Sunday, October 20, 2013


A DVD Film Review

Victor McLaglen in STRONG BOY

A remarkable treasure-trove of ‘lost’ films found in New Zealand has produced an absolutely splendid DVD: LOST & FOUND – AMERICAN TREASURES FROM THE NEW ZEALAND FILM ARCHIVES.  For decades, distant New Zealand was the end of the line for distribution of American and European films.  By the time they reached that nation, the movies had played everywhere else, and there was thought to be no point in spending the money to ship the prints stateside.  As a happy result, the films found their way into the possession of private collectors and, at length, into the collection of the Archive. 

In what is clearly the most important event in silent film history in many years, in 2010, a search of The New Zealand Film Archives collection turned up 176 American-made silent movies that had been written off as ‘lost’ for decades.  The Archive generously shared them with The National Film Preservation Foundation, and its American archive members, The American Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, George Eastman House, The Library of Congress, The Museum of Modern Art, and The UCLA Film & Television Archive who split them up, and got to work preserving and rejuvenating them. 

Now, with the support of the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Argyros Family Foundation, they have issued a 3 ¼ hour DVD with a dozen films on it, from very brief newsreels to features.  Among them are films made by John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, and Mabel Normand.  Although no actual westerns are included, there is plenty to appeal to the Western aficionado, and anyone interested in great and historical filmmaking of any genre. 

One of the problems of seeing the more popular silent films is that they’ve been ‘duped’ again and again, leading to graininess, grays that should be black, and soft focus.  Contrarily, the films in this collection came from first-generation release prints, and are very crisp, with broad range of gradations from white to black.  

Considering that this was the end of the line for film distribution, the physical quality of many of the film prints is remarkably good – no doubt due in large part to the preservation work of the various archives.  Among the surprises, in addition to extensive tinting, a couple of the films are in color, and one, from 1921, has its original synchronized soundtrack!  All of the others have engaging new musical scores, composed by either Michael D. Mortilla or Donald Sosin.  Here and there, several of the films do show signs of image decomposition, and one can’t help wondering, if no one had thought to check the New Zealand Film Archive until, say, 2020, what would have been left!

A real grabber from the very beginning is LYMAN H. HOWE’S FAMOUS RIDE ON A RUNAWAY TRAIN, from 1921.  Not merely a movie, it’s a thrill ride.  After a cartoon beginning, the viewer quickly finds himself at the front of an out-of-control train barreling downhill at break-neck speed!  The sensations, sometimes giddiness, sometimes panic, compare well with those high-tech simulation rides you get at the amusement parks.  And this one has its original score, which had been preserved on disk at the Library of Congress. 

And because no old-time movie program would be complete without a cartoon, there’s THE HAPPY-GO-LUCKIES (1923), a story about an alley-cat and a mutt that want to enter a dog show with a $100,000,000 prize!  It’s a funny early work by animator Paul Terry, who would go on to produce more than a thousand Terrytoons, who was nominated twice for Oscars, and who gave the world Mighty Mouse and Heckle and Jeckle. 

Next there’s a coming attraction for a film which, sadly, we may never see: STRONG BOY (1929), starring Victor McLaglen, and directed by John Ford.  It’s an action comedy about a baggage handler who becomes a hero during a train hold-up, and unfortunately, all that’s known to exist of this feature is these 42 exciting seconds. 

But the next film is a complete John Ford feature, UPSTREAM (1927).  Not typical Ford, it’s a comedy set in a Manhattan boarding house that’s home to a bevy of vaudeville performers, and focuses on a knife-throwing act – and romantic triangle – made up of thrower Grant Withers, lovely assistant Nancy Nash, and the least celebrated member of a Barrymore-like theatrical family, Earle Fox as Eric Brashingham (and yes, he is a brash ham).  The act is broken up when a theatrical agent will hire any actor with the Brashsingham name to play Hamlet in London.  Sure, it’s John Ford lite, but it’s a lot of fun, and if you’re quick you can spot John’s older brother Francis Ford as the juggler.  And it’s a pleasure to see Grant Withers, who would make many big and small-screen Westerns, and work for Ford again in MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, FORT APACHE and RIO GRANDE, at the beginning of their association.  Ford was famous for his stock company, and was extremely loyal.  While Earle Fox never made an impression in talkies, Ford used him, sometimes in tiny, uncredited roles, in FOUR SONS, THE INFORMER, MARY OF SCOTLAND, and his final film, MY DARLING CLEMENTINE.

An educational or industrial short, BIRTH OF A HAT (1920-ish) was backed by the great cowboy hat maker STETSON, and is quite amazing – I had absolutely no idea what went into making felt, no less making a hat out of it. 

THE LOVE CHARM (1928) is shot in two-strip Technicolor by Ray Rennahan, who would win Oscars for his camera chores on GONE WITH THE WIND and BLOOD AND SAND.  Set in the tropics, and shot convincingly in California, it tells the story of a yacht-load of rich dilettantes who stop on an island to observe the native dancers, and the missionary’s daughter who falls for the handsome captain: “He is white, just like me.”  There’s a line you probably wouldn’t hear today.  It’s the first writing credit of Duncan Renaldo, who was better known as an actor, especially portraying The Cisco Kid, whom he played eight times on the screen, as well as in 156 TV episodes.  Under his own name or as Renault Duncan, Renaldo would write stories or screenplays for five more movies, the last being a pirate film, THE LADY AND THE BANDIT, in 1951.

