Friday, November 15, 2019

The History of Time Travel

"If you think Hitler with an atomic bomb is bad, imagine Stalin with a time machine."

In 2014 The History of Time Travel was released, a fictional documentary about the creation of the world's first time machine, the government's Indiana Project, the men who created it, and the unintended ramifications it had on world events. Created by Ricky Kennedy, then a student filmmaker at the Stephen F. Austin State University, this independent film was brought to my attention from a friend who said, "If you love time travel movies, this is one you might find amusing." 

Presently streaming on Amazon Prime for free, this documentary is a novel approach by taking a few moments to clarify (and simplify) the various theories of time travel. From the multiverse theory to the paradox theory, every potential consequence of traveling through time is explored -- all of which are featured prominently through the documentary through show and tell. As questioned by author Kevin Ulrich in the documentary, "We experience time as we perceive it. But if time could be altered and was being altered, would we perceive that?" Apparently not so to the individuals who are portrayed in this documentary, adding to the fun.

What made this documentary unique is the execution -- as Dr. Richard Reenactor creates the breakthrough that allows him to travel through time, the repercussions are evident with subtle changes as the documentary progresses. The moon rock in the glass case is replaced with a historic newspaper, the scientific equations on the chalkboard have changed, and other unique twists and turns that are better left unrevealed for fear of spoilers. Basically, as time is being altered, so does the documentary itself. The History of Time Travel did not disappoint. If you have Amazon Prime, this 72 minute documentary comes recommended. Just keep your eyes and ears glued to the screen...


And as if the novel approach is not enough, the film even provides us with a moral: "The Indiana Project teaches us what is truly important about time, and that is making every second count."

Friday, November 8, 2019

The Return of BLOOD N' THUNDER Magazine

Between 2002 and 2016, BLOOD 'N' THUNDER was the premier journal for devotees of adventure, mystery and melodrama in American popular culture of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. This award-winning magazine, written by enthusiasts for enthusiasts, eventually expanded its readership to include casual fans of vintage storytelling mediums: pulp fiction, motion pictures, and Old Time Radio drama.

BLOOD 'N' THUNDER, moribund for three years, has now returned in a new format but with the same excellence of writing and research. The articles and essays are scholarly without being dry or academic in nature; no publish-or-perish hackery here.

This revival issue (promoted as Volume Two, Number One) is now available on newsstands and Amazon.com and covers a variety of subjects, all related to pulp fiction. Most notably in the recent issue is recent archival digging from Brian Hochberg and David Kalb. David documents the history of the long-lost 1941-42 radio series featuring Street & Smith's The Avenger; he compares recently uncovered scripts to the novels from which they are adapted. 

David Saunders, whose father Norman was among the most prolific painters of lurid pulp covers, profiles the forgotten publisher J. Thomas Wood. Novelist and pop-culture historian Will Murray weighs in on pulp pulchritude—an appreciation of artists whose covers sported alluring women. Indefatigable researcher Rick Lai offers a detailed chronology of the Jimgrim saga, a multi-novel series penned by pulp-fiction giant Talbot Mundy. BLOOD 'N' THUNDER editor Ed Hulse celebrates the Zorro centennial (he first appeared in a 1919 issue of the legendary ALL-STORY WEEKLY) with a behind-the-scenes account of the making of Douglas Fairbanks' 1920 swashbuckling hit THE MARK OF ZORRO. Ed also supplies a look at HAWK OF THE WILDERNESS, a 1938 cliffhanger serial adapted from the popular imitation-Tarzan novels that appeared in the venerable pulp BLUE BOOK.

The second issue was released this week and should be available now.

You can also order a copy of the recent issue and all back issues from Murania Press at www.muraniapress.com

Friday, November 1, 2019

Amazon is Not Stealing Your Business

Full disclosure: I am not a full-time marketing consultant, nor do I claim to be an authority on the subject. But I read much through the years about marketing and business to know more than the average consumer. Twice in the past month local businesses closed doors and on the evening news, on both instances, the owners of said stores publicly claimed "Amazon killed our business" and "Amazon stole our customers." For the record, this statement is an opinion and not a fact. For the record, no one at Amazon phones customers to encourage them to stop buying from the competition. Fact: Many companies give customers a reason to stop shopping with them and instead go to Amazon. I see this all the time. Every day.

This is the book I wanted to buy and read.
I recently paid a visit to Barnes and Noble, that national chain responsible for selling books -- especially for the relatively smallest of percentage who do not have any other options to buy books because they are not on the Internet. 

As expected, you can tell when you first walk in that they want the customer in and out as quick as possible by having the hottest titles displayed right at the front, with discounted (and damaged) books closer to the check-out line. Worse, half the books I looked at were out of date. One book focused on the future of marketing on the Internet and mentioned Yahoo would become the biggest (and only) search engine, Apple would file bankruptcy if they continued to sell smartphones and not stick with computers, and My Space was supposedly the latest trend. After checking the copyright page I discovered the book was published in 2006 and revised in 2010. Why on earth was that book still being offered for sale in Barnes and Noble? At that point I started browsing the books on that same shelf and discovered half of the books were seriously out of date!

Skimming through the pages of multiple books and spot-checking bullet points to determine whether it was a book I wanted to read, excitedly I found one. At the check-out register, however, I was shocked to discover that they would not price match Amazon. The book retailed $24 and Amazon had the book for $12. "We do price match our own website," the cashier told me. Barnes and Noble's price on their website was $21. I asked why they would not price match the competition and it was explained to me, "That is corporate policy." This might explain why there were only four customers in the entire store at the time. (The coffee shop next door had more customers.) Do not get me wrong. If the book was $14 or $15 at Barnes and Noble, I would have paid for it solely for the convenience.

