Quick Note

Quick note to those who follow this blog for news on Harpodeon. We’re temporarily closed due to a personal health issue. Hopefully we’ll return quickly.

Edit:
Digital sales are back. Physical sales will be halted for another few weeks yet.

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Be Natural

Be Natural

Just watched Be Natural, the recent documentary on Alice Guy-Blaché. My mother was hounding me to find out if we were credited for the footage we supplied and we were. She’s so much more caught up in that sort of thing than I am. Me, I don’t care, and plus, I rather trusted we would be. We’ve supplied footage to any number of documentaries and always have been without asking. There was a lovely documentary about some theatre in England that had a poster of The Juggernaut out front and we supplied footage of the train wreck. I watched that but I’ve forgotten what the title was, sorry. Also that William S. Hart thing that wanted footage of The Gun Fighter. Never saw that one, I’m not even certain what exactly it was, but the producer was quite polite. No budget affair so we didn’t charge anything. Standard fee is a flat $100 per title, but only budget allowing. Something to do with Ruth Roland wanted our episode of The Timber Queen, which is the only one available on video. They were in Florida — I remember that. I really don’t keep track of this sort of thing, if you couldn’t tell, and it all gets rather misty. Pamela Green licensed both Across the Mexican Line and A Severe Test — our copies being the only known extant of both — but they only used the former. I can’t say I’m surprised, as an objectively bad blackface suicide comedy doesn’t show Guy in a terribly good light. When they brought up Vinnie Burns and Marian Swayne and didn’t show a clip of Severe Test then, I knew they weren’t going to at all.

They should have got our copy of La Vie et la Passion de Christ (1906). We’ve got an excellent print of that — far better than the one they used. At some point I’ve a mind to scan it, clean it up, score it, and release it on DVD/Blu-Ray with the three Henri Andréani films. That would be longer than an hour — I’ve got a bit of a bugaboo there: I hate discs shorter than an hour. But I’ve a mind to do so many things at some point.

I didn’t know if the phone call recording would be used. It wasn’t and I’m rather glad it wasn’t — I’m not a public person. It was just rambling talk about film collecting. Snips of it were included in one of the Kickstarter videos, which I have to say nettled me a little, but I’ve quite gotten over it. Come to think of it, I’m not even sure how she found my number.

Was it an untold story? No, not really — not to those familiar with silent cinema, and it had been mostly covered already — but I’m quite ready to assume the general public have never heard of her. I’m sure their knowledge of pre-1920 cinema begins and ends with Chaplin and maybe, maybe Griffith among some of the more well informed laymen. A fine effort. I don’t belittle anyone who wants to extend silent cinema to a new generation. I think I’ve told this anecdote before, but I was once at a film screening of a Victor Sjöström drama and a man behind me that I wasn’t familiar with (it’s not a big town — everyone is going to notice a stranger) made a comment after the show that he wasn’t aware they made serious films in the silent era — thought it was all slapstick, he did.

The Men Haters Club (Vitagraph, 1910)

The Men Haters Club (Vitagraph, 1910)

So here’s a film that I wasn’t entirely aware that I had. I was looking through some early Vitagraph shorts to see if any included Edith Storey in an uncredited role and stumbled upon The Men Haters Club (1910). I’m not sure she’s in it — certainly not in any major capacity and I’m not convinced she’s in the background either — but it’s an interesting short nonetheless.

A man and a woman are out walking. The man pulls out his handkerchief and letter falls out with it. Seeing that it’s from another girl, the woman takes off her engagement ring and storms away. She runs into her friends — eight or ten of them — and tells all. Thus the foundation of the Men Haters Club is laid.

The M.H.C. plan an island camping trip. On the dock, they’re overheard by their various spurned beaux. The boys form the F.G.C. — the Follow the Girls Club — and set up camp about a mile further down the coast. That night, while the M.H.C. sleeps, the F.G.C. infiltrates their camp, pokes a hole in their tent, and dangles in a rubber spider. In the confusion that follows, the M.H.C. tent is knocked down and the women have to spend the night outside, where they’re beset by negative scratches that I at first thought was a highly localized and out of season snow storm, but on second thought are probably supposed to be mosquitoes.

In the morning, the F.G.C. comes to render aid, but are disappointed. The M.H.C. have already paid an old coot (a random fisherman, maybe? I seriously have no idea who this guy is) to re-establish their camp. The F.G.C. wanders off with its tails between its legs.

