287: Susan Delson on Soundies

Archival Spaces 287:

Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans

Uploaded 21 January 2022

Several years ago in a piece on “Preserving Race Films” (2016, edited by Barbara Tepa Lupack) I noted that much African-American film history from the 1930s and 40s had only survived in 16mm copies, which were often treated by archives as reference copies, rather than master material. Among the primary collections I discussed were the “Soundies” from the 1940s that only existed in 16mm, even though they were originally shot in 35mm. Produced for visual jukebox machines, these three-minute MTV-like clips of famous bands and singers were very popular in the World War II era and featured large numbers of African-American acts from the Count Basie and Duke Ellington big bands to Cab Calloway, Dorothy Dandridge, Mable Lee, and the Mills Brothers. Now Susan Delson has published a new book on Soundies, Soundies and the Changing Image of Black Americans on Screen. One Dime at a Time (2021, Indiana University Press), which fills in the little-known history of this short-lived film genre. 

Your Feet’s Too Big (1941< Warren Murray) with Fats Waller

As Susan Delson notes in her introduction, African-Americans participated in over 300 of the ca.1880 Soundies produced between 1940 and 1946, making them the first mass entertainment media in which they were not marginalized or relegated to racist stereotyping. Not that Soundies didn’t also sometimes feature racist images, which were still the norm in Hollywood’s film production and the society at large, but their extremely low budgets ironically gave both filmmakers and performers the freedom to express real emotions to their own community, as well as to the white majority. Furthermore, the weekly release of reels with six to eight Soundies, including at least one black-themed film, featured a wide variety of musical styles and acts and thus now constitute important documents of Black cultural history.

Mills Novelty Panoram Soundies Jukebox
Got a Penny, Benny (1946, William Forest Crouch) with Nat King Cole

While the 3000 to 4500 Panoram movie jukebox machines were manufactured by the Mills Novelty Company of Chicago, the Soundies films were produced by affiliated subsidiaries, like RCM Productions in Hollywood and Minoco Productions in New York, and distributed by the Soundies Distributing Corporation of America, another subsidiary of Mills Novelty. Placed in bars, restaurants, defense plant lunch rooms, bus and train stations, and other public spaces, the Panoram machines allowed viewers to see a film for a dime, in the order they appeared on the reel, a limited market – given the number of machines in circulation – that forced producers to turn out Soundies quickly and extremely cheaply. Nevertheless, the whole financial structure of the operation remained shaky at best, until finally, it collapsed in the immediate post-World War II years.

Flamingo (1942, Josef Berne) with Duke Ellington and His Orchestra

The 17” by 22” Soundies screens were large enough to allow a dozen or more viewers to see the films, but small enough to call for a performance and visual aesthetic that anticipated television rather than follow big screen norms. While the quality of the productions varied greatly, depending on the producer, many of the black-cast Soundies allowed for experimentation and performative self-expression, giving urban African-American audiences non-racist images of themselves for the first time ever. In subsequent chapters, Delson not only introduces many of the filmmakers and performers populating these films but also their vision of black culture and life.

Given the war years, it’s surprising that only a “sliver of the hundreds of Soundies that feature Black performers” (p. 89) reference the War itself, possibly because African-Americans were initially ambivalent about the war, due to the rigid segregation of the Armed Services. While news of racial tensions, especially the riots of 1943, were excluded from Soundies, films, like When Johnny Comes Marching Home and We Are Americans Too, emphasized Black patriotism and sacrifice, their impact exceeding their numbers.

When Johnny Comes Marching Home (1943, William Forest Crouch) with the Four Ginger Snaps

Many Soundies featured black urban spaces, city streets and living rooms, dance, and culture, as well as expressions of heterosexual romance, when Hollywood was still neutering African-American men and women, thus presenting images of black modernity to the community and white audiences. Then, as now with rap music, urban cool became a model for black and white teenagers. While Soundies situated in Southern rural locations were more apt to follow racist stereotyping, many were also imbued with a modern urban sensibility ”that flatly contradicts the good-bad, country-city binaries of many Black-cast Hollywood films…” (p. 116)

Give Me Some Skin (1946, unknown) with the Delta Rhythm Boys
Cow Cow Boogie (1942, Josef Berne) with Dorothy Dandridge

But the emphasis in most Black cast Soundies was on a joyful and playful heterosexual romance and sexuality, which was still invisible in mainstream media. Expressed primarily through dance and movement, sexuality was often slyly communicated through direct address to the audience, breaking down Hollywood’s fourth wall with a wink or a flash of leg. And while Black-cast Soundies were more heavily censored by local censorship boards than comparable white cast films, in particular when light and dark-skinned performers raised the specter of miscegenation, many films demonstrated both female agency and intimate onscreen pairings that must have delighted black audiences, especially those featuring Dorothy Dandridge who would cross-over to Hollywood stardom a decade later.

Cats Can’t Dance (1945, William Forest Crouch)

Integration, on the other hand, remained elusive in Soundies, “more often achieved in the editing room than on the film set…” (p. 193). Integration in fact only became visible when mixed black white bands appeared, e.g. Gene Krupa’s big band included African-American trumpeter Roy Eldridge, while Phil Moore’s post-war Soundies featured white guitarist Chuck Wayne. Delson closes her excellent book with several appendixes, detailing every Black-cast Soundie produced, as well as the performers and filmmakers involved in their production. This book is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of African-American popular culture.

Today, many Soundies are still available on YouTube. Soundies Susan Delson discusses are available on her website: https://www.susandelson.com/video/#videos. There has also been a vigorous trade in the 16mm film collectors market of soundies, which are easily identified by the fact that the image is reversed on the film, allowing for the original back-projection through mirrors. 

She’s Crazy With the Heat (1946, Ray Sandiford) with Anna Mae Winburn and the International Sweethearts of Rhythm

286: The Village Detective (2021)

Archival Spaces 286

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021)

Uploaded 7 January 2022

The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021, Bill Morrison)

A couple of years ago I contributed to an anthology on the filmmaker Bill Morrison, The Films of Bill Morrison (2017), edited by Bernd Herzogenrath, and I have been a big fan of Bill’s since he first showedDecasia (2002), his feature-length avant-garde meditation on nitrate decomposition. So I was particularly excited when at the Orphans Film Symposium in May 2020 (Archival Spaces 244, https://archivalspaces.com/blog-feed/page/5/), Morrison showed a sneak preview of his film, The Village Detective: A Song Cycle (2021). Like Decasia, it is a film that revels in the beauty of decomposed, in this case, water-damaged film, and the abstract patterns of light and shadow it creates, all of it accompanied by a beautiful accordion-based score by David Lang.

Mikhail Zharov as Aniskin, the village cop

However, the film begins with film clips of the Soviet Russian actor Mikhail Zharov (1899-1981) being interviewed by himself, utilizing clips from his many films. Only then do we see a green underwater shot, looking up at the play of light on the surface, while the filmmaker relates receiving an email in 2016 from Iceland about the recovery of four reels of film from the ocean floor.  As the shot continues, a metal barrel is dropped into the ocean and sinks slowly to the bottom, while the opening credits appear. In the interviews and clips that follow, the audience learns that the four reels discovered by an Icelandic trawler, Fróði, are from a 1969 Soviet film, The Village Detective, a film that is neither lost nor even important, according to Russian film historian Peter Bagrov. Indeed, a restored print of the film (which exists in Gosfilmofond, the Moscow film archive) would probably bore people out of their minds.

The Village Detective

Bill Morrison’s strategy is different, namely to show very long clips of the damaged film, but only those sections that advance the main plot, concerning a Soviet police officer in a small village attempting to find a stolen accordion. While the image appears and disappears as water damage dissolves up to 90% of the film emulsion, and the Russian language track is sometimes heard, but mostly only seen in subtitles, the eye is fascinated by the abstract patterns and ghostly figures moving in and out of the frame. Intercut with this damaged footage, are intact scenes of Mikhail Zharov from the many films in which he appeared over a 60+ year career, many including songs the actor performed.

