Friday, December 6, 2019

Abbott and Costello's Overdue Preservation

Thanks to Bob Furmanek, the same man responsible for the preservation of numerous motion-pictures including September Storm (1960) and The Bubble (1966), one of Abbott and Costello's most widely-seen motion-pictures is about to receive a facelift.

Having starred in a number of motion-pictures for Universal Studios, and three for MGM, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello agreed to a joint venture producing their own movie, Africa Screams, which was ultimately distributed through United Artists. Filmed from November to December 1948 at the Nassour Studios in Los Angeles, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello made a tidy profit from the production, later selling ownership in 1953 to Robert Haggiag, an independent distributor in New York, who quickly re-released the movie to theaters to get a return on his investment. Haggiag failed to renew the copyright registration in 1977 and as a result the movie fell into the public domain. This meant anyone can duplicate and sell the movie on any format. Sadly, many prints of the film were slightly edited, many transferred from 16mm, and duplicated in second and third-generation copies. In short, Africa Screams has been subject to hundreds of VHS and DVD releases but never in superior picture or sound. 

In the late 1980s, film preservationist Bob Furmanek contacted Haggiag to obtain the original nitrate stock. Most of the original camera negatives had decomposed but the nitrate fine grain was still serviceable and promptly transferred to 35mm for preservation. Since October 2015, Furmanek's 3-D Film Archive successfully restored 17 vintage 3-D features for presentation, most released commercially on DVD and BluRay. With his track record for film preservation, Furmanek decided to take the plunge and utilize Kickstarter, a crowd-funding opportunity for fans to make financial pledges to ensure the surviving nitrates safely transferred to digital format to enable him with financial flexibility to do 4K digital scans of all the surviving elements, and a meticulous frame-by-frame digital clean-up of all dirt and damage, flicker reduction, image stabilization and grading to assemble a fully-restored final 4K composite master.

Keeping in mind that all of Abbott and Costello's movies have received 35mm print transfers from the major studios, Africa Screams (1949) remains the only full-length motion-picture needing a major restoration. Fans of the screen comedians can donate any funds beginning with a single dollar, but for $25, fans can receive a DVD of the restored version (estimated release date June 2020).

Bob Furmanek went into detail on Kickstarter about the necessity of having the film restored, with a financial goal of $7,500 to be reached within 30 days. And the good news? Fans came to the rescue and he reached his goal within three days. You can still contribute to the cause until the end of December, which would also get your name on the website and in the DVD/BluRay credits, as well as pre-purchasing the DVD or BluRay in advance. Link provided below.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Christmas Radio Station

Any flat disc record, made between (circa) 1898 and 1959 and playing at a speed around 78 revolutions per minute is referred to today by collectors as a "78." The materials of which these discs were made and with which they were coated were also various; shellac eventually became the most common of materials. Generally 78s are made of a brittle material which uses a shellac resin (which is why collectors also refer to them as shellac records). During and after World War II when shellac supplies were extremely limited (used for the war cause), many 78 rpm records were pressed in vinyl instead of shellac.

In 1948, Columbia Records unveiled the 33 1/3 RPM long playing record. It played for about 20 minutes per side. Then came the battle of the speeds. RCA in 1949 began offering records (and record players) that played at 45 revolutions per minute.

If asked how much these discs are worth, there really is no set guide to determine the value. Anyone with the correct record player can play these recordings and they are a dime a dozen at antique fairs and eBay.

After two months of cataloging more than 3,000 of the old 33s, 45s and 78s to CD format, and separating those with a holiday theme, I loaded more than 300 Christmas songs onto a streaming playlist for you to enjoy. In the spirit of of mixtape from years gone by, I found a modern way to bring these songs to the masses for the holiday season, without having to burn hundreds of CDs. 

If you are like me, every holiday you tune to a local radio station that traditionally plays the same Christmas songs over and over and over... and yeah, it gets tedious hearing the same recordings every year. Christmas is a time to establish a fond look back through nostalgic vocals and my frustration grows knowing that Gene Autry's rendition of Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer and Bing Crosby's White Christmas is going to play on rotation... again and again.

