be?  Well, frankly, I’ve been underwater with work and I’m only now coming up for air.  Writing a blog like this takes concentration, and I’ve been saving that for paying work.

Let me answer the questions I have been receiving:

Q1: Is King of the Kongo coming out on DVD/Blu-Ray soon?

A: No.  There are extenuating circumstances and I can’t go into them here.  A Kickstarter campaign would not help.  YouTube won’t help.  There are some problems.  That’s all I can say.

Q2: Have you found any more sound discs for Kongo?

A: No.

Q3: Are you working on any more preservation projects?

A: Yes.  I’m hoping to raise money for some.  I’m hoping that I can get Little Orphant Annie, the basketball films from Milan Indiana, and a film called Little Mickey Grogan restored.  At the current time, all are having some problems.

One of the reels of Little Orphant Annie awaiting the word to restore it!

Q4: Are you doing crowdfunding for these?

A: Maybe.  Some of the issues involved are deeper than just funding; again, I can’t go into them here.

Q5: You keep talking about a video streaming project?  Have you given up on that?

A: No.  We’re moving forward on it and it’s being developed.  I’m hoping to get a federal grant for it.  I listened to what you guys said and I’m going to try to fund a 501(c)(3) broadcast and streaming station that will be aimed at promoting literacy about older films and film preservation.  If I can get it off the ground, it will be called VintFlix.  We have the page reserved already.  It will take more funding to get going than I can get on Kickstarter.  I’ve been in contact with the National Endowment for the Humanities and they are saying encouraging things.

Q6: Is the Dr. Film show dead?

A: It’s not a bit well, but I wouldn’t say dead.  We are still talking about a podcast, but I haven’t had time to do one.  If VintFlix gets off the ground, then the Dr. Film show will be on it.

Q7: You promised to write a blog on digital vs. film on the Facebook page, but you haven’t.  Where is it?

A: I’m working on it.

Q8: You say you’re busy.  Does that mean you’re making a lot of money?

A: No, I’m fulfilling obligations and doing publicity for other things.  I would never recommend doing what I do unless you’re unbalanced like I am and just need to do it for some reason.

Q9: You’re doing shows and personal appearances?

A: Yes, a great number of them and in several cities this year.

Q10: Are you appearing as Dr. Film?

A: No, as myself.  If you’re interested in booking me, then you have my contact information in the Dr. Film main page or the email link at the upper right of this page.

Q11: I saw your King of the Kongo presentation at (wherever you saw it).  Can you bring that to my theater?

A: Yes.  Contact me.   The episodes are available on film or DCP.

Q12: I saw your show on the history of color in the movies.  Can you bring that to my theater?

A: Yes.  Contact me.  We have to do this one on film, and it doesn’t work in a really huge auditorium.

Q13: Are you affiliated with David Pierce and James Layton, who wrote the book on the history of Technicolor?

A: No, but I know them.  My presentation is entirely different from theirs, although theirs is quite good.   I’ve seen it more than once. (They discuss the history of the Technicolor company, whereas I show examples of many of the different processes, including Technicolor. They go more in-depth than I do.)

Q14: I think your work is very cool.  How can I support you?

A: Buy some t-shirts or send me PayPal.  I’ll send you the address if you’re so motivated.

Q15: We’re not interested in stuff you’re trying to do.  We’re only interested in what you’ve done.

A: Thanks for that.  Would you rather me just wait and post a boatload of stuff when things get resolved?  Part of what this blog is about is the ongoing saga of film preservation and how I’m trying to do it.  It’s a drama.  Have fun with it.  Really.  There may even be a book about it someday…

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.

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

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!

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!


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  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!!!  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!

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!

“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.)

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!

To Free or Not to Free? That is the Question

I’m frequently bombarded with ideas and new concepts.  I try to incorporate them in my marketing approach for the Dr. Film show.  Since we’ve not (yet) been successful in selling the show, I study people who are successful at marketing to see what they’re doing, and I learn a lot in the process. I thought I’d pass on some of it to you.

A couple of years ago, I was projecting a film festival, running a bunch of films that were not very interesting.  I’m always a sucker for something different and unusual, but I wasn’t finding it on this day, so I had to keep reminding myself that this gig would pay for a big chunk of the month.

Official Sita Sings the Blues poster.

The last film I put on was called Sita Sings the Blues.  It delighted me.  You want something different and unusual?  This was it.  A beautiful animated film, using Indian-style art, with music by Annette Hanshaw, a long-forgotten singer from the 1920s and 30s.  You wouldn’t think the styles would mesh, but they did, and really well.  The art was great, the plot engaging.  I loved the picture.

I filed it away in my brain and forgot about it.  A while later, I read something that said Sita creator Nina Paley had had trouble licensing the rights to the music.  The real soul of that movie is in the songs, and without them, it would ring pretty hollow.  Some time later, I heard that a deal had been reached.

I looked on Nina’s website to see what the story was.  What I read was quite fascinating.  And now, we take a little diversion, but I promise I’ll come back to this.

The most frequent criticism I get about the Dr. Film show is that it should be free on the internet, that it should be a YouTube channel, because only there would it find an audience.

I always have had a problem with this reasoning. I love old films and I love to share them and to tell their stories.  But I can’t go around putting stuff on YouTube for free.

As I’ve discussed before, I used to work with a video company, and they released obscure titles on video, films that didn’t survive in pristine form, or films that were a little out of the mainstream.  The company did relatively well, well enough that expenses were paid and there was money left at the end of the year.  Not much, but some.