The White Eagle (1928, Yakov Protozanov)
The Road to Life (1931, Nikolai Ekk)

Zharov, who was an extremely popular actor and even had a Russian stamp printed with his likeness in 2001, began his career as an extra in 1915. He made his official film debut in 1924 in Yakov Protazanhov’s science fiction masterpiece, Aelita, and was then seen regularly in films of the Mezhrabpom-Rus, including Nikolai Ekk’s Road to Life (1931), the Soviet Union’s first talking picture, which made the actor a star. From that point, Zharov became a fixture in the socialist realist cinema of Stalin’s Soviet Union, appearing in more than fifty films, mostly as a character actor. According to Bagrov, His acting was only good when he had a strong hand to guide him, like Sergei Eisenstein in Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946-58), where he played Czar Ivan’s guard.

The Return of Maxim (1937, Grigoriy Kozinstev, Leonid Trauberg)
Ivan the Terrible, Part II (1946/1958, Sergei Eisenstein)

Morrison juxtaposes film clips of Zharov in Outskirts (1933), Thunderstorm (1935), Comrades (1936), The Return of Maxim (1937), Peter I (1937),  The Bear (1938), New Horizons (1939), Engineer Kochin’s Error (1939),  Fortress on the Volga (1942), in which he often appeared as a thief or other shady, i.e. bourgeois, character or as a singer with a guitar or accordion. Never a hero of the revolution or a good comrade, Zharov is identified as the Soviet Union’s “most beloved iconoclast actor.” He was even blacklisted for a period in the early 1950s because his wife was the daughter to a physician implicated in the infamous “doctors’ trials” of 1949. In other words, the film is neither about a great actor nor a great lost film.

The Village Detective

So what makes the film so fascinating? Both at the beginning and the end of The Village Detective Zharov mentions that he is interested in how life gets woven into art and how art reflects life. Morrison is fascinated how four reels of a no-name Russian film reappear from the bottom of the ocean – he cites a second film, Lenin is Alive (1958) was dredged up from the ocean by a Danish trawler in 1976 – creating a massively damaged, but also visually beautiful film artifact, life creating art; much of the time we only see abstract patterns in brown and sepia with ghost-like images peeking through, but also the perforations and remains of the optical track; as with broken Greek pottery, our mind’s eye fills in the images, but we also remain ever cognizant of the materiality of film. Finally, Morrison is also interested in a forgotten film career from a now-discredited era of film history, produced in a now archaic medium of celluloid, his compiled films reflecting the reality of life under a communist dictatorship, yet always a bit contrary and off. In his final role as Aniskin as the wise old village cop, Mikhail Zharov does get to play a hero; accordingly, the scene of him finding the accordion is taken from the restored print.   

The Village Detective

285: Vienna in Hollywood Symposium

Archival Spaces 285

Vienna in Hollywood Symposium

Uploaded 24 December 2021

Casablanca (1942, Michael Curtiz)

Two weeks ago I attended and was a speaker at the Symposium, “Vienna in Hollywood. The Influence and Impact of Austrians on the Hollywood Film Industry 1920s – 2020s.” The event was hosted by the new Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, USC Libraries, USC’s Max Kade Institute, and the Austrian Consulate General of Los Angeles and was the first event of its kind staged by the new Museum. Friday, 10 December was hosted by the Doheny Memorial Library at USC, while Saturday 11 December took place in the Museum’s beautiful new downstairs screening room. Unfortunately, due to COVID, a number of the speakers coming from Europe could not attend in person and presented their work via Zoom, including the first speaker.

Man braucht kein Geld (1931, Carl Boese)

After the usual opening addresses by the organizers, the morning sessions began with Katherine Prager (Vienna City Library) who discussed “The Vienna Circles in Hollywood.” Beginning with the circle around the critic Karl Kraus and theatre/film director Bertold Viertel, she not only elaborated on the many intellectual circles of Vienna, none of which survived intact in America, but also described the Vienna Library’s extensive holdings of estate collections and correspondence. Next, Paul Lerner (USC) introduced the audience to the psychoanalyst (and possible charlatan) Fred Hacker, whose Topeka Menninger Clinic hosted numerous Freudian psychiatrists from Vienna en route to Los Angeles. Lerner also delved into the influence of psychiatry on Hollywood, e.g. that Marilyn Monroe on the advice of her psychiatrist turned down the role of Anna Freud in John Huston’s Freud (1962) or that producer Joseph Mankiewicz’s whole family was in analysis. The morning session ended with Frank Stern (U. Vienna) discussing the early German films of Hedy Kiesler, aka Hedy Lamarr, who apparently caused a mini-scandal with her film Man braucht kein Geld (1931,) before her worldwide scandal with Extase / Ecstasy (1933).  

The Emperor Waltz (1948, Billy Wilder)
The Spring Parade (1940, Henry Koster)

Two philological papers followed after lunch. Jacqueline Vansant (U. Michigan) discussed the image of Kaiser Franz Joseph in Hollywood films of the 1930s/40s, while Lisa Silverman (U. Wisconsin) looked at Billy Wilder’s Heimatfilm, The Emperor Waltz (1948), both papers noting Hollywood’s benevolent view of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire, despite Austria’s complicity in the Holocaust. In the same vein, Anjeana Hans (Wellesley) analyzed via Zoom American studio remakes of Franziska Gaal’s independent Austrian films, including Koster’s Spring Parade (1940). While Robert Dassanowsky (U. Colorado) made a case for a failed Hollywood-Vienna film agreement in 1936, Regina Range read letters by Vicki Baum, Salka Viertel, and Gina Kaus concerning their impressions of Los Angeles, and, finally, Donna Rifkind recreated the atmosphere in the house of Salka Viertel and her famous Santa Monica Salon.

Dishonored (1931, Joseph von Sternberg)

Day two at the Academy began with Noah Isenberg’s keynote, in which he explicated the Austro-German origins of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959), as well as its naughty phallocentric jokes,  punctuated by numerous film clips. Next, Todd Herzog’s (U. Cincinnati) gave a close reading of Joseph von Sternberg’s Austrian war/spy melodrama starring Marlene Dietrich, Dishonored (1931), while Andreas-Benjamin Seyfert (UCLA) and I reviewed the Hollywood career of film director William Thiele.  

Tilly Losch in The Garden of Allah (1936, Richard Boleslawski)

After lunch, Patricia Allmer (U. Edinburgh) introduced the work of Hollywood specialty dancer Tilly Losch, who had memorable scenes in The Garden of Allah (1936) and Duel in the Sun (1945), but few other Hollywood roles, pursuing instead a career in painting. The next panel was dedicated to composers: Steven C. Smith on Max Steiner, Nobuko Nakamura (U. Vienna) via Zoom on Erich Wolfgang Korngold, and Heather Moore (USC) on Hanns Eisler. Steiner was of course one of the most prolific and successful Viennese composers in Hollywood, while Korngold despite Hollywood success regretted that his serious music was not acknowledged by American music critics. Co-Curator of the event, Doris Berger concluded the day with a panel of Austrians working in Hollywood today.

Max Steiner score for King Kong (1933, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack)

A nitrate film screening of Casablanca (1942), brought the symposium to its conclusion, adding an artistic dimension to the proceedings, just as had Isa Rosenberger’s MTV short, “Café Vienne: Dedicated to Gina Kaus,” and Christine Wieder and Klaudija Sabo’s documentary RoughCut: Vienna Exile Below the Line.

Everyone was in agreement that the symposium was very well-organized and featured excellent hospitality. As is always the case with such symposia, the presentations were a mixed bag, both methodologically and qualitatively, some announcing one topic, then discussing another, some stringently academic others anecdotal; one speaker managed to misspell the names of all three directors whose documentary films they were discussing. Nevertheless, this was an excellent start to the Academy Museum’s extracurricular programming and one hopes they will be encouraged to host other symposia in future.

