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.

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!