WON IN A CUPBOARD (1914) is one of the two earliest films in the group, and is the earliest surviving directorial effort of the hugely popular comedienne Mabel Normand, who starred, and may have written the story as well.  A Mack Sennett-produced Keystone Comedy,  it’s setting, unlike most Keystones, is rural rather than urban, and revolves around Mabel, the sap she loves (who knows why?), the other saps who love her, and various disapproving parents.  The slapstick is broad and funny, there are some very nice gags about who is caught in a cupboard (hence the title) and the story even features a rural constabulary not unlike the Keystone Kops. 

Also from 1914 is the Edison serial THE ACTIVE LIFE OF DOLLY OF THE DAILIES.  Episode #5 – THE CHINESE FAN, and one other chapter, are all that are known to exist, but since this serial is more of a series of short stories than a cliff-hanger styled serial, you’ll have no problem following the exploits of the plucky reporter Dolly (Mary Fuller), who goes to cover a story about a play in Chinatown, and ends up trying to rescue a kidnapped heiress, and taking part in some rough-and-tumble fighting.  A serial with more literary pretentions then most, DOLLY was written by the drama critic for the New York Sun. 
Then there are the Newsreels.  The first two clips, from The Co-Operative Weekly Review of 1919, are war-effort fare, though for The Great War rather than World War II.  They’re followed by a pair of clips from the Selznick Pictures Corporation in 1921, and feature an ostrich-drawn cart, and a radio-controlled car!

ANDY’S STUMP SPEECH (1924) stars former Keystone Kop Joe Murphy as Andy Gump, a character he played in 48 shorts.  Though the once tremendously popular comic strip ran from 1917 until 1959, the Andy Gump name is now most closely associated in the public mind with a portable toilet.  However, the movie, from Universal, is pretty amusing, if contrived, telling the story of Gump’s failed run for the presidency.  It’s very broad, and there is some clever use of both optical and physical special effects, and there is a very exciting car-chasing-a-train sequence.  Murphy was another actor who never made a successful transition to sound; his post-Gump roles, ending with AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS (1956), were mostly uncredited bits, but he’s very funny here.

VIRGINIA TYPES (Pathe 1926), is a brief but intriguing documentary, shot in Pathecolor, about the small community of Old Rag in the Blue Ridge Mountains whose way of living seems not to have changed much since the Civil War.  While just a brief snapshot, it’s a valuable one, as it features a people who would soon be forced from their homes to make way for the Shenandoah National Park.

VIRGINIA TYPES -- note the Pathecolor

Some might argue that THE WHITE SHADOW (1924) doesn’t quite belong in the group, as it was made in England rather than the U.S., but it was distributed here by Lewis J. Selznick, and that’s American enough for me – after all, it’s the earliest known Alfred Hitchcock!  And how fun to think that sixteen years later, Hitchcock would be brought to America by Lewis Selznick’s son, David O. Selznick, to make REBECCA. While directed by Graham Cutts, Hitchcock was the assistant director, the editor, the set designer, and wrote the scenario from a work by Michael Morton – some sources say a screenplay, some say a novel.  

WHITE SHADOW - mid-dissolve at the sinister
'Cat Who Laughs' nightclub

The story revolves around twin sisters Nancy and Georgina Brent, both played without any apparent trickery (but probably stand-ins) by beautiful American leading lady Betty Compson.  Nancy has come back from studying in Paris as a soulless creature, unlike ‘good’ Georgina.  Nancy is disrespectful to her parents, and mean to her would-be boyfriend, American Robin Field, played by Brit Clive Brook, whose distinguished career would include several fine Sherlock Holmes portrayals.  A string of tragedies befalls the Brent family after Nancy runs back to Paris, and others go in search of her. 

The 'soulless sister' leaves a note before fleeing

Unfortunately, only the first three of the film’s six reels have been found, so after 42 minutes, a series of title cards tell you how the story wraps up.  But half of a Hitchcock is better than a whole of most other filmmaker’s efforts.

Can you spot the prim sister who doesn't belong
in this den of iniquity?

Yup, that's her.

I highly recommend this DVD – I’ve not only watched it all, I’ve shown parts to everyone who’s dropped by my home this week, and they’ve all enjoyed it.  This wonderful collection is available for $25 from the National Film Preservation Board.  It comes with a 48 page book full of detailed information about each film.  Their website is HERE , and this page includes a trailer, plus clips from several of the films, including Hitchcock’s THE WHITE SHADOW, Ford’s UPSTREAM, and the Duncan Renaldo-scripted THE LOVE CHARM.  You can also find out about another of their collections, TREASURES #5 – THE WEST, 1898-1938. HERE is the link to that page. 


