Friday, June 23, 2017

Brooklyn Dodgers and the Fox Film Corporation

Two new books crossed my desk in the past two weeks, delivered by the friendly neighborhood postman and the authors of these magnificent tomes. Merrill T. McCord, the former editor of the Journal of Medical Education and author of numerous academic books, frequents the good old days of Hollywood movie making with articles that have appeared in Films of the Golden Age and Classic Images. His recent book, a massive hard cover totaling more than 670 pages, documents the history of the Fox Film Corporation during the silent movie-making era. William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation: A Biography and a Chronicle stands alone as the only book you will ever want to have regarding the silent era of the Fox Film Corporation. A pleasant read, indeed. 

To accomplish this task, along with documenting the first 378 films produced at Fox from 1914 to 1925, Merrill visited every film archive across the country to screen the silent classics, take notes and make sure the cast and production crew were documented extensively -- and accurately. Since only about 30 percent of silent features and presumably similar proportions of silent shorts, serials and newsreels have survived in some form, researchers studying the era of silent films and the people involved in making them have to rely substantially on information in film trade publications of that period and in whatever old studio documents that can be accessed. Merrill had to decipher the difference between studio publicity hype and the real deal.

There is a fantastic 220 page history of the Fox Film Corporation, the actors under contract, the budgets, props, staged Movietones, John Ford and many other aspects that branded the studio from the competition. Series features, movie theaters, schemes and confrontations... it is all here. I could go on for numerous pages about how fantastic this book is but I will save you the trouble and just say that every movie buff should have a copy of this book.

William Fox and the Fox Film Corporation (2016) by Merrill T. McCord was published by Alhambra Publishers, 10208 Fleming Avenue, Bethesda, MD 20814. Drop them a line and inquire about purchasing a copy today.

David Krell, a freelance journalist, author and attorney, a member of SABRA and the bar in New York, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, has established a high reputation for superb books about America's favorite pastime. His latest book, Our Bums: The Brooklyn Dodgers in History, Memory and Popular Culture (2015), was published through McFarland Publishing. The story of the Brooklyn Dodgers includes personal stories from fans who embraced Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Erskine, Roy Campanella and other icons of Ebbets Field. Drawing on archival documents, contemporary press accounts and fan interviews, David chronicled the glory and demise of the team that changed baseball and America. The historical retrospective is broken down in nine chapters, referred to as innings, with statistics, comparison of the real life playbook to Hollywood movies, radio and television broadcasts, and much more.

The bibliography is a wealth of information for any fan of baseball history -- books and references that I myself have never heard of. "To be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan in the 1950s was to experience magic," David remarked in chapter one. He demonstrates this with more than 200 pages of fantastic prose. If you love the history of baseball, you will enjoy reading this book.


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Both Merrill and David will be guest speakers at this year's Mid-Atlantic Nostalgia Convention, September 14 to 16, 2017. For more information visit: www.MidAtlanticNostalgiaConvention.com

Friday, June 9, 2017

WILLIE WHOPPER and THE MYSTERIOUS AIRMAN

Two obscurities of vintage cinema have recently been released to DVD and through lesser-known independent distributors. While a few in the hobby tend to dismiss anything released under an independent label, these two offerings are proof that the best restoration jobs can be made available through the efforts of fan boys who want to see the films restored properly. The Mysterious Airman is a 1928 silent serial that was once thought to be "lost," featuring biplanes and exciting action with screen icons Walter Miller and Eugenia Gilbert. Produced by the Weiss Brothers, only the first reel of chapter nine is still considered missing, reconstructed from stills and a plot synopsis. An aircraft corporation is under attack by a band of mysterious flyers, whose leader is known as "Pilot X." It takes a hero willing to risk his life to unmask the identity of the villain, and their motives.

Few silent serials exist today and many of them are incomplete, missing segments and whole chapters. Originally part of the holdings of Kit Parker with his acquisition of Weiss Global International in 2004, Parker was approached by film archivist Jeff Joseph of SabuCat Productions, who offered to loan a near-complete original 35mm tinted nitrate print. Dr. Andrew Simpson of the Library of Congress Packard Campus in Culpepper, Virginia, produced a new piano score. A commentary track is also available on the disc from historian Richard M. Roberts. (Last month I had my DVD cover insert autographed by Richard personally.)

