Ten Minutes With Hal Roach

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Hal Roach discussing a scene with Laurel & Hardy

On October 16, 1986, I had the good luck to attend a lecture by renowned silent film producer Hal Roach. The event was held at the National Film Theater in London, and was moderated by David Robinson. Robinson reviewed his long and illustrious career, which included producing films starring Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and many, many other comedians. After the screening and discussion of several of his films, there was time for a few questions from the audience. During this Q&A session (on which I took notes), Roach, 94 at the time of this tribute, was asked to give a brief description of several of the important comedians and filmmakers he knew or had worked with—his comments about these men all the more interesting because of their terse and completely off-the-cuff nature.

The following opinions are Mr. Roach’s, not necessarily mine.

 

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On Charlie Chase

“He was one of the funniest men I ever worked with—naturally funny, on and off the screen. He never drank on the set, but his problem was with booze. I remember coming to visit Charlie in the hospital—he’d go in to get dried out—and I never needed to know what room he was in…I would just walk down the hall and listen to where the laughter was coming from. Then I’d go in the room and he’d be in bed and the doctors and nurses would be all around laughing their heads off listening to him. Eventually he went to Mayo (Clinic) because his drinking had caused problems with his stomach—they had to make another hole or something…well, I got a call back from Mayo—they said this guy’s got the whole hospital laughing. When the doctors told Charlie he’d be making progress when he could ‘pass wind,’ he sent invitations out to the floor inviting everyone to his room on the day it happened. They finally sent him home and he only made it for two weeks without the booze. I think he died two months later. It was all very sad.”

 

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On Buster Keaton

“Buster got his comedy from sight gags—he only had one expression, so that was limiting. It was harder for him because he only had the gags to make things funny.”

 

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On Laurel and Hardy

“Most teams had the comedian and the straight man. Laurel and Hardy were both comedians and this was an advantage. You could do a gag, and have Laurel react to it, and then have Hardy react to what Laurel had just done, and if it was funny enough you could have Laurel react to Hardy’s reaction. So that was great, because you could get three laughs from just one joke.”

(On being asked why the team had a decline in quality after they left his studio)

“As a gag writer, Laurel was one of the best, but he had no sense of story or plot. So when he insisted he wanted to write his own plots, I had to let them go.”

 

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On D.W. Griffith

“Griffith was one of the greatest directors ever. He had left Hollywood for the East and then returned. We often had lunch together. My friends told me that when he ate with me, Griffith would eat a good meal, but when we didn’t have lunch, he wouldn’t eat. So I started to have a lot of lunches with him. I never had any intention of his filming One Million B.C. I just wanted him to screen the rushes, which is what he did, and he’d call me and talk to me about what I’d shot. He died not long after the film was finished.”

 

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On Charlie Chaplin

“Charlie was the greatest comedian of them all. When I first met Charlie, he was just like you and me, an ordinary guy. Then after he got famous, he started getting invitations to meet famous people, people like Churchill, and he’d tell them something—didn’t matter what he said—and they say ‘that’s brilliant!’ So before long Charlie started believing what everybody was saying, and that changed him. What the government did to Charlie was very sad. Charlie was never a communist…he never gave a penny to anybody!”

When the Q&A was over, Hal Roach looked over the crowd and said, “No more questions? I really am disappointed in all of you.” We looked around at each other in stunned consternation. Had someone said something to offend him? What had happened? Then Roach continued: “I really am disappointed because everyone always wants to me to talk about the past, no is ever interested in what I’m doing now. I have all these projects going on. But no, no one ever asks,” he said with a wink. “Goodnight everyone.”

Hal Roach (from the collection of Dean McKeown)

Hal Roach in his 90s
(from the collection of Dean McKeown)

 

 

 

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Too Much Johnson Is Never Enough Orson: The ‘Lost Film’ of Orson Welles

 

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

One of the highlights of last fall’s silent film festival in Pordenone, Italy was the premier of Orson Welles’s ‘lost’ 1938 film, ‘Too Much Johnson.’ A lost silent film made by Orson Welles shot three years before Citizen Kane? As usual, when talking about the life and career of Orson Welles, some explanation is in order.

Co-founders of the Mercury Theater, John Houseman and Orson Welles

Co-founders of the Mercury Theater, John Houseman and Orson Welles

In 1938, Welles, along with his Mercury Theater co-founder John Houseman, decided to stage a play on Broadway with the lewd but memorable title, Too Much Johnson.  The season before Welles and Houseman had staged a successful adaptation of the French play The Italian Straw Hat. Their newly renamed version of the play, Horse Eats Hat, was perhaps a cue to the audience to expect less wordplay and more horseplay than in the original production, and they must have seen a similar possibility to amend and change the serviceable, but dated farce, Too Much Johnson. which had been first produced in 1894, and written by William Gillette, a playwright and actor, better known to us for his stage portrayal of Sherlock Holmes.

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Bryant_Wasburn_in_Too_Much_Johnson_by_Donald_Crosp_2_Film_Daily_1920The first act of the play in its original form starts on a ship bound for Cuba, where we learn that Augustus Billings, a New York lawyer, is romancing another man’s wife by pretending he is a Cuban plantation owner. Meanwhile, there is another pair of lovers, Leonora and Henry, who must contend with an overbearing father, Faddish, who wants his daughter Leonora, to marry a plantation owner who really does have the name Johnson. As the ship sets sail for Santiago, the confusion of mistaken identities intensifies as they chase each other around the boat. In the second and third act, they reach Cuba, where after a series of misadventures, Billings, along with Leonora and Henry, escape the island, leaving Faddish and Johnson behind to plot revenge.

Welles liked this play well enough to consider staging in on Broadway, but with his ever- present itch to try something new, he came up with what was then a very original idea. He wanted to have a short film precede each act of the play that would function as part of the performance—the actors would be seen on the screen, and then, after the film was over, the same actors would walk unto to the stage to continue the drama—the film sequences and the live drama would function together with a unity of purpose for purpose of telling a story. The idea of linking film and theater into a combined narrative wasn’t completely new. In 1908 L. Frank Baum brought his Wizard of Oz characters to life using a combination of live actors, magic lantern slides and film in his stage production The Fairylogue and Radio-Plays, and there had been other previous productions in Europe with a similar ideas. But Welles planned to carry the concept much farther, completely integrating the elements of live theater, film and musical accompaniment into one seamless entity.

With this goal in mind, Welles gathered together the group of players scheduled to be in the stage production, and spent ten days filming scenes that would become the prologues for each act. The play was cast with actors from Welles’s repertory group, and included Joseph Cotten and a young Arlene Francis. Welles planned to edit together the footage in time for the play’s premiere, set for August 17 at Stony Creek, a small theater in Connecticut. If the play received good reviews during this ‘tryout,’ the next step would be a move to Broadway, where his idea of combining theater and film would be in full critical view. The cameraman for this project was Harry Dunham, an experienced documentary filmmaker who had filmed the Spanish Civil War and the Japanese invasion of China. Dunham was well suited for this assignment, which included largely improvisational, on-the-fly camera setups.

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

Welles and his crew first shot on the streets and roofs of Manhattan, and then went up the Hudson to Tompkins Cove quarry and filmed on locations that would double (with the help of a few rented palm trees) for Cuba, where the last part of the play takes place. After the filming was completed, Welles took the footage, and working in a New York hotel room, spliced together a workprint, including all the takes from each scene. This workprint ran a total of sixty-six minutes, from which about twenty minutes would have been edited together as a prologue for the first act, with shorter prologues used for the next acts. Each of these prologues would then preface the stage portion of the next act.

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

It was at this time when several factors came into play with would doom the project. The first is that Welles had not secured the film rights to the play, which were owned by Paramount Pictures, who had released a version of the story in 1920. Paramount notified Welles that they would demand a fee if any type of film—no matter how experimental—was used in the production of the play. A second problem was the Stony Creek Theater—where the play was scheduled for its tryout run—didn’t have the ability to project the film properly. Then Welles and Houseman suddenly found themselves in a cash flow problem—they had no more money to pay their actors, or buy film stock. The Mercury Theater had always run more on prestige and goodwill than on box office receipts, and with the costs of this film production quickly adding up, Welles and Houseman found themselves suddenly facing a huge budget deficit.

But perhaps the most pressing problem was that the play was set to premiere August 17. With no time for further editing or reshoots, with no money to pay off a film studio for the rights to an experimental project that might not work anyway, and with a venue that would not allow any simple way to project the film even if the first two conditions were met, the solution was obvious: Welles abandoned the attempt to use the filmed prologues. Shorn of these filmed interludes, or more accurately, never having them, Too Much Johnson premiered as scheduled, August 17.