When I was in the publishing business, I used to sell books to Barnes and Noble. Twenty years ago it was a different market. For every book Barnes and Noble sold, Amazon sold ten. A few years later the numbers had changed. For every book Barnes and Noble sold, Amazon sold a hundred. At present count, I never sold a book to Barnes and Noble in the last twelve years. Today, Amazon buys books by the case, shipped to their warehouses. Seriously, Amazon is truly the 400-pound gorilla in the industry.

Where am I going with all this? Stay with me...

Twenty years ago I religiously visited Borders Books in Towson, Maryland, every Saturday morning to get a cup of hot tea and relax with a book. Their employees were always eager to help assist. I romantically loved the atmosphere. Borders Books truly was my "third place." And for a couple hours once a week I was able to self-educate with whatever subject matter I wanted to read and learn that had my interest at the time. I spent untold amounts of money on books with Borders and even today I have no regrets. [sigh...] How I long for those days again... 

For the record, I had three hours to kill while my car was being worked on and decided to revisit my youth by walking over to Barnes and Noble to buy a book and sit down on a sofa to relax and read. That was the recent trip I referenced above and the same visit to their store that they surprised me with their price-match policy.

What puzzles me is why corporate executives at Barnes and Noble will not price match the competition. I agree that Amazon has low overhead and huge purchasing power, while Barnes and Noble has overhead to deal with such as employee labor and lease agreements. True, Barnes and Noble has a website but they are clearly operating a 20th century business model in the 21st century. It remains a mystery why, at this late date, a company dependent on retail sales has yet to even price match Amazon just to retain repeat customers. One of these days an executive at Barnes and Noble will do what those two local shops cried foul on the evening news, and claim Amazon stole their customers, putting them out of business. But shed no tears for the book store that will one day (probably sooner than later) close doors or sell out to another company.

As for today's scenario, I returned the book to its proper place on the shelf and consulted my iPad (which I happened to have at the time) to purchase the Kindle version of that same book from Amazon for $11.

As you can see by the photo below, I am now sitting here in Barnes and Noble (having never stepped out of the physical four walls of their store), relaxing with that cup of hot Earl Grey tea, reading a book I bought from Amazon (their competition), using Amazon's Kindle app. 





Friday, October 25, 2019

Scripts from the Crypt

Those of you familiar with the old Magic Image script reprints, which oftentimes reprinted early drafts of film scripts for Universal Studios horror movies such as Frankenstein, Dracula and The Wolf Man, which included lengthy production history of the movies, you will be pleased to know that while the publishing company ceased over a decade ago, similar efforts have been in production courtesy of Tom Weaver and Bear Manor Media. Now known under the byline "Scripts from the Crypt," a series of books have been published (and continue to be published) to provide a similar service. Avoiding repetition of the prior Universal Studios offerings, Tom has been devoting his time preserving the more obscure and lesser known gems of vintage horror/science fiction.

"The series was born after the number of times I stood in front of my file cabinets of monster stuff -- clippings, photos, scripts, arranged alphabetically by title -- and I kinda idly wondered what will happen to it all after I am gone. Not that I am overly concerned, my files do not contain a lot of one-of-a-kind stuff. But then I realized, 'Oh yes they do. I've got a bunch of scripts of indie movies that might be the only copy in the world.' So I thought I could give them to a New York library or a university, they they would probably end up in the basement for fifty years and then get thrown away. Maybe a California library or university? Nah, the Big One would hit and the collection would all be at the bottom of the ocean. The only things in my collection that I figured would die with me were those scripts."

With understanding that when someone passes away, a library burns, Tom Weaver began pulling out the film scripts and organizing a project that has grown into a monster (no pun intended). "I thought the series should start with a bang so the first one became Robert Clarke's The Hideous Sun Demon, because I had two scripts for that movie. One was an early draft that was nothing like the eventual movie, and the second script that is like the movie. I thought that those two scripts, with a lot of stills and bonus material, it might be a fun project. So I went the extra mile on that one and filled it with a lot of still nobody had ever seen, and a production history of the movie. I went out and interviewed several behind-the-scenes personnel I otherwise would never have talked to and I got one of the female leads, Nan Peterson, to write something for it. Gary D. Rhodes wrote a piece about the movie's Texas world premiere and even transcribed an interview that Robert Clarke and Nan Peterson did in front of the drive-in audience that evening. The book became a behemoth."

The book sold so well that it became the first in an on-going series of books reprinting film scripts not available anywhere else. Tom Weaver, however, is not the only author who has become victim of the "cleaning the files" syndrome. Many authors who were responsible for dozens of books over the last three or four decades have, over the past few years, found either the well running dry or a necessity to clean out the house. Decades of research will always accumulate in filing cabinets and banker boxes, leading to an excess of material that puts good folks like Tom into a situation: how to get the information out publicly and avoid a trip to the dumpster. Many libraries have established a reputation for burying their donations -- not enough interns and little (if any) budget to accommodate. Collections tend to gather dust for lengthy periods of time until they are finally processed for scholarly access. Thanks to Bear Manor Media, who ensured a reasonable price to cover the cost of printing and production, Tom's project has reached its ninth volume. And there appears to be no signs of stopping.

The second book was one of Tom Weaver's favorites, The Indestructible Man. "The production history was interesting because the movie mysteriously went in and out of production, and the first ending they shot was mostly junked. I was never able to solve the mystery of why so much of it had to be re-shot. The people I'd interviewed over the years only remember that was what happened. I even found out that the movie might have been inspired by a true story." The third book, Bride of the Gorilla, gave Tom an excuse to write about the history of Realart Pictures, and Greg Mank an opportunity to write about Lon Chaney, Jr.'s career.

