Tag Archives: film preservation

The Invisible Man Returns

People from around the world gasp in spontaneous indifference at my absence.

I haven’t written a blog in some time.  In fact, it’s been so long that Google has de-indexed me.  I’m getting emails asking for links to some of my best-loved blogs.  (For what it’s worth, those seem to be Plan 9 from Out of Sequence, Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People, and The Marx Brothers Explain Copyright Law.)  There’s a subtle plugola that might get just those blogs reindexed!

People are also asking me where I am.  I’m on Facebook and on the Dr. Film Facebook page, but no blogs.  Why would that be?  Well, frankly, I’ve been underwater with work and I’m only now coming up for air.  Writing a blog like this takes concentration, and I’ve been saving that for paying work.

Let me answer the questions I have been receiving:

Q1: Is King of the Kongo coming out on DVD/Blu-Ray soon?

A: No.  There are extenuating circumstances and I can’t go into them here.  A Kickstarter campaign would not help.  YouTube won’t help.  There are some problems.  That’s all I can say.

Q2: Have you found any more sound discs for Kongo?

A: No.

Q3: Are you working on any more preservation projects?

A: Yes.  I’m hoping to raise money for some.  I’m hoping that I can get Little Orphant Annie, the basketball films from Milan Indiana, and a film called Little Mickey Grogan restored.  At the current time, all are having some problems.

One of the reels of Little Orphant Annie awaiting the word to restore it!

Q4: Are you doing crowdfunding for these?

A: Maybe.  Some of the issues involved are deeper than just funding; again, I can’t go into them here.

Q5: You keep talking about a video streaming project?  Have you given up on that?

A: No.  We’re moving forward on it and it’s being developed.  I’m hoping to get a federal grant for it.  I listened to what you guys said and I’m going to try to fund a 501(c)(3) broadcast and streaming station that will be aimed at promoting literacy about older films and film preservation.  If I can get it off the ground, it will be called VintFlix.  We have the page reserved already.  It will take more funding to get going than I can get on Kickstarter.  I’ve been in contact with the National Endowment for the Humanities and they are saying encouraging things.

Q6: Is the Dr. Film show dead?

A: It’s not a bit well, but I wouldn’t say dead.  We are still talking about a podcast, but I haven’t had time to do one.  If VintFlix gets off the ground, then the Dr. Film show will be on it.

Q7: You promised to write a blog on digital vs. film on the Facebook page, but you haven’t.  Where is it?

A: I’m working on it.

Q8: You say you’re busy.  Does that mean you’re making a lot of money?

A: No, I’m fulfilling obligations and doing publicity for other things.  I would never recommend doing what I do unless you’re unbalanced like I am and just need to do it for some reason.

Q9: You’re doing shows and personal appearances?

A: Yes, a great number of them and in several cities this year.

Q10: Are you appearing as Dr. Film?

A: No, as myself.  If you’re interested in booking me, then you have my contact information in the Dr. Film main page or the email link at the upper right of this page.

Q11: I saw your King of the Kongo presentation at (wherever you saw it).  Can you bring that to my theater?

A: Yes.  Contact me.   The episodes are available on film or DCP.

Q12: I saw your show on the history of color in the movies.  Can you bring that to my theater?

A: Yes.  Contact me.  We have to do this one on film, and it doesn’t work in a really huge auditorium.

Q13: Are you affiliated with David Pierce and James Layton, who wrote the book on the history of Technicolor?

A: No, but I know them.  My presentation is entirely different from theirs, although theirs is quite good.   I’ve seen it more than once. (They discuss the history of the Technicolor company, whereas I show examples of many of the different processes, including Technicolor. They go more in-depth than I do.)

Q14: I think your work is very cool.  How can I support you?

A: Buy some t-shirts or send me PayPal.  I’ll send you the address if you’re so motivated.

Q15: We’re not interested in stuff you’re trying to do.  We’re only interested in what you’ve done.

A: Thanks for that.  Would you rather me just wait and post a boatload of stuff when things get resolved?  Part of what this blog is about is the ongoing saga of film preservation and how I’m trying to do it.  It’s a drama.  Have fun with it.  Really.  There may even be a book about it someday…

10 Questions with Tommy José Stathes

I’ve known Tommy Stathes (rhymes with Mathis) for a few years, and his relentless drive to pick up cartoons is fascinating.  Not only does he have original 1920s Kodascopes, but he collects old film prints of cartoons discarded in the 50s.  He knows all about the different versions and cuts available.  I hate to use the word obsessive (which might apply), but he certainly tries to get things right and tries to spread the word (and joy) about cartoons.

Like me, Tommy goes out on the road and does shows with live film projection.  I particularly like the answer to his last question in which he talks about the need to promote, promote, promote… even though it might be a little embarrassing.  But we’re both promoting stuff that few people know about and fewer people care about, so getting the word out is critical.

Those of you who follow this blog know that there’s a running thread about the fact that TCM has never even acknowledged my existence despite my efforts otherwise.  It therefore, galls me to no end that TCM is now presenting the second special with Tommy’s efforts, and that they found him on the web because of his work.  But NOOOOOO, they never found my site.

This leads to another topic: Tommy and I are constantly ribbing each other.  Most film historians take themselves pretty seriously, but I don’t especially and neither does Tommy.  If you don’t follow either of us on Facebook, then you may not know that he loves to poke fun at my hatred of Disco.  He finds the most horrid Disco songs, sometimes bordering on unlistenable, and posts them on my page.  He’s also fond of something called YouTube Poops, which I have to admit I don’t understand at all. (Mr. Stathes has asked me to clarify that he personally does not like YouTube Poops, and he doesn’t particularly understand them either, but he does enjoy posting them on my Facebook page to annoy me.)

In retaliation, I have posted things on his page playing up his resemblance to Senator Al Franken, and accusing him of running nothing but dupes.  Dupes are inferior copy prints made on film.  It’s considered a prank to wait until a collector’s pride-and-joy print hits the screen in a darkened theater and then yell DUPE.

Now, just because we have a Facebook war doesn’t mean we hate each other. Some people have actually taken our jokes seriously.  I have to admit I have a grudging respect for the punk.   I tried to let the air out of his tires, but he doesn’t drive.

Tommy Stathes contemplates that lost Bray cartoon, or perhaps he smells a whiff of vinegar.
Tommy Stathes contemplates that lost Bray cartoon, or perhaps he smells a whiff of vinegar.

Q1.  You’re going to be on TCM with your own time slot in October.  Please give this a plugola for the readers so we know what to expect.  Keep in mind that I’m insanely jealous because it’s been a running tale here that TCM doesn’t even open my mail, much less give me a WHOLE TIME SLOT (you evil….)

That is correct! On the night of Monday, October 6th, TCM is dedicating the evening to rare, early and classic animation programming. I’ve provided an hour’s worth of rarely seen cartoons produced by the Bray Studios from 1913 to 1926. Bray was the first successful cartoon studio and many of animation history’s notable animators and studio heads got their start at Bray. The films come from my early animation archives and TCM asked me to co-host the program with Robert Osborne, which was a surreal task for me. Maybe you’ll see my stage fright showing through.

Q2. I’ve often said that film is the least-respected art form.  But cartoons are the least-respected films. You save black and white silent cartoons, which most people would never even bother to watch.  Why is it that you save them when almost no one else even cares about them?

