Ten Questions with Josh Mills

Josh Mills celebrates an early Christmas with mom Edie Adams.

Film fans probably don’t know the name of Josh Mills, but it’s a name I’ve known for a long time.  His mother, Edie Adams, was a hero of mine.   Edie was a preservationist when it wasn’t fashionable to be one.  She saved film that people said was worthless.  She testified to Congress about it.  You can’t be more of a hero in my book than that.

Josh has done a lot to forward the film preservation that his mom started.  Full disclosure: I did some work on both the Kovacs DVD sets that will be mentioned here, because I had some rare and unique footage.  I’m not being paid in any way for this, however.  What I contributed is minuscule in comparison to what Josh and Ben Model did on these sets.  We have them to thank for a legacy of Kovacs… and Edie Adams, as you’ll see…

Edie Adams portrait from the 1950s (Ediad Productions)

Your mom was singer/actress/preservationist Edie Adams.  She’s known and loved for a lot of things she did.  I know most guys of a certain age remember her for her commercials for Dutch Masters, but I’d like to talk about some of her preservation work.  She was singlehandedly responsible for saving most of Ernie Kovacs’ work.  I’ve often called her the patron saint of film preservation, because she went out on a limb to buy up film and tape of Kovacs to keep it from being destroyed.  Can you talk a little about that aspect of your mom?  Was this always a part of your discussions as you grew up?

A: If I was 14 and not 44, I might shy away from my mom’s ‘Why-dontcha-pick-one-up-and-smoke-it-sometime’ allure. As a teenager, I was at a baseball game where she sang the national anthem and the guys behind me didn’t know she was my mom and there was a lot of, ‘When I was a kid and she came on TV….’ hubba hubba…..but at 44, I am a little more comfortable talking about it. She was my mom, but she was a good looking woman – I get it.

As far as her preservation efforts are concerned, we can all look back and say in 2012 that indeed she was way ahead of her time in saving the Kovacs material from being destroyed by short sighted  television executives. But really, my mom was more of the mind-set in 1964 of ‘Ernie was doing something unique. This just has to be saved.’ Frankly, I don’t know how she had the forethought. There was no VHS. There was no Ipad. There was no cable TV! Most shows barely had a life after they aired on the East and West Coast. They maybe got a repeat somewhere down the line but that was it. My mom just knew Kovacs was doing something genius and knew it had to be saved. She (now I) had been paying the bills to store this material for 50 years so she really knew it had to be special to take on that expense. Not to cheapen it by any means but – it ain’t cheap to store this material for half a century.

And might I just add my mom did not throw away ANYTHING. It’s amazing the scripts, photographs, contracts, memorabilia and more that still exist. It might be time to open a Kovacs museum in Trenton.

Marty Mills

Your dad was the amazing photographer Marty Mills.  I’ve seen a number of great photos he took on your Facebook page.  Can you tell us a little about your dad?  Some of our readers may not realize that you were born some years after Ernie died when your mom had remarried.

A: Ernie died in 1962 and I was born in 1968. Evidently, my mom had known my dad for years prior to Ernie’s passing because he was an agent at MCA who was best friends with her (and Ernie’s) agent, Marty Kummer. They knew each other socially and started dating in the early-sixties and married in 1964. My parents got along so well because they had a lot in common. They were both in show business and my mother knew all about classical and popular music which my dad did as well. My grandfather was Jack Mills who founded Mills Music which published some of the biggest hits of the first half of the century. My dad worked as a song plugger at Mills, trying to get DJs across the country to play the songs they published and was quite successful. Mills Music was the largest independent publisher in the world from about 1920 – 1960 when it was sold. They published Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael and tons of other great songwriters out of the Brill Building. In some ways my grandfather was Tin Pan Alley.

Sheet music from Mills Music

Anyway, my dad ran with a pretty hip crowd in his youth – he was great friends w/ Mel Torme, Buddy Rich, Patti Page, Sammy Davis Jr. It was the fifties in New York and my dad would tell me they would go see double and triple bills of movies in Times Square and would have squirt gun fights in the balcony and cause all sorts of mayhem. He once told me an insane story about having to hide out from the Chicago mob after a bender w/ Shecky Greene due to a bar fight that turned out to be mistaken identity. My dad became a photographer in about 1965 when my mom went to Rome to shoot, “The Honey Pot” (aka “Anyone for Venice”) w/ Rex Harrison and Cliff Robertson. They were on location shooting at Cinecitta studios when an outbreak of something terrible hit the set like Typhoid or meningitis which brought the shooting to a halt and suddenly they were in Rome with nothing to do. What’s more, they couldn’t leave because they might shoot anytime. So my parents moved out of the hotel the studio had them in and moved to an apartment on the Spanish Steps for 6 months. I ask you, who wouldn’t kill to be stuck in Rome in the mid-sixties for half a year. My dad learned how to cook Italian food and picked up the camera for the first time. He came home with a new skill and began to shoot for Look Magazine, Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and others.

