Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Mamba (1930) - Lost and Found


In the summer of 1929 poverty row studio Tiffany Pictures decided to put all their eggs in one basket when they embarked on what was to become their biggest project ever. Warner Bros had done a similar move when they went all in with the Jazz Singer in 1927. Luckily the world embraced sound with open arms and Warner's got a place in the movie studio Pantheon.

Inspired by "Warner's Supreme Triumph" Tiffany Pictures decided to go all color, all the way. They had done short subjects in Technicolor before, but never an entire feature. The only two all color talkies that had seen the flickering lights from the projectors at the time production on Mamba began were On With The Show, that had opened in July 1929, and Gold Diggers Of Broadway that opened a month later. Both were musicals. There were three more all color talkies in production or slated for release at this time, they were all musicals. Mamba was thus to be the first all talking, all color drama to be produced.

Production was cumbersome and Mamba kept running out of money. In order to fool the creditors, the production kept two sets of identical costumes available so that the cast and crew could keep working in case one set was confiscated. Production cost landed at about $500,000 which was an enormous amount for Tiffany, a studio that was used to make movies at a fifth of this cost.

Mamba is mentioned in a Technicolor ad in the May 1930 issue of Photoplay. Note that the Weeler & Woolsey movie Radio Ramblers mentioned in the ad was never shot.
(click image for a bigger view)

Appointed director Albert S. Rogell's speciality was tight action dramas and westerns, this made him well suited for the task. The main characters were played by fine actors, Danish character actor Jan Hersholt (Greed 1924), Eleanor Boardman, star of her husband King Vidor's The Crowd (1928) and British born Ralph Forbes who did lots of supporting roles at MGM both before and after Mamba. The sets were elaborate, camera work and editing very fluid and suprisingly modern. Tiffany had their connections to MGM and it showed. All in all Mamba was a swell film that clocked in at 78 minutes.

Plot: August Bolte (Hersholt), the richest man in Neu Posen, a settlement in German East Africa in the period before World War I, is called "Mamba" by the locals, which is the name of a deadly snake. Despised by the locals and the European settlers alike for his greed and arrogance, Bolte forces the beautiful daughter (Boardman) of a destitute nobleman to marry him in exchange for saving her father from ruin. Upon her arrival in Africa, she falls in love with an officer (Forbes) in the local German garrison. When World War I breaks out, Bolte, unable to avoid being conscripted, foments a rebellion among the local natives.

Mamba opened March 10, 1930 at the Gaiety Theatre in New York. It was the sixth all color talkie ever made and the first that wasn't a musical. It got great reviews, broke the box office record and ran for over two weeks, which was long in 1930. With the demise of Tiffany Pictures in 1932 Mamba quickly disappeared into oblivion for almost 80 years. Its fate wasn't helped by the fact that most of Tiffany's original nitrate prints were used as fuel in the burning of the Atlanta depot fire in Gone With The Wind. Yes, it's true, a lot of invaluable movies went up in that fire.

Mamba review in the May 1930 issue of Photoplay.
(click image for a bigger view)

Mamba was considered lost until early 2009 when my friend Paul Brennan, film assessor for events at heritage cinemas in Sydney, Australia stumbled upon an entry at the IMDb messageboard.

”I have just had the opportunity of viewing the complete 1930's Tiffany Production of Mamba… …Unfortunately, this was seen without the accompanying Vitaphone [RCA Photophone] disc soundtrack… The early two-colour Technicolor was amazingly bright and made this screening a surprisingly pleasant experience. …according to the authors of Forgotten Horrors, "only about 12 minutes of silent footage remain." I can refute this information as there exists in Australia a complete 35mm version of this film, in good condition.”

Paul contacted the author of this post and after some time he was able to verify that it was true. A complete nitrate print of Mamba was found in a collection that had been inherited by an old cinema projectionist and was now located in an old warehouse in a remote area in Australia. All nine reels were in great shape. They were even stored in original Tiffany cans. Sadly only four of the nine soundtrack records were to be found.


Why did Mamba end up in Australia of all places? There is actually a logical explanation for this, Australia (and New Zealand) was the end of the distribution line. Sometimes it took years for a movie to reach this far from Hollywood. The prints were often in bad shape or incomplete when they finally showed up. My hypothesis why Mamba survived intact is that it reached Australia quite quickly and in good shape. It had it’s run but when it was to be shipped back to Hollywood Tiffany Pictures simply had ceased to exist.