Of recent a number of silent serials have begun making their way to DVD for fans and collectors to purchase and view. While a number of them have been "altered," such as replacing the original dialogue cards with new ones in an effort to watermark or brand the print, purists prefer to view the films as they were meant to be seen  -- unaltered. But sometimes artist interpretation of "restoration" versus "alteration" is loosely interchanged. Thankfully the Sprocket Vault has released The Mysterious Airman to DVD as a true restoration -- the type of restoration we fanboys wish all silent films received. No alterations. You can purchase your copy here:

Willie Whopper has come to DVD and BluRay (as a combo pack) and fans of vintage animation can enjoy all 14 animated classics from UB Iwerks, produced in the 1930s, from the best surviving masters. Among the highlights are both Willie Whopper cartoons made in Cinecolor, Davy Jones' Locker and Hell's Fire, taken from the original camera negatives. Unseen for over 80 years except as black and white or faded dupes, these two cartoons are again presented in all their two-color glory. Like The Mysterious Airman, the picture quality is superb on every level. 

As if a major restoration from archival elements was not enough, both the DVD and BluRay contain a number of bonus extras such as the script for a never-produced Willie Whopper cartoon, original production art, a gallery of stills, a 12-page booklet documenting the history of the cartoon character, a few bonus cartoons and audio from the 78s (jazz recordings which were featured in the animated cartoons). 

Steve Stanchfield of Thunderbean continues to work alongside film archives to digitally restore vintage animated cartoons. Most of the cartoons he put out are in the public domain which means the former owners would never consider spending thousands of dollars or man hours restoring old cartoons that -- in the minds of studio heads -- have no financial value. Here, Steve partnered with Blackhawk Films and UCLA to obtain the best materials to work with. Being UB Iwerks productions the cartoons are not brilliant gems -- but the best of the Willie Whopper cartoons warrant viewing. Steve is presently working on a restoration of every Flip the Frog cartoon ever made (from 35mm elements), along with the ComiColor series. I will be among the many to purchase a copy of each to continue showing my support. I recommend you send a thank you note to Steve for providing this service by purchasing a copy of the DVD/BluRay combo pack today. Financial support helps with future projects.

You can purchase a copy here:

Disclaimer: Unlike most products, these DVDs were not sent to me with the request of a review on my blog. I purchased these on my own accord to help support the endeavors of The Sprocket Vault and Thunderbean Animation.

   

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Move Over Lynda Carter... Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman

Move over Lynda Carter. There is a new gal in town and her name is Gal Gadot. For a generation that never grew up with the television icon, the Israeli-born actress (who was born when Wonder Woman was in reruns) will become the fanboy favorite this summer. Anyone who saw the movie trailers over the past eight months could tell this was going to be a winner and what you saw is what you get.

In dramatic fashion we have a re-telling of Wonder Woman’s origin, rescuing Steve Trevor on Paradise Island (a.k.a. Themyscira), and upon learning of the pain and suffering from the War to End All Wars, suspects manipulation by the hand of Ares, the Greek God of War, her sworn enemy. Venturing into the real world Diana Prince has to adjust to a sexist society where women perform secretarial tasks and struggle for the right to vote. Along the way her stubbornness and determination to right the unjust of war-torn travesty (weeping mothers, maimed soldiers, etc.) establishes the ground rules for future superhero charisma. And along the way she learns something about herself in the process.


While the British and the Germans are discussing the terms of Armistice, Steve Trevor attempts to warn his superiors of impending doom by Ludendorff and “Dr. Poison” to create an ultimate weapon that would turn the tide in the Germans’ favor. Naturally, the British maintain a stiff upper lip and dismiss Steve’s warnings. Leave it to Wonder Woman to take control of the situation by striding onto a battlefield (known as “No Man’s Land”) and fight the good fight. Before there can be peace, there must be war.