Dean Martin sings! (Martin Mills Photography)

He was entirely self-taught but he had a great eye. And because he knew many celebrities socially, he was able to get some great shots. Dean Martin called him while shooting the film “Bandalero’ in Mexico and asked him to come down and hang out because he was bored on the set. So my dad brought his camera and took some amazing shots of Dean – on the set, golfing, making pasta. They are mind bogging. He ended up shooting 3 album covers for Dean as well. My dad lived a pretty cool life too if I may say so myself.

When your mom passed away, the preservation baton was passed to you.  Since I knew your mom, I knew she was working on a Kovacs DVD set for some time that never materialized, and you made it happen.  Now, there’s a volume 2.  You’ve released recordings and lot of other stuff.  You seem to take preservation very seriously.  What does all this mean to you?  Most of this stuff was made before you were born, and Kovacs was a guy you never met.

A: My mom was fantastic in not only her preservation efforts but her instincts. However, my mom also missed some opportunities because she would say, “Kovacs always skips a generation,” meaning that he might not be hip in 1960’s but the 1970’s comedians rediscovered him. Same thing in the ‘80’s – not a lot of action until the 1990’s when another round of comedians popped up talking about Kovacs. Still, I could see that as we got to a digital age and black and white was a tough sell to anyone under 30, she was holding on too tight.

Ben Model (L) and Josh Mills (R)

When she passed away in 2008, I really wanted to make sure Kovacs was reinserted in the conversation. At about that time, the Conan/Leno The Tonight Show passing of the baton/debacle was going on and no one (!) even mentioned Kovacs as a regular guest host of  The Tonight Show.  It killed me. And shortly thereafter, PBS did a special on the history of comedy and Kovacs wasn’t in that either. Thankfully, at about that time, Jordan Fields at Shout! Factory approached us about working together on what eventually became “The Ernie Kovacs Collection” (Volume 1) and that was our vehicle to get Kovacs back into the conversation. Without Shout! Factory and Ben Model, who has been an invaluable archivist and curator of the Kovacs material these past 5 years, I don’t know where we’d be.

I visited your mom in 1999, and she showed me a some material I’d never seen before.  It was from her own show Here’s Edie, which was made immediately after Kovacs died.  These shows are amazing, very different from Kovacs, much more arty and serious, but great material.  Her guest stars included just about anyone who was famous and in the music business at the time.  Even if those shows were boring, they would be an amazing historical record.  But they’re not boring at all.  They’re really wonderful.  I chided her at the time that she was better at promoting Kovacs than she was at promoting her own work!  Tell us a bit more about those shows and how you feel about them.  Is there any chance that they will be released again?

A: I’m really happy you asked me about this. My mom was amazingly talented but because she was saddled with debt after Ernie’s passing, she literally just had to bring in the bucks to pay off the I.R.S., ABC Networks and Kovacs gambling debts. There was a guy at Consolidated Cigar (now Altadis) who ran Dutch Masters and got along famously with Ernie named Jack Mogulescu. Jack was responsible for getting Consolidated to get behind Ernie’s shows – and they paid off not so much in ratings but in sales. When Ernie passed, he came to my mom and asked her if she wanted to be the spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars. Muriel was a poor-selling brand and they thought my mom might be able to help sales. Everyone remembers her as ‘the Muriel girl’ because her commercials were so iconic but they also sponsored her shows, Here’s Edie and The Edie Adams Show which ran every other week opposite Sid Caesar’s show.

Like Kovacs shows, Consolidated didn’t care if my mom’s shows got ratings, as long as sales increased and she did promotion and publicity for the brand. So not only did the sales go through the roof (and got my mom a contract that paid her until 1992) but they let her produce her own show. That’s unheard of! Being a Julliard student, my mom approached her show like her stage act at the time. She wanted to bring ‘high art’ to the masses. That’s why you see Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Count Basie alongside Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin. That and she tried to tape on Sundays when crew and performers got double time and golden time so they were more than happy to be well-paid to come on her show. This she learned from Kovacs.

Look for a nice Edie Adams Show DVD package to come out in 2013 with more bells and whistles than my mom got walking past a construction site in midtown!

I know you’re involved in the music business yourself.  You work with a lot of bands and have your own publicity firm.  Tell us about that, and explain a bit on how you got into it.

A: I do but I’m not that interesting. I manage a Cambodian/American band Dengue Fever (www.denguefevermusic.com) who are fantastic and unique and do PR for many bands and projects. I was hoping to be a screenwriter and went to college to get into film but when I got out and sat down to write something – I realized I had nothing to say at 22 years old. So I realized that I loved music and thought would look into that. Here I am 18 years later. Truth be told tho, I can see the Kovacs and Edie material becoming a full-time job down the line a bit.

You’re doing a series of roadshows promoting the material you have in the Kovacs/Adams collection.  Tell us about those shows and where they have been.  Do you have any more coming up?

