Sunday, December 25, 2011

All the Young Boops

Helen Kane talking about, amongst other topics, how kids romanticize the recent, yet unreachable, past:

Here's a film of Helen from 1929, one year before her likeness was turned into the cartoon character Betty Boop, and 5 years before she unsuccessfully presented her case in front of a judge: 

This may, or may not, have been a story of a lone, wronged woman against the high priced lawyers empowered by a big corporation.  But there were lots of other women involved, including Baby Esther, who apparently Helen Kane witnessed her very similar act very early in Kane's own career.  Max Fleischer and Paramount were supported in court by multiple actresses who each gave Betty Boop her voice in the cartoon series.

Bonnie Poe:


Mae Questel:

There is conflicting information to know who actually played Betty Boop in this classic short, but it's probably either Questel or Poe:

Little Ann Little

Max Fleischer's response to Helen Kane's court case:

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Treasure Island - "X" marked the spot?!

The history books have not been kind to Maurice Tourneur.  It is not the fault of the authors or cinema researchers; a large amount of Tourneur's films are lost today.  The only hints available for the films that have slipped through the cracks are from original reviews and original promotional items.  The world will probably never see THE LUNATICS (1913), his rendition of Edgar Allan Poe's The System of Dr. Tarr and Professor Fether, where inmates violently take over an insane asylum.  The world has also been robbed of his film, WHILE PARIS SLEEPS (1923), starring Lon Chaney, Sr. in the lead role as cinema's first ever mad wax figure sculptor.  In fact, Tourneur displayed an affinity for working with a wide range of genres, a gift for technical ingenuity and cinematic vision, but one of the running elements throughout his career were the sadistic, twisted themes he was inspired by on Paris' Grand Guignol stage.  So there is an implication that his lost films often revisit these concepts, even if the facts often remain frustratingly illusive.

After several years working extra roles in Hollywood, Lon Chaney, Sr. truly gained the film world's attention with his role in the film, THE MIRACLE MAN (1919).  As what would be known as a terrific working relationship between Chaney and director Tod Browning began, Chaney and Maurice Tourneur concurrently began to work together for a series of films, too.  In hindsight looking at these two artists' careers, they must have agreed on much in their world, from how they viewed worthwhile storytelling, to feeling that the studio system, and the Hollywood social circles, were not within their comfort zones.

Tourneur and Chaney worked together on VICTORY (1919), based on Joseph Conrad's novel of the same name.   This film is available on DVD and is an absolute must-see!  Chaney played a brutal and lusting pirate, and Tourneur created such dramatic tension and implied horror amongst beautifully lit and framed scenes.  If there is a single example of why it is a crime that any of the film collaborations between these two artists are lost, this film explains it all!   Directly following up this production, the two shot WHILE PARIS SLEEPS (1923), but the film was oddly shelved for several years until Chaney was established as box office gold.  Completing their working relationship together, Maurice Tourneur produced his own version of  TREASURE ISLAND (1920).  It is said, and photographs from the film prove, that Chaney appeared in heavy makeup, allowing him to be cast as multiple roles unrelated to each other.  This film hasn't been seen by human eyeballs in multiple generations.

A still from VICTORY (1919)
It is strictly conjecture to imagine if the two actually talked about Tourneur's personal experiences attending the Grand Guignol in his formative years in France.  While Chaney would forever be synonymous with the twisted faces and bodies he created for THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925/29) and THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923), the majority of his roles would often be more complex than the gruesome, tongue in cheek gore being displayed in the Paris theatre.  Tourneur anticipated the horror genre, and the horror director, by decades, but was in no way limited to the subject.  He is also credited as filming one of the first gangster movies ever, and imaginatively exploring film language as D.W. Griffith's peer, if not technical superior.

Almost mirroring each other, Tourneur became frustrated with the constraints of the studio system, and departed for France midway through completion of the MYSTERIOUS ISLAND (1929), and Chaney would socially withdraw from Hollywood by going fishing in the wilderness with his family saying, "Between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney."