As what happens to many (if not the majority) of the plays bucking for a chance to play in the very competitive New York theater circuit, Welles and his company decided the reception and critical reviews in the tryout were not strong enough to warrant a Broadway premiere. Too Much Johnson ended its short run at the Stony Creek, and the actors and staff moved on to other projects. John Houseman, in his autobiography, Run-Through, describes that Welles, angry and despondent at having to give up on his plans for the play, retreated to his hotel room and spent the week in bed. Years later, Houseman concluded the experience was Welles’s first real setback, his first significant ‘defeat’ in trying to mount an ambitious production. If so, it would set a precedent that would be repeated at a much larger scale in the years that followed.

96fa5125e2e73bd4345c983c3501b5b6But for now, the ever-present demand from his numerous radio programs soon returned him to his workaholic habits. Two months later, on Halloween night, October 31, Orson Welles achieved international fame with his radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, by staging the drama as if it was really happening and being covered by the news services. Riding on a surge of fame and celebrity in a few short years he had moved to Hollywood, and in 1941, made Citizen Kane, now regarded as one of greatest films ever made. However, the release of Citizen Kane angered the 1940’s version of The Powers That Be, and afterward Welles’s career began a slow, sputtering descent, eventually forcing him to scramble for work, and giving him perpetual funding problems for his projects.

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

Decades later, as part of a revival of interest in his work, an effort was made to recover the workprint of Too Much Johnson, which had been put in a figurative (or perhaps literal) closet in 1938 and long forgotten. But no one could find any trace of the film. The best guess, made by Welles himself, was that the reels of nitrate film had burned in a fire in his house in Spain in the 1970s. Too Much Johnson was consigned to an ever-growing number of ‘what if’ projects by Welles that for various reasons, were never completed, a list that if compiled, would rival the collection of items seen at the end of Citizen Kane.

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

Decades after Welles’s death, by complete coincidence, Welles’s Too Much Johnson—a films designed by Welles to use the techniques of silent film to tell a story—turned up in a warehouse in Pordenone, Italy, a town where people come from around the world each year to attend a festival dedicated to silent film. Once it was determined that the film was indeed Welles’s ‘lost film,’ the reels were sent for restoration, and at the most recent festival, for the first time ever, the public was able to see this uncompleted project of Orson Welles.

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As part of the film’s premiere, Paolo Cherchi Usai narrated the various sequences, along with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli. Before the film started, it was explained that we were watching a workprint, and were cautioned on having high expectations; after all we would clearly be watching a work in progress, with no intent for it to be a finished product. Helped both by Cherchi Usai’s knowledgeable narration and Carli’s expert ability to give us a music that matched the tone and context of what we were seeing, watching the film turned out to be a real delight. The experience was far more interesting than I had expected, and left me to ponder many ideas as I left the theater.

My first thought was that for film enthusiasts, watching a workprint, even one made as casually as this was, is a very rewarding experience. If you are interested seeing what such a print looks like, I recommend Criterion’s DVD of Night of the Hunter which includes a wonderful bonus track: Charles Laughton Directs “The Night of the Hunter,” a fascinating compilation of outtakes and behind-the-scenes footage.

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Here is the link that discusses these outtakes and extra footage in more detail:

http://www.criterion.com/films/27525-the-night-of-the-hunter

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

My second thought about watching the workprint of Too Much Johnson is how this footage demonstrates the importance and advantage of using professional actors. Award winning director Alexander Payne, a huge fan of traditional Hollywood filmmaking, has said during interviews that 80% of directing a film is casting the right actors for the parts. I completely agree with Payne’s observation and in this footage you can see what Payne is talking about, as we watch Joseph Cotten, Arlene Francis and the rest of the actors, run through their paces (even John Houseman shows up for a cameo). These men and women are have years of experience and training—they know how to use their hands and arms, they know how to hold an expression and how to move their body—this discipline is on display even in the most cursory of shots.

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John Houseman, many years before becoming a Harvard law professor, was once a Keystone Cop
George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

I’ve read speculations that what we saw was not a workprint, but rather the ‘outtakes’ from a more carefully edited print. In other words, a more pristine (read: masterful) print exists—or at one time existed—where one can see a more finished version of the film. This line of reasoning posits that this version of Too Much Johnson was perhaps the print Welles was thinking of when he talked about losing as a consequence of the fire at his house in Spain. The idea that a more ‘finished’ film by Welles is still ‘out there,’ is tantalizing—almost too tantalizing. It smacks of a need to frame the scenario into a pulp fiction quest, a version of Dashiell Hammett’s Maltese Falcon reconstituted into cans of nitrate film perhaps still lurking in a dark, forgotten corner.

However fanciful, I would not dismiss this idea out of hand. Instead, the theory could be tested by comparing the raw nitrate film, and carefully analyzing the progression of outtakes in the sequences, while also looking for splices and other signs of alteration. No mention of this was discussed during the festival, and as to further discussion of this possibility, I quote Carl Sagan: “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

Other reviewers of Too Much Johnson wax enthusiastic about the photography, lighting and composition of the images, comparing them favorably to Citizen Kane, still four years away. While it’s certainly possible Welles was already thinking ahead about the use of dramatic angles and deep space, let’s remind ourselves that he was working with Harry Dunham, an experienced cameraman, who surely knew how to frame a shot. What I see in most of this footage is a professional use of location and natural light in order to show the actors to the best advantage, even in the most improvisational camera setup. My conclusion: While it’s clear that Welles was involved in at least some aspects of the photography of this production, let us give credit to Dunham for doing his best in what must have been very trying conditions.

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

One of the joys of watching this film is simply the ability to see the New York skyline of 1938. When watching a finished film shot on location, this is always a side benefit, but most films are edited so tightly that the pleasure of taking your eye off the actors and just taking in a physical space is difficult. Not so with a workprint like this, with its multiple takes. Under this format, the viewer has the freedom to enjoy the scenery without a compelling need to pay attention to any narrative. This allows you to see what New York buildings been lost to time, or to try to identify what landmarks are still present.

A persistent problem I have with the all the discussion of Welles being a famous filmmaker (a discussion revisited by the discovery of this film) is that I think his major contributions are not in film but rather in theater and radio drama. The lack of attention to his stage work is natural enough, since by its nature theater is an ephemeral art, and each audience will have the pleasure of watching a dramatic performance in a way that can’t be repeated. I think the real ‘lost,’ or to be more accurate, ‘forgotten’ works of Orson Welles are his radio dramas.

We have an extensive archival collection of Orson Welles’s radio performances, from his role as The Shadow, to his pioneering work on radio literary adaptations, to even exotica like the radio series he played as Harry Lime (presumably the episodes take place before the events of The Third Man). But the popular interest for his work in this field is minimal, which is part of a larger cultural disinterest in the pursuit of radio as a medium for telling stories. Most of the radio programs from the 1930s have fallen into public domain and appreciation in the United States for this form of dramatic presentation languishes for all but the most devoted niche market.

Caesar2In the context of the ten days he spent shooting Too Much Johnson, let’s look at what else was on Welles’s plate for the spring and summer of 1938.  The Mercury Theatre itself was finishing a run of the critically acclaimed adaptation of The Tragedy of Julius Caesar that evoked comparison to contemporary Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany. It premiered on Broadway on November 11, 1937 and this production extended into 1938. On March 14, 1938, the Broadway production moved from the Mercury Theatre to the National Theatre. The Mercury Theatre’s second production was a staging of Thomas Dekker’s Elizabethan comedy The Shoemaker’s Holiday, which attracted “unanimous raves.” It premiered on January 1, 1938, and ran to 64 performances in repertory with Caesar, until April 1. The third Mercury Theatre play was an adaptation of George Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House, which again attracted strong reviews. It premiered on April 29, 1938, and ran for six weeks, closing on June 11. It was the last Mercury Theatre production before the troupe began broadcasting on the radio as well. Orson Welles (with John Houseman) was the co-founder of the Mercury Theater, and although he certainly didn’t have day-to-day management duties, he at least had nominal supervision of all these projects.

Orson Welles as the ShadowIn addition to these numerous and complex theater productions, Welles was so in demand as a radio actor that he had to be taken from one studio to another by ambulance to get to the recordings in time. An partial list of these roles in the summer of 1938 include a weekly performance as The Shadow and a lead role in a CBS show titled First Person Singular, a series of radio dramas adapted famous literary novels. Soon to be renamed The Mercury Theater on the Air, Welles and his associates would rehearse the script, make editing changes, and perform the show—all in less than seven days. Sometimes the script would be written in hours, not days or weeks. John Houseman, in his autobiographies Run-Through and Unfinished Business, talks about Welles’s sudden decision to use Bram Stoker’s Dracula for next week’s show. To meet this impossible deadline, Welles and Houseman spent all night at Perkin’s restaurant in Manhattan tearing the pages out the Stoker’s novel so that they could condense and rewrite the story to get it down to a one-hour format. And seven days later they had to be ready for Treasure Island. The year of 1938 must have been a blur on the calendar for both Welles and his staff.

