Author Archives: The Crane Operator

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 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 in the Yale archive. One was bought by comedian and fellow film collector Bob Monkhouse. When Monkhouse died in 2003, his collection was broken apart and sold piecemeal. I have more than a few titles from it, but notably, I have his Juggernaut.

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 Monkhouse’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.

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A New Prize

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Auntie’s Portrait (Vitagraph, 1915)

Auntie’s Portrait (Vitagraph, 1915)
Directed by George D. Baker
Starring Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow

I think I must have referenced Auntie’s Portrait at least two or three times when talking about other Sidney Drew films, but I’ve never spoken about it directly. I should rectify that.

Auntie’s Portrait is usually cast as a “rare” film, but for all it’s supposed rarity, I’ve got five prints of it. The old standard definition video was sourced from the best print I had at the time, which still wasn’t very good — a bit soft and more than a bit dark. The new high definition remaster comes from the last print I obtained, which is just all around gorgeous. I’m very happy to have it as Auntie’s Portrait is my favorite Drew short.

Mr. and Mrs. Honeypet (Sidney Drew and Jane Morrow) are newlyweds. They receive a gift from Mrs. Honeypet’s wealthy aunt Flora (Ethel Lee). They dig into the box eager to see what it contains only to find a hideous portrait of Auntie herself. The Honeypets are obviously middle class, but they’ve got pretensions and this picture would disgrace their carefully curated walls. Not expecting Auntie to visit anytime soon, they decide to worry about it later. In the meantime, the portrait is consigned to the attic.

The next day, who should drop by but Auntie Flora, every bit as harsh and mean-looking as her picture. And about that picture — no sooner does she take off her hat and coat than the lorgnette comes out and she begins scanning the walls for it. Mr. Honeypet retrieves the portrait from the attic and tries to quickly hang it, but they don’t have a big place — just a few rooms downstairs — and he keeps being interrupted by Auntie. It seems like all is lost when he drops the picture and the frame breaks, but then inspiration strikes and Mr. Honeypet rushes out the back door.

Auntie, having gone round the house several times, has determined that her portrait is nowhere to be found. “I shall leave this house and never return,” she tells her niece, “and I’ll leave you out of my will, too!” She’s almost out the door when Mr. Honeypet barges in. “We sent it away to have this beautiful frame put on it,” he explains, showing her the picture with a new, elaborate gilt frame. “We wanted to surprise you!”

All is forgiven. Auntie decides that the best place to hang it is right over the mantle and the Honeypets begrudgingly take down their tasteful landscape and replace it with her glowering visage.

I tend to bring up Auntie’s Portrait when talking about Drew films because I really consider it the gold standard of their formula: newlyweds that are pretentious social climbers and probably a bit insufferable to be around, but not so bad that you want to see them fail. It’s not too confining as formulas go and there’s a lot that can be mined from it. There’s nothing wacky about the Drews’ better domestic comedies. Their world is really only a slightly heightened version of our own. You probably know people in real life not too unlike the Honeypets.

My rating: I like it.


Available from Harpodeon

 

And now, unless you enjoy my continued ramblings about Amazon, you can stop reading and I’ll think nothing less of you for it.

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Spartacus (Pasquali, 1913)

Spartacus (Pasquali, 1913)
Directed by Giovanni Enrico Vidali
Starring Mario Ausonia

Spartacus is fairly common as far as silent Italian epics go. You’ve more likely as not already seen it. Alpha released it on DVD and there are any number of other sellers that carry it (all of them likely sourced from the Alpha DVD). The Alpha release has a lot of problems and the image quality is none too good. Spartacus is a film I’ve always wanted to do myself because I think I could do it better. I wasn’t going to just rip Alpha’s DVD, though. I wanted it on film. Issue is, there’s only one print known to survive of Spartacus (the English-language Kleine release of it, anyway — perhaps there are prints of the original Italian release, but I’ve neither seen nor heard of one). That limited my chances, but I always trust in the simple truth that all things come to those who wait. The Spartacus print has been bought and sold many times but it has always been in private hands. And, at long last, now it’s in mine.

It took so long because I have some hard limits when it comes to film acquisition — the chief limit being that no single film is worth more than $750. I don’t care what the title is, who acted in it, who directed it. I don’t care how rare or even unique the print is. I don’t care what condition it’s in. I don’t care how very much I want it. No single film is worth more than $750. Most aren’t worth even a tenth of that. I didn’t break my $750 limit in buying Spartacus, but I came awfully near it. I’ve got some desirable films, but Spartacus is probably the most expensive print in my whole collection.

