Taking the Picture No One Likes

I’m bad at marketing.  I’ll be the first person to tell you that.  I can fix your computer, but I couldn’t convince you to buy one.  Some people are just built that way.

When I shot the pilot episode for Dr. Film, I thought that people would be jazzed about it, that they’d put it in the DVD player, watch it, read the material I sent, and we’d have a deal.

I sent it everywhere I could find an address.  I had some printed material that I’d prepared explaining what the show was.  I thought it was fine.

Of course, no one responded.  Not one.  They didn’t even say that they didn’t like the show.  I then discovered a fundamental truth of life (although I knew it before, it was really hammered home):

People will flock around to tell you what’s wrong with a failed project, but while you’re working on it, they say nothing.

My friends agreed that I’d screwed up by not having a slick cover color folder for the show.  Then the consensus was that no one would read all the material I sent, so it needed to be cut down.

But then the last part was that I needed to spiff it up with ART!  I was told that I needed to push the idea that we’re dealing with classic film!  Emphasize the characters!  Emphasize the interaction!  In the show, they’re never in the same shot!  Have them together!

Wow.  All great ideas.  I’d never thought of them.  Of course, no one thought to tell me this before I sent all the material to all the TV stations.

I couldn’t hire an artist.  Artists need to eat three times a day, so they can’t work for free.  And since I didn’t have any money to give them, hiring an artist was out, out, out.

OK, that’s fine, say I.  I have some experience in this.  I may not be the greatest artist in the world, but I think I can get the job done.  Hmm, the show’s characters interacting.  In the same shot.  Emphasizing film.

There’s another problem. In the show, Dr. Film and Anamorphia never are in the same shot for very practical reasons: a) I only had one camera and b) Anamorphia is an elaborate (not digital) special effect.  Dr. Film isn’t a special effect at all, and so they can’t be in the same shot together.

I got an inspired idea.  Anamorphia is so named because she’s anamorphic: she’s squeezed horizontally, like someone who survived an Edgar Allan Poe torture, unlike Glory, who plays her.  Just for one shot, I knew I could get them together, but only if I lined them up just right.

I’d give Glory an extra large reel of 35mm film, with a diameter twice as large as a regular reel.  Then, I’d shoot her dead on straight ahead, and I’d be standing next to her.  The math would work out so I could squeeze her in a photo program and it would make the wide reel look like a regular one!

How would they interact?  Well, in the show, the characters are always bickering about how long-winded and boring he is about film.  She’s gotten frustrated with his verbose habits and wraps him in the film he’s been talking about too much. He’s angry, she’s angry, that’s consistent, PERFECT.

By this time, it had been over a year since we’d shot the show.  But that’s OK, we thought, no one saw it in the first place, so we can still send it out with the new slick paper brochure!  I needed help, because I couldn’t shoot it myself: I’m actually in the shot.  I talked to my sister about it.

ACK. Glory is shorter than I am, and my sister is shorter than I am.  My sister had the idea of shooting outside to make sure we could get lots of light.  That made harsh unflattering shadows, but there was a worse problem.  Due to the widely varying heights, nothing lined up, and I looked like a giant slug being wound up by a tiny silkworm.  It was ridiculous.

Glory complained that the reel I’d found for her was actually full of real film!  This was a problem because a 3000’ reel with film on it is heavy, and she had to hold it very still, and straight horizontally, to get the shots.  Not a good idea.  She was pretty sore by the end of the shoot, and I don’t blame her.  Especially since the pictures were utterly unusable.

Upon reflection, I remembered that Glory (a historian) had just written a National Register nomination for a building with a large stage.  If we could use it, then we could stand on the stage, and have a photographer stand on the main floor, thereby solving the height issues.

I also decided I’d be seated, which helped equalize the height differential.  I found an empty reel, and that made it a little easier for her.  The building owners allowed us to use the stage for a few hours.  I brought in lights, tripods, everything.

It was HOT!  The lights were in my face all the time, and I was wrapped in disintegrating film.  I used a vinegary print of From Russia With Love so I wouldn’t ruin good film!  It smelled terrible, and as I was sweating, it dripped dye on me.  Wonderful.

We spent about 2 hours shooting.  My friend Greg shot the pictures this time.  (My sister couldn’t get off work!)  Greg tried really hard, but 99% of the pictures were junk.  There was one picture in the whole bunch that looked OK.  It was very dark, even with all the light we had pouring on us.  It was just a hard picture to shoot.

I’m not going to show all the raw pictures, because I’d had Glory stand closer to the camera (to keep me from overwhelming the shot).  This caused some focus issues and makes her look unusually large in the raw image.

I worked on equalizing the exposure and applied the anamorphic factor, and got this:

Suddenly, voila, we have art!  Dr. Film and Anamorphia in the same shot!  I used the picture for the new brochure and spruced it up.  I thought it looked pretty good.  We ran it by some design people.  They liked it.  I cut the text down to 8 pages, with lots of color pictures.

Guess what?  This will surprise you.  No response.  Apparently no one even bothered to look at it.

Discouraged?  You bet.  I was about ready to give up on the project.  We’d thrown time and money at it, and no one cared at all.  We weren’t even interesting enough to warrant a polite, “HEY! Buzz off, willya?”

But Dr. Film also seems to be The Project That Never Dies.  There are always a few people who have been unfailingly encouraging, to the point that some people are in my face saying, “It’s a great idea!  Don’t give up on this show!”  (I’ve never actually been sure why this is, but it seems to be.  Most of the rest of the world looks at Dr. Film with a cold indifference.)

