The Religion of Vinegar Syndrome


Of all the things I encounter in the film world, vinegar syndrome is one of the saddest.  It’s a deterioration that hits acetate film and turns it into a smelly dry plastic that smells of a rancid salad.  Once it’s gone, it’s gone.  The film gets brittle and unusable.

The belief system of how vinegar syndrome works and affects prints has become unshakeable.  It’s much like a religion, the difference being important: real religion covers matters untestable and unknowable.  Vinegar syndrome is testable and knowable.  I sometimes post about this in various groups and inevitably I’ll come across someone who just hammers me about it, calls me an idiot, and propagates the same untested beliefs.  It’s gotten to the point that I get a little sensitive about the whole topic and don’t discuss it much.   Lately, however, a bunch of people have asked me to cover it in a long blog.

Now, the problem with this is that film people, almost by definition, are not technical people.  They don’t understand the technical aspects of why the film has started to deteriorate.  There’s also a problem between the archival and the presentational aspects of film history, too. I’ll discuss that a little as we progress.

I have this problem, you see.  I come from a technical background.  I’m an engineer.  I love to test things.   I suspect that there will be a lot of controversy and some people will call me a blasphemer in the religion of vinegar syndrome.  If it gets too nasty, I’ll just disable the contents on this post.  I love blogs.  You may notice a bit of hostility here, and I assure you that it’s because I’m really tired of having to defend myself.  I’ve done the tests and shown the saved films in public.

Since I’m flying in the face of established religion, I’ll steal an idea from Galileo, a guy who flew in the face of established religion in 1632, when he wrote his book Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems.  He had a character named Simplicio advocate for a earth-centric model of the universe, while saner heads debated him.  So I’ll do the same thing here.

Simplicio: What is vinegar syndrome?  I hear it’s a disease that spreads from film to film and destroys them

Dr. Film: Vinegar syndrome is a problem associated mostly with tri-acetate film.  As the film ages, it outgases a little bit of acetic acid, which is vinegar.  As it accelerates, the film base becomes thin and brittle, and the film may buckle, tear, and become unprojectable.

Vinegar syndrome is not a virus, not a disease, not anything but simple chemical deterioration.  It affects different films in different ways.  If a film was developed poorly,  stored in bad conditions, stored with things that caused it to deteriorate, or is on unstable stock, it will tend to go vinegar.

I have had prints go completely vinegar while sitting right next to other prints that have not gone vinegar at all.  I therefore dispute the claim that it spreads… however, exposing prints to vinegar is not a great idea in general.

Simplicio: Why is that?  Does that make the disease spread?  Shouldn’t you quarantine the films that are vinegar in sealed cans?

Dr. Film: No, vinegar is an acid.  In solution (that means the air around the film), it will tend to eat at the film base, like any acid would, which causes the film to outgas more vinegar.

Putting vinegar prints in sealed cans is a sure way to kill them.  The vinegar builds up, and eats at the film, causing more vinegar to be expelled, but there’s no place for it to go, and it becomes an autocatalyzing process, meaning it gets worse and worse.

Is this tested?  Sure.  For many years I wanted to test the theory and I wondered if there was someone who’d accidentally done the test for me.  In 1998, I discovered that someone had done the very test I’d wanted without knowing it.  I went to an auction that had a bunch of 16mm films for sale.  Many of these were films from the 1930s from Goodyear.  They had been stored in a milk crate for 40 years or more, and the auction house hadn’t even bothered to remove them.

What did I find?  The films that were in the cans, without exception, had some degree of vinegar syndrome decomposition.  The films that had been stored in open air had NO vinegar decomposition.  And the films without the cans, in many cases, were older than the ones in the cans.  I realize that this is an anecdotal one-off answer, because it does not take into account that this particular set of films may have had a unique temperature/humidity range for storage that caused this reaction.  However, in subsequent years, I have repeatedly found this same situation in collections from all over the world.

Simplicio: I was told by my favorite archive that you could put in Kodak’s molecular sieves and it will stop this problem.

Dr. Film: The idea behind the molecular sieves is to neutralize the vinegar in a sealed can.  Whatever chemicals are in the sieve react with the vinegar and take it out of the air surrounding the film.  In theory, the molecular sieves are a wonderful idea, but they don’t work out so well in practice. If you have a huge supply of them and you change them every 6 months to a year, then great.  It’s perfect and it will help.  Otherwise, the sieve and the vinegar end up completing their reaction, and you have a full (now essentially chemically inert) molecular sieve and the vinegar syndrome marches gleefully on.

Simplicio: So when a film gets vinegar, we should just throw it away, right?  There’s nothing that can be done.  That’s what my friend told me.

Dr. Film: You can do what you want, but there are things you can do to slow down the progress of vinegar syndrome, regardless of the conventional wisdom.

Knowing about these various methods and working with deteriorating old film, I wanted to find out what worked and what didn’t.  I decided to do a control study.  That’s where you make a test and change only one thing in the test to find out if it helps.  Several years ago, I bought a 35mm print of She Couldn’t Say No (a 1950s movie with Robert Mitchum) which was affected by vinegar syndrome and warp. I bought this because I didn’t particularly care about the film, and I figured that I could use it for control tests: one reel left alone, and each reel treated with something else.

There are these things that I have personally tested:

1) Vitafilm: this is a film cleaner that is quite nice in some circumstances.  It has a STRONG pine smell, enough that some people gag at the first whiff.  No one is entirely sure what is really in Vitafilm, so I can’t answer for what it does chemically.  I can say that in tests, these things happen:
a) The film becomes more pliable and warp tends to flatten out (this may require rewinding several times, but it does work.
b) Tape splices (other than Kodak tape) loosen and must be reapplied.
c) The cleaner will dissolve most other plastics, including reels, cores, and a lot of projector rollers.  Do NOT project a wet print; it could destroy your projector.  (Take it from someone who has learned this!)

2) Glycerin: this is a plasticizer that evaporates into the air around a film within a can.  Again, it does take vinegar out of solution and it does make the film more pliable.  Since it’s liquid, it gums things up, and it cannot be put in direct contact with the film (it makes the film mooshy).  However, I have successfully used this on a number of films.  It was particularly helpful on a trailer for The Robe which was so stinky that it would knock a normal human down at 30 paces and was actually getting sticky from base melt.  Glycerin stopped it in its tracks and the print is still around.