Here is only a partial list of the novels adapted in the summer and fall of 1938 for his radio drama series:

July 11 Dracula by Bram Stoker

(It was after this radio performance that Houseman says they started shooting Too Much Johnson)

July 18 Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

July 25 A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens

August 1 The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan

August 29 The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

October 2  Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens

October 16 Seventeen by Booth Tarkington

October 30 The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells

November 6 Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

(This list is from Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Welles’s Career: A Chronology”, in Jonathan Rosenbaum (ed.), Orson Welles and Peter Bogdanovich, This is Orson Welles. New York: Da Capo Press, 1992)

orson-wellesThe number and variety of productions Welles was involved with in this period is breathtaking. Of course not every project he worked on was meant to be deathless prose, or even memorable. Much of what he did was simply use his wonderful, sonorous voice to give life to a script thrust in front if him, as he ran, breathless, from one gig to another. Todd Tarbox’s book, Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts includes an interview Welles gave many years later, describing this moment in his life: “I was making a couple of thousand a week, scampering in ambulances from studio to studio, and committing much of what I made to support the Mercury. I wouldn’t want to return to those frenetic 20-hour working day years, but I miss them because they are so irredeemably gone.”

orson welles and the cast of mercury theater on the air

When placed in the context of all the other work Welles was doing in 1938, the ten days of shooting a silent film on the streets of New York must have felt like a summer vacation. And more importantly, it was an easy project to put aside as other more important projects loomed in the horizon.

844deac1559fab739f397aac2ebbb736Looking at the impressive list of these radio dramas, of particular interest are the last two productions: If anyone remembers Welles’s radio work at all, it is because of his version of War of the Worlds, probably the most famous radio show ever done. And then in just the next week, the Mercury Theater group performed a story that Welles thought highly of, The Heart of Darkness. This was the first film project he attempted when given his contract at RKO and elements of the story found their way into Citizen Kane. Indeed, one could argue that our effort to peer into a heart of man who does not even understand himself is essentially an urbanized version of The Heart of Darkness.

Since Welles essentially did Dracula and Too Much Johnson as back-to-back efforts—one immediately after the other—it’s interesting to compare the two projects. The radio drama Dracula had a turnaround time, from start, to airing on national radio, of about two weeks, perhaps only a week or so, if one counts the actual days involved. Despite this amazingly short pre-production time, Welles’s Dracula is nowadays considered one of the best of all the adaptations of the novel, closer in intent and spirit to the novel than (arguably) any of the hundred of versions, in any media, done before or after. By contrast, the budget and time Welles gave himself to shoot, edit and complete about forty minutes of filmed material was completely inadequate for the task. The contrast is striking: Welles and his talented coworkers took about ten days to create the radio drama Dracula, a work of art still valued today, but after more than fifty days (and exhausting their funds) had to give up on the uncompleted Too Much Johnson. Welles would realize from this misadventure that working in film required time, money and energy in a scale magnitudes higher than working in the media of radio, which inherently has fewer factors one must control and account for.

Here is Orson Welles talking about the novel Dracula:

The radio drama Dracula can be found in various locations on the Internet; here is one link to it via Youtube:

If on shaky ground from the start, Welles’s effort to complete Too Much Johnson was probably doomed the moment he decided to edit the film himself, rather than to give the job to an experienced hand. On the other hand, the decision probably paid off huge dividends in the long run, since his weeks of running through the reels of film gave him an invaluable apprenticeship for what would eventually be a far more important project, Citizen Kane.

Some final thoughts: In the program notes, and in the subsequent reviews written about this film, the idea has been put out that Welles intended to have three prologues, one to start each act. However, Houseman in his memoirs writes that Welles planned two filmed prologues, not three. In reading the theater script and watching the workprint, I think Welles planned to condense act two and three into just one act, and have only a prologue before each act. Since part of the workprint includes a duel (alluded to but not shown in the original play), the possibility exists of having a third filmed interlude near the end of Welles’s adapted version. So this technically gives us two prologues, not three, and then perhaps the possibility of a filmed sequence right before the climax of the farce. This intent could perhaps be verified by examining an actual script used at the Stony Creek Theater performance (assuming this script survives) and this would help us better understand how Welles planned to integrate his filmed interludes into the play.

During the film’s premiere in Pordenone, and in subsequent discussions about the film, the theory was put out that Welles designed these prologues as ways of simplifying and condensing the expositional elements of the play so each act could ‘hit the ground’ running and plunge quickly into the story. After reading the original theater script of Too Much Johnson I am convinced this idea is wrong, or at least misleading. If anything, the prologues add complexity to the story, by showing us the events that happened just before the ship sails off to Cuba. In the theater script, much of the backstory is given to us in a quick (if dramaturgically awkward) fashion by Billings, who explains to a befuddled purser why all the involved parties are on board. In a few short passages, we have all we need to know about all the characters.

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

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George Eastman House / Cinemazero / La Cineteca del Friuli

I think Welles had a simple and much better reason to do this—a filmed prologue was going to be the twist, the ‘new’ thing that made his play different from anyone else’s. He had been the first to put ‘voodoo’ in Macbeth; he had been the first to stage Julius Caesar in the setting of a contemporary fascist state. So the challenge for him was to figure out what could he do with Too Much Johnson, something so interesting that everyone had to see it. In reading the script of the play, a thought may have come to him (it did to me) that there were elements of the play that functioned better in the style of silent film slapstick comedy than as theatrical farce. At some point while mulling over this script, the idea must have struck him —why not include silent slapstick comedies, and dramatically integrate them into the production? Nobody had done that before. Another first, another Orson Welles original.

And he was completely right to think this. Orson Welles’s talents were in the direction of adaptation, rather than in writing or developing his own material. I say this not as a criticism, but rather as an explanation of one of Welles’s greatest gifts—the ability to see how to find an angle that would take something old and make it new. When he was forced to abandon the idea to include these films as part of performing Too Much Johnson, Welles knew more than anyone that the play would revert back to being a creaky, outdated, turn-of-the-century farce. After the short run at Stony Creek, which Houseman described as ‘trivial, tedious and underrehearsed,’ any thought of transferring the production to Broadway was abandoned, and after the last performance, the play was quickly forgotten, becoming merely a odd footnote to Orson Welles’s career.

In regard to plays performed with filmed interludes—I have seen two plays with film incorporated into live theater, the musical Hollywood Boulevard, and a drama, Hitchcock Blonde. In my opinion, neither attempt at mixing stage with filmed images worked for the simple reason that the moving image was always more compelling to the eye than the static stage. Just when you hoped you could sit back and enjoy the movie, the lights went on and the actors started their business. But to be fair, I can’t compare these modern attempts to blend film and theater to what Welles did—his prologues were different and more complex, not only because the actors on the screen were the same actors who were doing the stage performance. Welles was trying for a truly integrated attempt to integrate the scenes into the play, which leads to my final thought:

125127-050-0F31D8C4After watching these sixty-six minutes of film, I can’t think of a greater honor to Welles than for someone to take the material here and fashion something new out it. Welles spent his entire career updating versions of other people’s work (Shakespeare being the most obvious), so ‘re-purposing’ this material would be a very Wellesian proposition. There would be two obvious directions for this—one would be to cut together these dailies and fashion the prologues as he had planned so that the play itself could be performed as he originally intended. The other idea would be to take the footage and create a new piece of silent film with no need to connect itself with the Gillette play; with the right editing and judicious use of intertitles, an ambitious editor could put together a completely new story. It’s been done before in the silent film world, using stars such as Chaplin—this new story could be a slapstick silent film done under the style of Mack Sennett, starring the able and forever young cast of the Mercury Theater. And while watching for this updated version of Too Much Johnson, we can always hope for other plays, films and radio dramas by artists who are inspired by what Welles was able to achieve. Inspired by, but not a slave to his work, because above all there is always the dictum that Welles gave to himself: Always find a way to make what you are doing different, unique, and your own.

Posted in Film history | 1 Comment

Roger and Me: An Almost Perfect London Walk

Roger and Me: An Almost Perfect London Walk

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Roger Ebert’s death on April 4, 2013 has produced—for his vocation—a degree of sympathy and support that is perhaps unprecedented (since when have so many people been emotionally affected by the death of a film critic?). While some of this reaction is related to the Internet and the rise of social media (when Pauline Kael died in 2001, Facebook was three years away from its launch), one should not underestimate the personal connection Roger Ebert had with many of his readers and supporters—if you had the slightest interest in film, you knew who this person was. You may not have always agreed with his opinions and reviews, but it was impossible not to respect his effort to give each film a clear and honest appraisal. In looking back at history, I’d have to go back to Will Rogers to find a American writer who was better able to use a variety of media (today we’d call it convergence) in order to maintain high visibility, and do it not for the purpose not to primarily serve his own career, but instead to promote causes and interests he thought were important. That puts Roger in very select company.