I installed a blog on the web page, the one you’re reading now, updated the site, and went from there.  The blog, as you can see, has been a rip-roaring success, attracting email from Viagra shippers the world over.  With no real web traffic and only a tepid response to the blog, I was ready to shut the project down again.

Several others suggested that Dr. Film was too long.  The feeling was that we needed cut it down and make it in 30 minutes, based on the attention span of modern audiences.  This is where I draw the line.  I have a two-fold argument with this: a) there are so many interesting movies out there that don’t get shown that I hate to CUT them to something shorter.  b) A 30-minute show is actually more work than a two-hour show!  Why?  Well, I have to go through more material, cherry-pick, and edit.  More narration to explain what’s missing.  More shooting.  More work.

The whole idea of Dr. Film has always been to make an economical show that appeals to an admittedly small demographic.  Since a 30-minute show means more time, it also means I’d have to charge more money, which I think is more of an impediment than the difficulty in clearing a two-hour slot.

Glory and I talked to publicity people and they told us that there was probably no hope for Dr. Film since no one responded.  Once again, I was ready to shut the project down and move on to other things.

Remember I said Dr. Film just never seems to die?  Well, I had an idea.  You see, I don’t believe anyone who matters has ever watched the show and given it any sort of chance.    I have a feeling that it’s off the beaten path, consequently under the radar.  I don’t think it mattered what sort of picture we had.

I realize that Dr. Film is an unconventional project.  I know that there is a niche market, but we have to reach it.  My idea was to draw upon on word-of-mouth support and an internet community.  If we have a vibrant Facebook group, a bunch of advocates for the show, a successful blog, then people have to notice it.  Someone floated the idea that “Support Dr. Film!” t-shirts would be a great idea.  A way to build the community feeling.

That’s fine, I thought!  I’ve got art for shirts!  We’re set!  I’d designed a shirt for a convention showing, and I still had the files!

Then, just as I was ready to submit the design, a couple of people, all generally supporters of the show, told me how much they hated the shirt.


They hated that same picture I’d literally sweat over for hours.  And hate was the word.  It was repulsive.  One guy told me he’d never wear the shirt because it looked like a bondage scene to him.

I have to tell you that I never thought of this.  Knowing the characters, and knowing that there is not a spark of anything between them, it never occurred to me.  Not once.

OK, so what should we have instead?  This is where I get frustrated.  Once again, people can’t seem to tell you what they like.  It’s the old joke, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like!”

Some ideas were in direct contradiction to other ones.  I wanted to scream.  Actually, I did scream.  I thought we were about done, and suddenly, I was back at square one.  I often marvel about how I’ve come this far on Dr. Film with nothing to show for it!

Ernie Kovacs once called Edie Adams and told her that the show opening wasn’t working, and he didn’t know why.  He was joking about being tired and working overtime.  Edie told him that the audience didn’t care how tired they were or how hard they worked.  They only cared whether the show was funny or not.

Edie was right. It makes no difference how we got to the t-shirt design and how we took The Picture That No One Likes!  It only matters that we came up with a design that people seem to like.  On the other hand, it’s a great story and it makes a great blog entry!

You note I’ve not spoken about what I thought personally?  Well, I don’t like the new design (even though I did it.)  I like the other one better.  I don’t think there’s enough art in this one.

But, clearly, I have no idea what I’m talking about!

PS: I haven’t had a chance to take redo the art for the brochure, so you can still see it here.


Ray Bradbury Meets the Man of 1,000 Faces

When I was a kid, growing up and watching movies on TV, I read about Lon Chaney Sr., in the magazines of Forrest J. Ackerman.  Ackerman (1916-2008) was a great friend of Ray Bradbury and Ray Harryhausen.  As of Mr. Bradbury’s death today, Harryhausen (1920- ) becomes the last survivor of the long-lived group.

Ackerman always praised Lon Chaney and claimed he was a special actor, whose like is not to be seen today.  Even as a nine-year-old, I wanted to see more of his films.  In those days, most of Chaney’s pictures were impossible to see.  If you were very lucky, you might see a chewed-up print of The Phantom of the Opera or The Hunchback of Notre Dame.  It was unlikely that you’d see any of the other ones.

As video came to the world, I got a slow trickling of Lon Chaney movies.  I was a teenager at the time.  I was mesmerized by him.  What an actor.  Ackerman was right.

Then, many years later, I attended a lecture at Butler University with Douglas Adams and Ray Bradbury, two authors who could hardly be more disparate, but were both typecast (if one may use that word for an author) as “science fiction guys.”  This, as Harlan Ellison would tell you, is considered by the literati to be one small step up from porno authors and men’s room attendants.

Adams came on and was enchanting.  He read excerpts from his Hitchhikers’ Guide books, and some other things.  He was a natural-born actor, able to put a spin on his work like no performers I had ever seen before.  I loved every moment of what he did, and since he died not long after, I’m glad I got the chance to see him in person.

Then Bradbury came on.

By this time in his life, had had a stroke, and was stuck in a wheelchair.  His speech was somewhat impaired.  His ability to move one hand seemed to be a little strained.

I realize that everyone will focus on Mr. Bradbury’s literary accomplishments, which are legion, in celebrating his life.  I don’t want to take anything away from that at all, because I love Bradbury’s work.  But there was another side to him, as a lover of film, and since this is a film blog, that’s what I want to cover here.

Bradbury called films “wonderful” and “magical,” and he wanted nothing to do with the idea that they were somehow low-class art.  He’d worked on many films himself, including the underrated Something Wicked This Way Comes (1983) and Moby Dick (1956).  He did a fantastic impression of director John Huston when he spoke of the making of that picture.