Created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, a psychologist credited for inventing the lie detector, the character of Wonder Woman established an early feminist movement representing a peaceful force in society, gender relations and sexual freedom. The recurring theme in the comics was of Wonder Woman restrained, eventually freeing herself from the bondage of her enemies, submission in the subconscious form. Interjected a number of times in the movie we see Diana respecting a newfound appreciation of matrimony, while at the same time insisting women do not have to be secretaries and champions for female independence. If Marston was alive today he would have appreciated the subtle nods within the script.

Dr. Poison, as anyone who read the comic books know, worked for a poison division of the Nazi Party during World War II, attempting to poison the U.S. Army’s water and clog the carburetors of U.S. airplanes. She is partially masked throughout the movie, suggesting one of her past experiments went horribly wrong. When she is eventually unmasked the gruesomeness was obviously toned down for the younger viewers. An early scene with Steve Trevor exiting a pool of healing water reveals nothing but a suggestive appetite between Diana and her future boyfriend, but Chris Pine, while perfectly fitting for the rogue, is a tad bit old for the role.


Which brings me to the question of why a World War I setting, rather than World War II, as initially conceived back in 1941? I get that Diana Prince is the daughter of Zeus, as conceived in DC’s New 52 series, but the Kaiser could have been referred to as Der Fuhrer, war-torn Belgium could have been referred to as France, and a change of uniforms and flags would have been all that was needed to create a World War II setting. According to one source at Warner Brothers, the second Wonder Woman movie will take place during the Second World War.

In an era when Jessica Chastain blasts the lack of female representation in Hollywood, and when Black Widow (of Marvel’s The Avengers) cannot even get her own action figure, Diana’s sacred duty to rid the world of war comes at a price. Warner backed their money with a strong promotional campaign and time will tell how large a reward.


While this may not live up to the standards of Marvel’s popcorn movies, which entertain with tongue-in-cheek mercenaries, and Warner’s attempt to differentiate their comic property from that of Marvel by employing what fanboys refer to as “DC stands for Dark Cinema,” this movie has plenty of color. War sequences and trench warfare are not overblown with glory and pride as demonstrated prior in Wings (1927) and All Quiet on the Western Front (1930), but rather through the lens of the dimmed hopelessness of an occupied village seeking deliverance. What they received was Wonder Woman standing up against the oppressors, insisting to man and woman alike that you either stand by and do nothing, or you take a stand.

Much of the movie is a playbook on time-period action films and with the exception of the set-up and the closer I have to admit we’ve seen this all before. Old hat while Diana Prince attempts to assimilate into normal society. Stands in the way of an automobile? Check. Loves newborn babies and thinks they were molded out of clay? Check. Walking around society with sword and shield for humor that only children will find funny? Check. But the shining moments come when Wonder Woman steps out of the trenches and takes a stand against the Germans, unrelenting fierceness while authentically seductive at the same time. We will always have Lynda Carter but Gal Gadot is the new Wonder Woman.

Closer
There is no post credits sequence. When the closing credits start to roll, you can leave with your empty candy wrappers and unfinished popcorn.

Friday, May 26, 2017

The Death of the MP3 Format

With progression comes the inevitable. The format known as mp3, used to listen to music on iPods and iPhones, which some collectors use to store their old-time radio programs, is considered dead. That's the official statement from the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, the German research company that licensed the mp3 patent to software developers. There can be no dispute that the mp3 format, a form of compression for audio files, when joined with the Apple iPod, changed the way millions listened to music.

What is mp3? The simplest way to describe it without going into scientific jargon is to compress an audio file from one size down to a smaller file size and maintain as much of the original sound as possible. Storage was, for over two decades, an issue when it came to collecting record albums and compact discs. A CD could only hold 70+ minutes so for collectors of old-time radio programs only two half-hour recordings could fit onto a single CD. When compressed to mp3 format, 18 half-hour programs could fit onto a single CD. 

