Friday, November 30, 2018

Night of the Living Dead: Thank You, Criterion

The new must-have Criterion DVD release.
At long last the definitive DVD release of Night of the Living Dead (1968) is available on DVD and Blu-Ray through Criterion. For the record, this is my favorite horror movie. It was the first horror movie I ever saw and the first film that gave me nightmares. It remains the only movie to provide me with recurring nightmares decades later. As a self-obsessed fan of the black and white classic, I bought every DVD release in the hopes that someone would provide a superior print transfer. The film fell into the public domain and has since been released on DVD over 100 times and most of them grainy, fuzzy dupes. There are thousands of fans like myself who purchased multiple VHS and DVD releases over the years, with the same goal in mind: the best picture and sound quality available. Do not judge me: Night of the Living Dead was one of the first films deemed culturally significant and resides in the Library of Congress' National Film Registry.

Shot outside of Pittsburgh on a shoestring budget, a band of filmmakers determined to make their mark had no idea at the time what they would accomplish. Directed by George A. Romero, this is a great story of independent cinema: a midnight hit turned box-office smash that became one of the most influential films of all time. A deceptively simple tale of a group of strangers trapped in a farmhouse who find themselves fending off a horde of recently dead, flesh-easting ghouls. Romero's claustrophobic vision of a late-60s America literary tearing itself apart rewrote the rules of the horror genre, combining gruesome gore with acute social commentary. 

Republic Pictures released what might have been the first great print on VHS, matched by Elite Entertainment's DVD release. Elite provided a number of bonus features including an interview with Duane Jones. (The Jones interview is included in the new Criterion release but reportedly four and a half minutes longer in length.) Mill Creek Entertainment put out a shoddy so-called "Anniversary Edition" on Blu-Ray, rushed out to capitalize on the publicity surrounding the film's restoration and theatrical release. The quality was very poor and like many companies that specialize in public domain titles, decided not to invest money in an archival print transfer and instead grabbed the film print from anywhere they could find it. Beware of the Mill Creek release.

As for the recent Criterion DVD and Blu-Ray release, this is the definitive version. Prior releases were very tightly cropped, whereas the film is presented here in its 1.37:1 aspect ratio, with additional footage on all edges of the frame. The depth and richness is far superior. Boy was I surprised to discover Duane Jones' plain white shirt actually has fine, gray stripes. The floor tiles in the kitchen have patterns on them. You can see light reflected on Johnny's glasses. Barbara has a lot of thick makeup on her face -- tons of detail level that was never noticed with prior releases. There has to be a point where you bump up against the limits of the source itself, but considering this is a major cut above all the rest I would state this is absolutely the best version you will find on DVD anywhere -- ever. Even the soundtrack has been restored. 

If you have the Elite Entertainment DVD release, keep it alongside your new Criterion release as there are bonus extras on there that is not available on the Criterion. 

But make no mistakes, Criterion provides so many bonus extras I could not name them all: newsreels from 1967, audio commentaries, archival interviews with cast and crew, a never-before-seen 16mm dailies reel, the never-before-presented work-print edit of the film (titled Night of Anubis), movie trailer, radio spots, TV spots and more.

The Criterion release will cost more than any of the others. Just remember that while Night of the Living Dead is available on hundreds of DVD releases, each of varied grainy, milky quality, the Criterion release pictured at the very top is the only one you want to have in your collection -- proving you get what you pay for. As for me, my quest to find the best quality available for this horror classic is put to rest. 

Friday, November 23, 2018

Latest Books from Bear Manor Media

Not a month goes by that I do not receive complimentary books in the mail from authors asking me to do book reviews. A larger-than-usual package from Bear Manor Media Publishing, however, brought about a pleasant surprise and if you are looking for something to get this holiday season, at least a couple of these books will be of interest.

At the age of 61, Sydney Greenstreet made one of the most memorable debuts in classic cinema as the mysterious Kasper Gutman in The Maltese Falcon (1941), a personal favorite of mine. His performance earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. Born in England, Greenstreet enjoyed a 40-year stage career which encompassed everything from Shakespeare to musical comedy and some of the most acclaimed plays of the 1930s. Today he is best remembered for his roles in such classics as Casablanca (1941), Between Two Worlds (1944) and a number of movies in which he was teamed with horror screen icon Peter Lorre. Until now there has not been a book about Greenstreet and Derek Sculthorpe clearly did his research and dug deep into the vaults, contacted family relatives and traveled the globe to find rare photographs and materials for this book.

