Friday, January 6, 2012

Recent Preservation Efforts

With a declined economy and an aging fan base, it's nice to know that preservation efforts have not been handicapped. In what director Martin Scorsese was once quoted of saying was one of the eleven scariest horror movies of all time (The Daily Beast, Nov. 15, 2009), The Uninvited received a recent film restoration courtesy of Universal Studios. Universal, for those not aware of it, owns the rights to 700 plus early Paramount Studios movies, including the 1944 ghost story, which I highly recommend you catch the next time it's on TCM. (Turner licensed the movie for telecast and I am not sure if it will be screened again in the future. If you wish, you can purchase a gorgeous copy at www.CoverOut.com.) Besides a ghost story, it's also a heck of a movie and why it has yet to be commercially released on DVD baffles me. But knowing it's been digitally restored from the original 35mm archival print offer a deep breath of relief. 

Roderick Fitzgerald (Ray Milland) and his sister Pamela (Ruth Hussey) buy a house in Cornwall, only to find it is haunted. Doors open and close by themselves, strange scents fill the air, and they hear sobbing during the night. Soon they are visited by a woman (Gail Russell) with an odd link to the house -- her mother is the spirit who haunts the place Chilling and unforgettable, this is one of the first films to deal seriously with ghosts. And it leaves an impression.

UCLA restored a Cecil B. DeMille classic, Eve's Leaves (1926), with William Boyd and Leatrice Joy. Yes, that's the same William Boyd who later became famous as Hopalong Cassidy to juveniles across the country. I love DeMille's movies. They often depict some form of Biblical sin which becomes a subplot in itself. After forming his own studio in 1925, Cecil B. DeMille produced this exuberant blend of orientalist melodrama and gender-bending comedy featuring his leading lady Leatrice Joy. An over-protective sea captain forces his daughter Eve to pass as a boy. But she craves romance and sets her sights on a handsome American tourist (Boyd) who still thinks she's a boy when she shanghais him aboard her father's ship; then a lustful Chinese pirate (Walter Long) takes them prisoner. Joy, an appealing comedienne whose career nosedived when talkies came in, sparkles in both her tomboy and love-hungry phases.

William Boyd in Eve's Leaves (1926)
Funded by Paramount Pictures Corporation, Strangers in the Night (1944), a 56 minute film noir, was digitally restored from an archival master. Short, strange, and stuffed with bizarre plot twists, Strangers was Anthony Mann's first significant step into the film noir style that would lead to such classics as Raw Deal and He Walked By Night.  A wounded marine starts up a correspondence with a stateside gal who shares his literary tastes, but, when he tries to visit her, he finds a gothic mansion, a creepy mother, and no sign of his mysterious pen pal. In her book Anthony Mann, film scholar Jeanine Basinger finds this to be the first film in which Mann develops his signature visual style, based on "deep focus, daring camera angles, exaggerated close-ups, and deeply shadowed environments."

Cry Danger (1951), a Republic film noir that many regard as one of Dick Powell's better efforts (and I agree it's better than Murder, My Sweet), is seedy, the tone bitter, and the humor hardboiled in this intriguing low-budget crime thriller, set primarily around a shabby trailer court in L.A.'s lamented Bunker Hill neighborhood. Deadpan par excellence Powell plays a recently-released convict who was framed for a heist and has a lingering yen for his best friend's wife (Rhonda Fleming). The central couple are nearly upstaged by the vivid supporting characters of a cynical one-legged veteran (Richard Erdman) and a good-natured blonde pickpocket (Jean Porter). Preservation was funded by the Film Noir Foundation. I can only assume that if this was released to DVD, we'll be treated to the restoration and not the version that was released commercially on VHS through Republic.

Since I neither have the funds or the time to help preserve Hollywood motion pictures (that is a job I would relish), I continue to devote my time preserving old-time radio programs with the assistance of good friends. 2011 was perhaps one of the best years for restoration on the radio front. Neal Ellis has continued to restore the sound quality of The Cavalcade of America, a radio program spanning the years of 1935 to 1953, featuring every Hollywood celebrity you can think of from Errol Flynn, Orson Welles, John Hodiak, James Stewart, Bette Davis, Agnes Moorehead and many others. His project progresses every month with a report on the number of episodes (working chronological) he has completed. The sound quality is far superior to anything that has been in collector circles for decades. Neal, of course, has access to the original masters and my shelf is getting full of all the CDs I continue to buy. For more information, contact Neal at www.oldtimeradioonmp3.com.

Since we're on the subject of Cavalcade, in October of 2011, I offered a slide show presentation consisting of more than 240 photographs scanned from an archive. Some of the photos can be found here (click this link) and yes, candid photos of Hollywood celebrities are featured prominently. The photo below, for example, displays Walter Pidgeon arriving at the train station for his appearance on Cavalcade

Friends of Old Time Radio 2011

Photo above courtesy of the Noir Dame. (http://www.noirdame.com/?p=563)

Now I'd like to state that in my opinion, restoration is not just cleaning up the picture and sound quality of a recording or photograph. Preservation and restoration also means creating off-site backups to ensure we don't lose a piece of our pop culture history. I often find the people who shout the loudest are the people who do the least. I've personally met a large number of people who, over the years, hail their museum or their archive as a means of preservation and brag simply because they want that proverbial pat on the back. "Hoarding" is the best way to describe some of these collectors. Why? Because they kept the only existing copies on one site. There's an old saying: "How much money someone has doesn't impress me. What they did to make that kind of money, can impress me." Same adage applies. How large a collection or what they have in their collection won't impress me if they haven't done anything to preserve it.