Gary D. Rhodes jumped back on board with Bride of the Monster, then provide some lost scripts of his own: a pair of scripts that Ed Wood wrote for Bela Lugosi that never went into production. That became Ed Wood and the Lost Lugosi Screenplays, reprinting "The Vampire's Tomb" and "The Ghoul Goes West." Fans of Plan 9 From Outer Space and Bride of the Monster will enjoy that book, which also contains some background material about these films that never existed.

One afternoon Tom Weaver's phone rang and he found himself talking to a woman who explained that her father was the producer of a short-lived TV production known as The Veil, which starred Boris Karloff. Only 12 half-hour episodes were produced but never telecast. She explained that her father had since passed away but she had a bunch of scripts from the series. Naturally, this formed another book of scripts and during an archeological digging Tom found someone who had scripts for The Veil that were never filmed. 

Among the highlights is a book reprinting a script for The Brute Man, the final film starring Rondo Hatton. He made the Universal backlot his personal prey ground and attained B-movie stardom at the very end of his life playing The Creeper, a character that appeared in Sherlock Holmes and the Pearl of Death (1944), House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946). Physically deformed, he found himself employed at the studios as a hideous-looking murderer and has since gained stardom with an annual award named after him. Besides production and theatrical release information about Hatton's last film, and a wonderful tribute by George Chastain on other "brute men" in the movies, there is an 80-page Rondo Hatton biography that will knock your socks off.

At the last two conventions I attended, I could not help but observe how people passed these volumes by without a second glance. For the very few that paused to smell the roses and looked closely, flipping through the pages and reading the back covers, it was obvious that they were both surprised and pleased. It is my hope that this blog post helps a number of people avoid overlooking these treasures (and if you are reading this, you now know about them). You can find all of the "Scripts from the Crypt" books on Amazon.com and at BearManorMedia.com, but keep an eye out for additional volumes as they get published. These are the type of books that keep fans of classic horror and science-fiction movies looking forward to year after year.


Friday, October 18, 2019

Chucky Makes A Return to DVD

After seven horror movies (three well-made horror movies followed by four dreadful black humor comedies), the Child's Play franchise had no other option than to route for a remake. Updated to fit the 21st century, the voodoo aspect of body switching from the original classic was upgraded to artificial intelligence which could jump around courtesy of wi-fi access. Here, Chucky is the brainchild of a disgruntled factory worker who removes safety protocols (as if a toy company would have created such features in the software in the first place). When young Andy happens to own the very doll that attempts to replicate artificial intelligence, murder ensues. 

As a child I enjoyed watching the movies when they first came out in theaters. (After the third film, however, I jumped the shark because it was not the same. The producers knew this as the original titles (Child's Play 2 and Child's Play 3) were now Seed of Chucky, Cult of Chucky, etc. For this new rendition it was my hope the franchise reverted back to the original concept. True, there are a number of great horror scenes including a graphic slice on a table saw. Also promising was the budget maintained low enough to ensure the reboot exceeded profit expectations, especially when you consider the almost-unknown cast hired to perform their duties sufficiently in front of the camera. Mark Hamill supplies voice to Chucky, the Buddi doll that goes berserk. But the flaw with this movie, to my disappointment, is the doll itself.

The original worked well because the animatronics gave life to an inanimate object. Courtesy of voodoo, the doll displayed a persona similar to a real psychopathic human being including the menacing laugh. You could never anticipate what Chucky was going to do next but you believed he was a living, breathing killer. Here, the threat is physically real (sharp blades) but mentally no more of a menacing than your Alexa in the living room. The menace was no more than a computer program designed to follow computer code.


To give credit, the producers did everything to the book and expectations (based upon review of the movie trailer) were fairly routine. If the budget was kept low enough in production, this movie has a chance to score points with the studio and green light a sequel -- but hopefully with a 2.0 upgrade. In the meantime, the new Child's Play is now available and Halloween is around the corner. Redbox, Amazon or Netflix this one and give it a shot if you enjoy horror films. But if you never saw the original, I recommend watching that one first.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

The Banana Splits Movie Review

Well, it was bound to happen. A generation of kids who grew up with The Banana Splits program would be treated to a live-action big screen motion-picture. A fictional bubble-gum rock group consisting of four animal characters in red helmets: Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper and Snorky. They danced about a kiddie carnival, rode bumper cars and sang the song you could never get out of your head. And, yes, I was among those children who grew up watching The Banana Splits on television.

But when watching the new 2019 big screen movie, I had only momentary flashbacks to my childhood. When a kid asks his parents, "Why does Drooper have blood on him?" and when hot mom takes one of her two shirts off and, armed with a large monkey wrench, starts beating up Drooper and screams, "Abracadabra this, bitch!" my money was immediately on Snorky. Yep, the new motion-picture is a horror film. People will be killed, blood will be splashing around and lots of screaming and running.

When the producer of the children's program learns The Banana Splits program is being cancelled by a vicious network executive, our four anthropomorphic characters take matters into their own hands. 

There are a number of in-jokes such as a reference to the Sour Grapes, and the true fact that the program (as indicated by the tour guide) was originally going to be called "The Banana Bunch" but permission could not be obtained by the author of a children's book of the same name. You will catch a glimpse of old favorites such as the Cuckoo Clock and the Banana Vac. I could not spot the Goofy Gopher, but that does not mean he is not there.

