This is Kidorama

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (Widescreen)

Yet another Holy Grail title I long-wished would get a proper home vid release, 1962’s lavish Cinerama entertainment THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM finally gets the Blu-Ray edition it deserves, thanks to The Warner Archive Collection, and the Herculean efforts of the format’s #1 fanboy David Strohmaier.

Today, the word “Cinerama” tends to confuse most post-Boomers – movie buffs that they may be. But more than a half century ago, it was a really big deal. Literally.

It wasn’t simply widescreen, or 3-D, or even IMAX, and yet, the positive attributes of all these things apply. In a nutshell, Cinerama was a synchronous three-camera 70MM process that required a special stadium-esque theater to show the succeeding synchronous three-projection 70MM walls of cinema. The germ of the idea went back as far as the silents, most famously rendered in the triptych finale of Abel Gance’s Napoleon (although these screens didn’t fully “tell” one complete, continuous tapestry. More than a decade later, the grandiose concept proved a draw at the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair – a freaky, dizzying attraction (called Vitarama by its exhibitor Fred Waller). World War II brought the idea further to fruition. Waller worked with the Army Air Force to create a lifelike rig situation to train pilots under simulated fire. This intrigued Merian C. Cooper, who, with travel impresario Lowell Thomas, approached unsung ‘Rama hero Hazard Reeves to possibly do a full-length feature, to be shot around the world in Technicolor with a new audio appendage called stereophonic sound (a big movie after all needed big sound). The result was 1952’s This is Cinerama, iconic for its opening roller-coaster sequence that immediately sent scores of stunned viewers into the rest room to hurl their partially masticated Goobers and popcorn. In other words, it was a massive hit.

Of course, the expense was tremendous – having to build special theaters, equipped with giant projectors, screens – and, natch, those 70MM prints x three. And the elaborate sound equipment. But it paid off. This is Cinerama played for years, with flagship Bijous in key states, and, soon in major European and Asian countries. Even Russia went Cinerama koo-koo. More feature travelogues followed, most of them successful, but there always was that dangling carrot of actually doing a narrative movie in the process (1958’s Windjammer came close, but still, it was essentially a glorified travel-docu pic).

After 1959, with the enormous success of Ben-Hur, MGM at last decided to take the plunge, and announced How the West Was Won in Cinerama; soon George Pal (then working out of Metro, and flush from the triumph of his 1960 classic The Time Machine) threw his hat into the format sweepstakes and unveiled his plans for a bio of Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, aka The Brothers Grimm, with sidebar featurette depictions of some of their most beloved works. To achieve this magical, captivating odyssey, Pal hired writers Charles Beaumont and William Roberts (using Hermann Gerstmer’s biography, Die Bruder Grimm, as a sourcework).

Long story short, both movies were blockbusters – not only in their roadshow Cinerama runs, but in their subsequent standard 35MM release. Of course, the problem with the latter was not only the loss of immersion (most thrilling in POV sequences), but of actual quality. The three screens had to be optically stitched together in a lab – the painful outcome displaying two bold join lines separating the center from what had once been the left and right panels. This was basically the versions we Cinerama fans had to live with for more than a half a century!

But now, leave us to the movie in question.

GRIMM is anything but. It’s a fun-filled, children friendly adventure (but also suitable for grownups not wanting to spend the 140-minute running time as groanups). The crux of the movie is a framing story about the two sibs, how they slave away for a dullard one-percenter, copying text in a behemoth-sized library. Their creative escape comes via (primarily through Wilhelm) fashioning a voluminous amount of delightful tales of fantasy from local lore (even relying upon a self-proclaimed forest witch!) blended with a unique personal take. As usual, the children love them, the adults are perplexed. We also get to know the Grimm’s non-literary existence, via their romances, Wilhelm with his loving wife Dorothea; Jacob with a burgeoning relationship with carefree Greta. There’s absolutely something here for everyone: comedy, music, drama, action, thrills, love stuff – and even one of producer Pal’s famed Puppetoons, used to tell the tale of The Cobbler and the Elves.

It’s these vivid once-upon-a-time excursions that had kiddies lining up around the block multiple times to revel in the wonder of what they were not only seeing, but (thanks to Cinerama) experiencing. The other stories, by the way, are The Dancing Princess,

and, perhaps most famously (at least, it was for me), The Singing Bone because of the stop-motion dragon (encrusted with jewels to tone down the scare factor).

To fully capture the allure of such a lavish undertaking, Cinerama cameras traveled extensively to the Bavarian and German locations of the Grimms, finishing up at MGM studios in Culver City. Pal, who also supervised the Cobbler segment, ceded the lion’s share of the directing chores to Henry Levin, who had recently scored huge with Journey to the Center of the Earth.