Then a company called Alpha Video ordered one copy of everything in the catalog, making bad DVD masters that they sold for $1 at Wal-Mart, a price that no one could compete with.

This one move killed the video business, because there’s no room in the market for a middle-of-the-road distributor. It’s either top of the line, pristine prints (Criterion/Kino), or bargain basement (Alpha Video/ Releasing films from my collection cost me money, so I stopped.  I still love to share movies and save them, but on a more modest level.  I do in-person film shows, and they pay better than video releases ever did, if such a thing can be imagined.

But I still keep an eye and ear out for new trends in distribution.  The world is changing and doing so at a really fast pace.  I realize that the market for Dr. Film is not a large one, so it demands creative marketing, which ain’t my forté.

This is what fascinated me about what Nina was doing.  After she reached a settlement with the people representing Annette Hanshaw, she posted Sita Sings the Blues, for free, without commercials.  You can, if you choose to, donate money to her to support her new projects.  It’s sort of like an online PBS.

The whole “everything is free” nature of the internet just seems to quash any way of making money, and making money is critical here.  If Nina wants to make a new film, she has to cover costs and keep her lights on.  The time she invests in it means time not being spent on something else that might keep the lights on, so it’s important.

This is a key point that I came to in making Dr. Film.  It took me a solid month to edit the single episode we shot.  I was lucky at the time because I had no other work going on.  Today, I couldn’t do that.  I have other work that would prohibit me taking the focused time it would take to cut an episode.  This means I’d have to turn down work in order to make the show.  Or I’d have to hire someone to help me… ack!

Basically, I can’t do the show for free.  It simply costs too much.  I either need a grant, or a donation stream, or a paying customer.  If I put a 90-minute show up on YouTube, once a month, I’d literally go broke.  I could cheapen it and use some of the bad production techniques that mar other YouTube productions, or stick to short clip shows, but I don’t want to do that.  It would save editing time by eliminating Anamorphia, but that makes it a lot less fun, too.  I want to make a good show, not just a cheap show.

I wondered whether this approach is working for Nina.  (Whether it works for Dr. Film is a a different question.) She claims that the approach is working.  I emailed her a bit about it, and she seems preoccupied with other work (which is great!), but the bottom line seems promising.  It’s covering costs, and that means she’s still working, which is really what we want from an artist, right?

Nina’s page also points to a great site called This site is wonderful food for thought… they are advocating for a rethinking of copyright law, which is a great idea.  Many are talking about abolishing it, saying that content should be free and that containers (books, CDs, etc) cost money.  It’s an interesting thought.  Do I wholly endorse it?

No, not entirely.  I love the idea, but I remain to be convinced that it’s viable.  I live in a world where I’m struggling to keep the lights on and the heat bill paid.  I’ve had people copy and freely distribute my work, and I got no credit or money for it.

I’m constantly having to fight against the perception that my work is worthless, so I’m pretty hesitant to set its worth at zero.  Sita Sings the Blues is fundamentally different from Dr. Film anyway, because Nina gets to promote her work by showing it at film festivals and such, whereas there’s no real path for me to promote Dr. Film.  I honestly think that a free Dr. Film would both get ripped off (the rare films inside it would be redistributed), and it would get almost no viewings because no one knows what it is.  A double whammy.

But I’m still crazy.  I love old movies.  I still save them.  I still share them on a more intimate basis. I’m going to go on doing it.  You can credit Glory-June Greiff (my long-time co-conspirator and the actress who plays Anamorphia) for keeping the Dr. Film project on the table.  She’s adamant that it deserves an audience.  I’ve advocated giving up on it for years and she won’t hear of it.

Will Dr. Film be out there for free?  You show me a way that I can make them and stay solvent, and I would love to do it.  I’ve got a new distributor talking about the show (can’t discuss it yet), and a potential for a distribution deal over local TV if that doesn’t pan out,  and a further possibility of some grant money that would allow me to shoot more episodes.  The other criticism of the show is that people don’t like the films chosen in the pilot episode. Maybe having a variety of episodes in a package could help sell the idea.

On a different but similar topic.. Penny Dreadful’s Shilling Shockers is more like Dr. Film, and I’ve been studying its distribution system.  It’s more of a classic “hosted horror movie” show, without the educational component or the variety of Dr. Film.  I really like it.  It’s got a lot of heart despite the fact it’s cheap.  The only thing I don’t like about it is that they intercut their segments with awful garbage downloaded from  I’ve come to realize that the main advantage I have with Dr. Film is that I have actual film and a knowledge of what is or isn’t public domain.  Penny is getting sponsors and selling DVDs of her shows.  It’s not on YouTube, but on local terrestrial TV, a new small-station phenomenon that is growing, along with occasional live streaming episodes. (I would have put some Penny artwork here but there were no pictures on her site that didn’t come with nasty rights warnings, so that has an impact on the kind of plugola I can give her.)

Going forward, I intend to post a 10 Questions With… highlighting one of the people at  I’d love to get more of their ideas out there.  It’s a cool concept, and, again, I advocate copyright reform with every fiber in my being.  I may not go as far as they do, but that’s OK.

Will any of this affect Dr. Film?  I have no idea.  Dr. Film is the show that’s lying on the lab table with an erratic pulse, not quite dead, and not quite alive.  These are just some random ideas on trying to jump-start it.

Welcome to Brazil, Mr. Bond

If you didn’t read my last blog post, James Bond Meets King of the Kongo, then you won’t understand this post at all, so you’d be well-advised to go back and read that one first.

When we last left the saga, it looked as if our hero, the film preservationist, was in a dire predicament. The film looked as if it would not be saved, the Kickstarter grant was compromised at best.