That's the back story on the cinematic relationship between Lon Chaney, Sr.  and Maurice Tourneur.  And then...  I was randomly searching on eBay and lo and behold, look at the auction I stumbled upon:

The following is the back and forth conversation I had via eBay with the auction's seller.  I've included dates and times so that you can get a sense of my anticipation:

From me on Dec-07-11 17:25:48 PST:

You don't still happen to have the film, in as bad quality as it was, in your possession, do you? There have been multiple version of the story filmed so I wonder if it was definitely this version of the version with Wallace Beery instead. Any info would be much appreciated! I'm a huge Maurice Tourneur and Lon Chaney, Sr. fan, and this film for this movie is somewhere between lost and really rare!


From them on Dec-07-11 05:43 PM:

I gave the film to a friend of mine. I was going to pitch it but he wanted it. I tried watching it but there was no sound and the quality was really really bad. I can't believe the price this poster is going for. It's just two guys bidding. They must be nuts!!!!

From me on Dec-07-11 19:15:57 PST:

It was a video? Or a film print? I really would love to see a copy of this!!! If you can ask your friend to contact me, or give me his/her contact, I'd gladly pay them for their time and effort for a copy!

And congratulations on the winning bid price of the poster!

thanks again! :)

From them on Dec-07-11 07:35 PM:

no it was a old film. we found these posters and that film in a house that we cleaned out. the film had a old rotten smell like old vinegar. it was horrible. i played it and it had no sound and the quality was poor so i was going to throw it out but he wanted it so i gave it to him

From me on Dec-07-11 19:43:11 PST:

I really would be willing to pay your friend money for the print! I'm a huge fan of the director Maurice Tourneur and one of the main actors, Lon Chaney, Sr. I would need to find out more information regarding the print, especially if this is nitrate.. you could both be handling dangerous materials! Please ask them to contact me!

From them on Dec-07-11 07:48 PM:

alright i'll tell him. i figured it was dangerous that's why i pitched it. i've heard stories about old movie houses burning down from that stuff

From me on Dec-07-11 19:58:32 PST:

Great! Yes, the number one thing is it is a safety issue for anyone near the thing! I used to work in a film archive and basically what he's storing is equal to dynamite! And please tell him I live in NYC and have some contact with various film houses and can possibly get it transferred to a safer film stock and have the nitrate film disposed of properly. As a film fan, I am desperate to see this film!

From them on Dec-07-11 08:02 PM:

alright i'll tell him

From me on Dec-12-11 14:49:15 PST


Just touching base. I've been in contact with a few film preservation people, but I'm hesitant to make any major actions or research before I hear from either you or your friend. There are multiple questions and possibilities, such as could this be the early 30s Treasure Island missing its accompanying sound discs (if it was even issued in that format), or definitely the Maurice Tourneur production. Also, If that's definitely what it is, is it complete or only a partial film. I've got a friend who can be easily be in contact with Lon Chaney's estate, and would like to present this to them, but as I said, I'm hesitant until I hear from you guys.

Thanks again!

From them on Dec-12-11 04:34 PM: 

I'm sorry for not getting back with you. I talked to my friend and he pitched out the film shortly after I gave it to him which was back in the summer. He heard the same thing I did about it being dangerous so he got rid of it. Thanks

From me on Dec-12-11 18:10:22 PST:

Oof! That is horrendous news! If if somehow turns out your friend thought he threw it out, but it's underneath something or, or, anything really! I know lots of people that would be extremely interested to see this film and probably pay the costly restoration fees!

From them on Dec-12-11 06:31 PM:

why would anyone want this? surely there are many other high quality copies out there. this wasn't even hardly viewable. it had no sound and you couldn't hardly make out any picture

From me on Dec-12-11 19:16:17 PST:

 Here's the official(ish) word on the matter:

I don't even know how much a thing like this would cost honestly. I just know I am, or was, serious about it not being lost forever to film students and historians. 

From them on Dec-12-11 07:19 PM:

so you're telling me that i had the only copy of this film to exist????