3) Camphor (solid).  Camphor is used as a spice in Southeast Asian cooking, and it still used (in small quantities) in cough syrups.  It is a plasticizer, but in people it is also a vasodilator, which means it causes a person’s blood vessels to dilate a bit. This is great for sinus conditions and coughs, which we associate with camphor’s strong smell.  Unfortunately, it is possible to “OD” on camphor (look it up) by ingesting too much of it, so it’s now on the FDA’s bad list.  Fortunately, there are a lot of Asian grocery stores that still stock it, and it’s wonderful stuff.  Why?
a) Camphor works, like glycerin, as a plasticizer, but does not affect the film if in direct contact!
b) It does not dissolve splices, affect other plastics, etc.
c) It’s self-limiting, which means that you can throw camphor in with your prints and the camphor will vaporize and be absorbed to just the level that the print needs.  A desperate print will suck it up faster than a print with no problem.

Simplicio: My friend at the archive told me that camphor is just a stunt and it will reduce the long-term stability of the film.  It really isn’t good for the film at all, and it doesn’t stop vinegar syndrome.  

Dr. Film: This depends on how you define “long-term.” An archive isn’t in the same business I am.  I am in the business of saving and sharing filmsAn archive is in the business of saving films.  The archives were charged with the responsibility of saving copies of films for future generations, not particularly with making them available for anyone to see. (That’s not a criticism… that’s what they were intended to do.)

Archives are also notoriously underfunded, so a print may languish in storage for years until someone gets around to inspecting it and getting it ready for preservation.  This means an archive is understandably nervous about any chemical coming in contact or proximity with the film.  They don’t know what it is, they don’t know what the long-term effects are, and the whole thing is just very, very scary.

Now, again, I’m not in that business.  Sure, I collect rare films, and in most cases these are films that are beneath the notice of the major archives.  They archives are so busy preserving mainstream history that they miss the little rivulets of the story that fascinate me.  This is not intended to slight them: I’m glad they’re out there, and they do a wonderful job of what they do.  It’s just not what I do.

For me, if I have a film that cannot be shown, then it’s not of much use.  If it’s too shrunken, brittle, or ripped to run, then it may be saved but not necessarily shared.  These are the kinds of films I may donate to an archive in the hopes that someday they might be duped or something…

However, if I can do anything to extend the projectable life of a film, then I’m on board.  Does that mean it might be projectable for another 10 years but it will shave 10 years off the longevity of the print?  If that’s so, then I’m still on board.

Let me give you an example: I have a print of The Ford in Your Future, which is a really cool short that promotes Ford’s new 1949 cars.  It’s a Technicolor print, and a real stunner in Technicolor.  It shows off the process well, and shows why it doesn’t look the same as it does on video.  I also am well aware that this is not the only print in the world (in fact, I’m sure it’s on YouTube in a highly compressed, muted color version).  When I got the print, it was horrible: warped, vinegary, shrunken, etc.  Some careful treatment with camphor for a few months, and the whole thing was vastly different.

It was, in fact, so different, that my lovely assistant, Ms. Greiff, said, “When did you get a new print of this?  It looks so nice!”  I informed her that this was the same print that has caused focus flutter and heart failure in a projector just a few months before.

If that takes ten years off the overall life of the film, then it’s fine in my book…

On the other hand, I don’t think it probably will.  Again, I don’t know for certain, because we don’t have tests, but…

Camphor has been known about as a plasticizer for years and years.  In fact, when we get old 1920s prints on diacetate or single acetate film stock, it was commonplace for a projectionist to throw a chunk of camphor in with it.  Some cans even had a little holder built in for a chunk of the stuff.

So we know that camphor has so far not particularly hurt the longevity of 1920s safety film.  We also know that camphor was used on nitrate.

Does it hurt triacetate?  I think probably not, but I don’t know that.  I’m not going to contribute to the hoodoo nature of this by speculating without tests.

Several people have told me that camphor, glycerin, and Vitafilm don’t help because the overall acidity of the print doesn’t change, given that they’ve tested them with A/D strips.  These are little strips of paper (I think… I’ve not seen them) that test the overall acidity of a print.

I have not tested this, nor do I know of a good place to get A/D strips.  I know that from personal experience that I’ve gotten years use out of warped, brittle prints, and I can absolutely state that several have lasted 8+ years with camphor.  Some have graduated to not being with a piece of camphor all the time and they live out in the open air again.

I know that some people are very nervous about vinegar and so test everything with an A/D strip before purchase or sale.  If someone would point me to a source of these, then I can test them.

Again, I say that the base deterioration may continue, but the print is useful for a long period, and so this is still a good call for me.  My untested “gut reaction” is that in some cases the base deterioration slows or stops, but I have not tested this to find out.

Simplicio: There’s a new film cleaner on the market that says it stops vinegar syndrome.  What do you think of it?

Dr. Film: I haven’t tested it.

Simplicio: So you’re advocating against the use of film cans and for the use of camphor, just the opposite of what the archives do.  You must hate the archives.

Dr. Film: No, I love the archives.  I also love the safety of what film cans give you, because I’ve had films ruined by external factors that cans could protect against.  However, it’s been my experience that films need to breathe and dissipate their vinegar vapors, and so I don’t use cans.

And I’ve explained why I do use camphor.  A few little blocks of it in a film can works miracles.  I do use film cans for camphor treatments.

Simplicio: Has anyone reported problems with any of these treatments?

Dr. Film: Some people report a white powder that forms on the film.  This is probably a residue of wax or anti-line treatment that is dissolving.  I would advocate a good cleaning if this occurs.  In no case has this damaged the film.

Simplicio: You’re a radical, mean guy who is dangerous to the world of film and all it portends.  You scare me.

Dr. Film: I’ve heard that a lot.  Don’t believe it.  Test it first.

10 Questions with Glory-June Greiff

Author-historian-performer Glory-June Greiff is just the sort of multi-hyphenated person that I need to associate with, because there isn’t a lot she can’t do, except hold still.

Glory is the author of two books, Remembrance, Faith, and Fancy: Outdoor Public Sculpture in Indiana and People, Parks, and Perceptions: A History and Appreciation of Indiana State Parks. These are both available for the best prices from the author (and you can get them signed in time for Christmas!)

Not only does Glory write books, but she does one-woman shows as authors Gene Stratton-Porter andBeatrix Potter. She does presentations on the WPA and CCC, among other topics. She’s written countless National Register nominations, done treks across the country in search of odd history fragments, and she’s always the first to climb into the rafters of an endangered building to figure out how to save it.

Glory is what Ben Model calls an artrepreneur, someone who is in the arts and does a lot of things. This is both because she’s multi-talented and because artists need to be versatile in this challenging economy.

When I wrote the pilot for Dr. Film, I created the role of Anamorphia for Glory, because I knew she could play it, that she’d have fun with it, and most importantly, that she’d show up!

Glory has her own web page, which is under construction, but her blog is here.  It is generally a little less ranty than mine, but you’ll probably enjoy it all the same.