Some Like It Hot (1959, Billy Wilder)

284: Georg Höllering’s Hortobágy (1937)

Archival Spaces 284

George Höllering’s Hortobágy (1937)

Uploaded 10 December 2021

Hortobagy (1937, George Hoellering()

George Höllering’s Hortobágy (1937) is one of those films I have been chasing after for decades and was finally able to see the film at the German Kinemathek’s recent “Film Restored: The Film Heritage Festival,” in a wet-gate transferred digital copy, restored this year by the National Film Institute Hungary, using an internegative for the picture, and a safety print for sound. I was not disappointed in Hortobágy which turns out to be an anomaly in Hungarian cinema in the 1930s when domestic comedies like István Székely’s Lila Akacs/Purple Lilacs(1934) and Béla Gaál’s Meseautó/Car of Dreams (1934) dominated screens in Budapest and Debrecen. An almost neo-realist look a peasant life in the Hortobágy region of Hungary, the film’s long, languid takes and lyrical documentary style is reminiscent of Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran (1934).

Located in the flatlands East of Budapest and West of Debrecen in central Hungary, the Horotbágy was an arid and sparsely populated steppe or puszta where distinctly Hungarian breeds of cattle, sheep, and horses were raised, the peasants maintaining their traditional and archaic way of life. Originally a center of commerce, the “Great Inn of the Hortobágy” (built-in 1781) was located on the road between Debrecen and Budapest where a stone bridge crossed the Hortobágy River, but the region dried out and the land was depopulated after the Tisza River was redirected in the 1840s. Höllering’s film documented the conflicts between tradition and modernity in a narrative that featured amateur actors exclusively, Hortobágy’s peasants and herdsmen playing themselves with surprising naturalness.

Austrian film director Georg Höllering spent more than two years under difficult working conditions producing independently what was initially only to be a documentary, the director traveling to the region in 1934 to shoot footage with his cameraman László Schäffer. In a second phase, Höllering asked the writer Zsigmond Móricz to develop a film narrative while shooting continuing through 1935. In 1936, the director produced a prologue and the film was released in March 1937. Hortobágy was a huge success throughout Europe but was heavily criticized by right-wing politicians and Hungary’s Fascist government for showing a pre-industrial view of the country. It was also a failure in the country’s cinemas because popular taste favored the kind of commercial comedies mentioned above. On the other hand, the film was imported to the United States by Sam Cummings’ Jewel Prods., where – after a battle with the New York Board of Censors and a Supreme Court injunction –  it premiered in January 1940 and did relatively well given its brief shots of nudity and the amazing depiction of the birth of a foal.

Opening with extensive shots of livestock, herding, and moving on a seemingly endless plain, the film then slowly introduces its human subjects, the Cinege family, consisting of a pater familias, his wife, Jansci, their 10-year-old son, Juliska, their daughter, and their csikós (horseman), Mihály. Everyone is preparing to go to town for the yearly market festival, where horses are studded. The slight story focuses on the boy who wants to become an engineer and keeps sneaking off to the oil well being dug at the edge of their property, much to the chagrin of the senior Cinege, and the daughter who wants to marry Mihály and not the wealthy farmer her father has chosen for her. To show his displeasure, the father destroys the bicycle Jansci has fixed up in order to cycle to the oil derrick, both symbols of modernity.  Meanwhile, Mihály and Juliska secretly meet before the village fair and have sex in the barn.

Höllering lovingly utilizes long takes to capture the daily lives of these sheepherders and horse breeders in the vast expanse of the puszta, but also the conflicts between the generations. Again, the scenes in the village and the market as peasants gather from the surrounding area have a documentary-like precision, contrasting with a fluid camera the movement of animals and their masters, as well as the myriad faces of country peasants. A particularly poignant moment involves an 80-year-old widow who travels to market to see – before she dies – the man she was not allowed to marry in her youth, the couple deciding to live out their final days together after they reunite at the festival. Jacques Lourcelles, the French film critic for Présence du cinema once wrote: “There is a cosmic dimension to Höllering’s characters, who have a forehead in the clouds and a soul among the stars.” And indeed, nature (and the weather) are constantly foregrounded, as in the violent storm that damages the oil well and kills Jansci’s horse.

Born in Vienna in 1897, George Hoellering started his film career as an exhibitor in Vienna in 1919, then moved to Berlin in the mid-1920s to produce and edit shorts. He was the production manager on Slatan Dudow’s left-wing Kuhle Wampe (1932) and on Heinz Paul’s right-wing, Tannenberg (1932), fleeing Germany shortly thereafter, because of his Jewish wife. They returned to Vienna but emigrated to London in 1937, where he managed the Academy Cinema in the West End. He also produced propaganda shorts for the British government during World War II and produced, directed, and co-wrote with T.S. Elliot, Murder in the Cathedral (1952), his last foray into film production.

He continued to manage the Academy Cinema until his death in 1980. Ironically my first knowledge of Hoellering came two years later when I found out that Helmar Lerski’s film, Avodah (1935), had been screened there in 1938 but was nowhere to be found. Miraculously, the 35mm nitrate print shown back in 1938 was found in a storeroom of the Academy, when the cinema was demolished in 1989 and is now preserved at the British Film Institute.   

283: Gotto’s Passing and Posing

Archival Spaces 283

Lisa Gotto: Passing and Posing Between Black and White

Uploaded 26 November 2021

Symbol of the Unconquered (1920, Oscar Micheaux)

Lisa Gotto, a professor of film theory at the University of Vienna, originally published her book, Passing and Posing. Between Black and White. Calibrating the Color Line in U.S. Cinema (Bielefeld: transcript verlag, 2021) in German in 2006 as Traum und Trauma in Schwarz-Weiß. Ethnische Grenzgänge im amerikanischen Film, the German title playing on the German words for dream and trauma. The book was her Ph.D. dissertation in which she analyses the racial content of six films from three different periods in American film history, arguing that historically determined film aesthetics impact the formulation of racism/anti-racism in each film. Thus, while The Birth of a Nation (1915, D.W. Griffith) and Symbol of the Unconquered (1920, Oscar Micheaux) articulate polar opposing attitudes towards race, both narratives are structured according to the conventions of classical silent film. Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk) and Shadows (1959, John Cassavettes) acknowledge their own artifice, constructing narrative self-reflexivity. Finally, with Bamboozled (2000, Spike Lee) and The Human Stain (Robert Benton, 2003), both produced after the death of 35mm cinema and the proliferation of multiple media platforms, the epistemological, semantic, and technical presuppositions of these works are queried.    

In D.W. Griffith’s ultra-racist narrative, Gotto defines white-nationalist ideological coordinates according to a strict color line between black and white, wherein the segregationist director’s venomous barbs are reserved for those persons who cross that line. The so-called mixed-race mulattoes defile the supposed purity of white blood and thereby muddle the film’s strict racial hierarchies, which simultaneously define stable class and economic relationships. Oscar Micheaux, on the other hand, constructs a racial binary between black and white from a distinctly opposite perspective, wherein the act of “passing” as an economic survival strategy in America’s viciously racist society is interpreted as a betrayal of Blackness, because passing’s temporal ambivalence is “constantly bound to the horror of concealing, denying, and white-washing.” (p. 56.)

Imitation of Life (1959, Douglas Sirk)

In the German émigré director Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life, whiteness is seen to be an ideological construct and a social formation, allowing the light-skinned daughter of a black maid to pass, but also consistently connecting Sara Jane’s whiteness to her African-American mother, thereby contextualizing her wish for social mobility as a denial of her family relations and rendering her emotionally torn; the inherent contradictions of the narrative thus constantly call attention to themselves, radical ambiguity becoming a stylistic device to avoid the hardest questions of race.  Cassavettes’ independent, low-budget feature, Shadows, also fosters an extreme form of ambiguity that frustrates any unified legibility, its mixed-race characters confronting their racial identity only as a background theme when confronted with racist sentiments. Skin color vacillates with the light and camera exposure, but also defines racial identity, self, and the other, allowing actors to experiment with multiple identities.

