Category Archives: Off topic
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.
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
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.
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.
Wait a minute, you might be saying — I’ve already done a review of Station Content. Yes, I have, and I won’t be reviewing it again. This will be more of a textual reconstruction. The original, feature-length release of Station Content, as I’ve said before, is presumed to be lost. What survives is a roughly one-reel abridgment. So what is missing from the story? Not a lot, really. Station Content seems to have been a film that lent itself well to abridgment:
Kitty (Gloria Swanson) was originally from a large city (an eastern city, likely New York, but contemporary reviews are contradictory). She marries Jim Manning (Lee Hill), who’s the master of Cybar Station. Cybar is a remote, isolate place somewhere in the southwest. She’s too preoccupied to be culture shocked — she’s about to have a baby. The baby takes ill shortly after its birth and dies before the doctor arrives. Kitty is sure the baby would have lived if they weren’t so far out in the country.
Jim had promised her that he would soon be promoted to a more urban station, but months have passed and no promotion has materialized. Kitty’s resentment grows with each passing day. Her only friend is the conductor of the express that stops at the station. A train wreck ahead delays the express one day. Kitty and the conductor spend the time at the piano, where Kitty sings songs that remind her of happier days before she’d ever heard of Cybar. Aboard the delayed train was a theatrical manager (Ward Caulfield) who overhears Kitty singing and is impressed. He tells her that he’s casting a musical revue (or maybe an operetta — again, reviews are contradictory) and she’s got a place in it if she wants it. Kitty tries to discuss the matter with Jim, but he shoos her away, saying he’s too busy. That night he finds a letter on the table: Kitty has left him.
Some time later, Stephen Morton (Arthur Millett) attends Kitty’s show. After the curtain call, she finds him waiting for her backstage, come to ask her out to dinner. Morton is the president of the Pacific Railroad — Jim’s boss. Morton is also married, but he and his wife (Nellie Allen) are estranged. To quote one review, he proposes that Kitty might “fill the void”. Kitty is reluctant. No need to answer now — he’ll be at his ranch in San Francisco, he says. If Kitty decides in his favor, she need only knock at the door.
Kitty is tempted — very tempted — and goes so far as to book passage to San Francisco, but her train is delayed and she misses her connection at Lone Bridge. The station might as well be Cybar for how isolated it is, but the family there seem quite content with their lot (Fay McKenzie is the baby, I don’t know who the parents are). The husband, however, is ill from overwork. In the morning, the train to San Francisco pulls out of the station, but Kitty isn’t on it. She knows Morse code and has volunteered to take over for a few days so that he can recuperate.
Jim, meanwhile, has at last got his promotion — too late for it to make any difference. He boards the train for his new job in San Francisco. Also on the train is Stephen Morton on the way to his ranch. A great storm breaks out that night. The track-walker rushes to Lone Bridge Station with news that the bridge has been struck by lightning and destroyed. He tells them to telegraph Victorville to stop the train, but the train — Jim and Morton’s train — has already left. Kitty pleads with him to go out, cross the canyon, and warn the train, but he refuses — it would be certain death in this storm, he says. Kitty takes it on herself to do so.
Braving all the dangers, Kitty at last makes it across the canyon and flags down the train in time before collapsing from exhaustion. She’s carried on board. When she wakes, Jim is the first man she sees. She asks forgiveness, but Jim insists there’s nothing to forgive — the fault was his for ignoring her. Morton, realizing that he has his answer, feigns ignorance and Jim never knows what might have happened if Kitty hadn’t missed her connection.
Really, aside the opening sequence with the death of Kitty’s baby and Jim’s failed promise of promotion, the abridgment conveys the entire story at a fifth of the length of the original. Even the adultery subplot, which it never directly mentions, is pretty heavily implied, despite the addition of the “I know a director in California” business. The most curious change is shifting the Lone Bridge illness from the husband to the sister-in-law, although that does provide an easier and quicker excuse for why he disappears from the film.
There are a number of contemporary reviews, all favorable. Several report that the working title of the film was The Prodigal Wife and that it better suited the story than Station Content, but curiously, the review in Variety says it went the other way: that the working title was Station Content, but it was released as The Prodigal Wife. I would say the majority opinion is probably right, but the Variety review is very detailed in its plot summary, and at least for the footage that survives, it’s more accurate than any of the others. It’s obvious that the reviewer actually saw the film, which may seem like an odd thing to say, but many reviewers didn’t — they just went off the publicity information provided by the studios. So who knows?
Another big question is Diana Carrillo. Carrillo played a Native American woman. It’s a big enough role to make the cast list (the couple Kitty meets at the other station seem like major characters and they don’t make it), but not a single review mentions her and I don’t have any idea where she fits into the story. She’s briefly visible at the start of the abridgment, sitting in front of the station weaving a basket. She’s also featured on one of the film’s lobby cards doing the same.
Amazon Instant is dead. Long live Amazon Direct.
This is a long tale of intrigue and woe that has nothing to do with film reviewing and probably isn’t of interest to anyone, so I’ve hidden it behind a “read more” link.