In desperation, he stares at the ceiling of the cavernous room, hoping against hope that someone, anyone, can rush in and save him. The odds are overwhelming and he’s just one man. Then, against all the odds, through a shower of bullets, a group of gray-clad ninjas breaks through the roof, sliding down on thin ropes to rush in and give the hero the hope he so desperately needs.

It’s the end of You Only Live Twice (1967), and James Bond has been rescued by the ninjas. He goes on to defeat Blofeld, blow up a volcano, save the space program, and avert global thermonuclear war.

But that same description also fits the end of Brazil (1985), at which point our hero, Sam Lowry, has lost all grip on reality and fantasizes about a rescue that will not, and cannot come.

And me, well, I wasn’t sure quite which one I was.

My options had shrunken to one, and my funding was almost zero. I’d been criticized by a serial preservation group, and betrayed by a friend. Frankly, things looked pretty dire. I had fashioned a note apologizing to my grant donors explaining the situation and offering a partial refund.

My last hope seemed to be teetering on the edge… I’d had an intrepid envoy, who I’ll identify as Cinerama Jones, to the last remaining lab that could do the work I needed, and I got a call that he’d been admitted to the emergency room with a raging fever and an out-of-control white cell count.

I’d been pinning a lot of hope on this project, because I find it distressing that archives are only funded to do high-profile restorations. Well, King of the Kongo is about as low-profile as it gets. It’s historically significant, interesting for some of the cast that appears, but, honestly, it’s not a landmark piece of cinema, and we only have about 1/10 of the sound for the whole serial.

But that doesn’t make it any less cool. I was hoping to parlay this into doing more restorations of little niche films like this, but I knew there was no hope if I had to crawl out of this one.

I was really bummed and pretty cranky. Many of my friends will agree that I was cranky! Then, interesting things started to happen. It was very strange.

First, the gentleman I identified as Red Grant read the previous installment and recognized himself. He emailed me, and I ignored him, and then he called (I don’t have caller ID… I still have a LAND LINE!) so I picked up. He carefully explained that his demand for copying rare film in exchange for doing King of the Kongo was only a joke. He apologized profusely. I have to give him that.

He’s known for somewhat “edgy” jokes, but that one was over the edge. The bottom line was that he was serious about not being able to do the work, so the only real difference was that one way I was cheesed off and without a film, and the other way I was just without a film.

It’s actually more severe than that.  Red’s failure to do what I’d asked him to do has cost Silent Cinema (see below) a lot of money and me a lot of headaches.  Woody Allen has a rule, “90% of success is just showing up.”  I’ve got a corollary: “The rest of success is doing what you said you would do.”  Of course, Red’s counter to that was that he didn’t realize that I was on a tight deadline and that caused the whole problem.  We can go around and around on that… but the deadline is clearly outlined in the Kickstarter proposal for all to see.

Should I forgive Red or not? I’m not sure. I do have another rule, “Never ascribe malice to anything that could be explained by stupidity.” And this, well, this is stupid. Maybe I will forgive him. I’ll have to cool off first, though.

Struggling valiantly against a fluctuating fever and accompanying weakness, Cinerama Jones managed to get a deal struck with the lab, and he also found some funding to get the film transfer done. Now, this all happened simultaneously with the deal in Italy failing because I couldn’t find a good way to get the files to him, a lab in Maryland outpricing me, and Red Grant’s calling. I have to say I wasn’t optimistic that anything could be worked out, but I had some good people on my side.

Cinerama Jones arranged for Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc, a great group that I’ve worked with many times, to donate the completion funds , as well as finding a kindly anonymous donor, who thought the project was cool, to kick in some cash at the last minute.

The whole thing meant I had to do an elaborate re-rendering of all the credits and some other technical bits, which seems always to take tons of time, but on Friday I sent off Kongo to Metropolis Film Labs, where it will be converted back to film. They haven’t received it yet, so I just have to hope what I sent them works well.

There’s still some talk about Kongo appearing on a major TV network, and whether that will happen or not is up in the air.

I’m also hoping to put the restored print in as part of an episode of Dr. Film. That still may happen. I’m working on a grant to make more Dr. Film episodes. Whether that will happen is also an open question; statistically it’s rather doubtful, but we got Kongo going… maybe this will go too.

So what goes from here? Well, Kongo should still premiere at the Syracuse Cinefest, thanks to Silent Cinema. We’re still looking at distribution channels forDr. Film, and Kongo should appear on that. Dr. Film may appear on an independent station, or it may yet make it to a major national network, or it may not appear at all. Right now, we just don’t know.

Stay tuned.

My buddy Carl at Fedex shot this picture of me with messy hair (as usual) as I sent off the files to Metropolis Film Labs.


James Bond Meets The King of the Kongo

I’ve always said that collecting and restoring film is like James Bond without the women.  You have international intrigue, shady characters, plots and crossplots and unexpected villains.  This is an idea that isn’t unique to me, however, since “Wild Bill” Everson came up with a movie serial parody that was actually produced as Captain Celluloid Vs. The Film Pirates (1965).  There’s also a famous anonymously written USENET parody about film collectors that was surreptitiously posted several years ago on alt.movies.silent that is formatted as an actual James Bond film.

But once again, fantasy is outpaced by reality.  Let me preface this, as I always do, by stating that I’m not making any of this up.  I’ve changed the names to protect the innocent and the guilty, but I didn’t fabricate anything.