A Book Review

As someone who does a fair amount of driving, I like to have an alternative to listening to the radio, when either the music or the news or the talk gets too repetitive or depressing.  So I load my iPod with podcasts of shows that interest me, and no surprise, I listen to a lot of OTR, a.k.a. Old Time Radio.  The westerns can generally be divided into two camps: the grown-up stuff, like GUNSMOKE, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, FORT LARAMIE; and the kid stuff, like LONE RANGER and CISCO KID.  When the adult stuff gets too grim, and the kid stuff gets too precious, I find myself listening to HOPALONG CASSIDY.  The Hoppy shows strike a good balance between the extremes, and are often surprisingly well-plotted mysteries, just like the best of the Hoppy movies.

In what may be a unique relationship between a hugely popular character and an actor, only one man, William Boyd, has ever played Hoppy, and he has played him in all the recorded mediums of his time.   Author Bernard A. Drew, who previously penned a biography on Hopalong Cassidy’s creator, Clarence E. Mulford, has written the story of the 104 radio adventures Hopalong Cassidy had, between his 64 movies, which ended in 1948, and his 46 TV episodes, which began in 1952, when the radio series ended.

The stories of William Boyd and Hopalong Cassidy are remarkable.  In the early 1930s, Boyd, a handsome leading man with a promising future suddenly had his career clothes-lined due to the incompetence of newspapers and gutlessness of filmmakers.  Another actor named William Boyd had been arrested in an opium den/brothel raid, and newspapers ran the photo of the wrong actor.  Boyd was dropped like a hot coal by studios who knew he was innocent, not wanting to explain the mistake to members of the public calling for a boycott of Boyd’s films.

His career was saved when producer Harry ‘Pop’ Sherman, about to start the series of Hopalong Cassidy films, decided to give the untouchable actor a chance.  Boyd, strikingly handsome with a shock of white hair, looked nothing like Mulford’s description of the scruffy, limping – hence hop-a-long – character, but he was ideal for a cowboy hero, and no one did it better than Boyd.  From 1935 to 1941, Pop Sherman produced the films at Paramount, then moved the series to United Artists.  When even Sherman got tired of the character, Boyd, now too typecast to do anything else, sold everything he had to buy the rights to the character, and produced the last dozen films himself.  He was the first star to put his own movies on television – and it made him a multi-millionaire, and showed the way for Gene Autry and Roy Rogers.  And talk about collectibles – Boyd licensed 2,400 individual products adorned with his image and Hoppy’s name.

Drew’s book traces the history of the radio series, from the failed 1941 audition show,  through the 39 Mutual Network shows, and the 64 CBS shows almost all co-starring Andy Clyde, former Keystone Kop, as Hoppy’s sidekick, California.  The Mutual and CBS shows would be played for decades on various stations.  His log has a complete plot rundown of every episode.  And if you, like me, ever wondered whatever happened to the Mutual Network, Drew reveals that it’s still in business, although it’s changed its name – to CNN. 

As author Drew points out, one of the changes in recent years, with the coming of MP3 recording, is that these old radio shows, once so difficult to track down, are very accessible now.  I download podcasts for free, and the entire run can be bought on a single disk off of eBay for about five dollars.

He further examines Boyd’s guest appearances on other radio shows, and the many Hopalong Cassidy records that were put out over the years.  A pair of nice bonuses at the end, Appendix A is the radio promotion section from a 1950 United Artists Hopalong Cassidy Pressbook.  Appendix B is a 1949 Mutual Radio Publicity Kit, full of both smart and dumb promotional ideas, and scripts for on-air ads.  I learned a lot from this book, not only about the radio show, but about Boyd the man and Boyd the businessman, both of whom rose to the occasion when it was necessary.  Priced at $16.95, JINGLE OF THE SILVER SPURS – THE HOPALONG CASSIDY RADIO PROGRAM is available from Bear Manor Media.  Here’s the link: .


On Saturday, October 26th, from noon until 2pm, a pair of Gene Autry films will screen, HOME ON THE PRAIRIE (1939 – Republic), and THE BLAZING SUN (1950 – Columbia).  In PRAIRIE, Gene, backed by Smiley Burnette, is a livestock inspector trying to stop hoof-and-mouth infected cattle from being shipped.  In BLAZING SUN, Gene and Pat Buttram are after bank robbers, in a film that features plenty of great western faces like Alan Hale Jr., Tom London, and Kenne Duncan.


This three day event will feature music, gunfights, stunt shows, American Indian dancers, and much more.  Special guests will be HERCULES star KEVIN SORBO, whose most recent western is SHADOW ON THE MESA; HIGH CHAPARRAL star and frequent John Wayne co-star DON COLLIER; TV’s GRIZZLY ADAMS, DAN HAGGERTY; THE VIRGINIAN star ROBERTA SHORE; actor, stuntman and western historian NEIL SUMMERS; and western movie bad-man MIKE MOROFF.  Learn more HERE .


Next week I’ll have my review of Universal’s 40th Anniversary Edition Blu-Ray of Clint Eastwood’s HIGH PLAINS DRIFTER!

Happy Trails,


All Original Contents Copyright October 2013 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved

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