This isn’t a review, but I know I haven’t posted much recently (for various reasons neither here nor there) so I thought I’d just comment on something exciting to me.
Around nine years ago, I bought four bobbins of the 9.5mm Pathé Baby version of J’accuse (1919). Since then, I’ve been picking up more when and where ever I could find them. At last, I’ve assembled the entire film. Actually, with the duplicates resulting from buying so many incomplete sets, I’ve got nearly two copies.
At 840 feet, it’s considerably abridged from the theatrical release (which wasn’t even available on video when I started the collection). If it was run straight, 840 feet works out to around 28 minutes, but J’accuse has notched titles so it’s actually a bit longer than that. The original Pathé Baby projector could only handle a 30 foot film bobbin, which is just a minute of footage. Even if a film only has two or three intertitles, text would quickly eat up almost all the runtime. To save film, the Baby had a unique system whereby a little arm feels along the edge of the film as it passes through the projector. When it encounters a notch, it stops advancing the film for a few seconds — holding the picture on the screen. This way, titles could be reduced from several feet down to just a couple frames. Later Babies doubled the max capacity to 60 feet, and at last Pathé ditched bobbins for conventional reels that could handle several hundred feet of film, but J’accuse is an early release. 30 feet with notched titles generally becomes 50 feet with running titles, so it’s probably closer to 45 minutes long.
The whole notch system was a trade-off. With notched titles, the projector by necessity could only use weak lamps that threw small, dim pictures. More powerful lamps burned too hot and would melt the film if it was held in the gate for longer than a fraction of a second. The Baby’s lamphouse is really not much more than a flashlight.
There is an edit of the film that cuts out the whole ghost sequence at the end (before the 2008 DVD was released, I believe it was the most commonly available version on video), but the Baby edition retains it. I haven’t done a side-by-side comparison, but it seems like most of the Baby’s severest abridging is towards the start of the film.
Abel Gance and George Lucas have a bit in common — both being rather notorious for continually revising their films. It’s difficult to say what the “definitive” version of J’accuse would even look like. It’s certainly not the Baby release, but even the DVD is still missing as much as six reels’ worth of footage if by “original” you mean Gance’s earliest cuts of the film. The Baby version at least retains the three-epoch structure of the theatrical release, which the pre-2008 video didn’t.
Of all the Gance films I’ve seen, J’accuse remains my favorite. It may be heresy for me to say so, but Napoleon requires rather more patience than I’m willing to give. It has some spectacular and expertly constructed sequences, Napoleon does, but the road between them is a slog.
As for the delay in releasing a new video: the film scanner broke after transferring An Old Man’s Love Story. It was an easy fix, but I had to wait for a replacement part to arrive from Singapore, which took over a month. The primary scanner broke, I should say — I have four. The print I’m scanning now is a bit too shrunken to run through a standard movement, and the machine I’m talking about is one I built myself specifically to handle shrunken and badly damaged film. Here’s a hint for what’s coming out next. It’s an HD remaster of a very old title in the catalogue involving a washerwoman who gets stiffed by one of her customers.
Other news that may or may not be of interest: we’re trial-running putting the “now playing” video on YouTube as well on the homepage of our website. If it goes well, we’ll keep doing it. If it goes really well (viz., if the ad revenue matches the sale price), then maybe the now playing videos will cease to be a limited, one-at-a-time thing and the entire now playing catalogue will be made available.
The new Harpodeon website is live. I think it was announced as “coming soon” something like two years ago, but it’s finally here.
The old site was getting difficult to maintain. It had really been designed to sell DVDs and nothing else. Downloads and streaming videos were a bolted-on feature that were awkward to use on the customer-facing side of the site and a hot mess on the back end. As physical media grows less and less relevant with each passing day, it badly needed a make-over.
The new site was written from the ground up — not one line of old code was retained — and although DVDs are still available, the focus is now squarely on the online content. It was also designed with high definition in mind. Much of the back catalogue will have to be remastered, but the last few transfers were actually done in HD already, it’s just that the old site had no means of handling anything beyond standard 480p video. And there are also some big changes that are invisible to visitors but significant to us. A lot of small things had previously been outsourced (email was handled by Gmail, for example), but all of that’s in-house now.
In terms of layout, it looks and functions pretty similar to the old site and shouldn’t take much getting used to. All the old accounts have been migrated over and should work fine. I don’t say there won’t be any bugs to be ironed out in the coming weeks, but so far so good.
And that’s why there hasn’t been a new release in two months. But rest assured, July will not be so dry. Chugging away in the scanner even as I type is What a Change of Clothes Did (Vitagraph, 1913). (And as I type now, it is available. – 7/16)
Bugs fixed (as of 7/8):
- Standard video player now works on mobile Safari. (Before it would just buffer endlessly as mobile Safari refuses to load video metadata without actually playing the video first, which is asinine but whatever.)
- “Any:” search will now return films without a known cast. (Before, a labeled search like “title:” would return them, but not an unlabeled or “any:” search, as the cast is one of the “any” fields it looks in.)