A: We are working on upcoming events in Los Angeles, New York (and perhaps) Indianapolis in 2013 but in the last two years, we have done events at the Paley Center and Museum of the Moving Image in New York, American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and AFI and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Essentially, the goal is to bring Kovacs and his admirers together for a live event. And the venues we have found most receptive have been amazing places to help get the word out. It’s been gratifying to help promote the Kovacs and Adams brands with panels including entertainers: Keith Olbermann, George & Jolene Brand Schlatter, Robert Klein, Hal Prince, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer Jeff Greenfield, Bob Odenkirk, Joel Hodgson and Merrill Markoe talk about their love of Ernie. I always loved comedy as a kid and to be in the same room with Robert Klein or Jeff Garlin, I become like a shy little kid. I can’t believe I helped bring them to these events.  And I actually do become a little kid – I had Harry Shearer sign my Credibility Gap CD and Robert Klein sign his “Child of the Fifties” LP. I’m as much a fan as anyone.

Are there any “holy grails” out there for you?  By this I mean projects that Kovacs, or your mom or dad did that you know were produced, but that you can’t find?

A: Well we are always on the lookout for more material. Ben Model, our curator, always talks about hoping someone will find Kovacs Unlimited (CBS 1952-54) in an attic or someplace. It’s happened before. People approached my mom all the time to buy back her own shows! That infuriated her. In fact, she is on record at the Library of Congress talking about this very subject. She always talked about some guy who found something that ‘….fell out of the back of a truck’ when it came to Kovacs.

Finding the long lost Kovacs comedy record, “Percy Dovetonsils…Thpeaks” was cool and we have a fantastic partner in Omnivore Recordings who released that this year on CD & lavender vinyl. We are also plowing through some audio airchecks my mom had made of “Kovacs Unlimited”. So although no video exists, it’s a daily record of television in the 1950’s. We culled my mom’s CD “Edie Adams Christmas Album” from material she sang on the show.

So to paraphrase Kovacs in his Mr. Question Man, “It’s a common misconception. People are falling off all the time.” We’re coming up with new stuff all the time too.

Your mom was an intense “force of nature” personality.  I’ve told people that I’ve never known anyone who could talk so fast and so long without stopping.  (I really did have to buy a new answering machine because she would call and fill up the one I had.)  She was driven and focused on what she wanted to do.  I also know that she was very proud of you, because she always spoke highly of what you were doing.  I don’t want to get too personal, but can you tell us a little what it was like growing up in a whirlwind like that?  Every once in a while I find articles about her buying and almond farm and such and I just think, wow… that must have been a roller coaster.

A: She was a force of nature. She made (and lost) lots of money but I think she had a pretty good time. She dated Eddie Fisher, Peter Sellers, comedy writers after Ernie passed – why not? She taped her shows in Las Vegas, New York and London. She knew everyone – I have a photo of myself, my best friend Josh Davis and his brother Tony dressed as the Marx Brothers WITH GROUCHO on Halloween. It blows my mind she could just call him up and we came over.

Left to Right: Josh Mills, Tony Davis, Groucho, Josh Davis.

But you know what? My mom was also a truly sweet, kind woman too who had her feet firmly planted on the ground. She was a great mom. She was away a lot doing musical shows when I was a kid and she felt a lot of guilt over that but it paid the bills. She had to do it. But she always worked the snack stand at my little league baseball games, came to all my school functions, made sure I was with her for at least a week when she was on the road working and worked her butt off to keep climbing back into the ring again and again. She lost Ernie to a car accident in ‘62, her daughter in a car accident in ‘82, lost a great friend to AIDS and yet she still could laugh. I mention this in my liner notes to her Christmas CD but she was a pretty terrible cook. And yet after college, she always had a huge Thanksgiving party at her house for all my friends and those friends still talk about how great those times were. That’s immensely satisfying. Above all, she was a funny, fantastic woman who happened to introduce me to Gore Vidal, spent Christmas nights at Jack Lemmon’s house every year but still was my biggest supporter (with my dad). They always told me they loved me and always told me how proud they were of me. What more couldnt you want, really? I couldn’t have asked for better parents at the end of the day.

You’re a well-known food connoisseur, and you’ve lived in a number of places.  I love that stuff myself.  Can you give us a short list of eateries that are “don’t miss” places?

A: I was just in Washington D.C. and Ben’s Chili Bowl ( http://www.benschilibowl.com/ordereze/default.aspx) and the Florida Avenue Grill ( http://floridaavenuegrill.com/) are just fantastic, real places that should be on your short list. Arthur Bryant’s (http://www.arthurbryantsbbq.com/index.htm ) in Kansas City serves perhaps what can only be described as a psychedelic meat experience and the best BBQ I have ever had.

My mom loved Frankie and Johnnies in New York from her theater days (http://frankieandjohnnies.com/steakhouses/frankieandjohnnies.html) and Patsy’s ( http://www.patsys.com/ ) is also a favorite. My dad and my grandfather were major foodies – both highbrow and low brow. Every year we’d visit my dad’s family on Long Island, it was a ritual – we had to get White Castle and Sabrett hot dogs. It wasn’t even a question  – you just made it a point to go. I still do. My 2 and a half year old took down 2 Sabrett’s a year ago and I couldn’t have been more proud!