Roger Ebert was at heart a newspaperman, a reporter in the best tradition of his fellow Sun-Times columnist Mike Rokyo. By accident or intent (I think much of this was in place before Roger ever got to Chicago), Roger followed Rokyo’s formula for success:

1) Write about what interests you, wherever that takes you.
2) Don’t show off—use smaller words when they work just as well as longer ones.
3) On the other hand, don’t play dumb, respect the intelligence of your reader to either know what you are saying or have the gumption to look up your reference and learn something.

Ebert’s writing aimed for clarity and simplicity, but it’s a mistake to think it was not learned; his reviews and articles over the years reflected an expertise about many topics and this knowledge would often add that extra touch that would elevate what he wrote from the ordinary to the special. And as someone who had been trained as a sports reporter and was interested in more than just movies, he loved doing work unrelated to his main job as a film critic. In particular, in 1986 he cowrote a guidebook with his friend Daniel Curley titled: A Perfect London Walk.

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The book is many things, but mostly concerns a walking tour in northern London starting west of Hampstead Heath and finishing near Highgate Cemetery. I found his book in a London bookstore in 1986, and was immediately captured by its combination of wit and sense of purpose. The guidebook’s ability to connect literary references to real locations acts as a ‘literary buoy,’ if you will, allowing the reader to see, taste and smell the location that inspired the poem or story, thus enjoying the author’s creation all the more. A Perfect London Walk then, is much more than a guidebook, it is also a sort of manifesto of Roger Ebert’s interests concerning a time and place in English history and how this place influenced its local writers. Although I had never met him, in reading this book and then reading more about him from other sources, I found we had much in common. Roger and Me–old friends, even though we had never met.

Roger was born and raised in Urbana, Illinois, only a few hours from my hometown. We grew up both huge science fiction fans, we both wrote for fanzines, we both worked for local newspapers in our hometowns, we both went to local colleges in our hometowns after high school. We both were readers, and loved fiction, especially British literature. After graduating from the University of Illinois, Roger went on to Chicago, while I went to medical school at the University of Illinois at Urbana. From there our paths deviated a bit, but there would always be these common connections, and above all a love of movies.

Roger and Me. After his death, I have discovered there are a lot of Me’s out there. There is the Me of documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, who Roger championed in the late 1980s. There is the Me of Werner Herzog, a German director who Ebert praised and promoted, even during times when Herzog was having difficulty getting funding for his next film. There is the Me of thousands of readers who appreciated his frankness and passion in his writing and how he bravely kept reinventing his life. There are too many Me’s to try and list, but you know who you are.

A few years ago, I was in London and decided to repeat the walk and see how it had changed. Since by now Roger was ill, I resolved to send him a letter describing my walk. On this visit, I took photos to show how the walk had changed from the year it was documented in his book, but then, to reinforce how central the heath is to a certain chapter of British literature, and not be slavishly repetitious to what he had done, I came up with a new set of quotes from literary sources that had a connection to Hampstead Heath. A version of this ‘travel essay’ went out as a Christmas Greeting to Roger and Chaz the year of my revisit. Then I filed a copy of it away and moved on to other things.

This month, sad like everyone else at hearing the news of Roger’s passing, I thought about the Hampstead Heath and wondered if people were still using his guidebook. I checked Amazon.com and found the price of a used paperback of A Perfect London Walk going for $387.82 with one seller at more than a thousand dollars. I think it is safe to say this book is in need of a both a revision and a reprint. The cowriter of this book, Daniel Curley (who was Roger Ebert’s professor at the University of Illinois) tragically died from a traffic accident in 1988, so there will be no simple way for this to happen.

With this in mind, I have adapted the text of my letter to Roger to make it accessible to readers for which the guidebook will not be available, but are still interested in British literature and London history. In other words I’m posting this ‘travel essay’ as a thank you to Roger and in the hope of like-minded people reading this and becoming interested enough to include this walking tour on their next trip to England. Perhaps this account will produce one more Me in already a long and loyal list of Roger and Me’s. So here is my letter, addressed to Roger, but really going out to those who know him or have been touched by him in some way.

Dear Roger Ebert,

I’m titling this letter, “An Almost Perfect London Walk.” The only thing that kept this walk from being perfect is that you and Chaz were not part of the trip. While on the walk, I talked to a local who informed me that he’s met plenty of people with the same idea—that is, they told him they were going to write to you after their day on the heath. For all I know you might get thirty of these a day. Maybe you have a form letter to respond to the exigency of responding to this particular fan letter. If so, please file this account in the ‘Roger Ebert’s Perfect London Walk Response Letter’ genre that you have unwittingly created, and I can only hope that because no two heath walks can be the same, no two heath walk letters can be the same.

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On the morning of my walk, I start at Russell Square. While in London as a student, this park became my second home, and I always go back to it when I return. There are hundreds of squares and parks in London, but Russell Square has some quiet simplicity of function and use that calms my nerves and yet still gives me energy. For me, all London journeys somehow start from a park bench at the center of Russell Square

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I don’t remember where I bought your book, probably at Foleys, or one of the downtown London bookstores. I used it to take my original Hampstead Heath trip but since it has been more than two decades since your book was published, it’s going to be interesting to see what has changed and what has stayed the same since the 1980s.

Taking the Northern Line to Belize Park, I pop out of the escalator and into daylight on Haverstock Hill.

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Turning right, Colonel Sanders is there to greet us, a new sign, but his iconic smile of Southern hospitality unchanged.

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“The man is who is tired of London is tired of looking for a parking place.”

Paul Theroux

Walking past the George, I arrive at Hampstead Green and almost miss the turn becauseDSC_0195 of construction. Signs explain that St. Stephen’s Church is undergoing a major renovation. The Royal Hospital also show signs of renovation, although the most interesting part of this walk are the signs on the security fences. “No to loss of 30 acute beds.” “Local Press Gagged and Gutless.” and “Save our NHS” are among the many Hyde Park-like banners of protest and dissension.

Past the hospital is the street leading to Adolph Huxley’s home. Not having the time to dwell on Huxley, I turn the corner and walk up to the plaque commemorating George Orwell. I reflect on the thought that the two faces that have greeted me unchanged in twenty years are Colonel Sanders and George Orwell. I don’t know whether to shoot an elephant or ask for Extra Crispy.

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The plaque commemorates the bookstore that Orwell worked in for two years, 1934-35. He would use the experience to write Keeping the Aspidistra Flying, a novel about a man working in a bookstore. It was about as upbeat as he was ever going to get, and those of you who like Orwell and bookstores, this is the one book I recommend of his that gives you some ray of hope for the human condition.

Passing the South End Road, I approach Keats Grove.

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DSC_0209Having spent much time in Keat’s house on my first visit, on this trip it’s pleasant to just sit on the bench and savor the sunshine and flowers. This beautiful fall day seems an impossibly long way from his melancholy description of a garden from “Ode to a Nightingale” –

I cannot see what flowers are at my feet,
Nor what soft incense hangs upon the boughs,
But, in embalmèd darkness, guess each sweet
Wherewith the seasonable month endows   
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The grass, the thicket, and the fruit-tree wild;
White hawthorn, and the pastoral eglantine;
Fast-fading violets cover’d up in leaves;
And mid-May’s eldest child,
The coming musk-rose, full of dewy wine,         The murmurous haunt of flies on summer eves.

Leaving Keat’s house, I discover Keats Pharmacy, no doubt empty of hemlock and dull opiate, but perhaps stocked with the latest antibiotics to fight tuberculosis.

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The preliminary attractions are over, it’s time for the main event, the walk through Hampstead Heath-

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“The moon was full and broad in the dark blue starless sky, and the broken ground of the heath looked wild enough in the mysterious light to be hundreds of miles away from the great city that lay beneath it. The idea of descending any sooner than I could help into the the heat and gloom of London repelled me. The prospect of going to my bed in my airless chambers, and the prospect of gradual suffocation, seemed, in my present restless frame of mind and body, to be one and the same thing. I determined to stroll home in the purer air by the most roundabout way I could take; to follow the white winding paths across the lonely heath; and to approach London through its most open suburb by striking into the Finchley Road, and so getting back, in the cool of the new morning, by the western side of the Regent’s Park.”

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White

DSC_0241At the entrance to the heath, there is a pond where children are feeding the ducks.

A few yards later, I arrive at the next pond, in time to see a dog leap in the water and in a fevered display of canine frenzy, charge after some goslings. The mother goose, looking like a giant condor with its outstretched wings, comes to their rescue. The dog, outsized, outmatched and outmaneuvered, beats a hasty and embarrassing retreat back to dry land.

Nairn1_525Now we come to the ‘spookier’ part of the walk, at least described by Ian Nairn. Roger Ebert’s dedication to London’s history is illustrated by his interest in keeping this London newspaper columnist in print.