In August, I put up a Kickstarter campaign to restore one episode of King of the Kongo (1929).  Many of you regular readers will remember that this is the first sound serial ever, and that I have a 16mm silent print of the entire serial, but only three reels of the sound are, well, accessible.  These are on Vitaphone discs, which were carefully transferred by Ron Hutchinson at The Vitaphone project.  I use Ron’s real name because he’s a good guy, and I have nothing bad or controversial to say about him whatsoever.

I’d been working with another fellow who shall, however, remain anonymous.  I had advised him on setting up a computer-to-film conversion process and even did a considerable amount of help for him in getting some Cinemascope conversions done digitally.  He quoted me a very nice price on getting the restoration printed to film.  I knew this was important because I’d promised to premiere the restoration at the Syracuse Cinefest, and they need the film on 16mm.  For the sake of this posting, we’ll refer to this gentleman as Red Grant, to use a Bond name… and it’s actually fitting.

As I was preparing the Kickstarter project, I posted a notice about it with a group that is dedicated to the preservation of serials.  Let’s refer to them as SPECTRE.  Now, innocent me, I thought if I was preserving a serial, then I was on the same side as SPECTRE.  Not so, my friends.  It seems that SPECTRE wants to do its own restoration of King of the Kongo and that they felt what I was doing was a waste of time and effort.  Again, innocent me, I thought, gee, we’ll pool our resources and share what we’ve got to do the best job possible.  It seems that the SPECTRE chief just wanted me to go away, because he “knew where a 35mm of Kongo was located,” and he “knew of the existence of several more discs.”  He didn’t actually have any of this stuff, whereas I had all of my materials, but he knew where it was, you see.  And I was competing with him, at least from his standpoint.

This aspect of collecting is one that still infuriates me.  I guess SPECTRE didn’t really want to restore King of the Kongo, but they wanted the credit for restoring it.  Knowing where something is and having it are two very different things.  I know where more Kongo discs are, too, but they are in the hands of a reclusive collector who thinks he has something worth a lot of money.  And that’s more money than it’s worth, more money than you could ever raise from selling copies, and basically pointless.  The fact that SPECTRE was actually rallying cries against me and hoping for my failure in the face of their own inability to obtain materials is just confusing.  I am reminded of Samuel Peeples’ line, which, in summation, says that this kind of reasoning is like “trying to bisect a sneeze.”

So, I got the grant (thank you again, donors), and I had a company do the scanning for me that did a bang-up job.  The problem was that the print was banged-up, too.  Actually, it was the pre-print that was banged up, the 35mm nitrate that my print was copied from.  There were also a few sections that were printed out-of-frame, a Mascot Serials trademark that I hadn’t noticed in my quick-and-dirty transfer done on my home equipment.  As archivist DJ Turner has said, “Sometimes [a high-resolution transfer] doesn’t do these old films any favors.”

This is an unretouched title frame from the scan
This is an unretouched title frame from the scan
This is a frame from the restoration (Quicktime oopsie at bottom!)
This is a frame from the restoration (Quicktime oopsie at bottom!)

I had to do a lot of surgery on Kongo to make it look halfway right.  I could keep spending time on it, hand-tweaking it even more, but it actually looks fairly good now.  I matted out the out-of-frame sections, rebalanced the black-and-white contrast on a shot-by-shot basis.  I hadn’t counted on the huge slow-down such a thing would cause my computer, but it was a massive computing task.  Red Grant had told me that he’d need the file by early December, so that was my goal.

I worked extensively with David Wood (a good guy, so I’ll use his name.)  Dave is the equivalent of Q in this story.  In fairness, I was the picture Q and Dave was the audio Q.  Dave asked me a question I thought no one would ever ask me: “Was this transferred with an RIAA curve or a Vitaphone curve?”  Well, I knew Ron had done the transfer work, but knowing curves was a pretty arcane thing that I wouldn’t expect most people to know.  It turns out that the needle and transfer arm of a record player are calibrated to a certain equalization curve, much like you’d use on your stereo.  Dave had discovered that there was an official Vitaphone curve (something I never knew).  So he applied an inverse RIAA curve and then a Vitaphone curve, and the sound was vastly improved.  He also matched the speed with the footage I had.

Now, if you understand what I just said, then you have some recording knowledge, and it will impress you.  If you didn’t understand it, then please come away with a vague sense of awe for what Dave was able to accomplish.

I had to do a little minor surgery on the sound, but it basically fit, and I married track to picture and watched the results.  Pretty good!

Then I sent a hard drive to Red Grant.  Red took his time getting back to me. Before all else, he denied ever knowing about a time deadline, which I had clearly outlined in both the Kickstarter project and in emails to him.  Then he said he was having problems with the soundtrack, and then he couldn’t do it.  He promised to look into an alternate way of doing the soundtrack.  Fine.

This made me panic.  As part of the project, I’d promised to produce a film print.  I started looking for other places.  I posted on international film groups.  I found a place in Norway, a place in Germany, a place in Italy, and a place in NY that sounded like they could do it.

I’d specified 16mm output, but most of the places I contacted were limited to 35mm output.  Only two places, a guy in Italy (we’ll call him Largo) and a film lab in NY (we’ll call him Felix Leiter) could do the 16mm that I needed.

Meanwhile, back to Red Grant.

Just before Christmas, I heard from him.  I’d asked him if he could do anything to expedite the process… anything.  Then I got the answer.

Mr. Grant told me that he’d be happy to expedite the process.  All I’d have to do would be to send him some rare footage that I’d promised not to let out of my hands.  See, I have this problem… when I promise someone something, I keep the promise.   If I treat someone shabbily, then I’m not likely to hear back from them in the future.  I always figure the right way to treat people is on the straight and narrow.  (And that way I get more film, which is what I want anyway!)