He went on to talk about his favorite star when he was growing up.  Born in 1920, Bradbury was an impressionable child just as Lon Chaney was becoming a big star.  In those days, it was fairly easy to see movies reissued, so even as a youngster, he was able to see most of Chaney’s big pictures in reissue.

Chaney, he said, was able to reach into his soul and find something in some of these characters that was human and touching, despite how horrible they often were.  Bradbury often teared up a bit when talking of Chaney’s work, and how emotional it made him.

Of course, most of the audience had no idea what he was talking about.  After all, Chaney has been dead since 1930, and he only made one talking picture.  Even today, a good bit of his silent material is difficult to see and a fair chunk doesn’t survive at all.  But I had seen it!   I knew exactly what he meant.

One of the things that always annoys me in an interviewer is when they ask me, “Can you name an actor today who is like this silent star we’re discussing?”  Well, no.  Lon Chaney was unique in cinema.  There was no one ever like him, and there likely never will be again.  Despite the fact that some of his movies were clichéd and hammy, with hare-brained plots and weak direction, Chaney was always able to wring something worthwhile out of them.

He was so good at certain things that he got tagged with them and had to do them over and over again.  Weird, contortionist makeup?  He was great at it.  Playing disabled characters with deformities?  No one better.  Ethnic types?  Chaney’s your man.  And the thing that tied them together: No one, no one ever, was able to convey the emotions of traumatic disappointment and utter heartbreak like Chaney did.  One facial expression.  You felt his pain.  The man was a genius.

It was almost a given that Chaney didn’t get the girl at the end of the picture, but he sure tried and it killed him (sometimes literally) that someone else ended up with his love.  I often find that some of Chaney’s best performances are in his most conventional parts, like Tell It to the Marines (1926) or While the City Sleeps (1928).  But Chaney could still play convincingly through thick makeup.  Even a fairly conventional picture like Shadows (1922) features Chaney playing an 80-year-old Chinese laundryman.  It is hard to see the 39-year-old Chaney in the part.  After a few minutes, we simply believe he is that character.

As I continued to listen to Bradbury, it occurred to me that much of his work was colored in the same way that Chaney’s had been.  No, not science fiction, not horror, not claptrap.  Chaney was all about emotion. Often it was about a alienated person who didn’t really fit in with the rest of society.  Bradbury’s work was too.

I remembered that in high school we’d been assigned to read 1984 and Fahrenheit 451.   I know that the “English teacher mentality” taught that 1984 was a timeless classic.  I felt at the time that Fahrenheit 451 was much more interesting, because it had passion that I never felt at all in Orwell’s novel.  Bradbury’s characters deeply loved a history that society was taking away, so much that they were willing to die in order to preserve it.

It was a very Lon Chaney sort of idea.

Bradbury was moved to tears again as he recounted Chaney’s untimely death in 1930, and how it affected him personally.  This man, his hero, was dead!  It could even happen to someone like Lon Chaney!  It made the ten-year-old boy shudder at both Chaney’s mortality and his own.

We are fortunate that Bradbury lived over 90 years, just as we are unfortunate that Chaney never reached 50.  Tonight I celebrate the legacy of both men.  I hope somewhere, somehow, The Man of 1000 Faces gets to meet the creator of The Illustrated Man.

As a postscript: I have seen an artist’s picture, which I cannot find, of Death laying the final mask on Lon Chaney’s face.  I can think of no better image to include here.

Post postscript: (added 8/26/12).  Michael Blake found the picture, which I am including here.


My Top 13 Films That Need Preservation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Why I’m Just Mean

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I wrote this in response:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Guest Blogger DW Atkinson reviews The Three Stooges movie

DW Atkinson, one of the moving forces behind Cinesation, is perhaps the biggest Stooge fan I know. Even his license plate and email have variations of NYUK (the Curly laugh) on them.

Full disclosure: I’m not the biggest Stooge fan ever. I don’t find them hilariously funny, as some do, but I respect them. When I see what they were able to do with the 35-cent budget allocated to them by Columbia, and I compare it to what many of the other Columbia comedians were able to accomplish with the same money, the Stooges blow them out of the water every time. I figured that Mr. Atkinson was the most qualified to review this modern-day version of classic comedy.

DW’s review starts below the trailer for the new film.

The Three Stooges: Those who saw the film this weekend — a 58% male crowd — didn’t love it, assigning it an average grade of B-, according to market research firm CinemaScore. Even if word-of-mouth on the movie doesn’t end up being fantastic, 20th Century Fox didn’t spend much to produce the film: $37 million.

The word film was used but it was digital for me. B- is generous. What I could do 37 million? Don’t get me started.

I just watched the new Three Stooges movie.
I could tell it was partially made as an homage to Howard, Fine & Howard.
But too many times it was it was an Oh-man moment for me. Not in a good way either.
And as usual, most of the good parts were in the trailer spoiling too many scenes.

The movie just didn’t work for me. It couldn’t decide what it wanted to be or how to get there.
It was funny in parts, made me smile and laugh.
But when it’s over, the “what the hell was that” question smacked me upside the head faster than Moe with a shovel.

I am not a fan of the Farrelly’s work with the exception of Shallow Hal.
In fact, after paying to see Dumb & Dumber back in the day, I vowed to never pay to see another Farrelly movie.
I still think it’s a dumb movie and I was dumber paying to see it. I could have edited it down to 30 minutes.
Anyways, like most Farrelly flicks, body fluids/functions have a spotlight and the Stooges are not immune.
The nursery scene went a little long but it was funny at first. The Curly gas scene worked because unlike
some other gags, it wasn’t over worked.

I don’t understand the reasoning for the assorted famous supporting cast members and I don’t care enough to look it up. Larry David? Really?

