Many of you know that James Cozart passed away on March 25. I can’t say that I knew him well. I can say that I knew him, and that he was one of the most fascinating people I have ever come across. James knew more about film than anyone I ever met. He knew more in his little finger about film than I know in my whole body. And he was wonderful in putting it together into a whole picture. He knew different film stocks, different color processes, different sound recording techniques, even the way different studios sounded internally.
But James wasn’t wired the same way most of us are. If you want the classic absent-minded professor, it was James. Not that he was senile or anything, far from that. But he was focused so much on his work that he sometimes would miss the big picture. He would tell me things that I found hilarious, and I would laugh, and he would look at me, not understanding what was funny. If you had a problem with a film that he could help with, then he was so dedicated, so giving, that he would sometimes work on things to the detriment of his personal life. I know this because I caused some of these to happen, so I became careful when I asked him questions.
I can’t really spin a good narrative about James. I miss him a lot, and was saving some questions for him for Columbus Cinevent. What I can do is give you some of my favorite Cozart stories in a non-linear fashion. It’s not the best way to do this, but it’s the only way I can.
For those of you who don’t know, James was a fixture at the Library of Congress since at least the mid-70s. I don’t really know when he started. (Update: Cynthia tells me that he started in 1984. Shows what I know.) He was always in charge of quality control at the labs, making sure that what came out looked good, and he was picky about it. We all have him to thank for that. He worked on literally hundreds of films, but because he worked at an archive, he didn’t take credit for his work. It’s very possible that no other person ever worked on restoring as many films as James has. Let that sink in for a moment.
I was at the Cinecon in 1995 sitting next to Ted Larson (now also sadly deceased), and we were listening to Sylvia Sidney have an attitude attack about her career. She’d written off the whole group, because someone who made up the program book listed her as Silvia Sydney, prompting her response “I’m not even here!” She was further upset that they wouldn’t let her smoke in the theater at UCLA, because it was a nitrate screening. “Nitrate, schmitrate,” she yelled, as they started her film, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936).
Years later, I was discussing with James the change in carbon arc projection that occurred in 1940 or so, and how Technicolor changed the balance of the colors to accommodate the change in the color of the carbon arc. James said that the early prints would look yellowish today to balance the older bluer arcs. I mentioned the screening of Lonesome Pine (I hadn’t even been aware that Cozart was there, but he was.) I said that this print didn’t look yellow to me, at which point James politely interrupted me.
“That wasn’t a 1936 print. That had a Realart logo on the front of it, which would have made it a 1948 reissue print. Still nitrate, but balanced for the newer arcs.”
“James, you remember a screening from 15 years ago with a logo that couldn’t have been on screen for more than 5 seconds.”
He looked at me, surprised, and said, “Well, yeah!”
I was discussing with him the ways he’d spliced zillions of films over the years. Jokingly, I told him, “James Cozart is the kind of guy who doesn’t know where his own shoes are, but if you asked him where he spliced a film 20 years ago, he could tell you within 10 feet.” He looked at me seriously, and said, “No, I think within 5 feet.”
Later on, when one of his co-workers found me alone, she laughed and told me confidentially that James occasionally came in with mismatched shoes. I’d had no idea that was true.
Back in the early 90s, one of my first encounters with James was when he put out an APB for flickery old silent films. He described the special kind of flicker, saying it was Kinemacolor. I remembered that I had some of it in an old Castle newsreel. I sent it to him so that the Library could copy it.
He wrote me back, saying that this was Kinemacolor, but he remembered seeing the footage before. He thought it was in an old Warners newsreel.
After months, he found the newsreel and printed that instead. He restored the color to it and showed it at the next Cinesation.
I asked him if I could get a print of the material. He told me it was impossible. I reminded him that I’d helped, and that I’d be happy to pay for the print. He then went on to explain archive procedure, and I learned a lesson then: too much red tape for me. That’s why I don’t work at an archive.
But remember this. It will come back again…
A few years ago in Rome, NY, I was discussing with James some of the films he’d brought. He then started to describe this rare nitrate that the library had been given, which he was inspecting.
He had, just a couple of nights before, been locked into the building in Culpeper, VA. The Library of Congress has a strict security procedure and they close the doors, shut out the lights, and turn off the elevators at a certain time.