Bamboozled (2000, Spike Lee)

Spike Lee’s instrumentalization of black face in Bamboozled, in order to make manifest racist presuppositions of white America – even when confronted with a diversity and black and brown people – is primarily a critique of American cinema, but also of an audience that fails to see the bitterness behind the mask. Black face is connected to death and lynching, but also to the unreality of an entertainment reduced to smiling black mouths, eyes, and feet that eliminate any perception of humanness. In Benton’s The Human Stain, a “Jewish” (actually African-American) art history professor whose whiteness (and ability to pass) is reflected in the whiteness of the Greek statutes he studies, cannot escape his racial origins, “the ego remains constantly subjected to its racist definition.” (p. 218). Ironically, he is fired for making racist comments, but the ultimate and regrettably unmentioned irony of this film is that a white actor, Anthony Hopkins, plays an African-American passing as white, thereby metaphorically in black face.    

Lisa Gotto

Lisa Gotto’s concluding remark for The Human Stain may hold true for all race relations in a society that has not freed itself of racism, even when obvious color lines have been legally eliminated and racially ambiguity is celebrated: “The ambition of self-discovery cannot be thought beyond racist regulation because within racist society the social being perpetually remains subject to a racial typecasting.” (p. 230).  This is an important book and should be read, but I admit to feeling a certain discomfort in the fact only two of the six directors discussed here are African-American, possibly skewing the validity of any of its conclusions.

Shadows (1959, John Cassavettes)

282: Life Achievment Award

Archival Spaces 282

Martin Koerber‘s Laudatio for Chris Horak

Uploaded 12 November 2021

For the first time ever, I have given space in my blog for a guest author. On 4 November 2021, Martin Koerber, Curator at the Deutsche Kinemathek, Berlin, and also responsible for the film archive, gave the laudation speech in the Kino Arsenal when I received the Cinematheque Association‘s honorary prize. The original text was read in German.

Rainer Rother, J.-C. Horak, Kino Arsenal, 4 November 2021

Today, Prof. Jan-Christopher Horak receives the Honorary Prize of the Cinematheque Association for Service to Film Culture and Patrimony 2021.  Since the 1970s, as anyone who has concerned themself with film archiving and film history knows, Chris Horak has been on the road as a film historical researcher, but also as an archive director, curator, and as the founder of diverse activities in our field. Only a few of his many accomplishments can be addressed in this short appreciation – a  laudatio from the Latin- mentioning merely a few highlights, for example, the innumerable articles – according to Wikipedia over 300 – which Chris has published in the last forty-five years; these will hopefully be collected one of these days in an anthology or be available for reading on his blog, Archival Spaces. I want to warmly recommend, you subscribe to this blog, in which he speaks of his experiences, his contacts with other film preservationists and filmmakers, occasionally mentioning biographical details, which reveal much that is private, so the reader understands why certain topics interest him. Blogs are a publication modus to pursue so-called minor matters that unlock much more about the writer at times than serious missives and their accompanying footnotes.  You will see, how useful it was for me that Chris is a blogger.

Acceptance Speech

The honorary prize which has been previously awarded only three times, applies not so much to a role or roles someone has filled than to the personality repeatedly displayed in the course of exercising one or more functions. Character manifests itself in an interest in professional activity, closely connected to a biography, and from this link emerges the passion and dedication necessary to perform the extraordinary. The film critic Andreas Kilb once described Chris Horak in Die Zeit (1999) as follows: „Chris Horak, the son of a Czech émigré and a German woman, raised  in West Germany and the USA, is a hybrid of Germanic and American virtues: tall, energetic, affable, fastidious, a workaholic and a dreamer, he could easily be an ambassador for German film in Hollywood, a mediator between worlds.“

J.-C. Horak, Jerome V. Horak, Prague, 2002

The slogan for this year’s festival of the Cinematheque Association is “Cinematic Migrations” –  a motto that could stand for the life and professional impact of Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak.  Born in 1951 in Bad Münstereifel, and whoever doesn‘t associate evil with the naming of this quiet spa, knows nothing of the bitter ironies of the 20th century in Germany (Hitler’s Felsennest residence looked down on the medieval town).  These accompany Chris’s life from the very beginning like a warning shadow, making him ever vigilant:  His father illegally crossed the border from Prague into  – of all places – Germany, where at the beginning of the 1940s Jaromír Horák had been incarcerated briefly in the Concentration Camp Sachsenhausen because he had been a university student when demonstrations against the Nazi German occupation had occurred. The grandfather was able to ransom his son’s release, but further political activity after 1945 finds him again on the „wrong side“ after the Communist Putsch in Czechoslovakia. In a strange reversal of fronts, Germany becomes a refuge for a man condemned in absentia to twenty years hard labor.

The family moved on to America, but returned in the mid-1960s to Germany, from where the father travelled repeatedly on business to the old CSSR. When the archives of the Czech Secret Police are opened after 1989, it becomes clear that they had considered finally arresting Jerome Horak numerous times on one of those trips, which elicited the following succinct comment from father to son:  „Those were exciting times.“

Doctoral Candidate, Muenster

Chris Horak studies first in the USA and then in Germany, receiving his doctorate at the University of Münster with his dissertation, Anti-Nazi-Films of German-speaking  Émigrés in Hollywood 1939-1945 (1984). The late/great film critic Karsten Witte emphatically recommended I read this work he undoubtedly saw in relation to his own studies of German cinema in the 1930s, which first appeared here and there and then collected in his seminal publication, Lachende Erben – Toller Tag, Film Comedy in the Third Reich (1995).

Ute Eskildsen, J.-C. Horak, FiFo Opening, Essen 1979

I should mention two publications from this period, written with Ute Eskildsen that indicate Horak‘s interest in international linkages in avant-garde film and photography: Film and Photo in the 1920s (1979)and Helmar Lerski, Lichtbildner und Fotograf (1982); again migration as a life-saving human right is a factor in the biographies of the artists discussed here and certainly also determined the creation of these studies. The 1980s find Chris Horak first as Associate Curator, later as the long-time Senior Curator in the film archive of the George Eastman Museum in Rochester. It was essential to move the film archive into professional channels, given that since its founding it had been operated as a personal collection, and establish first contacts to other film archives in the Fédération Internationale des Archiv du Film (FIAF). We, too, first met – I believe initially by mail – because the Kinemathek was a consistent client of Eastman House for its Berlinale film retrospectives, and was even able to „borrow“ their house pianist Phil Carli in the mid-1990s (under Chris‘ successor Paolo Cherchi Usai) for William Wyler’s silent films from Eastman.  

Ron Magliozzi, Amy Heller, J.-C. Horak, Jacqueline Stewart at AMIA Pittsburgh, 2016

The mid-1970s sees the initial formation – with Chris Horak in attendance – of the forerunner of what will become the Association of Moving Image Archivists (aka AMIA), a global coalition of film archivists and those interested in film preservation, a fantastic network around the world which continues to coordinate the activities of our little industry. In contrast to FIAF, which unifies film archival institutions, AMIA engages individual members, whether they are at home in public film archives or in the collecting and preservation departments of the film industry, or work for equipment manufacturers and film post-production houses, or are students interested in entering the field. Chris Horak became the first vice president of the Association, its second official member. Later, he founded The Moving Image, AMIA’s journal concerned with film preservation issues, but whose professional importance expanded far beyond its membership. Chris edits the journal for its first six years, establishing it in the field as a serious publication with a considerably expanded thematic brief, in comparison to FIAF’s Journal of Film Preservation, reflecting topical debates in film studies and the archive world.

With Doris DörrieMunich, 1997

In 1994, Chris Horak is named Enno Patalas‘ successor as Director of the Munich Filmmuseum, and now becomes an active member of the German Cinematheque Association. Our contacts increase, especially in the preparation of the Berlinale retrospective for G.W. Pabst in 1997, for which our partners restore and make whole many of the director’s films. Under Chris‘ aegis, Pabsts’s seminal film, TheJoyless Street (1924) is restored, moving Enno Patalas‘ previous work far beyond what any of us could have hoped for. Wolfgang Jacobsen, René Perraudin, and I accompany their work with a camera for our film, Pabst Wieder Sehen, which is screened at the retrospective and on the Arte TV channel; I remember intense days of film shooting during which, on the one hand, we tried to capture work on the editing table, which collated shot by shot the severely mutilated and incomplete film, giving it a new lease on life by combing prints from numerous different countries. On the other hand, I remember the stunning richness of photographs and scripts from G.W. Pabst’s estate that had been deposited in Munich in the 1960s.  For lack of other possibilities, we distributed this hardly manageable treasure on the floor of an empty room in the Filmmuseum and created – contrary to today’s stricter rules for the conservation of documents – a landscape over which our camera glided at the beginning of the film, in order to indicate all that had been lost and found during the search for Pabst’s oeuvre.