That evening, while the M.H.C. is eating their dinner, a couple of tramps appear. The women duck into the tent while the tramps eat their food. When they’ve had their fill, they start to approach the tent. “Help! Help!” The F.G.C., never very far away, rushes to the scene, grab the offending hobos, and chuck them into the sea. In the morning, the two clubs decide to merge into the M.A. — the Matrimonial Alliance.

I suppose that moral of the story is that infidelity followed by stalking and juvenile pranks don’t matter at all if you’re on hand to dunk a random menacing bum. I don’t remember that one from Aesop. I said the film was interesting, not good. Despite the entire film being set outdoors, every scene feels claustrophobic. It’s all medium shots and the actors have to stand shoulder to shoulder to fit in. Zero use of depth — whoever directed this must have simply told the actors to stand in a line and gesticulate. I’ve no idea who directed it or who the actors are. One of the ladies is perhaps Florence Turner, but I won’t be sure of that until I scan it at a high resolution and can really see her face clearly. I’m even holding out hope that one of the several friends — the one in the big, flat topped hat with a black feather — could be Edith Storey.

My rating: I don’t like it.

The Gray Market

(Read the title in a spooky voice. Maybe imagine lightning booming in the background.)

Now let us bring up the specter of the gray market. A print of a film is in the public domain or it isn’t. There are no shades of gray there. We’re not involving donor restrictions if you’re sourcing from an archive print — that’s another matter entirely — but if you possess a print of a film unencumbered by copyright, that print is yours to do with as you see fit. The film belongs to everyone and that includes you — that’s the very concept of the public domain.

The “gray market” does not exist. It’s a term invented by publishers to discredit resellers, especially those legitimately buying items cheaply in one market and reselling them in another market that the publisher is trying to price-gouge. Think buying a textbook in East Asia and reselling it in the US, where the same book retails for a hundred times more. This is perfectly legal as the courts have ruled numerous times. It is the right of first sale, as expressly defined by section 109 of title 17 of the US Code. All the publisher can do to legitimize their price inflation is to try and tarnish the resellers by linking them to black market bootleggers and counterfeiters in the minds of potential buyers. That’s what the “gray market” is.

Now there are orphan works where the trail of ownership has been lost and nobody is quite sure who the film might belong to. Releasing these films is sometimes referred to as “gray market” but it isn’t. It’s simply piracy — black market — but it’s banking on the fairly safe bet that whoever does own the film has no idea that they do and will not pursue the infringement. Harpodeon does not deal in orphan works, but I personally have no issue with pirating films in this case — there’s zero chance you’ll see them otherwise.

There are those who won’t watch releases from Grapevine, Alpha, etc. — including Harpodeon, of course — because they’re “gray market” distributors, and frankly, that’s idiotic. Their videos are no less legitimate than those from Kino and a great deal more legitimate those from Edition Filmmuseum. Now, Alpha’s image quality ranges from passable to you’re not even sure if there’s a picture beneath the murk and avoiding them in that case is understandable. Granted, several of our videos are sourced from very poor prints — that’s why we try to be upfront about the quality and why we provide screenshots and video clips to give an unvarnished idea what the print looks like. There are those that want perfection and would rather have nothing than fall short of it. They usually get nothing. Far be it from me to call them wrong, but when it comes to rare films, I’ll take what I can get and be happy it’s available at all.

You’ll see this idea frequently in old Usenet discussions but there are those that cling desperately to it still that one who restores a film then has some copyright claim on it. To begin with, there’s a question of what “restoration” means. In some cases, it means a great deal of work assembling disparate elements and working backwards to find what the original release must have looked like. It can mean nothing more than cleaning and transferring the film, with the cleaning either done chemically/mechanically to the film before the transfer or digitally after. Some “restorations” don’t even bother with the cleaning bit: restoration can simply refer to finding a definitive print and copying it. And let’s not pretend, “definitive” in this case often means “the one we have”.