I don’t believe a real Stooge fan will like the new Three Stooges Movie,
but having said that, they won’t hate it either.
It could have been worse. Remember the Laurel & Hardy movie back in 1999?

How would I rate the film?
Would I go see it again? NO
Would I buy it on DVD next month? NO
I give it three Nyuk’s = a grade of C

Kevin Brownlow and the Holy Grail

Kevin Brownlow (right), and Abel Gance (1967)

Seldom has a movie, particularly a silent film, been so enmeshed in legend and politics as Abel Gance’s Napoleon (1927).  The French have their own restoration, there’s a different version at MOMA, and there’s yet a different cut made by Francis Coppola, who owns the rights to show it in the US.  But the most famous, most complete version has been assembled by Kevin Brownlow, slowly, painstakingly, over the last 45 years or so.  It hasn’t been shown since the 1980s in the US.

Attending a screening of Napoleon has become something of a Holy Grail.  The few European screenings have attracted viewers from all over the world.  The challenge of mounting a showing is daunting.  The film is about five and half hours long, and it requires a screen for three interlocked projectors with a triple-wide ending sequence.  Since it doesn’t have a recorded score, the film has an orchestral accompaniment written by Carl Davis, which he generally conducts himself.  Just the thought of paying overtime and double overtime for the union musicians is staggering.

I was lucky enough to attend a showing in Oakland, California on March 31.  It was spectacular.  The theater was breathtaking, an art deco gem called the Paramount, absolutely gigantic, and painstakingly restored.  I’d have gladly paid most of what I paid for admission just to look around the theater.

So what about the movie, you ask.  Well, I’m getting to that…

I try to keep the Dr. Film blog pages from getting too saturated with film theory and technical jargon. I strive to have the blog full of film lore for geeks, but I also want to encourage newcomers.  With this film, I have a problem.  I can’t seem to discuss the movie without doing it in film geek terms.

The problem with talking about Napoleon is that it diverges strongly from most other silents.  The differences between it and the run-of-the-mill silent films of the period can only be explained and illustrated by using fancy film terms.  So I will apologize in advance to any newcomer who may be reading this.  I hope it is still rewarding to any newcomer, but if you find if rough going, I recommend skipping forward to another one of my blog articles.

Napoleon is part of a rarefied class of films made by half-crazy directors who went wild spending money and had crews and producers that would support it.  It requires a charismatic director so dedicated to the film that people will follow him into the abyss.  In a very real sense the making of a film like Napoleon is like a Napoleonic campaign.  Consider that Gance went to all the places that Napoleon did, with a similar sized crew/army, and prop ammunition, etc.  The logistics are quite impressive.

Napoleon joins the rank of films like Intolerance, Metropolis, Lawrence of Arabia, Heaven’s Gate, 2001, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and a number of others.  All of these have troubled production histories, bloated runtimes, maniacal directors, and out-of-control budgets.  All of them are today considered at least minor classics, some major classics.  Most of them were subjected to investor interference and extensive recutting.

I am saddened by the idea that many of the people who saw Napoleon did so without ever having seen another silent film.  What makes Napoleon unique is that it uses a number of fascinating techniques.  Some ideas were used years later, others not at all.  To see Napoleon is to see one of the great experimental films ever made.  There are parts of it that work brilliantly, other parts less so, but the ideas we see in this film are nothing short of staggering.

Consider these:

• Silent films tended to be cut with a slower rhythm that modern films are.  Gance has several sequences in Napoleon that are cut with lightning speed, just as fast as a modern Michael Bay film.  Gance had the intelligence to use this technique sparingly, so that the confusion of “chaos cinema” used in action sequences today is minimized.  What does happen is that we get the effect of being “in the fight” while still clearly understanding what is going on.

• A brilliant little sequence uses a technique I’d never seen before.  Napoleon sees Josephine and finally gets a chance to meet her properly.  He’d met her briefly a number of times before.  Gance gives us a closeup of Napoleon, and then flash cuts of their other meetings, and then back to Napoleon reacting.  In the space of a second, we understand what’s going on in Napoleon’s head as he works this out.  Amazing technique.  No flashbacks, lap dissolves or anything.  The only other time I’ve ever seen anything like it is during a scene toward the end of Charade (1963), but that usage is fundamentally different and is actually cut slower!

• Moving camerawork was difficult in 1927.  Film stock was slow, which meant that a lot of light was required to keep anything moving in focus.  Furthermore, most cameramen were using hand-cranked cameras, which naturally limited mobility.  Gance gleefully breaks all convention here.  Motorized cameras, handheld camerawork, cameras on seesaws, on wires to create smoother shots.  It all looks rather seamless and more like some of the work we see today with Steadicams and the like.  Gance had no such things.  Perhaps the Germans were doing a bit more with the moving camera at this time, but Gance integrates it wonderfully into the film, less as a stunt and more as a real storytelling device.

• Gance’s Polyvision, with three interlocked cameras, used at the end of the film, is amazing.  Gance could have met with Henri Chretien, creator of the Hypergonar process that eventually became Cinemascope.  That would have given him the widescreen process he craved.  What he came up with was equally brilliant.  The interlocked projector technique, which he called Polyvision, is extremely similar to Cinerama, which debuted publicly in 1952.  But even here Gance does things differently.  Cinerama always apologizes a little for the join lines between the panels, trying to minimize them as much as possible.  Gance embraces the whole idea.  While Cinerama always used single shots (the same scene spread across each of the three screens), Gance will happily have a different shot on each screen, or a mirror of the right screen on the left screen.  Sometimes Napoleon will be seen in closeup in the center panel while a long shot is seen on the side panels.  This would never have been done in Cinerama!  At the end of the film, he even tints each screen to match the French flag in a sequence that is as bravura a piece of filmmaking as I have ever seen.

