Friday, November 4, 2011

Mamba World Premiere in Melbourne Nov 21

It's not without pride I can announce that Tiffany Pictures 1930 all color triumph Mamba will be shown in public for the first time in about 80 years. This very special event will take place at The Astor Theatre in Melbourne, Australia November 21.

My collaborator Paul Brennan and I will be there in person to present the film together. It was Paul who found the long thought lost nitrate reels in 2009, I then edited the whole thing together into a presentable format. Since 2009, when Mamba was found, the complete soundtrack has been added to the film elements thanks to a kind contribution from the UCLA Film & Television Archives.

With all the different elements in place Mamba is now ready to be properly restored. However, when the opportunity to present the film before a live audience came about, and at such a wonderful place as The Astor we immediately decided to share this remarkable discovery even though it's still a work in progress.

"The Astor was built in the 1930s and still retains the art-deco charm of that period. The theatre is a classic, single-screen cinema with stalls and a dress circle, the overall seating capacity of 1,150 is reduced from the original 1,700 - and the auditorium has the same, soft ambience that you will have enjoyed in the foyers. Beautiful curtains cover the screen - there are no jarring, advertising slides to greet you!

But there is nothing "old-fashioned" about The Astor's facilities. The fully air-conditioned cinema boasts a state-of-the-art sound system and now has Australia's first installation of the superb, Barco 4K Digital Projector which is capable of providing resolution that is up to four times higher than the industry standard." Thus a splendid venue for such an important event.

This is the first of two articles about Mamba, it's importance in film history and more information about the people who made it. The story about how the film was found can be found here.

Mamba is one of the earliest all talking all color features ever made that also survives complete. The use of color throughout an entire talking feature was something completely new in 1929 and for such a small studio as Tiffany it was unheard of. It’s clear Tiffany decided to take a risk with hopes to become a bigger player in the Hollywood studio system. In the fall of 1929 Hollywood was not only a turmoil of sound but also color. Every studio of note was wiring for sound and the bigger players also wanted color in their productions, if only just short sequences.

One should note that at this time only about a dozen Technicolor cameras were available in Hollywood altogether. The studios had to battle to use them and the schedules were tight. The big studios monopolized the color cameras quite thoroughly but Tiffany got lucky, probably by some sort of divine intervention and could shoot an entire feature in color. All color talkies was clearly the next big thing and Tiffany decided to go all in right from the start. They were even planning to take technology a step further and shoot it in 3D according to this article in the Film Daily published Nov 12, 1929

Mamba was shot during approximately 10 weeks, from the end of September to early December 1929. At the time production begun, only two all talking, all color features had been released. Those were two backstage musicals from Warner Bros, On With The Show! released in July and Gold Diggers of Broadway in late August. None of the two have survived intact.

 When production wrapped in December, two more WB musicals were ready for release. The two hour extravaganza The Show Of Shows opening late November and the Jerome Kern operetta Sally starring Marilyn Miller just before Christmas 1929. These two have survived in black and white only, save from short fragments in color.

The fifth all color talkie The Vagabond King from Paramount had its NYC gala premiere late February 1930 (it wasn’t released to the general public until April). It has survived and has been restored by UCLA. Then comes Mamba, released March 10, which makes it the sixth all color talkie ever produced, and the earliest known all color talkie that wasn’t a musical or came from a major studio. It is intact and in quite good shape but it needs to be restored.

Tiffany Pictures was formed in 1921 as an independent production company by silent superstar Mae Murray and her then husband and director Robert Z. Leonard. Probably inspired by United Artists, formed two years earlier by Pickford/Fairbanks/Chaplin/Griffith, Tiffany's main goal was to produce Mae Murray vehicles, distributing them through Metro. After having made eight features together, Mae Murray divorced Leonard and left Tiffany for MGM in 1925. She eventually came back to Tiffany in 1929 to remake her 1922 success Peacock Alley as a talkie. It didn't work out well and Murray's talkie career was more or less over within a year. She sued Tiffany accusing the company having ruined her career. She lost the case and eventually left the movie business. The rest of her life is a mentally unstable, rather sad story. Mae Murray left us in 1965, a year after her last attempt for a come-back at 75. She was the real Norma Desmond.