I have done enough interviews that I get frustrated about people asking me the same old questions and missing important things.  What question should I have asked you that I didn’t?  How would you answer it?

A: If you could be any sandwich in the world, what would you be? A knuckle sandwich of course.

I’d like to thank Josh Mills and Ediad Productions for all the photos used in this post.

I Have a Bad Feeling About This

OK, I’m a movie fan and there are a lot of people who know I’m a Star Wars fan.  Sort of.  A former Star Wars fan.  Well, a fan of Episodes 4, 5, and part of 6.

I remember when Star Wars came out in 1977, before it said A New Hope, before anyone knew anything about it.  (And trust me, doubters, on the original release date, it did not say A New Hope.  This is why Episode IV will always be called Star Wars to me, because that’s the way it was originally billed.)

And then Episode V came out, The Empire Strikes Back.  I was not as impressed with that one initially, but this is a film that holds up very well on repeated viewings.  There may be some slow spots in it here and there, but overall, this is a great film.

And then Episode VI came out.  Half of it was great.  The stuff with Luke and the Emperor.  Good stuff.  The stuff with Jabba the Hutt in the intro was pretty good.  But the Ewoks.  Oh, the Ewoks.  They were obnoxiously cute, in a cloying 4-year-old way.  That’s exactly what they were intended to be, because Lucas himself had sold out to the Dark Side.  In this case, it’s not the Sith, but much darker: Merchandising.

(By the way, I’m going on 30+ years of reading about this franchise here.  I’m not going to source this.  It would take days, and I’m not being paid.  I’ll stand by what I said.  If you think I’m an idiot, then so be it!  Hi, Tom!) The original plan for Return of the Jedi was to have a planet of the Wookiees instead of the Ewoks, which dramatically tied things together better.  But Wookiees aren’t as cute as Ewoks: Ewoks look like little teddy bears.  Ewoks sell better.

So Lucas made more money from merchandising than he would have otherwise.  It was a calculated move.  The movie suffers for it.  Jedi reeks of cute for two full reels, and it stalls the story.

Then we have another problem.  Like it or not, Star Wars is an epic.  It’s structured like an epic.  Epics have themes.  The theme of Star Wars is “sometimes good people must die in order to forward a worthy cause.”  This is why Ben Kenobi dies in Episode IV.  No one major dies in Episode V, but Han’s death is up in the air.

Harrison Ford has said many times that he felt that Han Solo should have died in Return of the Jedi.  From a dramatic and structural standpoint, he was right.  Han Solo really has nothing to do in the story.  Apparently, different drafts of the script had him dying either in the pit on Tattooine or the raid on the uncompleted Death Star.  Lucas told Ford that there was no money in “dead Han” dolls, and that was the end of it.

The movie suffers for it.  Here’s the problem: yes, it would have been sad to see Han go, just as it was sad to see Ben go, but for the sake of the story, and for the structure of the story, it was important.  You might have been upset the first time you saw it, but it would make more sense to you as you thought about it.

So I had mixed feelings about Episode VI, until I saw Episode I.

I can’t tell you how much I hated The Phantom Menace.  I really, really, really hated it.  There was nothing good about it.  When a great actor like Liam Neeson turns in a bad performance, you know that something is wrong.  I also knew that when we had the climactic chariot race from Ben Hur in the middle of The Phantom Menace, that something was dead wrong.  It’s just called the pod race in Phantom, but trust me, it’s the same thing.  (As a side note, Phantom Menace was an early all-digital film, and I remember thinking that the trailers for it were out-of-focus.  They weren’t.  It just looked like that.)

Ultimately, I hated The Phantom Menace so much that I wouldn’t even see the next two entries in the series.  I still haven’t seen them.  As a kid, I’d loved the Star Wars films, but these were lousy.  I wondered for years how George Lucas had changed so much over the years to make such horrible films.  I read various things.

I came to one clear conclusion: George Lucas never changed.  I hadn’t either.

I read an interview with Martin Scorsese in which he recounts a screening of New York, New York.  Lucas told Scorsese that the movie would make a lot more money if Liza Minnelli and Robert DeNiro would end up together at the end.  Scorsese countered that the movie wouldn’t make any sense if that happened, and Lucas said, “Yeah, but it would make more money.”

That sums it up.  The entire history of movies has been the struggle of Art vs. Commerce.  Repetition and sameness are deadly for art, but they are the heart and soul of commerce.  We go to McDonald’s at midnight because we know that the Big Mac that we are buying is just the same as the one we had in Pittsburgh last week.  They count on that.  On the other hand, if you go to an art show and all the pictures are the same, you feel pretty cheated.  Art is supposed to be unpredictable.  The movies have always been about balancing those two forces.

Scorsese is about Art.

Lucas is about Commerce.