James had been in his office inspecting this print, which he’d gotten at 2pm, and then at 8pm (which was at least 2 hours after closing), they’d shut off all the lights.
He had to call security and tell them that he was still there, so he could get out.
I laughed, and he looked at me again, with one of those looks that meant he didn’t understand why this was funny.
“You didn’t eat, drink, go to the bathroom, call anyone, or even look out into the hall for six hours, because you were looking at that film,” I said.
“And you don’t understand why that’s funny?”
We were in Osgood Indiana seeing a theater called the Damm Theater, which was really its name. This was a treasure trove of wonderful stuff, and it was when the Library archives were still in Dayton Ohio. The family that owned the theater, the Damms, had never thrown anything away, and so the place was full of antiques.
I contacted James and said that he needed to see this place. Osgood isn’t that far from Dayton, so he agreed to come and spend the day.
James identified pieces of projectors, Vitaphone disc players, and glass slides, all stuff that even I didn’t recognize. We had dinner with the Damms and we all seemed to enjoy ourselves.
The owner, Bob Damm, had some health issues, and he died a few years later. It was after the Library had moved to Culpeper. I spoke with his widow, and by happenstance, the next day, we met James in New York.
We’d just attended a screening of a print of Starevitch’s The Mascot and I’d noticed that the Library of Congress print had some footage in it that my print didn’t have… but my print had some footage in it that theirs didn’t have, too!
I mentioned this to James, and he started to ask me some questions about the film.
Before I got started, I told him about Bob Damm. Yes, he remembered, and there was a cursory, oh, sorry.
“But tell me about the soundtrack of your print… is it English or French?”
That would have offended a lot of people. They would consider it mean and inconsiderate. But I smiled. It was just James. That’s just how he was. He was seeking out material for a restoration! James couldn’t be mean if he tried. It just wasn’t in him.
We were in the parking lot with James’ wife Cynthia a couple of years ago and she told us that it was their 40th anniversary. James was a few feet ahead enthusiastically carrying a DVD player he’d found.
I scooted up and congratulated James.
“Oh, yeah,” he said, “But did I tell you about this DVD player? It plays all the regions, and breaks out the copy guard, and you can directly access the MPEG layers on it.”
If I’d been Cynthia, I’d have smacked him. But she understood better than I did. I looked at her and smiled. She shrugged knowingly.
James was a supporter of a television museum in Ohio. I’ve never been to it, and I’m not even sure which one it is, but he would restore TVs and donate them to the museum. One year at the Columbus Cinevent (it was the last year they had it in this hotel, so it would have been 2014), someone broke into James‘ car. By this time, the hotel was getting to be in a rather poor neighborhood and several people had cars that were vandalized.
James told me that they’d broken the front window and stolen his cell phone. But he was confused, because there was a fully restored 1949 television in the back seat worth $3000 that they just left.
I mentioned that this TV was probably 80 pounds and more than they wanted to carry.
“Yes, but the cell phone didn’t even have the charger with it. I can’t find the charger. How much good can they get out of that?”
I didn’t think much of it until the next day. He came up to me and said, “I found the charger. It was in my suitcase, inside my shoe!”
Glory burst out laughing. He didn’t understand why.
Remember that story about the Kinemacolor? Well in the ensuing years, I have become a rambling film historian, and I do a show on old color processes in films.
I decided that I was going to FINALLY get a print of that Kinemacolor footage even if I had to do it myself. So I did it myself. There’s an amazing amount of documentation online, so I ordered a scan of my old Castle newsreel and went into Photoshop to recreate this effect manually, in preparation for putting this back onto film.
But it didn’t work. It looked funny and yellow. I couldn’t understand it.
I emailed James and told him what I was doing. Probably three lines in an email, just asking what was wrong.
The next day, I got a seven-page letter back. He explained that Kinemacolor was shot with different filter than they used to play it back, so if I simply changed the filter color then it would all work out, which it did.
But it took seven pages of detailed documentation to tell me this. By the way, it was terribly interesting and very pertinent, but seven pages? That was James. He had to be complete.
I did a restoration on King of the Kongo, and I’d consulted with James a little on it. This was before the days when we had all the tools like DropBox that we have now.