Q1: You’re not really a film preservationist, but you do preservation of another sort.  What is it that you do?

I’m not even sure why you want to interview me, although I certainly am a rabid proponent of preserving film!  My work and my passion of the past several decades, however, has been in historic preservation–the saving, interpretation, and appreciation of historic buildings, streetscapes, landscapes, and roadscapes.  I am a public historian by trade.

Q2: You’re also a big believer in slide film over PowerPoint.  Why?

I hate PowerPoint.  I hate most PowerPoint presentations, but that’s really a different story. (You know the ones: the speaker is up there reading the words on the screen to you.  It makes me scream.)  PowerPoint has certain advantages,  such as an interactive component, which are seldom used.  I can count on one hand the PowerPoint presentations I’ve seen that could not have been done the same–or usually, better–using slides and real talk.  And then they would have looked better, too.  Nothing as stunning as Kodachrome slides!

By the way, in the old days I used to create slide/tape programs with all kinds of production elements, like variable pacing, background music, themes, mixed voices.  I used to be radio (and radio production) so I did the narration. People would come and talk to me after saying how much they liked my “movie.”  How satisfying was that!?

Q3: Weren’t you a Kodachrome die-hard?

I was. I am!  I still project my beautiful Kodachrome slides for various talks I give.  And yes, I shot several rolls of Kodachrome after Kodak ceased production (I had stocked up), and was among those who got the last Kodachrome processed at Dwayne’s in Kansas in December 2010.  Heartbreaking.  Nothing like it.

Q4: You have always been a fan of old movies.  How did you get started?

Ah, well.  It’s in the genes, I think.  My mother loved old movies–of course to her, they were the films of her youth and held memorable associations as well.  Her own mother sought escape in movies from a hard life during the Depression and World War II.  My dad liked going to the movies, too.  We’d bundle into the car with a pot full of popcorn on weeknights (cheaper!) and go to one of about eight drive-in theaters in our area–all the way from Michigan City to Mishawaka and Niles, Michigan–we were really blessed!  The one we visited most often was only about three miles from our house on the old Lincoln Highway, but it was wiped out by a tornado when I was a kid!

Of course, that was golden age of old films being shown on television, and one was usually just starting when I arrived home from school.  Mom would tell me when she first saw it and about the actors.  My father liked the westerns and war stories shown at night or on weekends, which I didn’t always enjoy as much, but the adventure movies, like the Errol Flynn swashbucklers, I very much did!  (I think I can still recite most of the dialogue of Captain Blood.)  But the films I most cherished watching with my dad were the late Saturday night Universal horror movies and 50s sci-fi.  (“They’re here!  They’re here!”)

My grandparents lived next door to us when I was growing up, and between my mother’s and grandmother’s subscriptions, I think I had access to three or four film magazines.  When I was in junior high, I got a subscription to Famous Monsters of Filmland.  Always was a pretty weird kid.

Q5: I know that Eric really got you stuck on silent films.  Do you have some favorite films or actors to recommend?

Hmm.  Tough one.  Lon Chaney is a genius, and Eric, who has huge collection of Chaney material, really turned me on to his work–far beyond Hunchback and Phantom, which everybody knows.

I like comedian Charley Chase, who I find to be right up there with his more well known contemporaries.  “Limousine Love” is a scream!  And of course, Max Davidson, largely forgotten today, is hilarious and I never miss a chance to see his films, which are best viewed, of course, with an audience.

I’ve become a huge fan of Charley Bowers, and I had never heard of him before I met Eric.  Actually, I’m quite fond of several silent animators, none of whom I had known much (if anything) about before.  I’m astonished at the content and effects of 1920s animation shorts and cartoons, and I wonder what these guys were smoking!

More prosaically, perhaps, I like Clara Bow a lot.  And the under-appreciated Marion Davies, particularly in her non-costume roles.  To ease my eyes:  early Gary Cooper, hubba hubba.  Buddy Rogers, ditto.

And I love Douglas Fairbanks–love how he moves!  (Mind you, it was his more handsome son I noticed first, but Fairbanks, Sr. just looks like he’s having so much fun in his films!)

Q6. How do you support Eric’s film preservation work and how does he support your preservation work?

We do have a cooperative arrangement that usually works pretty well–unless we each have a gig at the same time, which happens!

And sometimes I’ve sacrificed going to events or even given up getaways; there was this time when we were going to leave for northern Michigan, and suddenly an emergency film restoration project arose.  Personally, I think I should get a credit on the restored version of  Seven Chances!

As a rule, I play the part of the “lovely assistant” and help Eric set up his film showings, run interference when necessary, act as shill occasionally, and answer secondary questions.  I hope the best thing I do is keep encouraging his work, because I think it is important and it is not always recognized.

As for my work, Eric plays a similar part, assisting with my various programs and also coming along and helping with fieldwork and research.  Sometimes we are both called to the same place; this is a usually a closed or underused theater, and Eric pokes through the projection booth while I clamber all over the building!

Glory in character as Anamorphia

Q7: You’re in the Dr. Film pilot episode as Anamorphia.  What was it like to play that part?  You’ve been a fan of movie shows like this for a long time.  How did it feel to be in one?

You know, these are wonderful questions.  I had a dream since I was a teen of doing a sort of vampire woman horror-host TV show–bear in mind I had never seen Vampira or Elvira.  (I grew up in northern Indiana.)  I worked in radio for some years and never had much thought to venture into TV–unless the opportunity had arisen to do a gig like that!

So this is the closest I’ve gotten to it.  I do think my director has me go a little too over-the-top, but maybe that’s appropriate!

It’s fun; I love doing theater of any sort–and I wish someone would pick up Dr. Film so we could shoot more episodes!

Q8: You’re a big supporter of the Dr. Film show, and you want Eric to keep trying to get it out there.  You even wrote a guest blog about it.  What makes you so passionate about the show?  You seem even more gung-ho about it than Eric is.

That was a nice segue from the previous question, wasn’t it?  I don’t know, maybe it’s because I have been working in field where you simply don’t always win–in fact, often do not–but you just have to pick up and keep trying because it’s the right thing to do–and you must pursue your passion.

Dr. Film is the kind of show that SHOULD be out there–more so now than ever, I think.   I grew up just knowing about a lot of movies just because they were THERE–but they aren’t there anymore.  We are losing our cultural references.   And anyway, film history is fun!  

Q9: What are some of the craziest things you’ve done to get things preserved, either in the film world or otherwise?  I hear you’re pretty dedicated sometimes.

Crazy things?  Why, what do you mean?   Well, one of my very first preservation efforts involved a beautiful early 1900s office building in downtown Indianapolis.  I set up pickets with signs and a petition campaign.  We made the newspapers, but didn’t win; the forces against preservation were too great.  But you have to keep trying.