What you will hear on this streaming radio station (accessible with a simple click of a button on your computer, iPad, tablet, iPhone, etc.) are vintage Christmas offerings all dated pre-1960 and chances are you haven't heard these renditions. Examples include:

I Want Eddie Fisher for Christmas (1954, Betty Johnson)
Frosty the Snowman (1950, Guy Lombaro and his Orchestra)
Santa and the Doodle-Li-Boop (1954, Art Carney)
I Want You for Christmas (1937, Mae Questel as Betty Boop)
All Around the Christmas Tree (1940, Raymond Scott and his New Orchestra)
Barnyard Christmas (1952, Spike Jones and The Bell Sisters)
The Birthday of a King (1949, Judy Garland)
Jingle Bells (1935, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra)
It Happened in Sun Valley (1941, Glenn Miller and his Orchestra)
Christmas in Killarney (1950, Dennis Day with The Mellowmen)
The First Noel (1942, Nelson Eddy and Robert Armbruster's Orchestra)
Let's Start the New Year Right (1942, Bing Crosby)
Hello, Mr. Kringle (1939, Kay Kyser)
Jingle Bells (1934, Ozzie Nelson and his Orchestra, and Harriet Hilliard)
All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth (1949, Danny Kaye and Patty Andrews)
Yah, Das Ist Ein Christmas Tree (1953, Mel Blanc)
Silent Night (1921, Florence Easton)
Silver Bells (1938, Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys)
Christmas on the Plains (1949, Roy Rogers and Dale Evans)
The Night Before Christmas (1952, Gene Autry and Rosemary Clooney)
O Come, All Ye Faithful (1938, Frances Langford)
Boogie Woogie Santa Claus (1950, Patti Page)
Happy Little Christmas Friend (1953, Rosemary Clooney)
Ol' Saint Nicholas (1949, Doris Day)
A Ride in Santa's Sleigh (1953, Judy Valentine)
Santa Claus is Coming to Town (1934, Harry Reser)
Santa Claus is on His Way (1941, Sammy Kaye and his Orchestra)
Silent Night (1940, Kate Smith)
Suzy Snowflake (1951, Rosemary Clooney)
Auld Lang Syne (1939, Erwin Bendel with Tiny Till and his Orchestra)
Baby, It's Cold Outside (1949, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Jordan)
Christmas Day (1952, Eddie Fisher)
Meet Me Under the Mistletoe (1941, Dick Roberston)
Merry Christmas Polka (1949, Guy Lombardo and The Andrews Sisters)
I'll Be Home for Christmas (1947, Eddy Howard)
Five Pound Box of Money (1959, Pearl Bailey)
The Man with the Whiskers (1938, Hoosier Hot Shots)
March of the Toys (1939, Tommy Dorsey)
Hark, the Herald Angels Sing (1938, Kenny Baker)
I Want You for Christmas (1937, Russ Morgan)
The Kissing Bridge (1953, The Fontane Sisters and Perry Como)
I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus (1952, Molly Bee)
Here Comes Santa Claus (1949, Doris Day)
I Believe in Santa Claus (1955, The Mills Brothers)
Little Sandy Sleighfoot (1957, Jimmy Dean)
The Man with the Bag (1950, Kay Starr)
Merry Christmas Waltz (1949, Gordon MacRae)
Christmas Alphabet (1954, The McGuire Sisters)
Let It Snow, Let It Snow (1946, Bob Crosby)
I Saw Mommy do the Mombo (1954, Jimmy Boyd)
The Mistletoe Kiss (1948, Primo Scala and The Keynotes)
My Christmas Song for You (1945, Hoagy Carmichael and Martha Mears)
Christmas Night in Harlem (1934, Todd Rollins and his Orchestra)

Among the highlights you will hear "I Want a Television Christmas" by Mindy Carson (which happens to be a 1949 RCA sales promo), the 1953 Christmas Dragnet spoof with Daws Butler and Stan Freberg, a 1953 commercial recording of Amos and Andy's popular "The Lord's Prayer," Basil Rathbone narrating a musical rendition of "Twas the Night Before Christmas" (1942), Bing Crosby's 1942 version of "White Christmas" (not the 1947 re-recording you commonly hear on radio today), Jerry Colonna's 1953 take on "Too Fat for the Chimney," the 1934 version of "Winter Wonderland" performed by Richard Himber (the first recording ever made of that song), and other rarities.

Of the 300 plus recordings, you will no doubt hear the same song (such as "Winter Wonderland" and "The First Noel") performed multiple times but each rendition with a different singer.  