Is it excessive?  Sure it is.  That’s the whole point.  If I can make an analogy that’s used frequently, Gance starts Napoleon like an organ with all the stops pulled.  You’d think he had nowhere to go.  What he does is to effectively build more stops through the end of the picture and use those.  Yes, it is wearing, and yes, there are sequences that are so long that any producer would scream to cut them back.

That’s why I can understand why people have wanted to cut Napoleon down to a manageable size for years.  Gance himself recut it and recast it with sound.  He remade it with sad results.  But if we look through history, Intolerance was long and was recutThat was DW Griffith’s picture, one of the directors Gance revered.  Metropolis was recut extensively.  2001 was recut.  Brazil was recut.  Lawrence of Arabia was recut.  Each of these films was long and excessive, made by an obsessed director.

Again, that’s the point.

This is why I laud Kevin Brownlow for restoring Napoleon as it was.  He’s fought the good fight against recutting it to fit modern tastes, to fit cinema runtimes, to anything other than the best we can approximate Gance’s vision.  This is why that, to this day, Napoleon still stands out from the crowd.  It’s not commercial.  It never was.  It’s not like any other film, silent or sound.  It wasn’t intended to be.  It is what it is.  Even Coppola’s cutting and speeding-up of Napoleon, which was intended to minimize the overtime for the musicians, compromises Gance’s vision.

Napoleon felt, to me, a lot like a David Lean film (Lean, director of Lawrence of Arabia.)  It also had a strong influence from DW Griffith (Intolerance) in terms of narrative structure and editing.  But it also had an avant garde feel.

The acting was brilliant, particularly Albert Dieudonné as Napoleon.  Davis’ score was an inspiration, based on pieces of music from each period in Napoleon’s life.  The theater, presentation, and ambience were all top notch.

Out of all the brilliance of the evening, I still need to single out Kevin Brownlow.  I wouldn’t call soft-spoken Mr. Brownlow obsessive.  I would call him dedicated to doing the right thing.  He’s suffered slings and arrows for years from people who didn’t care to have Napoleon restored.

I give him a special tip of the Dr. Film fez.  Without Kevin Brownlow, we’d be missing a key piece of movie history.  It’s a glimpse of a cinema that was, a cinema that never would be, and a cinema from the mind of a genius.

A still from the triptych: look carefully, and you can see where the 3 images join

Special side note: Much was made of the idea of putting Napoleon out on DVD or Blu-ray.  I, for one, hope it never is.  What I hope for is a well-publicized successful roadshow of the film in major cities across the US.  I know that theatrical exhibition is passé today.  I still think Napoleon should be seen in a theater, with an audience, and if possible, with a live score.  Brownlow mentioned that Stanley Kubrick wanted to borrow a print of Napoleon to watch on his flatbed viewer (a small-screen device used for editing films.)  He told Kubrick that this was a bad idea, given that the film lost most of its impact on a small screen.

“It’s like watching Lawrence of Arabia on a phone,” Brownlow said.  (Mind you, I believe Mr. Brownlow would happily release the film on DVD just to get it out there for people to see.  It is my own opinion, not his, that it shouldn’t be on video.)

For the record, I won’t watch Lawrence of Arabia on anything but a big screen, and I think Napoleon deserves the same respect.

Dude, #youSawTheArtist

Now that The Artist has won the Best Picture Oscar, I’ve been asked by numerous people to recommend other silent films.  People treat me as if I speak a foreign language and that perhaps I can teach them the secret to unlocking it.  In a way, this is really true, because silent film uses a different filmic syntax, and it’s one that has to be learned with repeated viewings.  Silent film technique is not primitive… it is quite advanced, in fact, but it is fundamentally different from the techniques we use today. That’s why it can seem a little silly if you are not used to it.

Most of the people who ask me about silent films are younger folks who are just discovering silents.  I hope this will dispel the myth that I somehow dislike younger people or “newbies,” which is definitely not the case.  The entire goal of the Dr. Film show is to be able to include films and shorts that will appeal to a broad audience, from newbies to dyed-in-the-wool film geeks.

What I don’t like, and will continue not to like, is the persistent cultural idea that there were only five films made before Star Wars, which seems to be the oldest film most people will watch.  I refer to these as the “Holy Quintet” of classic films. (See the end of this article for the list of the “Holy Quintet,” just in case you’re wondering.)

Silent films suffer even more in popular culture, They were often copied poorly, causing them to have that blown-out over-white look, and they were often transferred at speeds that were completely incorrect.  This only hurts the whole of silent film, because originally all the prints were lovely and they were all projected at reasonable speeds.

Most articles that I see trot out the same few silent films, often with a dismissive swish that these are flickery and sped-up, not understanding the basic idea of what silents were about.

If you’ve been reading about The Artist, then you’ve seen these articles, too.  Everyone wants you to see Sunrise, Passion of Joan of Arc, City Lights, Metropolis, and Intolerance.  These are becoming the clichéd “see these after you’ve seen The Artist” list.

The problem that I have with this list is that they are not terribly accessible.  Not in a strict sense of availability–these films can all be found on video, and often downloaded.  The problem is that these are not films I’d recommend for newbies.  It’s the equivalent of handing Beowulf to a kid who’s just finished Green Eggs and Ham.  Sure, Beowulf is great, but the poor kid is probably going to be put off a lot of literature because this is just too much for him.

