Archive Page 2

Film Survival According to the Library of Congress

It is a well-known fact that a vast number of movies made before 1929 no longer exist. When the talkies rolled in with the release of The Jazz Singer, the age of the silent film died almost overnight, as did their value, at least in the eyes of the movie studio executives who saw movies only as a commercial commodity. To date, there has not been an exact number attached to the number of silent shorts, features and newsreels that are simply lost to time, but the assessments have been anywhere from 60 to 90 percent.

LoC-ReportNow we have a better number to go by. The Survival of American Silent Feature Films: 1912–1929 is an exhaustive report  by David Pierce that was released this last September. The project was commissioned by the Library of Congress National Film Preservation Board, with a scope that was as narrow as it was broad. It covered the entire period in which American silent features were produced, from 1912 to 1929. It did not include foreign-made features, nor did it include the vast number of shorts that were produced, beginning in 1897. Still, within those parameters, the end results are a clear indicator to what we have lost and what we still have.

The seventeen-year period was short, in comparison to the overall stretch of motion picture history. As David Pierce noted, “the era of the American silent feature film lasted from 1912 to 1929, no longer than the period between the release of The Godfather (1972) and The Godfather: Part III (1990). During that brief span of time, filmmakers established the language of modern cinema, while the motion pictures they created reached the height of artistic sophistication.” To drive home his point, he added that, “the silent cinema was not a primitive style of filmmaking, waiting for better technology to appear, but an alternate form of storytelling, with artistic triumphs equivalent to or greater than those of the sound films that followed.”

The findings to the report are sobering, suggesting that of all the American silent features made between 1912 and 1929, only 30 percent are still in existence in one form or another. The figures, as noted by Pierce in the introduction, are as follows:

There is no single number for existing American silent-era feature films, as the surviving copies vary in format and completeness. There are 1,575 titles (14%) surviving as the complete domestic-release version in 35mm. Another 1,174 (11%) are complete, but not the original —they are either a foreign-release version in 35mm or in a 28 or 16mm small-gauge print with less than 35mm image quality. Another 562 titles (5%) are incomplete—missing either a portion of the film or an abridged version. The remaining 70% are believed to be completely lost.

Some studios were better at salvaging their past than others. MGM led the pack, but even their efforts have resulted in a 68 percent survival rate. Other studios, such as Universal, purposely destroyed many of their silents, seeing no value in keeping them. In 1938, Samuel Goldwyn was asked by the Museum of Modern Art Film Library about set destruction on the back lot. Said Goldwyn, “You must realize that I cannot rest on the laurels of the past and cannot release traditions instead of current pictures.”

The report ends with a series of six recommendations:

1. Develop a nationally coordinated program to repatriate U.S. feature films from foreign archives.

2. Collaborate with studios and rights-holders to acquire archival master film elements on unique titles.

3. Encourage coordination among U.S. archives and collectors to identify silent films surviving only in small-gauge formats.

4. Focus increased preservation attention on small-gauge films.

5. Work with other American and foreign film archives to document “unidentified” titles. An aggressive campaign to identify unknown titles could recover important films.

6. Encourage the exhibition and rediscovery of silent feature films among the general public and scholarly community.

The full 73-page report can be downloaded in PDF format from the Library of Congress website:

www.loc.gov/film/pdfs/pub158.final_version_sept_2013.pdf

In addition to the report, David Pierce also created a database of location information on the archival film holdings identified in the course of his research. The database can be accessed at this link:

www.loc.gov/film

Shamrock Saturday Night

Before I get to the Shamrock, I want to bring up  Preservation Houston’s ongoing History in Print series. This month, I will be giving a presentation on the Houston’s architectural past, present, and future, with a primary focus on the city’s movie theatres. The event will take place on Tuesday evening, September 17,  in Fondren Hall on the second floor of the Jones Youth Building at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, 5501 Main Street in the Museum District. For more details, see the Preservation Houston website.

shamrockPostcard1

Saturday at the Shamrock

I recently was going through my father’s closet and came across a set of nine cassette tapes. The tapes were recordings from an era gone by, from a radio series that was very nearly lost forever, and broadcast from a landmark that was lost.