For all our post-HD releases and the later SD releases as well, we chemically clean the film itself, transfer it, disassemble it into its individual shots, stabilize the image of each shot, diminish or remove the flickering, adjust the levels, diminish the grain where it’s become excessive from multiple generations of copying, sharpen it, tint it where the tints are known or can be confidently guessed, and then reassemble the film. Particularly distracting damage (e.g., a torn sprocket hole on 9.5mm, which leaves a heavy scratch up the center of the film) is painted out frame by frame. If the titles in the master are replacements (all Excel prints from the 1930s, for example — they didn’t use the original Selig titles) or if they’re badly cropped (example of what I’m talking about from The Juggernaut) or illegible, then the titles are re-created to more resemble the originals. When we have several prints of a film, all of them are transferred and combined in the chance that one print has more or longer scenes than another. When you’re dealing with old film, absolutely no two prints are identical.

Of course, the more slavish your restoration work is to bring the film back to its original release form, the less eligible for copyright protection it becomes. That’s where the old Usenet argument falls flat on its face. There may be a great deal of labor involved in restoring a film but no creativity at all. Copyright protection is about promoting creativity. If your goal is a copyrightable work, then you don’t want to restore anything, you want to transform it into something new. For silent films in the past, that was commonly done by replacing the titles with your own or by Raymond Rohauer’s old trick of rearranging the scenes to tell a slightly different story, but that’s mostly fallen out of favor nowadays. The “special content” copyrights you see claimed on public domain titles refer only to original content, i.e. the score.

The definitive case on photographic copyright law in the US is Bridgeman v. Corel (1999), which found that “a photograph which is no more than a copy of a work of another as exact as science and technology permits lacks originality. That is not to say that such a feat is trivial, simply not original.” The last line is a reference to Feist v. Rural (1991), which established that labor and skill are immaterial to copyright and a collection of uncopyrightable material remains uncopyrightable no matter how much work went into it. Simply put, “the sine qua non of copyright is originality.” This was expanded upon in Assessment Technologies v. Wiredata (2003), which found that a work based on public domain material that nevertheless meets the threshold of originality for copyright protection still has no claim on the underlying public domain material itself. Further, any attempt to assert such a claim is considered an abuse of process, forfeiting whatever intellectual property case they might have had and simultaneously opening themselves to countersuit. They cannot prevent anyone from extracting the underlying public domain material for their own use, or for undoing whatever transformative process made the work original in order to access the public domain material. Cases like Bridgeman v. Corel have been brought several times since with the exact same outcome, as in Meshwerks v. Toyota (2008), which found again that “reproductions do nothing more than accurately convey the underlying image” and are ineligible for copyright.

This is for the US copyright law, elsewhere may vary. Canada is more or less the same with regard to creativity (see Tele-Direct v. American Business Information (1997)). From my little familiarity with EU law, I know that whatever their objective for copyright is, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense and isn’t at all consistent. I wouldn’t be surprised if labor is considered there, even if it isn’t transformative, particularly if such a ruling would be protectionist to a member country.

As for what is transformative, the bar is rather high. Bugs alone may deter copying but are not transformative enough to qualify for protection. That’s doubly true if the bug is blurred or blacked-out in the copy. But really, you stop caring so much about your films being “stolen” when you accept that they were never yours to steal. Rohauer didn’t give a damn about film beyond his ability to monetize and litigate it. Don’t be Rohauer. If you want to get into releasing silent films, get into it because you want to release silent films, and don’t expect to make a dime.

The Cost of High Living (Vitagraph, 1916)

The Cost of High Living (Vitagraph, 1916)
Directed by William Wolbert
Starring William Duncan

Jack (William Duncan) is in college on an economics degree. He evidently isn’t studying too hard since he’s blown all his cash going out with his friends, singing college songs badly out of tune. He writes to his father for more. It’s the high cost of living, he says, but dear old dad knows it’s really the cost of high living.

Dad writes to Jack’s sister Grace (Corinne Griffith), who lives near the college, and tells her it’s high time Jack settled down. Introduce him to some girl, he says. Corinne calls up her friend Helen (Carmen Phillips) and invites Jack over. He ditches the instant he figures out what’s up to go party with his friends.

At the restaurant, after downing bottle after bottle of liquor, they get to singing. One of Jack’s friends, infuriated that Jack’s ruining their harmony, rips up the tablecloth and wraps it around Jack’s head. “Help — help!” he cries. The new cop on the beat hears the commotion and comes to investigate. Too inebriated to deal with the law, the gang scatters. Jack ducks into a swanky mansion. “Are you the new butler?”