Opening Dr. Arnold Fanck Exhibition, 1997
Exhibition catalog

Chris’ work in Munich is also characterized by the fact that he adds new accents beyond the Filmmuseum’s previous focus on the canonized German film classics. A lucky find in a Munich cellar reveals a whole bunch of previously thought „lost“ German film comedies from the early 1930s, which are then preserved, copied, and screened.  Another outstanding project from this period is his exhibition on Dr. Arnold Fanck and the mountain film, including the publication, Berge, Licht und Traum. Dr. Arnold Fanck und der deutsche Bergfilm, which lifts this genre out of the trash or cozy corner (depending on the audience’s p.o.v.) of German film history, critically illuminating it.

The return to America occurs as early as 1998, this time to the heart of Hollywood: Chris Horak becomes the founding director of Archives & Collections at Universal Studios. Another transnational project: Universal was famously founded by the German Jew Carl Laemmle but had morphed into a multi-national, multimedia company, which like many others, functioned without a sense of its own history or a „narrative.“ That had to change. In an article, Chris Horak seems to me to be introducing his new job: In conjunction with Helmut Asper he publishes an essay in the journal Film History, „Three Smart Guys. How a few penniless German Émigrés saved Universal Studios.“  It concerns Joe Pasternak, Felix Joachimson aka Felix Jackson und Heinrich Kosterlitz aka Henry Koster who in Berlin und Budapest had successfully tested recipes for film comedies with Dolly Haas und Franziska Gaal, which they recycle with Deanna Durbin and Mickey Rooney after their emigration to Hollywood, earning millions from these films and thereby saving the nearly bankrupt Universal from ruin. Apart from the beautiful arabesque, Horak appends to one of his lifelong themes, namely film emigration from Nazi Germany, the article is interesting because it – in accordance with the „New film history“ – not only raises film aesthetic issues but also because it focuses on the film business, which makes artistic production even possible. What in fact drives film history forward? „It’s the business model – stupid!“

Unfortunately, the irreconcilability of serious academic research into film history and studio politics becomes apparent after a promising beginning, collecting, cataloging, and housing archival materials from Universal‘s various storage facilities. Chris‘ employment at Universal is cut short by the employer from one day to the next without warning, in the American way: „You’re fired!“ A serious blow for a film academic who in an interview in Die Zeit a short time before had declared that he was not planning on ever applying for another job, given his present life’s work, researching the studio’s history since 1912.

Filmmakers and presenters at the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” symposium, on November 12, 2011 at the Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood Village, CA. Back: Ben Caldwell, Morgan Woolsey, Daniel Widener, Jan-Christopher Horak, David James, Robert Wheaton, Michael T. Martin, Jamaa Fanaka, Larry Clark. Middle: Chuck Kleinhans, Cauleen Smith, Julie Dash, Samantha Sheppard, Alile Sharon Larkin, Zeinabu irene Davis, Monona Wali, Abdosh Abdulhafiz, Charles Burnett. Front: Ed Guerrero, Jacqueline Stewart, Clyde Taylor, Allyson Nadia Field, Gay Abel-Bey. PHOTO CREDIT: Todd Cheney, UCLA Photography.

But life continues: For a few years, Chris breathes new life into the privately-financed Hollywood Entertainment Museum on Hollywood Boulevard, organizes fifty exhibitions, and warms up for his next major assignment: From 2007 to his retirement in 2020 he is the director of UCLA Film & Television Archive, the second largest film archive in the USA. He brings about decisive improvements in the archive’s financial situation and champions the preservation of films by filmmakers of both genders with diverse ethnic backgrounds. He initiate projects, like LA Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema (2011), a retrospective of 58 African-American films, accompanied by a symposium, a book publication (2015), a  DVD box-set, as well as an international tour of a traveling film program from 2012 to 2015. The program also occasioned the restoration of numerous films, which you can read about in Chris’s blog, as I never tire of pointing out.

With Luciano Castillo at LAX 2016

Another aspect of „Cinematic Migrations“ which long remained hidden was the Latin-American cinema in the USA, produced for Spanish-speaking inhabitants of this multi-ethnic country. Recuerdos de un cine en español: Classic Latin American Cinema in Los Angeles, 1930-1960 opened an extremely comprehensive UCLA Film and Television Archive retrospective. Chris even managed for this program to invite the director of the Cinemateca de Cuba to break the blockade and hand-carry original 35mm film cans of the previously suppressed pre-revolutionary period in Cuba, like Casta de Roble (1954), which was then restored. One result of the retrospective was the publication of Hollywood Goes Latin. Spanish-Language Filmmaking in Los Angeles (2019), edited by Chris Horak und María Elena de las Carreras. During his curatorial administration at UCLA, he also organized the retrospective Through Indian Eyes. Native American Cinema, illuminating another previously unknown or little-known chapter of American film history.

Archival Spaces signature image of old nitrate.

Next to these big achievements, other miniatures document Chris continuing preoccupation with cinematic migrations. Where do we find them? In his Archival Spaces blog, of course! A little study on the film director John H. Auer (from Budapest ) who directed Spanish-language films in America, or the mostly forgotten novelist, Ulrich Alexander Boschwitz, who escaped from the Nazis but then was interned as an enemy alien and deported to Australia. On the return to the U.K. his ship was torpedoed and he drowned; a memorial stone sits in front of his last residence before his emigration in Berlin Schmargendorf (Archival Spaces 272). Time and again, Chris delights the reader with little surprises, one would not have thought about, allowing us to partake in things that are on his mind or which he has noticed in his research. Sharing knowledge – how important that is! BTW that also manifests itself in the fact that Horak continues to teach after his retirement at UCLA, Chapman, and elsewhere.

The list is getting too long. I have to stop, otherwise, there won’t be time for The Killers. Dear Chris Horak, we are so happy that you have accepted the Prize and wish you our hearty congratulations.

Martin Koerber, Berlin, 4 November 2021.

Rainer Rother, J.-C. Horak, Martin Koerber, Berlin, November 2021

281: Carlos Gardel Tango Bar (1935)

Archival Spaces 281

Carlos Gardel’s Tango Bar (1935)

Uploaded 29 October 2021

In a few days I will leave be leaving for Berlin, where I will be giving a keynote at the German Kinemathek’s “Film Restored” film festival, which as the title says, highlights new film restorations, and also introduce a film with Tango star Carlos Gardel, El dia que me quieras (1935), which was first screened here in a new restoration from the Fundacion Cinemateca Argentina for the Pacific Standard Time film program in Autumn 2017. In preparation, I recently viewed on You-Tube another Gardel film, also directed by Austrian émigré John Reinhardt, and shot at Paramount’s Astoria Studios for Gardel’s own company, Exito Productions: Tango Bar (1935) is Gardel’s only film he never saw before his tragic plane crash and death on 24 June 1935 in Medellin, Colombia. Ironically, despite his incredible popularity in Europe and Latin America, Gardel remained even in his lifetime a virtual unknown in the United States.

John Reinhardt, Kathryn Crawford in The Climax (1930, Renaud Hoffman)
Lena Malena, John Reinhardt in Monsieur Le Fox (1931, WIllard Mack)

Born in Vienna in 1901, Harry John Reinhardt trained as a bank clerk but decided to reinvent himself, emigrating to Los Angeles in May 1922, after crossing the Atlantic on the Saxonia in November 1922. His first screen credit was as a scriptwriter on William K. Howard’s The River Pirate (1928), the same year he became an American citizen. There followed scripts for Prince of Hearts (1929), where he also acted, and Mamba (1930). His most important roles were as Jean Hersholt’s son in Universal’s The Climax (1930), in William Dieterle’s German-language version of Those Who Dance (1930) at Warner Brothers, Der Tanz geht weiter, and as Louis Le Boy in the German version of Men of the North (1930), Monsieur le Fox (1931). With only uncredited acting roles in the next two years, Reinhardt turned to directing, getting the nod from Fox’s Spanish language unit to direct Yo, tu y ella (1933), starring Mexican American star, Gilbert Roland, Mona Maris, and Rosita Moreno.