So Red Grant, knowing that I had some material I would not let him copy, and sensing that I was over a barrel, figured he could blackmail me into giving him some rare film.   He also didn’t count on one thing: I’m a pretty easy guy to get along with, but when you try to screw me over, as Red Grant did, I’ll crawl through the depths of hell with infected knees before I’ll let you win.  In short, he’s not getting anything from me… ever.

But the drama isn’t over.  You see, Felix Leiter wants four times the money I had allotted to make the print, and Largo only speaks English through fractured Italian, so getting him a file as large as Kongo is a problem.  Also, Largo only makes a color positive print, whereas I’d stipulated a black and white negative.  Largo’s price is quite reasonable, but it’s not the product I need.

In the meantime, I sent a special envoy to talk to Felix Leiter, hoping that he could be talked down from the stratosphere of budget breaking.  That’s not gone well, either, since my special envoy just had to go to the hospital emergency room.

(Deleted here is a long Bondian sub-plot involving TV network head George Kaplan and the possibility of showing Kongo and even the Dr. Film show on national TV.  Trust me, it’s real… if you want to know about it, post a message in the comments or on the Dr. Film Facebook page.)

So how does this end?  Who will make the print?  Will it be Largo or Felix Leiter?  Will the print be finished in time for the Syracuse Cinefest?  Does George Kaplan exist? Will Kongo appear on his network or another one, and what of the fate of the mysterious Dr. Film?  Will James Bond be able to rescue the secret formula from the clutches of… oh, wait.

I really have no idea how this will end.  A lot of this is out of my hands.  I can only tell you that if it follows the pattern we’ve had so far, it will be dramatic, twisty, and unpredictable.  Welcome to my world.

Followup: Don’t miss continuing adventures as this plot continues to thicken.  Here is the next article in the series: Welcome to Brazil, Mr. Bond!

Sammy and Me

When I saw that the Classic TV Blog Association was having a blogathon about horror movie hosts, I knew I would have to get involved.  The whole reason this blog exists is because of a horror movie host.

Let me transport you to a long-ago time in the early 1970s.  TV stations stopped broadcasting at 2 or 3 in the morning.  Cable TV was almost unheard of.  Infomercials did not exist.  In a big market, there were maybe 5 or 6 stations that you could watch.  In the evening, after the news, you could either watch Johnny Carson or an old movie.  That’s about all there was.

In those days, we didn’t have the cultural illiteracy about old films that we have today.  Films were literally suffused into the air.  We saw them all the time.  It was nothing to see a film 30 or 40 years old, even in prime time.  Black and white?  No problem.  We knew the Marx Brothers, WC Fields, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Boris Karloff.

Since films were so commonplace, there was some need for brand recognition.  In the 50s, when Screen Gems released the first package of Shock Theater to television stations, someone hit on the bright idea of having a horror film host.  I don’t know who it was.  Someone will tell you it was Vampira, others will say it was someone else.  It doesn’t really matter.

By the 1960s, almost every market had one.  In Indianapolis, my home town, it was Sammy Terry.  (You get the joke?  It’s a pun on “cemetery.”  OK, subtle it isn’t.)  By the mid-70s, most of these had died out, but a few survived.  Elvira and Svengoolie are two of the more known ones that have made it all these years.

Sammy Terry worked for WTTV, our local independent station.  WTTV was something of an anomaly.  It was technically a Bloomington station (about an hour south of Indianapolis), but they sneaked the transmitter northward to hit Indy.  That could be the subject of a blog entry in itself.  WTTV’s transmitter never worked quite right.  There was always snow in the picture, in a predictable pattern.  As a kid, I always suspected that it was my dad’s makeshift antenna that didn’t work, but when we got cable, I noticed that WTTV still didn’t come in quite right!

In those days, a TV section came every week in the local newspaper.  It was important.  TV wasn’t endlessly repeated, and there was no way to record it to watch later.  If a movie or a show came on that you wanted to see, you’d have to schedule your life around it.  WTTV, lacking both ratings and network affiliation, was like a window into the past, using outdated equipment and techniques well after the other stations had moved on.

One day, I was scanning that section and I saw that Sammy Terry was running the 1931 Frankenstein with Colin Clive and Boris Karloff.  Now, in those days they marked all the black and white shows with a B/W sign.  Just why they did it, I didn’t know, but at least you knew if a movie was black and white or color.

I noticed that Frankenstein was not listed as a black and white program!  Could it be?  Did they even have color film in 1931?  I had no idea.  The whole concept fascinated me.  Luckily, I had someone to ask.

My grandmother was staying with us at the time.  She was profoundly overweight, in ill health, and she had cataracts that needed surgery.  In those days, cataract surgery was a big deal.  You had the surgery and it took 6 weeks to recover, and there were all sorts of problems with it.  Today you’re in and out and stapled in half an hour.

Grandma was not able to live by herself (which she normally did) during the recovery period.  I knew if anyone would know about color films of the time, she would.  She and I were really the only people in the family interested in the arts and movies.   Grandma loved the movies.

She’d seen Frankenstein, but she couldn’t remember if it was in color.  I asked her if it could have been in color.  She said it was possible, because there were some early color processes at the time, but she didn’t remember.

Well, that was all I needed.  I went to ask my mom if I could stay up and watch Frankenstein that weekend.

Well, mom was harried.  She was under a lot of stress taking care of grandma, and she did one of her typical stall tactics.  “Well see,” she said.  “If you behave.”