A year or two later I spearheaded a campaign to save a beautiful abandoned New Deal-era apartment complex.  We did guerilla renovation on one apartment and brought everyone we could out there to see it to try to change the minds of the powers-that-be.  It took four months of my life, full time, but that remains one of my proudest efforts–even though we didn’t win.   Those apartments were built to last; it took the city months to tear them down at far greater cost than they thought.  Ha!

To this day I am known to run wildly into abandoned buildings and dance along abandoned stretches of old highways.  As for film, how many times have I ridden in a car full of film that smells like a salad? (That would be indicative of vinegar syndrome.)   And about that time I gave up my trip to northern Michigan. . .

10.  What question did I not ask you that I should have asked?  And answer that question, please.

Why do you dance all the time?

Why do you breathe? (Thanks to The Red Shoes.)

Why do I take the old roads and shun interstates?  Same answer.

10 Questions with Mike Schlesinger

This is Mike accepting the Rondo award.  Rondo is on the lower left!
This is Mike accepting the Rondo award. Rondo is on the lower left!

I’ve known Mike Schlesinger for a number of years.  Just how many, I’m not sure.  I ran into him at a film convention some time in the late 1980s or early 1990s, and laughed at one of his T-shirts.  Despite what he says, he has a collection of odd shirts, always film-related, most I’ve never seen anywhere else.  We also share a fondness for really stupid jokes and bad puns.

Mike is very modest and soft-pedals his various accomplishments.  I can tell you, and without hyperbole, that for years he was the only guy in distribution at any of the studios with a clue about movies made before 1950.  Today, the vast majority of them still don’t have a clue, and many actively don’t care.  (There are more people who care now than when I started, but we can still use more.)

With most studios, it was, “Do we own that?  Is that ours?”  The really inept ones would tell me that they didn’t own the film when I knew they did.  It was too much work to look it up.  Mike would immediately know if a print was on hand, and if the film had changed hands, and he always knew who to call to help me book an odd print.

And while Mike may also downplay his contributions to film preservation (I deeply admire all the guys he mentions), he has done a lot behind the scenes to make things happen.  When he was at Paramount, old Paramount titles got reprinted, and when he was at Sony, old Columbia titles got reprinted.  As I always say, access is half the battle for preservation, and Mike was great about making sure prints were out there and could be rented.

Mike’s trailer for Lost Skeleton of Cadavra

Q1. You have a long history with film preservation and working at the studios. Tell us a little about each place you’ve worked and some of the things you’ve done. Are you really Leonard Maltin’s favorite film executive? Does Leonard really exist, or is he a figment of my imagination?

Actually, I’ve never preserved a foot of film in my life. Others, such as Dick May, Grover Crisp and Barry Allen, oversaw all that work. My job was in distribution. I have indeed made suggestions of specific titles, but again, I never had my hands on film. Think of them as the chefs and me as the waiter. I worked at MGM/UA, Paramount and until last December, Sony (Columbia). Each was a unique and largely satisfying experience, though ultimately I’d always run afoul of people above me who didn’t understand what I did and why it was important. Among my most fulfilling experiences (aside from the ones discussed below): bringing out the “director’s cuts” of The Boy Friend, Wild Rovers, 1900, The Conformist, Wattstax, Darling Lili and getting the ball rolling on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid; prying The Manchurian Candidate, Broadway Bill and White Dog out of movie jail; the record-breaking 50th anniversary reissue of Citizen Kane, and the extended version of Major Dundee. Striking new 35mm prints of numerous Columbia cartoons and shorts was also a treat. (Plus I made a number of trailers which, if I do say so myself, were, as the kids say, pretty freakin’ awesome.)

It was Roger Ebert who said I was his favorite Hollywood executive. Funny story: When that hit print, I e-mailed him, “Who came in second?” He replied, “What makes you think there was a second?”

Leonard does indeed exist. I’ve even hugged his lovely wife Alice.

Q2. You’re a long-time Godzilla fan. Tell us about your involvement in Godzilla 2000.

Well, that’s not a short story, but I’ll try to make it so. Sony’s distribution chief Jeff Blake (whom I largely owe my career to) happened to be in Japan when G2K opened and was breaking records. Since the Emmerich version didn’t turn out to be the most-beloved film of its generation, the studio was unsure of how to proceed. Jeff felt that releasing G2K here would be at least a place-keeper and at best a make-good to the fans who felt let down by the Emmerich.

We had a screening, and there was considerable concern: the pace was slack and the dubbing was pretty dire. Jeff was having second thoughts. I assured him that with some judicious editing and a new dub it’d be right as rain. He said, “Okay, then you do it.” And just like that it was in my lap. He figured, I hope correctly, that I was the only one there who’d actually seen some Godzilla movies and would have the right handle on it. So with a release date breathing down our necks, I dove right in.

Jimmy Honore, then Sony’s post-production czar, provided me with an editor and a sound man. Toho’s local guy, Masaharu Ina, was also involved, as every single change had to be approved by Tokyo. I wrote a new script, hired a swell bunch of Asian-American actors to reloop, and worked with the editor to sweat nine minutes of fat out of the film (over 130 individual cuts) and restructuring scenes to increase the tension. We rebuilt the soundtrack from scratch, adding some new music cues (including a couple of classic Ifukube themes) and creating foley for scenes that had been played in total background silence. I even did directional dialogue in some scenes. The sound guys were brilliant and completely supportive, and very complimentary whenever I came up with a suggestion that worked. Happily, Toho (albeit a bit grudgingly at first) admitted that our version was a big improvement; so much so that they even re-released it subtitled in Tokyo, as well as a few other countries, like India. The reviews here were mostly positive (if sometimes patronizing). It made money. And best of all, I got a six-week crash course in post-production that has served me very well. Even I was surprised at how quickly I picked it up. And I have the unique honor of being the first person to put a line of Yiddish in a Godzilla movie.

It's-All-True-documentary-posterQ3. Wasn’t It’s All True one of your pet projects?

THE project, though more for its importance. After the Kane reissue, I was approached by Myron Meisel and Bill Krohn, who had been trying to put the picture together, but Paramount owned the footage. Balenciaga was willing to pay all costs in exchange for distribution in France, Germany and Italy. So it was basically a free movie. I managed to get everyone into the same room, and after 14 needlessly drawn-out months, the deal was done. The film was completed on schedule. We were premiering it in the New York Film Festival–the first Paramount picture with that honor since Nashville. And then the distribution heads, for reasons still unknown, decided to kill it, and me in the process. It won the L.A. Film Critics Award for Best Documentary, and no one from the studio came to the ceremony. (I went on my own dime.) It’s the most important thing I’ve ever done…and hardly anyone saw it. 🙁

Q4. You picked up Larry Blamire‘s Lost Skeleton of Cadavra at a time when indies were barely being picked up, and it actually got a theatrical release. Few indie filmmakers are so lucky. Let’s hear about your discovery of Blamire and your involvement with his other films.