Looking at the print, a lot of the weirdness of the Alpha DVD makes more sense. The first three reels appear to be from one print and are in black-and-white. The last three are color tinted and I think (from the general appearance of the image and repeated footage) that they’re assembled from at least two different prints. The black-and-white footage has full running titles while the color elements mostly have flash titles. All are in the same style and I have no reason to doubt that they’re the original titles from the Kleine release. Reels four and five are reversed (as they are on the Alpha DVD as well). They also use the wrong color leader. The projector doesn’t care, of course, but convention dictates that the leader should be green and the trailer red. That way, you can see at a glance if a reel is wound heads-out or tails-out. It’s backwards here.

It’s all printed on Agfa stock, which is difficult to date. Some manufacturers, like Kodak, print a series of symbols on the edge of the film that aren’t too dissimilar to silver hallmarks. They’ll tell you what kind of film it is, what factory it came from, and most usefully when it was manufactured. (Note that: it tells you when the film stock itself was manufactured, not when it was exposed or developed. If the edge code says 1928 then the film can’t be any older than that, but it may be younger if the lab was printing on stock they had lying around for some time. Common mistake.) Agfa does not have any such markings. It’s really only possible to roughly date Agfa film based on the font used in the logo. The Spartacus print is from the early ‘30s, my guess. Between the wars, anyway. Decent shape for its age — a bit stiff, but not brittle or shrunken. After a little lubrication and splice repair, it ran just fine.

This will be a Juggernaut-like “big” project for me. When will it be out? Who knows? I certainly don’t, but I’m looking forward to it.

I was just going to do this as an off-topic post, but why not, let’s make this into a terrible review. Spartacus (Mario Ausonia) is a gladiator who rises up and leads a slave rebellion against Rome. The plot is substantially different from that of the Kubrick film, but that’s hardly unusual. Spartacus was a real person, but historical records of him and his rebellion are sparse and inconsistent. Any telling of the Spartacus story is going to require a great, great deal of embellishment. I liked this one. I liked it enough, at least, to stalk the print for the better part of a decade.

My rating: I like it.

Delaying Playing

Delaying Playing

You may have noticed the “now playing” video didn’t change when it should. Well, those watching on YouTube. The website is all automated and can get around all on its lonesome but YouTube, I actually have to put up and take down now playings.

The short answer is that I was in the Intensive Care Unit on Saturday, and the long answer is that I was discharged today. So that’s nice. Miss Rovel (1921) is mostly scanned, too. That’s also nice.

A Further Delay

A Further Delay

I’m sure you’ve already noticed the meager number of posts as well as the slowed number of videos released as of late. I’ve been a bit ill and am rather a bit more ill now. Not to sound too dramatic, but what the immediate future is I really can’t say and the delay may last quite some time longer.

A Delay

A Delay

The computer that I used to control the film scanner has finally given up the ghost. I don’t remember when I got it, but it’s old — eleven, twelve, maybe thirteen years. It was a very nice machine when new, and while it had been long supplanted as my daily driver, it fulfilled its reduced role as scanner controller quite well.

Its behavior had been getting increasingly more erratic and unpredictable this past year, but I’ve always been able to patch it up enough to keep it going. This last failure, though, was catastrophic. I’ve taken it apart and gone over it and diagnosed the likely issue, but fixing it would mean replacing the motherboard and that would cost more than the whole system is worth.

And so I’ve decided to replace it with a new or new-ish machine. No data was lost — the drives are fine, and even if they weren’t, everything to within the last 24 hours was backed-up. The loss is more psychological — I tend to become foolishly attached to things. I was sorely tempted to fix it even if it would wind up costing three times the price of replacement, but I just can’t justify that. Not for that machine, anyway — I would, have, and will do it for my first PC, which is still chugging along after 26 years. It’s really the Computer of Theseus at this point: the case is original, the RAM sticks are original, several cables are original — everything else has been replaced at least once from half a dozen different donor machines.

That’s partly the cause of the delay in output, but as for why work has stalled on the two films that had already finished being scanned and processed and only await being scored — remasters both, the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde and Ben Hur (1907) — I just chalk that up to my general laziness.

