Friday, February 22, 2019

How to Identify Old Movie Photos

Production Code Basics
Have you ever been among a select handful of film buffs asked to identify someone in a photograph and, like most in the group, unable to identify the actor or actress? Have you found it frustrating 

Well, Ed and Susan Poole have undertaken the monumental task of doing the job for you. A recent 140 page book, Production Code Basics for Movie Still Collectors, helps you understand those little codes on the bottom of the photographs and identify unknown actors in movie stills. If you don't know what I am taking about, check out the photograph below and look at the bottom right corner. Yeah, you've seen them. And those "portrait" codes help you verify not only what studio they originate, but the movie as well. Sometimes the codes refer to the director. From Mack Sennett to 20th Century Fox, Louise Brooks to Marilyn Monroe, Andre de Toth to Leo McCarey, those codes will help you figure out who is in the photograph. 

Below is a scan of a photograph and a zoom in for the production code. Yeah, now you know what I am talking about.

Broken down in simple-to-understand chapters, ranging from the production process, the publicity department, the advertising department, the special photographer, tricks and revisions applied within the studios over the years, and looking outside the major studio framework, this book will provide you with the necessary tools for identifying unknown movie stills. 

Movie Still Identification Book
Even better, the authors compiled a second book, literally the size of a telephone book, titled Movie Still Identification Book. This spiral-bound production contains over 45,000 movie studio production codes which serve as a starting point for both movies and television programs. So... if you have a photograph with Tallulah Bankhead and want to know what movie it is for, this book is a wonderful companion. After all, a standard publicity photo might have the actress standing before a plain backdrop and the gown she wears may not match any of the movies she appeared in. Wardrobe test? Probably. But for what movie? Nothing can be more frustrating than having a photograph for a motion-picture and incorrectly "assume" what movie the photo belongs to.

Yes, I have seen reference books use publicity stills from the major studios and then misidentify the movie for which the photo belongs. I cannot fault the authors of those books because a reference source such as this one was not readily available. Until now. So hopefully the next time someone uses a studio publicity shot of James Cagney from... say, Public Enemy... they won't claim it to be a publicity photo from the wrong movie. The proper identification is available at their fingertips.

The website to purchase these two books is They offer an annual subscription to an on-line database but you have to renew every year and the book is obviously a one-time purchase. Your call. I suggest the book.

Friday, February 15, 2019

Remembering the Friends of Old-Time Radio Conventions

In the process of cleaning out filing cabinets I came across a large stack of program guides, given away to attendees of the annual Friends of Old-Time Radio Convention. Held annually in Newark, New Jersey in October for more than 40 years (if you count the first five years when the event was SAVE, before it was renamed FOTR), the event closed down a few years ago. Anyone who loved old time radio found themselves in good company -- not just fans who shared a common interest but also radio voice actors. Carlton E. Morse, Jerry Stiller, Bill Dana, Molly Bee, Noel Neil, Hildegarde, Raymond Edward Johnson, Ralph Bell and many others mingled the hallways and chatted with fans.

Lo and behold I come across a huge stack of what is almost every program guide since the event's inception, including promotional flyers sent out to the mailing list every year. If you were an attendee of FOTR, you will find some of these program guides bring back memories. For others, they are a fascinating time capsule for how fans of old time radio celebrated their childhood year after year with illustrious authors and historians offering slide show presentations, celebrity Q&A panels, and more.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

Debunking the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon Myth

There is a phrase that circulates among historians and scholars: "Fifteen books can be wrong and one hundred websites are wrong." The adage relates to the fact that few people do the legwork when it comes to research... which is often the cause of the same mistake being reprinted over and over. While I agree with those who debate that it is easier (and cheaper) to consult prior published reference guides and websites, that method cannot ensure facts. What ultimately results in this flaw is the reprinting of mis-information, giving people the false assumption that if something is printed in five or six books, it must be the gospel. And such methods is nothing more than cut-and-paste applying grammatical cosmetics. No better example can be found than the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon radio program.

Sergeant Preston of the Royal Canadian Mounties who, with his wonder dog Yukon King, set about on weekly adventures to thwart the schemes of fur thieves, claim jumpers and murderers. For many who lived in Detroit, Michigan, where the radio broadcasts originated, this was a brass-buttoned, red-coat rendition of the successful Lone Ranger radio program. Preston had a magnificent steed, Rex, who raced steadfast to the scene of the crime when King, usually leading the sled dogs, could not assist with transportation as fast as his four-legged friend... but King, take note, with sharp teeth was able to disarm villains with guns and save Preston from harm.

There were multiple people who played the role of Sergeant Preston, from Jay Michael, Paul Sutton and Brace Beemer - the latter also voiced The Lone Ranger on radio for more than a decade. (Recent archival digging will soon provide us with additional information for another actor, previously undocumented, playing the role. We can thank historian Karl Schadow for that information when he publishes his findings later this year.)

The radio program began in January 1939 as a fifteen-minute program titled Challenge of the Yukon, created and scripted by Tom Dougall, who was responsible for a daytime soap opera over the same Michigan radio station, Ann Worth, Housewife. Within a year many of the episodes were recycled plots from Lone Ranger radio scripts. In September 1948 the program evolved into a half-hour format and this proved to be ironic when you consider the fact that a half-hour audition dated December 27, 1943 suggested a possible half-hour expansion a few years prior. Many people mistakenly believe Fran Striker, author of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet radio programs, of creating the Sergeant Preston character, especially when you consider the fact that Striker was responsible for Preston's origin in April 1954, which was adapted into children's records. (Striker himself wrote to Trendle at one time and asked that he write the Sergeant Preston of the Yukon novel, should a publishing contract become reality like the 18 Lone Ranger hardcover novels. Striker himself wrote a backstory for the novel that was never published.)

In September 1950 the name of the program changed to Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The reason for the name change, recently unearthed while reviewing archival documentation, was to protect the property of the fictional mountie. It was impossible -- legally -- to copyright or trademark a fictional character as Canadian Mounties were commonplace before the creation of the radio program but the name of the character was a different matter and copyrighting each radio script under the name of the program (ala name of character) would hold court with legal defense.

A recent article in the February 2019 issue of Radio Recall, written by historian Karl Schadow, confirms what many never suspected... Challenge of the Yukon premiered on the evening of January 3, 1939. So why do hundreds of reference books and websites claim February 3, 1938? Karl goes into detail to debunk the mistake, incorporating reprints of archival materials to verify the 1939 date, backing up his facts. (For the record, there are no newspaper or trade papers from 1938 indicating Challenge of the Yukon ever aired on radio.)

In answer to the question above, too many people believe what they read on the Internet and are quick to reprint the facts without doing any real legwork. If two dozen books say 1938, and hundreds of websites claim 1938, then they assume 1938. But had anyone actually done what Karl took time and effort to accomplish, browsing through the original radio scripts, consulting historical documents in archives, and numerous other sources, they would have realized the 1939 is carved in granite. Which leads us back to that phrase that circulates among historians and scholars: "Fifteen books can be wrong and one hundred websites are wrong."

Good job, Karl.

Copyright registration card at the Library of Congress verifying
Challenge of the Yukon premiered in January 1939, not February 1938.

Karl's article also debunks a number of other myths and misconceptions about the Sergeant Preston radio program, not just the premiere broadcast date. For anyone wanting to read Karl's article, a free PDF of the February 2019 issue of Radio Recall can be read below, reprinted with permission. (And I encourage everyone reading this to sign up and become a member of the club -- the newsletter publishes numerous articles like this bi-monthly, often debunking myths and misconceptions in every issue.)