He is now. The cop is still prowling around outside, precluding any escape for our unmusical drunkard. Jack’s not a very good butler, what with spilling the food tray, trampling on feet, and openly flirting with his employer’s attractive daughter. The cook (Anne Schaefer) is sweet on the new cop and invites him into the kitchen. A brief but spirited tussle ensues when he spots Jack. Grace, who’s come to visit her friend Helen — for, of course, Jack had to duck into Helen’s house — intervenes: Jack is there for some real-world experience in his study of kitchen economies. That’s pretty much the end, but it doesn’t seem like Jack will flee from Helen this time.

Another boozy Vitagraph short, but unlike Bingles Mends the Clock, it doesn’t try to mine comedy from child abuse. Jack singing off-key when in his cups is rather less off-putting. The humor certainly goes down easier.

Duncan had been a contract player at Selig and featured in quite a few western shorts before making the move to Vitagraph. The Cost of High Living comes from his somewhat awkward transitory period before A Fight for Millions established him as a serial superstar. In the long run, that really worked against him as the serial format shifted away from serious drama and more into kiddy fare in the late ‘20s and into the talkie era. It was character roles of diminishing prominence for Duncan from then on out.

It may be from an awkward period — it certainly isn’t the William Duncan you’re used to seeing and he’s not wholly suited to comedic acting — but The Cost of High Living is funny enough.

My rating: I like it.

 

Pioneer Trails has been available online for a couple weeks. The Blu-Ray and DVD are now available on Amazon. We’ll sell the DVD directly at some indefinite future date, but if you want a Blu-Ray, go ahead and get it from Amazon — we probably won’t ever sell it. The smallest number of Blu-Rays I can economically have made is 25, and like I was telling someone about the Juggernaut disc, I’ll probably still be working through those 25 for the next five years. Outside of collectors, DVD as a medium is dying fast and Blu-Ray never even lived. We don’t move much physical inventory anymore. DVD is a lot cheaper and I can get smaller quantifies, so we’ll probably only ever stock Pioneer Trails on that. We usually keep five discs on hand, although the recent J. Warren Kerrigan set sold better than was anticipated and I had to get another ten to keep pace with orders.

What’s the next video out? I don’t know — it will be an HD remaster of something. What’s on the horizon, though, is something I announced, like, five years ago, but then we switched to HD and my old source wasn’t good enough. It’s coming straight from 35mm now. On an entirely, entirely unrelated note, I pulled a magic lantern slide out of my collection. This one shows the construction of a building in Boston in 1914 and there’s nothing at all phantasic about it:

Bingles Mends the Clock (Vitagraph, 1913)

Bingles Mends the Clock (Vitagraph, 1913)
Directed by Fred Thompson
Starring James Lackaye and Flora Finch

It’s never a good sign when you’re uncertain whether a film is meant to be a comedy, but I’m assured that’s what this is.

Martha (Flora Finch) notices the clock has stopped and tells her husband Bingles (James Lackaye) to have it repaired. The clockmaker says it will cost five dollars. Outrageous, Bingles exclaims. He’ll fix it himself.

He shoos his wife and children out of the living room so he can work on the clock in peace, but then finds he’s out of machine oil. He heads to the hardware store for some lubricant, but on the road meets some friends (one of them is Harry T. Morey) and decides to get some lubricant for himself. Back at home, drunk as a skunk, he picks a fight with Martha and beats his children.

“There, I’ve saved five dollars!” Bingles cries, throwing open the door — but there’s no one there to hear. Martha’s note says it all: “You have been drinking. I am going to mother’s never to return. It will be useless to follow.” Bingles looks up to see the clock’s hands spinning backwards.

Moving Picture World’s review said Bingles Mends the Clock was “a dull offering” “in poor taste” with “very little laughter”, and I have to agree. This was an all-around bad idea for a film.

My rating: I don’t like it.

You know what I do like? The Women Film Pioneers Project. As a film collector, you get pretty jaded. There was a bit in one of the Metropolis documentaries about the difficulty those that discovered the complete film in Argentina had of getting the Murnau-Stiftung to acknowledge them, but as any collector would tell you, that’s par for the course. If a film is proclaimed lost, then it is, now and forever. Should you have a copy of it, expect to be ignored, and if you should have the fortune of someone listening to you and even watching it, you might perhaps garner a few comments, but then the film will continue to be lost — even to those that just saw it. It gets to the point that you don’t even bother anymore. It’s so refreshing to find people who actually care, and the WFPP does. I think all the Flora Finch films they have marked “PC” (private collection) are mine.