Often I have said that many biographies these days are hack jobs: authors who stack a pile of newspaper and magazine clippings in chronological order and compose a book, padding it with plot summaries from movies we can view today without the need of extensive summaries. Thankfully, Sculthorpe avoided that pitfall and we can thank him personally for assembling what will be a welcome addition to my bookshelf.

Bill Cassara and Richard S. Greene assembled a 500-page biography about one of the most under-rated screen actors, today best known for playing the title role of Drums of Fu Manchu. He played supporting roles and various characters in more than 200 motion-pictures. You saw him stand shoulder to shoulder with John Wayne as Indian Chief Scar in The Searchers, as Barnaby in the Laurel and Hardy classic Babes in Toyland, and combat dinosaurs in The Land Unknown (1957). 

From his early stage work in the 1930s, his numerous appearances in cliffhanger serials, his appearance with Roy Rogers in Bad Man of Deadwood, the Tarzan films and his numerous television appearances, this book covers them all. A chapter documenting his convention appearances, including the Sons of the Desert conventions, are illustrated with photographs from club members. My only complaint is that there are a good number of pages devoted to plot summaries rather than behind-the-scenes trivia about his work on those films, but the fact that someone took time to write a book about Henry Brandon should be commended. 

James L. Neibaur adds yet another book to the growing pile of Charlie Chan reference guides. Every three or four years another book comes out but this one provides more common themes, critical assessments, discussion and critical review than the other books. There are recollections from actors, writers and directors who appeared in some of the movies, and production details such as dates of production and cast lists. For the Charlie Chan fan who has to have them all... and longs for critical analysis and reviews of the movies, from the literary origins to the modern day controversies, this book verifies that Charlie Chan movies continue to resonate as late as the 21st century.

Pioneering make-up artist Dottie Ponedel gave celebrities such as Marlene Dietrich, Carole Lombard, Paulette Goddard, Joan Blondell, Judy Garland and Barabra Stanwyck the faces that made them famous. She rode to the top of her field in classic Hollywood but had to fight to stay there since the make-up departments at Hollywood studios were all run by men. The Make-Up Artists Union was finally forced to let her in because the biggest names in Hollywood refused to let anyone else make them up. "No stranger is going to pat this puss," Mae West once declared. This book is her memoir and while some might question whether a book about a female make-up artist warrants reading, let me remind you that it is she who tells the stories about our favorite stars. At a mere 177 pages, this is a quick read. But these are the type of books that are worth a couple hours of your time. 

Jennifer Ann Redmond provided us with a fascinating book that warrants reading for anyone longing to learn more about Corliss Palmer and her scandalous rise and fall. After winning the Fame and Fortune contest of 1920, Corliss Palmer became a movie star. But, after you read this well-researched book, it was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Who is Corliss Palmer, you might ask? She was a silent screen actress deemed "the most beautiful girl in America" and starred in a total of 16 motion-pictures. Three of her films are considered "lost" today, adding mystique to the legend and lure of Palmer. After ending her acting career in 1931, she continued to model cosmetics as well as fashions for a local department store. She divorced, turned to alcohol and spent many years in a psychiatric institution. A sad story indeed, but we need more of these books to help cement her immortality and more importantly, verify the adage that everyone went west in the hopes of striking it rich and famous... most never succeeded -- a true tragic Hollywood story.

This book also features over 70 photographs, many never-before-seen from the Palmer family scrapbook, illustrating the tale of obsession, glamor and why we should always be careful what we wish for. Recommended.

Friday, November 16, 2018

Williamsburg Nostalgia Fest 2018

Last weekend, under the supervision of Larry Floyd and his son Rob, the Williamsburg Nostalgia Fest brought together hundreds of fanboys to meet and greet Hollywood celebrities, savor the best food in Williamsburg, Virginia, and celebrate the good old days of Saturday Matinee pop culture. Authors presented slide show seminars. Television actors signed autographs for fans. Old cowboy westerns were screened in the movie room. And vendors from across the East Coast set up shop with vintage memorabilia at various prices. From books, tee shirts, movie posters, magazines, glossy photos, board games and action figures, there was a little of everything there.

