Kongo Speaks! Karloff Clams Up!

I had an interesting conversation last year at a film convention.  I had brought a chapter of King of the Kongo (1929), which didn’t go over especially well.  That’s not a surprise; it’s not particularly good.  Most of the Mascot serials aren’t particularly good.  They’re a lot of fun, full of action, and most of them don’t make a lot of sense.  This was where the conversation came in.

It’s known that King of the Kongo was film was released in both silent and sound versions.  I’d seen another version of the serial on VHS tape, and it trumpeted the serial’s theme song, “Love Thoughts of You.”  My print didn’t say this.  With this missing, I simply assumed that I’d gotten the silent print.

Not so, said the gentleman speaking to me.  How could I ignore the fact that there were long stretches of film that showed actors speaking–without intertitles?  The film didn’t make any sense!  I figured that the producer sent out the same print regardless of who ordered it, and if it was for a silent show, then he just didn’t ship the sound discs.

King of the Kongo was produced as a sound-on-disc film, which meant that the sound had to be played back from a set of records that accompany the film.  There are tons of these films that were made in the early sound era.  The problem is that in order to see the films today, it’s necessary to have a copy of both the picture and the discs.  By early 1931, all films went to the easier-to-use optical soundtracks that we still use today.  (Well, they’re similar… no hostile notes please.)

The gentleman went on to tell me that he knew of collectors who had sound discs for King of the Kongo and, to top it off, several people told me of the legend that “a reclusive collector” had the complete serial on film.

That reclusive collector is yours truly.  Many years ago, in 1989 to be exact, I bought a 16mm print of King of the Kongo from a collector named JM Gillis.  (I can use his name because he’s deceased now.)  He was liquidating a collection of films he’d amassed since the 1950s.

I wanted King of the Kongo because it was historically important (it was the first sound serial), and because I love Boris Karloff.  I bought it even knowing the print was silent.  Other people wanted it, so it went for a premium.  Even though it was licensed by a video company, I never made my money back on it; they didn’t sell very many copies.  No one was ever interested in putting it out on DVD, much less Blu-Ray.

Gillis told me that he’d had a guy make several 16mm reduction prints from 35mm back in the late 1950s.   It was that song credit for “Love Thoughts of You” that kept bothering me. I wondered if the lab technician who’d made Kongo just snipped it out because he didn’t have the discs.

As I mulled it over, I wondered if the guy at the film convention had been right all along. I might have the sound version, but with the song credit removed.  That would explain the long sections without dialogue.  It would also explain why I was never able to make heads or tails of the plot.

The idea occurred to me that it might be possible to test my theory by getting access to some of the extant sound discs.  I contacted Ron Hutchison at The Vitaphone Project, which is dedicated to finding lost movie sound discs.  It’s named for the Vitaphone process that pioneered the successful sound-on-disc movies in the 1920s. Ron told me that he had material for 3 reels of King of the Kongo.  He was more than happy to make me CDs of them.

The complete serial is 21 reels!  He had only 3: Chapter 5, reel 1 and 2, and Chapter 6, reel 2.

I went to the basement and grabbed the two chapters involved.  I quickly transferred Chapter 5 to video and loaded it into my snazzy new computer.  With a few minutes of work, I saw that I could roughly get a dialogue scene to work in the first reel.  It was going to have to be done all by hand, not by calculation: my print had some splices in it, and was missing a few frames at the end each reel.  The length of the soundtrack proved that the credit for “Love Thoughts of You” had indeed been chopped out.  The sound was about fifteen seconds longer than the actual reel, just enough time for the missing title.

The lab work on this particular chapter was pretty bad.  It was dark and hard to see.  I loaded it into a video enhancement program and corrected it the best I could.  That way I could at least see the lip movements.  I sent the audio to sound king Dave Wood; he scrubbed it and got it resynchronized until it looked OK.

The results?  Well, with about 15 hours of work, I have a complete, restored Chapter 5.  The serial is not a great work of art, but it never was.  The sound sequences give the story a lot more clarity!  It appears that they had already finished the serial as a silent and then added one talking sequence in each reel.  The rest is silent with the original 1929 score on the discs.

I felt sorry for the actors.  In the early days of talking films, the microphone was heavy and nailed down. Later on, as microphones got lighter, and mike booms were invented, the sound man could follow the actor.  In Kongo, the microphone is in one place and the actors have to dive for it to say their lines. Immediately, they must move away for the next poor guy.  Quality acting is out the window.  The idea is to get through the scene without having to stop and cut. Incidentally, Boris Karloff has no lines in the available sound footage, although he’s highly visible in the rest of the chapter.