Breaking news in the missing Prime videos case

It’s been two months and I can say a bit about how this has affected us:

As for search order and recommendations, I can’t see any difference. There’s been no change at all in viewership numbers, either in general or for specific titles.

As for royalties, I can’t say yet. At the same time Amazon rolled out their other changes, they also eliminated royalty estimates for Amazon US. Amazon UK and Germany still report them — presumably because they’re legally mandated to, I can’t imagine any other reason — but they make up a negligible number compared to Amazon US. For the US, you don’t know what you’re going to get until it shows up on your bank statement, and Prime payments are massively delayed. I’ve only just gotten my royalties for January. It will be another few months yet before I know what I made in April, but I think my prior estimate will be correct. We consistently get about 14,000 minutes streamed per month by Prime subscribers. With a 33% pay cut, that’ll work out to about $13.

As for the video removals and Amazon’s statement that they will not reconsider them… yeah. Just submit them again, unchanged. With only one exception — the 1911 version of Romeo and Juliet — that’s worked for me. One thing to say here: Prime has zero ability to distinguish one video from another if they have the same title. Amazon generally distinguishes products by UPC, which is not without its own problems. It’s a common scam to buy legitimate products and return counterfeits, which Amazon then freely mixes in their warehouses. That’s one of the reasons Amazon has become about as reliable as a sketchy flea market. Prime videos, though, have no UPC. You might think they’d go with a combined key like title, date, and studio but no, it’s just title. Now, that leads to conflicts, and conflicts seem to be resolved based on which side is bigger. If you’ve got a video that, say, shares a title with a Disney film, maybe clarify it by adding the date in parentheses. That should take care of most problems you’ll encounter.

Oh, and did I break this story? While Amazon’s intentions have been clear at least since February, there seemed to be nothing about this specific purge until Natalie Jarvey’s article in The Hollywood Reporter a couple weeks ago.

Pioneer Trails is fast on the way. It will also be available on Blu-Ray/DVD with a couple other Vitagraph western shorts as a bonus.

The Case of the Disappearing Prime Videos

Amazon Instant, I mean Amazon Video, I mean Prime Video, I mean… whatever it’s called this month, has been gearing up for another retooling.

Their sorting and recommendation algorithm, which at the moment does not seem to exist — video are not ordered in any way that I can discern — is now going to be based on engagement. And we certainly know from Google that that’s never led to extremism. Amazon’s idea of “engagement”, though, seems to be less about reinforcing topics until you’ve created a dangerous echo chamber than it is pushing the mainstream. That’s not what engagement means, but what do I know? Specific examples they give include the film having an IMDb page and a recognizable star. Now, again, what do I know, but IMDb pages are user-created. It has a far lower barrier of entry than even Wikipedia. You’d think Amazon would be aware of that, what with them owning IMDb and all. I’m not terribly certain what qualifies a star but I’m sure Amazon isn’t being ambiguous on purpose.

Prime royalties, meanwhile, which started at 15 cents an hour, then dropped to 6 cents, will now be dropped to 4 cents. (Or raised to 10 cents, if your black-box-no-you-can’t-see-it engagement score is high enough. I’m going to go out on a limb and say roughly 100% of accounts will see their royalties drop, plus or minus 0%.)

None of that ordinarily would concern me. If the roughly $20 I make a month from Prime subscribers drops to $13, what of it? It’s already dropped from $50. That’s just Amazon being Amazon. As I’ve said before, I really only care about getting the films out there, and if I make a bit of money to get more films out there, all the better. Prime, its warts notwithstanding, was one of the best streaming services left for old films. I mean, Netflix has almost none left. And that’s the issue now: with its push for the mainstream, Amazon has begun purging non-mainstream content. Already five of our videos are deactivated, regardless of their ratings, reviews, or retention rates. I expect that number will climb.