Held at the same hotel where the former Williamsburg Film Festival was once held, now remodeled and re-christened The Clarion Hotel instead of Holiday Inn, the entire weekend was modeled after the former event that came to a close after 21 years. (For more info, click here.) Author Jim Rosin talked about the history of television's Wagon Train before signing copies of his book about the history of the program. Deborah Painter talked about Ray Milland and his screen career. The Solar Guard fan club screened vintage episodes of Rocky Jones, Space Ranger and other vintage 1950s television classics. Celebrities such as Bernie Kopell (The Love Boat), Belinda Montgomery (The Man From Atlantis) and Robert Fuller (Wagon Train and Laramie) were among the guests signing autographs and posing for photos with fans.

Perhaps the most notable facet of the weekend was not one, not two, but three vendors who were selling vintage collectibles at rock-bottom prices. I myself picked up a dozen books published by McFarland Publishing, which retail between $45 and $65, for an amazing $2 each. VHS videos were practically given away at $1 a pop. Hundreds of hardcover novels such as Roy Rogers, Zane Grey, Hardy Boys and Hopalong Cassidy -- many with their original dust jackets -- which normally sold for $15 and $20 were sold for $5 a pop. Even Jack Mathis's hardcover Valley of the Cliffhangers, generally sold among collectors for $1,000, was snatched up quickly for $300 cash.

When I chatted with the good folks operating those particular tables, asking about the origin of the collections, the stories were pretty much the same. "My father died and I am cleaning out his house" and "My husband died last year and I want to sell off his collection." A sad observation, to be sure, but no doubt a sign of the times. A widow selling off a collection at a fan gathering is not uncommon -- this happens about once a year and many attendees quickly diverge on the tables like vultures in the hopes of getting a good deal. But three widows at one show? That was not expected.

All of which reminds me of the modern proverb of the old man who sets up shop at a film festival with a wide display of vintage movie posters. The highlight was a Roy Rogers movie poster in immaculate condition, front and center. None of the posters were individually priced but a sign was displayed prominently: "Everything Must Go -- Make An Offer." When the flood gates opened and the general admission walked in, the first man took note of the gorgeous poster and offered $2. He was quickly brushed aside like the barfly he was. Ten minutes later a second customer stopped by and, taking note of the spotlight display, offered $20. The vendor paused for a moment and remarked, "No, it is worth more than $20 but if the poster is still here on the last day, come back and we can discuss price." 

Ten minutes later a third customer took note and voiced excitement. "That was the very movie my father took me to see in the theaters when I was a kid," he told the vendor. "That was the first movie I ever saw in the theaters and that brings back fond memories. That is the type of poster I would have professionally framed behind UV protection glass to keep the sun from fading the color. That poster would look great in my living room. How much are you asking?"  "Make me an offer," replied the vendor. The customer gave the poster a second and third look and replied, "Well, you had the poster linen backed so you obviously put some money into it to ensure it is preserved. How does $200 sound?" The vendor calmly rolled up the poster and, with gentle hand on the customer's shoulder, handed the poster to him. "Take it home with you. You do not owe me anything, It is yours."

After a short talk the customer discovered the vendor was dying from cancer. His wife passed away a few years prior and there are no family relatives to will anything over. When the old man passes away he fears his landlord will simply toss everything into the dumpster. As a thank you, the customer paid for the vendor's steak dinner that evening. Weeks later, after the poster was framed and hung in the living room, the customer e-mailed a digital photo to the vendor. 

Minutes after the customer walked away with his treasure, the adjoining vendor asked the salesman: "I don't get it... The first customer offered you two dollars and you brushed him off; I get that. The second customer offered you $20 but it is early in the weekend and you decided to see if a better offer comes along; I get that. But when the third customer offers you $200, one hundred times more than the first guy offered you, you chose to give the poster away. Why?" The vendor paused for a second and explained simplistically. "Because I know that poster is going to have a good home."