All of the films in the “see these after you’ve seen The Artist” list are films I’ve seen, and one of the things that they share is that they tend to be rather broad-sweeping epics.  They tackle big issues, they’re big and ponderous, and they’re “arty.”  There’s nothing wrong with that–I like these pictures–but I fear that the won’t play well for viewers who are new to the medium.  Worse still, these are all films that demand a great deal of concentration and play infinitely better on a large screen with an audience.  I’ve got to face the fact that I need to hook new viewers by finding films that will play well on an iPhone. Then I slowly must convince them that the theatrical experience is far superior especially for silents!

I need  to emphasize once again that silents are fundamentally different from talkies.  You can watch Transformers 3 and walk into the kitchen, come back, and you’ve heard all the explosions and dialogue that you need to follow the story.  We can’t do that with silents.  If you miss two or three minutes, then you may be lost.  More importantly, there are things we can do in talkies that we can’t do in silents, but there are things that we can do in silents that we can’t do in talkies.

Ben Model frequently points out (and accurately), that one of the things we can do in silents is to have large, noisy objects sneak up behind the protagonist while he is unaware of them.  In Buster Keaton pictures, this is often a train.  When Buster’s back is to the train, even if we can see it, we’re somehow able to believe that Buster can’t hear it.  We don’t hear it either.  Once he sees it, then he is aware of its existence.  Sight is the only sense we have in a silent film.

The other thing that many have already gleaned from me is that I tend to veer off the mainstream, so I figure that you can find all the big, epic silents you need.  I’ve prepared a list of ten silent films that I hope will encourage you to see more.

These are not what I think are the ten best silent films.  I hate lists like that.  These are not my favorite silent films.  I hate lists like that.  These are not even what I consider a balanced overview of what silent films represented.  I’m not sure I could do that with just ten.

Here are the criteria I used–

  • The film must be available in some way on video or for download.
  • The film should be something that helps showcase the uniqueness of silent film.  It should either be something difficult to make as a talkie or something that was never attempted again for other reasons.
  • Big photographic epics that play well on big screens should be avoided.  Tight comedies or dramas play better on small screens.
  • Let’s have some fun and pick films that most others skip over and don’t mention.

The list, in random order, not by quality.