Many familiar songs but with unfamiliar renditions from your favorite singers. (Believe me, I will have this radio station playing all day at home, and streaming through my iPhone when I travel during the holiday season.) The radio station will expire January 1 so enjoy this while it lasts. And I hope this musical yule log not only suits your palate, but many of these songs become a favorite of yours. My Christmas present to you.

Friday, November 29, 2019

Crime Thrillers on DVD (Reviews)

Two new DVD releases are now available commercially that may have fallen below the radar and should be brought to the attention of film buffs. 

ClassicFlix just released all five Producers Releasing Corporation (PRC) mysteries featuring Michael Shayne. Lloyd Nolan starred as private detective Michael Shayne in seven features made at 20th Century Fox in the early 1940s. The first four were released in a box set, two additional released as singles. (Sadly, with the Disney purchase of the Fox library, that seventh Michael Shayne film may only be available through private collectors.) After the studio dropped the license, PRC brough Brett Halliday's ace crime-solver over to "Poverty Row" in 1946 for a series of five fun, action-packed whodunits starring Hugh Beaumont as the famed fictional detective. Yes, the same Leave it to Beaver Hugh Beaumont. 

While these films are not up to the polish of the Lloyd Nolan entries, the low-budget feel provides shades of film noir. You are best to watch the films in chronological order since Cheryl Walker plays the role of loyal and longing Phyllis Hamilton, later replaced with Trudy Marshall. Paul Bryar plays the reporter and sidekick Tim Rourke for three movies. Whether the mystery takes place at the Santa Rosita Race track, San Francisco or Los Angeles, or whether Chief Detective Pete Rafferty attempts to implicate the private eye in the crime, these five classics are finally available from studio masters in top-notch quality. 

Film Chest released an obscure television crime program titled Deadline, which was lost and forgotten in a garage in New Jersey for over 50 years. Televised from 1951 to 1961, the half-hour television program dramatized stories drawn from actual newspaper headlines of the 1950s, reminding us of a time when newspaper reporters were revered as heroes and guardians of truth and justice. Fans of the long-running radio program, The Big Story, are familiar with the format and Deadline was the filmed continuation (and, sadly, closing chapter) of the same series. 

Supporting cast includes Peter Falk, Diane Ladd, George Maharis, Robert Lansing, Paul Stewart, Larry Haines, Joanne Linville, Joseph Julian, Ralph Bell, Simon Oakland, Malachi Throne, Telly Zavala's, Don Hastings, Edgar Stehli, Robert Dryden, William Johnstone, Andrew Prine and many others. Filmed on location in New York City, the cast rarely includes actors from the West Coast, providing fans of the radio program an opportunity to watch the radio actors of New York to play roles. 

All 39 episodes were transferred for this 3-DVD release in gorgeous quality. My only gripe is the booklet in the set that focuses not on the history of the television program (or The Big Story) but rather the Journalistic Code of Ethics, a brief essay on the Dominance of the Internet and "Fake News," principal cores of journalism, and other material that is clearly padded and unnecessary. I really would have loved to read a history of the program rather than a journalist code of ethics. But then again, the set includes all 39 episodes so regardless of the inferior liner notes, this is a set worth grabbing now. 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Thanksgiving and The Three Stooges

FDR preparing for one of his fireside chats.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had a lot to think about in 1939. The world had been suffering from the Great Depression for a decade and the Second World War had just erupted in Europe. On top of that, the U.S. economy continued to look bleak. So when U.S. retailers begged him to move Thanksgiving up a week to increase the shopping days before Christmas, he agreed. He probably considered it a small change; however, when FDR issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation with the new date, there was an uproar throughout the country.

As most schoolchildren know, the history of Thanksgiving began when Pilgrims and Native Americans gathered together to celebrate a successful harvest. The first Thanksgiving was held in the fall of 1621, sometime between September 21 and November 11, and was a three-day feast. The Pilgrims were joined by approximately 90 of the local Wampanoag tribe, including Chief Massasoit, in celebration. They ate fowl and deer for certain and most likely also ate berries, fish, clams, plums, and boiled pumpkin.

On October 3, 1863, Lincoln issued a Thanksgiving Proclamation that declared the last Thursday in November to be a day of "thanksgiving and praise." For the first time, Thanksgiving became a national, annual holiday with a specific date.