Jan Hersholt

Mamba isn’t the only presumed lost movie that has shown up in Australia. Many cinema owners were and are also film collectors. When they returned their shown films to the renting office they used to go through the scrap heap of films that weren't to be sent back to the US. Therefore many movies marked for destruction ended up in the collections of cinema owners in forgotten desert towns throughout Australia. Paul had seen this quite often and went to the press to tell this story. The result was a new rule that no films was to be destroyed but instead donated to archives in Canberra and Melbourne.

Eleanor Boardman and Ralph Forbes

Paul managed to get copies of the film elements and the remaining sound disks and sent them to me. I then synchronized the sound with the images. This wasn't an easy task. Leaving out technical details, basically when a movie is transferred to DVD the frame rate of the movie is automatically changed to comply with the standard for TV signals. With the result that in most cases the movie runs about 4% faster on a DVD than at a cinema. This gives that the separate soundtrack had to be sped up accordingly. I lined up the picture elements and the separate soundtrack reel by reel on my computer.

I immediately ran into trouble, a classic problem with the sound on disc process and also the main reason it was given up in the early thirties: If a single frame or even a sprocket hole is missing in the film strip the sound inexorably goes out of sync. On the other hand, the discs could become scratchy or break, also making the film unwatchable. I worked it through reel by reel fending eventual jumps and cuts the best I could, ending up with four full reels of Mamba magic in both sound and color.

It's not without pride I can present to you, exclusively for this blog, two snippets from Mamba, one of the earliest surviving complete all color talkies we have left.


Excerpt from reel 5

Take a close look at the editing in the following clip. I think it's rather modern looking for a movie produced in 1929!


Excerpt from reel 8

Mamba is a truly astonishing find because of the Tiffany Studio rarity and the sensational quality of the production. Also it represents the best technical qualities of the period, quite a gamble for such a small studio and its attempt to leap into A studio status.

Paul and myself naturally wants to see Mamba restored, new 35mm prints struck, the film presented at film festivals in 2010 (for its 80th anniversary) and presented as a shining fascinating example of the joys and necessities of film history restoration. Because the film is actually really exciting and well produced. It delivers the goods as a piece of spectacular entertainment, and in glorious Technicolor. It truly is a seriously terrific surprise for any public film festival audience. A prestige DVD release with all sorts of Tiffany tales and surviving studio film clips would be a great collectors piece and would add lustre to the value of film preservation and restoration. We each have a massively exciting opportunity to promote and grip the public's interest. All that is missing now is funding.

Great thanks to Bob at the ever splendid Allure for the Photoplay scans.

20 comments:

Mercurie said...

That is quite a discovery, Jonas! And you are right. It is very sophisticated for a colour talkie film made in 1929. Both the direction and the editing make it look as if it was shot a decade or two later! Kudos to you, sir!

KING OF JAZZ said...

You done good.

Raquelle said...

Professor Jonas, I'm so impressed by you and you know it.

What else can I say that I haven't already said? This is a momentous occasion. THe discovery of all 9 reels of a seemingly lost film. I wonder what other delights the desert towns of Australia hold.

Thank you so much for writing about the film, bringing it to the public's attention and for restoring the sound to the picture. You are a rock star.

- And I hate GWTW a little more now that I know they used films for the Atlanta fires. So wrong!

Operator_99 said...

Great find, and great work and good luck to get this back to the public. I will be searching my archives to see if I can find any magazine coverage.

Louie said...

Excellent post. Can't wait until it's finally restored and makes the rounds.

Lolita said...

Wow. This is so amazing news that I get tears in my eyes. I adore you and Paul's work with this - if I could help I would! I hope to work with nitrate film preservation in the future, as well as become a film critic/film historian. Then I can join you two! And if I was rich, I would give you all the money you needed ;)
Truly amazing. I agree with you about the modern editing, jumping between two scenes pretty quickly! Have you contacted any film preservation institution? Isn't there one in Stockholm?

VP81955 said...

Fantastic news! Now if only a copy of "Convention City" is hidden away in the outback...

NoirGirl said...

Wow Jonas! This is unbelievably exciting!! Thank you so much for sharing this news with us!