  1. Sherlock Junior (1924) with Buster Keaton.  I didn’t want to pick The General, because everyone will pick it, and because it’s a little too epic for new viewers.  Still, Keaton has a special timeless quality about him that appeals across generations.  This film is action-packed, and it contains a delightful sequence in which Keaton walks into a movie screen.  Again, it couldn’t be made as a talkie, because the “film” he walks into is bizarrely disjointed and would contain wildly disparate sounds to destroy the illusion.  Sherlock is probably not Keaton’s best film, but it is a film I think would appeal to a broad audience.
  2. The Mark of Zorro (1920).  I have to include a Douglas Fairbanks title in this list in order not to feel inordinately guilty.  Thief of Baghdad needs to be seen on a big screen, but Zorro is a blast no matter how you see it.  I’m not going to recount the Zorro legend to you, because you should already know it.  Fairbanks plays him brilliantly.  He was a force of nature, an unstoppable guy who seemed to embody the term “irrational exuberance.”  Fairbanks was not afraid to break all the rules of filmmaking and storytelling, either.  The last 20 minutes of so of Zorro is a non-stop chase.  It’s too long, it stops the film cold in its tracks, and it does nothing to forward the story at all.  I loved every second of it and would never cut a single frame. Fairbanks makes it work.
  3. Films of Max Davidson.  Available only as a German DVD, mostly due to rights issues and because Americans don’t like the idea of Max in general, these films are gems.  Max had his own series of short films under producer Hal Roach in the late 1920s.  He could hardly have misfired with the help he had available: many of the shorts were directed by young comedy genius Leo McCarey and photographed by budding genius director George Stevens.  Still, Max is one of the great comic performers, if only because he reactsso well.  Max’s reaction shots are a model of how a comic can and should stretch a funny situation for maximum laughs.One example I can give of Max’s brilliance is in Pass the Gravy (1928).  This is truly one of the funniest short films ever made by anyone at any time.  And it basically has one jokestretched out for almost 20 minutes.  I can even tell you the joke without giving anything away!  Max’s character is a stereotypical little Jewish guy from the 1920s, complete with beard, cheapness, etc.  He generally has an idiot son who commits some sort of mischief.  In this one, the son accidentally kills the neighbor’s prize rooster, Brigham.  The son then cooks it, leaving the FIRST PRIZE band highly visible on the rooster’s leg.  The family serves it up to the neighbor in hopes to mend the discord between the two families.  Max doesn’t understand what’s happened, but the rest of the family does, and they desperately try to explain the problem in pantomime so that the neighbor doesn’t find out.  It’s a work of genius.Should Second Husbands Come First? manages to top this in terms of sheer political incorrectness.  Money-grubbing Max is trying to marry a rich widow, much to the dismay of her two sons.  They concoct a scheme to break up the wedding: one son dresses up as a shamed woman, holding a young child “she” claims to be Max’s illegitimate son.  The boys could only find a black baby for their shenanigans, so they powdered all the visible parts.  Mortified at the events, Max’s cheap friends quickly take back all their wedding gifts.  The baby’s pants fall off, revealing a posterior of the incorrect tone.  The ruse is exposed, and Max demands all the presents be returned.  Yes, folks, in the space of 45 seconds we have two Jewish jokes, a black joke, and a butt joke.Hal Roach felt these were all OK because they were not of a vicious nature and everyone was subject to the humor in these films.  I tend to think he was right, but there are still people who think these films should be banned.  Maybe they should be banned, but you should see them first, because they are truly hilarious.
  4. Grass and Chang.  These two groundbreaking documentaries are about as fascinating as movies get.  I don’t want to tell you too much about them, because they have to be seen to be believed.  The thing to bear in mind while seeing them is that they were made by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who later made King Kong (1933).  You start to realize in watching these films just how much Cooper borrowed from his real-life experiences when making Kong, and you see a glimpse of native life (and wildlife) in Asia that was not captured any other way.  There are probably more tigers killed in Chang than exist worldwide today!  Beautiful photography, intense editing, fascinating action sequences.  Yes, they’re violent, not for young children.  Yes, they’re hoked up for maximum effect.  That doesn’t stop them from being landmark films.  As a side note, it’s important to realize that Cooper was basically the real-life (and smart) equivalent of Forrest Gump.  Almost every major event in the 20th Century had Cooper’s involvement: he was a WWI aviator, POW, anti-Communist, pioneer in the aviation industry, documentary filmmaker, studio head, major investor in Technicolor, major backer of David Selznick and John Ford, WWII hero, major investor in Cinerama, and several other things.  Amazing films, amazing man.
  5. The films of Charley Bowers.  I don’t know what to say about this guy.  He’s unique in all of cinema.  Was he smoking something?  Probably.  Bowers’ blend of stop-motion and live-action was pioneering and mind-blowing.  Sadly, most of his films were lost for many years, and many have only been rediscovered in the last decade or so.  Bowers’ comic character was sort of a combination of Chaplin and Keaton with a bizarre inventive streak thrown in.  Bowers casually showed elephants walking into the Capitol in Washington DC, with effects as convincing as any today.  In one film he invented a solution that could graft anything onto living plants.  A desperate farmer, overrun with vicious mice (bearing machine guns), hired Bowers to eradicate the pests.  Bowers solved the problem by harvesting cat-tails, grafting them onto plants, at which point live cats sprout from the plants!  This is all shown on screen in full view.  Bowers’ stop-motion happened simultaneously with Willis O’Brien’s work.  While Bowers never animates dinosaurs, he meshes live action with stop motion in brilliant ways that O’Brien never tried.  O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen rarely moved their camera during animation, but Bowers gleefully pulls back from a closeup to longshot, effectively animating both camera and model.  Bowers is one of the great rediscoveries of the past twenty years, the kind of rediscovery that keeps collectors like me digging for more lost films.
  6. The Wind (1928) with Lillian Gish.  Swedish director Victor Seastrom (aka Sjöstrom) was a great innovator in silent cinema who returned to his native land and eventually acted in Bergman films.  This one is one of his best and most effective.  Again, it’s simple.  Gish is an innocent young woman stuck in a small shack in the desert.  She’s been stuck with crass, unfeeling relatives in a hot, desolate landscape.  Her isolation is something we can feel intensely, and we can understand her starting to go slightly mad in the environment.  In self-defense, she kills a man who was making improper advances, then buries him.  A wild windstorm ensues, blowing up the dry sand all around the shack.  The man is uncovered and flails around outside at the windows.  Is he really dead?  Gish has to deal with a range of emotions and a terrifying situation.  It’s a brilliant film, not screened enough.
  7. The Unknown (1927) with Lon Chaney.  This is a film that doesn’t lend itself to description.  I love running it for audiences, because it starts off a bit silly, drawing titters, and then moves into territory that has people cringing by the last reel.  Director Tod Browning  has been roundly trashed in popular criticism in the last decade or so.  Well, whether like Dracula or not, this is a great film.  Chaney plays an armless circus performer who throws knives with his feet, at lovely young Joan Crawford.  Unbeknownst to almost everyone, Chaney actually has arms, using them to steal and murder after hours.  Alas, Crawford sees his form, identifying his unusual double thumb, as he commits a murder.  Chaney has a brilliant idea: he bribes a doctor to remove his arms, thereby making certain that he can never be identified for his crime.  Chaney’s performance in some of the later scenes is remarkable.
  8. The Kid (1921) with Charlie Chaplin.  I have to include a Chaplin film, and everyone is going to tell you to see City Lights or The Gold Rush.  Those may be more important films, but The Kid is very accessible, very well acted, and filmically very important: it was the first major comedy feature picture.  Certainly, Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) is also a feature (just squeaking by the time requirement), but The Kid is far more advanced structurally.  It paved the way for comedies and comedy-dramas for years to come.  Jackie Coogan is a wonderful child performer, and Chaplin exploits him perfectly.  Chaplin’s mastery of both film direction and geography meshed with his sensitive portrayal combines to make this a great film.
  9. The Patsy (1928).  Marion Davies is one of the most maligned talents in cinema.  Citizen Kane unfairly portrayed her as a talentless hack, something that Orson Welles regretted in interviews for years.  Her long-time lover, William Randolph Hearst, often threw Davies in costume dramas, a genre for which she was ill-suited.  When left to her own devices, Davies was an ace comedienne, able to make a charming performance from even the frothiest script.  In this film, as the forgotten “good girl” in the family, Davies loses all the cute men to her sister.  Thinking she needs a better personality, Davies impersonates Pola Negri, Lillian Gish, and Mae Murray.  (Don’t worry, it’s funny even if you don’t know the people she’s imitating).  Davies is a delight to watch in her attempts to win the favor of a young man– a man also being pursued by her sister.  Throw in sterling work by Marie Dressler as the mother, and this is a howl from start to finish.
  10. Destiny (1921).  I know the pundits are going to say Murnau, Murnau, Murnau!  To you I say, Lang, Lang, Lang!  Murnau is more pretentious and arty than Lang, and Lang,  (when he’s not being long-winded and preachy), is more accessible.  This, to me, is his best film.  A young woman, Lil Dagover (also the female lead in Cabinet of Dr. Caligari) is distressed when her lover leaves with a stranger and does not return.  The stranger is Death, and his garden wall is impenetrable.  Eventually, Death agrees to a challenge: if she can defeat him and save just one of three men from his fate, then Death will reunite the lovers.  This concept has been ripped off a zillion times, from The Seventh Seal to Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey.  Sadly, the surviving prints of this film aren’t the greatest, so I’m a little hesitant to recommend it on that level, but I hope viewers will find its simple story so compelling that it overcomes the deterioration of poor copying.

