Welcome to Brazil, Mr. Bond

If you didn’t read my last blog post, James Bond Meets King of the Kongo, then you won’t understand this post at all, so you’d be well-advised to go back and read that one first.

When we last left the saga, it looked as if our hero, the film preservationist, was in a dire predicament. The film looked as if it would not be saved, the Kickstarter grant was compromised at best.

In desperation, he stares at the ceiling of the cavernous room, hoping against hope that someone, anyone, can rush in and save him. The odds are overwhelming and he’s just one man. Then, against all the odds, through a shower of bullets, a group of gray-clad ninjas breaks through the roof, sliding down on thin ropes to rush in and give the hero the hope he so desperately needs.

It’s the end of You Only Live Twice (1967), and James Bond has been rescued by the ninjas. He goes on to defeat Blofeld, blow up a volcano, save the space program, and avert global thermonuclear war.

But that same description also fits the end of Brazil (1985), at which point our hero, Sam Lowry, has lost all grip on reality and fantasizes about a rescue that will not, and cannot come.

And me, well, I wasn’t sure quite which one I was.

My options had shrunken to one, and my funding was almost zero. I’d been criticized by a serial preservation group, and betrayed by a friend. Frankly, things looked pretty dire. I had fashioned a note apologizing to my grant donors explaining the situation and offering a partial refund.

My last hope seemed to be teetering on the edge… I’d had an intrepid envoy, who I’ll identify as Cinerama Jones, to the last remaining lab that could do the work I needed, and I got a call that he’d been admitted to the emergency room with a raging fever and an out-of-control white cell count.

I’d been pinning a lot of hope on this project, because I find it distressing that archives are only funded to do high-profile restorations. Well, King of the Kongo is about as low-profile as it gets. It’s historically significant, interesting for some of the cast that appears, but, honestly, it’s not a landmark piece of cinema, and we only have about 1/10 of the sound for the whole serial.

But that doesn’t make it any less cool. I was hoping to parlay this into doing more restorations of little niche films like this, but I knew there was no hope if I had to crawl out of this one.

I was really bummed and pretty cranky. Many of my friends will agree that I was cranky! Then, interesting things started to happen. It was very strange.

First, the gentleman I identified as Red Grant read the previous installment and recognized himself. He emailed me, and I ignored him, and then he called (I don’t have caller ID… I still have a LAND LINE!) so I picked up. He carefully explained that his demand for copying rare film in exchange for doing King of the Kongo was only a joke. He apologized profusely. I have to give him that.

He’s known for somewhat “edgy” jokes, but that one was over the edge. The bottom line was that he was serious about not being able to do the work, so the only real difference was that one way I was cheesed off and without a film, and the other way I was just without a film.

It’s actually more severe than that.  Red’s failure to do what I’d asked him to do has cost Silent Cinema (see below) a lot of money and me a lot of headaches.  Woody Allen has a rule, “90% of success is just showing up.”  I’ve got a corollary: “The rest of success is doing what you said you would do.”  Of course, Red’s counter to that was that he didn’t realize that I was on a tight deadline and that caused the whole problem.  We can go around and around on that… but the deadline is clearly outlined in the Kickstarter proposal for all to see.

Should I forgive Red or not? I’m not sure. I do have another rule, “Never ascribe malice to anything that could be explained by stupidity.” And this, well, this is stupid. Maybe I will forgive him. I’ll have to cool off first, though.

Struggling valiantly against a fluctuating fever and accompanying weakness, Cinerama Jones managed to get a deal struck with the lab, and he also found some funding to get the film transfer done. Now, this all happened simultaneously with the deal in Italy failing because I couldn’t find a good way to get the files to him, a lab in Maryland outpricing me, and Red Grant’s calling. I have to say I wasn’t optimistic that anything could be worked out, but I had some good people on my side.

Cinerama Jones arranged for Silent Cinema Presentations, Inc, a great group that I’ve worked with many times, to donate the completion funds , as well as finding a kindly anonymous donor, who thought the project was cool, to kick in some cash at the last minute.

The whole thing meant I had to do an elaborate re-rendering of all the credits and some other technical bits, which seems always to take tons of time, but on Friday I sent off Kongo to Metropolis Film Labs, where it will be converted back to film. They haven’t received it yet, so I just have to hope what I sent them works well.

There’s still some talk about Kongo appearing on a major TV network, and whether that will happen or not is up in the air.

I’m also hoping to put the restored print in as part of an episode of Dr. Film. That still may happen. I’m working on a grant to make more Dr. Film episodes. Whether that will happen is also an open question; statistically it’s rather doubtful, but we got Kongo going… maybe this will go too.

So what goes from here? Well, Kongo should still premiere at the Syracuse Cinefest, thanks to Silent Cinema. We’re still looking at distribution channels forDr. Film, and Kongo should appear on that. Dr. Film may appear on an independent station, or it may yet make it to a major national network, or it may not appear at all. Right now, we just don’t know.

Stay tuned.

My buddy Carl at Fedex shot this picture of me with messy hair (as usual) as I sent off the files to Metropolis Film Labs.


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!