If we look very carefully, Star Wars (Episode IV) isn’t a very good film.  It has moments that are classic, and it has two performances that elevate it into something it wouldn’t have been otherwise.  Dramatically speaking, it’s not anything great, with creaky dialogue and several problems with pacing that should have been addressed.

(OK, don’t beat me up here.  Star Wars Episode 4 changed the world of movies, and I know that.  What I’m saying is that it doesn’t hold up on repeated viewings and has a lot of script problems, just like Lucas’ other productions.  It’s got some good actors who put the script across and enough spectacle to help gloss over the problems that the script has.)

Most importantly, What Star Wars had going for it was that it was the first commercial film to capture the fun of the 1930s movie serials and combine it with the groundbreaking special effects that 2001 had started.  The opening shot was mind-blowing for audiences in 1977.  We’d never seen anything like that.  We were used to sci-fi epics looking desperately fake, like Logan’s Run, which had come out the year before.  This looked very convincing.

Harrison Ford had terrible troubles with the dialogue in the film.  “George, you can type this s***, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”   Mark Hamill remembers Ford making notes in his script, desperately trying to make sense of the lines, trying to find a context in them that would make the character work.  He succeeded.  Ford’s performance, paired with that of Alec Guinness, are the dramatic saving graces of the film.  If we add in Peter Cushing, who makes great use of a brief part, and James Earl Jones, who is unseen as Vader but adds an immeasurable presence to the film, we have a movie that is pretty well acted.

Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher acquit themselves less admirably, but both have gone on to do other things well.  I think this was simply a case of not being able to transcend the material.  Perhaps Ford was only able to do so because his part was better written in the first place.

Alec Guinness was at the preview and complained that the last battle sequence at the Death Star was about five minutes too long.  Bravo, Alec!  He’s absolutely right.  In reissues of the film. I often watch audiences during this scene and they get bored about halfway through.  As spellbinding as this was in 1977, it doesn’t hold up today.  Lucas is too in love with that cool shot of diving into the canyon in the Death Star.  It’s overused; the whole thing is too long.

In addition, there’s a bit of the ending that’s too short!  (Potential spoiler, although not much of one…)  When Han decides at the last minute to join the battle and help rescue Luke, we don’t really know he’s going to do it.  It’s a surprise and it’s cut in at the last second with no establishing shot at all.  It’s jarring to first-time viewers.  Where’s Han?  Where did he come from?  If we’d had a few more shots of Han thinking and one of him trying to get there at the last second, it would have been more dramatic but less surprising.

Lucas was grilled by many critics at the weakness of his script.  To counter this, he brought in Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan for Empire Strikes Back.  This makes the script immensely stronger, even though Empire is really the second part in a three-part epic, the part that’s always the least interesting.  The first part has all the setup, the third part has all the resolution, and the second part just gets all the characters in trouble.

That said, Empire is full of suspense, action and great dialogue.  Lucas hated it.  He resolved to take over more the reins on Jedi, and we saw what that got us.

We note that Lucas made the Indiana Jones films, too.  Well, except that Lawrence Kasdan wrote the first one, and Lucas is said not to have liked the script too much.  His buddies Willard Huyck and Gloria Katz wrote the second one, more to his specifications, and it’s not very good.  The third one was kind of a piecemeal effort and is largely saved by the brilliant performance of Sean Connery.  The less said about the last one, the better.

We also note that when left entirely to his own devices, Lucas can’t really come up with a good epic… I submit Willow (1988) as evidence.  It’s not a great film, and the last reel might as well be the last reel of Return of the Jedi with Jean Marsh substituting for the Emperor.  Reliables like Val Kilmer and Marsh are wasted.  Ron Howard, a variable but often talented director, doesn’t save it.

I can only come to the conclusion that Lucas is, as he has often said, a film cutter at heart.  He does make a mean action sequence. They’re always cool, even if sometimes too long.  He’s not much of a storyteller, and I say that with a big caveat.

Lucas is excellent at creating a story and a universe.  He studied the art of epics and how to structure them.  He doesn’t follow through on it, cuts corners, and can’t make the guts of it, the dialogue and character motivation, work.

And that brings us up to today.  Disney has purchased Lucasfilm.  What’s my reaction?

Well, initially, I had a bad feeling about it (hence the title and hence my quote from the films.)  My initial reaction was that Disney would cute the series up even worse than Lucas had, and I made a video of it. (This was the first video that made it on YouTube as a response to the sale. Gotta be proud of that!)

Disney and Lucas have long had what I think are the same problems.  Disney is often worse, though. Disney saw Star Wars and decided to make a movie with even cuter robots and then graft it on to a remake of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, add in some weird effects and a journey not unlike the end of 2001, and they released it as The Black Hole.  It’s a tremendous misfire of a film.

But, unlike Lucas, Disney has changed since 1979.

Disney has grown and diversified.  They’ve hired new and different people, and they’ve absorbed Pixar while revitalizing their animation unit.

In recent weeks, I heard that Harrison Ford may be interested in playing Han Solo again (something he said he’d never do), and that Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill may be on board too.

