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.
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.