And, like How the West Was Won, a game cast of celebrated thesps graced the three panel extravaganza, notably within the fairy tales: Terry-Thomas, Buddy Hackett, Otto Kruger, Clinton Sundberg (The Singing Bone), Laurence Harvey Walter Brooke, Robert Foulk (The Cobbler and the Elves), and Russ Tamblyn, Yvette Mimieux, Jim Backus, Beulah Bondi, Sandra Bettin (The Dancing Princess; Tamblyn, it should be noted, has the cool honor of being in both narrative Cinerama movies). The remaining members of the GRIMM company comprise Walter Slezak, Ian Wolfe, Oskar Homolka, Martita Hunt (as the witch), Betty Garde, Walter Rilla, Gene Roth, and, in guest appearances as the Brothers’ renowned characters (Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Hansel and Gretel, etc.), such familiar movie and TV faces as Arnold Stang, Pamela Baird, Billy Barty, Peter Whitney, Diana Driscoll, and Angelo Rossitto.

Title stars Laurence Harvey and Carl Boehm were perhaps the most unusual choices for the pic, as they are probably the least likely duo to cast in a children’s movie. In essence, Pal is turning your kids over to the Manchurian Candidate and Peeping Tom. Hey, it works. That Harvey’s wife is Claire Bloom (then simultaneously appearing on-screen as the rough sex-addicted nympho in The Chapman Report) is another head-scratcher, although one I relish. Only Barbara Eden as Boehm’s love interest seems to be perv-free (Pal obviously thought so, too, and later cast her in The 7 Faces of Dr. Lao), and would soon become an iconic phantasmagorical figure herself in the long-running I Dream of Jeannie series.

The no doubt enormous budget and extreme showmanship required to properly present Cinerama titles likely put a halter on any further narrative efforts; indeed, the moniker would soon become just that – a name to attach to a big screen 70MM single strip “specials,” It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, Circus World, The Hallelujah Trail, and 2001 being several examples. Despite the logos, they ain’t Cinerama.

Around ten years ago, we Cinerama fanatics had the thrill of seeing a fully-restored three-panel Blu-Ray of How the West Was Won. It looked gorgeous with, best of all, the join lines having been digitally removed. Immediately, we all champed at the bit for a similar release of GRIMM. Not so easy, as the West materials had been in fairly decent shape, but the GRIMM elements were partially in shambles. Deterioration, water damage, and intermittent matrices shrinkage on some of all of the panels. A mammoth overhaul job, and an exorbitant pricey one. Could the sales for the title justify the cost? Could the footage even be saved?

And here’s where the aforementioned David Strohmaier stepped in. As a labor of love, editor Strohmaier had worked on stress-inducing restorations of the original This is Cinerama and many of the followups. He was, likely, dying to get his talented mitts on GRIMM. And so it came to pass.

Part of the supplements included in this two-disc set (a standard version and, like West, a Cinerama-simulated SmileBox curved edition), comprise a terrific documentary on the restoration, featuring Strohmaier painstakingly at work with an amazing crew of digital artists. The results are breathtaking: 70MM quality, eye-popping Technicolor visuals (I swear the previous prints were fuzzy, faded copies) and nifty stereo sound (how stunning to be able to view the astounding cinematography of Paul Vogel in all its three-panel glory, beautifully appended by Leigh Harline’s score, encompassing songs by Bob Merrill and coscripter Beaumont). It’s a must that you view the Rescuing a Fantasy Classic piece. Other outstanding extras include the original coming attractions, the Cinerama announcement trailer, vintage radio interviews with Russ Tamblyn and Yvette Mimieux, documentaries on the movie and George Pal, plus much more.

Back in 1962, GRIMM seemed to play forever. I can still recall the opulent display in my nabe record shop for the LP; I swear it was in the window for my entire childhood!

SIDEBAR: I have to boast that a great pal of mine in Australia sent me the original souvenir book from the Oz roadshow release to add to my collection of Big Time Movie Tie-Ins. They used to be sold in the lobbies for around a buck (serious urchin money back then). It’s one of my most prized movie possessions.

If you’re a picture-show buff from my generation, THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM is an absolute add-on to your cinema collection (while it plays in any situation, those fortunate enough to have 60”-plus TVs, a projection system, or an actual basement theater will be especially dazzled and delighted). It takes a lot to make me happy these days. This Blu-ray made me happy.

THE WONDERFUL WORLD OF THE BROTHERS GRIMM. Color. VERY Widescreen [2.89:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. The Warner Archive Collection/Cinerama, Inc./Warner Bros. Entertainment. CAT # B09R6VTNNV. SRP: $24.99.

This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold*

Nella tua faccia!