- Super minor, but fixed the issue where the “More info” button was slightly out of horizontal alignment with the “Alternate” button on the video player. (It was a few pixels too far to the right.)
Incidentally, enter 10PEROFF for 10% off all orders totaling $4.00 or more.
This blog is about silent cinema, but I’ve mentioned before that I’m also fond of books. I remember their plots well enough, but I have a terrible time connecting stories to titles. To keep them straight, I’ve been jotting down brief summaries of every book I read, and I thought recently, hey, why not post them online? So here they are.
I’m laid up for a while for medical reasons I won’t bore you with, but in short, I haven’t been able to watch many movies. I have read a lot. I read a fair amount in general – next to silent film, books are my next greatest passion – but in the last couple weeks, I’ve burned through more pages than I usually do in months. So, in lieu of film reviews for a bit, I’ve quickly written down some of my first thoughts on the books I’ve recently picked up:
The Exploits of Elaine (Arthur Reeve, 1915)
What a dreadfully dull book. I like a good mystery, but this just isn’t one. In fact, it goes out of its way to defuse anything that might possibly be suspenseful before it even gets the chance. Every time something happens to Elaine, we immediately flash back to explain what happened, who did it, and how it can be un-done, before returning to the timeline for Kennedy to save the day. The only mystery the book allows to be a mystery is the identity of the main villain, the Clutching Hand, but honestly, if you didn’t figure that out in the first chapter, I don’t know what to tell you. The Exploits of Elaine offers no surprises.
The Pearl White serial is good, though. I’m in the minority in that I don’t think it’s as good as The Perils of Pauline (1914), but it’s still a fine series. Incidentally, The Perils of Pauline novel is leaps and bounds better than this one – read it.
The Parisians (Lord Edward Bulwer-Lytton, 1873)
Ever since I picked up the short story “The Haunted and the Haunters” on a lark, I’ve loved Lord Lytton. I have nearly all of his work in my library, but I haven’t got around to reading much of it. Most of his novels are just so lengthy, it’s quite an investment to start one. I’ve previously read, in no particular order: Pelham, A Strange Story, Lucretia, Eugene Aram, Zanoni, Paul Clifford, and Night and Morning. I say no particular order, but make an exception for Night and Morning; it deserves its last place in the list. The Parisians was poised to overtake Lucretia as my number two favorite, had it not ended without resolving the plot. I can’t fault milord too much for that – he has the very good excuse of dying while writing it – but it’s terrible for the reader to be left only to guess at what became of Graham, Alain, Rameau, and especially Fox. I have to believe an eleventh hour reprieve spared Fox. I simply can’t stand that he survived the whole siege only to be killed by that wretch De Breze.
The Plutocrat (Booth Tarkington, 1927)
I’ve said before that I rank The Magnificent Ambersons as one of my favorite books, but that isn’t to say I’d place Tarkington among my favorite authors. He had a rather unpleasant right wing, anti-intellectual bent that isn’t always present in his work, but does surface from time to time. In The Plutocrat, I’m sad to say, it’s central to the story. It deals with an effete New Yorker of the artistic type, whose particular brand of art is of the gritty new school, and his disdain for the down-to-earth, congenial, proudly ignorant Midwestern businessman that chance keeps throwing into his path. There’s also a mysterious European Dark Lady stock character that the hero is enamored with who serves only to disabuse him of his lofty, romantic ideals and to drive home that Europe and the world in general is and should be subservient to America – specifically the Real AmericaTM of the Midwestern tycoon. Tarkington writes prettily enough, no matter what the subject, but The Plutocrat is a distasteful read.
If you want a book along the same lines, but without the heavy-handed straw man arguments, check out The Snob by Helen Martin.
Kindred of the Dust (Peter B. Kyne, 1920)
Didn’t I read this already? Yes, I think it was called The Valley of the Giants, also written by Kyne, two years earlier. True, the stories aren’t identical, but both are about star-crossed lovers between redwood forestry magnates in the Pacific Northwest. Really, Kyne, once was enough. The second one wasn’t even an improvement.
The Sin That Was His (Frank L. Packard, 1917)
I’m sure this novel would have resonated more with a Christian – really, the only thing I know about the religion is what any member of Western culture picks up through osmosis – but even so, it was a page turner. I read it in one sitting, in fact. A man accidentally kills a stranger, panics and assumes the identity of the new village priest, and every time he tries to ameliorate the situation, he only manages to dig himself deeper. There’s a great deal about culpability, honor, the nature of sin, and the path to redemption – I told you a Christian would get more out of it — but even on the surface, the story is enthralling.
Broken Waters (Frank L. Packard, 1925)
I mostly know Packard from his Jimmie Dale amateur detective series, which is fun if a little fluffy, but I’ve never delved too deeply into his other work. I’m rather sad about that. As a crime thriller, Broken Waters isn’t the best of the genre, but the characters were interesting, the setting (the South Pacific, a favorite of Packard) lovingly rendered, and most important of all, it maintained a sense of tension and suspense throughout the novel.