This is code for NO.

In all honesty, I can understand where she was coming from.  It was on late, and she didn’t want to deal with all that hassle, and worse yet, I was a sensitive kid who scared easily.  The idea of me staying up late was ridiculous.  She knew I’d have a fit if she outright said no, so she tried to stall me.

It didn’t work.

I behaved myself admirably all week.  I wasn’t going to give her an out.  I was planning to shove it back in her face on Friday night.  And that didn’t work either.

“Eric, you have to go to bed.  It’s late, and I don’t want you staying up that late.  You’ve never done it before.”

“You said I could if I behave, and I did.”

I knew the battle was lost, but intervention was around the corner in the form of my grandmother.

“Sister,” she said (she often called mom “sister” because she is part of a set of twins.) “I heard you tell Eric if he behaved that he’d get to stay up.  He’s been talking about this all week.  You should let him see it.”

“Mother,” countered my own mother, “I need to get to bed.  I can’t stay up with him and watch it.”

“That’s fine,” Grandma said.  “I’ll stay up with him.”

Remember, I said that grandma was the only other person in the family who really “got” movies.  That was great.

Mom reluctantly agreed, laid a lot of ground rules, but the hour was late and she was tired.  She didn’t have the energy to fight.  HAHA!  It was going to work.

Grandma sat on our green couch and cautioned me that if I got overly upset about this then she’d send me off to bed and that would be it.  She folded her hands over her giant belly and waited for the movie to start.

I think I had seen parts of the Sammy Terry intro before, because it looked a little familiar.  Sammy wore a cowl and was made up with greasepaint, looking a bit like Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.  Played by local performer Bob Carter, there was always something avuncular and silly about Sammy, and he didn’t scare me at all.

I still remember this after all these years.  I’d worked myself into a tizzy about seeing this, wondering if it could actually be color.  I knew the time was nigh.  Sammy (or someone) had fashioned a poster for Frankenstein, done very cheesily in a hand-drawn way.  At the bottom someone had penciled in this tag line: “In Horro-Color!”

WOW!  Could it be?

It was my first Sammy Terry intro and I just wished he’d shut up and run the movie.  I don’t think my grandmother even lasted through the first 10 minutes of the show.  By the time the film started, she was gently snoring, with her hands still folded in front of her.

Well, as you probably know, the film was in black and white after all. (Of course, this sparked a lasting level of curiosity in me, because I have a long demonstration about the history of color in the movies that’s one of my most popular shows.)  I eagerly sat through the movie, color or not.  I was delighted.  The film had a weird rustic feel that I found to be really cool.  I sat quietly through the end of the picture, woke grandma up, and we both went to bed.

She created a monster.

I was hooked.  I wanted to keep watching Sammy Terry and see more of those films.  I had to.  Grandma gamely stayed with me on most of them, still usually falling asleep.  She had one eye done, 6 weeks recovery, and another eye, 6 more weeks recovery.  By that time, I was a hopeless addict.  She went home, but I kept watching Sammy.

I discovered that my parents didn’t care too much as long as I didn’t make a lot of noise to wake them up.

I discovered that the local bookstore had a new book by film historian Denis Gifford that gave a great history of these movies.  Mom had picked it out, and she had it wrapped “From Grandma” for Christmas that year.  I recently found the 8mm home movie of that Christmas, showing me unwrapping the present.  I still have the book.

That’s me (on the left) with my grandmother and sister, Christmas 1973

I seldom missed Sammy Terry, and I went on to catch the Saturday night offering on WTTV, which was called Science Fiction Theater.  In the summertime, WTTV had another film host showing Summer Film Festival which consisted of more mainstream films.  I loved it too.  WISH Channel 8 had host Dave Smith with another show called When Movies Were Movies.  I loved it too.

It got so that in the summer I was up until 3am most every night.

Sammy was still a special favorite.  I loved his silly jokes and weird introductions, his hairy spider (named George) who interrupted the proceedings periodically.  I even loved the stupid gaffes that we’d never see today.  The Sunday paper listed one film as Sammy’s show for the week, but the Friday paper listed another film.  That night, Sammy’s intros were for the film in the Sunday paper, but they ran the film listed in the Friday paper!  OOPS.

My grandmother died in 1975.  She was a special woman and I miss her to this very day.

WTTV canceled Sammy Terry in about 1976.  I was outraged.  I started a petition to put him back on the air.  But the times had changed and they didn’t want to go back.

They finally relented and brought him back in the early 80s.  The film package wasn’t as good as it had been, but it was still fun to see Sammy back again.  There were fewer Karloff and Lugosi pictures and more gut-laden Hammer films.

Then, in the mid-80s the world changed again.  When cable became widespread, the studios discovered that they could make more money from a cable film showing than from the local stations, so they pulled all the old films.  As historian Jim Neibaur has said, it was like they decided to make one station the repository for all the old films and they filled the rest with infomercials.

Sammy Terry was gone.  Bob Carter continued to play the character at live shows and in the occasional special.  I met him a few times.  He ran a music store close to where I lived.  Seemed like a nice guy, but it was never more than a passing encounter.

Mr. Carter has been in ill health for the past few years, so he has not been so active.  His son is carrying on the Sammy Terry tradition.  I haven’t seen him yet, but I wish him well.

Of course, I started to miss that late-night experience I had so loved.  I collected videotapes of my favorite movies.  Then 16mm film.  Then 35mm film.

