This week’s guest blogger is Glory-June Greiff, longtime supporter of this endeavor. Her unedited words begin after the period at the end of this sentence.
Dr. Film is discouraged and has for a long time now wanted to give it up, take the website down, move on to other things (not that he isn’t already, having accomplished two significant restorations in the past few years: the two-color sequence of Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances and Chapter 5 of the first sound serial King of the Kongo).
“No one cares!” he cries. I continue to encourage Dr. Film to keep trying, and it has nothing to do with the fact–full disclaimer–that I portray Anamorphia in the pilot of Dr. Film, shot some years ago. So he challenged me to write a guest blog about why it is important that he continue.
It’s true that a part of it is because I dearly love old films of all stripes and I am concerned that they are simply disappearing from the scene. Growing up, old movies were all over TV, just THERE, not just relegated to a cable station, or worse, something you find on the Internet and watch on your iPhone. The loss is personal, but the loss to American art and culture is far greater. Some arbiter decides that, say, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton are the finest examples of and thus represent silent film comedy, are the only ones worth seeing. Never mind the others, lesser known, perhaps, not because they are unworthy but because many of their films were lost or, at best, are difficult to find. The same is true of every other film genre. There are so many wonderful movies out there and many that are less than stellar but still worth watching. An example that jumps to mind is a low-budget action movie made in the 1930s called I Can’t Escape, which I caught because Eric Grayson showed the film for his vintage movie series at the Garfield Park Art Center. The film stars a very handsome actor named Onslow Stevens, whose career slid soon after. It beautifully captures the desperation of the Depression and boasts some gorgeous Art Deco sets, a nice little picture worth seeing, if nothing else, for the way it presents the context of the 30s so well. But the way things are, unless you make a heroic effort, you will never see movies like these. As with much of history (that’s what I do in “real” life), it’s only the winners you hear about. And “winning” is often a fluke. In the case of old films, we know about many actors because their films, or at least some of them, made it to television in that golden age I mention. And the old copyright bugaboo played a huge part in which of the old films became known as “classics” and which lay moldering in a vault. Or burned. Intentionally.
Film history is fascinating, but I’m already a convert. I began to read about old films, their actors and even their directors at an early age. I was very fond of the Universal horror films and 50s sci-fi, so I actually had a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland, which in turn led me to the library to find out more. Like many who grew up in the Depression, my mother found escape by going regularly to the movies, and she told me about them and the actors when we watched the old films that, as I said, were always playing on television. In memory of Mom, I am especially fond of her favorite, Jean Harlow, the sizzling blonde bombshell of the 1930s, who died tragically young at 26. My father loved the Errol Flynn swashbucklers and westerns, and oh yes, I had fantasies about Flynn (okay, he was already dead, but oof!) and I still can recite about half the dialogue of Captain Blood and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Over time I got to know the character actors, such as Alan Hale and Guy Kibbee and Una O’Connor and Una Merkel. Though I may have taken it farther than many, the thing is, these films were out there, and the majority of my peers also knew who Errol Flynn, Clark Gable, Joan Crawford, Bette Davis et al. were. In those halcyon days, almost everybody knew, too, of the classic horror movies, to the point where plastic models of Universal film characters made by Aurora were immensely popular. Heck, I even still have a bubble bath bottle made to look like the Frankenstein monster. On TV local and syndicated characters such as Sammy Terry and Svengoolie hosted classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, interspersed with their endless sequels and B movies featuring haunted houses and raging gorillas. We were exposed to all of them.
Dr. Film is not in competition with old time horror film hosts like Svengoolie, although he takes the idea of humorous hosting from them. And obviously he is not the debonair Robert Osbourne or Nick Clooney, although he certainly has the chops. The character Dr. Film may be mildly obnoxious and a figure of fun, but the man under the fez is a knowledgeable film historian. He knows his stuff and perhaps even more important, he loves films! The passion is a necessary component, I firmly believe, in sparking people’s interest in films and film history. And film history is our history. In addition to being entertained, we can learn a great deal watching films of another era. Conversely, we can get so much more out of any number of films if we know what was going on in the country at the time.
Dr. Film may love movies, but he is discriminating. If a film is bad, he will tell you, and he’ll point out some of the silly mistakes and cheap tricks to catch as you watch. But no matter how bad, he doesn’t mock the film during its showing as some hosts do, a practice I find obnoxious and brought to its nadir by Mystery Science Theater 3000. Recently, for the first time in decades, I watched The Beginning of the End, a pretty awful 1950s sci-fi of the giant-insects-caused-by-radiation variety. In the 50s, scientists were usually the heroes, for this was the era of early space exploration; schools pushed all the sciences heavily, and men (and a few women) in such fields as biology, chemistry, and astronomy were admired. So it was in this movie, even though it had been the scientist, played by Peter Graves, who inadvertently caused the gargantuan locusts who ultimately invaded Chicago. (I’m not making this up.) Unintended consequences was the not-so-subtle theme, one that still resonates today. I bring this up because my viewing was marred by the movie host, who, having decided the film moved too slowly, would jazz it up with goofy sound effects and comments. Dr. Film would never do this. Movies are ever so much more interesting if you have a little background, and that is what Dr. Film provides, gradually whetting your appetite for more. It may be more Onslow Stevens or more 1920s animation (much of which is truly bizarre) or lesser known works of well known directors or forgotten silent film comedians like Charley Chase or Max Davidson. I am the richer for having seen these, I clamor for more, and shows such as Dr. Film would like to offer are a means of doing so. Only, no one seems interested.
I feel like Peter Pan when Tinkerbell was fading away. If you believe in Dr. Film, clap your hands!