Regrettably, the movie was shot in South America (as indicated during the closing credits) no doubt to ensure a profit from day one. The movie was filmed low budget and (especially the first ten minutes) the low budget shows. As much as purists cried "foul" after seeing the movie trailer online earlier this year, the only flaw with this movie is the fact that it carries the old cliché of horror films. Twenty or thirty minutes into the movie you already can predict who will face a grizzly demise and who will no doubt survive the evening's ordeal. As a horror movie there is plenty going for it and having watched the movie trailer in advance to know what I was in for, this was not a disappointment by any means. As a horror movie, it works. Skeptic? Give this one a try.


By the way, the movie airs on the SyFy Channel this Saturday evening and the movie can be streamed on Amazon.com, not to mention the commercial DVD available for sale.

Perhaps the only real horror is wondering why Banana Splits Funko Pops, tee shirts, CD soundtracks and a 2019 horror film is available for purchase but the original 1970s series has yet to be released on DVD commercially in the United States.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Old Dark House: A Chilling Genre

Not to be confused with Haunted House movies, which tend to involve ghosts or some other supernatural entity in a horror setting, one subgenre of mystery films that have only recently become popular again in that cycle of pop culture interest is that of the Old Dark House mystery. These include such recurring denominators as a dark and stormy night, secret passageways, a group of strangers having to spend the night in a house, mansion or castle, and a killer, madman, or creature on the loose. 

During the silent era such films offered cutaways and trick shots involving nervous could-be culprits, a highly suspicious sleuth, and cast members who suddenly disappear one by one as the criminal lurks behind bedroom curtains. Inspired by the stage plays that predated them, the best of these classics were the inspiration for the early talkies that were to come: The BatThe Cat and the CanaryThe Monster and The Last Warning. The latter of which was recently restored and released on DVD and BluRay.

Each of these plays was decidedly tongue-in-cheek, with mad scientists and super criminals terrorizing hapless Jazz Age types. Women were frequently targeted, while egghead and masculine males engaged in feuds stemming from unrequited love. Money predominated as the driving factor, although not all of the criminals had such sane motivations. 

As sound merged with celluloid, so did the elaborate gimmicks as each movie applied a variation-on-a-theme motif that oftentimes lent towards comedy, farce and bumbling detectives who were no match for the amateur protagonist drawn into the caper. As an American art form, Old Dark House movies helped to establish not only a narrative that remained strong in the horror movie genre, but also helped audiences to accept a little slapstick comedy in otherwise tension-filled productions. 

The best of these – and frequently discussed – include The Bat Whispers (1930), Universal’s The Old Dark House (1932, with Boris Karloff), followed up with Universal’s Secret of the Blue Room (1933, with Lionel Atwill), and Mascot’s One Frightened Night (1935). In most cases the sets for the old dark houses were elaborate, then masked by candle-lit cinematography. The houses in early offerings were often Gothic Victorian mansions, but by 1941 they were noted as being denigrated (such as Universal’s The Black Cat), sometimes broken or destroyed at the conclusion of the mystery. In Paramount Pictures’ One Body Too Many (1944), the old dark house received a modernized spin by adding an observatory at the top.

The advantage to producing such films was oftentimes budgetary. Throughout the 1930s, movie studios with a reputation for producing movies on the cheap took advantage of the Old Dark House popularity with their own renditions. Oftentimes these pictures were a tad talky, but anyone who takes time to seek out these films would discover a number of hidden gems. In 1931, Supreme Pictures released The Phantom, a chilling tale of a group of people who are stalked by a masked killer in an old mansion, and the heroine is threatened not with supernatural terrors but with a brain transplant. In 1932, Mayfair Pictures released Tangled Destinies, concerning a plane making an emergency landing, forcing the passengers to take refuge in a deserted house… only to discover one of them is a demented killer. In 1934, Columbia Pictures gave us The 9th Guest, concerning eight strangers who are invited to spend the night in a penthouse apartment. After being wined and dined, a voice on the radio informs them that they will be murdered unless they manage to outwit the ninth guest: Death.

In 1943, Monogram Studios produced The House of Mystery, about an adventurer who kills a sacred monkey and as a result learns that someone put a curse on him. He returns to America where his shareholders want a return for their investment, but before he can make good on his promise, he finds himself spending a week in an old dark mansion where all sorts of strange things are going on. This film avoided the puppet or projection excuse that was fairly routine in films of this nature and instead featured both a real gorilla and a guy in a gorilla suit.

For those of you who enjoy watching old horror movies in October, consider the Old Dark House genre. If you can find a copy of Murder by the Clock from 1931, you will find this one very rewarding; a thriller that combines the atmosphere of the Universal horror films of the 1930’s with the feel of the sophisticated pre-codes of Paramount. From the mystery novel by Rufus King, this movie told the story of a man who was murdered twice by the jealous hand of a woman. This is a rare chance to see Lilyan Tashman in a leading role, and she is spot on as a woman who wants wealth and comfort by any means possible and sees her ability to manipulate men to do her bidding as key to her plan. Released by Paramount Pictures in 1931, this mystery contains the atmosphere of a horror film, in an era where the studio had announced months prior that it was making Old Dark House pictures to compete against the gangster movies being produced by Warner Brothers. 

There is a crypt with an installed horn that blares to warn people the occupant has been buried alive. There is a drug that revives the dead. There is a brute with the strength and the mind of a beast. And there is a sinister woman (played by Lilyan Tashman) who seduces men to commit murders for her own gain. It is Tashman, as the nefarious Laura Endicott, who dominates the film. Adorned in tight satin dresses that showcase her lithe figure, she vamps with sinuous style, as bewitching to the audience as she is to her pawns. She definitely had the potential for stardom but would sadly pass away a few years after this movie was completed. With an opening scene that takes place in a murky old Gothic-style graveyard, to a scene where a corpse is disinterred making certain she is really dead (no, we are not joking), Murder on the Clock is a great entry in the Old Dark House genre worth watching… if you dare.