God, at this rate there’ll be no need to write my autobiography! Cadavra was a happy accident. The American Cinematheque used to showcase independent films on Thursday nights; I read the synopsis in the paper, it sounded fun, and as I had nothing better to do that night, I went. The theatre was packed: over 500 people laughing their asses off. During the Q&A with the cast and crew, they said it cost “well under” $100,000. I said to myself, “That’s it, I have to have this movie.” I got Larry’s and Miguel’s phone numbers from the Cinematheque, and told them I was interested. As the only other offer they’d received was a lowball from Troma, they were naturally thrilled. Jeff agreed that Sony couldn’t get hurt at such a low price and okayed the acquisition, though there again, it took over a year to get the contract signed. The rest is history, though as Larry himself later acknowledged, getting picked up by a major studio doesn’t guarantee success. It really didn’t find a wider audience until it hit cable. Now it’s the world’s tiniest franchise, and I’ve co-produced Larry’s three subsequent films, with hopefully more to come, including the highly-anticipated conclusion of the first trilogy, The Lost Skeleton Walks Among Us.

Q5. There’s a legend in the film world about your long-lost Godzilla script, which was almost shot by Joe Dante. Please, relate the whole story, down to why it didn’t get made. Is there any hope for it now?

Legend? Seriously? Wow. Anyway, it’s doubtful it’ll ever get made, what with the new Warners version coming out next year. It started, as so much of my life does, with a joke. I ran into my friend Jon Davison one day; he was at Sony producing The Sixth Day. I told him about what Toho was doing with my version of G2K (as related above), and he said, “Yeah, you’re really Mr. Godzilla now.” I laughed, “Yeah, and if these guys were smart, they’d get you, me and Joe to do the next American one.” He said, “Hey, we’re there.” Later in the day, I was pondering this and thought, “Well, why not? Who better to save the franchise?” So I called them both and asked if they were interested. They were, so I went in to the Columbia production head and pitched the idea of a “Wrath of Khan”-like sequel: a modestly-budgeted, man-in-suit picture, using Toho’s effects people, but set in America with English-speaking actors. I said we could do it for $20 million. He was intrigued, but said he really couldn’t authorize it. However, if I wanted to write it on spec, they would certainly consider it if it came out as good as I said it would. That was fine by me.

So I went home and got to work. I set it in Hawaii for various reasons, among them that I’d need no tortured explanation of how Godzilla got there, not to mention the unlikelihood of any actor turning down a feature being shot in Hawaii. (My suggested tagline: “Say aloha to your vacation plans.”) I decided to follow the Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein Rule–make the human scenes funny and play the monster stuff straight. I wrote it with genre favorites in mind for the cast: Bruce Campbell, Jamie Lee Curtis, Scott Bakula, Christopher Lee, Leonard Nimoy and of course Joe’s stock company. After jokingly giving it the temporary title of GodzillaEast of Java, I settled on Godzilla Reborn, which referred to not only the franchise but also the storyline, in which he’s killed and eventually resuscitated. Sid Ganis eventually came on board as a producer as well. Everybody adored the script. It shoulda been a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, by the time I finished it, Columbia had a new production head, and he wanted no part of it. Wouldn’t even read it. It takes balls to say that to Sid Ganis, who’s a former Academy president, but he did. And there ya go. Now everyone’s too old for their parts and Warners has the franchise. A damn shame; it would’ve been a monster hit. Pun intended.

Q6. How did your legendary collection of film t-shirts get started? What are some of your most popular?

Huh? I have a bunch of T-shirts, but I’d hardly call it “a legendary collection.” I just buy them like everyone else.

Q7. What the heck is Biffle and Shooster? They weren’t originally your idea, because I found them on YouTube. Who created them and how did you end up with them?

Once again, it started, as so much of my life does, with a joke. Nick Santa Maria and Will Ryan created the team, but they hadn’t really done a great deal with them. Then one day, Nick posted a picture on his Facebook page: the two of them holding up an empty picture frame and mugging. I replied, “From their classic two-reeler It’s a Frame-Up, with Franklin Pangborn as the art dealer.” And then I had a brainstorm. After I mopped up, I called them and said, “Hey, why don’t we actually do this? A B&W, 1.33:1, authentic-as-possible 1930s two-reeler, like it was one of a series.” They loved the idea. I wrote a script, went on Kickstarter, fell short by a razor-thin 89%, and then broke the two rules of The Producers and paid for it myself. I rounded up a bunch of the Lost Skeleton people, and filled in the remaining slots with some incredible industry vets. We shot for 4 1/4 days in December, and had the cast & crew screening in early March. The first public showing was at Cinefest in Syracuse about two weeks later–which is where you saw it–and now it’s out to festivals. We’re also treating it as a pilot for a potential internet series, since we have titles and loglines for 19 more. I’ve already completed the script for another and started a third. Nick and Will are each writing one as well.

Q8. If It’s a Frame-Up! is successful, what are your plans for the future? (And if it is successful, could you put in a good word for the Dr. Film show? A bad word would be fine, too.)

Well, part of the original intent was to use it as a calling card to raise money for more features for Larry (and me). But as noted above, an internet series would be fine as well. Worst comes to worst, I figure I can make two more, shoot some bridging material, and create an ersatz feature, The Biffle & Shooster Laugh-O-Rama. That at least I could sell to TV and/or make a DVD deal.

Q9. I think this is a stupid question, but it’s been asked too many times for me to ignore it: Why go back and make a cheap, impoverished-looking 1930s short? Shouldn’t you make one that’s BETTER than they were in the 1930s?

I made a cheap, impoverished-looking short because that’s all I could afford to make. If we get any kind of financing, then we’ll do the “earlier, more expensive” ones. And I didn’t make one better than those from the 1930s because NO ONE can.

Biffle and Shooster fighting the Tong War.
Biffle and Shooster fighting the Tong War.

Q10. I get asked questions by people all the time that aren’t particularly germane or interesting. What question did I NOT ask that I should have asked?

Why does sour cream have an expiration date? Is that when it turns good?

It is part of a global conspiracy.  Expired croutons also become fresh bread.  Hey, you were warned about stupid jokes, folks.

Happy Birthday, Lon Chaney! London After Midnight Found at Last!