FDR Changes It
For 75 years after Lincoln issued his Thanksgiving Proclamation, succeeding presidents honored the tradition and annually issued their own Thanksgiving Proclamation, declaring the last Thursday in November as the day of Thanksgiving. However, in 1939, President Franklin D. Roosevelt did not. In 1939, the last Thursday of November was going to be November 30. There were five Thursdays in the month of November. Retailers complained to FDR that this only left 24 shopping days to Christmas and begged him to push Thanksgiving just one week earlier. In August 1939, Lew Hahn, general manager of the Retail Dry Goods Association, warned Secretary of Commerce Harry Hopkins that the late calendar date of Thanksgiving that year (November 30) could possibly have an adverse effect on retail sales. At the time, it was considered bad form for retailers to display Christmas decorations or have "Christmas" sales before the celebration of Thanksgiving. It was determined that most people do their Christmas shopping after Thanksgiving and retailers hoped that with an extra week of shopping, people would buy more. So when FDR announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1939, he declared the date of Thanksgiving to be Thursday, November 23, the second-to-last Thursday of the month. In short, this is why Thanksgiving falls on the fourth Thursday of every month -- not the last Thursday.

The new date for Thanksgiving caused a lot of confusion. Calendars were now incorrect. Schools who had planned vacations and tests now had to reschedule. Thanksgiving had been a big day for football games, as it is today, so the game schedule had to be examined. Political opponents of FDR and many others questioned the president's right to change the holiday and stressed the breaking of precedent and disregard for tradition. Many believed that changing a cherished holiday just to appease businesses was not a sufficient reason for change. Atlantic City's mayor derogatorily called November 23 as "Franksgiving."

The plan encountered immediate opposition. Alf Landon, Roosevelt's Republican challenger in the preceding election, called the declaration "another illustration of the confusion which [Roosevelt's] impulsiveness has caused so frequently during his administration. If the change has any merit at all, more time should have been taken working it out... instead of springing it upon an unprepared country with the omnipotence of a Hitler." While not all critics were political opponents of the president, most parts of New England (then a Republican stronghold relative to the rest of the nation) were among the most vocal areas. James Frasier, the chairman of the selectmen of Plymouth, Massachusetts (the commonly alleged location of the first Thanksgiving holiday) "heartily disapproved".

Before 1939, the president annually announced his Thanksgiving Proclamation and then governors followed the president in officially proclaiming the same day as Thanksgiving for their state. In 1939, many governors did not agree with FDR's decision to change the date and refused to follow him. The country became split on which Thanksgiving they should observe. Twenty-three states followed FDR's change and declared Thanksgiving to be November 23. Twenty-three other states disagreed with FDR and kept the traditional date for Thanksgiving as November 30. Two states, Colorado and Texas, decided to honor both dates. This idea of two Thanksgiving days split some families, because not everyone had the same day off work.

Did It Work?
Though the confusion caused many frustrations across the country, the question remained as to whether the extended holiday shopping season caused people to spend more, thus helping the economy in a state of depression. The answer was no. Businesses reported that the spending was approximately the same, but the distribution of the shopping was changed. For those states who celebrated the earlier Thanksgiving date, shopping was evenly distributed throughout the season. For those states that kept the traditional date, businesses experienced a bulk of shopping in the last week before Christmas.

In 1940, FDR again announced Thanksgiving to be the fourth Thursday of the month. This time, 31 states followed him with the earlier date and 17 kept the traditional date. Confusion over two Thanksgivings continued. 
Lincoln had established the Thanksgiving holiday to bring the country together, but the confusion over the date change was tearing it apart. On December 26, 1941, Congress passed a law declaring that Thanksgiving would occur every year on the fourth Thursday of November. Problem solved.

In the 1940 Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon Holiday Highlights, directed by Tex Avery, the introduction to a segment about Thanksgiving shows the holiday falling on two different dates, one "for Democrats" and one a week later "for Republicans."

The competing dates for Thanksgiving are parodied in the 1942 film Holiday Inn (and the inspiration for this blog post when I questioned what the joke was in reference to). Many segments of the film are preceded by shots of a calendar with a visual symbol of the given holiday. For November, an animated turkey is shown running back and forth between the third and fourth Thursdays, finally shrugging its shoulders in confusion.

In the 1940 Three Stooges comedy No Census, No Feeling, Curly makes mention of the Fourth of July being in October. When Moe questions him, Curly replies, "You never can tell. Look what they did to Thanksgiving!"