The clips are gorgeous, more than enough for me to be dying to see the full film. And, I really like how you went back and found the film magazine references. I have a couple fan magazines and love looking through them to find the snippets about films that were never made.

I hate that story about GWTW. I always have to fast forward through that burning scene because it makes me sick. How could they have been so blind?? UGH!

Thank you again for being such a terrific guardian of lost classics!

* R e N a * said...

Hej!
jag älskar din blogg!
I will be reading all of your posts from now on!
I am a 23 year-old fan of this wonderful period of time :)

This is a wonderful discovery!!
=)

Jonas Nordin said...

Mercurie,
Mamba is a truly fascinating film indeed. Technically it was very advanced. It begins with a breathtaking 3 minute tracking shot predating Orson Welles famous opening shot in Touch Of Evil with almost 30 years.

King Of Jazz,
Thank you! I always do my best! :)

Raquelle,
Thank you! It's my firm belief that Australia is a land of many still hidden treasures! When you know what is burning in the Atlanta fire in GWTW it's like watching an execution.

Operator__99,
Thank you! Anything you can find is more than welcome!

Louie,
Thanks! Let's hope it doesen't take another 80 years to raise funds.

Lolita,
If you can find about $100K you can join the project anytime you want! :) I don't believe The Swedish Film Institute would be interested in this. They don't even restore the Bergman films properly.

VP81955,
Convention City will most certainly turn up one day but somehow I think I will be very disappointed when I finally get to see it.

NoirGirl,
Thank you! You will definitely be able to see Mamba one day. The Australian print is in fantastic shape considering its age. My guess is that the eventual restoration will not be one of the more difficult ones to carry out.

ReNa
Tack för det! Yes! Join the fun! Read everything from beginnig to end. Subscribe and comment at will! Welcome!

Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

great story! I wrote about this discovery and what you and Paul Brennan have done for my column in Film Monthly (a very advance and long-running film journal in Farsi).
Who know, maybe you could find a funder among Iranians!

[I will scan the page and send it to you as soon as it prints.]

Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

By the way, I forgot to tell that cinematographer of Mambo, Charles P. Boyle,has some Budd Boetticher westerns from early 1950s (all pre-Randolph Scott) in his career and that's interesting!

Princess Fire and Music said...

What an incredible discovery! This is truly a treasure, and thank you so much for sharing it.

Cladrite Industries said...

This is very exciting news -- thanks!

theaterpalace said...

The late historian Roberto Di Chiara who passed away in June of 2008, may have literally hundreds of so called lost Silent films in his vast Archive in Bonus Aires Argentina. We need to find out what is in there and save these films before it is to late to do so. Most of the the 25,000 plus films in his collection remain completely unidentified.

theaterpalace said...

This is a great post, and it appears that terrific work has been done on the film. I would definitely like to see MAMBA make it to DVD. Maybe Flicker Alley or Milestone would be interested in this project?

At the same time, Warner's has several Eleanor Boardman Silents stuck in the vaults that rarely see the light of day. Films like Vidor's WINE OF YOUTH (1924), and Borzage's THE CIRCLE (1925) are still awaiting recorded scores. Both are highly entertaining movies.

J. Theakston said...

While the notion of Selznick using Tiffany's nitrate prints to cause the burning of Atlanta in GONE WITH THE WIND, I do wonder if that isn't the "print the legend" story.

In reality, aside from the fact that it's unlikely that the insurance companies would allow it, it would be a highly uncontrollable and dangerous fire, pouring out toxic gasses that could kill those near by, and since at some point when nitrate film is burning, it can't be put out with water. Pyrotechnics from that era more likely used controllable substances like wood alcohol.

David said...

Prof--

You've done a wonderful job! This is probably the best 2-color Technicolor material I have ever seen. I certainly hope to see a future DVD release. This film is indeed impressive for a independent release from the early 30's. Universal needs to release KING OF JAZZ; and Warner needs to put out HOLLYWOOD REVUE OF 1929. These early talkie musicals are fascinating to watch and show how ambitious Hollywood studios were in this tumultuous period.

Hopeful in NJ said...

Fabulous!

Ehsan Khoshbakht said...

Jonas; a story about Mamba and your discovery was published in the last issue (403) of Film Monthly.I also indicated your blog address. Godspeed!

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