Thursday, July 28, 2022

The Little Rascals: The Restoration Project

Hal Roach's Our Gang series is one of the longest running and most prolific in the field of short subjects with 220 one and two-reel comedies released between 1922 and 1944. The secret to the longevity of the series, as well as its appeal to generations long after its conclusion, is mainly due to Roach’s choice to cast kids who came across as “natural” on the screen—scruffy underdogs that moviegoers could identify with or wish they could be—not glossy “showbiz professionals.” 

After producing 88 silent Our Gang shorts, Roach transitioned to sound releasing 80 additional “talkies” in the series starting with “Small Talk” in 1929. It took time to fine-tune the adjustment from silent to sound, but soon the studio began firing on all cylinders producing classics like “Shivering Shakespeare” and “The First Seven Years” (both 1930). 


Thanks to David at Classic Flix, and passionate film buffs who spent untold hours laboring over each short, newly scanned and restored from original Hal Roach 35mm film elements. These new prints are clear, very crisp, with as much detail as possible, and (for purists) the title cards completely accurate with Leo The Lion shown at the beginning of each episode. By far these are the best versions of these releases… ever. Up until today we all had to suffer from the Blackhawk prints and other renditions on VHS and DVD. The six Bluray volumes are the definitive releases.


Volume one features the talents of Jackie Cooper, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, Mary Ann Jackson, Bobby “Wheezer" Hutchins, Joe Cobb, Harry Spear and Norman “Chubby" Chaney, and contain some of the best of the series. 


But throughout volume three and four, with the introduction of George "Spanky" McFarland to the troupe in 1932, the Our Gang comedies soon embarked on one of the series’ most prolific periods of mirth making. Two years later, Hal Roach was inspired to team Spanky with a loyal sidekick: precocious child actor Scotty Beckett, whose delightful comic support of “Spank” premiered in one of Our Gang’s funniest and most beloved two-reelers, “Hi-Neighbor!” (1934). 


Spanky and Scotty often functioned as a Greek chorus to the “bigger” kids in classic outings like “The First Roundup,” “Honky-Donkey” and “For Pete’s Sake” (all 1934). They also displayed their broad comic range and chemistry by imitating the antics of Roach’s biggest stars, Laurel & Hardy, as in “Mike Fright” (1934) which is a personal favorite of mine. 

Volume six comes out this month (you can pre-order now) but the first five are available now. I would like to add that while I am not aware of any archival restorations of the silent shorts, there is an even greater need for restoration and the sale of the six Blurays will send the message – without support the restoration for these gems will stop with just the 80 sound shorts.

Friday, July 22, 2022

Honoring a Pioneer’s Memory: The Max Fleischer Cartoons Restoration Project

There has been an ongoing restoration project for Max Fleischer's cartoons, as word through the grapevine (and on a number of Facebook Groups) has been building momentum. Fans of vintage animation, who have a special place in their heart for such projects, are devoting long hours, frame by frame, to make the cartoons look brand new again. Fletcher's granddaughter, Jane Fleischer, and Rockin Pins CEO Mauricio Alvarado, are in San Diego this weekend to reveal what efforts have been made to track down archival prints and restore them to pristine quality. 

Victoria Davis recently posted a fascinating blog entry worthy of reading about this effort, the link provided below.

Friday, July 15, 2022


Now there is something you do not see every day... an Oscar being auctioned off. 

Winning an Academy Award is often considered the most prestigious honor you can receive in Hollywood. Earning an Oscar can instantly allow actors to command as much as 20 percent more money on their next project. But although taking home the top prize in one of the top acting categories can be career-changing, the trophy itself is worth less than a cup of coffee.


That’s because the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which gives out the Oscars, has strict rules in place to prevent winners from profiting off of the sale of their trophies. In fact, according to the Academy’s official regulations, winners are not allowed to “sell or otherwise dispose of the Oscar statuette ... without first offering to sell it to the Academy for the sum of $1.”


And if an Oscar winner dies and passes their award down to their children, those heirs must also abide to the same rules and cannot sell or give away the statuette. These rules were first introduced in 1951 and are in place to “preserve the integrity of the Oscar symbol,” the Academy says in its materials. Oscars that were awarded prior to the introduction of the rule are technically fair game for collectors. 


In 1999, Michael Jackson paid $1.54 million for the best picture Oscar awarded to Gone With the Wind in 1940. And in 2011, the 1942 Oscar that Citizen Kane was awarded for its screenplay sold at auction for $861,542.