Mae Murray in The Merry Widow 1925
What happened to Tiffany Pictures right after Murray's departure is somewhat unclear. My guess is that it was in limbo for a while until someone decided to pick up the pieces. There are indications of Tiffany being reformed from the scraps of the MGM merger in 1924. Considering its close relationship with Metro, many redundant people left over from Metro (and Goldwyn) who wasn't transferred to MGM was probably hired by Tiffany. With a new management and a staff of skilled craftsmen the company was ready for big business.

Tiffany is often referred to as a poverty row studio. I'm not sure if the term poverty row is a correct label for a company like Tiffany. I think independent studio would be more suitable. After all, they had their own studio from 1927, The Reliance Majestic Studios which had been the home of DW Griffith. The Birth of a NationIntolerance and Broken Blossoms were all partially or fully shot at the studio.

The Tiffany-Stahl Studio 1929 
Poverty row units normally had to lease facilities, often cameras and other equipment, sets and sometimes even actors from other studios when they wanted to make a picture. The classic poverty row production was generally a poorly funded venture with very unclear distribution. In an era when the bigger studios also owned the major theatre chains, getting an independent picture into movie houses was a challenge. I guess the Tiffany studio may have served as a base for other smaller companies, thus linking it to the poverty row epithet.

With the acquisition of the Reliance Majestic in 1927 came the new boss the MGM director and producer John M. Stahl who stayed in power until 1930 when he sold his interest in Tiffany and became a director at Columbia. I guess Stahl was largely responsible for the "New expanding Tiffany" as it coincides exactly with his time as CEO. Stahl was generally considered a really competent and nice man, liked by both staff and actors.

From August 1929 Tiffany had a very lucrative agreement with RCA. The deal was very straight forward - If a cinema owner agreed to book a block of 26 Tiffany films, RCA would wire the theatre for sound for $2,995, which was a bargain for most managers. By February 1930 no less than 2,460 theaters had signed up for the deal. Tiffany had thus a distribution network, at least for a while.

John M. Stahl
After Stahl left Tiffany in 1930 the company sunk back among the B-players concentrating on westerns, shorts and cheap monkey movies. They finally went out of business in 1932, much because of the ongoing depression, a general lack of funds and a hard time getting their films out to the theaters. According to my sources the main reason for their demise was because "they had no profitable distribution network." So I guess the departure of Stahl also ended the profitable RCA distribution agreement. The studio was sold and the main part of the Tiffany legacy, including most of the original negatives went up in smoke during the filming of Gone With The Wind in 1939.

John M. Stahl later directed several great pictures for Columbia in the 1930's and later for 20th Century Fox, his best known film is the brilliant Technicolor noir Leave Her To Heaven. 1950's melodrama master Douglas Sirk remade no less than three of Stahls pictures from the 30's. Magnificent Obsession is one of them.

My next post will give you more Mamba magic. Stay tuned!


Stacia said...

Congratulations and good luck at the premiere!

Raquel Stecher said...

The Swedish Rock star Talkie King travels to Australia. Awesome! The work you've done to restore the iflm as well as promote it is wonderful. Great post! Lots of wonderful information here. I'm glad to have been given a chance to watch the film. It makes me feel really special.

That's so interesting about there only being a dozen technicolor cameras. The Astor looks gorgeous!

mndean said...

I believe I read something of the Stahl departure from Tiffany at Internet Archives in one of their magazine collections (I think it was Film Daily). As I remember it, he sold out just before the crash. Good for him, bad for Tiffany.

FrankFay said...

The lawsuit filed by Tiffany & Co jewelers couldn't have helped matters any.

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