And then the song.  “Love Thoughts of You?”  What is this doing in here?  It has no place in an action serial.  The song is pleasant enough, sung by a typical 1920s tenor, but it clashes with the hard-edged African atmosphere of the rest of the film.  It even distracts the cliffhangers.  Typically, when the hero is in dire peril at the end of the chapter, the music swells dramatically and we cut to the “Don’t Miss the Next Chapter” title card.  Not here.  As Walter Miller is charged by the baddies, the title fades up, accompanied by a bubbly instrumental of, yes, you guessed it, “Love Thoughts of You.”

I have no idea if any archive has a better print of King of the Kongo.  I’m certain that it’s not high on anyone’s restoration list.  I doubt that my material is good enough to make a proper restoration on archival film.  Next year, there may be a world premiere special showing of the complete chapter–on video.  And you can see two clips of the dialogue sequences here.

How’s that for a so-called reclusive collector?  That’s a discussion for another day. Call me crazy… I think this material should be seen!


Midnight in Manhattan, er Paris

It seems difficult to review a Woody Allen picture these days without discussing his personal situation.  The problem is that, much as he denies it, Woody’s pictures are often subtly autobiographical.  Allen’s new picture, Midnight in Paris, is about a screenwriter disenchanted with his work in Hollywood who wants to start over in Europe.  Um, well, there goes art imitating life again.  Allen’s last several films have been financed and shot mostly in Europe.

Many people have suspected that Allen was losing his touch.  His films were not as self-assured, and they had less of a smooth feel than he’d been able to achieve earlier.  I’m happy to report that this now seems a temporary aberration.  Midnight in Paris marks a return to the “classic” Woody style, whatever that is.  It’s not like one of his “earlier, funny films,” and it’s not like his Bergman-obsessed works like Interiors, but it has elements of both, and they work together well.

In Midnight in Paris, a screenwriter (Owen Wilson) is visiting Paris with his fiancee (Rachel McAdams) and her family.  Weary of his hackneyed Hollywood jobs, he’s working on a novel about a guy who works in a nostalgia shop.  While McAdams and her mother shop all over Paris, they meet up with a blowhard know-nothing (Michael Sheen).  He’s the type of guy who doesn’t really know all that he thinks he knows, especially about art and history.  These scenes are extremely reminiscent of ones in Allen’s film Manhattan, as is the entire sub-plot in which McAdams’ character falls for Sheen’s.

But that’s fine, since the bulk of the plot covers some familiar themes in very nice new ways.  Disgusted with those around him, Wilson goes off for a walk and discovers himself in the Paris of the 1920s.  Allen handles this masterfully.  The shift happens in an old area of the city that could have been in the 2000s or 1920s, and we’re not quite certain how it works for a while.  The mechanics of how the time travel actually happens are never explained or even explored.  It’s simply a plot device.  Allen uses it but doesn’t exploit it.  James Cameron, please pay attention here.

Once in the 1920s, the film takes off.  If you’re one of those people who knows nothing about Paris in the 1920s, then you may be left out of a lot of the plot.  I’d encourage you to read up a little on it before you see the film.  It doesn’t stop to spoon-feed you along.  Wilson’s character meets Salvador Dali, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and a host of others.  The casting is impeccable.  Of particular merit are Kathy Bates as Stein and Adrien Brody as Dali.

While in the 1920s, Wilson meets Adriana (Marion Cotillard).  Cotillard’s character, like Wilson’s, feels stuck in the wrong time.  While Wilson would prefer to live in the time of the 1920s, Cotillard (native to the 1920s) yearns for the Paris of the 1890s with Lautrec and others.

There’s no point in giving more of the plot away; the rest of it is quite engaging and shows Allen’s comic introspection wonderfully.  The question of whether to live in the past or the present is addressed quite humorously.

The real revelation in Midnight in Paris is that Owen Wilson is quite good!  I’ve long considered Wilson a lightweight comedic actor of limited talent.  He’s been in more of his share of movies that are overloaded with fart jokes, and I was beginning to think of him as limited to those kinds of things.  I had quite liked him in The Royal Tenenbaums (2001), but most of the rest of the time, he’s been like a cut-rate Adam Sandler.  His character in Midnight in Paris is clearly written as the Woody Allen character… you can hear the text is written for those inflections.  The challenge for Wilson is to play a Woody character but still make it his own.  I’m happy to report that he rises to this challenge admirably.

There are still things I’m not quite enchanted about in Midnight in Paris, but very few of them.  The most striking one is that we know it’s a Woody Allen film because the colors are biased dramatically toward yellow all the way through.  There’s less of this than there has been in previous Allen efforts, but I hope he gets it out of his system some day.

I’m trying to recommend this film to everyone I can, because I’m really not pleased about the current trend of movies that have to credit Stan Lee and have a roman numeral in the title.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that… but there is something wrong that we have so much of it.  Midnight in Paris is smart, not based on a comic book, and it’s not a sequel to anything.  May it play to packed houses.