The Oscar up for auction is for Clyde De Vinna, who won for “Best Cinematography” for White Shadows in the South Seas, a 1928 American silent adventure romance directed by W.S. Van Dyke. It was produced by Cosmopolitan Productions in association with MGM and distributed by MGM. Loosely based on the travel book of the same name by Frederick O’Brien, it is known for being the first MGM film to be released with a pre-recorded Soundtrack. 

If you want to check this out and see what the gavel price goes for, the link is below.

Friday, July 8, 2022

Sergeant Preston of the Yukon: A Novel

In the early 1950s, Fran Striker wrote an inter-office memo to his boss, George W. Trendle, asking for the opportunity to write a novel based on the popular radio program, Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. The radio program was created by Tom Dougall in late 1938, but it was Striker who, in 1951, wrote an origin story for Preston and his wonder dog Yukon King. Striker then wrote a backstory for what would have been used had Trendle licensed the rights to a publishing house. Alas, no such novel was ever written or published. Striker, the co-creator of The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet, did write a number of Lone Ranger novels for Grossett & Dunlap, which are well-written and a lot of fun. All of which is a long-winded way of saying how much of a darn shame it is that Striker never had the opportunity to write a novel.

I would be amiss if I did not take a moment and use my blog to mention that a Sergeant Preston novel is now available, the first ever. I would like to state this was 70 years in the making, but a history of the program is essential for the understanding of what this novel contains.

The radio program was originally entitled The Challenge of the Yukon when it first premiered over radio station WXYZ, Detroit, in January of 1939, but only those listeners to the locally-based Michigan Radio Network were privileged to hear those early action-packed adventures. It was not until 1943 that the radio program was transcribed in recorded form. It was not until 1947 that the program was heard coast-to-coast. As a result, the first four calendar years of the fictional adventures of Sergeant Bill Preston and his wonder dog, King (later known as Yukon King), have gone virtually unexplored. 

While much has been written about the radio and television, almost nothing has been documented about those early years. It was not until 1951 that the title of the program was changed to the more familiar Sergeant Preston of the Yukon. In 1956, the radio program went off the air, but fans could watch further adventures because the series made a successful transition to television. 

During this period, the program would also spawn a popular series of comic books from Dell Comics. 
Historically, what remains of those early years referenced above (1939 – 1942) is preserved only in the extant radio scripts written by series creator Tom Dougall. It was Dougall who wrote each and every radio script for the first three and a half years. He was a staff writer who also doubled as an announcer and sometimes as a cast member for many radio broadcasts that originated from the Detroit station.
Dougall had been responsible for a daily soap opera, Ann Worth, Housewife, and, after the demise of Renfrew of the Mounted (which had aired coast-to-coast over CBS radio), producer George W. Trendle asked Dougall to create a radio serial in a similar vein. In Trendle’s eyes, no one was more up to the challenge of creating a fictional Canadian Mountie program than Dougall.
Dougall certainly seems to have done his homework. A careful review of the radio scripts suggests that he read multiple books on the subject—many written by Jack London—and likely a number of the many Canadian Mountie pulp magazines. When Dougall went into the service during the war, a new scriptwriter was being mentored for the craft: a woman named Betty Joyce. In later years, Fran Striker, of The Lone Ranger fame and another staff writer at the radio station, would script what would become an origin for Sergeant Preston, and another for Yukon King. Those two origin stories would be dramatized on the radio program more than once, as well as being adapted into children’s records for commercial resale.
But after careful review of the first 16 radio scripts, from January through April 1939, an epic was discovered that not only introduces us to Tom Dougall’s original rendition of King’s origin, but also the backstory of Pierre LeRoux, a French-Canadian who would become the sidekick to Sergeant Preston for at least two years of the radio program. On a personal note, I prefer Dougall’s 1939 rendition of King’s origin compared to Striker’s 1951 rendition. 

The novel that was published a couple months ago is an adaptation of the first 16 radio scripts from 1939, along with an early 1940 episode that had a dynamite story, and Striker's origin of Sergeant Preston as he combatted Spike Wilson. 
Since no one has yet constructed a feasible time machine that would allow us to travel back to 1939 to record those now-lost radio broadcasts, what follows should serve as the next best thing.
Grab your parka. It’s treacherous country!
You can purchase the novel from the website below. To ensure the book remains a collector's item, sought after by fans of the program, it will be available only for this calendar year. Starting January 1, the book will no longer be available.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Lost GUNSMOKE Episode Found (The Ride Back, June 28, 1952)

There is good news for fans of the Gunsmoke radio program! One of the five “lost” episodes was recently discovered and made available. Never heard since the initial broadcast, episode #10, titled “The Ride Back,” was originally broadcast on June 28, 1952. The episode contains a story not commonly expected on the program, consisting mainly of dialogue between William Conrad and Lawrence Dobkin. Matt Dillon encounters a number of dangers over a period of three days, while transporting a prisoner, Leeds Martin, to Dodge. The nearby Cheyenne are returning from a raid and make an attempt to ambush Dillon and Martin. There are no other speaking roles, not even from the Cheyenne, but the deputy, Chester Proudfoot, played by Parley Baer, makes a brief appearance at the very end of the story.