ShamrockCassetteThe tapes were of Saturday at the Shamrock, a live radio program that was broadcast from 1949 to 1953, and aired across 450 U.S. radio stations and 39 in Canada. It was the first radio program to be aired nationally from Texas. The weekly show was recorded in the Emerald and Shamrock Rooms at Glen McCarthy’s Shamrock Hotel and aired locally through KXYZ (also owned by McCarthy). During its run, it featured a steady stream of talent, such as Humphrey Bogart, Lberace, Danny Kaye, Jack Benny, Burns and Allen, Merv Griffin, and Dinah Shore, along with emcee Fred Nahas.

The Shamrock Hotel is long gone — it was razed in 1987 to make way for an empty field — and is still the poster child for Houston’s illiteracy at historic preservation. As has been often noted, once a building is taken down, it is lost forever, along with its history. While the property has since been redeveloped (with the one leftover from the Shamrock era being its multi-level parking garage), the simple fact remains that no matter what it is that sits in that space — it still ain’t the Shamrock, nowhere even close.

Saturday at the Shamrock was nearly lost as well. According to an article written by Bruce Westbrook for the Houston Chronicle at the time of the cassette’s release, archive copies of the program were originally recorded by KXYZ, using an old acetate-on-aluminum disc technology. By the end of the decade, the station had changed owners, who decided that the old disc recordings were of no value. The old discs were trashed, and ended up in the hands of local scrap metal dealers.

Enter Henry J. Kjellander, a radio,enthusiast who listened to the program while serving on an aircraft carrier during the Korean War. Kjellander was able to rescue many of those old discs before the scrap dealers had destroyed them. Of the 190 shows, he was able to save about 170. He eventually joined forces with Nahas, who had since formed a local advertising firm, and put together a limited-edition set of cassette tapes covering about twelve hours of the program.

While the cassette tapes represent older technology, lacking the digital refinements that are commonplace today, the recordings still offer a window to Houston’s past, and an era when radio was still king. Both Nahas and  Kjellander have passed away — Nahas in 1994 and Kjellander in 2009 — but their efforts managed to preserve a moment in time when people across America could spend some time each Saturday night at the luxurious Shamrock Hotel.

Or as was said in the introduction every week, “There’s a great big Texas moon shining over Houston tonight.”

A Kickstart for Musty Suffer

One of the biggest obstacles for many a creative endeavor has been that of funding. Everything costs something, so the saying goes. This is especially true when dealing with movie-based projects – which is why Kickstarter has been a real game changer.

mustysufferKSFor those unfamiliar with it, Kickstarter is a private company structured to raise funds for creative projects via crowd funding through its website. These projects include films, music, stage performances, comics, and video games. One of the more notable Kickstarter-funded projects is the Veronica Mars movie, in which a total of 91,585 backers contributed $5,702,153 — in just under twelve hours. The original goal from series creator Rob Thomas was $2 million.

On a lesser scale, Kickstarter has been instrumental in restoration projects of older films, as well as bringing little-seen movies to a larger public. And this brings us to Musty Suffer.

The Mishaps of Musty Suffer was a series of short films made in 1916-1917, and starring Ziegfeld Follies comedian Harry Watson, Jr. The films were released weekly, much like the serials of the time. For the most part, these shorts have been unavailable for public view, having never been released in 16mm or on home video.

Composer Ben Model and film historian Steve Massa want to change all that, and are using Kickstarter as their vehicle for change. The goal is to raise $4,000 (a drop in the bucket compared to the Veronica Mars budget). Model’s plans are to select eight of the best Musty Suffer episodes from the prints originally preserved from original nitrate 35mm prints in 1959 by the Library of Congress. New HD transfers will be made, with accompanying music by Model, and then made available for sale on Amazon.com via Amazon’s CreateSpace service.