I find it even more interesting that Disney is talking to Lawrence Kasdan about writing scripts for the series.  In my opinion, it was Kasdan who saved Jedi, helped save Empire, and made the Indiana Jones series what it was.  He has often said that he didn’t want to work on these films again.

Again, I can only come to one conclusion.  These people didn’t want to work with George Lucas again.  I don’t think they hated him personally… in fact, I think they all regard him as a friend.  Deep down, though, I think they all realize that George was his own worst enemy on the Star Wars films.

I’m not a big Disney fan.  I admit it.  They are big bullies and throw money and legal logistics around like a baker throws pizza dough.  That said, can they save the Star Wars franchise?

I’m not sure.  They’ve made some good first steps.  Frankly, they couldn’t make films much worse than George did.

Howard’s Blend

Do you recognize this woman?  She was a fashion editor for Harper’s Bazaar, a famous singer at the Metropolitan Opera, and she had her jaw broken by Barbara Stanwyck.

And yet you probably don’t know her for any of those things.

The woman in this photo is Kathleen Howard (1884-1956), who is best remembered today as probably the most memorable in a string of “shrewish wives” depicted in WC Fields films.  Like Fields regular Elise Cavanna, who I wrote about last year, Howard moved seamlessly between major careers.  She was renowned in each one, but each was different enough that many people don’t realize that she was the same Kathleen Howard.

Howard’s performances in three of Fields’ films, You’re Telling Me (1934), It’s a Gift (1934), and The Man on the Flying Trapeze (1935) are nothing short of brilliant.  It’s easy to descend into just a bitchy, clichéd performance as a Fields wife, but Howard transcends that.  She’s given the characters a back story, and you can feel the frustrations in her life that have made her into the person she is.  That said, she is also supremely awful to Fields, in ways that have him cringing in fear.  Howard is human but still horrible.

Back in the pre-internet days, we’d look at Howard’s filmography and see that she seemed to burst on the scene in 1934 with a supporting performance in Death Takes a Holiday.  But where was she before that?  Most stage actors dabbled in silent film and had a few credits before gaining fame in talkies.

But Kathleen Howard never made a silent film.  She was busy singing.  As a child, she wanted to be a singer, but everyone told her that could never happen.  That didn’t stop her.  She worked her way to the top as a contralto at the Metropolitan Opera.

She even wrote a highly entertaining book about it.  It’s called Confessions of an Opera Singer, and you can read it here.  Interestingly, her story parallels Edie Adams’ story (which Adams also chronicled in a book).  Both were told that they couldn’t make it as singers, that almost no one really did, that women couldn’t handle their own careers, etc.  And both were determined to make it anyway, which they did.

Howard was popular enough outside the opera house to be a recording star, and it’s actually fairly easy to hear her singing in the late teens and early twenties.  Here are some.

But the best parts are for young singers, and Howard got a little old for it by the mid-1920s, so she switched gears.  She became the fashion editor for the magazine Harper’s Bazaar.  This was no third-rate magazine; it was one of the best in the business, and Howard wrote many articles while managing the other contributors.  (This also parallels Edie Adams somewhat, since Edie became her own fashion designer in the 1960s.)  You can see the cover of one of her Harper’s issues here.

Then, abruptly, in 1934, she offered her talents to Hollywood.  This may sound like a leap of faith, but as an opera performer, one is also doing a great deal of acting, so she was not without considerable experience.

Again, I don’t like to link to YouTube clips that violate copyright, and I didn’t post this one, but in this case, I really think you need to see Howard in action.  This is the porch scene from It’s a Gift (1934), which is one of the funniest scenes in one of the funniest films ever made.  If you don’t agree with me, then you’re wrong.  I’m not even going to argue with you about it.

People like Howard fascinate me because they’ve had successful careers in varied fields.  I tend to be unsuccessful at everything I attempt, and yet Kathleen Howard was at the top three different times.  I love her blend of careers and the way she just seemed to move effortlessly among them.  Sometimes performers are inactive for years at a stretch while they regroup and try something different.  Not Howard.  She was in there and working.

Howard was just another of the brilliant people who surrounded WC Fields.  Contrary to his public image, I am more and more seeing Fields a loyal friend who helped out other actors.  Howard and Elise Cavanna were both great performers who did multiple roles.

Another guy I keep spotting in Fields pictures, sometimes just in the briefest walk-on part, is Lew Kelly.  I’d love to have a whole write-up on him, but I just don’t have enough information, so I’ll hijack this posting a little for him.

Kelly (1879-1944) was a vaudeville headliner who traveled the world as Professor Dope, a character that apparently made fun of drug addicts (this was very popular in the teens.)  By the 1920s, his career had more or less dried up, but he became a popular utility player for many comedians in the 1930s.

Kelly appeared with Wheeler and Woolsey, multiple shorts with the Three Stooges, but he’s in seven films with WC Fields from 1932-35, often in uncredited bit parts.  Kelly was one of those guys who could just be pointed into the scene and would give a good performance every time.