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (3-D)

While admittedly, 1983’s TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS (now on 3-D Blu-Ray from Kino-Lorber Studio Classics, working with the terrif 3-D Film Archive folks) isn’t a monumental movie masterpiece, it nevertheless holds a place of quasi-relevance in cinema – especially for stereoscopic fans. And particularly because of those involved.

In 1981, with the spaghetti western long dead, Italian actor/writer (in reality, a West Virginia expat) of the dubious moniker Tony Anthony (aka, Tony Pettito, or Roger Pettito, or Frank Pettito – depending upon which bio you subscribe to) decided to revive it. After all, what fame he had was owed to the genre, having scored a hit back in 1967 (at the spag/wes height) with A Stranger in Town (and the sequel, The Stranger Returns). Anthony Anthony came up with a quirky carrot to get the green light. Shoot it in 3-D. Convincing director/scribe and college professor (!) Fernando Baldi of the possibilities, the pair (in cahoots with another thesp/writer pal, Lloyd Battista) then concocted a viable, salable, and sensational plot about Old West sex trafficking, and loaded the pic up with 3-D effects, some great – some lame (a newborn baby’s rump held out to the audience) – all in questionable taste. The result shocked even them. The movie was an international blockbuster, and jump-started the 1980’s 3-D craze (causing many big studio franchises to take the bait: Jaws, Friday the 13th, Amityville).

Without a doubt, there would have to be a follow-up, so checking what was hot, the duo-trio wisely hit upon Raiders of the Lost Ark. And, thus, TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS was born.

Once again, it would be in 3-D, only this time much-improved with knowledge learned from past mistakes; the process was dubbed Super-Vision 3-D, a single-strip over-and-under anamorphic process; not the ideal format, but very effective nonetheless (it was also known as 3-Depix and WonderVision, basically semantics for Comin’ at Ya’s Optimax III and DimensionScope). And, once again, a beautiful costar would help the narrative along (Anna Obregon replacing the previous effort’s Victoria Abril). Mostly, the hook would be an unbelievable, crazed plot about J.T. Striker, an Indiana Jones-looking mercenary, hired by a museum to retrieve the title ornaments, which, in the wrong hands, could destroy the world!

I suspect, and this is my personal opinion, that Double Anthony had this scenario tucked in his pocket since the mid-late Sixties Italian obsession (post-Tokapi) with the heist movie. The Raiders stuff was added to update and put the project over (Golan-Globus/Cannon ended up with a lion’s share of the distribution rights). This is mostly due to the seeking out of a crack team to help perform the thievery – wherein Striker recruits a number of nefarious, but colorful rogues, including the gorgeous Liz (a circus trapeze artist). Indeed, the four crowns are really three (either a victim of a budget cut or bad mathematics) – with one retrieved in the Lost Ark opening sequence (the key segment in the movie for 3-D fans). So, really (after the first act), two.

Compact Anthony, who couldn’t look less like Harrison Ford, more closely resembles a Mike Myers version of Indy, which adds to the goofy fun. In addition, the barrage of bad press TREASURE has had heaped upon its crown is mostly due to the escapade being grossly misunderstood. So, let’s say it now: this popcorn epic was never to be taken seriously, not for one frame; it’s a fun afternoon at The Movies, and, once one manages to comprehend this fact, the 101-minute running time doesn’t wear out its welcome.

As for the aforementioned opening, it, alone, is worth the purchase. Beautifully framed by d.p.s Marcello Masciocchi and Guiseppe Ruzzolini (with third dimension supervisor Stan Loth fully on-board), the 3-D establishing shots of the “haunted” tomb/crypt are wonderful – and the ensuing kitchen sink action of weaponry and demonic creatures shooting out toward the camera/audience is a non-stop vast improvement over Comin’ at Ya. There’s even a fireball parody of the Raiders boulder moment (plus snakes, no doubt to help promote the “homage”).

Aside from Anthony and Baldi seemingly having a blast, FOUR CROWNS offers a cool array of supporting actors, including company associate Gene Quintano, and cowriter Jerry Lazarus, Emiliano Redondo, Francisco Villena, Kate Levan, Lewis Gordon, and the wonderful Francisco Rabal. The writing (with uncredited Anthony generously ceding all the juice to Lloyd Battista, Lazarus, and Jim Bryce) is strictly Republic serial 101. Even better, music-savvy star-producer Tony Tony’s tones are scored by no less than Ennio Morricone!

The Kino-Lorber/3-D Film Archive Blu-Ray of TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS is generally excellent. The restored materials look fresh with some nice popping colors and good detail. The wee bit of bleeding (or crosstalk) is due to both the over-and-under process and the still-not-quite-getting-the-framing-right quotient. But these technical dings are brief and minor; thank God, Cannon had the elements in decent reanimatable (is there such a word?) shape.