Here’s a link, in Roger Ebert’s own words, about Ian Niarn:

http://www.rogerebert.com/rogers-journal/nairns-london-an-introduction

Dead bodies are not infrequently found floating, or at the bottom; according to the police, corpses are not uncommon anywhere on the heath. So far I am glad not to have encountered one.

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The Westminster Gazette, 25 September Extra Special

The Hampstead Horror–Another Child Injured

The “Bloofer Lady”

We have just received intelligence that another child, missed last night, was only discovered late in the morning under a furze bush at the Shooter’s Hill side of Hampstead Heath, which is perhaps, less frequented than the other parts. It has the same tiny wound in the throat as been noticed in other cases. It was terribly weak, and looked quite emaciated. It too, when partially restored, had the common story to tell of being lured away by the “bloofer lady.”

-Bram Stoker, Dracula

DSC_0268I look for the ‘leafy corridor’ of trees mentioned in your guidebook. It’s hard to be sure, since all of these trees are magnificent collections of gnarled bark and knobby roots. They could be old whales, beached on the heath, showing their barnacles and scars. Maybe they are the last of the family of Ents, left over from Middle-Earth. Or maybe they are Hollywood ‘tree actors’ ancient relics from such films as The Wizard of Oz and Babes in Toyland, retired and put out to pasture, literally.

I come out of the grove and start my ascent to Parliament Hill. Along the way are scavengers with metal detectors, looking for lost rings and coins. There are worse ways to spend a Sunday afternoon, and you certainly get more exercise than by just fishing.

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I arrive at Parliament Hill and try and pick out the famous buildings from the skyline.

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“You never go to the country?” he said, feeling unable to join her in her praise of London, though it was intelligible enough to him.

“I go now and then as far as Hampstead Heath,” Eve answered with a smile. “If it’s fine I everansomshall be there next Sunday with Patty Ringrose.”

Hilliard grasped the opportunity. Would she permit him to meet her and Miss Ringrose at Hampstead? Without shadow of constraint or affectation, Eve replied that such a meeting would her give her pleasure: she mentioned place and time at which they might conveniently encounter.

George Gissing, Eve’s Ransom

DSC_0285I come to a grove of trees. Roger called this the tumulus, and referred to it as the centerpiece of the walk. I completely agree; there is a certain calmness and comfort here that reminds me of a wilder version of Russell Square. If the head of Hampstead Heath is Parliament Hill, this section of oaks might be its heart.

Surrounding the grove is a ring of benches. I can’t think of a better place in the world to read a book. A woman on a bench eyes me as I walk by.

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She has a green-and-white Penguin in her hands…you sense it’s something important–you wouldn’t come all the way out here just to read throwaway stuff. This is where you’d peruse Orwell’s Burmese Days, or catch up on your H.G. Wells…like his Kipps. I’ve always meant to read that book. Or something by Kipling, or D.H. Lawrence. I have to come back on this list and start on my list.

“Be warned the odds are excellent you will get lost.”

from Ebert and Curley, A Perfect London Walk

Exactly. This is where I lost Roger’s trail twenty years ago, and where I lose it again today.DSC_0297 I pick out a man who knows where he’s going and meet J.E. Jarvis, a frequent walker and local expert on the heath. Jarvis is an historian with training in geology, and happily gives me a personal tour of this section of the park.

We walk over an area where the ground is raised, giving the appearance of some subtle DSC_0292seismic affair in the distant past. Jarvis explains that this was a line of earthworks built by the Saxons to mark their territory.

How many times an hour do we unknowingly cross lines and boundaries whose existence is owed to dramatic battles and events of the distant past? It’s one reason hiking is so much fun in England, the parks, streets, footpaths, have been touched, molded, and changed by the history of countless generations.

I show Jarvis Roger’s book. He laughs and says, “I just saw this book earlier today.”

He must be confused. The book is out of print. I hold it up for him: “You can’t mean this book, can you?”

He studies the cover. “Yes, that’s the one. I’ve seen it lots of times before.”

“I was going to send Mr. Ebert a letter about our walk.”

Jarvis nods with a sly smile. “That’s what the other people said they were going to do.”

“They were here earlier today?”

“Yes.”

I shake my head in surprise. “That’s hard to believe. On the same day, too.”

Jarvis shrugs. “Maybe he gets these letters all the time.”

So much for my original idea. I can only think of retreat and surrendering to a pint of bitter. “Can you show me to the Spaniard’s Inn?”

He puts us on a heading away from the heath. “This is an especially nice walk to the pub. You just follow this to the road, then the inn.”

I say goodbye to Jarvis, who is on his way to a geological meeting. I then attempt the most difficult act of the entire day–crossing Spaniard’s Road. Traffic is unrelenting and I give up and walk a block down so that I can cross at a light.

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I’m happy to report that the Spaniard’s is doing quite well, thank you. The inn has taken to heart Roger’s warning about the evils of modernization–and while upgrading some elements such as the backyard tea garden–inside the building they have done everything they can to maintain the tradition. The front room is unchanged from my visit twenty years before and I’d like to think unchanged from when Dick Turpin peered out the window and sized up his next mark, and he watched the traffic squeeze by the toll house.

I’m tired and ready for a nap. Even though it’s reasonably early in the afternoon, the October light is already fading. Ambitious thoughts of completing the walk by a tour of Highgate cemetery fly away with the speed of Dick Turpin’s magical horse, Black Bess. October is a nice month to visit the heath, but with the diminished daylight, you have to pick your spots. Highgate will have to wait for another trip. Which is fine, because as Roger writes in his book, one can sample as much or as little of this walk as you want. Finishing my pint at the Spaniard’s, I take a bus back to Highgate, and the tube back to the West End.

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In my original letter, I finished the note by giving holiday greetings and hoped I would see them soon–I did in fact see Roger at his annual Ebertfest in Champaign, Illinois, but by then he was not able to talk and with the general mayhem of the festival all I could do is say hello.

And that was fine. I have many memories of Roger, one of which is this ‘almost perfect London walk,’ and I know some part of him will be there for me every time I go back and walk it again.

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Wonderful Life: Exploring the Vienna Trades

Its_Wonderful_LifeIn my last blog, I detailed my trips to Hungary in my attempt to learn more about the The Death of Drakula, the first film in which Dracula was used as a character. My time in that country convinced me of the need to travel to Austria to further my research. There was even a remote chance that the film might exist in some obscure archive, perhaps with some other name. Little did I know that my trip would tie together for me such disparate entities as defunct film studios and soft tissue invertebrates to a Frank Capra film.

austrian film archive

With this goal in mind, I traveled to Vienna to spend a few days at the Vienna film archive. After hearing my story about trying to track down the film, the staff at the archive all smiled and shook their heads—sadly, they knew of no print in any archive in their country that had any remote connection to Dracula or vampires of any kind.

bibliothek_11_n1But they did guide me to their library, and opened my eyes to a secret world connected to movies—a world that has coexisted with film almost from the start, but is largely invisible to the general public. This is world with its own rules, its own players, major and minor, and is chockablock with information and details for film researches of all kinds. What I’m talking about, in America, is known as ‘the trades.’

The Trades…magazines designed and written not for the general public, but for industry professionals. One of the many ironies of film research is that because paper is inherently simple to make copies of, easy to save and cheap to store, for many lost films we know more about the details on how a movie was made, where it played and how it received…than we do about the film itself.

One such film historian is Mary Mallory, who uses trade magazines and other primary sources to write about Los Angeles during the classic studio era. Her particular area of interest is the history of the Hollywood sign itself. You can read updates in her blog, The Daily Mirror.

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Hunting for a particular lost silent film is like going fishing with the idea that you’re going to pull up something like this prehistoric coelacanth. But we can always hope.

This puts film historians in the position of being archeologists looking for a presumed extinct animal. We know its habits, can track its spoor to see where it’s been, but until we can see it in front of us, we can only take an educated guess at what it looked like. Until the creature is proved to not be extinct, like the coelacanth fish pulled from the deep waters of the Indian Ocean, it’s the best we can do.

Researching trades, newspapers, and old documents has become its own specialty, full of discoveries and fascinating information that informs our present world. In my time going through the Vienna trade magazines and newspapers, I did find a few scanty references to the Death of Drakula, screening times, and comments about the film about to be released, and in the contemporary papers, screening times. I did not find any reviews for the film, which would have been a helpful way to assess what kind of impact the film made when it was released. So my time there was meager in terms of finding out more about The Death of Drakula.

But as they say, it’s the journey that counts, not the destination, and what really impressed me in reviewing both ‘the trades’ and the newspapers of the era, was the realization that for the teens and twenties, there was an explosion of the interest of movies as both an art form and a new kind of entertainment. Looking at the general newspaper ads as a time traveler in their machine might look at the passing years rush by, by winding the microfiche reel quickly from one year to the next, the film ads start with a few scattered articles and quickly grow to become one of the featured players in the major newspapers.