I can’t tell just how sarcastic you’re being, because I know you like and collect some of them too, though, as you know, there are actual film historians and archivists who openly dump on cartoons. [Ed note: I wasn’t being sarcastic at all.]  I care about these films and save them firstly through a personal interest in animation and in film history, and secondly because there have been no long-term, grand scale archiving efforts outside of a small handful of private collectors who have helped carry the torch in recent decades. I think every vein of pop culture history is inherently of value for several reasons, and it’s the niche I decided to research and preserve. You’d be surprised, though. For every seasoned film buff and historian who might turn their noses up at old cartoons, there are two dozen or more bright-eyed and fascinated ‘civilian’ attendees at my film screenings who are completely charmed by these films. At the end of the day, they ARE fun and charming films, whether you understand their history and value or not.

Heeza Liar 1
Col. Heeza Liar, a popular JR Bray character.

Q3. You’re particularly excited about John Randolph Bray.  Please tell us a little about him and what makes him special.

As I began to hint at earlier, Bray is an extremely important figure in animation history. Without him, there would have been no bona fide animation industry, or its birth would have been delayed or played out in some other way. Bray was born in Michigan to a minister’s family in 1879, and though a creative and industrious person, he had an unsuccessful stint at college. Bray then got into journalism and finally cartooning once he moved to New York City in the early 1900s. By 1912, Bray had seen some of the earliest cartoons that were made, such as Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo (1911) and he began thinking of ways to translate his own comic characters to the screen. There’s an old rumor that he posed as a reporter to gain access to McCay’s studio, learned about animation techniques that way, and proceeded to run back home to start animating..and eventually patented those techniques as his own. Bray had a reputation for being unscrupulous that way, but these and other moves he made led to the founding of his studio upon securing a distribution contract with Pathe. Bray is often called the Henry Ford of animation–unlike no animators before him, he kept up with regular release schedules by applying the assembly line method of production in his studio, which, coupled with the animation techniques and shortcuts he developed himself and ‘borrowed’ from others, sped up the process and allowed theatergoers to begin seeing cartoons regularly. What many people don’t realize is that all this happened years before Disney became famous.

Q4. Tell us about the master want list.  How often do you recover a cartoon that’s on it?

The infamous 16mm Silent Cartoon Want List! It’s a semi-complete list of silent-era cartoons that were known to be available in 16mm. Sometimes I go for a few months not finding anything on it, and sometimes I’ll find a dozen things in one month. You can never really know when stuff like this will turn up, or where. In the three or four years since I started the list, I estimate I’ve found and taken over two hundred titles off of it.

Q5. I am on record for hating cutesy Spielberg films, but you have a special love for …batteries not included.  Why do you love this film so much?  Doesn’t it have to do with a different type of preservation?

This is one of those situations where I saw the film and fell in love with it at age 5 or 6. So, Spielbergy and 80s Hollywood schmaltz aside (which I think is far more endearing than the quality of Hollywood films today), I love the film for several reasons. It takes place in disappearing Old New York, showing the boarded-up and abandoned period of the East Village. I’ve always loved distressed old buildings so a film centered on them is eye candy for me, as is any film taking place in my native New York prior to the 1990s. Then there’s a great story about an elderly couple who are trying to live out their final years in relative peace. The husband is trying to hold onto his old tenement building and the cafe he’s ran for decades, and the wife is battling dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. We see their and other residents’ struggles to carry out their lives while a real estate firm is trying to level their block for new luxury high-rises. For mainstream Hollywood, comedy and cheesy elements aside, I think the story is told quite beautifully. And how could you go wrong with Hume Cronyn and Jessica Tandy? I’m not usually big on sci-fi films so the elements of the story surrounding the little flying saucer repairmen is just a novelty to me, and not the focus of the story or the film. It’s fantasy-based but the conclusion is a victory for those of us who are sensitive to the plight of average people and those of us who are architectural preservationists.

Q6. I know you hate to speak before a group about your films.  How is it that you spread the word about watching these films and that they’re cool?  Do you get word of mouth at your shows?

Well, I wouldn’t say I hate doing it. It’s taken me a few years to get comfortable with it, and I don’t have the gift of gab in general, so it’s always a bit of a challenge. The word about my work and shows is spread through a lot of online promotion, word of mouth, and carefully written programs given out to attendees of a screening.

Mr. Stathes unspools another of his spotless original prints for an unsuspecting audience.
Mr. Stathes unspools another of his spotless original prints for an unsuspecting audience. (Photo by Joel Esquite)

Q7. Your site is called Cartoons on FILM.  Why are you so into FILM when most people want blu-ray or DVD?  Is there something special about film for you?

I will always feel that there’s something intrinsically charming and special about holding a reel of film and seeing the little individual frames spooled up in a roll. I was born in the VHS age, but became instantly hooked when I saw a projector up close and all the care and mechanical components that went into making the apparatus work. While the technical working of machines isn’t my immediate forte, the joy of running a projector and showing people a movie off of a DVD or digital file is galaxies apart. Physical film and projectors win, hands down. There are always people who are also fascinated with seeing the projector up close and I think that’s half the attraction of my screenings.

Q8. It’s known that I constantly make fun of you.  It’s actually upset some people, so I have to mention it here.  Please state for the record that I really am mean, don’t like you, and am completely dismissive of your efforts.  Feel free to mention the dupe joke if you like (even though I’ve had to declare a moratorium on it.)

If you’re really truly mean, then my name is Senator Al Franken. You and others also call me Senator constantly. I can’t win! People should know that you’re only [half] kidding when joking about my spotless original prints.

Q9. I’m aware that you especially like Disco music, which is an “art form” that I really do find vile and disgusting.  I’ve often said that those of us who lived through the 70s are embarrassed about Disco.  We don’t want to celebrate it at all.  Just because this is your time here, please pick a relatively inoffensive Disco tune and I’ll post it with your comments about it.  Lawrence Welk covers of Disco tunes are not to be discussed.

Oh, no need to torture you any further with a specific disco tune or my thoughts about it. All I’ll say is something I’ve said before: Not everyone who lived through the 70s is embarrassed about Disco. Sure, there was a lot of tackiness about some of the music within the genre and some of the culture connected with the music, but that’s true for most popular genres of any media. I think the tipping point and the reason a lot of people were annoyed by it is because it went overboard and infiltrated too many corners of life, rather than remain one genre of music and culture that you just heard about once in awhile outside of being a true disco king or queen in constant immersion. Some of it is very beautifully orchestrated music with a catchy, clean beat or melody. For me there’s a sentimental aspect to it and it’s one of several kinds of music I like. Get down on it and dance, dance, dance Dr. Film!

Q10. I hate it when people interview me and don’t really understand the point of what I do.  What important question did I not ask you, and how would you answer that?

I think you got everything down pretty well, since you have a practically perfect understanding of what I do. I think there are two remaining questions: A. Where are you going from here, and what else do you want to do? B. What are some challenges involved in being an independent archivist and exhibitor?

