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.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Colleen bobs her hair

The cover of the May 1920 issue of Saturday Evening Post
in which Fitzgerald's short story first was published

When F. Scott Fitzgerald published his short story Bernice Bobs Her Hair in the May 1920 issue of Saturday Evening Post, little did he know about the stir it would provoke. Up until this time, long, glorious, pampered hair was a key component of traditional feminine beauty. The idea of bobbed hair, which came into style after the first world war was considered scandalous and, as Bernice herself jokingly comments in the short story, even "unmoral". The fact that a simple hair cut could so upset an entire town may seem ludicrous to us now, but if we consider it in the context of the changing social period Fitzgerald lived in, it makes more sense. Long hair represented both a woman's beauty and her virtue – and bobbing one's hair simply wasn't seen as something a respectable, well-bred girl would do.

Enter the flapper. I will not turn this post into a feminist manifesto but some events were crucial for the flapper to appear like Phenix from the flames. The first world war forced the women out of the house and into society. With the right to vote - the modern woman was born. Suddenly women had an independency they never had experienced before. With this independence also came the desire to express their personalities in a new way. The women freed themselves from bustles and corsets, cumbersome attire which in many ways had been a prison sentence of about 500 years for all womanhood. Skirts went up, knees were shown and the long glorious hair was cut off.

A flapper gets a haircut.
Illustration by John Held j:r (Life Magazine, 1926)

The first actress who adopted the new style on a broad scale was Colleen Moore. She was born Kathleen Morrison 1900 (some sources say 1902) in Port Huron, Michigan. Her family later moved to Florida and that's where she grew up. The family summered in Chicago, where young Kathleen nourished her acting dreams in the company of her Aunt Lib (Elizabeth, who perhaps inspired by the times had changed her name to "Liberty" Lib for short) and her uncle Walter Howey. Howey was an important newspaper editor in the publishing empire of William Randolph Hearst, and he was the inspiration for Walter Burns, the fictional Chicago newspaper editor in the play and the 1931 Lewis Milestone film The Front Page.

Somehow uncle Walter knew D.W. Griffith and Aunt Lib had him arrange a meeting with Kathleen who had decided she wanted to go Hollywood at age 15. Griffith agreed to a screen test to see if her eyes (one brown, one blue) would photograph close enough in darkness as not to be a distraction. Her eyes passed the test, and so she left for Hollywood with her grandmother as chaperon and her mother along as well. Her name was changed to Colleen Moore and she debuted as such in The Bad Boy in 1917. Colleen was a smart girl and slowly moved up in the budding studio system. She proved to have great comic timing and got gradually bigger and better parts. Her big break came in First National's Flaming Youth (1923).

The poster for Flaming Youth (1923)

In Flaming Youth Colleen plays a vivacious flapper and had to cut her hair short to fit with the image. The idea for how it should be carried out is almost too simple to be true. In her autobiography Silent Star, published in 1968 Colleen tells us all about it. Her mother had a Japanese doll which she loved dearly and simply suggested that Colleen cut her hair to resemble it for the role as the flapper. Colleen agreed and the result is history.

Colleen Moore 1927

Flaming Youth made both Colleen Moore and her haircut overnight superstars. As important a film Flaming Youth was for the Jazz Age, as sad is the loss of it for us today. Only one reel of it is reported to exist in a vault somewhere.

Colleen Moore is one of those screen legends that is almost totally forgotten today because most of her movies are lost. Of her about 60 movies we only have a little more than a handful left to enjoy. One of them is Ella Cinders from 1926, a wonderful "modern day" Cinderella tale where Colleen makes good use of her comic talent and striking looks. Here's a clip from it. Please enjoy Collen Moore at the height of her career:

The bobbed Japanese doll haircut soon became synonymous with the flapper image and was copied by girls all over the world. One actress who took this hairstyle to another level was of course Louise Brooks, who used it to charge her appearence with allure and enigma. But she didn't bob her hair until 1926.

Louise Brooks 1929

Both Colleen Moore and Louise Brooks left their incredibly successful silent movie careers around 1930. Colleen made her last film as Hester Prynne in a poverty row production of The Scarlet Letter in 1934. She married a stock broker and learned how to invest her fortune. At the height of her fame, Moore was earning $12,500 per week. She was an astute investor, and through her investments remained wealthy for the rest of her life. Throughout her life she had a fascination for dolls (probably also their haircuts). Over the years, starting in her childhood she spent a fortune on a gigantic dollhouse, a fairy castle which still can be visited at The Museum Of Science and Industry in Chicago. In the 1960's she ran a television production company together with King Vidor. In her later years she would frequently attend film festivals, and was a popular interview subject always willing to discuss her Hollywood career. She was a participant in the 1980 documentary film series Hollywood, providing her recollections of Hollywood's silent film era. Colleen Moore left us in 1988, probably aged 87.

Louise Brooks hit the silver screen for the last time in 1938 with the forgettable western Overland Stage Riders. Contrary to popular rumor, this was not intended to be her "comeback" to Hollywood, she made it simply because she needed the money. She then opened a dance studio in Beverly Hills. It failed because of a financial scandal involving her business partner. In 1940, Brooks boarded a train back to Kansas, leaving Hollywood for good. She opened a dance studio in Wichita and wrote a book, "The Fundamentals of Good Ballroom Dancing". She later became a quite successful writer and painter. Louise Brooks left us in 1985, aged 78.

Let's end with a citation from the writer who started it all:

"I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth, Colleen Moore was the torch. What little things we are to have caused all that trouble"
- F. Scott Fitzgerald.

The title picture of this blog is a poster for the 1927 movie Twinkletoes starring Colleen Moore.
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