The trades take a similar leap of quality and quality; quickly they rise from a crude and star filmmeager origin to become a classy and sophisticated product. And one of the first things one sees why perusing the trades are the trademark logos for all the production companies. Brand after brand after brand, pages of them. By golly there were a lot of production companies back then, making a lot of movies. It got me thinking of an evolutionary metaphor to describe what I was seeing–that is, of a new technology opening up a niche, and all these entities, popping up like mushrooms, taking a foothold in a new environment.

wonderful-life-burgess-shale-nature-history-stephen-jay-gould-hardcover-cover-artMy thoughts of this comparison were cemented later, when I read Steven Gould’s Wonderful Life: The Burgess Shale and the Nature of History. Gould’s thesis is simple: Chance plays a much larger role of success and failure in biological evolution that anyone could have guessed. The reason for this conclusion was his survey of the fossil record from the Burgess Shale, an area of British Columbia that has especially well preserved fossils from about 500 million years ago. All of the fossils showed animals well adapted to their environment, but why did most of these animals become extinct, while others survived? Gould proposed a thought experiment: If you could wind back time, just like the angel Clarence did in the Frank Capra film It’s a Wonderful Life, and play the tape of life forward again, you would get a completely different set of conditions that would cause events to happen in ways impossible to predict. It’s called the Contingency Theory, and it’s quickly become one the the dominant scientific philosophies being used to explain how nature works.

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“Clarence, we’re going to do this again, and again? Oh my God…I’m in another version of Groundhog Day!”

In the Capra film, Clarence made George Bailey suffer in order to prove a point (to make George Bailey see that he really had a wonderful life), but if he wanted to make Jimmy Stewart’s character really miserable, he could have taken him back to when he was never born, and then played the tape of life forward ten, twenty, fifty times or more. In each case he would have shown to George a Bedford Falls completely different from any of the others. And the most interesting part of this thought experiment is that in some scenarios that lacked George Bailey, Bedford Falls might have turned out better than if he’d lived.

Maybe only once or twice out of fifty times–after all we are not discounting the fact that charles knight burgess shale painting wonderful life stephen gould anomalocarisGeorge did good things. But two or three times is enough to make ‘luck’ enter into the picture. And that’s what the contingency theory is all about. It’s not good enough to be the best at what you do, being lucky counts for more than we’d ever care to admit. Or to throw another geological event into the discussion, if a large meteor hadn’t stuck the coast of Mexico 66 million years ago, this might still be the age of dinosaurs, and we mammals might still be scurrying around picking up their scraps.

What does this have to do with the Vienna Trades? Just look at all the production companies around in the 1920s:

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These trademark logos just kept coming and coming, and are omnipresent in every issue. These ‘brands’ are more than just visually interesting, they remind us how many companies were making movies in the 1920s. Here’s another page:

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All these defunct companies…sort of like looking like…fossils.

regentTo carry this archeologist/extinct species analogy to its conclusion, in the 1920s, the technology of film was still brand new–less than a generation old, and these production companies, were busy expanding their cultural ‘niche.’ Before long there would be a winnowing of resources, and consolidation would take place. But for now there was plenty enough room for everyone, and the field was crowded with hopefuls.

But my time in the Vienna archives was not spent just considering how scientific principles could be used to describe commerce. Most of my time was spent paging through the journals and marveling at the art on their pages. It was like going to one of the most exclusive art museums in the world, open to only those students who traveled to the Vienna Film Archive or could get access to these trade journals. Most of this art, done for what was essentially ‘throwaway’ magazines that catered only to industry professionals, was on a very high level. Clearly for the artists involved in these magazines, the art was anything but ‘throwaway.’ Rather, a lot of time and thought went into these ads. And being in Vienna, a location and time that was arguably at the climax of a generation that would incorporate painting, sculpture, music and architecture into a grand and arguably never surpassed aesthetic zeitgeist, these were very high standards indeed.

I’m including one of my favorite images, a design that visually ties together very diverse concepts of communication. With trains running both toward us and away from us, and with the skyline of Vienna in the distance, we see the wires of the telegraph and telephone transformed into bobbins of thread, all running toward a central image of careful hands holding the most important piece of this tapestry–your film. “In our hands, you have the running thread of film export.”

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I left Vienna with not much more information about The Death of Drakula, but with a new found respect for the nameless artists that toiled, for professional magazines, then and now. There was never going to be any fame, and surely not much money for these artists, but they did great work. And in the end, it’s always the work that counts. As Clarence the angel might say: if you’re an artist and get to make art to the best of your ability…and if you get to do the thing you love–you really had a wonderful life.

wotan

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Graven Images: The Search for Drakula (part 2)

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Graven Images: The Search for Drakula

No one in reading this sentence is old enough (or undead enough) to have seen this film, which uses the following quote:

“I am Drakula, the immortal one. I have been around a thousand years, and I shall live forever…Immortality is mine…Men can die, the world can be destroyed, but I live, I shall live forever!”

More than eighty years ago, a group of people made a film, called The Death of Drakula. This is a story about the search for what happened to this film, a search that ultimately led to a larger story not about the death and life of Drakula, but about the death and rebirth of a generation of Hungarian filmmakers.

The German silent film Nosferatu has long received credit for being the first filmed version of Dracula. While researching Nosferatu, I repeatedly came across references of a Hungarian film, made possibly earlier than Nosferatu, titled The Death of Drakula, directed by a man named Károly Lajthay. Intrigued, I decided to travel to Hungary to research this film.

In my last blog, I talked about the first trip I took to Hungary in 1994 to research the ‘original’ Dracula film, The Death of Drakula.

The information I learned from this trip sent me in a number of different directions, including contacting the German and Austrian archives looking for traces of this lost film. The most productive part of the trip (with the help of the Hungarian Film Archive) was the unearthing of a Hungarian film magazine that had a one-page spread about the making of Drakula. The article had a tantalizingly brief description about the plot, but more importantly, included two production photographs taken while the film was being made for publicity purposes. At last we could at least get a glimpse of the Count!

Naturally, this information only wet my appetite, and when I returned to Hungary in 1996, I had three goals: 1) Research the trade magazines for information about the film. 2) Interview an actress who had worked with Lajthay, the man who directed Drakula, and 3) Spend time in the Hungarian Library looking for additional references to this film.

As I arrived back in Budapest, the changes in the ‘feel’ of the city—in just two years—were so profound that I wondered if I was in the same place. On my first visit, there had been a sense of being in an ‘open city,’ a term used in WW II when an army, usually because of being hopelessly outnumbered or outgunned, left a town unguarded, in the hope that the approaching army would not use bombs or use deadly force to occupy it. Because the Soviets had been in Hungary for decades, not years, perhaps a better way to describe what I saw was that of being in a prison in which the jailers had one day suddenly opened all the doors and disappeared, leaving everyone inside to fend for themselves. No questions answered, no explanations, no excuses, just abandonment. How could any prisoner in this exceptional situation feel anything but conflicted feelings of both relief and anger?

Two years later, this sense of an ‘open city’ was gone. My train had taken me to ‘just’ a picturesque European city. The portraits of Lenin and other communist leaders that were still hanging in hotel rooms and public places two years were gone. All the mementos—the cultural place markers of the communist rule in Hungary—had vanished.

While I understood the impulse to shrug off this terrible era of oppression, there was a quality of erasure about the era I found disturbing. It was almost like the Soviet occupation of Hungary had never happened. But what did I really know about any of this? I couldn’t read or speak Hungarian, and I concluded my reaction was a result of a naïve tourist trying to understand a profoundly complicated subject.

Mária Szepes,

A photo of Mária when she was still an actress.

I got back to my research into what was probably the first Dracula film. I could find no one alive who worked on The Death of Drakula, but with the help of the Hungarian Film Archive, I interviewed Mária Szepes, a woman who, as a child actress, had been directed by Lajthay in another film. After her career as an actress was over, Szepes was enjoying a long and successful second career as an essayist and novelist.

With a translator provided by the Film Archive, we traveled to her apartment. Elderly, but in good health, Mária was comfortably ensconced in an apartment full of books, many of which she had written. After making introductions and talking about her work, I brought up the topic of the director of The Death of Drakula.

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“He was more interested in women, horses and booze than in making movies.”

Her memories of Lajthay were not happy ones. Mária Szepes first met him with her parents at a Hungarian coffeehouse. Lajthay was full of promises about how his next film was going to be a huge success. “He was a great talker,” Mária explained to me, “more of a talker than a doer.” When Szepes arrived for the actual filming, the shooting was a disorganized mess. Lajthay, in Mária Szepes’s memory, was more interested in horses, booze and women than in trying to get the right shots. Because of this bad experience, Szepes dismissed both Lajthay and The Death of Drakula, “It could not have been a very good film. He was full of promises, and none of them happened.”