My answers: A. My basic long-term goal is the same as it’s always been. Find, reunite and preserve as much silent-era animation as possible in one location. The additional things I want to do include finding more ways to get these films out to larger audiences, which includes home video, hopefully more broadcasts, and possibly some “modern” things like streaming, while retaining some sort of control and a method for making some kind of revenue. I’m not employed by an archive or university so, as you know, guys like us need to have a sort of proprietary lordship over the films we work with, even though our mission is to share them with the public as much as possible. B. Well, I just answered part of that question already! The only other thing I’ve had to learn is how to be my own promoter. Again, being independent means I have to promote, promote, promote, almost all on my own. I hope my friends understand that I’m posting about my shows and projects on social media all the time because that’s the only way I can keep it going and stay afloat, not simply because I’m obsessed with the medium. In my non-film walk of life, I barely even get into discussions about my work or film with the general population. I may be a showman and put on public events but if you ran into me in the street and had a chat with me, you would never know I do this sort of thing.

A shot from How Animated Cartoons are Made
A shot from How Animated Cartoons Are Made

Ten Questions with Josh Mills

Josh Mills celebrates an early Christmas with mom Edie Adams.

Film fans probably don’t know the name of Josh Mills, but it’s a name I’ve known for a long time.  His mother, Edie Adams, was a hero of mine.   Edie was a preservationist when it wasn’t fashionable to be one.  She saved film that people said was worthless.  She testified to Congress about it.  You can’t be more of a hero in my book than that.

Josh has done a lot to forward the film preservation that his mom started.  Full disclosure: I did some work on both the Kovacs DVD sets that will be mentioned here, because I had some rare and unique footage.  I’m not being paid in any way for this, however.  What I contributed is minuscule in comparison to what Josh and Ben Model did on these sets.  We have them to thank for a legacy of Kovacs… and Edie Adams, as you’ll see…

Edie Adams portrait from the 1950s (Ediad Productions)

Your mom was singer/actress/preservationist Edie Adams.  She’s known and loved for a lot of things she did.  I know most guys of a certain age remember her for her commercials for Dutch Masters, but I’d like to talk about some of her preservation work.  She was singlehandedly responsible for saving most of Ernie Kovacs’ work.  I’ve often called her the patron saint of film preservation, because she went out on a limb to buy up film and tape of Kovacs to keep it from being destroyed.  Can you talk a little about that aspect of your mom?  Was this always a part of your discussions as you grew up?

A: If I was 14 and not 44, I might shy away from my mom’s ‘Why-dontcha-pick-one-up-and-smoke-it-sometime’ allure. As a teenager, I was at a baseball game where she sang the national anthem and the guys behind me didn’t know she was my mom and there was a lot of, ‘When I was a kid and she came on TV….’ hubba hubba…..but at 44, I am a little more comfortable talking about it. She was my mom, but she was a good looking woman – I get it.

As far as her preservation efforts are concerned, we can all look back and say in 2012 that indeed she was way ahead of her time in saving the Kovacs material from being destroyed by short sighted  television executives. But really, my mom was more of the mind-set in 1964 of ‘Ernie was doing something unique. This just has to be saved.’ Frankly, I don’t know how she had the forethought. There was no VHS. There was no Ipad. There was no cable TV! Most shows barely had a life after they aired on the East and West Coast. They maybe got a repeat somewhere down the line but that was it. My mom just knew Kovacs was doing something genius and knew it had to be saved. She (now I) had been paying the bills to store this material for 50 years so she really knew it had to be special to take on that expense. Not to cheapen it by any means but – it ain’t cheap to store this material for half a century.

And might I just add my mom did not throw away ANYTHING. It’s amazing the scripts, photographs, contracts, memorabilia and more that still exist. It might be time to open a Kovacs museum in Trenton.

Marty Mills

Your dad was the amazing photographer Marty Mills.  I’ve seen a number of great photos he took on your Facebook page.  Can you tell us a little about your dad?  Some of our readers may not realize that you were born some years after Ernie died when your mom had remarried.

A: Ernie died in 1962 and I was born in 1968. Evidently, my mom had known my dad for years prior to Ernie’s passing because he was an agent at MCA who was best friends with her (and Ernie’s) agent, Marty Kummer. They knew each other socially and started dating in the early-sixties and married in 1964. My parents got along so well because they had a lot in common. They were both in show business and my mother knew all about classical and popular music which my dad did as well. My grandfather was Jack Mills who founded Mills Music which published some of the biggest hits of the first half of the century. My dad worked as a song plugger at Mills, trying to get DJs across the country to play the songs they published and was quite successful. Mills Music was the largest independent publisher in the world from about 1920 – 1960 when it was sold. They published Duke Ellington, Fats Waller, Hoagy Carmichael and tons of other great songwriters out of the Brill Building. In some ways my grandfather was Tin Pan Alley.

Sheet music from Mills Music

Anyway, my dad ran with a pretty hip crowd in his youth – he was great friends w/ Mel Torme, Buddy Rich, Patti Page, Sammy Davis Jr. It was the fifties in New York and my dad would tell me they would go see double and triple bills of movies in Times Square and would have squirt gun fights in the balcony and cause all sorts of mayhem. He once told me an insane story about having to hide out from the Chicago mob after a bender w/ Shecky Greene due to a bar fight that turned out to be mistaken identity. My dad became a photographer in about 1965 when my mom went to Rome to shoot, “The Honey Pot” (aka “Anyone for Venice”) w/ Rex Harrison and Cliff Robertson. They were on location shooting at Cinecitta studios when an outbreak of something terrible hit the set like Typhoid or meningitis which brought the shooting to a halt and suddenly they were in Rome with nothing to do. What’s more, they couldn’t leave because they might shoot anytime. So my parents moved out of the hotel the studio had them in and moved to an apartment on the Spanish Steps for 6 months. I ask you, who wouldn’t kill to be stuck in Rome in the mid-sixties for half a year. My dad learned how to cook Italian food and picked up the camera for the first time. He came home with a new skill and began to shoot for Look Magazine, Sports Illustrated, TV Guide and others.

Dean Martin sings! (Martin Mills Photography)

He was entirely self-taught but he had a great eye. And because he knew many celebrities socially, he was able to get some great shots. Dean Martin called him while shooting the film “Bandalero’ in Mexico and asked him to come down and hang out because he was bored on the set. So my dad brought his camera and took some amazing shots of Dean – on the set, golfing, making pasta. They are mind bogging. He ended up shooting 3 album covers for Dean as well. My dad lived a pretty cool life too if I may say so myself.

When your mom passed away, the preservation baton was passed to you.  Since I knew your mom, I knew she was working on a Kovacs DVD set for some time that never materialized, and you made it happen.  Now, there’s a volume 2.  You’ve released recordings and lot of other stuff.  You seem to take preservation very seriously.  What does all this mean to you?  Most of this stuff was made before you were born, and Kovacs was a guy you never met.

A: My mom was fantastic in not only her preservation efforts but her instincts. However, my mom also missed some opportunities because she would say, “Kovacs always skips a generation,” meaning that he might not be hip in 1960’s but the 1970’s comedians rediscovered him. Same thing in the ‘80’s – not a lot of action until the 1990’s when another round of comedians popped up talking about Kovacs. Still, I could see that as we got to a digital age and black and white was a tough sell to anyone under 30, she was holding on too tight.