I uploaded the huge file to one of my servers, but Earthlink kept slowing it down due to traffic. Eventually, it would time out and you couldn’t get to it at all.
He emailed me and said that he’d figured out their throttling algorithm, and that if he’d get up at 3am, it wouldn’t slow down until 6 and he could get it.
I told him to wait on it.
“Why?” he asked.
“James, it’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “Spend some time doing something else.”
We did a screening of Kongo at Syracuse Cinefest, and I knew James would have something to say. Nothing about the film, nothing about the sound I’d worked on, only this:
“I saw that before on the computer, but when I saw it on the big screen, I noticed that the white areas had halos around them. Who did that scan for you? They didn’t use enough bit depth.”
It was the last time I used that company for scanning. He was right.
I mentioned Leni Riefenstahl to James one time, and he told me that he’d spoken with her.
“Yes, I threw out some film she made.”
“I was working at a lab and she’d had the film developed, but she never paid for it and never printed it, so we sent her a letter, and she didn’t respond, so we threw it out.”
“She called and started yelling at me in broken English, and I told her it was lab policy. I just handed the phone to my boss. I didn’t want to listen to that.”
The topic of Astoria (NY) studios came up once (I’m not sure why), and he perked up and said, “You can always tell a movie that’s shot there, because the sound is bad.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Because the ceiling is some sort of glass vaulted dome and it reflects the sound back downward, so there’s a bad echo in it. You can always hear it when you’re watching a movie.”
“I’ve noticed the films there don’t sound that great, but I thought it was because of the early sound process.”
“No. When I was with the military in the late 50s, I helped design a sound baffle in there so we could shoot in that studio and make the sound come out right. I think they took it down later.”
James famously never knew if a film was any good. He only knew if it was rare and he knew if the print quality was good. He couldn’t identify the actors in the films by seeing them. He told me that he didn’t register faces well. If it was really a terrible movie, then he’d know how bad it was, because the actors weren’t good, but sometimes a great movie went past him.
Ultimately, I realized that he wasn’t seeing the same film the rest of us saw. He saw a collection of actors, frames, effects, gamma changes, and little flaws that may or may not have been fixed. And that was OK, because he enjoyed that. He could tell you what sort of film stock was used in the original, what lab was used, etc, etc. He knew all of it.
He told me once about Victory (1918) that had a scene in it with Lon Chaney falling off a ledge. He said that in the nitrate, if you looked really closely, there was a thin wire on Chaney’s ankle that stopped his fall before he broke his neck (there’s a similar scene in Chaney’s West of Zanzibar.) James then told me that this was un-seeable on the DVD issue because they had duplicated the nitrate poorly.
The catch? He couldn’t even remember that it was Chaney in this scene, so he referred to him as “the actor.”
While we’re on the topic of Chaney pictures, he was watching The Scarlet Car (1917) and there’s a scene in it that has the headlights of a car in a key scene.
James was really interested in this since he knew that the color of headlights in those days wouldn’t register on the sort of film they had in 1917. So he watched the nitrate over and over to figure it out. Finally he noticed the lights flickered a bit. AHA, he thought! AC wiring. He looked, and you could just barely see the long extension cords being run to power the headlights so that they showed up in the film.
James usually rented a van to drive up to Capitolfest in Rome NY, so he could save shipping expenses on the films. They are in big, sturdy cans, and not a lot is going to hurt them. Anyone else would just have thrown the films in the back of the van and moved on.
Not James. I helped him pack the films in the van a few times, and he always put the films in the seats and fastened seat belts around each can.
I’d visited Bruce Lawton’s grandfather in 2004, and he had a print of Baron Munchausen that we watched. It broke in one section, and Bruce’s grandfather just took out the frames and handed them to me.
A few days later I visited Rome NY for the first time at the Capitolfest, and James was there. I handed him the frames without saying anything.
“Agfacolor from the 1940s!” he exclaimed. “But wait, this base isn’t triacetate, and it’s not nitrate either. I need to take this to the lab and examine it.”
I never did find out if he figured out what it was.
You’d think that James only understood film, but he was a technology master. He worked on lawn mowers, television sets, cobbled together computers from pieces, and understood and used digital restoration technology.
I hate to imagine all the parts he’s left behind.