From me on Dec-12-11 18:57:45 PST:

It's not commercially available. Supposedly there are private collectors who go after things like this so they can boast to themselves that they have the only copy. So there might be a copy in the hands of someone, but these kinds of films deserve to be restored and shown to the world. Maurice Tourneur is a virtually lost filmmaker himself, he's never been given the proper credit for his innovations in the early years of film history because so much of his early catalog lost. Plus, this is a incredibly rare and interesting performance (or two) of a young Lon Chaney. Does this silent film from 1920 exist elsewhere? Maybe? But not that I, or the general public, have access to. The same is said about films like London After Midnight.

Again, I don't know to what extent of deterioration the film was in, but you'd be surprised what proper film restoration can accomplish. It would have taken major grants or investors, but not out of the question either since I've got a lot of contacts.

From them on Dec-12-11 07:25 PM:

wow that's interesting. i can't believe i had something that rare in my hands. me and a friend of mine cleaned out a house back in the summer and found these items. i figured the poster was worth something but i had no idea that film was worth anything. well i shouldn't say that i figured it might have been worth a little bit but had no idea it was that historically significant like you saying and i knew it was dangerous to be around is why i threw it away. wow that's amazing i wish i would have kept it now

From me on Dec-12-11 19:33:44 PST:

Drown our sorrows, indeed.
Same here!!! If it was truly what we think it was, (and it's possible it wasn't, or not in its entirety) I would have been proud to even just be involved with 'the find' for history's sake! I don't have a clue what the market value on such an oddity would be, but newsworthy for sure! And me, well I'm covered in tattooed portraits of Lon Chaney, Sr. from some of his many movie roles and couldn't be more honored to facilitate this film coming back into the world! Was the film multiple reels? Any idea who owned the house once upon a time? Was it an old film projectionist? I wonder what he could have in the basement or buried in the backyard?! haha

From them on Dec-13-11 06:55 AM:

it was a house in columbus ohio. my friend runs ads to do house cleanouts and we found this in the basement. it was a boxfull of film. i can't remember how many reels there were i only looked at one reel. it could have been on multiple reels or there could have been other film in there. wow im sort of bummed out now. i don't know if i want to tell my friend or not

From me on Dec-12-11 19:24:20 PST:
The only OFFICIALLY KNOWN copy, yes!!!!!

From them on Dec-13-11 06:56 AM: 

and i threw it in the trash. amazing

Sunday, October 16, 2011

GIRL 27 (2007)

Haunting investigation on golden era Hollywood.  Widely available on Netflix, Amazon, etc... 

Saturday, October 15, 2011


Lon Chaney would proclaim, "between pictures, there is no Lon Chaney", and escape Hollywood for his cabin in the woods. That may not have been entirely true, he was still aware of the goings-on in Hollywood with an eye on upcoming talent. He may have not wanted his son, Creighton, to follow in his footsteps, but that wasn't to say he couldn't pass on his legacy to a fellow actor.

Some of Chaney's best work is when he had final script approval, making his films not just Chaney vehicles but in all but name, Chaney productions. One of his biggest grievances was having to work in films with stars with inflated egos. Both these reasons contribute to why HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) is a masterpiece, and PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) is sadly flawed.

It's interesting to note that as the 1920's stretched on, you can see that the roles the Man of 1,000 Faces were cast, were aging along with him. He was able to make himself older for films like MR. WU (1927), but apparently it was significantly more of a feat to play parts of younger roles. Or at least, he wasn't given the opportunity to attempt younger roles.

In WHILE THE CITY SLEEPS (1928), he plays an aging beat cop in love with a young girl. It's not perverse, but it's getting there. In LAUGH CLOWN LAUGH (1928), he literally raises from childhood the girl he falls in love with. WEST OF ZANZIBAR (1928) features Chaney unaware that he is in fact torturing a girl who is his daughter! TELL IT TO THE MARINES (1926) featured Chaney as a high ranking marine in love with a girl who was too young for him and he knew it. He forfeited her to William Haines. Notice the running theme?

Age was not the alienating factor in earlier films from 1919-1925, such as THE PENALTY (1921), SHADOWS (1922), OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920), HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (1923) or even as late as PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and HE WHO GETS SLAPPED (1925).

In WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), he plays the protective father figure of Lupe Velez. Even though Chaney is the big name on the bill, he virtually plays support to showcase the incredible talent of the two younger actors. Lupe is romantically wrapped up with James Murray. Just a year or two earlier, James Murray was a background actor, picked out of obscurity by King Vidor for his masterpiece THE CROWD (1926).  Lon Chaney probably saw this film, and requested to work with the young, promising actor. THE CROWD (1926) remains one of the most emotional, powerful films ever made. It is completely character driven and at times painfully hard to watch. We can see the ageless human drive to succeed at life applies to all ages. I'm sure Lon Chaney saw this film and thought, truly, "A little laugh, a little tear."

This new character set up, of Chaney as troubled, but positive father figure, was a new chapter in his career. Finding the right dynamic of actors to be paired with was the challenge. But in watching WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), it is obvious he found it in Lupe Velez. She virtually leaps off the screen with innocent, hilarious energy. In a Chaney film, that would never have happened if he didn't agree to it. Including James Murray in not one, but two, follow up films after WHERE EAST IS EAST (1929), is even more telling into his respect for his fellow actor.

Regrettably, THUNDER (1929) is a lost film. But it featured a similar set up of Chaney as a father figure, this time to James Murray. We will probably never know if this is a classic or not. But from behind the scenes, how Chaney was attempting to steer his career is very interesting. There is always talk about how if he hadn't died, he would have played Dracula, would have been the obvious choice for Frankenstein, etc... While that may have been true, it is very interesting to consider that he may have continued to identify raw talent and shape individuals, like James Murray, to take the roles he was unable to play as an aging actor. Chaney did not believe in just making faces and pretending to be an amputee, etc., he played flesh and blood characters who were flawed and hurting. I believe James Murray possibly viewed him as guide in Hollywood. Losing Chaney so suddenly may have contributed to an already mentally troubled Murray, jumping into the Hudson River and committing suicide in 1936.

There are lots of unanswered questions. But the hunt for lost and forgotten truth is as inherent a human quality as any role played by Lon Chaney, Sr.

"It was beauty that killed the beast."

1933 photoplay novel
Willis O'Brien made King Kong come alive.   An 18 inch tall metal armature, bulked up by sponge rubber and covered in rabbit fur, reached out and emotionally touched millions of people.  King Kong was a lone creature captured and brought to a strange land; there is no doubt in the viewers' mind that Kong was a living breathing character that did feel pain, and wanted to feel love.

An audience often projects feelings on an actor, and in the process unknowingly creates a much more powerful theatrical performance.  There have been film editing studies done in Russia in the 1920's, testing an audience to view a stone-faced actor, edited back and forth with a wide variation of different scenes.  The audience would give feedback that they thought the actor showed incredible pathos or restrained joy or some other wildly varying emotion, all depending on if the scenes they were cutting to and from were traumatic or touching.  The actor was given no direction but was instructed to simply remain still.  The editor, and the minds of the audience members, did all the work.

Willis O'Brien's creations resonate so strongly because when the audience is looking at Kong's face, or body movements, they may think they are seeing a stop motion animation figure, but are actually peering into the deepest, darkest places of Willis O'Brien's soul.  Kong was like putty in O'Brien's hands, and it is possible he funneled all his life's grief and pain into that creature.

By his own account, Willis O'Brien was pushed into marrying Hazel Ruth Collette by her family.  In 1919, they had the first of their two children.  As time went on, Hazel emotionally unraveled, resulting in a divorce in 1930, with shared custody of the children.  After multiple ignored warning signs, Hazel's mental instability culminated with her shooting and killing both of their young children.  She then turned the gun on herself.  This tragic incident coincided with the height of Willis' career with the production and release of King Kong and Son of Kong in 1933/34.  Unlike her children, Hazel did not immediately die from her own wounds, but wasted away in a hospital while awaiting trail for her actions.