Ben Model (L) and Josh Mills (R)

When she passed away in 2008, I really wanted to make sure Kovacs was reinserted in the conversation. At about that time, the Conan/Leno The Tonight Show passing of the baton/debacle was going on and no one (!) even mentioned Kovacs as a regular guest host of  The Tonight Show.  It killed me. And shortly thereafter, PBS did a special on the history of comedy and Kovacs wasn’t in that either. Thankfully, at about that time, Jordan Fields at Shout! Factory approached us about working together on what eventually became “The Ernie Kovacs Collection” (Volume 1) and that was our vehicle to get Kovacs back into the conversation. Without Shout! Factory and Ben Model, who has been an invaluable archivist and curator of the Kovacs material these past 5 years, I don’t know where we’d be.

I visited your mom in 1999, and she showed me a some material I’d never seen before.  It was from her own show Here’s Edie, which was made immediately after Kovacs died.  These shows are amazing, very different from Kovacs, much more arty and serious, but great material.  Her guest stars included just about anyone who was famous and in the music business at the time.  Even if those shows were boring, they would be an amazing historical record.  But they’re not boring at all.  They’re really wonderful.  I chided her at the time that she was better at promoting Kovacs than she was at promoting her own work!  Tell us a bit more about those shows and how you feel about them.  Is there any chance that they will be released again?

A: I’m really happy you asked me about this. My mom was amazingly talented but because she was saddled with debt after Ernie’s passing, she literally just had to bring in the bucks to pay off the I.R.S., ABC Networks and Kovacs gambling debts. There was a guy at Consolidated Cigar (now Altadis) who ran Dutch Masters and got along famously with Ernie named Jack Mogulescu. Jack was responsible for getting Consolidated to get behind Ernie’s shows – and they paid off not so much in ratings but in sales. When Ernie passed, he came to my mom and asked her if she wanted to be the spokeswoman for Muriel Cigars. Muriel was a poor-selling brand and they thought my mom might be able to help sales. Everyone remembers her as ‘the Muriel girl’ because her commercials were so iconic but they also sponsored her shows, Here’s Edie and The Edie Adams Show which ran every other week opposite Sid Caesar’s show.

Like Kovacs shows, Consolidated didn’t care if my mom’s shows got ratings, as long as sales increased and she did promotion and publicity for the brand. So not only did the sales go through the roof (and got my mom a contract that paid her until 1992) but they let her produce her own show. That’s unheard of! Being a Julliard student, my mom approached her show like her stage act at the time. She wanted to bring ‘high art’ to the masses. That’s why you see Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Count Basie alongside Sammy Davis Jr., Bobby Darin. That and she tried to tape on Sundays when crew and performers got double time and golden time so they were more than happy to be well-paid to come on her show. This she learned from Kovacs.

Look for a nice Edie Adams Show DVD package to come out in 2013 with more bells and whistles than my mom got walking past a construction site in midtown!

I know you’re involved in the music business yourself.  You work with a lot of bands and have your own publicity firm.  Tell us about that, and explain a bit on how you got into it.

A: I do but I’m not that interesting. I manage a Cambodian/American band Dengue Fever (www.denguefevermusic.com) who are fantastic and unique and do PR for many bands and projects. I was hoping to be a screenwriter and went to college to get into film but when I got out and sat down to write something – I realized I had nothing to say at 22 years old. So I realized that I loved music and thought would look into that. Here I am 18 years later. Truth be told tho, I can see the Kovacs and Edie material becoming a full-time job down the line a bit.

You’re doing a series of roadshows promoting the material you have in the Kovacs/Adams collection.  Tell us about those shows and where they have been.  Do you have any more coming up?

A: We are working on upcoming events in Los Angeles, New York (and perhaps) Indianapolis in 2013 but in the last two years, we have done events at the Paley Center and Museum of the Moving Image in New York, American Cinematheque in Los Angeles and AFI and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. Essentially, the goal is to bring Kovacs and his admirers together for a live event. And the venues we have found most receptive have been amazing places to help get the word out. It’s been gratifying to help promote the Kovacs and Adams brands with panels including entertainers: Keith Olbermann, George & Jolene Brand Schlatter, Robert Klein, Hal Prince, Alan Zweibel, Harry Shearer Jeff Greenfield, Bob Odenkirk, Joel Hodgson and Merrill Markoe talk about their love of Ernie. I always loved comedy as a kid and to be in the same room with Robert Klein or Jeff Garlin, I become like a shy little kid. I can’t believe I helped bring them to these events.  And I actually do become a little kid – I had Harry Shearer sign my Credibility Gap CD and Robert Klein sign his “Child of the Fifties” LP. I’m as much a fan as anyone.

Are there any “holy grails” out there for you?  By this I mean projects that Kovacs, or your mom or dad did that you know were produced, but that you can’t find?

A: Well we are always on the lookout for more material. Ben Model, our curator, always talks about hoping someone will find Kovacs Unlimited (CBS 1952-54) in an attic or someplace. It’s happened before. People approached my mom all the time to buy back her own shows! That infuriated her. In fact, she is on record at the Library of Congress talking about this very subject. She always talked about some guy who found something that ‘….fell out of the back of a truck’ when it came to Kovacs.

Finding the long lost Kovacs comedy record, “Percy Dovetonsils…Thpeaks” was cool and we have a fantastic partner in Omnivore Recordings who released that this year on CD & lavender vinyl. We are also plowing through some audio airchecks my mom had made of “Kovacs Unlimited”. So although no video exists, it’s a daily record of television in the 1950’s. We culled my mom’s CD “Edie Adams Christmas Album” from material she sang on the show.

So to paraphrase Kovacs in his Mr. Question Man, “It’s a common misconception. People are falling off all the time.” We’re coming up with new stuff all the time too.

Your mom was an intense “force of nature” personality.  I’ve told people that I’ve never known anyone who could talk so fast and so long without stopping.  (I really did have to buy a new answering machine because she would call and fill up the one I had.)  She was driven and focused on what she wanted to do.  I also know that she was very proud of you, because she always spoke highly of what you were doing.  I don’t want to get too personal, but can you tell us a little what it was like growing up in a whirlwind like that?  Every once in a while I find articles about her buying and almond farm and such and I just think, wow… that must have been a roller coaster.

A: She was a force of nature. She made (and lost) lots of money but I think she had a pretty good time. She dated Eddie Fisher, Peter Sellers, comedy writers after Ernie passed – why not? She taped her shows in Las Vegas, New York and London. She knew everyone – I have a photo of myself, my best friend Josh Davis and his brother Tony dressed as the Marx Brothers WITH GROUCHO on Halloween. It blows my mind she could just call him up and we came over.

Left to Right: Josh Mills, Tony Davis, Groucho, Josh Davis.

But you know what? My mom was also a truly sweet, kind woman too who had her feet firmly planted on the ground. She was a great mom. She was away a lot doing musical shows when I was a kid and she felt a lot of guilt over that but it paid the bills. She had to do it. But she always worked the snack stand at my little league baseball games, came to all my school functions, made sure I was with her for at least a week when she was on the road working and worked her butt off to keep climbing back into the ring again and again. She lost Ernie to a car accident in ‘62, her daughter in a car accident in ‘82, lost a great friend to AIDS and yet she still could laugh. I mention this in my liner notes to her Christmas CD but she was a pretty terrible cook. And yet after college, she always had a huge Thanksgiving party at her house for all my friends and those friends still talk about how great those times were. That’s immensely satisfying. Above all, she was a funny, fantastic woman who happened to introduce me to Gore Vidal, spent Christmas nights at Jack Lemmon’s house every year but still was my biggest supporter (with my dad). They always told me they loved me and always told me how proud they were of me. What more couldnt you want, really? I couldn’t have asked for better parents at the end of the day.