The radio cast of Gunsmoke, from left to right:
 Harry Bartell, Parley Baer, William Conrad, Georgia Ellis

Stewart Wright, a historian and author of a fantastic Gunsmoke broadcast log, believed that the title (“The Ride Back”) was assigned by producer Norman Macdonnell, months after the broadcast, when the producer was organizing scripts and recordings for some purpose such as managing series continuity. In short, he believed that while there were official script titles, the earliest of radio scripts may have just had numbers and not titles.

Most of the Gunsmoke performances were recorded on transcription discs (later recording tape starting the mid-1950s) and not broadcast live, but this did not prevent a handful of episodes to become “lost” over the years. Fans of the radio program know how a number of episodes are still missing and the confusion that happened over the years with AFRS rebroadcasts, repeat performances with different cast of the same scripts over the years, and other confusions.


Collector and historian Keith Scott offers more specific details: "Gunsmoke was pre-recorded only nine times in 1952, then the shows were aired live continuously from show #25 until show #106. From show #107 (1954-05-08) until the end of the series in June 1961, the episodes were pre-recorded on tape. Interestingly, eight 1952 shows were 'pre-cut' [pre-recorded] several days or even weeks before they were broadcast. ‘The Ride Back,’ however, was recorded exactly one day before its air date."


The fact that “The Ride Back” recording is an aircheck from a Los Angeles radio station that was only recently found and identified probably indicates that this particular recording was never in the main Gunsmokevaults/archive. Classic radio collectors are lucky that someone, for an unknown reason, arranged for private recording of the actual broadcast. Because it is an aircheck, the sound quality is representative of the way people heard it in their homes or their vehicles. It does not have the crisp sound or “snap” that in-studio transcriptions have (some of the surviving Gunsmoke episodes sound almost magical, with a rich full sound, capturing the subtle background sound effects that made the series so famous and beloved). 


According to historian Joe Webb: “Nonetheless, it is a very good recording, which implies it was done on professional equipment and not on a home recorder such as an office dictation machine that was prone to low fidelity and higher background noise.”


The other important source of Gunsmoke recordings from 1957 to the end of the series is the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service. AFRTS was still supplying 16" and 12" records of radio drama programs to their radio stations around the world for broadcast to service personnel and their families. The early years of Gunsmoke were well-preserved with network transcriptions and the final years with combinations of surviving network tape recordings, professional airchecks, home recordings, and AFRTS. With the addition of this recording of “The Ride Back,” only four Gunsmoke broadcasts remain to be found. 



Ben Thompson (a fragment exists) May 3, 1952

Dodge City Killer (May 17, 1952)

Jailbait Janet (June 14, 1952)

Heat Spell (June 21, 1952)


A complete broadcast of 1952-09-27 The Railroad is still being sought; the unedited drama portion exists without musical bridges and announcements.


This is the first recording of a missing Gunsmoke broadcast to be found since 2014. “Homely Girl,” broadcast on CBS on June 19, 1960, and written by Kathleen Hite, was found as an AFRTS disc by collector and radio historian Ian Grieve in Australia. (It is labeled AFRTS #399 of Gunsmoke.) “The Ride Back” was found in reels of late Los Angeles area classic radio program collector Jim Fox. The recordings came to the attention of the Old Time Radio Researchers group through the efforts of Jim Stephenson in the hopes that “The Ride Back” and others would be shared and enjoyed with old time radio fans and collectors.

A link to download and listen to the recording is provided below. What makes this particular episode unique is the fact that the story was adapted into a movie, released theatrically in 1957, titled The Ride Back. In that movie, William Conrad played the role of a lawman taking his prisoner back to jail over a period of a few days’ travel. While he is not referred to as Marshall Matt Dillon in the movie, fans of radio’s Gunsmoke have always enjoyed the movie because it provided us with an opportunity to know what it would have been like had Conrad reprised his radio role for the television series.