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

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

Friday, September 6, 2019


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.

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 or at

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.