You’re a well-known food connoisseur, and you’ve lived in a number of places.  I love that stuff myself.  Can you give us a short list of eateries that are “don’t miss” places?

A: I was just in Washington D.C. and Ben’s Chili Bowl ( http://www.benschilibowl.com/ordereze/default.aspx) and the Florida Avenue Grill ( http://floridaavenuegrill.com/) are just fantastic, real places that should be on your short list. Arthur Bryant’s (http://www.arthurbryantsbbq.com/index.htm ) in Kansas City serves perhaps what can only be described as a psychedelic meat experience and the best BBQ I have ever had.

My mom loved Frankie and Johnnies in New York from her theater days (http://frankieandjohnnies.com/steakhouses/frankieandjohnnies.html) and Patsy’s ( http://www.patsys.com/ ) is also a favorite. My dad and my grandfather were major foodies – both highbrow and low brow. Every year we’d visit my dad’s family on Long Island, it was a ritual – we had to get White Castle and Sabrett hot dogs. It wasn’t even a question  – you just made it a point to go. I still do. My 2 and a half year old took down 2 Sabrett’s a year ago and I couldn’t have been more proud!

I have done enough interviews that I get frustrated about people asking me the same old questions and missing important things.  What question should I have asked you that I didn’t?  How would you answer it?

A: If you could be any sandwich in the world, what would you be? A knuckle sandwich of course.

I’d like to thank Josh Mills and Ediad Productions for all the photos used in this post.

Ten Questions with Bob Furmanek

Since the Dr. Film blog is very pro-preservation, I thought I’d highlight some people who are doing preservation work.  It saves me work on writing blogs (yay), and it gets some publicity to people who are fighting the good fight for preservation.

I’ve got several feelers out for people in the biz, but this will be our first one.

Mr. Furmanek poses with heavy 35mm reels and a Simplex XL.

 Q1.  I know you have worked with Jerry Lewis on some of his films. We all know Jerry as a philanthropist and a comedian.  Can you tell us a little about what you’ve done with Jerry and how Jerry feels about film preservation?

I began working for Jerry in 1984 and worked for several years as his personal archivist. He owned a huge warehouse on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood that contained material dating back to the 1940’s, including home movies, scrapbooks, photo albums, recordings, transcriptions, kinescopes, etc. It was my responsibility to identify and catalog all of the material. It took two years to get the job done.

He is very supportive of film preservation and has often expressed  his concern over the deterioration of important materials. He has lent his name and support to several projects that I’ve worked on over the years, including the restoration of a 1928 Loew’s movie palace. I know that he has donated some of his vast collection to both the UCLA Archive and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

Q2. You recently did a show at George Eastman House showcasing some of your 3D collection.  Can you tell us about that?

Jack Theakston and I were asked to present a program on the history of 3-D motion pictures at the Dryden Theater and it was a great thrill. I had never been to the George Eastman House before this event and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. I brought the only known polarized 3-D print of Robot Monster and the audience loved it. They have a very conscientious staff and I look forward to presenting more 3-D programs at the Dryden Theater in the future.

Q3.  Tell us a little more about your 3D work.  You’ve really done a lot to preserve 3D over the years.

Thank you Eric, that’s very kind. I began my work over 30 years ago when I discovered that the studios and copyright holders were not being very proactive in preserving their 3-D holdings. Thankfully, the situation has gotten better at most of the studios. Most recently, we were able to insure preservation of the science-fiction film Gog and that was very gratifying.

The full story of the Archive’s history is on our website at http://www.3dfilmarchive.com/home/history-of-the-archive

Q4.  I recently heard about your quest to bring some 3D Blu-rays out to the market.  Can you tell us about that and how we might be able to help that happen?

We recently provided important research materials to both Warner Bros. and NBC Universal on their 3-D holdings. Thanks to our documentation, both Dial M for Murder and Creature from the Black Lagoon were mastered in their director-intended aspect ratio. It’s the first time both films have been presented in widescreen since the original theatrical release.  Viewers will no longer see the scissors pre-set device on Anthony Dawson’s back or the telephone pole in the upper reaches of the Amazon which were both visible in the open-matte versions. It’s very important to honor the director’s creative vision.

So far as how you can help, my best recommendation is to support the initial two Golden Age 3-D releases on Blu-ray. Dial M is available as a stand-alone release and Creature can be purchased in the Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection Blu-ray set. It’s also available as a single disc, region free disc in the UK. http://www.amazon.co.uk/Creature-Black-Lagoon-Blu-ray-Region/dp/B008LSAQPW/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1350684816&sr=8-1

If these titles perform well, it will encourage the studios to dig deeper for other vintage 3-D material. There were fifty 3-D features produced between 1952 – 1955 so there’s a lot of prime stereoscopic material still buried in the vaults.

Q5. I know you’re a big fan of a really short-lived color process called Super Cinecolor.  We’re all geeks here.  Tell us about that and why Super Cinecolor is cool.

My interest began around 40 years ago. As a fan of Abbott and Costello, it always bothered me when their two Super Cinecolor features (Jack and the Beanstalk, Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd) were shown on television in black and white. I eventually tracked down a 35mm print of Beanstalk in the mid-1970’s from an old time distributor in Baltimore, Robert T. Marhanke. I’ll never forget how vivid the colors looked on that 1952 print and it encouraged me to learn more about the process. When seen in an original 35mm print, the process has a very unique look with neon blues and deep, vivid reds which lend itself well to costume films and science-fiction titles. Some of my favorites are The Highwayman, Invaders from Mars and The Magic Carpet.

Because of the unique aspect of the double emulsion stock, it’s very difficult to accurately transfer Cinecolor materials in telecine. When I produced Special Edition laser discs of Beanstalk and Bela Lugosi’s Scared to Death (in two color Cinecolor) I was very careful to replicate the vibrant and somewhat unnatural hues found on the original 35mm prints.

Q6. You were THE GUY who rediscovered the missing color footage for the Star Trek episode “The Cage.”  I know it’s a little asterisk in your career, but it was really important for a lot of Star Trek geeks.  How did that happen and how close was that to being tossed out?

I found the footage in a vault with other negatives, IP’s [Interpositives] and fine grains. The vault was full of material from long-closed accounts and the film would have eventually been destroyed. It was not labeled and was lying on the floor under the bottom rack of a shelf. When I pried open the rusty can, there was a roll of color 35mm negative. I un-spooled the first few feet and when I saw the Enterprise, I realized that I had found something very special. This was around 1987 and Paramount had just released the pilot on home video using color footage from “The Menagerie” with the trims inserted from a 16mm black and white work print. When I inspected the footage, I found that it contained all of the trims removed in editing the two part episode. We contacted Gene Roddenberry’s office at Paramount and made arrangements to return the one-of-a-kind film directly to him.

Q7. Most collectors have a holy grail of collecting, something that they hope might be out there but they haven’t found yet.  Do you have something like that?