Friday, September 27, 2019

Universal Studios Cliffhanger Classics

Fans of cliffhanger serials may have noticed new releases from VCI Entertainment, filmed chapter plays released to DVD in superior picture quality and sound. The company is going to the added expense of digital restoration in 2K from the studio's 35mm masters. For decades fans of cliffhanger serials could only enjoy these gems from the 1930s and 1940s from 16mm print transfers, which were usually floating about in collector hands and varied in quality. Those same 16mm prints circulated on eBay, while collectors did their own transfers to VHS (and later DVD). 

It has been a journey of over 40 years, but fans of the genre are now being rewarded for the long wait.  Back in the 1970s, VCI Entertainment acquired the "non-theatrical" distribution rights to 48 serials from Universal Studios through a third party. After an arduous struggle with "chain-of-title" documentation, Universal has finally turned over the original film elements to 38 of those serials and is currently working on tracking down archival materials for the remaining ten. VCI Entertainment plans to bring all 48 to the collector market as either 2K or 4K scans from either the original negatives or remaining fine grain elements. 

Yours truly purchased a case of each of the four serials released so far: The Red Rider (1934), The Roaring West (1934), The Vanishing Shadow (1934) and Lost City of the Jungle (1946). The intention is to give away these serials to friends and family who might otherwise not seek interest, and to resell a number of them to those not on the Internet and would not otherwise know they exist. The intent is to boost numbers because, if these newly-released serials sell well, VCI will continue beyond the initial intention of releasing one every month like clockwork. (The Mysterious Mr. M has a November release date.) 

More importantly, having reviewed these serials, I can verify that the picture and sound is better than it has ever been and will no doubt be the final word on picture clarity. The spine of each DVD release displays "Classic Cliffhanger #" prominently so you can keep track of each release by volume number. So if you are seeking upgrades to your cliffhanger serial collection, or want to see the entire Universal Studios cliffhanger serial library released to DVD and BluRay, do yourself a favor and buy one of each today. I provided cover scans of the first five releases to avoid confusion and ensure you purchase the correct ones.





Friday, September 20, 2019

The Legend of Packy Smith

The name Packy Smith might not be ringing a bell with many reading this but you would certainly recognize his contributions to the preservation of motion-pictures and music. An early interest led to a lifelong career collecting, selling, and analyzing cowboy movies and western music. He authored numerous scholarly articles; wrote, co-wrote, produced, and edited books including Hopalong Cassidy and 30 Years on the Road with Gene Autry; and launched Riverwood Press, publishing the work of others in the field.
Packy co-founded the Western Film Festival (during an era when fan gatherings and conventions were almost unheard of for that genre) and more recently the Lone Pine Film Festival, where he was instrumental in obtaining guests and procuring rare movies shown at events over the last three decades. He served on the board of directors of the Museum of Western Film History, also in Lone Pine, and co-produced a season of the Roy Rogers “Happy Trails Theatre” television show for the Nashville Network.
So you can imagine how heart broken I was to learn earlier this year that Packy Smith passed away from cancer. Rather than grieve over the loss, I felt it fitting to acknowledge his accomplishments.
Packy Smith receiving the Lifetime Achievement Award
from Bill Sasser at the Williamsburg Film Festival in 2008,

Literally hundreds of commercial LP records, CDs, VHS and DVD releases were produced courtesy of Packy’s generosity, who sought out and preserved kinescopes and recording masters.
Packy’s enthusiasm for the Western—not only in films but in art, books, and music—was unlimited, and it informed just about everything he did professionally for many years. Packy not only loved Westerns; he loved people who love Westerns, and he happily shared his enthusiasm with family members young and old. His passing leaves behind a veritable legion of heartbroken friends and colleagues, who remember his dry sense of humor, boundless curiosity, and big heart. He will be missed more than we can possibly say.

Friday, September 13, 2019

The Shadow: 1940 Cliffhanger Serial

The Shadow (1940 cliffhanger serial) with Victor Jory.
In late 1939, one of the major film studios, Columbia Pictures, produced a 15-chapter cliffhanger serial, which premiered in theaters as a weekly chapter play days after Americans rang in the New Year. The Shadow featured Victor Jory (Bret Morrison’s former roommate at the Pasadena Playhouse) in the role of Lamont Cranston and the shadowy alias. Harry Vincent, Commissioner Weston, Margot Lane and Detective Cardona were also featured among the chapters, which thrilled audiences throughout the early months of 1940. This Shadow, however, does not possess the power to cloud men’s minds. That role was bestowed on the villain known as The Black Tiger, who, while using scientific apparatus, had the power to make himself invisible. His ultimate goal was to take over the world with his newly constructed death ray. Radio connections are evident as the first chapter relies heavily on the radio episode “Prelude to Terror” (January 29, 1939), which concerned a mastermind who filled light bulbs with explosive gas, rendering the city helpless as the explosions rocked the night scene. 

