“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!

Happy Birthday, Lon Chaney! London After Midnight Found at Last!

Indianapolis, IN–Born April 1, 1883, Lon Chaney was one of the greatest of silent film stars.  Best remembered for his roles in Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney was known the world over for his chameleon-like ability to inhabit strange and different roles.  One of his most famous was as a vampire in London After Midnight (1927), a film that has not been seen in public since at least 1970, and probably well before.  The last known copy perished in a vault fire, and no copies were known to exist in private hands.

Until today.

Preservationist Eric Grayson, who independently seeks out rare films to preserve and share them, discovered a print in a private collection in October.

“Like so many silent film finds, it wasn’t where you’d expect to find it at all,” Grayson said in a telephone interview.  “People have been searching for it for decades.  There was a rumor that the film had been in San Francisco, in Sweden, or that a French 9.5mm print survived.  This was in the basement of a collector in rural Illinois.”

The print, on 35mm safety stock, was a surprise to everyone.  As far as anyone knew, no prints had been made since the 1920s.

“This guy was a bigwig in the local theater circuit, and he wanted a print, so he asked MGM, and they made him one.  It was struck in 1956, so it’s in good shape and looks better than a lot of the other Lon Chaney pictures that have survived,” Grayson said.

Such things are unusual, but not unique.  A 35mm print of Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928), printed under similar circumstances, has been bouncing from collector to collector for some years now.  Also, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), long thought to be lost, showed up in a near-mint 16mm print in a private collection a few years ago.

Grayson stated that the print required a little cleaning and special care, but is essentially projectable as-is.  He quietly prepared a special high-definition digital transfer and then had a special card up his sleeve.

London After Midnight will premiere on TCM,” said programming president Charlie Tabesh.  “Eric basically blackmailed us to do what he wanted.  We didn’t have a choice.”

Grayson, an ardent film preservationist, has been trying to sell an independently made television show for several years now.  Entitled Dr. Film, the show promotes film preservation while also being a silly tribute to old-fashioned movie hosts.

“He said he’d sent us several copies of his pilot,” Tabesh said, “but frankly we’d never seen it.  Then, when London After Midnight showed up, he called us and said that we weren’t getting it unless it became part of the first Dr. Film episode on TCM.”

Grayson wasn’t kidding.  He has wanted to share other films from his collection for years, but runs into a lot of audience apathy.  Having dealt with archives for many years, he knew about a special loophole that would cement his case.

“I told them if they didn’t green-light a few episodes of Dr. Film, then I would donate London After Midnight to an archive, with the stipulation that Warner Brothers, the copyright owner, couldn’t access it.  There are a lot of films at archives with silly stipulations on them like that, and they have to be honored.”

“Eric is lucky,” said another film collector, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  “Frankly, his pilot for Dr. Film was awful.  He’s so passionate about preserving oddball films that the ones he picked for the pilot episode were just appalling.  Sure, they were rare, but who cares?  TCM is so stodgy and stuck in its ways that something like his goofy take on Dr. Film would normally just leave them wondering what they were seeing.”

Instead, Grayson has a six-episode commitment from TCM for his new show, headlined by a Lon Chaney retrospective as the first installment.  He promises to showcase films that others have ignored and abused over the years.

London After Midnight won’t be the only lost film we show,” Grayson said.  “It will just be the most famous one.”

And what of the timing of the announcement?  Some might question the revelation on April Fools’ Day.

“Yes,” Grayson said, “but it’s also Lon Chaney’s 130th birthday, so we thought it was appropriate.  I can’t show any of the film because of my contractual agreement with TCM, but I’ll put up a YouTube video that should quiet most of the doubts.”

London After Midnight debuts on December 17, the 86th anniversary of the film’s release.

Dr. Film will continue on the next 5 Friday nights afterward on TCM.

“If enough people watch, then TCM will have us do more.  I’ve got more movies… we just have to see if people care enough to watch them.”

Naysayers: note this is an original 1950s paper reel band from MGM (below) and a 1920s, NO TRACK MGM Logo. This is exactly what is indicated in the press release.


OK, enough drama over this post!  It was all an April Fool, guys!  Come on!  Did you really think that if I had this movie since October that someone would have leaked info on it?