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A photograph of Mária and myself.

While Mária Szepes was giving us useful information, time has a way of influencing and changing memories. Also, other directors, such as Tod Browning, were legendary for turning material from haphazard and disorganized shooting into compelling silent films. Mária Szepes had no memory of ever seeing The Death of Drakula, so her final conclusion as to its merits was as much conjecture as anyone’s. Whatever his talent, Lajthay’s film career did not survive much past the sound era. He worked sporadically in theater around Europe until he died at the age of sixty, in 1945. None of his silent films survive, and his story is the story of an entire generation of Hungarian filmmakers. Almost all of their films are gone.

My interview with Mária finished, I said my goodbye to this lovely lady, and later that day, wandering back to my hotel, walked into a demonstration. A group of old, gray-haired Hungarians were holding signs and gathered at a park. Holding a microphone, one of them was giving an impassioned speech. The advanced age of most of the demonstrators made it one of the oddest protests I’d ever witnessed. Someone who spoke English saw my puzzled face and came up to explain that the crowd had gathered together to memorialize the 1946 uprising. “But it’s such a small crowd,” I said. The stranger in street gave me a somber look. “Yes. Very small. For most Hungarians don’t know about what happened in ’46. They don’t care…they don’t know about any of this.”

My concerns about a lost film from the 1920s seemed petty by comparison. This small crowd—this visible challenge to a national amnesia of a hugely important post-WW II event—was happening before my eyes. My thoughts about memory being perishable was being acted out, not in the world of silent film, but in a world very close to my own time.

As I look over these words I wrote in 1996, 16 years ago, time has dimmed my own memory, and I am hard pressed to remember exactly what I saw. I remember the raw naked emotion of these few old men in the square, but little more. I Google key words and find a wiki article:

The Hungarian Revolution or Uprising of 1956 was a spontaneous nationwide revolt against the government of the People’s Republic of Hungary and its Soviet-imposed policies, lasting from 23 October until 10 November 1956. It was the first serious blow to Soviet control since the U.S.S.R. forces drove out the Nazis at the end of World War II. Despite the fact that the uprising was not successful, it had a large impact and would come to play a role in the downfall of the Soviet Union decades later.

The revolt spread quickly across Hungary, and the government fell. Thousands organized into militias, battling the State Security Police (ÁVH) and Soviet troops…By the end of October, fighting had almost stopped and a sense of normality began to return.

After announcing a willingness to negotiate a withdrawal of Soviet forces, the Politburo changed its mind and moved to crush the revolution. On 4 November, a large Soviet force invaded Budapest and other regions of the country. Hungarian resistance continued until 10 November. Over 2,500 Hungarians and 700 Soviet troops were killed in the conflict, and 200,000 Hungarians fled as refugees. Mass arrests and denunciations continued for months thereafter. By January 1957, the new Soviet-installed government had suppressed all public opposition. These Soviet actions alienated many Western Marxists, yet strengthened Soviet control over Central Europe.

Public discussion about this revolution was suppressed in Hungary for over 30 years, but since the thaw of the 1980s it has been a subject of intense study and debate. At the inauguration of the Third Hungarian Republic in 1989, 23 October was declared a national holiday.

So back in 1996, I had been watching a meager demonstration against cultural amnesia, not from any inherit apathy or lack of interest, but instead from a concerted forty-year effort by the communists to erase this incident from the hearts and minds of Hungarians. To this point, they were largely successful, and if the Soviets had stayed in power only another 20 years, this deletion of history would have been largely successful. My views about the erasure of memory were becoming more nuanced. The contemporary effort of the Hungarians to forget the Soviet occupation that I noticed in 1994 and 1996 were in a sense, a payback for all the years the Soviets had spent trying to make they Hungarians forget their own history.

My last task in Budapest was to spend a day in the National Budapest Library. I came with high hopes and an English/Hungarian Dictionary, but three hours into the task, it was clear that I was outmatched. Not knowing the language, I was forced to use key words as pictograms, and this is an extremely inefficient way to use a library. I spent the afternoon looking at newspapers (easier to translate) and after addressing the confusing point that the first run of the film in Budapest appeared to be in 1923, I packed up my papers and headed home.

Later, my contacts from the Hungarian Film Archive told me that other researchers found what I missed—definitive information about the film itself. Did I look in the card catalog under the wrong heading? Or maybe even the wrong card catalog? I don’t know, and in the long run, it doesn’t matter.

A year after I left Budapest, another Dracula scholar, Jenö Farkas, continued my search, but being Hungarian, had a leg up on the detail work. While in the National Library, he found a filmbook, published in 1924, titled The Death of Drakula.

Filmbooks attempted to translate a film onto the printed page to give the story a different form of accessibility to the public. Since these adaptations were frequently fleshed-out versions of the film’s script, the storylines in the books and films were usually similar if not identical. Filmbooks were then, and are now (in their modern incarnation as paperback novelizations) a popular way for those involved in the production of the film to make additional revenues.

With this book, Farkas was able to reconstruct the probable plot of the original film. Since this book is probably as close as we will ever get to seeing the movie itself, I am going to describe the storyline in some detail.

The story begins as Mary Land, an innocent sixteen-year old orphaned seamstress, lives by herself in a small mountain village in Austria. She visits a mental hospital once a week to see her adopted father, who has had a nervous breakdown after the death of his wife. On Christmas Eve, Mary receives word that her father’s health is failing. Her loyal boyfriend George, a local forest ranger, takes her to the hospital. Inside the hospital, Mary meets a once-famous composer who was once her music instructor. He has since gone mad and now claims to be the evil Drakula, spelling his name with a ‘k’ (perhaps to give the name a more local touch). Mary tries to talk to her former teacher. “Try to remember, Mr. Professor…I was there, second row…you stroked my hair as a sign of approval…”

Shaken by this encounter, Mary is then seized and abducted by two patients who think they are doctors. They tie her up on a table with the intent of operating on her eyes. The plot is broken up by the staff of the hospital, and Mary is untied. She arrives at her father’s side just in time for him to die in her arms.

Mary Land, spending the night at the asylum after these horrible events, has a terrible dream. Her music instructor, now calling himself Drakula, kidnaps her and takes her away to his castle. Twelve brides gather around her and escort her to a black magic marriage ceremony. Mary realizes that she going to be Drakula’s new bride. At the last moment, Mary lifts up the crucifix she is carrying around her neck. “The cross! The cross!” Drakula yells, backing away. The rest of the evil spirits are repulsed. Mary runs out of the castle and into the woods.

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Photos taken from the trade journal match the filmbook storyline.

Half-frozen, Mary is found by friendly villagers, and they call for a doctor. As Mary hovers near death, Drakula comes to her bedside and tries to hypnotize her. He approaches Mary with “a hellish face, blazing eyes, satanic features and hands ready to squeeze.” The real doctor has been through a fiendish ride on a dark winding road to get to Mary. Now he arrives and with his help, Mary fights off Drakula’s mesmerizing gaze. A lamp overturns, and the house catches on fire. Mary again runs out into the cold night, but now she wakes up to find herself back at the mental hospital. Was this all a dream, she ponders?

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Paul Askonas, the first screen Dracula.

Meanwhile the insane inmates are playing games in the hospital garden. “Funnyman,” a man wearing a pointed hat and thick glasses, has found a loaded gun. He aims it at Drakula, who seeing a chance to prove his immortality, urges the man with the gun to pull the trigger. “When the shot finally rang out, it penetrated Drakula’s heart and killed him instantly. His blood spilled out and left a bright red stain on the freshly fallen snow.”

Mary recovers, and as her fiancée George comes to pick her up from the hospital, they see Drakula’s body being carried out on a stretcher. Papers fall out of the dead man’s pocket titled “Diary of My Immortal Life and Adventures.” Mary does not want to see the diary, and George throws the book away. Mary never tells George of her terrible ordeal. She thinks to herself: was it all a dream, or did it really happen?

With this, the book ends, leaving us with a more contemporary question than interpreting Mary’s dream: how close was this printed book version to the film?

It’s useful to compare this narrative to the article about The Death of Drakula, which appeared in a Hungarian trade journal written in 1921. The journal includes two pictures from the film, one of Mary’s abduction and the other of the wedding. The details seen in the photographs and in the text match the storyline precisely. This evidence strongly supports that the storyline of The Death of Drakula book is close to what had been filmed three years earlier.

So the book is probably close to the script of The Death of Drakula, but this leads us back to the most important question of all: is this story close enough to Stoker’s novel to be considered the first Dracula?

One way to consider this question is to evaluate the story more as commentary on the pervasive impact of Stoker’s creation, rather than as a literal adaptation of the novel. The photos of ‘Drakula’ are similar to Raymond Huntley’s appearance in the stage play Dracula, which was doing great business in Europe at the time this film was made, and in that sense, Lajthay is evoking the image of Dracula as an evil character already familiar to the public.