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)

Spying the Spy (Ebony, 1918)
Directed by R.W. Phillips (or R.G., he went by both)
Starring Samuel Jacks

America is embroiled in war and there are German secret agents everywhere. “I must catch some spies,” Sambo Sam (Samuel Jacks) tells himself. “My country demands it of me.” Sam models himself as a sort of Sherlock Holmes, complete with a calabash pipe, and what he lacks in competence, he makes up for in enthusiasm.

On the street, he at once picks up some clues: a German language newspaper, a link of sausage, and the name Schwartz on a mailbox. This can only be one of the Kaiser’s agents. He enters the apartment building and waits outside Schwartz’s door, imagining what nefarious deeds the spy must be up to inside. As soon as the door opens, he claps a laundry bag over the man’s head and marches him to police headquarters. But Schwartz, it turns out, isn’t a German spy but “a respectable colored gentleman”.

Undeterred, Sam sets out to round up more spies. He spots a group of men carrying a cannon into a building. “I’ll get that gang,” he cries to his friends William and Molly before rushing home for his detective gear. The gang is actually William’s fraternity. He goes in to warn them of Sam and they’re ready for him when he walks through the clubhouse door.

Sam is surrounded by black-hooded men with skull and crossbones on their chests. A trapdoor is opened and a slide wheeled into place. Down the slide Sam goes, to a subterranean torture chamber. Another hooded figure lifts an axe ready to lop off Sam’s head, but just then, a knocking sound is heard and everyone freezes. It’s really a workman installing carpet upstairs, but the gang pretends it’s their god calling for them: “Brothers, the master is knocking for us, we will now make our departure from here.” Each man lifts a gun to his head and pulls the trigger before collapsing to the floor. “Good night!” Sam exclaims, running out the door. The gang gets up and pulls off their hoods, laughing uproariously at the prank they’ve just pulled.

Ebony Films was a short-lived Chicago-based studio that made “race films”. It was unusual at the time for white and black actors to appear on screen together. Not unheard of — Larry Semon and Spencer Bell worked alongside one another many times, for example — but certainly unusual. Black people might appear as background extras, but if a white character needed to interact with a black character, the black character was more often than not a white actor in blackface. Race films essentially inverted this arrangement, giving black actors most or all of the principal parts, and were targeted at largely black audiences.

Race films existed from the beginning of cinema. I have in my nitrate collection a race remake of the The May Irwin Kiss likely released sometime around 1899. Some race films were similarly “inspired” by existing movies — the plot of Ebony’s own Mercy, the Mummy Mumbled (1918) is lifted wholesale from Vitagraph’s The Egyptian Mummy (1914) — but there were original films, too.

Older books sometimes refer to Spying the Spy (1918) as a spoof of The Birth of a Nation (1915), and while that’s not true in the slightest, I can see where they got the idea. I’m not aware of Spying the Spy ever being released on video and prints are rare. Most commentators are just going off a handful of stills, which, out of context, do actually make the fraternity look like a parody of the Klan.

The stated goal of Ebony Films was to break from the old and offensive stereotypes then common to the stage and screen and present “real negro comedies with real negro players.” Their output — at least, what survives of it — isn’t exactly a model of progressiveness, but there is something to be said in their favor. Sambo Sam doesn’t speak in dialect nor do the other black characters. I won’t say Spying the Spy doesn’t play on any stereotypes (I mean, the main character’s name is Sambo Sam), but the film isn’t a minstrel show. The antics that Sam gets into are standard slapstick fair that would work just as well if he were white without changing anything.

I could see being disappointed by Spying the Spy. It’s not Oscar Micheaux; Spying the Spy doesn’t have a message and isn’t trying to say anything about race relations. It’s a broad, low-brow, slapstick comedy. Taken for what it is, it’s not a bad film. Jacks does a good job portraying the bungling amateur detective. The cinematography is unremarkable overall, but I did like how Sam’s fantasy sequences were handled.

My rating: I like it.

The HD remaster of the Sheldon Lewis Jekyll and Hyde won’t be ready for Halloween. The negative it’s sourced from is in pretty poor shape and requires a bit of work to make presentable. I didn’t want to rush it. It should be out by early November. After that will be something particularly exciting: I mentioned in my Timothy’s Quest (1922) writeup that I’d never seen any other silent films set and shot in rural, inland Maine. Well, I found another one, and I guarantee you’ve never heard of it.