How does this work? The simplest way to explain this is imagine taking an five-minute audio recording and breaking it down into one million bits of info. One long string consisting of one million bits. Now take away every other bit away and play it back and you'd never notice. As a friend of mine once explained, it would be like running an old movie from a 16mm projector with one out of every ten frames removed. Considering a projector plays back a movie 24 frames a second, would you notice the difference? Probably not.


There are many rates of compression for mp3 and some are much better than others. Collectors of old-time radio programs for years used software on computers to compress recordings of radio programs into mp3 files, many unaware that they used the wrong compression causing digital artifacts to the soundtrack. As far as they were concerned, the smaller the file -- the better. In fact, most of the radio programs you download off the internet are horrible because of the terrible rate of compression. Not a month goes by someone isn't on Facebook asking where they can find better sound because what they downloaded sounds terrible. From an archival standpoint, wav format (which is what is used on standard CDs) is considered the required format. Last year at a preservation conference with more than 300 librarians across the country gathered in the same spot, it was voted unanimously that mp3 was not an archival format.

All of which led to a dispute among collectors of old-time radio. Which format is the best? Almost everyone agrees wav format is essential from an archiving standpoint but the smallest fraction in the hobby believed mp3 should be the norm. (I would like to note that supporters of mp3 were in favor because wav format took way too long to download off the internet for free, especially if they used dial-up, and they justified the horrible sound quality for the money they did not pay. As one was quoted last year of saying, "It's old, so shouldn't it sound old?")

In a statement from Fraunhofer, "there are more efficient audio codecs with advanced features available today." As I mentioned, technology advances and what was a starting point for Steve Jobs and his revolution that 300 songs could fit on a single iPod device and thus eliminate the bulky portable cassette players, is now considered obsolete.

There are multiple new formats that collectors have been experimenting with. Advanced Audio Coding (AAC) is considered the successor of MP3, used for iTunes and other music-streaming services. When someone uploads a video on YouTube, the audio is also converted to AAC, to ensure a smaller audio file (thus quick download to stream), then synched with the video. Collectors of old-time radio have been re-shifting their focus on Free Lossless Audio Codec (FLAC) but there are again a number of critics. As one remarked recently, "It is still a compressed file using less kilobytes so I cannot understand how an audio file of smaller size can maintain the high standard of wav. There still has to be something missing. After all, I can only load so much into my car before the windows break. A compressed pillow loses something after being squished in size over time."


All of this does not mean mp3 files are no longer going to work. It simply means that all the major companies that license the mp3 technology for use on their websites and products have moved on to a better format. For the few who use an mp3 player, a CD player or DVD player to listen to their audio files... sound systems that are capable of playing mp3 format may eventually vanish over time. 

Me, I prefer to maintain wav format. Not only is it archival but the fact I can have a little more than 10,000 wav files on a 3TB external hard drive the size of a VHS video cassette is a blessing because that is 5,000 CDs on my shelves that are no longer taking up room. If I want to listen to old-time radio programs I merely connect the drive to my computer and burn a copy onto a blank CD, transfer them to my smart phone to listen to whenever I want, or stream it from my computer to any device in and outside of the house. A friend last month saw my twelve external hard drives and insisted I should take the thousands of man-hours to convert the files to mp3 or FLAC so the amount of material on three drives would fit onto two. (Yeah, I don't think that is going to happen. Really? All that work to lose sound quality and save eight inches of shelf space? Nah.)

Commentary
Last week someone wanted their VHS videos of family home movies converted to DVD. I asked if they still had the Super 8 reels because transferring from those reels to DVD would be better than converting from 30-year-old VHS videos that already suffer from magnetic breakup. No, they threw the reels away after they had them transferred to VHS. I mention the futility of this story as it leads to a question I now ponder.

For the few people in the hobby who kept scolding me about not converting my recordings to mp3 like "the rest of the world," not understanding I have superior sound quality from archival masters and never entertained the thought of compressing audio files to something inferior (and now obsolete), I guess they have to reconsider the next phase of audio formats. But are they going to be working from a compressed file (mp3) or from archival transfers (wav)?