Nothing I can do about it, I’m afraid. Amazon pointedly has no appeal process and will not disclose their reasons for doing anything. I was speaking recently to someone who lamented that we didn’t sell much physical media anymore. The simple reason I gave was that nobody wants it — DVD sales have fallen precipitously in the last few years and Blu-Ray was always dead in the water. People, by and large, prefer streaming, but that does put both the customer and the seller completely at the mercy of the streaming service, which might go out of business tomorrow or might decide it no longer wants to cater to you. So Amazon goes the way of Netflix.

Oh, hint for the next episode… ah… Cullin Landis… Alice Calhoun… runaway… stagecoach… you know, it’s Pioneer Trails.

The Smoking Out of Bella Butts (Vitagraph, 1915)

The Smoking Out of Bella Butts (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring Flora Finch

I was so excited to finally obtain a copy of this rarity that I was running it not five minutes after opening the box and I’m writing this within the hour.

EYE thinks they have a brief fragment of it and you can see it online, but it’s misattributed. I don’t know what film that is, but only the title card at the start is from Bella Butts — the rest is something else. It doesn’t even look like a Vitagraph production. I don’t recognize any of the actors. It’s probably spliced-together projection booth clippings. When film got damaged and the projectionist needed to snip a bit out and make a splice, those clippings tended to wind up on the projection booth floor. Whenever they got around to it and swept up, they were collected together and may or may not have been saved. I’ve certainly got a box full. The clips might vary from only a few frames long to a couple of feet or more, if there was a length of sprocket-hole damage. There was a market for them. Companies like Pordell Projector bought them, cut them into individual frames, and sold them as slides. Movielets did the same. They were sold in random little collections stuffed in tins like Altoids — I’ve got several of those as well. You can play around with the clippings, find similar looking material, try to piece together some sort of narrative, but it’s all a tremendous amount of guesswork. I’ve put together what might be 30 second-ish fragment of Liberty, A Daughter of the USA (1916), but I can really only be sure that the two titles are from Liberty. The film sold by Pordell and Movielets is generally too far gone to salvage — the tins seal fairly air-tight and nitrate decomposes rapidly when it isn’t allowed to off-gas — but if you find loose projection booth floor sweepings, they’re usually fine.

That was a long digression. Anyway, I’ve just acquired a copy that, minus just a brief bit of no consequence at the start, is complete and really is The Smoking Out of Bella Butts.

Bella Butts (Flora Finch), anti-smoking campaigner, arrives in the town of Hicksville to spread the word. At the Ladies Aid Society, she proves how injurious smoking is by giving the women cigars — promptly causing dizziness, headaches, and nausea. Among the afflicted is the mayor’s wife (Betty Gray), who demands that her husband ban smoking or else she’ll divorce him.

His back to the wall, the mayor (Hugie Mack) complies. All the town’s tobacco products are seized and burned in a great bonfire. This does not win the mayor many friends among the menfolk, who soon start trying to smoke corn silk to feed their habits. When a cigar salesman (Jay Dwiggins) arrives, all the men — the mayor included — hide out in a basement to chain-smoke away his samples.

The woman of the house (it’s either Florence Radinoff or Edwina Robbins — hard to tell. That’s the drawback of the first minute or two being missing — there’s no cast list and you just have to recognize the actors) sees smoke pouring from the window and thinks it’s on fire. The fire department is called and start blasting water into the basement. Forced out by the deluge, the men are caught red-handed. Butts is on hand to demand the sheriff arrest the mayor. The mayor hands him a cigar and he forgets all his duties.

Butts gets her bag and “leaves Hicksville to its doom” while the mayor watches, smoking on the porch.

Flora Finch was most known for starring opposite John Bunny in more than a hundred “Bunnyfinches” — domestic sitcoms somewhat similar in style to those of Sidney Drew. Bunny shot his last film with Finch in 1914 before starting on a live stage tour that no one knew he would not return from. (The Jarrs Visit Arcadia was posthumously released in 1915.) Finch continued the act solo, to greater or lesser effect.

In terms of theme, Bella Butts is not unlike the Red Seal film I reviewed a thousand years ago, ‘Morning, Judge (1926), in which Flora Finch enacts a ban on a can-can dancing. ‘Morning, Judge even ended with bungling firefighters as well. But the difference is that Bella Butts wasn’t awful. The jokes are less bottom of the barrel slapstick, which helps, but mainly it’s because the plot was followed through to its conclusion and the filmmakers didn’t just abruptly drop storylines as they became inconvenient. Including the main storyline.