Blackbeard (Selig, 1911)

Blackbeard (Selig, 1911)
Directed by Francis Boggs
Starring Sydney Ayres

If you read movie magazines from the early 1910s, you’ll find an almost universal theme coursing through every issue: will there be censorship? Motion Picture Story Magazine, in particular, had a long running series on the topic with interviews and guest articles by religious leaders of various stripes arguing the morals of the new medium. You’ll recall that the magazine was published by J. Stuart Blackton, co-founder of Vitagraph — who very, very coincidentally were at the height of production of their so-called Quality Films, as distinguished from those vile and corrupting pictures from other studios that played at the nickel theatres.

It’s often hard to reconcile the hyperbolic tone those “other” films are spoken of with the actual films themselves, which often come across as harmless and even quaint. With Blackbeard (1911), though, I kind of see what they’re talking about. I wouldn’t say it’s vile and corrupting, but it is graphically violent, and while the villainous Blackbeard is defeated at the end, he is — until them — more or less the main character. In other words, the story doesn’t focus on some hero out to stop the pirates — it focuses on the pirates.

Blackbeard (Sydney Ayres) and his men sack the island of Martinique. The Governor (Hobart Bosworth) and his household are carried away as prisoners. The Governor is forced to walk the plank, but his faithful maid Conchita (Bessie Eyton) dives in and swims him to safety at a nearby islet. With the other male captives similarly disposed of, the ladies are thrown into the hold where they’re menaced by Blackbeard until a pursuing British Man-O’-War is sighted. Blackbeard orders the hold be sealed and the prisoners suffocated with burning sulfur and they very nearly are until a lucky cannon shot blasts a hole through the deck to let in fresh air. The Man-O’-War overtakes the pirate ship, the British board them, and then it’s down to pistols and cutlasses. At last the pirates are defeated and Blackbeard is hanged from his own yardarm.

It’s gruesome stuff, especially the end, where it does not shy from showing the bodies swinging in the breeze.

Blackbeard was written and directed by Francis Boggs. It was one of his last works — he died the year of its release. I have prints of three of his films. The Cattle Rustlers (1908) is primitive even for the time, but he seems to have learned how to make a movie right quick — Blackbeard and Shipwrecked (1911) are both very well photographed and decently acted, at least in comparison to other films out in the early 1910s, and certainly compared to Vitagraph’s Quality Films. If I had any complaint, Blackbeard relies too heavily on titles to maintain the continuity, but that’s really just down to its length. To be told visually, either story would have to be simplified or the film would have to be a good deal longer than one reel.

My rating: I like it.

Cupid Entangled (Biograph, 1915)

Cupid Entangled (Biograph, 1915)
Directed by Walter Coyle
Starring Vola Smith and Alan Hale

Claire McDowell is an actress who suffers a nervous breakdown and is sent to the country to recover. She’s accompanied by her boyfriend, Alan Hale (no, not the Skipper — that’s Alan Hale, Jr. This is the Skipper’s dad.) At the farm are a couple of sweethearts, Vola Smith and Victor Rottman. Vola expects Victor to propose any day now, but the arrival of the rusticated actress turns his head and he all but forgets about Vola.

The two girls concoct a plan: Vola will pretend to start courting Alan, which will make Victor jealous and refocus his attention back where it belongs. Alan is against the idea but at last Claire convinces him to play along. The plan works all too well: Victor does become jealous of his new rival, but on Claire’s last day at the farm, she finds a note from Alan proclaiming that he has really fallen in love with Vola and that the two have decided to elope (and we now learn that Alan Hale’s character is apparently named Charlie, but never mind that).

I’ve referenced the fall of the pioneering studios several times in the past. Biograph was already in steep decline when Cupid Entangled was released. Eleven months later, production would be halted. They simply couldn’t compete in the new market. I actually did a double-take on the release date when I started writing this; in terms of film making technique, Cupid Entangled looks more like it should have been made in 1910 rather than 1915. It’s only five years, but pre-war films exist in a different world. The acting, as well, is primitive. The actors are on a single plane, are always facing forward, and they address the camera more so than they do each other. Everything is a medium shot — no wides, no close-ups. Even the exteriors feel claustrophobic. Still, it isn’t badly written. I don’t know who did the screenplay, but it’s a fine sitcom plot.

My rating: Meh.

I don’t know what the next video will be. I’m working on a long film now that will hopefully be ready for Halloween, but I imagine something else will be out before then.