As of today (July 18, 2013) the fund raising has 24 days left, and has already raised $2,446. Want to make a difference? Here is the URL:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/silentfilm/the-mishaps-of-musty-suffer-silent-film-dvd

Houston History Book Fair & Symposium

Houston Arts and Media presents its third annual Houston History Book Fair & Symposium on Saturday, November 10, 2012. Like the previous years, it will feature dozens of local and regional history authors, who will be giving presentations and discussing their books. This year will be the first time for the event to be held at the historic Julia Ideson Building
of the Houston Public Library, 500 McKinney Street. The event will run from 10 am till 4pm.

David Welling, author of Cinema Houston, will be on hand to discuss Houston’s movie theatres. His book will be available at the University of Texas Press table.

Other Authors will include:

  • Sylvia Dickey Smith – A War of Her Own
  • Lucinda Freeman – Historic Houston: How to See it
  • Chuck Parsons – Texas Rangers
  • Ed Cotham – Texas Civil War Titles
  • Kate Kirkland – Captain James Baker of Houston
  • David Bush/Jim Parsons – Houston Deco
  • Anna Mod – Building Modern Houston
  • Steven Fenberg – Unprecedented Power: Jesse Jones
  • Jim Schmidt – Galveston and the Civil War
  • Naomi Carrier – Go Down, Old Hannah
  • Mike Vance – Houston’s Sporting Life
  • Tom Kreneck – Del Pueblo: Houston’s Hispanics
  • Al Mitchell – Texas City
  • Ronnie Crocker – Houston Beer History
  • Tom Kennedy – Houston Police Department
  • Michael Swanson – The Angel Baby
  • Ann Becker – River Oaks
  • Andy Hall – Houston/Galveston Steamboats
  • Joan Upton Hall – Just Visitin’: Old Texas Jails
  • Frank Chalfant – Galveston Island of Chance
  • Story Sloane – Houston in the 1920s and 30s
  • Kasey French – Honoring Olivewood
  • Andrea White – The Very Long Life of Alice’s Playhouse
  • Leah White – Our Roots are Strong CD
  • Betty Chapman – Children’s Activity Book on Preservation

For more information about the event, visit the Houston Arts & Media website at www.houstonartsandmedia.org.

Trading on the Alabama

The former Alabama Theatre/Bookstop on opening night as Trader Joes

Ever since the 1939 Alabama Theatre /Bookstop space reopened as a Trader Joe’s grocery store in September, I have been struggling on how to best comment on it. As is well known, the  local preservation laws that helped to keep the theatre exterior intact do not extend to its interior. When it was changed from a theatre space to a retail bookstore in 1984, great care was taken to keep the inherent beauty intact—something that was only marginally done this time around. The areas preserved are largely in the upper regions of the former auditorium, in particular the ceiling medallion and lines of the proscenium.

Rather than try to put my observations into words, it seems better to give comparisons through photos. Below are some shots of the space during its days as the Bookstop, along with its current incarnation.  I have my own feelings about the matter. You can decide for yourself.

A view from the stage looking back at the balcony area and ceiling:

The left corridor. At one time, this was an alleyway between the theatre and the neighboring building. During the Bookstop expansion, it was added and blended to match with the existing design of the interior:

The “yellow brick road” floor motif at the front entrance:

What spoke most to me regarding the interior was the loss of the lovely art deco murals that adored the interior on either side of the proscenium during its days as a theatre and later as the Bookstop. Below is one of the two murals—followed by one of the current paintings on the interior wall. What would you rather look at?

Music for Films

A category of note at the 2012 Academy Awards was Best Song for a Motion Picture; it only had two nominees–Man or Muppet from The Muppets and Real in Rio from Rio. What was interesting was that this very short list of nominees, while perhaps catchy in their own right, could hardly be considered to be stellar examples of the craft. Such is the nature of the motion picture pop theme song; for every tune on the level of The Way We Were, there are far too many songs that are merely passable.