Yes, I would love to find the last missing Lippert 3-D short, Bandit Island with Lon Chaney. It had a limited 3-D release in both polarized and anaglyphic versions in the fall of 1953. One side survives in the 1954 feature The Big Chase but I would love to find the missing side. I tracked down all of the lab records and the 35mm materials were last accounted for in 1954. The only hope for its survival might be a 35mm release print in private hands.

Q8. You’ve long been an advocate of good, strong 35mm projection.  With the advent of good digital projection, do you still feel as strongly about 35mm?

I certainly do. Digital has a clean but somewhat unnatural look to me, especially if it’s been tweaked and scrubbed clean of natural film grain. Plus, there is something special about watching an original 35mm print that was screened theatrically when a film was first released. I often wonder how many thousands of people sat in a theater watching this very same print for the first time on the big screen.

Q9. I seem to recall that you were once working on a restoration of another short-lived process called Perspecta.  Tell us about Perspecta and why that was interesting.  Can you give us a short list of important titles that were released in Perspecta?

I was very good friends with the late Bob Eberenz, the gentleman that worked with Robert Fine in developing the system for MGM. Bob had restored a 1954 Fairchild integrator for me and hearing those films with the original panning and gain control was quite a surprise. Even though it’s still a mono signal, the effect of fullness and left/center/right separation could be very convincing.

I presented an all-Perspecta show on April 26, 2002 at a 1928 movie palace on a fifty-foot screen. We ran Forbidden Planet plus MGM shorts, cartoons and a promo reel. The Fine and Eberenz families were in the audience and it was a very special evening. After the show, I had people tell me how convincing the Perspecta sounded when spread across that big screen.

About ten years ago, Bob and I approached several studios and offered to preserve their Perspecta tracks to a new master so they could be utilized for home video. Unfortunately, none were interested.

Some of the noteworthy films in Perspecta include High Society, Bad Day at Black Rock, This Island Earth, Away All Boats, White Christmas, To Catch a Thief, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, East of Eden and The Barefoot Contessa.

10.  I’ve been asked questions by ignorant reporters all my life.  This is the question I always want to give people: What’s the most important question that I should have asked you but didn’t?  Once you tell me that, please answer that question!

Oh, I don’t know, how about asking if I’ve had any regrets in doing this work?

To that question I will answer, absolutely. Everybody makes mistakes and I’ve made some doozies. But all in all, I’m proud of what’s been accomplished. There’s a renewed and growing interest now in Golden Age 3-D and I’d like to think in a small way, I’ve played a part in that revival. With the technical availability now to master the original left/right elements in HD and align and correct any registration issues, we can truly make these films look better than ever before. That presents a very exciting opportunity to restore and preserve the filmmakers original stereoscopic vision.  I hope to have an ongoing involvement in bringing vintage 3-D material to Blu-ray.

I’ve had a great time chatting with you Eric, thank you so much for your interest in my work.

My Top 13 Films That Need Preservation

Find out more on the Film Preservation Blogathon here.  Donate here.  The host blogs are Marilyn Ferdinand’s and Rod Heath’s.

I read about this blogathon with some interest.  They’re raising funds for preserving and distributing The White Shadow (1923).  This is a worthy project, since it’s one of those films that won’t be preserved by normal methods.  We only have the first half of this film that Alfred Hitchcock co-directed.  It isn’t really a Hitchcock film, and it isn’t complete, and Hitchcock remembered it as not being very good.

Exactly the kind of thing I’d love to see!  Why?  Because it will show just how Hitchcock developed as a director, and I love the work of some of the actors (especially Clive Brook) in the picture.

And since it’s not really terribly historically important, and incomplete, it will get shoved on everyone’s back burner.  Again, that makes it the film I want to see.

I’ve been reading over the blogs on the blogathon so far, and there are quite a lot of them about Hitchcock and Hitchcock-related films.  It got me thinking how I could contribute in my generally contrarian way, not really talking too much about Hitchcock, which I think is being covered adequately by others.

What isn’t being adequately covered is the thing that is most dear to my heart, which is film preservation itself.  I got myself to thinking what other projects I’d love to see preserved.  Now, many of you loyal readers (I realize this is an impossibility since I have too few readers to be called many!) will cry foul.  Since I am involved in film preservation myself, I’ll naturally pick projects that I’m already involved in.

Well of course!  That’s why it’s my blog.  If you’d like to rant about your own special projects, then write about them in your blog.

Here, then are some of my top picks, in no particular order.  I have restricted these to films that actually exist and could be preserved or restored, but nothing is currently being done.