Indianapolis, IN–Born April 1, 1883, Lon Chaney was one of the greatest of silent film stars.  Best remembered for his roles in Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Chaney was known the world over for his chameleon-like ability to inhabit strange and different roles.  One of his most famous was as a vampire in London After Midnight (1927), a film that has not been seen in public since at least 1970, and probably well before.  The last known copy perished in a vault fire, and no copies were known to exist in private hands.

Until today.

Preservationist Eric Grayson, who independently seeks out rare films to preserve and share them, discovered a print in a private collection in October.

“Like so many silent film finds, it wasn’t where you’d expect to find it at all,” Grayson said in a telephone interview.  “People have been searching for it for decades.  There was a rumor that the film had been in San Francisco, in Sweden, or that a French 9.5mm print survived.  This was in the basement of a collector in rural Illinois.”

The print, on 35mm safety stock, was a surprise to everyone.  As far as anyone knew, no prints had been made since the 1920s.

“This guy was a bigwig in the local theater circuit, and he wanted a print, so he asked MGM, and they made him one.  It was struck in 1956, so it’s in good shape and looks better than a lot of the other Lon Chaney pictures that have survived,” Grayson said.

Such things are unusual, but not unique.  A 35mm print of Chaney’s West of Zanzibar (1928), printed under similar circumstances, has been bouncing from collector to collector for some years now.  Also, Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman (1928), long thought to be lost, showed up in a near-mint 16mm print in a private collection a few years ago.

Grayson stated that the print required a little cleaning and special care, but is essentially projectable as-is.  He quietly prepared a special high-definition digital transfer and then had a special card up his sleeve.

London After Midnight will premiere on TCM,” said programming president Charlie Tabesh.  “Eric basically blackmailed us to do what he wanted.  We didn’t have a choice.”

Grayson, an ardent film preservationist, has been trying to sell an independently made television show for several years now.  Entitled Dr. Film, the show promotes film preservation while also being a silly tribute to old-fashioned movie hosts.

“He said he’d sent us several copies of his pilot,” Tabesh said, “but frankly we’d never seen it.  Then, when London After Midnight showed up, he called us and said that we weren’t getting it unless it became part of the first Dr. Film episode on TCM.”

Grayson wasn’t kidding.  He has wanted to share other films from his collection for years, but runs into a lot of audience apathy.  Having dealt with archives for many years, he knew about a special loophole that would cement his case.

“I told them if they didn’t green-light a few episodes of Dr. Film, then I would donate London After Midnight to an archive, with the stipulation that Warner Brothers, the copyright owner, couldn’t access it.  There are a lot of films at archives with silly stipulations on them like that, and they have to be honored.”

“Eric is lucky,” said another film collector, who spoke on condition of anonymity.  “Frankly, his pilot for Dr. Film was awful.  He’s so passionate about preserving oddball films that the ones he picked for the pilot episode were just appalling.  Sure, they were rare, but who cares?  TCM is so stodgy and stuck in its ways that something like his goofy take on Dr. Film would normally just leave them wondering what they were seeing.”

Instead, Grayson has a six-episode commitment from TCM for his new show, headlined by a Lon Chaney retrospective as the first installment.  He promises to showcase films that others have ignored and abused over the years.

London After Midnight won’t be the only lost film we show,” Grayson said.  “It will just be the most famous one.”

And what of the timing of the announcement?  Some might question the revelation on April Fools’ Day.

“Yes,” Grayson said, “but it’s also Lon Chaney’s 130th birthday, so we thought it was appropriate.  I can’t show any of the film because of my contractual agreement with TCM, but I’ll put up a YouTube video that should quiet most of the doubts.”

London After Midnight debuts on December 17, the 86th anniversary of the film’s release.

Dr. Film will continue on the next 5 Friday nights afterward on TCM.

“If enough people watch, then TCM will have us do more.  I’ve got more movies… we just have to see if people care enough to watch them.”

Naysayers: note this is an original 1950s paper reel band from MGM (below) and a 1920s, NO TRACK MGM Logo. This is exactly what is indicated in the press release.


OK, enough drama over this post!  It was all an April Fool, guys!  Come on!  Did you really think that if I had this movie since October that someone would have leaked info on it?

2001: A Sideways Odyssey

Dr. Film readers: I wrote this for another blog as a guest, but they didn’t use it.  But I can’t just trash a useful blog posting, so you get to read it now!

People from Generation Y, often called Millennials, are being lumped into a group by our media.  They are said to have a core belief that modern cinema began with Star Wars: Episode IV (1977), and that any movie older than that is culturally irrelevant.  Under these conditions, it becomes difficult to make a case that 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is still culturally relevant at all, since it is much older and depicts a future now 12 years past.  Even though it may seem a distant relic, 2001 is still a stunning and fresh experience.

The city of Metropolis as envisioned by Fritz Lang.

The vast majority of films that try to depict the future, particularly anything with a science fiction slant, fail miserably both in dramatics and accuracy.  Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) shows a bleak world of labor unrest and a severely divided culture.  HG Wells’ Things to Come (1936) foretells a second World War that is stunningly accurate, but Wells’ war lasts for 30 years and degrades into global tribal conflict, a worldwide Afghanistan.  The triumphant moon landing does not occur until 2036 and is technically incorrect in almost every way.

HG Wells' goofy rocketship is literally a gun aimed into space
HG Wells’ goofy rocketship is literally a gun aimed into space


Fritz Lang's more realistic moon rocket.
Fritz Lang’s more realistic moon rocket.

Learning from his mistakes in Metropolis, Fritz Lang tried again with Woman in the Moon (1929), which is amazingly accurate up until the rocket lands on the moon.  This is, no doubt, largely because Lang hired advisors from the scientific community, many of whom went on to work on the German V-2 rockets and, later, the American Apollo program.  Similarly, producer George Pal hired only top people for his Destination Moon (1950), which, despite some very hokey dramatics, holds up pretty well.

But 2001 is in a class by itself, and always has been.  Novelist Arthur C. Clarke simply projected the American space program forward into the future, making the assumption that we would maintain a constant level of funding.  That was his only major mistake, because the Apollo program was not the beginning of a slow ramp of progress, but a bubble of innovation in a sea of lethargy.

2001’s gleaming spaceships, rotating space stations, and moon colonies never came to pass, not because they were impossible or impractical, but because we did not care to pursue them.  Where Lang and Wells had been overly pessimistic and lacked technical vision, Clarke and director Stanley Kubrick miss the mark only because America decided to cut back space exploration.

Kubrick employed groundbreaking techniques at every point in 2001.  It was the first time in history that a movie based in space was truly convincing.  George Pal’s 1950s epics had come close, as did Forbidden Planet (1956), but 2001 topped them all.  It was the start of a career for Douglas Trumbull, who has continued as an innovator in the field of special effects.