Carlos Gardel, Rosita Morena in El dia que me quieras (1935)

He followed up with three more Spanish language originals for Fox, starring Conchita Montenegro, José Mojica, and Rosita Moreno, respectively, before being hired by Paramount in January 1935 to direct Carlos Gardel’s seventh feature and the 3rd shot in New York’s Astoria Studios for Gardel’s Exito Productions: El dia que me quieras (1935). The film tells the story of a wealthy Buenos Aires businessman’s son, who flees his father’s house to become a tango singer. In the theatre, he meets a  dancer (Rosita Moreno) and, despite his father’s opposition, elopes. He steals money from his father when she becomes ill, but she dies soon after, while he flees Argentina and rises to fame as a tango singer, even appearing in Hollywood films (autobiographical elements here). He then returns from exile to help his daughter (Moreno again). Gardel believed it his best film, maybe because he got along well with Reinhardt, unlike his previous experience with Louis Gasnier with whom he had made five films in New York and at Joinville outside Paris. Many critics consider Tango Bar even better, maybe because a decision was made to record Gardel singing live, rather than post-synchronizing the songs, giving them a liveliness not previously visible. 

On the set of Tango Bar (1935), Reinhardt seated [center]

Shot in February 1935, Tango Bar starred Rosita Moreno, Enrique de Rosas, and Tito Lusiardo. The first half of the film takes place on a German ocean liner, where Ricardo meets Laura who is in league with a grifter and thief, the “Comandante.” They steal an expensive necklace from an American woman, and Gardel covers up the crime to protect her.  Arriving in Barcelona, Ricardo opens a Tango Bar which features a reforming Laura, but he must purchase the necklace and return it to the American, in order to clear her name and rid himself of the Comandante.  In an in-joke, a montage of Barcelona’s nightlife shows Gardel’s previous film, El tango en Broadway (1934) playing a local cinema palace. Interestingly, given Gardel’s origins as a French émigré to Argentina and Reinhardt’s bio, the ship becomes a transnational space, a space of exile as the scenes in steerage make clear, where Ricardo parties with a group of Spaniards returning to their homeland; together they remember their Spanish ancestors and sing “Lejana tierra mía” (My Distant Homeland), a tango written by Gardel and Alfredo de Pera, which has enjoyed countless re-recordings. An ocean liner also appears prominently in the final section of El dia que me quieras and becomes a method of conflating geographic and social mobility, as Rielle Navitski argues (Cinema Journal, 51/1/2011).  Another famous tango by the pair,  “Por una cabeza” (By a Head), referring to a horse race and Ricardo’s lack of luck at the track, his debts being the initial reason for him to leave Argentina, is sung twice; Gardel’s recording was later heard in Martin Brest’s Scent of a Woman (1992), in Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List (`1993), and in James Cameron’s True Lies (1994).

Carlos Garde singing in steerage in Tango Bar

The film premiered in New York City on 5 July 1935,  in Mexico City on 18 July, in Buenos Aires at the “Cine-Teatro Suipacha” on 22 August, in Montevideo on 5 September at the “Cine Arie” and “Rex Theater,  and in Lima, Peru on 29 October. Possibly because Tango Bar eschewed American stereotypes and was crafted with Latin-American audiences in mind, it became a worldwide hit.

After Gardel’s death, Reinhardt directed three more Spanish-language features for George Hirlman’s independent Metropolitan Studios: De la sartén al fuego (1935) with Moreno and Juan Toreno, El capitán tormenta/Captain Calamity (1936), shot simultaneously in English and Spanish, starring Fortunio Bonanova and Lupita Rovar, and Tengo fe en tí (1940), starring again Rosita Moreno and Frank Puglia. Before America’s entry into the war, Reinhardt directed two films in Argentina, returning to the USA a week after Pearl Harbor, then enlisting in the U.S. Navy in July 1942. Returning to Hollywood after his demobilization in July 1945, Reinhardt was hired by various poverty row studios, directing among others, Open Secret (1948), about anti-Semitism in America, and Sofia (1948), an anti-Communist spy melodrama. His American career concluded with his late masterpiece, Chicago Calling (1951), a film noir starring Dan Duryea as a poor man desperately searching for funds, as his daughter lies in hospital after a car accident. The script for that film was written by German émigré Peter Berneis with whom Reinhardt traveled to Germany to direct two films, the second being Briefträger Müller (1953) with Germany’s favorite comedian, Heinz Rühmann.

Tragically, John Reinhardt died in Berlin at 52 of a heart attack during the production, forcing Rühmann to finish the film. His wife, scriptwriter Elizabeth (Betty) Reinhardt née Neely, who he had met in 1933, while both worked at Fox’s Spanish language unit, died at 44 seven months later. 

Rosita Moreno and Carlos Gardel in Tango Bar (1935, John Reinhardt)

280: Giornate del cinema muto Online


Archival Spaces 280

Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021 Online

Uploaded 15 October 2021

This is the 40th anniversary of what is now the oldest silent film festival in the world. I attended my first Giornate del cinema muto in Pordenone in 1988, when I accepted the Jean Mitry Award in the name of George Pratt, the long-time curator at George Eastman Museum. I have attended a little more than half of the subsequent festivals, and reviewed or blogged about a third of those I attended. While last year’s festival was completely online, due to the COVID pandemic (see Archival Spaces 254), this year I have again only been able to partake virtually, even though the Festival does have a live component. Unfortunately, given problems with the link, I also missed the first online presentation, The Joker (1928), a Danish film directed by German George Jacoby and produced by the Nordisk, but shot in Nice with an international cast.  

La mosca el il ragno (1913)

I did see the following program of mostly eccentric short films. Soap Bubbles (1911, Giovanni Vitrotti) was interesting because of its use of bubbles to insert didactic images into the frame that lead to the reformation of a bad boy. Cinderella (1913, Eleuterio Rodolfi) features many scenes of actual film production at Ambrosia studios, and thus parallels Asta Nielsen’s contemporaneous Die Filmprimadonna. Bigorno fume l’opium (1914, Roméo Bosetti) uses a host of cinematic special effects to simulate an opium dream. But my favorite was a stop-motion Italian animation, The Spider and the Fly (1913), in which a little boy pulls the wings off a fly, leading to a madcap chase, during which the courageous little fly consistently outwits the spider. 

The Man From Kangaroo (1920, Wilfred Lucas)

The Australian melodrama, The Man From Kangaroo (1920, Wilfred Lucas) was also interesting as an Aussie Western, starring Snowy Baker, an Olympic swimmer, boxer, and all-around athlete, who plays a boxing vicar in this Aussie western in the Outback of New South Wales. Baker apparently brought former Griffith actor and director Lucas and his scriptwriter wife, Bess Meredyth, to Australia for the production of this and two subsequent films. The story is slight and the plot has several large holes, but the action on horseback and scenery make up for those deficits.

Bess Meredyth was an important scriptwriter in silent Hollywood and as Giornate director Jay Weissberg notes in his introduction, the Festival this year is focusing on women filmmakers, including the lesser-known Agnes Christine Johnson, who wrote the script for Charles Ray’s An Old Fashioned Boy (1920, Jerome Storm). While Johnson had a very long career in Hollywood, her only claim to real fame may be Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise (1924) and several of the Andy Hardy films in the 1930s. Except for the bucolic charm of The Old Swimmin’ Hole (1921), Charles Ray’s work is strictly at the level of programmers, and this film with its low budget set is no exception. Indeed, it is chiefly interesting, because it was made shortly after our last major pandemic, the Spanish Flu, had waned, and is here referenced for comedic effect.