  1. Thunder (1929).  This is Lon Chaney’s penultimate film, for which about 12-16 minutes exist.  I know that it was a big deal a few years back when Rick Schmidlin did a stills-only restoration of London After Midnight.  Well, Thunder has two advantages over that film: a) There is actually some footage that survives and b) all indications are that it was actually a good picture.  The disadvantage that Thunder has is that it’s not a lost Tod Browning picture, and few people have heard of it.  I’ve been told by archivists that the photography on this film is as lovely as any ever shot, and this comes from jaded guys who have seen everything.  I’d love someone to care about this film in the same way people cared about London After Midnight.  Even half as much.  Chaney is always an amazing actor.  His work should be seen.
  2. Seven Chances color restoration.  What?, I hear you ask.  Didn’t you already do this?  Yes, I did.  I even wrote about it a zillion times. What I hope I proved was that a full-scale restoration could be done in the right way, from good-quality film elements, combining the best of multiple print sources.  There are a number of people who would need to collaborate on this project, and it would be expensive to do it right.  I hope the politics can be overcome and this film can be preserved in the way it deserves.  I think my restoration could be vastly improved if we just had better source elements.
  3. Little Orphant Annie (1918).  Not only is this a rare early Colleen Moore film, but it’s also one of the only appearances ever made by poet James Whitcomb Riley, in a film that was probably made at his house by Chicago filmmakers.  I don’t know for certain, because I haven’t seen it.  Film historian Bruce Lawton located a nitrate print several years ago, and I tried to raise funds to restore it from local historical societies and the Riley Foundation itself.  They didn’t have the money.  The print has subsequently been donated to an archive that has no immediate preservation plans.  Complicating the issue is that a truncated version was duplicated (rather poorly) by a dubious collector in the 1970s.  It’s felt that this version may be “good enough” even though we may have a complete original nitrate, which would be longer and better.  The last I heard was that the nitrate was starting to get sticky.  I hope that people wake up before this film is gone.
  4. King of the Kongo (1929).  Hey, wait!  Isn’t this a pet project?  It sure is.  I wrote about it here.  Vitaphone researcher Ron Hutchinson located the original sound discs for three reels of this rare serial and they do sync with my silent 16mm print.  I was able to restore the sound to the reels for the first time in 80 years.  The pluses?  It’s the first sound serial, and an early Boris Karloff film.  The minuses?  It’s painfully acted by people desperate to dive in for the immobile microphones, and it isn’t very good.  We only have the sound for one complete chapter.  The agonizing part: another collector has several more discs and smells money, so he will not lend these discs for a restoration, but will only sell them for an outrageous sum.  Even with all the extant discs, we’d have less than half of the serial restored to sound, and I’ve got to tell you that the blu-ray sales of this one would be in the single digits.  Still, it’s cool and it should be restored.  I’m probably going to do a Kickstarter project to get it done…at least what we have now.
  5. Beggar on Horseback (1925).  Gee, a silent picture directed by James Cruze, with Edward Everett Horton, from a play co-written by George S. Kaufman.  Could this be a hidden gem?  You bet it is.  The good news is that it has been preserved, but the bad news is that it’s missing the last reel.  I’ve seen it; it’s wonderful, bizarre stuff.  I’d love to see this released on some sort of video with stills and bridging text.  It’s not been done yet, but it should be.  The trouble?  As usual… copyright issues from a studio that thinks no one cares.  I hope they’re wrong.
  6. Showdown at Ulcer Gulch (1958).  OK, this one isn’t very good.  I admit it.  The “review” on IMDb by the fraudulent F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre makes it sound worse than it is.  Chico Marx’ son-in-law, animator Shamus Culhane, directed this piece for the Saturday Evening Post.  It’s no more than 15 minutes or so, but it contains cameos by no less than Groucho Marx, Chico Marx, Edie Adams, Ernie Kovacs, Bob Hope, and Bing Crosby.  It stars Orson Bean and Salome Jens.  I found a faded Eastman color print of this in 2001, and it is in desperate need of a color restoration.  The color negative may still exist, but it’s on very unstable stock (1958-62 Eastman negative is particularly bad at fading), and it may be too far gone.  Historically important?  You bet!  I’m not sure what the problem is, but someone is claiming a copyright on it.  I’ve offered it as an extra to two separate boxed sets and have been turned down twice.
  7. The Haunted (1965).  Yes, this is another of my own pet projects.  After many years of searching, I found a print of this on eBay a couple of years ago.  I’ve written about it before, but it’s a wonderfully spooky pilot by Joseph Stefano, co-creator of The Outer Limits and the screenwriter for Psycho (1960).  Hey, I got in a Hitchcock reference!  There are more here: Hitchcock stars Martin Landau (North by Northwest), Diane Baker (Marnie), and Dame Judith Anderson (Rebecca) are the top-billed actors.  Spooky photography by Conrad Hall, and a beautiful, lyrical script by Stefano make this an unheralded classic.  16mm material exists in the hands of at least one archive and a couple of different collectors.  35mm material exists in the hands of a major network.  There are two different cuts, both a pilot at 60 minutes and a feature cut (distributed to Europe) at about 90 minutes, but it’s languishing in contract problems.  Is there a negative?  Do we need a restoration from the surviving prints?  It’s not clear.  I can’t recommend this highly enough: it’s as good as the best of the Outer Limits episodes, yet no one can see it.  Maddening.
  8. Mack Sennett credits.  Paramount sold its library of short films to NTA in the 50s.  NTA retitled them for TV issue.  In many cases, this was butchery of the highest order, but it was done for legal reasons.  In some cases, original negatives, uncut, survive, but in others, we are not so lucky.  Mack Sennett did a series of shorts for Paramount in the 1930s that had a unique opening: a bulldog came out of a dog house, barking twice, and then a fade into the main title (a spoof of the popular MGM lion opening).  In most cases, NTA just froze the main title, leaving the soundtrack alone, so it’s possible to hear the dog even though we never see it.  Fortunately, there are a few surviving prints of the barking dog visuals.  I’d love to see these restored to the Sennett shorts, because they give a fresher, more vibrant open to these films.  I’ve worked on it a bit, and I think it could be done with more of them…
  9. Hard Luck (1921) This is one of the maddening problems in film when a movie is really too profitable, so people fight over it.  An early Buster Keaton short, it does not exist in complete form.  However, there are two different versions, each with different footage, that survive, and since Keaton makes money, both versions are available on video. I hate it when this sort of thing happens.  I fully sympathize with the problem, because I know that Keaton pays the bills on other projects that are worthy but pay less.  In this case, I really wish the two players could get together and cooperate so we could get a more complete version of this short.
  10.   The Lost World (1925) Long a holy grail of film restoration, it was a big deal when a extra footage from this film finally resurfaced in the 1990s.  Historically, it’s a knockout, because it’s the first ever giant monster film with dinosaurs found in a “lost world,” a set piece so powerful it was even stolen for the movie Up (2009).  A major archive did a complete restoration of The Lost World from the best materials, and they did some roadshows around the country.  Alas, they wouldn’t release it on video.  This meant that another company did another restoration on it and released it themselves.  The result?  You guessed it.  The two prints each have footage not in the other, meaning that no one yet has seen the complete version.  I’d love to see the various political factions work out the problems here so that this film can finally get the restoration it deserves.
  11. The Mascot (1934) This is an early sound stop-motion short, with lovely, almost stream-of-consciousness animation.  A couple of years ago, the Library of Congress reprinted a beautiful 35mm of this relatively common short that contained a great deal of material I’d never seen before!  Ironically, my own print contained footage not in theirs!  This short has been cut and recut so much over the years that the original intent of Starevitch’s wonderful work is often blunted or lost.  I have a feeling that it would make a bit more sense if we had more of it to tie the narrative together.
  12. The Treasurer’s Report (1928) Robert Benchley’s groundbreaking and hilarious monologue was one of the first sound-on-film releases from Fox.  Long available in hideous dupes, with the most common print marred with an ugly defect that looks like a tarantula leg stuck in the optical printer, this film appeared to be doomed to a life of substandard picture and hissy image.  I found an original diacetate 35mm print in the hands of a collector several years ago, and another collector owns a beautiful 16mm reduction print from the original negative.  Between the two prints, an almost pristine restoration could be made.  Will it happen?  I doubt it.  The copyright on it is dubious, and there’s a problem deciding who owns what.  It deserves to be saved.
  13. Freckles (1935) Ostensibly based on the book by Gene Stratton-Porter, this film ends up being a completely separate work.  It’s also basically a lost film starring Virginia Weidler and Tom Brown.  I found a badly vinegared print, still runnable, on eBay a few years ago.  As far as we know, it’s the only surviving print.  There’s the usual trouble: it has a copyright renewal, but no one knows who owns it now.  As a result, I can’t show it except in archival conditions, I can’t copy it to video without contravening the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and three archives have turned me down on my offer to have it preserved.  One offered to store it for me but not to do any work on restoring or preserving it.  No thank you!


No, there’s no Greed here, no London After Midnight, nothing really earth-shattering.  There is a great deal of material that’s interesting and historically important.  Some of it may be preserved eventually, some may see the light of day, but I expect some to continue languishing.

That doesn’t mean I’m not in there fighting!

I love the idea of a blogathon that actually results in a film being preserved.  I have always been told that no one cares about old films, particularly silent ones.  Please, just for me, prove those people wrong!

Why I’m Just Mean

Many years ago, a friend of mine disciplined his 5-year-old girl.  She reacted with disgust at not being able to do whatever she had put her mind to doing.  As one might expect with a 5-year-old, tears were immediately forthcoming and she burst out with a loud pronouncement:  “You’re just mean!”

I thought of that again the other day when I got involved in an argument on archive.org.  It was only a third-hand argument, and, frankly, I can’t do anything about it, but it points up a problem that I keep encountering, and it’s one that makes me “just mean.”

I’ve long hated the kind of collector who collects things just so other people can’t have them.  I particularly believe that film is an art form that depends on being served up socially, and someone who squirrels away prints just so no one else can see them is, I think, somewhat messed up.  This is why I do every thing I can to ensure that films I have are accessible to people.