I know that I’m going to get brickbats hurled at me because of these choices.  What?  No Harold Lloyd?  No DW Griffith?  No deMille?  No Arbuckle?  No Ince?  No William Desmond Taylor?  No Louise Brooks?  No Colleen Moore?  No Valentino?  No Napoleon?

Well, this is the problem with lists.  You note that I produced more than ten examples of people omitted from this silly list.  I hope that these films will pique your interest and challenge you to watch more silent films.  I hope it will encourage you to patronize some of the revival theaters and film conventions that trot out many rare films that can only be seen on the big screen.

(And OK, you made it this far.  The holy quintet of classic films are as follows:  Casablanca, Citizen Kane, The Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, and Gone With the Wind.  I actually had a theater manager tell me that he’d just like to have a theater running a different one of those five films every week because they’d all do good business.  So much for challenging your audience a little!)

Charade’s Stone Unturned

I wrote this for a special screening of Charade (1963) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.


Charade (1963) is one of those films that has almost everything going for it.  The cast is littered with Academy Award winners: Audrey Hepburn, George Kennedy, James Coburn, and Walter Matthau.  Costume designer Hubert de Givenchy and composer Henry Mancini also brought home Oscars. Cary Grant and director Stanley Donen both deserved them many times and eventually got honorary ones.

Many of these are household names today, at least in households with a few film fans.  At the showing on Feb 17th for the Winter Nights Festival, Sandy McLendon will be discussing Givenchy and his fashions.

There is another, less-known, but vitally important contributor to Charade, and he was also an Oscar winner.  Writer Peter Stone’s screenplay is a work of art.  The plot is fairly commonplace: five soldiers stole a stash of gold from the US government in WWII.  One of them stole all of it, and, years later, the rest are ready to kill each other to get it.

This could be the basis for a predictable episode of Columbo, but instead Stone keeps the audience guessing throughout.  One of his best tricks is to sprinkle the plot development in small doses throughout the film.  For years, writers have struggled with this problem.  When too much plot (often called exposition) is discussed early in the film, then the audience is bored, the pace grinds to a halt, and there is no mystery to unravel for a long period of time.

The James Bond films long ago threw in the towel on this problem, having the character M explain the mission to Bond in a customary long scene early in the film.  In his Austin Powers films, creator Mike Myers parodied this practice by calling his M character Basil Exposition, since that was really his job.  

Stone does no such thing in Charade.  Indeed, the first shot in the film is of a dead body being thrown from a train.  It is some time before we realize that this body had been the husband of Regina Lampert (Hepburn).

Slowly, we find out, in small hints, that he was one of the WWII soldiers, and we meet the other men who are after the money.  Her trouble, which the audience shares, is that everyone has a stake in the game, so that means everyone is lying to everyone else.

The audience has to listen carefully to everyone to decide which clues are lies and which lies are clues.  The plot twist at the end is so carefully set up that many audiences, unfamiliar with the film, will gasp when the killer is exposed.  And afterward, there is still one more twist.

This is a difficult task for the screenwriter.  Sometimes, he can turn in a story with great dialogue and characters, but the killer’s identity is completely transparent.  Alfred Hitchcock’s To Catch a Thief (1955) has this problem.  Despite the fact that Cary Grant and Grace Kelly have a delightfully funny romantic interplay, there is no mystery in the film at all.  The plot hinges on the identity of a jewel robber imitating Grant’s style, and the ultimate revelation is so obvious that most viewers had long since guessed it.

On the other side of the coin, the mystery can be too complex.  When the writer tries too hard, the limits of plausibility are stretched, and sometimes the entire plot structure becomes laughable because there are simply too many twists.  This failing comes out strongly in The Dark Hour (1936), which has a final scene with two characters both confessing to the same killing, piling on twist after twist, until no one can believe either of them.

Stone was able to balance the need for mystery and plausibility, but he was also a master at witty dialogue and plot developments.  Cary Grant helped get him the job for Father Goose (1965), which, as a wacky comedy, was a change of pace for both men.  Stone won the Oscar for the screenplay, saying this in his acceptance speech: “My thanks to Cary Grant, who keeps winning these things for other people.”  Stone went on to write the book for the stage musical 1776, which was made into a film in 1972 and continues to be revived today.  His chief task was to create a sense of tension in a story that had an ending the audience knew beforehand: it was required to end with the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Stone kept the audience wondering how the committed but obnoxious John Adams could get Congress to adopt the Declaration, with endless obstacles, interpersonal problems, and political hassles in his way. 

A few years later, Stone wrote a suspenseful screenplay for The Taking of Pelham 123.  As in Charade, Stone was able to create an intricate web of characters carrying out a complex plot, while at every point it was completely plausible.  It is no surprise that both Charade and Pelham 123 have been remade, although neither film compares favorably with its original.

In later years, Stone turned increasingly to stage work.  He was working steadily until his death in 2003, with two shows that premiered after his death.  Another writer helped finish his adaptation for the musical Death Takes a Holiday, which opened last year and is currently playing off-Broadway.

Hollywood is a place that usually ignores the importance of good writing, even though every actor and director will admit that a good film starts with a good script.  Peter Stone’s work was consistently excellent.  He created a legacy of classics, revivals, and remakes that continues to dazzle audiences.