Dorothy Dalton in Fool’s Paradise (1921, Cecil B. DeMille)

At a completely different level is Cecil B. DeMille’s  Fool’s Paradise (1921), which features a script by Sada Cowen and Beulah Marie Dix., two more prolific women writers. Starring Conrad Nagel, Dorothy Dalton, and Mildred Harris, the melodrama about an unsuccessful blind poet moves from the gritty oil fields of West Texas to the exotic Kingdom of Siam with lavish sets and costumes throughout. DeMille takes the saying love is blind literally in a tale of a man chasing an illusion of womanhood because it suits his vanity while ignoring the real love of a woman willing to sacrifice all. Interestingly, there are no real villains in the piece, even if Theodore Kosloff’s Mexican saloon proprietor skirts a nasty racial stereotype, but is sympathetic in his unrequited love for Dalton.

The Public Prosecutor and the Teacher (1948, Yun Dae-ryong)

A Public Prosecutor and a Teacher (1948, Yun Dae-ryong) is an anomaly in the Pordenone program, a silent film produced in Korea after World War  II and the end of Japanese occupation, when the lack of sound film equipment forced filmmakers to shoot 16mm without sound. The film concerns a kind-hearted teacher who takes a poor orphaned student under her wing and is repaid years later when as a public prosecutor he pleas for acquittal in a murder charge, in which she is falsely accused. While a somewhat annoying and over-talkative narrative, voiced by Sin Chul, Korea’s lastbyeonsa (benshi), adds melodrama, the film’s images are perfectly legible. Indeed, the street scenes of Seoul before the Korean War utterly destroyed the city have historical value in and of themselves, while the acting is effective, especially Lee Yeong-ae as the young teacher. Given the sophistication of Korean films and television in the last decade, this is an exciting find.

Phil for Short (1919, Oscar Apfel)

Phil for Short (1919, Oscar Apfel), based on Clara Beranger’s proto-feminist script, starts out like a Griffithian melodrama with a nosy, church-going matron trying to clip the wings of Sapphic free-spirit Damophilia IllingtonPhil for short, who farms in pants and dances à la Isadore Duncan in flowing Greek gowns. Like Duncan, her choreography comes from Greek art and her father. But this is a comedy of woman’s empowerment and agency, so when her father, an impoverished Greek professor dies, and she is threatened with marriage to a man twice her age, she seeks refuge in the arms of a younger Greek professor, who is a misogynist. After more complications, she turns him and all ends well. Apfel’s film is a mixture of archaic film style and modern feminism with more than a few gay winks. Two years later, Beranger would script William de Mille’s Miss Lulu Betts (1921), a masterpiece of feminism, discovered in Pordenone years ago, and then became the director’s steady screenwriter and wife.

Moral (1928, Willi Woolf) with Ellen Richter

Ellen Richter was a hugely successful actress in Weimar Germany, who with her husband Willi Wolf, produced lavishly crafted comedies and adventure films, yet fell out of film history because her films were popular entertainments. A self-assured young flapper with short hair, the actress teaches the stodgy burghers of a hypocritical small town a lesson in Moral (1928, Willi Wolf) they won’t forget after the “Morality Society” disrupts her theatrical revue with noisemakers and demand she be driven out of town: she films them as they surreptitiously visit her for a “piano lesson.” Although based on a pre-WWI play (1909) by Ludwig Thoma who made a career of satirizing Bavarian provincial life, the film references contemporary politics in that Nazi thugs were known for upending film and theatre performances with just such noisemakers. Another delight in this expensive UFA studio production is seeing Berlin’s famous “Tiller Girls” troupe in an extended clip, which popularized synchronized dancing – the Tiller Girls had originated in London in the 1890s – and became the model for the Rockettes.

Maciste all’Inferno (1926, Guido Brignone)

Maciste in Hell (1926, Guido Brignone) is the 13th and last appearance of Bartolomeo Pagano as Maciste and is considered one of the best, after he first appeared as Axilla’s slave, a secondary character in Giovanni Pastrone’s Cabiria (1914), before becoming a hero in subsequent films. Italy’s sword and sandal epics from the pre-World War I period had put the country on the cinematic map, giving the world feature-length films for the first time, and Maciste all’ Inferno still clings a bit to that aesthetic with its tableau-like framing, lack of dynamic editing, and posed acting. Based on the costumes, Maciste is now living in a Biedermeier version of Italy – shades of Caligari and The Student of Prague – and travels to Hell after he and his female neighbor are harassed by a contingent of devils, dedicated to taking their souls. It is the insane sets, imaginative costumes, and riotous make-up of Hades, tinted in red and other hellish colors that make this film such a pleasure, complimented by a truly wonderful new orchestral score by Teho Teardo.    

We can credit Ellen Richter’s rediscovery to Oliver Hanley and Philipp Stiasny, young German film historians no longer beholden to the intellectual prejudices of the past. Like many other absent Pordenone regulars, I regret not seeing more of the Ellen Richter films, shown at the Festival live. But hopefully next year.    

Moral (1928, Willi Wolf) with Fritz Greiner, Ellen Richter, Paul Graetz

279: L.A. Rebellion 10 Tears On


Archival Spaces 279

L.A. Rebellion Project – 10 Years On

Uploaded 1 October 2021

Ashes and Embers (1982, Haile Gerima)

Tomorrow the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ newly opened Academy Museum begins a seventeen-film series, “Imperfect Journey: Haile Gerima and His Comrades” (2 October – 14 November) which is being presented in conjunction with Gerima becoming the Museum’s first Vantage Award winner. The program will include all of Haile’s films, beginning with Sankofa (1993), films of his comrades Shirikiana Aina, Julie Dash and Ava DuVernay, and his students at Howard University, Malik Sayeed,, Arthur Jaffe, Bradford Young, Raafi Rivero, and Merawi Gerima (Shirikiana and Haile’s son). To see Haile Gerima, the most radical black nationalist of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers so honored by the bastion of a formerly racist institution like the Academy is something probably neither he nor the governors of the Academy would have dreamed of fifty years ago, when Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Jamaa Fanaka, and Billy Woodberry first entered UCLA’s film school.

But after in September-December 2011, UCLA Film & Television Archive organized its massive 58-film retrospective, “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema,” conceptualized by myself in co-curatorship with Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Allyson Nadia Field, and Shannon Kelly, the L.A. Rebellion began entering the mainstream after having with a few exceptions fallen out of film history. That program also included a symposium and was followed by a book publication (2015), a touring program throughout the United States and Europe (2012-15), and the publication of a three DVD teaching set (2015). Furthermore, several programs in 2013 and 2015 presented new restorations, especially of women filmmakers of the L.A. Rebellion, including Ijeoma Iloputaife, aka Omah Diegu, Stormé Bright, Jacqueline Frazier, Imelda Sheen, and Alile Sharon Larkin.

(Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015)

It all began with a very modest idea to participate in the Getty Foundation-funded “Pacific Standard Time” exhibition of post-World War II Art in Los Angeles. I had met Billy Woodberry in 1984 at the Berlin Film Festival and shown his work in Rochester at George Eastman House. The Archive had also preserved a number of Charles Burnett’s films, including Killer of Sheep, which was subsequently named to the National Registry of American Films. When we wrote our first grant application, we thought we would show the work of eight to ten UCLA film students; by the time we were finished, we had identified 50 student filmmakers. Shortly after receiving initial funding, Professor Allyson Nadia Field joined the faculty of UCLA’s School of Film, Theater and Television. Since she wrote her dissertation on African American uplift films of the 1910s, it was only natural that she join the curatorial team. Just as serendipitously, Professor Jacqueline Stewart, at that time a member of the Cinema and African-American Studies faculty at Northwestern, asked me whether she could spend a year at UCLA Film & Television Archive and in the Moving Image Archives Program, learning about film archiving. Jacqueline not only kick-started the whole project as part of her “internship” work for the Archive but became a vital member of the curatorial team.