Academically speaking, the asking price and gavel price for vintage collectibles is merely a numerical gauge to determine appreciation level. As many of my blog posts contain underlined social commentary, the takeaway here is not the statistical growing number of widows cleaning house but rather my concern that most of those collectibles offered at "clearance prices" are truly going to a good home.


Friday, November 9, 2018

Thurston, the Magician: The 1932-1933 Radio Program

A 1916 three-sheet color litho featuring magician Howard Thurston, assisted by imps and shows his assistant levitating, sold for $22,800 at a Magic Memorabilia Sale held August 25th by Potter & Potter Auctions in Chicago, Illinois. The price includes a 20 percent buyer’s premium, proving that the popularity of stage illusionist Howard Thurston continues to this day. 

Even more fascinating was the recent discovery of 58 radio scripts for the 1932-1933 radio program, Thurston, the Magician. Broadcast twice weekly, the complete run of radio scripts includes such intriguing titles as “The Magic House,” “The Magic Carpet,” and “The Affair at Paint Rock Pass.” Among this recent discovery is a complete cast list for each and every broadcast, music cue sheets, dozens of newspaper clippings pertaining to the radio program and the revelation that the program aired from November 3, 1932 to May 19, 1933. Prior published reference guides claim the program went off the air on May 25, 1933, but careful scrutiny after this discovery verifies May 19 as the correct date.

Collectors of radio programs who are familiar with the Blackstone, the Magic Detective program may find these Thurston programs a change of pace. Thurston solves mysteries but a few of the stories provided social commentary such as the broadcast of February 3, 1933, which concerned a war hero in Walter Reed hospital who was stricken with shell shock. Also discovered through these radio scripts was the fact that the program originated out of Chicago and broadcast coast-to-coast.

To date not a single radio broadcast of Thurston, the Magician is known to exist in recorded form. By the time you read this article, all 58 radio scripts have been scanned into pdf and with today’s resources efforts are being made to unearth as much as we can about this program for future publication, complete with episode guide and plot summaries, further preserving the legacy of Thurston.

Friday, November 2, 2018

WEIRD TALES: The Radio Program

First published in March of 1923, Weird Tales magazine will soon be reaching a milestone: 100 years of publication. The horror magazine responsible for introducing hundreds of thousands of people to the works of H.P. Lovecraft, Ray Bradbury and Robert E. Howard (the latter of whom contributed a number of Conan the Barbarian stories). If you have a handful of horror/fantasy/science-fiction anthologies on your bookshelf, you can check out the copyright page and no doubt find a number of stories originated from the pages of Weird Tales.

The magazine is regarded by historians of fantasy and science-fiction as a legend in the field, with Robert Weinberg, author of a history of the magazine, considering it "the most important and influential of all fantasy magazine." Robert attended the Windy City Pulp and Paper Convention for a number of years and one could easily ask him a question about the magazine and be certain for a prompt and accurate answer.

Tribute was paid to Weird Tales magazine at the 2015 Pulpiest Convention in Columbus, Ohio, and as an attendee at that event I found myself mesmerized by the history of the magazine as it was presented on stage during a slide show and a panel of authorities discussing the magazine's influence.

Both the publishing and editorial status has been a tad sketchy in the past two decades and the magazine's future remains uncertain. But there can be no doubt that in 2023 the Windy City Pulp and Paper Show will pay tribute to the magazine, including a special limited edition convention program guide with historical essays about the writers who contributed and the editors involved.

Practically every major writer in the literary field contributed some of their finest work including Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Fredric Brown and Theodore Sturgeon. Back issues today can fetch hundreds of dollars in the collecting market, depending on the condition, and an on-going effort to scan each and every issue into digital PDF files is nearing completion. 

What few are aware of is the short-lived radio program from the 1930s that, like The Shadow and Nick Carter, Master Detective, was dramatized from the pages of the magazine. Yes, there was a radio program titled Weird Tales and the program featured adaptations of short stories from the pages of the magazine. Until recently not a single recording was known to exist. Thanks to collector Randy Riddle, a disc was found and transferred to digital format.

Just in time for Halloween you can click the link below and enjoy his blog entry, the Weird Tales recording, and numerous other radio recordings available to listen to for free on his blog.