I’m not on TV (not yet, at least), but I carry film projectors to run film shows wherever I’m wanted.   I got to run a movie with WTTV’s cartoon show host, Cowboy Bob, and WFBM’s Three Stooges host, Harlow Hickenlooper.  It was freezing cold, and with the two of them there, including me and an assistant, I think we had 6 people in the audience.  Oh, well.  I had fun anyway.

And that still doesn’t bring the story to a close.

One of the things that dogs me about new technology is how we throw out the whole of the old to embrace the new.  We often don’t fully appreciate the magic of what we had until it’s gone.

The old horror hosts and the movie hosts in general helped us appreciate films made before we were born.  It was just part of who we were.  Now, all you have to do is channel hop over Turner Classic Movies and you’ll never see them at all.

It’s no disrespect to Robert Osborne or Leonard Maltin to say that they’re not the same as the guys from the old days.  They are preaching to the converted.  You don’t watch them unless you specifically want to see an old film.  There’s nothing wrong with that, but sometimes we look at old films as either obsolete relics or unapproachable HIGH ART.

There is little appreciation for film as an art form today.  That’s why I created Dr. Film.  It’s a deliberate throwback to the old hosted-film format.  Dr. Film isn’t specifically for horror films, although we will show them. It’s got the poverty-induced sets and goofy jokes that all the hosted-film shows had.

What’s different about Dr. Film is that its purpose is to subtly educate (and I hope it is very subtle).  I hope it’s just strange enough to catch an errant viewer asking, “What the heck is THIS?” before he flips the remote one more time.

No, this doesn’t mean I regard the new Sammy Terry as competition, because he’s not doing the same thing.  Nor do I regard Svengoolie or Elvira as competition.  I embrace them all (I’d particularly like to embrace Elvira in that tight dress, but I digress.)

I always think that a rising tide floats all boats.  And I think that the movie host is something we’ve lost and that needs to return.  I think we all miss them, even if we don’t know it.

Dr. Film isn’t really competition for anyone, because the show hasn’t made it to the airwaves.  In all honesty, it probably never will.  But I’m still in there trying, because I’m trying to save a part of our past that I miss.

Instead of tilting at windmills, I’m saving film.  I might just as well be trying to save Fizzies, Burger Chef, and handmade chocolate sodas.  Hey, maybe it’s a lost cause, but someone has to do it.

Taking the Picture No One Likes

I’m bad at marketing.  I’ll be the first person to tell you that.  I can fix your computer, but I couldn’t convince you to buy one.  Some people are just built that way.

When I shot the pilot episode for Dr. Film, I thought that people would be jazzed about it, that they’d put it in the DVD player, watch it, read the material I sent, and we’d have a deal.

I sent it everywhere I could find an address.  I had some printed material that I’d prepared explaining what the show was.  I thought it was fine.

Of course, no one responded.  Not one.  They didn’t even say that they didn’t like the show.  I then discovered a fundamental truth of life (although I knew it before, it was really hammered home):

People will flock around to tell you what’s wrong with a failed project, but while you’re working on it, they say nothing.

My friends agreed that I’d screwed up by not having a slick cover color folder for the show.  Then the consensus was that no one would read all the material I sent, so it needed to be cut down.

But then the last part was that I needed to spiff it up with ART!  I was told that I needed to push the idea that we’re dealing with classic film!  Emphasize the characters!  Emphasize the interaction!  In the show, they’re never in the same shot!  Have them together!

Wow.  All great ideas.  I’d never thought of them.  Of course, no one thought to tell me this before I sent all the material to all the TV stations.

I couldn’t hire an artist.  Artists need to eat three times a day, so they can’t work for free.  And since I didn’t have any money to give them, hiring an artist was out, out, out.

OK, that’s fine, say I.  I have some experience in this.  I may not be the greatest artist in the world, but I think I can get the job done.  Hmm, the show’s characters interacting.  In the same shot.  Emphasizing film.

There’s another problem. In the show, Dr. Film and Anamorphia never are in the same shot for very practical reasons: a) I only had one camera and b) Anamorphia is an elaborate (not digital) special effect.  Dr. Film isn’t a special effect at all, and so they can’t be in the same shot together.

I got an inspired idea.  Anamorphia is so named because she’s anamorphic: she’s squeezed horizontally, like someone who survived an Edgar Allan Poe torture, unlike Glory, who plays her.  Just for one shot, I knew I could get them together, but only if I lined them up just right.

I’d give Glory an extra large reel of 35mm film, with a diameter twice as large as a regular reel.  Then, I’d shoot her dead on straight ahead, and I’d be standing next to her.  The math would work out so I could squeeze her in a photo program and it would make the wide reel look like a regular one!

How would they interact?  Well, in the show, the characters are always bickering about how long-winded and boring he is about film.  She’s gotten frustrated with his verbose habits and wraps him in the film he’s been talking about too much. He’s angry, she’s angry, that’s consistent, PERFECT.

By this time, it had been over a year since we’d shot the show.  But that’s OK, we thought, no one saw it in the first place, so we can still send it out with the new slick paper brochure!  I needed help, because I couldn’t shoot it myself: I’m actually in the shot.  I talked to my sister about it.

ACK. Glory is shorter than I am, and my sister is shorter than I am.  My sister had the idea of shooting outside to make sure we could get lots of light.  That made harsh unflattering shadows, but there was a worse problem.  Due to the widely varying heights, nothing lined up, and I looked like a giant slug being wound up by a tiny silkworm.  It was ridiculous.

Glory complained that the reel I’d found for her was actually full of real film!  This was a problem because a 3000’ reel with film on it is heavy, and she had to hold it very still, and straight horizontally, to get the shots.  Not a good idea.  She was pretty sore by the end of the shoot, and I don’t blame her.  Especially since the pictures were utterly unusable.

