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!

 

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10 Responses to Kongo Speaks! Karloff Clams Up!

  1. cookie says:

    reclusive collector – ss-ss-ss-ss-ss-ss-ss-ss-ss-ss (chuckle)

  2. Whew! I don’t know, Dr. Film. I’ve seen some of this and it’s pretty awful. But that really isn’t the point, is it? This is an interesting bit of film history, the first serial in sound (sort of) and should be seen. Bravo to you for all your work in restoring one chapter (not sure we could take anymore!)

  3. drfilm says:

    It deserves to be seen if it can be seen. I’d like to find some of Karloff’s dialogue scenes… I suspect he has some in the later chapters. I don’t want to tip my hand because I know the ending!

  4. Dave S. says:

    I have the complete dilog script for King of the Kongo from the NYS Archives. The dialog on the files I have is approximate. After watching your videos from chapter 5 on YouTube, I can tell that the script that Mascot sent in to NYS was a script, not *the* script. Of course that 1929 was before xerox machines, computers, etc. I know they had carbon paper back then, but that may have been about it.

    I uploaded those scripts (all 10 chapters) as pdf files to the Yahoo cliffhanger serials group’s FILES section. If anyone wants them, the easiest thign to do is to just join that Yahoo group and check the FILES section to download.

    <a href="http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/Cliffhangerserials/&quot; http://movies.groups.yahoo.com/group/Cliffhangerserials/

    Regards,

    Dave Sorochty

    • drfilm says:

      Thank you for posting. When I get a chance, I’ll download these. I’m not sure what good they’ll do for the surviving film, although I suppose we could put subtitles over the talking sections. I have come to figure out that each reel has one talking sequence, and the rest is silent, so it’s probably doable. I’m not sure the work would be worth the reward. I have one more reel of Kongo to go, but my film transfer machine chewed itself up, so it has to wait for a while longer yet.

  5. David Sorochty says:

    How many minutes is each sound disc? Does the disc only contain the talking sequences, or does it have some background audio for the entire chapter?

    BTW – I believe that UCLA’s archive has a print to King ofthe Kongo.

    Dave S.

    • drfilm says:

      Each disc is 10 minutes, each reel is 10 minutes. There is background music for the rest of the chapter. I think Library of Congress may have some material on Kongo, too, but I’m not sure without checking. I have a complete print here, and I’m likely the only person crazy enough to do this until the entire soundtrack turns up, if ever.

  6. Fischier says:

    This is a marvellous story, thanks for sharing!
    /Tony

  7. Jowell@gmail.com says:

    Do you have a Facebook page or Twitter? Would love to follow you there, I’m on my iPhone and love reading your stuff!

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