I do understand the mediocre response the movie gets, as its usually contributed by folks who saw it in anaglyph (briefly playing TV in the 1980s – you had to get your own tie-in red and green glasses), or flat. Either of these options is really unacceptable. This is first and foremost a polarized 3-D movie, and should only be seen that way. Of course, not all home video collectors have the post-Avatar 3-D systems required, so Kino and the 3-D Film Archive offer all three versions (a pair of anaglyph glasses included). The sound is accessible in either 5.1 or 2.0 surround (it genuinely was originally presented in Dolby Stereo). There are also (typical of the 3-D Film Archive) some nifty audio extras, comprising an interview with Tony Anthony by Douglas Hosdale, and running commentary by Jason Pichonsky, as well as the trailer.

As you know, I’m a 3-D junkie, so, for me, seeing and owning this edition is a duck ‘n’ laff riot. If you’re a similar addict, be prepared to have a lot of fun. The rest of youse’ll probably be scratching your heads. So be it.

TREASURE OF THE FOUR CROWNS. Color. Widescreen/3-D [2.35:1; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1/2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino-Lorber Studio Classics/The 3-D Film Archive/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. CAT # K25857. SRP: $29.95.

Green Hell (plus Magenta)

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (Color)

1930’s MAMBA is one of those motion-pictures that when you attempt to describe it to someone, they refuse to believe a word of it (and even might try and have you committed). Thankfully, we now have the movie to hold up as evidence, as for nearly 90 years it was thought to have been lost. In a demented nutshell, we’re delighted to announce that this pre-Code pip is at last available in a beautiful, new 1080p High Def Blu-Ray from Kino Classics, in cahoots with UCLA and The Film Foundation. And the efforts of movie lovers and collectors (as shall be explained below).

So, what is MAMBA? Well, it was the first all-talking Technicolor drama (usually, the two-color process had been used to highlight sequences in musicals or for full-length revues and outdoor pics). And WHAT a drama! MGM or Paramount or Warners or Fox would have been logically pegged as the studio responsible for a frank, adult look at sexual depravity that likewise encompassed The Great War and a native rebellion in Africa. But, no, the company that did it was Tiffany (no relation to the jewelers, the pop star, or Chucky’s spouse). Tiffany was a modest indie that nonetheless had lofty aspirations. While producing a plethora of low-budget programmers and shorts, they also managed to finagle the rights to R.C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End, which became a profitable, respectable project for them; it also was the film debut of director James Whale and star Colin Clive, who shortly would make horror movie history at Universal.

This success only fueled Tiffany’s ambitions, and soon, with gung-ho (as in “who says we can’t!?”) director Albert S. Rogell, they came up with a whopper follow-up: a period epic, set in 1913 Africa.

As the pic fades in, we see the East Africa-stationed German and British military maintaining a friendly cohabitation – mostly bound by their absolute derision of wealthy lowlife August Bolte (aka Mamba), the richest man in the vicinity. And for good reason. Bolte has bullied, cheated and stolen everything that made him what he is today: a scumbag. Physically, a slob, he buys his way into the local society venues, but is rightly ostracized. No expat woman will touch him, so he sexually assaults the female natives, often leaving them with bastard children. Bolte’s servants fear and hate him, much to his delight; but these perks never suffice from his prime goal: acceptance among the upper class – the one thing he can’t buy.

Or can he?

Bolte receives an urgent letter from a titled, penniless countryman in Europe. The man is strapped for cash which he needs to restore his position. At first, Bolte scoffs, but then has second thoughts. The nobleman has a daughter. This would give him entrance to the upper class echelon he craves. And there’s another plus: she’s drop-dead gorgeous. Can he “trade” for her? Apparently, yes. Making the ultimate sacrifice, the woman in question, Helen von Linden, marries the monster, and journeys back to Africa with him, already the worse for wear, but seeing a glimmer of light after meeting Karl von Reiden, a handsome, sympathetic officer on-board the ship.

Frau Bolte’s life is coital Hell – events not helped by the awful climate, her growing adulterous veering toward von Reiden, and (not the least) the beginning of the Great War that turns the Germans against their former British compadres. Oh, yeah, and thanks in part to Bolte murdering the Black mother of his child, there is a native rebellion about to explode.

It all escalates into a thrilling, violent climax that excellently uses color to accentuate the blood.