What does all this add up to?  Not much, I suppose.  It gives a little context to history.  I see some of these films and wonder who some of those people were in their “real” life.  I keep finding that the answers are really fascinating to me, and I hope they are to some of you, too.


I had some fascinating off-line chatter on this topic.  Dr. Philip Carli sent a nice followup in a response that I’ll include in the text here.  Also, David Heighway discovered a nice picture of Howard in Götterdämmerung that I just had to post.  Here are both of these followups.


It should be mentioned that Howard was the leading contralto at the Metropolitan Opera in the teens alongside the legendary Ernestine Schumann-Heink; both women were among the very few of their period to achieve popular celebrity in that voice, and indeed both singers had extremely wide ranges, reaching well up into the mezzo-soprano range as well as into the low alto register. Judging from her few Pathé and Edison recordings, she was one of the great ones, but her career was awkwardly placed on each side of WWI so her career was largely split between Germany and the US. Although contralto parts are often secondary and frequently “women of a certain age” parts, Howard’s vocal and acting range was wide enough that she sang the title roles in Saint-Saens’ Samson et Delilah and Bizet’s Carmen with great success in Europe, and she looked pretty sexy in both parts, judging from contemporary photographs. She also created at least one notable operatic role, that of the greedy and pompous aunt, Zita (originally named “La Vecchia”, or “the old lady”), in Puccini’s only outright comedy, the one-act Gianni Schicci, which had its world premiere at the Met on 14 December 1918 with the celebrated baritone Giuseppe de Luca in the title part and American soprano Florence Easton as Lauretta (who sings “O mio babbino caro”, one of Puccini’s most famous arias); music critic James Huneker praised Howard’s comic performance as “the horrid hag” in his New York Times review the next day, unwittingly predicting the way her acting career would go with Fields.

Heighway’s photo:



Ten Questions with Bob Furmanek

Since the Dr. Film blog is very pro-preservation, I thought I’d highlight some people who are doing preservation work.  It saves me work on writing blogs (yay), and it gets some publicity to people who are fighting the good fight for preservation.

I’ve got several feelers out for people in the biz, but this will be our first one.

Mr. Furmanek poses with heavy 35mm reels and a Simplex XL.

 Q1.  I know you have worked with Jerry Lewis on some of his films. We all know Jerry as a philanthropist and a comedian.  Can you tell us a little about what you’ve done with Jerry and how Jerry feels about film preservation?

I began working for Jerry in 1984 and worked for several years as his personal archivist. He owned a huge warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that contained material dating back to the 1940’s, including home movies, scrapbooks, photo albums, recordings, transcriptions, kinescopes, etc. It was my responsibility to identify and catalog all of the material. It took two years to get the job done.

He is very supportive of film preservation and has often expressed  his concern over the deterioration of important materials. He has lent his name and support to several projects that I’ve worked on over the years, including the restoration of a 1928 Loew’s movie palace. I know that he has donated some of his vast collection to both the UCLA Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Q2. You recently did a show at George Eastman House showcasing some of your 3D collection.  Can you tell us about that?

Jack Theakston and I were asked to present a program on the history of 3-D motion pictures at the Dryden Theater and it was a great thrill. I had never been to the George Eastman House before this event and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I brought the only known polarized 3-D print of Robot Monster and the audience loved it. They have a very conscientious staff and I look forward to presenting more 3-D programs at the Dryden Theater in the future.

Q3.  Tell us a little more about your 3D work.  You’ve really done a lot to preserve 3D over the years.

Thank you Eric, that’s very kind. I began my work over 30 years ago when I discovered that the studios and copyright holders were not being very proactive in preserving their 3-D holdings. Thankfully, the situation has gotten better at most of the studios. Most recently, we were able to insure preservation of the science-fiction film Gog and that was very gratifying.

The full story of the Archive’s history is on our website at http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/home/history-of-the-archive

Q4.  I recently heard about your quest to bring some 3D Blu-rays out to the market.  Can you tell us about that and how we might be able to help that happen?

We recently provided important research materials to both Warner Bros. and NBC Universal on their 3-D holdings. Thanks to our documentation, both Dial M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon were mastered in their director-intended aspect ratio. It’s the first time both films have been presented in widescreen since the original theatrical release.  Viewers will no longer see the scissors pre-set device on Anthony Dawson’s back or the telephone pole in the upper reaches of the Amazon which were both visible in the open-matte versions. It’s very important to honor the director’s creative vision.

So far as how you can help, my best recommendation is to support the initial two Golden Age 3-D releases on Blu-ray. Dial M is available as a stand-alone release and Creature can be purchased in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray set. It’s also available as a single disc, region free disc in the UK. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creature-Black-Lagoon-Blu-ray-Region/dp/B008LSAQPW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350684816&sr=8-1

If these titles perform well, it will encourage the studios to dig deeper for other vintage 3-D material. There were fifty 3-D features produced between 1952 – 1955 so there’s a lot of prime stereoscopic material still buried in the vaults.