Filmmakers and presenters at the UCLA Film & Television Archive’s “L.A. Rebellion: Creating a New Black Cinema” symposium, on November 12, 2011 at the Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood Village, CA. Back: Ben Caldwell, Morgan Woolsey, Daniel Widener, Jan-Christopher Horak, David James, Robert Wheaton, Michael T. Martin, Jamaa Fanaka, Larry Clark. Middle: Chuck Kleinhans, Cauleen Smith, Julie Dash, Samantha Sheppard, Alile Sharon Larkin, Zeinabu irene Davis, Monona Wali, Abdosh Abdulhafiz, Charles Burnett. Front: Ed Guerrero, Jacqueline Stewart, Clyde Taylor, Allyson Nadia Field, Gay Abel-Bey. PHOTO CREDIT: Todd Cheney, UCLA Photography.

In the almost twelve years of my directorship of the Archive, the L.A. Rebellion project in all its phases was one of my proudest achievements, maybe because we were dealing with a living generation of filmmakers, and not just restoring the work of those long dead. Some like Haile and Shirikiana, Billy Woodberry, Jamaa Fanaka, Ben Caldwell, Jacqueline Frazier, and Ijeoma Iloputaife remained friends, although we lost Jamaa in 2012. Some filmmaking careers have since even been reinvigorated: Billy Woodberry has been on a tear, producing a number of award-winning films, including And When I Die, I Won’t Stay Dead (2015); Julie Dash is slated to direct an Angela Davis bio-pic after completing two shorts and four television episodes (Queen Sugar, 2017); Barbara McCullough competed her long awaits Horace Tapscott: Musical Griot (2017); Zeinabu Irene Davis premiered her documentary, Spirits of Rebellion: Black Cinema from UCLA (2015); Charles Burnett as directed several shorts and the massive three-hour documentary, After the Lockdown: Black in LA (2021); S. Torriano Berry continues his amazing productivity with a new documentary of African American life in Iowa.

Not only did many of the L.A. Rebellion filmmakers travel with the touring program, as they had done in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when their work was being celebrated at a host of European film festivals, if not in Amerika, L.A. Rebellion films continue to be shown in retrospectives in the last five years at New York University, St. Mary’s College, Indiana University Cinema, MUBI, The Smithsonian, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Chicago Film Society, Barcelona, the TCM Film Festival, Rio de Janeiro, Athens (Greece) Avant-Garde Film Festival, The Broad/ Art + Practice, among many other sites. Furthermore, the L.A. Rebellion is now part of the standard film curriculum at many American universities, including courses at the University of Chicago, Williams College, University of California Irvine, San Francisco State University, University of Pittsburgh, and the Baltimore Youth Film Arts.

Chris Horak and Billy Woodberry at Redcat, 2015
Charles Burnett, Larry Clark, Barbara McCullough, 2011

In 2017, Charles Burnett received an Honorary Award from the Governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, one of the first indications that the Academy was trying to bring filmmakers of color into the fold. Expanding its membership in 2019 to include many women and persons of color and hiring Jacqueline Stewart as chief artistic and programming officer in 2020 were two further steps. Julie Dash’s Illusions and Daughters of the Dust, as well as Charles Burnett’s To Sleep With Anger and Billy Woodberry’s Bless Their Little Hearts are now all on the National Registry. At the moment, filmmaker Khadijah Louis is in pre-production on a film about her grandfather, Jamaa Fanaka, my “friend for Life.”

Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Julie Dash, Barbara McCullough, C Horak, Allyson Nadia Field, Zeinabu irene Davis, 2011

278: Restored Paper Prints

Archival Spaces 278
Amazing Tales Online: Library of Congress’s Paper Prints restored
Uploaded 17 September 2021

Library of Congress Stokes Scanner

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has been hosting screenings and special Zoom webinars, an extension of their in-person “Amazing Tales” program during the festival, where film archivists report on preservation projects. On 29 August, SFSFF hosted two women from the Library of Congress who have been restoring the so-called Paper Print Collection at the Library, Megan Holly and Erin Palombi. Moderated by Archivist Kathy Rose O’Regan, and with a cornucopia of visuals in their PowerPoint, Erin and Holly presented a history of the unique paper prints and their most recent restoration, utilizing the newest digital tools.  

Paper Print of George Méliès in The Untamable Whiskers (1904)

The paper print collection came into being at the end of the 19th century, due to the U.S. copyright law which made it impossible to register films, since they had just been invented. However, since one could register photographs at the Copyright Office, film producers almost immediately began putting films on paper rolls – either whole films or single images of every scene- in order to protect themselves from piracy, which was a huge problem in the early days of cinema. Indeed as some historians have noted, piracy was the film industry’s business model. The first copyrighted film was Thomas Edison’s Record of a Sneeze [Fred Ott’s Sneeze], copyrighted 7 January 1894. Finally, with the passage by Congress of the Townsend Amendment in 1912, films could be copyrighted, though some producers did continue to send paper prints until 1917. As a result, virtually every American film made between 1894 and 1913 existed in a paper print, although a major gap exists between late 1894 and October 1896, and other prints also disappeared over the years. Nevertheless, given that 75% of American films made during the silent era have disappeared, due to nitrate decomposition, the paper prints constitute an amazing survival rate. Ironically, the paper prints were completely forgotten until 1942, and would have been completely lost, had not two employees at the Library, Howard Walls and Theodore Huff, discovered a dusty room filled with thousands of film rolls.

Howard Walls and Carl Louis Gregory

I first heard this amazing story when I published Gabriel M. Paletz’s seminal piece, “The Paper Print Collection and The Film of Her,” as founding editor in the inaugural issue of AMIA’s The Moving Image (Vol. 1, No. 1, 2001), and, then, followed up with Charles “Bucky” Grimm’s “A Paper Print Pre-History,” in Film History (Vol. 11, No. 2, 1999). I won’t go into the details, because they are now a matter of public record, but will note that Walls and Carl Louis Gregory built an optical printer and began copying the paper prints on 35mm film in the 1940s. Unfortunately, funding was lacking, so the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences eventually got involved and forced out Walls, hiring Kemp Niver who copied the paper prints onto lower quality 16mm film, for which he won a special Academy Award in 1955. The situation is more complicated and worthy of a detective story, including the fact that Niver started out as a bodyguard in – ahem – private law enforcement.  

Paper print and corrected digital copy of The Fatal Hour (1908)

In any case, what film historians saw over the next fifty years from that early period were often dupey 16mm prints from the Niver collection. Now, two L. Jeffrey Selznick School graduates, Meghan Holly and Erin Palombi, have begun digitizing these invaluable documents of film history. In explicating the restoration process, the archivists note that after placing rolls on plastic cores and in acid-free archival boxes, they prepare the rolls for scanning, by removing all extraneous objects, dirt, then repairing tears, using heat-set tissue, which is a long-fibered repair tissue that activates between 176°F and 194°F. The tissue is coated on one side with an acrylic adhesive, allowing the tissue to be attached to the non-emulsion side of the paper, allowing the rolls to be automatically advanced through the scanner.

Frame enlargement from The Ingrate (1908)

The films are then scanned with a Stokes scanner – especially built by Stokes Imaging, Inc. – at the Library in 2K, creating 16 bit TIFF files. The archivists noted that they had experimented with 4K, but that at that resolution, the image picked up all the imperfections on the surface of the paper, making images less legible. I have noticed a similar phenomenon when silent films are scanned at 4K, revealing the previously invisible wood grain on the sets. In any case, after scanning, digital image stabilization, clean-up, and contrast tools are utilized to produce high-quality images that almost approximate the original films, as exemplified by The Fatal Hour (1908) and The Ingrate (1908), two early D.W. Griffith Biograph films previewed. As is proper in today’s restoration technology all interventions and actions are documented for every print.

The new results are remarkable and certainly belie the “fractured flickers” reputation of such early material. Unfortunately, while many paper prints are now available for viewing online, many were restored in the late 1990s with a previous generation of digital tools that did not include image stabilization.  Hopefully, these Spanish-American War actualities will be rescanned in the kind of quality Holly and Palombi demonstrated with their new restoration efforts.

Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders (1898)