Unbelievably, O'Brien picked himself up, briefly dated another woman named Hazel, Hazel Rutherford.  Pictures are hard to come by, but she was apparently beautiful.  The last time he heard from her was through a note she left him at his home while he was away.  She wrote that she had been diagnosed with an advanced case of breast cancer, that could only be combated with a radical mastectomy.  Hazel was not willing to bear the disfigurement.  This was a goodbye note.  After leaving O'Brien's home, Hazel climbed to the seventh floor of the Mayfair Hotel in Downtown Los Angeles, and plunged to the street below.

Thinking about the process of stop motion animation, O'Brien would have had to shut out the world, close the door to all his problems, clamp down all moving pieces and oversee an enormous gorilla let loose on a miniature, gleaming, art deco cityscape.

Whether intended or not, O'Brien infused his creations with life that far exceeded a simple animation technician.  As he made in his screen debut of 1933, there was grief written all over the face of King Kong.  But on display was truly Willis O'Brien's raw rage at a civilization that let him down, a life that seemingly consisted of nothing but sorrow.  His family was ripped from him.  No matter how many biplanes he lashed out at, he was stuck; there was no way back to Skull Island.

I'd like to thank Monsters From the Vault Magazine for introducing me to the private life of Willis O'Brien, and the extensive research compiled by Don Shay in Cinefex #7.

Monday, September 26, 2011


Eiji Tsuburaya got his start in filmmaking as the cameraman for A PAGE OF MADNESS (1926), a powerful re-imagining of one of the most important German Expressionist films ever.  Jump forward 40 years, and the same man created ULTRA Q (1966-67), a truly striking Japanese interpretation of one of the most popular television series ever.  These works display a culture that looked beyond its borders for inspiration, and was able to learn, excel, and create works of incredible art that stand firmly on their own.

The story I heard, is that the director, Teinosuke Kinugasa, read about Robert Wiene's THE CABINET OF DR. CALIGARI (1919), but was unable to see the film as it wasn't coming to Japan at that time.  So sight unseen, he attempted to make his own version, taking liberties with what he imagined German Expressionist films might look like.  If the story's true, Teinosuke may have also pieced together his own script that resembled a newspaper review of the original German film.  As opposed to Caligari, this Japanese film focuses on a mother who goes mad and drowns her baby.  She is sent to an insane asylum, and her grieving husband decides to take a job in the asylum as a janitor so he can at least be near her.  Surrounded by the mentally unstable, the janitor begins to lose his mind, too.

I don't know how true the story of the film's inspiration came about actually is, but the man I bought my vhs copy from years ago, also said that the one remaining print of the film was only available to us today because the director hid the print in a water-tight container in a rice paddy during the Allied Forces' bombardment of Japan during WW2!  Like I said, questionable story, but exciting none the less!

Jumping ahead quite a bit, Tsuburaya moved from cameraman to special effects wizard, responsible for GODZILLA (1954) and all the subsequent kaiju, or giant monster, films.   He was able to bring to fruition a vision he had: THE TWILIGHT ZONE (1959-1966)-meets-kaiju television series, called ULTRA Q (1966-1967).  ULTRA Q incorporated a mixture of children's stories, adult themes, science fiction subject matter, hepcat 1960's soundtracks, really imaginative plot lines and perhaps most importantly, monsters that etch themselves deeply into your mind once you see them in action!

At the time, the Tsuburaya's show was a massive hit in Japan, evolving into the runaway success series, ULTRAMAN (1966).  But you'd never know the scale of the ULTRA Q craze today, since it has never been fully translated into English or sold officially to the western world!  Here's a link to one episode, "The Gift from Space", that actually has been translated:  Ultra Q episode 3

There is an entire ULTRA Q series breakdown by episode in English, here, which is very helpful to explain some of the details of all the still untranslated ULTRA Q tales.

Over time many of the kaiju monsters have become larger than life.  But the full breadth of Eiji Tsuburaya's work, including A PAGE OF MADNESS and ULTRA Q, still deserves much more attention.  Inspiration is a two-way street.
Eiji Tsuburaya with some of the cast and creations from Ultra Q.