MAMBA was a mammoth production that would have taxed any major studio. For Tiffany, it was beyond sink or swim. Period uniforms, battalions of charging horses, large-scale action sequences, and top flight stars meant the movie would have to recoup a mint. The three leads, we should mention were borrowed from no less than MGM (even Stymie from the Our Gang comedies, distributed by Metro, turns in an appearance). Jean Hersholt, the evil Marcus from von Stroheim’s Greed, tops his former performance with a supreme personification of repugnance. Stunning Eleanor Boardman (Bardelys the Magnificent, The Crowd) looks swell in two-color Technicolor; with popular Ralph Forbes (Trail of ’98, Mr. Wu), also an A-lister then, completing the romantic triangle. Remaining cast members include Hazel Jones, Edward Martindel, Noble Johnson, Torben Meyer, Arthur Stone, Claude Fleming, Wilhelm von Brincken, and Will Stanton.

The Hersholt/von Stroheim connection couldn’t be clearer. Erich might have made this movie himself (of course, it would still be filming); in fact, parts of the narrative, as scripted by John Reinhardt and Ferdinand Schumann-Heink (with dialog by Tom Miranda) mirror portions of von’s Queen Kelly and his unfilmed African opus and original novel Poto Poto. Hersholt soon would totally reverse his screen persona, becoming one of the most beloved character actors in Hollywood – on and off the screen. The Academy still occasionally doles out a Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award.

Other praiseworthy tech credits include the impressive Technicolor photography (Charles P. Boyle) and the score (James C. Bradford, Adolph Tandler).

Indeed, the movie WAS a huge hit with critics and audiences, with the terrific use of color a key viewing incentive (director Rogell would continue a career for almost another thirty years, mostly working on lightning-paced B-pictures and in television; his 1933 adventure Below the Sea for Columbia, too, would use color (MultiColor, see last week’s column) – but only for underwater segments, now sadly lost. Nevertheless MAMBA couldn’t quite make the profit it hoped for, and, with the Great Depression becoming worse, Tiffany soon folded up.

Which brings us to the sad part of this tale.

Rumored to have provided the “timber” for the famous burning of Atlanta scenes in Gone with the Wind, the Tiffany library literally went up in smoke sometime in 1938. While a handful of the studio’s titles survived (mostly due to collectors), one – the most desirable in the bunch – eluded the archives. Yep, MAMBA. For decades, we had the stills, lobbies, pressbooks, reviews…and dreams. MAMBA became one of the most sought after titles in cinema history (ironically, up there with von Stroheim’s complete Greed and Devil’s Passkey). But there seemed to be no hope of ever seeing this classic. The fact that it was two-color Technicolor made it harder to imagine a magical rediscovery, as print runs from the company at the, time were often limited to under 100 copies (MAMBA being a special deluxe item had a slightly more generous print run of 160, but still…).

Then the impossibility happened. Thanks to the work of archivist/producer Paul Brennan, a near-complete 35MM nitrate print surfaced in Adelaide, AU. The owners were the retired, movie-loving couple Murray (a former projectionist) and Pat Matthews (see the sidebar). Brennan, working with Swedish archivist Jonas Nordin, the UCLA Library, Ron Hutchinson’s Vitaphone Project, and others, eventually resulted in a full-stage collaborative restoration, and today, MAMBA is saved for all to see, enjoy and be gobsmacked. In gore-rious Technicolor. And virtually pristine.

The story of the discovery and restoration is practically as jaw-dropping (obviously, for different reasons) as the movie’s incredulous scenario, and one that I largely leave to Mr. Brennan’s own words (again, see below).

The new Blu-Ray of MAMBA looks and sounds simply grand. It perfectly resembles the copy I viewed at MoMA, back in 2017. Some fine extras are included as well, comprising audio commentary by Brian Trenchard-Smith, an interview with Paul Brennan, excerpted from the documentary Splice Here: A Projected Odyssey, Theatre of Dreams, Mr. Brennan’s documentary on Murray and Pat Matthews, a photo gallery, and more.

Pre-Code at its most ferocious (and stunningly inventive), MAMBA is a must for all classic collectors. It gives us hope of what other long-lost cinema treasures might still be out there.

The following dialog has been culled from several meetings (primarily, an introduction at a 2017 MAMBA-MoMA screening) with producer/director/film archivist/writer/exhibitor Paul Brennan (obviously, a man of many hats), and the major force behind the discovery and restoration of MAMBA.

PAUL BRENNAN ON MAMBA:

“Australia is a big place, in case you don’t know. I mean, really big. I say that to preface the story of the rediscovery of this amazing, sooooo pre-Code 1930 classic.