Years ago at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention, Leonard Maltin sat on stage and pounded his fist on the table and remarked that old-time radio programs were facing extinction simply because of the lack of preservation and restoration. Making copies of what you have in your own collection isn't the answer. And I agree with Leonard. What needs to be done is to consult the original discs and tapes the radio shows originated, transfer them to digital format using the most sophisticated and reliable audio restoration software money can afford, and after a restoration, numerous off-site backups be created. Everyone in the room cheered but since that day I discovered many of those same individuals who have archival materials at their facilities have done nothing.

Going back to the Cavalcade photos... Once I had the 200 plus photographs scanned at the archive, my next step was to create an off-site backup on multiple flash drives. Those drives now reside in three houses across the country. A number of photographs required restoration, as I demonstrated on the big screen at the Friends of Old Time Radio Convention. Steve Forster in New Jersey was kind enough to volunteer some of his valuable time to work with Adobe Acrobat Photoshop to eliminate the blemishes and mistakes. A restoration was made and the photos look much better (see two examples below). An off-site backup was made on CD of those very same photos. Now we can proudly state they have been restored and preserved.

Photograph was warped due to water damage.
The photo above and below features actor Philip Merivale meeting the United Daughters of the Confederacy when he went to Virginia to broadcast the show on location at the Richmond Theatre Guild. The radio broadcast was on April 23, 1940.
After restoration. You barely see any flaws.

The printed press release imprinted ink on the photo.
Same broadcast, Donald Vorhees gets the chorus and orchestra ready for broadcast. Every "original" photo comes with a press release, usually folded on the back. Someone accidentally folded the press release over the front and over time the black ink imprinted itself on the photograph. Thanks to Steve, the ink is no longer there.

My apologies for inserting a logo in the center of the photos. I can assure you that the logo appears only on the photos in this article and not on the backup restorations. Because unscrupulous people like to pluck pictures and insert them on their own site and then claim they did the restoration, I was forced to do this for my blog. As stated in a previous post, if you need a copy of a photo, contact me. I'll be more than glad to help. Just don't be discourteous and steal someone else's work.

Speaking of photographs, the enclosed photo was sent to me. It's a radio premium of Tom Mix. But we all know that is not the actor Tom Mix. And since young children had gone to the movie palaces to watch Tom Mix on the silver screen, I sometimes wonder just how many of them were fooled by this giveaway? Anyway, we don't know who the actor is. Can anyone identify him? 

Who is this Tom Mix impersonator?
 
Among the other preservation movements I was involved with was saving a number of old-time radio scripts. One archive suffered from a flooded basement. Hundreds of radio scripts quickly became dog-eared, saturated, ink smeared (ink also became gooey slime) and the mold and mildew was so bad that the boxes of damaged scripts required numerous blankets to muffle the smell. I traveled four states away to pick up the cargo and drive it back home. Within days I and a friend, Alex, stood in front of two copy machines at Staples. Via tag team, we managed to photocopy all but two scripts that were beyond repair and the black and white hard copies replaced the damaged scripts. Of course, the dollar value of the originals were no longer valued and in their present condition, required a trip to the dumpster. We also verified that copies of the same scripts exist on microfilm at the Library of Congress, an off-site backup. The scripts are important because for many of them, the recordings were not known to exist. Without the scripts, how would we know what the plot and dialogue was? This was, by the way, a text book example where, as I said above, how large a collection and what they have in their collection isn't impressive. The more people brag about their collections, the less interested I am. If they took the time to create off-site backups, then I will be the first to praise their efforts.

Original Radio Scripts

Preserved Radio Scripts Copied on a Copy Machine

A few months ago, I expressed my "off-site restoration" opinion in a posting on Charlie Summers' Old-Time Radio Digest. Soon after, I received an e-mail query from a volunteer at a famous non-profit organization, asking what format I thought their radio scripts should be scanned. jpg or tiff? It's nice to know that some organizations are now taking this into consideration. After all, it only takes a flood or fire to lose it all and guess what? It's happened before. But I have yet to hear a follow-up and regrettably, I suspect my posting got their attention and gave them something to think about and plan for the future, but nothing more. I can only pray and hope a movement of off-site preservation is in the works.

Scanning inter-office memos and scripts and other valuable reference materials isn't uncommon in my house. I don't think a week goes by that I am not spending at least half a day scanning papers and mailing CD backups to friends across the country to serve as off-site storage. I don't want to sound like I'm tooting my own horn and I'm not saying this for bragging purposes. But only one question remains.... while I (just myself) plan to spend much of 2012 continuing to restore photographs, documents, scanning inter-office memos and scripts and documenting some of my findings in articles and blog posts, how much of an effort will organizations, museums and major archives accomplish with a staff of more than one volunteer?

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