In the serial version, The Shadow goes into action after an attack on a radio station to save the lives of dozens attending a new television exhibit, almost becoming a victim himself from the exploding light bulbs. With The Shadow cloaked in black and the villain cloaked with invisibility, the scenario was certainly mystifying to an audience trying to associate the differences they heard each week on the program. According to the contract agreement between Street & Smith Publications and Columbia Pictures dated July 19, 1939, Columbia was granted permission to create the 15-chapter play based on the radio episode “Prelude to Terror” and a trio of Gibson’s Shadow novels, The Green Hoods (August 15, 1938), The Lone Tiger (February 15, 1939) and Silver Skull (January 1, 1939). Under the terms of the contract, the two stories adapted previously for the two movies produced by Grand National Pictures, Inc. were avoided. A release from Max Alexander, the producer of the two pictures, was sent to Columbia, surrendering his option to produce the additional Shadow pictures. Clause No.12 in the contract made it understood to both parties that during the life of the cliffhanger serial, should the Goodrich Tire Co. or D.L.&W. Coal Co., for any reason whatsoever, desire to discontinue the use of the character “The Shadow” for radio broadcasting purposes, Street & Smith was free to dispose of the radio broadcast rights of The Shadow character to any sponsor who in their opinion was satisfactory. The studio had no control over the radio program. This meant if a new sponsor took over the program and it was a competitor of Columbia, the movie studio was powerless against the decision.

John Nanovic and Walter Gibson both reviewed the screenplay for the entire serial and submitted a list of corrections and suggestions, which the studio promptly applied between the first and final draft (letter of confirmation from the studio dated July 21, 1939). The Shadow’s guns, as instructed, were two .45 automatics at Gibson’s request. (On the radio program, it was revealed that Lamont Cranston had two trusty automatic pistols, both Colt .45s, Model 1911A.)

Columbia assured Gibson that the character of Moe Schrevnitz would not be used, and an added line spoken by Harry Vincent in the first chapter stated he was filling in for Schrevnitz due to his illness. The name of the Metropolitan Club was changed to the Cobalt Club, so that it would match the same club mentioned in the pulps and the radio program. Early negotiations for the cliffhanger film almost were held up because of S. Heagan Bayles of Ruthrauff & Ryan when, on April 14, 1939, he wrote to Floyd L. Weber of Columbia Pictures stating that William J. de Grouchy of Street & Smith had mentioned to the agency the studio’s desire to make use of the radio scripts in writing the scenarios for The Shadow serial. “We have had to hold up writing to you about this until we could clearly establish our rights to these scripts. Our attorneys tell us that we clearly have the radio rights and we believe, further, all the rights, including motion pictures because our release does not cover any limitation of rights. However, to be on the safe side, we suggest that you contact us further before using any of this material, in whole or in part, as written.”

But three days later Bayles backtracked from Ruthrauff & Ryan’s claim of “all the rights” to The Shadow character, and he writes de Grouchy at Street & Smith, “In behalf of our client, Blue Coal, we control only the radio rights, for which we pay Street & Smith a royalty. All other rights to the ‘Shadow’ including motion picture, syndication, publishing, novelty, and so forth, are retained by Street & Smith. We shall be glad to cooperate with Columbia Pictures in allowing their writers to use the ‘Shadow’ scripts in developing the scenarios for the ‘Shadow’ motion picture serial.” 

On April 19, Floyd Weber of Columbia Pictures wrote to H.W. Ralston: “Before executing the contract our attorneys advise me that they would like to examine two documents; one, a specimen copy of the contract that exists between Ruthrauff & Ryan, Inc. and the writer or writers of the radio script; two, a copy of the agreement that exists between Street & Smith Publications, Inc. and Ruthrauff & Ryan, Inc. relative to the radio rights in and to the material. The reason we are only asking for copies of the contract is because we are not interested in any money figures that might appear in these documents requested but merely interested in determining who owns the motion picture rights to the radio scripts.”

Publicity photo for The Shadow (1940 cliffhanger serial).
Clarification of the ownership rights was affirmed when the July 30, 1942, issue of Radio Daily reported: “Dramatic rights to The Shadow, MBS program sponsored by D.L.&W. Coal Co., have been acquired from Street & Smith, publishers, by Lew Cantor and Hugh Skelley, who plan to produce the vehicle as a stage play.” 

The August 29, 1942, edition of The New York Times reported: “Lew Cantor and Hugh Skelley, who plan to produce a dramatization of the radio serial, The Shadow, have asked the authors to write the play so that all the scenery will be drapes that can be shipped in trunks. This will solve transportation problems for the producers, baggage cars being hard to find these days.” Apparently, the play was never produced, but Brian J. Byrne adapted his “Mansion of Madness” (November 5, 1939) into an un-produced three-act stage play in April of 1941. The script opens exactly like the radio program, complete with The Shadow’s signature opening, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” and a narrator reciting the same lines delivered at the beginning of every radio broadcast, including Margot’s awareness of Lamont’s secret. The curtain rises after the opening and the stage play commences. The Shadow is never seen on the stage cloaked in black like his silver screen counterparts. Instead, the voice of The Shadow originates off stage through a filter mike. Could this have been the same stage play Cantor and Skelley planned on producing?


Radio Advertisement
The September 1, 1940, issue of The Shadow Magazine featured a list of the numerous movie houses and locations where The Shadow cliffhanger serial could be seen. This comes as no surprise since similar cross-promotion had been done for the radio program. The serial was a financial success for Columbia, and a second script for another 15 chapters was commissioned, tentatively titled "The Shadow Returns." Business matters caused plans for the sequel to cease. Rather than waste the script, the scenario was produced as a sequel to an earlier Columbia cliffhanger, The Spider’s Web (1938), the sequel now referred to as The Spider Returns. The Spider was a brazen imitation of The Shadow Magazine, and Popular Publications competed against The Shadow character with a fictional vigilante who also wore a signet ring, black cloak and floppy hat. At one time The Spider was practicing his own version of a creepy laugh designed to strike fear in evildoers. Theater patrons who saw the Spider sequel were probably unaware what they were watching was intended to a Shadow sequel.