“So, here we go. For me, an ardent fan of early Technicolor, finding a long-considered-lost print of MAMBA was nothing short of a Holy Grail quest. It haunted me for years. I actually fantasized about it. I had seen posters, lobbycards, stills and read reviews. How extraordinary it would be to find a Technicolor copy of the first all-color dramatic talkie. Like with the complete Greed, rumors of its existence abounded for decades. Several years ago, one in particular kept resurfacing. I kinda sloughed it off because it couldn’t be that easy. It came from my country’s hinterlands. And from a thoroughly reliable elderly couple, Murray and Pat Matthews, who lived in Adelaide – closer to the South Pole than to the equator, the edge of the mid-Australian desert! Of course, if true, I would drop everything and fly out there. Murray was a projectionist in the Fifties and after TV shattered attendances in 1957, mass closures and dumpings of prints occurred. He and Pat then rescued what they physically could and took it to storage at home. I contacted them, thinking that the treasure they spoke of was probably Mambo, the black and white 1954 Italian-American coproduction starring Shelley Winters, Vittoria Gassman, Michael Rennie, and Silvana Mangano. “No, no,” Murray assured me, “it’s in color.”

“Okay, my attention was grabbed by the throat, and my enthusiasm piqued to fever pitch. I decided to make the flight. Upon arrival, I was told by the Matthews that there was a good news-bad news situation. “Oh, no – here it comes! What happened, the nitrate dissolved into dust yesterday morning?” “No, no, the print is fine, but it was from a sound-on-disc release, and the platters are long gone. We have the print, but it’s mostly silent (MAMBA was released in three versions: silent, sound-on-disc, and sound-on-film) We do have three of the sound discs.” Too much to hope for that it would have been sound-on-film, but I’ll take it, as long as the quality is watchable. What I saw blew me away. Not only watchable, but near-pristine. How could a two-color Technicolor nitrate movie survive for decades in a garage through the Australian heat while carefully vault-preserved films had turned to dust? Hey, I wasn’t complaining. I shouted that we must preserve this classic, and make it available to the millions of buffs who thought it lost forever. The Matthews, who likely thought I was bonkers, quietly replied, “whatever you have to do.”

“First, was the sound problem. The NFS Archive Of Australia looking for lost films, scanned the print onto a Betamax tape in 1988 and sent the 35mm print back to Murray. In 2008, I had that tape copied to a DVD. We matched Murray’s three discs to partially restore the synch. Jonas Nordin, a gramophone sound pal in Stockholm, who runs the wonderful TALKIEKING Sweden, did this.

“I then flew to NYC met with an ecstatic Ron Hutchinson [who, in 1991, began the wonderful Vitaphone Project – an organization that tracked down surviving sound-on-disc platters and matched them to existing silent prints] who burst with jubilant awe when hearing the specifics of the tale. He then contacted UCLA.

“UCLA had all the discs, and via Ron H, they made a CD of them. I sent both DVD/CD to Jonas. Jonas then matched the dialogue, and his splendid synch job saved $100,000 in eventual restoration costs. It synched perfectly. Even better, the sound quality was quite excellent! The only problem was that a brief sequence had been trimmed in 1930 by Australian censors; not serious, we freeze-framed the beginning of the cut, and let the audio play out. It’s a honeymoon trip aboard a ocean liner taking the unfortunate Eleanor Boardman to Jean Hersholt’s Africa. He rapes her, but then promises to agree to allow her to padlock the bedroom door to their mansion…with the villainous caveat of Hersholt telling Boardman that when the need arises, no lock will keep him out. It was only a couple of minutes of screen time, so it was no terrible loss, especially considering all that we had found.”

“Jonas and I went to Syracuse, NY in 2012 and played the new completed synched DVD to a disbelieving audience who screamed in shock. Jonas and I, I should add, were never paid a dollar. We also had to fly across the planet multiple times at our own expense!

“In 2016, I made the short film Theatre of Dreams [included as an extra on this magnificent Blu-Ray], celebrating and recording Murray and Pat. We also made the MAMBA calendar which we had to give away because nobody would buy it [a shame, since it’s wonderful; I still have mine].

“My two regrets are that UCLA won’t sell us one of the three 35MM prints they now have of MAMBA, but, more poignantly, that Murray and Pat didn’t live to see the ultimate result of their love of cinema – the now-fully preserved and forever protected MAMBA. The Matthews, sadly, both passed in 2022, just months from one another.”

I first met Mr. Brennan at the October 23, 2017 MoMa screening (he had been traveling the globe with the MAMBA restoration, to great acclaim). It was a thrill to meet him afterward, and to discover that we had mutual friends in Australia (it’s a big place, as he says, but a small world; we would meet again the next year in Telegraph Point at their wedding). Also at this screening was The Vitaphone Project’s Ron Hutchinson, another personal hero of mine; we had several discussions about early sound from the time when I was still on Facebook (his sudden passing in 2019 was a shock to movie lovers across the globe). It was wonderful to finally meet him in-person.

Paul Brennan with Ron Hutchinson at the MoMA screening of MAMBA, October 23, 2017. (photo by Mel Neuhaus)

MAMBA Color. Full-frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/The UCLA Library/The Film Foundation. CAT # K25878. SRP: $29.95.