Q5. I know you’re a big fan of a really short-lived color process called Super Cinecolor.  We’re all geeks here.  Tell us about that and why Super Cinecolor is cool.

My interest began around 40 years ago. As a fan of Abbott and Costello, it always bothered me when their two Super Cinecolor features (Jack and the Beanstalk, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd) were shown on television in black and white. I eventually tracked down a 35mm print of Beanstalk in the mid-1970’s from an old time distributor in Baltimore, Robert T. Marhanke. I’ll never forget how vivid the colors looked on that 1952 print and it encouraged me to learn more about the process. When seen in an original 35mm print, the process has a very unique look with neon blues and deep, vivid reds which lend itself well to costume films and science-fiction titles. Some of my favorites are The Highwayman, Invaders from Mars and The Magic Carpet.

Because of the unique aspect of the double emulsion stock, it’s very difficult to accurately transfer Cinecolor materials in telecine. When I produced Special Edition laser discs of Beanstalk and Bela Lugosi’s Scared to Death (in two color Cinecolor) I was very careful to replicate the vibrant and somewhat unnatural hues found on the original 35mm prints.

Q6. You were THE GUY who rediscovered the missing color footage for the Star Trek episode “The Cage.”  I know it’s a little asterisk in your career, but it was really important for a lot of Star Trek geeks.  How did that happen and how close was that to being tossed out?

I found the footage in a vault with other negatives, IP’s [Interpositives] and fine grains. The vault was full of material from long-closed accounts and the film would have eventually been destroyed. It was not labeled and was lying on the floor under the bottom rack of a shelf. When I pried open the rusty can, there was a roll of color 35mm negative. I un-spooled the first few feet and when I saw the Enterprise, I realized that I had found something very special. This was around 1987 and Paramount had just released the pilot on home video using color footage from “The Menagerie” with the trims inserted from a 16mm black and white work print. When I inspected the footage, I found that it contained all of the trims removed in editing the two part episode. We contacted Gene Roddenberry’s office at Paramount and made arrangements to return the one-of-a-kind film directly to him.

Q7. Most collectors have a holy grail of collecting, something that they hope might be out there but they haven’t found yet.  Do you have something like that?

Yes, I would love to find the last missing Lippert 3-D short, Bandit Island with Lon Chaney. It had a limited 3-D release in both polarized and anaglyphic versions in the fall of 1953. One side survives in the 1954 feature The Big Chase but I would love to find the missing side. I tracked down all of the lab records and the 35mm materials were last accounted for in 1954. The only hope for its survival might be a 35mm release print in private hands.

Q8. You’ve long been an advocate of good, strong 35mm projection.  With the advent of good digital projection, do you still feel as strongly about 35mm?

I certainly do. Digital has a clean but somewhat unnatural look to me, especially if it’s been tweaked and scrubbed clean of natural film grain. Plus, there is something special about watching an original 35mm print that was screened theatrically when a film was first released. I often wonder how many thousands of people sat in a theater watching this very same print for the first time on the big screen.

Q9. I seem to recall that you were once working on a restoration of another short-lived process called Perspecta.  Tell us about Perspecta and why that was interesting.  Can you give us a short list of important titles that were released in Perspecta?

I was very good friends with the late Bob Eberenz, the gentleman that worked with Robert Fine in developing the system for MGM. Bob had restored a 1954 Fairchild integrator for me and hearing those films with the original panning and gain control was quite a surprise. Even though it’s still a mono signal, the effect of fullness and left/center/right separation could be very convincing.

I presented an all-Perspecta show on April 26, 2002 at a 1928 movie palace on a fifty-foot screen. We ran Forbidden Planet plus MGM shorts, cartoons and a promo reel. The Fine and Eberenz families were in the audience and it was a very special evening. After the show, I had people tell me how convincing the Perspecta sounded when spread across that big screen.

About ten years ago, Bob and I approached several studios and offered to preserve their Perspecta tracks to a new master so they could be utilized for home video. Unfortunately, none were interested.

Some of the noteworthy films in Perspecta include High Society, Bad Day at Black Rock, This Island Earth, Away All Boats, White Christmas, To Catch a Thief, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, East of Eden and The Barefoot Contessa.

10.  I’ve been asked questions by ignorant reporters all my life.  This is the question I always want to give people: What’s the most important question that I should have asked you but didn’t?  Once you tell me that, please answer that question!

Oh, I don’t know, how about asking if I’ve had any regrets in doing this work?

To that question I will answer, absolutely. Everybody makes mistakes and I’ve made some doozies. But all in all, I’m proud of what’s been accomplished. There’s a renewed and growing interest now in Golden Age 3-D and I’d like to think in a small way, I’ve played a part in that revival. With the technical availability now to master the original left/right elements in HD and align and correct any registration issues, we can truly make these films look better than ever before. That presents a very exciting opportunity to restore and preserve the filmmakers original stereoscopic vision.  I hope to have an ongoing involvement in bringing vintage 3-D material to Blu-ray.

I’ve had a great time chatting with you Eric, thank you so much for your interest in my work.