The press book issued to theater managers suggested a radio tie-in with an insert of all the radio stations (complete up to press time) over which The Shadow program was broadcast. In the event that no local radio station offered the radio chiller, it was suggested the theater manager contact his local radio station. “Impress the local director with enormous listener appeal,” it suggested, revealing detailed promotional information could be obtained direct from Mr. William J. de Grouchy, c/o Street & Smith Publications, Inc., New York. Theater managers were also instructed to dress a street bally man in the eerie and mysterious outfit of The Shadow. The same press book offered theater managers a large number of Shadow merchandise, including masks, makeup kits, costumes, stationery and toy gun holsters — all of which have been mistaken as promotional merchandise for the radio series.

In Republic Pictures’ Blackmail (1947), Dan Turner, a New York City private detective, is hired to investigate a case involving “Ziggy” Cranston, a rich California playboy and owner of a national radio network, who is being blackmailed for $50,000 by a gangster, he thinks, who claims he can prove Cranston murdered a nightclub singer. An odd radio connection to The Shadow radio program that can only be a coincidence?

The Shadow book
This article was compiled from excerpts from The Shadow: The History and Mystery of the Radio Program, 1930-1954, by Martin Grams. Reprinted with permission from the author and the publisher. For more information, visit www.MartinGrams.com.

For a recent review from Book Steve's Library, click here.

Friday, September 6, 2019

KING KONG, THE ALVIN SHOW, and ROCK AND ROLL

CARL DENHAM’S GIANT MONSTERS
by Frank Dello Stritto

Fans of the 1933 motion-picture, King Kong, may go ape over a new 507-page book that combines both fiction and non-fiction. Carl Denham (played by Robert Armstrong in the movie) will be forever remembered as the man who captured King Kong, and brought the giant ape to New York. After Kong’s night of destruction in Manhattan, and the public’s outcry for Denham’s head, he fled U. S. jurisdiction, and “was never seen again.” Yet rumors of his whereabouts and doings spread among the close-knit and closed-mouthed community of explorers and adventurers. This book basically serves as Denham’s memoirs as told to author Frank Dello Stritto, providing us with more jungle adventures and further mythology in the King Kong lore.

Forty years after Kong’s night on the town, Frank Dello Stritto, his wife Linda were living in Jakarta, Indonesia, and occasionally visited the small resort island of Kotok. There they met an 80-year-old man living in a small, fenced house. They soon learned that their new friend was Carl Denham. Over the next two years, Frank and Linda met with Denham often, and learned of his many adventures before, during and after Kong. In the early 20th Century, Denham gained fame as a fearless documentary film maker. As a young man, he accompanied two-seasoned explorers to South America (Theodore Roosevelt’s River of Doubtexpedition, and Prof. Challenger’s Lost Worldexpedition). Denham then travelled across the Indian Ocean to film Lost Lemuria, and to Africa for On Safari with Gorillas. Both films are now lost, but contemporary reviews testify to their thrilling footage of exotic lands. Thus this book provides us with information about the production of those lost films. 

Those adventures prepared Denham for an expedition to unknown Skull Island, where he encountered and subdued Kong. Denham’s journeys continued after he vanished. Another trip to Skull Island (remember the sequel Son of Kong?), back to Africa and South America, then to the Himalayas, and to an unknown island whose location Denham refused to divulge. Between exploits, he hosted visits from explorers and scientists whose odd quests rivalled his. Denham sought more than adventure. Guilt over what he had done to Kong haunted him. He looked for one last exploit that might somehow, at least in his own mind, redeem him.

Attempting to merge fiction to real life are details about other explorers who discovered prehistoric creatures over the years that followed, including The Creature from the Black Lagoonand Godzilla, King of the Monsters! The book includes photographs, some created specifically for this novel while others are rare – some I have never seen before.

While work of fiction, this book serves as additional meat and potatoes for those who can never get enough of King Kong. The cover art on the dust jacket, eye appealing, was beautifully created by George Chastain.

SMOKY, SWEATY, ROWDY AND LOUD: TALES OF CLEVELAND’S ROCK AND ROLL LANDMARKS
by Mike and Janice Olszewski

Mike and Janice Olszewski published an intriguing 220 page volume documenting Cleveland’s legendary rock and roll landmarks including club owners, talent bookers, promoters and concertgoers from the 1950s through the 1990s. Cleveland is known for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a major tourist attraction, and the city might have more rock and roll history than any other in the country. Mike gathered tons of archival interviews and magazine articles to compile this book that will be relished by anyone who loves rock and roll. He documented The Agora, where Bruce Springsteen and so many other acts burst onto the scene. He documented the Coliseum of Richfield, erected in the middle of nowhere just in time for the arrival of arena rock. Details about the Musicarnival, the circular big-top tent that altered summer-stock with hard-rock, to the dismay of suburban neighbors. 

Yes, there are stories about Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Lou Reed, Paul Simon and others as recollected by talent bookers, promoters and owners of night clubs. Yes, there are more than 100 archival photos, never before published. But while most people focus on writing about the performers, Mike and Janice focused on the venues. In the same year Woodstock celebrates the 50thanniversary, this book focuses not on the acts but on the stage. Mike is a veteran Cleveland radio and television personality and curator and archivist for the Ohio Broadcast Archive and Museum. He also teaches media and communications classes at Cleveland State University, Kent State University, the University of Akron, and Notre Dame College. Janice has more than three decades’ experience in the travel and tourism industry. Her photography has been published in FilmfaxOutreand other national magazines.Together they produced a fascinating read. Who knew that such a book meant to preserve part of rock and roll history would be so entertaining? 