All Stalking! All Singing! All Dancing!

THE FOUR ASPECTS OF THE FILM (SOUND)

For those who knew me back in the 1980s, my constant platitudes about a book called The Four Aspects of the Film were thought to be a self-induced fantasy. A book solely about sound, color, 3-D, and widescreen!? I MUST have made it up. Indeed, James L. Linbacher’s 1968 tome became (and still is) my movie Bible. In contemporary times (aka, the 2010s and 20s), Supervistaramacolorscope readers have been forced to constantly put up with my love of early talkies, Technicolor, 3-D and various aspect ratios. The beat, as they say, goes on.

Amazingly, a couple of studios have recently decided to give us collectors a treat, and present movie tech fans with excellent examples of all four. I, therefore, happily begin this month-long salute to Mr. Limbacher’s book (and my Jones) with…sound. And nothing could better underline that than the new superb 2K restoration of the astounding 1929 talkie THE GREAT GABBO, now on Blu-Ray from Kino Classics, utilizing the digitally-cleansed 35MM materials from the Library of Congress.

For most classic movie fans, THE GREAT GABBO is noteworthy not merely as an early talkie, but for the sound debut of Erich von Stroheim, who plays the title role. But there’s way more here than meets the eye…or ear. The movie is incredibly advanced for a 1929 talker. It uses multiple tracks, inventive (albeit primitive) audio mixing, and noise-free recording. It also doesn’t seem to be confined to those first sound “refrigerator” cameras (and is often quite beautifully shot by Ira H. Morgan). There are many angles, and cutaways; plus, possibly (on the audio side), the first large-scale use of dubbing.

And then there’s the plot.

Let’s face it, if anyone could have introduced the now-beloved insane ventriloquist scenario, it would HAVE to have been Erich von Stroheim. And, he’s all in it. Like any von Stroheim vehicle, the picture is quite frank about lust, sexuality, with dark detours into bondage and the maniacal results of rejection.

On their second wedding anniversary, fair-to-middling successful ventriloquist Gabbo, his dummy Otto, and his beautiful assistant/wife (and former singer/dancer) Mary begin one of their usual rows. But this time, the psychological verbal abuse is accompanied by physical violence. Otto, Mary correctly shrieks, is the only one [of you two] “with a soul,” all the while as Gabbo taunts, insults, and assaults her. Otto, smiling contentedly, creepily appears to agree. Mary leaves him, as Gabbo snarls a seething “good riddance, you are nothing without me!” adieu.

Time passes, and Gabbo, unlike what audiences would expect (aka, the without the love of a good woman chestnut…did we say this was a von Stroheim picture?), becomes an enormous success, playing the best houses, and reaping riches beyond his dreams. Mary hasn’t been idle, either. She has gone back to musical comedy, and has, along with her new lover, Frank, achieved stardom as well. And, now Mary and Gabbo are both headlining a lavish Ziegfeld-esque revue.

Gabbo, who has lengthy conversations with Otto, is convinced that Mary has come back to him. Otto, however, warns him about counting his chickens (the psychological effects of Otto’s mouth moving from across the room in these “talks” reflects and puts the audience smack dab inside Gabbo’s mania, and works perfectly). Mary, happy her ex is doing well, and still having some love for him, offers the madman gregarious companionship. Gabbo believes this will explode into a friends-with-benefits relationship, then a remarriage. But Mary has some secrets of her own – to say nothing of the fact that the ever-cautious Otto is, after all, a better judge of the human condition than Gabbo.

From just these narrative snippets, one can see that THE GREAT GABBO is no ordinary entertainment. Bizarrely, it was filmed by a small indie company, Sono-Art Worldwide, yet looks and plays wayyyy better than most ‘A’ talkies from the competitive majors. As indicated, it’s very fluent, both in dialog and technique (in pure technology terms, it wipes the floor with another doomed showbiz “von [Sternberg]” picture from the same year, The Blue Angel).

GABBO‘s greenlight and opulent financing, came via its director James Cruze. Like von Stroheim, Cruze began as an actor in the early Teens, then progressed to directing. Unlike von Stroheim, Cruze was nowhere near as talented (in either department), yet enormously prosperous (not a von Stroheim specialty either). His 1923 epic, The Covered Wagon broke all box-office records, and opened the door for the Super-Western (better illustrated via Ford’s The Iron Horse, Walsh’s The Big Trail, etc., both which owe their existence to Cruze). Cruze had no handle on cinematic human relations. His mantra: just make it BIG. As late as 1937, his Wells Fargo oater for Paramount defined his abilities: it’s basically a feature-length trailer.

The question then remains how, in essence, an uninspired second-unit director became so knowledgeable about interrelationships, sexuality, mental illness, and spousal abuse? The short answer: he didn’t.