Beautiful shot of the space station under construction.
Beautiful shot of the space station under construction.

After 2001’s triumphs, the movie industry went back to doing cheesy, unconvincing special effects, simply because it was too expensive to do them the way Kubrick had done.  It was easier to invoke the spirit of Flash Gordon with ray guns and buzzing rockets than to do the stately effects that Kubrick produced.  2001 represents a gigantic step sideways, out of the mainstream of cinema.  It was not until George Lucas made the process more economical with computer-controlled model work that the same degree of conviction came back to movies.  Lucas managed to combine the fun of Flash Gordon with the more convincing feel of 2001, and he did it without being a budget buster.

From a dramatic standpoint, 2001 represents another giant step sideways, a step that has not been replicated.  Kubrick strove to make his film visually engaging with a minimum of dialogue.  At many points, Kubrick’s directorial technique recalls silent cinema.  He challenges the viewer to keep up with the story.  It is not brainless and transparent in the way that many comic-book movies are today.  2001 demands constant attention and participation from the viewer.

2001’s uniqueness in film history does not make it culturally irrelevant.  The film depicts many key innovations that did come to pass.  Scientist Heywood Floyd (William Sylvester) flies to the moon in a shuttle not dissimilar to the later space shuttle.  He makes a video telephone call to his family.  Astronauts Poole and Bowman (Gary Lockwood and Keir Dullea) use computerized tablets that parallel modern iPads.  In fact, the similarity has been used as a complex legal defense in a lawsuit between Apple and Samsung (

We still have no modern computers that talk and interact like HAL, voiced by Douglas Rain.  Rain’s creepy, emotionless delivery is one of the most memorable in the history of cinema. It was the inspiration for Anthony Hopkins’ eerie portrayal of Dr. Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991).  Apple’s new Siri functionality on the iPhones comes closest to HAL, but Siri hardly seems as threatening as a room-sized computer that controls all of the life-support systems in a gigantic spaceship.  Siri also bumbles and misinterprets in a way that HAL never did.

Ironically, HAL has the greatest amount of dialogue and screen time of any of the characters in 2001.  Many of the humans are denied closeups and establishing stories, making 2001 feel cool and distant toward most of its key characters.  The story is not about individual humans but about the larger class of humanity itself.  It is HAL’s conflicted view of humanity that causes the plot to move forward.  The mysterious monoliths seem to nurture and encourage humanity to go off and pursue new horizons.

Ultimately, 2001 is not outdated, but simply a story of a future that never occurred.  Its use of sparse dialogue and deeply technological themes foretells a cinema that never occurred, or an alternate universe.  After more than 40 years, there still is no other film quite like 2001.

My Favorite Christmas Movie

The most annoying question I ever get asked in interviews is this one:  “You love movies!  What’s your favorite movie?”  I don’t have a favorite movie.  I really don’t.  There are lots of movies that I love and think are great films.

But I think there’s one category for which I can absolutely say, “This is my favorite.”  Christmas movies.  There’s a problem with these.  They can be a little too syrupy, like The Bishop’s Wife (1947).  They can completely miss the boat, like Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964), or they can just not quite measure to what you feel about Christmas.

This is why I think that the most personal kind of movie is a Christmas movie.  Since a lot of the Christmas experience reflects the way people feel about themselves and the world, then their choice of a movie will differ greatly too.  I think that’s as it should be.

I know a lot of people who love musicals love White Christmas (1954).  Well, I don’t.  I wish I’d been the director so I could have told Danny Kaye to calm down a little.  And the music in White Christmas is annoying because it doesn’t fit the story.  It’s more like, “Oh, hey, it’s been five minutes since we have had a musical number.  Open up the Irving Berlin Songbook and let’s throw a dart!”  Hey, I love Irving Berlin as much as the next guy, but let’s make a little effort to make the songs fit, OK?

Still others love It’s a Wonderful Life (1946).  I’ve got to say I have a soft spot for this movie.  I really empathize with Jimmy Stewart’s character, who works pretty hard to get what he wants, never gets it, and seems to get a bad break every time breaks are handed out.  I’ve often said my life is like this movie except it never gets to the last reel.  It’s a Wonderful Life is still a great piece of filmmaking on every level.

I know that there are others of late who champion Remember the Night (1940).  I’ve seen it, enjoyed it, but there’s something unsettling in it for me about Barbara Stanwyck’s character.  She just seems to me like she could beat me up at any point in the movie.  I like Stanwyck perfectly well in other movies, but there’s something about this one that sorta bothered me.  Maybe I should give it another chance.

OK, so I’ve listed a bunch of Christmas movies that I didn’t pick, so what will I pick?  Well, I’m a sucker for an experimental film, always have been.  Give me a film that does something different and braves a new path and I’ll cut it a break like no one else.  And the movie I’ve picked is just that, a movie that I still think is unique in all cinema.

Curse of the Cat People (1944).

I hear throngs (or a very small throng, in the case of this blog) of people saying, “WHAT?  That’s not a Christmas movie!  It’s a horror film, and it’s a sequel at that, and it’s some ghost story.  No fair!”

Well, if you think that, then you haven’t seen the film.

See, Curse of the Cat People is maybe the least appropriately titled film ever made.  Val Lewton had a deal with the studio, RKO.  The deal was that he got fifty cents, a crew, some film, a title, and a few days of studio time.  If he turned in a film on time, regardless of what it was, then he got to make another one on the same terms.

Curse of the Cat People really is the story of a lonely, socially awkward young girl who has trouble telling fantasy from reality.  It just so happens that she’s the daughter of the surviving couple from Cat People (1942).  Amy, the little girl, has a friend who comes to visit her, a ghost named Irena.  Irena was the character killed in the first film, played by Simone Simon.  The tie-ins to Cat People end there.  Gone is all mention of cats and people who turn into them.  Lewton had moved on to something else.

Is Irena really a ghost?  Is she part of Amy’s imagination?  We don’t know.  Most of the film, as we see it, is from Amy’s point-of-view, so the things that are real to Amy are real to us, too.  I can’t think of another film that does this so effectively.  Fortunately, Lewton is not playing a trick on us by shoving a goofy plot twist down our throats.  It is what it is, and we never know quite where Amy’s reality ends and objective reality starts.  It works perfectly.

I’m also intrigued by the way this film handles the adult characters.  Most of the time, the adults are the smart ones who carry the plot forward.  In Curse of the Cat People, Amy’s father is a well-meaning boor, well played by Kent Smith. All of the other adults follow his lead.  They utterly fail to understand Amy, just as she fails to understand them, and this conflict is what carries the plot along.  As a kid, I remember feeling much the same way.  Yes, I identify strongly with Amy’s character, which is why this film is so special to me.

