Kongo Lessons

Restoration Demo for King of the Kongo (it looks even cooler in HD!)

Some of you may not be aware that I’m in the midst of restoring The King of the Kongo (1929), which is the first sound serial ever made.  You’d think that people would be happy that I’m doing it, but I get frequent complaints about it, and a lot of questions.  I’m going to answer some of these today.

Q1: Why are you restoring a serial that’s bad and the prints aren’t great?

A: Because it’s bad and the prints aren’t great.  The archives weren’t interested in this one.  I tried.  They didn’t care.  They probably shouldn’t care, either, because part of their job is triage.  I think it’s important—it is important—it’s just that there are a lot of films in worse shape that are in line ahead of it, so I’m doing this myself.

The bottom line is that I knew that if I didn’t restore it, then no one would, and I knew where all the elements were, so I wanted to get it done while we could.

Q2: Is the whole serial sound?

A: The serial is part silent and part talkie.  The trade papers are a little confused about this, so I can’t prove this theory.  The trades at the time announced The King of the Kongo as being available in silent and sound versions.  There’s even an announcement that the silent version is finished and they’re starting on the talkie version.  But there’s no mention that I can find anywhere of the serial being played without sound.  I suspect that there was only a sound version released, and that is part silent (with synchronized music and effects) with one scene per reel with synchronized dialogue.

Q3: What survives on the serial?  Are you restoring the whole thing?

A: The entire picture exists.  There were 21 reels initially and we have 10 reels of the sound.  That’s a little less than half of the original sound that survives.  Of those, Chapters 5, 6 and 10 exist with complete sound.  Three other chapters have one reel of sound with the other still being lost (each chapter is two reels and hence two discs of sound.)

I restored Chapter 5 with Kickstarter funds, Chapter 10 with National Film Preservation Foundation funding, and Chapter 6 is being done now.  For all three Chapters, I owe thanks and funding support to Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc. (There’s a lot of drama about how Silent Cinema saved my bacon in previous blog installments.)  I may go back and restore the the picture for the rest of the episodes and drop in the sound for those parts that survive.  The complete chapters that survive have been archived to film.

Q4: This is the digital age.  Why waste money on film?

A: The restorations were done digitally and archived on film because film never crashes and goes beep when you turn it on.  Film is archival.

Q5: Are you going to put this on YouTube?

A: No.

Q6: Will it be available on Blu-Ray?

A: I hope so.

Q7: A friend of mine told me that UCLA has 35mm prints of this serial and so you’re wasting your time on this bad print you’re restoring.

A: I hear this rumor all the time.  You know what I did about it?  I contacted UCLA.  You know what they told me?  They have a 16mm print, just like mine and it’s under a donor restriction, so I couldn’t access it anyway.  There is one more print in the US that I’ve heard about in private hands, and I couldn’t access that.  There’s another 16mm print in France that’s not better than mine.  There’s a partial 35mm in an unnamed US archive that’s also under donor restriction, meaning we can’t get to it.  So that’s it, folks.  I contacted the donors for permission and they said no.

You want footwork to find the best materials?  I did it.

Q8: It’s frustrating to watch a serial a chapter at a time and then out of sequence.  Why don’t you wait until you find all the sound and restore it then?

A: Because we may never find all of the sound.  And right now, we’re at a point where I can sync the sound and picture with the help of some people I know.  Later on that might not happen.

Q9: Why did you restore Chapter 10 and then Chapter 6?

A: Because we found the complete sound for Chapter 6 after Chapter 10 was already underway.

Q10: There’s a whole group of people who do serial restorations who are spreading bad rumors about you.  Do you hate them?

A: No.  I can’t hate people who do restorations.  I contacted those people some time ago, offered to pool resources, and was told to go away.  So I went away.  They were convinced that they could do a better restoration than I could do, and that they knew where all the sound discs were.  To date, they have not done a restoration.  I would still be happy to pool resources with them.  I feel that films should be restored from the best elements.  If they know where better materials are (and they might exist in private hands), then I’m willing to help.  I suspect that the elements they thought were complete were the same incomplete ones that I found in private hands, and I bought them so I could do my restoration.  But I would still help them if they asked.

Q11: I heard that Library of Congress has all the sound discs.

A: I heard that too.  I asked them, and I contacted the film people and the audio people.  Do you know what they told me?  They don’t have them.

Q12: Does this look better than the DVD that I bought of this?

A: You bet it does.

Q13: The DVD I bought is silent with music, but has long stretches with no titles.  Is your music the same?

A: You have the sound version missing the dialogue track.  About half of each episode was silent with intertitles.  The remaining half had dialogue. The music on your DVD is patched in later to go with the action.  The original score by Lee Zahler is on the discs, plus dialogue in all those long stretches with no titles.

Q14: I heard a rumor that you may start a Kickstarter program to release a Blu-Ray.  That seems kind of crooked to me, since you got grant money to do the restorations.

A: I got grant money to do the lab work for the restorations. The lab work (scanning, track re-recording, and digital film out) was covered.  All the by-hand work (sync, image restoration, etc.) was free.  And we’d need to do that work on the 7 chapters that still need their picture restored.

Q15: Did you learn anything of historical significance while you were restoring the serial?

Yes, some.

Ben Model’s undercranking theories are borne out here.  The silent sequences are shot at about 21-22 fps and then played back at 24.  The actors haven’t adjusted to this yet, so they’re still playing slower for 21-22 which makes the dialogue deadly slow.  Once again, we see that audiences in the silent days were used to seeing films played back slightly faster than they were shot.

This film has some very interesting set design and some interesting lighting, almost expressionistic.  It’s mostly lost in the prints we see today.

Despite the fact that the film has that deadly 1929 slow pacing, I note that director Richard Thorpe has put some interesting touches in it.  There’s a long shot in which Robert Frazier is tailed by Lafe McKee and William Burt.  It’s staged to show off the set and so that we get a sense of distance between McKee and Frazier, but it’s all done in one shot with no cutting.  There’s not a second where nothing is happening onscreen, but it’s done very economically.

Mascot used black slugs (pieces of leader) to resynchronize shots that had drifted out of sync.  I’ve seen this in The Devil Horse (1931), The Whispering Shadow (1933) and The Phantom Empire (1935).  I could have taken them out, but it’s part of the Mascot “feel” and “history,” so I left them in.  There are several in Chapter 10.

There’s a little throwaway line in which Lafe McKee refers to Robert Frazier as “black boy.”  It’s 1929 racism.  I left it in (you probably wouldn’t have noticed if I’d cut it.)

Q16: You were talking about donor restrictions.  Do you mean that the donor of the film restricted access to the films after donating them?

That’s exactly what I mean.

Q17: You mean that we spend taxpayer money housing and cooling films that the donors won’t let us see?

I do mean that, yes.  And that’s the topic of another blog post.  Remember, I don’t make the rules.  I just live with them.