That’s another problem.  I have a lot of films that are in “copyright hell” that no one can legally watch, and some of them are languishing with no one to show them or even (in a few cases) preserve them.  I keep these prints.  Others may be public domain but of a nature that no one will ever want to see them.  These include bad pictures, shorts of an odd length with no stars in them, and sometimes even films that are of only historic/academic interest.

I keep these prints, too.  I hope someone wants to see them someday. But I’m crazy.  You knew that.  I keep these prints and I mend them, resprocket them, throw camphor in with them, patch them, put them on new reels, etc.  It takes money.  And, as you all know, I am a film professional, which means that I make a “living” (not much of one, hence the quotes) from doing film shows, presentations, and lectures.

Film exhibition is a strange thing.  Rare films doubly so.  There may be an area that really wants to see a particular film and has wanted to for years, but they just can’t seem to find it.  I got a job recently in Vevay, IN playing a print of The Hoosier Schoolmaster (1935) just because the author of the book came from that same town.  It didn’t matter that the film had virtually nothing to do with the book.  They wanted to see it.

That film is available freely on archive.org, which is fine, since it’s in the public domain, and it had an impact on how many people showed up.  Despite the fact that I had a nice print, showed a cartoon, and showed it on a big screen, it was “contaminated” by being free on archive.org.  Only 15 or so people showed up.  It’s sad.  (I could do a whole separate posting on how theatrical exhibition is being killed by inferior material shown at home, but that’s for another time.)

I have to face the fact that I can put on a better, nicer, sharper show than archive.org can put on, but the fact that I have to charge in order to keep solvent is a hindrance to me.  That’s why I rely on a few profitable films that keep me floating above water.

These are films that are generally not very available, in the public domain, and have some niche market for them.  These are films that I run over and over again.  I refer to them as “the pantheon.”  They pay the bills for the other, less marketable, films in my collection.

Alas, I have to guard these films jealously.  No one seems to care that I lavished time, care, and hours of work into preserving some of these films.  All they care about is seeing it free on archive.org.  Many years ago, I was also involved with a video company that specialized in getting good copies of public domain titles into the marketplace.

I learned my lesson on that one, too.  Ever buy material from Alpha Video?  Well, probably 1/3 of their catalog is material that got copied from my collection.  Sure, it’s public domain, but my copies were and are nicer.  I was charging $10-$15 for copies, and they’d make DVDs blasted (poorly) off VHS copies of copies and throw them at Wal-Mart for $1.  At the time, I couldn’t even buy blanks for that price.  The power of cheap blew away the power of better quality.  Ack.

So, in response, I started doing live film shows.  These are infinitely more satisfying, because they’re with an audience, you can see the quality difference, etc.  Amazingly, if you factor in costs of media, I make more money from 2-3 successful film shows than I did in a year of selling video copies of the same film.  Extra points: as I accrue more rare titles, Alpha doesn’t get them.  I can still show them.  I get eating money.  Yay.

At this point, a lot of people will already chime in and claim that I’m “just mean” for not putting these on video.  A couple of years ago, a woman who called me worse than that for not releasing a film with questionable copyright on video.  Yes, I have the only copy, and no, no one wants to preserve it because of rights issues.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to break the law to make the film available.

I also point out that I am more than happy to rent out films from my collection, to do backyard parties or film shows, etc.  I have never told anyone to buzz off if their request was legal.  That doesn’t mean I’m going to shoot myself in the foot by putting it on video.

A while back, there were 3 people who asked me for a copy of a particularly rare film.  I won’t go into specifics, because that will draw attention to that title, and not to my overall point.  These people had some good reasons that they could use a copy.  I made some, and asked them not to make copies of that title.  I nicely explained that doing shows of this film helps keep me preserving others.  They all politely agreed.

So, then, it was a great surprise to me to find that someone had uploaded it for free use on archive.org.  It was from my own transfer and my print.  I recognized my handiwork.  It was also 2-3 generations removed from what I’d done, so yet again a degraded copy is competing in the marketplace with something I have in a better copy.

I carped about it, and said that, once again, I’m too nice.  I should tell people to buzz off when they want video copies.   It’s already had an impact: I used to get 4-5 shows on this title per year, and I’ve only had one (non-paying) in the last year.  I just can’t compete with free.

A friend of mine leaped to my defense and posted a shame-on-you response on archive.org.  The vitriol that this caused amazed me:

“There is no copyright on this movie. No one owns it. No one has the right to keep others from watching it.

“Anyone who has a digital copy can—and should—share it with others.

“XXXXXXX is the one who should be ashamed for viciously and mindlessly attacking the uploader.

“Another who should be ashamed is XXXXXXX’s friend, who attempted to keep this film out of the hands of the public, and who, by so doing, increased the likelihood that the film would be lost forever.”

WHAT??????????  ARE YOU KIDDING ME????????  Well, that caused me to have Popeye syndrome:  “I’ve had all I can stands, and I can’t stands no more.”

I wrote this in response:

“Uploading low-resolution copies of material at archive.org is not a way of preserving films. Neither is the practice of uploading books a replacement for the books themselves. It may be useful, but it’s not a preservation. I intend no slam at the wonderful service archive.org is. Google isn’t a replacement for librarians, either.

“(the film in question) is preserved at The Library of Congress and a pristine 35mm print exists that anyone can rent out. The original camera negative survives. It is not in danger of going away. There are two senses of the word ‘own’ here: in one sense I do not own the intellectual rights to these films, because they have expired rights. In another sense, I may in fact own the best surviving prints of them.

“I need prove to no one that I stand for preservation and availability of films. I have donated films to every major archive, and I’m an archive source for TV and DVD. Many films from my collection have already been bootlegged and appear here for free, often in embarrassingly poor copies. I was not provided any remuneration for the hundreds of hours I put in preserving these films, transferring them, and making them projectable. Many of these are films that I preserved myself and would not have been available had I not rescued them.

“The vast majority of films in my collection are not marketable and few people care enough to see them… When a film is free on the internet, it drastically cuts down the audience that will pay to see it projected theatrically..

“I’d be happy to make more films available on archive.org, and even make good direct-from-film transfers of them. When someone comes up with a way for me to do so without compromising both my means of income and my ability to preserve films, I’ll do it. The gas man needs to be paid, even if he may agree that what I do is cool and worthwhile.

“Perhaps you still feel that I should be ashamed, but I am not, because I’ve done more for film preservation and availability than most people you will ever meet.”

You’ll note that I did not resort to profanity even once.  I’ll admit I sure thought about it.

I’ll close with some more thoughts here.  I love old films, and I love showing them.  I preserve material that no archive and few collectors care about.  I also know that I will lose all control and all income from them once they’re on the internet.  I further understand that I can only be in so many places at once doing shows.

The whole idea of the Dr. Film show is to let me do the same sorts of things that I do in live shows, but to share them with a wider audience.  I fully realize that they’ll be bootlegged nine ways from Sunday all over the internet once they air, but at least I can be paid once for my work before it gets shared all over the net.

You want to strike a blow for film preservation and availability?  Help me get Dr. Film on TV somewhere…anywhere. (Contact your favorite TV provider and send them our web page address!)  I guarantee you’ll see oddball films that you haven’t seen before, and usually from the best prints that survive.  Strike a blow against the third-rate free films and help me do it a little closer to “the right way.”

Still, if I come to your town, please show up anyway.  OK?