Anyone familiar with von Stroheim’s work, and, who has seen THE GREAT GABBO immediately comes to the conclusion that the brilliant movie-maker not only had a hand in the story and screenplay, but in the directing. That’s putting it mildly. In a nutshell, James Cruze never made anything this good before or after GABBO. One cannot downplay von Stroheim’s penchant for the aforementioned psychological aspects of his/this work. Visually, he gets away with as much as he can, but his genius for implication was/is unsurpassed. We can actually feel Gabbo’s battling lust, desire and pain – surrounded by the constant array of gorgeous, scantily-clad showgirls in the revue. He doesn’t physically pursue them, but he is consumed by them (he even managed to convey a sense of smell/scent, which definitely would have been von Stroheim’s fifth aspect of the film).

The use of sound, too, is spectacular. Von Stroheim didn’t actually “do” Otto; that was done off-camera by George Grandee. Yet, they seem so believably connected, that the better part of Gabbo’s personality is never questioned (and anyone who’s seen Singin’ in the Rain knows that dubbing or directional recording in 1929 wasn’t a given…or, realistically, as easy as Gene Kelly and Donald O’Connor make it seem). Von Stroheim didn’t get directorial credit because, as a director, he was poison – known for going above and beyond the realm of logic, spending money like an out of control flood, and jettisoning (what was considered) good taste into the abyss. Long story short: Cruze is essentially von’s beard. Prove me wrong. The scenario is soooo von Stroheim, being aided in the the story department by the ubiquitous Ben Hecht, with some dialog credited to comic actor Hugh Herbert (“woo-woo” indeed). Von Stroheim likewise worked his rapacious magic on some of the songs in the tuneful score by the appropriately-named King Zany, along with Donald McNamee, Lynn Cowan, and the no doubt childhood-taunted Paul Titsworth. One, in particular, is worth repeating: “Icky (The Lollipop Song).” As sung by Otto, the ditty, on the surface about candy confection, recounts the messiness of sexual discharge (“I’d rather suck a lemon drop because a lollipop gets all over icky”). Another ballad “Laughing” becomes the theme of the movie.

While von Stroheim is obviously the whole show, THE GREAT GABBO nevertheless includes a game cast of supporting players, most prominently costar Betty Compson (a very big star at the time, and the female lead in von Sternberg’s 1928 masterpiece Docks of New York). Also on-hand are Donald Douglas (as Frank), Bo Peep Karlin, Harry Ross, Eddy Waller, Earl Burtnett and the Biltmore Orchestra, and, as a dancer, Rosina Lawrence.

The background ambiance and atmosphere of THE GREAT GABBO is equally impressive – well-staged and choreographed (Maurice L. Kussell) musical numbers, including several sung by Babe Kane (unQuestelably, the real Betty Boop). They, sadly, were filmed in MultiColor, a Technicolor rival, and none of this material currently exists; fortunately, we can at least see these sequences here in black-and-white (although one number, “The Gaga Bird” has been lost), but we can’t help but wonder what it truly looked like; MultiColor, like 1920s Technicolor, was a two-color process, but blue and yellow (rather than magenta and yellow), so it must have looked odd. What is intriguing about the process was, that, unlike Technicolor, MultiColor didn’t require special cameras; its bipack magazines could be loaded into a standard 35MM rig (MultiColor went out of business in 1933, later to re-emerge, with refinements, as CineColor). Fingers crossed, maybe one day footage will surface. It should be noted that an elaborate spider number, featuring half-naked females trapped in a giant web backfired, once the picture went into roadshow release. Premiering at the prestigious Selwyn Theater in New York, Cruze’s publicist thought it a great idea to recreate this number by building a living billboard. The result: a block-wide rooftop spider web with writhing, live (practically) nude women stopped traffic dead in its tracks. The entire construction had to be dismantled after a couple of days.

Like so many indie movies, THE GREAT GABBO fell into public domain, the results ranging from barely watchable to atrocious. It’s stunning to see a near-pristine 35MM print in 1080p High Definition (only slight black patches of decomposition twice briefly invade the otherwise crystal-clear surroundings). The audio is absolutely distortion-free and quite dynamic (the movie was available in both sound-on-film and disc version; this 1.33 presentation hails from the latter).

There’s a terrific supplement on this Blu-Ray as well: second audio commentary by motion-picture scholar Richard Barrios, author of A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film, one of the best (if not THE best) book on the transition to sound period.

An engrossing, freakish schizophrenic nightmare, THE GREAT GABBO is a must for collectors of the macabre and fans of talkies, pre-Code, von Stroheim, and 1920s cinema.

THE GREAT GABBO. Black and white. Full frame [1.33:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Kino Classics/The Library of Congress. CAT # K25509. SRP: $29.95.