My rating: I like it. I may just postpone the next film I’d intended on scanning and scan Bella Butts instead.

John Griggs, etc.

I haven’t posted anything here in a long while, for reasons good and bad. To name one of the good ones, I’ve got my harpsichord back after it being in storage and dragged up and down the eastern seaboard for the last five years (and back up again — thank every god past, present, and future that I’m back home in Maine), and it’s been a great deal of fun getting back into playing it. I love the harpsichord above all other instruments. To name another, there’s Emma, my new cat. She’s the first pet I’ve had in, what, twelve years? Thirteen? Good little while, anyway. And I’ve been working on my first Blu-Ray. What else would it be but The Juggernaut?

It’s funny to imagine how much of the silent era survives because of one person, and it’s funny to imagine how little celebrated they are for it. The person I’m talking about now is John Griggs. Griggs was an actor, mostly on the radio but he featured in several TV series in the 1950s and ‘60s. Griggs was also a film collector, which wasn’t a terribly safe hobby in those days. Remember, the prints were only rented to exhibitors — they remained the property of the studio. The studio may not and usually did not care if they ever got them back once they’d finished their run, but if instead of destroying them someone were to take those prints home and watch them themselves — then the studio had a problem. Police raids of film collections were not infrequent. Griggs flirted even closer with disaster, as he not only collected the prints, he made copies of them onto safety film stock.

I believe he began collecting in the ‘30s — at a time when the majority of silent films still existed — but by the ‘60s, he’d started selling 16mm and 8mm reduction prints of the titles in his collection that had lapsed into the public domain, distributing them under the name Griggs-Moviedrome. I have several of those releases and they’re a lot of fun. TCM not long ago aired Salome and there was much rending of clothes and gnashing of teeth on the Internet that it wasn’t the five-reel restoration made from the George Eastman House print. What they showed was the three-reel Griggs-Moviedrome version, complete with his endearingly crude hand-drawn title cards. I’ve got a print of that Salome and I’ve always cherished it. Similarly, I have prints of both the original release of The Heart of Texas Ryan and the Griggs-Moviedrome version, and I greatly (and I mean greatly) prefer the latter.

On his death in 1967, John Griggs’s collection became the Yale Film Study Center archive.

The Juggernaut, or at least the two known surviving reels of it, survives because of John Griggs and only because of him. Griggs somehow obtained original nitrate positives of the two reels. From these he struck a 16mm reduction negative to preserve the film, which was already beginning to decompose and wouldn’t have lasted much longer — reel two, especially, is in rough shape. A handful of 16mm prints were made from this negative. One now rests at the Yale archive. One was bought by fellow film collector Karl Malkames. When Malkames died in 2010, at least parts of his collection was broken apart and sold piecemeal. His Juggernaut is now my Juggernaut.

(Edit: I originally had Bob Monkhouse here, as he died not so very long ago, his collection was broken apart as well, and I’ve got a few prints from it, but the Griggs Juggernaut came to me by way of Malkames. I’ve checked the info card I’ve got stuck in the can just now to make sure.)

If it’s not obvious why that acquisition was such a coup, let me step back and explain a bit. Film is spoken of in generations. The image imprinted on the film running through the camera — the camera negative — is the first generation. The release prints struck from the camera negative are the second generation. Griggs’s reduction negative duped-down from the release print is the third generation. Prints struck from Griggs’s negative, such as Yale’s or Malkames’s, are then the fourth generation. I’ve said before, the picture quality gets worse and worse with each successive generation. There are more common sources. Blackhawk, for example, released part of The Juggernaut in the late ‘60s on 16mm and Super 8mm for the home market, retitled A Plunge Through the Trestle, but those were at least eighth and more probably tenth generation prints. To get a fourth generation — of which there are likely fewer than ten in existence — that’s something.

So what was I saying? Oh yeah, John Griggs, great guy — it’s a shame he isn’t better appreciated. Also, watch out for The Juggernaut on Blu-Ray soon.

 

Edit:

Our 2017 reconstruction of The Juggernaut is available now on Blu-Ray and DVD. Amazon only at the moment, until the website is reconfigured to handle Blu-Rays. We’re the 63,798th best seller! Can we crack the 63,797th place? Tune in next week to find out that we probably haven’t, no.