Upon reflection, I remembered that Glory (a historian) had just written a National Register nomination for a building with a large stage.  If we could use it, then we could stand on the stage, and have a photographer stand on the main floor, thereby solving the height issues.

I also decided I’d be seated, which helped equalize the height differential.  I found an empty reel, and that made it a little easier for her.  The building owners allowed us to use the stage for a few hours.  I brought in lights, tripods, everything.

It was HOT!  The lights were in my face all the time, and I was wrapped in disintegrating film.  I used a vinegary print of From Russia With Love so I wouldn’t ruin good film!  It smelled terrible, and as I was sweating, it dripped dye on me.  Wonderful.

We spent about 2 hours shooting.  My friend Greg shot the pictures this time.  (My sister couldn’t get off work!)  Greg tried really hard, but 99% of the pictures were junk.  There was one picture in the whole bunch that looked OK.  It was very dark, even with all the light we had pouring on us.  It was just a hard picture to shoot.

I’m not going to show all the raw pictures, because I’d had Glory stand closer to the camera (to keep me from overwhelming the shot).  This caused some focus issues and makes her look unusually large in the raw image.

I worked on equalizing the exposure and applied the anamorphic factor, and got this:

Suddenly, voila, we have art!  Dr. Film and Anamorphia in the same shot!  I used the picture for the new brochure and spruced it up.  I thought it looked pretty good.  We ran it by some design people.  They liked it.  I cut the text down to 8 pages, with lots of color pictures.

Guess what?  This will surprise you.  No response.  Apparently no one even bothered to look at it.

Discouraged?  You bet.  I was about ready to give up on the project.  We’d thrown time and money at it, and no one cared at all.  We weren’t even interesting enough to warrant a polite, “HEY! Buzz off, willya?”

But Dr. Film also seems to be The Project That Never Dies.  There are always a few people who have been unfailingly encouraging, to the point that some people are in my face saying, “It’s a great idea!  Don’t give up on this show!”  (I’ve never actually been sure why this is, but it seems to be.  Most of the rest of the world looks at Dr. Film with a cold indifference.)

I installed a blog on the web page, the one you’re reading now, updated the site, and went from there.  The blog, as you can see, has been a rip-roaring success, attracting email from Viagra shippers the world over.  With no real web traffic and only a tepid response to the blog, I was ready to shut the project down again.

Several others suggested that Dr. Film was too long.  The feeling was that we needed cut it down and make it in 30 minutes, based on the attention span of modern audiences.  This is where I draw the line.  I have a two-fold argument with this: a) there are so many interesting movies out there that don’t get shown that I hate to CUT them to something shorter.  b) A 30-minute show is actually more work than a two-hour show!  Why?  Well, I have to go through more material, cherry-pick, and edit.  More narration to explain what’s missing.  More shooting.  More work.

The whole idea of Dr. Film has always been to make an economical show that appeals to an admittedly small demographic.  Since a 30-minute show means more time, it also means I’d have to charge more money, which I think is more of an impediment than the difficulty in clearing a two-hour slot.

Glory and I talked to publicity people and they told us that there was probably no hope for Dr. Film since no one responded.  Once again, I was ready to shut the project down and move on to other things.

Remember I said Dr. Film just never seems to die?  Well, I had an idea.  You see, I don’t believe anyone who matters has ever watched the show and given it any sort of chance.    I have a feeling that it’s off the beaten path, consequently under the radar.  I don’t think it mattered what sort of picture we had.

I realize that Dr. Film is an unconventional project.  I know that there is a niche market, but we have to reach it.  My idea was to draw upon on word-of-mouth support and an internet community.  If we have a vibrant Facebook group, a bunch of advocates for the show, a successful blog, then people have to notice it.  Someone floated the idea that “Support Dr. Film!” t-shirts would be a great idea.  A way to build the community feeling.

That’s fine, I thought!  I’ve got art for shirts!  We’re set!  I’d designed a shirt for a convention showing, and I still had the files!

Then, just as I was ready to submit the design, a couple of people, all generally supporters of the show, told me how much they hated the shirt.


They hated that same picture I’d literally sweat over for hours.  And hate was the word.  It was repulsive.  One guy told me he’d never wear the shirt because it looked like a bondage scene to him.

I have to tell you that I never thought of this.  Knowing the characters, and knowing that there is not a spark of anything between them, it never occurred to me.  Not once.

OK, so what should we have instead?  This is where I get frustrated.  Once again, people can’t seem to tell you what they like.  It’s the old joke, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”

Some ideas were in direct contradiction to other ones.  I wanted to scream.  Actually, I did scream.  I thought we were about done, and suddenly, I was back at square one.  I often marvel about how I’ve come this far on Dr. Film with nothing to show for it!

Ernie Kovacs once called Edie Adams and told her that the show opening wasn’t working, and he didn’t know why.  He was joking about being tired and working overtime.  Edie told him that the audience didn’t care how tired they were or how hard they worked.  They only cared whether the show was funny or not.

Edie was right. It makes no difference how we got to the t-shirt design and how we took The Picture That No One Likes!  It only matters that we came up with a design that people seem to like.  On the other hand, it’s a great story and it makes a great blog entry!

You note I’ve not spoken about what I thought personally?  Well, I don’t like the new design (even though I did it.)  I like the other one better.  I don’t think there’s enough art in this one.

But, clearly, I have no idea what I’m talking about!

PS: I haven’t had a chance to take redo the art for the brochure, so you can still see it here.