Author Archives: The Crane Operator

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 it’s 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.

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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 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 were 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.

A New Prize

Hey, guys… guess who’s got a new prize?

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.