You can buy your copy on Amazon.com or at www.grayco.com


AAAAALLLVIIINNN: THE STORY OF ROSS BAGDASARIAN SR., LIBERTY RECORDS, FORMAT FILMS AND THE ALVIN SHOW
by Mark Arnold

In 1958, a down-on-his-luck songwriter with the unlikely name of Ross Bagdasarian plunged the last of his family’s savings on a multi-speed tape recorder and created two beloved and memorable songs: “Witch Doctor” and “The Chipmunk Song.”Both were Number One hits and changed the fortunes for his family and for his record label, Liberty Records, which was also on the verge of bankruptcy.
Bagdasarian previously had hits with Rosemary Clooney’s “Come On-a My House”and with his own “Armen's Theme,”released under his pseudonym of David Seville.
After “The Chipmunk Song” was a major hit, Bagdasarian parlayed this success into a series of record albums and singles and an animated television program called The Alvin Show (which ran from 1961-1962). This primetime animated series was produced by Format Films, an animation studio founded by former UPA studio personnel. The format kept up with UPA’s quality with The Alvin Show and other animated series like The Lone Ranger. The former known today not just for the chipmunks but for the middle supplement, Clyde Crashcupcartoons.
This book is almost 400 pages thick and documents the career of Ross Bagdasarian, including an entire chapter devoted to The Alvin Show. What I was impressed with the most was not just the intricate detail and devotion to documenting everything about his career, but the zillions of photographs of vintage Chipmunk merchandise from the 1950s. From newspaper and magazine articles to exclusive interviews, Mark was able to assemble and extensively document everything under one cover, while ensuring the book is a great read from page one to page 385. (Mark is also responsible for that great book about Total Television Productions, also available from Bear Manor Media.) Before you listen to “The Chipmunk Song” this holiday, consider this book so you can know all about the story behind the famous recording.


Friday, August 30, 2019

Charley Chase: The Hal Roach Shorts

Fans of The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, and The Little Rascals will be pleased to know that Charley Chase is receiving his due. While not receiving commercial exposure over the past decades (unlike Little Rascals and Three Stooges which air today on MeTV every Saturday), Charley Chase remained highly sought-after by film collectors of 16mm prints throughout the 1970s. At film festivals across the country, an hour of Charley Chase comedies has become a Saturday evening tradition. The popularity of his comedic brilliance was evident a couple years ago when Sony Entertainment released two volumes containing every Charley Chase comedy produced by Columbia Pictures. Just this week I received the second and latest release from the Sprocket Vault, Charley Chase: At Hal Roach: The Talkies, Volume Two, 1932-1933.

For those not aware of Charley Chase, he starred, wrote and directed a large number of silent comedy shorts, where you can purchase a ton of those classics with Becoming Charley Chase (VCI Entertainment), Cut to the Chase (Milestone) and multiple Kino on Video DVD releases. While there are known “lost” gems (some existing partially in picture and sound), the majority of the silent classics are available through these named releases. 

Chase eventually found himself employed as a contract player at Hal Roach, the same producer of Thelma Todd, Laurel and Hardy and Our Gang comedies. Chase later made the move to Columbia Pictures, who was producing the popular Three Stooges classics. It was the Hal Roach and Columbia talkies that were regarded with extreme assessment from film collectors, many courtesy of Blackhawk syndication prints. On January 1, 2013, the first of two Columbia compilations were released through Sony Entertainment, which sold so well the studio released a second volume. This led fans to ask, “where are the Hal Roach classics?”

Last year Kit Parker Films, through his Sprocket Vault label, released the first volume of Charley Chase-Hal Roach shorts, in chronological order. Just like the Columbia gems, every film short was remastered from the best available pre-print material of the Hal Roach masters, ensuring better quality than those 16mm Blackhawk prints. This was cause for celebration. Chase did so many film shorts at Hal Roach Studios that it would take three volumes to release them all and sales of the first volume would determine the release of volume two.

In the meantime, Sprocket Vault released volume one of the Thelma Todd comedy shorts, also chronological. (Oddly, volume two was released through Classic Flix DVD.) Well, sales must have been strong with Charley Chase because volume two just arrived and I am pleased to announce that the picture quality is nice and sharp, good contrast, and worth the purchase price. I found myself laughing at the jokes (both verbal and slapstick) for a couple comedy shorts I never saw before. “The Nickel Nurser” co-stars Thelma Todd, and I was surprised to discover “Luncheon at Twelve” was partially reworked by The Three Stooges as “Tassels in the Air.” 

When I asked Richard M. Roberts (who provides fantastic optional audio commentary, by the way) if volume three will be released so fans can complete the Charley Chase film shorts, he explained to me: “We are not announcing future releases until they are ready to come out, and have said online that the release of future sets predicate on the sales of current released sets, Volume Two of Charley Chase came out due to sales of Volume One, so future volumes will depend on the sales of Volume Two.”

Considering Hal Roach produced other comedy shorts from The Boy FriendsThe Taxi Boys and Harry Langdon, among others, the message needs to be sent to the Sprocket Vault. None of the comedy shorts have to be seen in chronological order so even if you have not yet purchased Volume One, consider buying Volume Two today to help ensure the release of Volume Three. The complete Charley Chase is almost within our grasp… one more volume to go.

You can purchase Volume Two here:

With so many DVDs of Charley Chase comedy shorts available, some with company logos watermarking the prints and a lack of concern for remastered print transfers, it is understandable that confusion can arise. For anyone who wants to know which sets are the "essentials," the remastered prints and the only ones you really need, I have included scans of all the DVD releases that, together, make up the majority of the Charley Chase comedy shorts. Hope this helps.