The whole thing builds to mid-film segment that is one of my favorite scenes in any movie. Some Christmas carolers arrive at Amy’s house.  Like all the other adults in the movie, they are boorish and tacky, even more so because these people are pretending to be spreading Christmas cheer when in reality they’re trying to one-up each other.

Screen shot 2012-12-14 at 10.04.23 AMOne of the older girls in the party snootily tells Amy that her Christmas traditions aren’t proper.  Another caroler bellows false good cheer and reminds the other singers to begin con vivace… except she doesn’t really seem to know what that means.  Amy is clearly rather put off by the whole experience.  They begin to sing a carol, and Amy’s attention drifts (just as the image’s focus masterfully drifts just a bit…)

Outside, over the false carol taking place within, Irena is singing Il est né le divin enfant.  It’s a beautiful French carol, sung with equal beauty by Simon.  Amy peeps through the window, with just the right amount of winter frost on it, and sees Irena outside, clad in a flowing white gown.  The whole thing is lit so wonderfully that it deserves special mention, which I’ll expound upon in a bit.

Screen shot 2012-12-14 at 10.11.09 AMThis scene brings tears to my eyes every time I see it.  I don’t tear up at movies often, and this seems an odd scene, but this one is does it.  Amy is so frustrated at the insensitive idiots who surround her that she turns to Irena, who perfectly understands, gives Amy a lovely Christmas present, and sends her back in the house.

It’s breathtakingly simple, but stunningly effective.  It calls out the hypocrisy of the Christmas season while celebrating the simple joys we can still find in it.

Amy also befriends an older woman, a former actress, named Mrs. Farren.  This is another wonderful element in the film.  Mrs. Farren may, or may not, be slightly doddered with old age.  And it doesn’t matter if she is, for Amy loves her regardless, unlike her daughter (Elizabeth Russell).  Mrs. Farren says that this is not her daughter, but rather a caretaker.  She is heartbroken but insists otherwise.  Amy doesn’t know.  She doesn’t particularly care, either.

The film builds to its plot climax in several ways: Amy’s father insists that she get a little more grounded in the “real world,” whatever that is.  He punishes her for insisting that Irena’s ghost is real.  Amy runs away to Mrs. Farren’s house, but gets lost and mistakes the sound of a car for the sound of the headless horseman.  In one of her theatrical moods, Farren had told Amy the story, and, of course, Amy takes it as literal truth.

Will Amy’s parents wake up to the fact that they have a unique, sensitive child?  Will Amy have to give up believing in her only friend, Irena?  Will Mrs. Farren or her slinky daughter be a help or an hindrance?  It all comes to a climax I still love but others criticize as sloppy and unfinished.

I prefer to see it as open-ended, because Amy will continue to be disheartened by people who don’t understand her, and Amy’s parents will have to do a much better job in trying to do just that.

cotcpI’m sure RKO must have hated this film. It’s a marketing nightmare.  Despite the fact it shares several cast members from the first film, Curse has almost nothing to do with it.  The posters from the original release are misleading at best and deceptive at worst.

Curse of the Cat People is director Robert Wise’s first film.  He replaced Gunther Von Fritsch, who was running behind schedule.  Of course, the whole tone of the film was shaped by producer and uncredited co-writer Val Lewton, who was always the main creative force behind his films.  Wise had been an editor at RKO, and a very good one.  He cut Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.  He learned a great deal from Welles and a great deal from Lewton.

There are a number of directors who have come to that job through being editors.  These directors tend to be very technical people and often make sterile films with weak acting performances.  This is because they’ve not been trained to work with actors, but they know how to set up a scene and shoot it.  One person that leaps to mind here is James Cameron, who needs to have a cast of ace actors in order to overcome his technical orientation.  George Lucas started as an editor and claims it was his favorite job.  We know how good he is with actors!  Peter R. Hunt, director of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969) was a top editor and cut all the early James Bond pictures.  OHMSS still strikes me as a well-crafted film with a set of bloodless performances, Diana Rigg excepted.

Yet Wise does not fall into this trap.  All of the performances in Curse of the Cat People are spot-onOne might argue that Kent Smith’s delivery is a little wooden, but then he always came off a bit that way.  Overall, his performance is great.  Of particular note is Ann Carter as Amy, who delivers one of the best performances by a child actress I have ever seen.  It would be a tough role even for an adult, but this kid handles it like a pro.  I know that Wise had to work with her extensively, because it shows.

And the most un-sung of all is Nicholas Musuraca, the director of photography.  Why is it that we read reams of praise for photographers Gregg Toland, William Daniels, Joseph August and Joseph Valentine, but this guy is almost completely forgotten today?  Musuraca was one of the top DPs for the film noir movement: he shot The Hitch-Hiker (1953), Clash by Night (1952), Out of the Past (1947), and The Spiral Staircase (1946) among others.

He also shot most of the Lewton pictures.  I note that the lovely Simone Simon suddenly lost a lot of her beauty in Val Lewton’s Mademoiselle Fifi (1943), a beauty she regains in Curse of the Cat People.  I wondered why this was, since the difference is so stark.  I came to realize that Fifi is the only Lewton/Simon film that Musuraca didn’t shoot.  It shows.  Sadly, Musuraca ended up doing TV work, mostly because he needed the cash, not like Karl Freund, who had basically retired when he agreed to do I Love Lucy.

Every time I see Curse of the Cat People, I’m struck by just how right the lighting is.  And it changes subtly when the mood changes.  It’s actually a little starker when Amy is with Irena than in the interior scenes in the house.  It’s as if Irena is more real to Amy than the rest of her life.

(A full disclosure side note: those who know me will say I’m incredibly biased towards Curse of the Cat People because of Simone Simon.  I’ve always considered her to be one of the hottest women in movies.  Yeah, OK, maybe it’s fair to point this out, but Simon isn’t especially sexy in Curse of the Cat People. She’s ghostly and ethereal, admittedly beautiful.  If you want to see her in a sexy part, I recommend The Devil and Daniel Webster [1941].  Ohhhhhhh.)

I do have an ulterior motive here.  Every year, someone asks me to do a Christmas movie, which is always a fun thing to schedule.  But every year I suggest Curse of the Cat People and people look at me like I’ve just come from Mars.  I tell them that, no, it isn’t what you think, but they never give it a chance anyway.

Now, at least, I can point them to this blog entry and give them my argument for why this is a great Christmas movie.  Of course it is, but it’s a great movie as well.  All Hail Val Lewton, a master indeed.

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 ( 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 ( and the Florida Avenue Grill ( are just fantastic, real places that should be on your short list. Arthur Bryant’s ( ) 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 ( and Patsy’s ( ) 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.