I recently picked up a CD of early show tunes, Rudolph Valentino: He Sings and Others Sing About Him. The album, recorded in 2005 by Phil York, features all-new recordings of songs originally written as tie-ins to Rudolph Valentino’s movies between 1922 and 1927. The CD Also includes some new songs and the two songs Valentino recorded before he died, these being the only recordings of his voice. On the whole, the collection is something of a musical time machine into a simpler era. In both lyrics and composition, these songs are sentimental products of that time, with titles like I Have a Rendezvous With You,A Kingdom for Two, and If I Had a Man Like Valentino. While no one writes songs like this nowadays (at least not without their tongue firmly in cheek), it is clear how these older songs their own indefinable charm.

As evident from this album, music merchandising is not a new thing.

Then, as now, a pop-style song can be attached to any movie (regardless of whether it fits) with the end goal of finding a home as a radio hit. Some work quite well, such as Into the West from Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, and far more titles could be listed here than there is space for – but to name a few: I Will Always Love You (Whitney Houston, The Bodyguard), Circle of Life (Elton John, The Lion King), Up Where We Belong (Joe Cocker and Jennifer Warnes, An Officer and a Gentleman), Shaft (Isaac Hayes, Shaft), Don’t You (Forget About Me) (Simple Minds, The Breakfast Club, and pretty much every James Bond Film.

For all the great ones, there are also the stinkers, such as Ben by Michael Jackson (in itself not a bad song, but not when tied to a film about a killer rat), or the title song to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (check it out if you don’t believe me). Even Celine Dion’s anthem, My Heart Will Go On, from Titanic, ends up on the most loved list as well as the most hated song of all time.

What is fascinating is how the inclination to attach a popular song to a movie has been a mainstay for the last hundred years. Whether the song was intended to be played alongside the movie during the early silent days, or just be sold off as sheet music to help market the film, the tie-in remains the same.

And a really good one will stick with you forever. Try singing a line from Ghostbusters.

See what I mean?

Can we all get along?

Movies represent escapism. Always have, always will.
Since its inception, the movie theatre has served as a place to forget about the outside world and its responsibilities for a few hours. It might even be thought of as a sanctuary, a place of safety — which is why the shootings that took place in Aurora, Colorado on July 19 are so reprehensible.
In the days, weeks, and months to come, there will be countless articles written about the Aurora theatre shooting, the person responsible and his motives, the causes of such behavior, and the effect it will leave on us all. There is little I can say that will not be said elsewhere, with either more eloquence or with more purpose and conviction than I could offer. I find myself at a loss for words that define how fundamentally abhorrent this is on so many levels, and consider if there is any place that is safe from violence?
As one who has written about movie theatres and the film going experience, I was particularly drawn to the words by one of the contributors to It Cool News, who spoke not as a social commenter, news reporter, or political activist, but as simply a person who loves movies. He said this:

This weekend, go to a movie.  No, it’s not about keeping the bad guys from winning, or making a statement, although if you want it to be, that’s okay.  Go to the movies this weekend because it’s a joy.  One of the last great joys we have left these days, it seems.  Plant youself in a theater, and see whatever you fancy.  It’s the place dreams come true.  It’s the magic land.  That screen isn’t a window – it’s a door.  An inviting door that lets in everyone.  All are welcome in that world, and we get to wonder in the power of imagination and beauty.
“I don’t normally post like this and I’m sorry if this upsets some of you.  I’m grieving for the losses in Aurora, Colorado, and I am trying very hard not to play the political games of finding where to put blame.  This community took a real loss today, and I mourn those who were killed, pray for the wounded, and celebrate that magic that we all chase every time we sit down in a movie theater.  Theaters are my church, and today we’re all hurting.”
“I love movies, and you do too.  Let’s celebrate them.”

My deepest thoughts go out to all those who have been irreversibly changed by this tragedy. As trite and simplistic as it is, I keep asking the same question on almost a daily basis: Why can’t we be kind to one another? Rodney King, who encountered another form of violence, was all too right with his question, “Can we all get along?”
I keep hoping that eventually, one day, we will.
– July 22, 2012


Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a writer and artist who lives in Houston with his wife and two children. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.