There is no evidence in the filmbook of any deliberate attempt to associate Drakula with the historical Dracula, Vlad Tepes. Vlad was part of the Romanian history and culture, not Hungarian, and Vlad’s ties to Stoker’s fictional character are tenuous at best. However, it is an open question as to if this connection was made by some of audience familiar with the legends surrounding Vlad. Of note is that when the filmbook was published in 1925 it was published in Transylvania. Lajthay was also from Transylvania, which until 1918 was still part of Hungary.

The narrative from Death of Drakula models itself not from any historical event, but from the fictional stories circulating in the early part of the last century. Svengali-like stories of powerful dynamic men hypnotizing pure innocent girls were one of the staples of popular melodrama. Indeed, since Mary is kidnapped by her former music teacher, one could argue that the story is closer to Gaston Leroux’s Phantom of the Opera, than to anything Stoker visualized.

drakula_halala2921Still, there is the matter of the fangs. The front cover of the filmbook portrays a wonderful drawing of Drakula, displaying very sharp and deadly teeth. The image could be a display of wishful thinking by the artist. This would make it part of a long tradition of poster art and advertisements that promise more than is delivered.

Or perhaps Drakula did have fangs, but only in the dream. If this is the case, the film itself begs the question of whether Drakula is real. This plot device appears lifted directly from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, of which this film has more than a passing familiarity. Freud was one of Vienna’s most famous citizens, and his influence can be felt throughout the story, chock-a-block full of symbols and neurotic dreams about substitute fathers.

An ad from a trade journal promoting the film.

An ad from a trade journal promoting the film.

Newspaper accounts confirm that The Death of Drakula opened in Vienna in February 1921. Nosferatu premiered thirteen months later, in Berlin in March 1922. On these grounds alone, The Death of Drakula is clearly the first film adaptation that has a connection to Stoker’s novel.

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A reference book, with a probable publicity still from the film.

Perhaps the Austrians should get some of bragging rights as to which country produced the first screen Dracula. The film is an Austro-Hungarian collaboration, since the film was both partly shot and premiered in Vienna, and Paul Askonas (who played Drakula) is Austrian. This “Hungarian Dracula” has more than a little Germanic blood in his veins. According to records located by Farkas, the exterior locations of The Death of Dracula were shot near Vienna, and the interiors filmed in Corvin studios in Budapest. Paul Askonas was in many Austrian films in the twenties, but as these films did not reach wide distribution outside of central Europe, his work is obscure. Those interested can look for his brief but menacing presence as a butler in the 1924 German film The Hands of Orlac.

A trade journal reporting on the 1921 opening in Vienna mentions that the lead actress was played by a Serbian actress named Lene Myl. The film next resurfaces in Budapest in 1923 with the lead actress named as Margit Lux. Although this might be simply the result of a marketing decision designed to highlight different actresses, the possibility exists that Lajthay recut or reshot the film to star Margit Lux, making the 1923 film an alternative version.

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An artist’s drawing of Margit Lux, now at the Hungarian Film Archives

Károly Lajthay wrote and acted in more than twenty films and he directed at least twelve. All the films he directed in the silent era are lost. The Hungarian film industry in the 20s was a victim of the bitter political landscape that existed in the country after the first world war. Internecine fighting and lack of money combined to cripple the chances for talented filmmakers to make movies in their country. Many quit the business or became expatriates. Lajthay went back to his first training with the theater and was away from film for almost twenty years.

Lajthay returned to filmmaking briefly before he died in 1945. He was involved in the production of two sound films. The second, which he codirected, was Yellow Casino, made in 1943. Yellow Casino is a comedy-suspense thriller in the Hitchcock tradition. A man has a jealous rage over a woman he loves, and finds himself in an insane asylum. (In Hungarian, “yellow room” is Hungarian for mad-house.) Artists frequently return to themes important to them, and this film, which happily survives, turns out to be a recasting of elements from The Death of Drakula. So although the original film is probably lost forever, Lajthay’s vision lives on in a remake of sorts.

WW I produced a complete destruction of the Hungarian film industry. If one can say that the America and the Western powers won the war and lost the peace, then Hungary lost the war AND the peace. The county briefly became communist; artists and actors long held under the repressive and controlling bit of the Austro-Hungarian war regime rejoiced at a chance for a new beginning. In only four months, Hungary produced more than thirty films. The country had an opportunity for the flowering of an art form that could have rivaled the art of Soviet filmmakers such as Eisenstein and Kuleshov.

After a short 133 days of (red) wine and roses, the honeymoon ended with a bang and a crash. The Hungarian Red army was crushed by Romanian forces, supported by anti-communist Whites. The result of this civil war produced a bitter, internecine struggle in which the artists who had declared themselves either communist or communist sympathizers (either from sincere beliefs or in order to work for the new Hungarian Soviet film studio) had to flee, sometimes for their life. This purge, combined with a growing anti-Semitic movement, produced an exodus of talent from Hungary only perhaps rivaled and surpassed by the flight of the Jews from the Nazis a generation later.

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A caricature of Bela Lugosi on display at the Hungarian Film Archives

One happy outcome of this death of the Hungarian film industry is that the seeds scattered by this diaspora was to enrich the rest of the world. Kertesz Mihaly resurfaced as Michael Curtiz, Lukacs Pal became Paul Lukas, Korda Sandor became Alexander Korda. Another ambitious actor, Bela Blasko, working under a stage name Olt Arisztid, who had been organizing an actor’s trade union, fled to Germany, then to America, now with the name of Bela Lugosi.

This is all interesting as a history lesson, but to return to the question that started my search is the first place: Is the The Death of Drakula the first story featuring Dracula? Is it the first movie to describe what we now think of as vampires?

Vampires are quintessential seducers, and seductive men and women have been a staple of films from almost the beginning. With this very broad definition, you could find vampires lurking in many if not most films. In an attempt to be more selective, many vampirologists resort to more literal definitions to sort out the vampire from the vamp. Is he or she real or supernatural? For this film in particular, does Drakula have fangs, and does he suck blood?

On first consideration, The Death of Drakula fails this “bite ’em in the neck” litmus test. The film is not, in effect, a realization of the novel itself; it is more a commentary on the pervasive impact of Stoker’s creation. In only twenty-four years from the novel’s publication, Dracula is already familiar enough for Lajthay to use as a symbol of evil repelled by a crucifix.

Those who insist that their Counts live in coffins and suck blood can rest assured that the German Nosferatu still qualifies as the first attempt to film Stoker’s novel. The rest of us who like life with its complications and ambiguities can point instead to Hungary. It is only fitting for the country of the birthplace of Bela Lugosi to also have made the first filmed Dracula.

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Graven Images: Commies, Counts and the Erasure of Memory

3 May. Bistritz.–Left Munich at 8:35 P.M., on 1st May, arriving at Vienna early next morning; should have arrived at 6:46, but train was an hour late. Buda-Pesth seems a wonderful place, from the glimpse which I got of it from the train and the little I could walk through the streets. I feared to go very far from the station, as we had arrived late and would start as near the correct time as possible. The impression I had was that we were leaving the West and entering the East; the most western of splendid bridges over the Danube, which is here of noble width and depth, took us among the traditions of Turkish rule.

Bram Stoker’s opening words in Dracula

The day had started warm, but as my train left Vienna and approached Budapest, the sky grew somber, and a damp October chill filled the evening air. I was looking for the Count. But not exactly the Count you may be thinking of. He spelled his name differently here, Drakula, and that was the point. I was looking for a native son.

It was 1994, and in this part of Hungary, the echoes of the fall of the Berlin wall seven years before were still reverberating. While travel restrictions around the country had been lifted, the detritus of a hopelessly outmoded Soviet bureaucracy largely remained in place. Deserted guard boxes were scattered around train stations, which still displayed pictures of long dead Soviet leaders. The effect was a surreal landscape in which you found yourself in what was, in effect, a giant prison patrolled by invisible and indifferent guards.

The train drew closer to Budapest. As I pulled my coat tighter around me, the compartment door opened and a man stumbled in, more from his own motion than the rumble of the tracks. His face was lined with a thousand old pains but his eyes were clear and he looked at me with the look you are not supposed to give strangers. He then spoke to me—it was a question because of the raised tone at the end of his sentence—but I was absolutely deaf to its meaning.

Opening up my guidebook section to Hungarian phrases, I responded with comments such as, “Nem értem.” (I am sorry…and then, I don’t speak Hungarian). The stranger apparently took my mutterings as a challenge, he came over to my seat, and leaning down, inches from my face repeated his question. The alcohol from his breath rolled over me in waves. I looked down at the guidebook, clearly inadequate for this task, and decided to just try every answer with the hope that one would work. “Hello, goodbye, nice day…”

Finally the man’s face lightened and a thin smile crept over his lips. He pointed at me, and muttered “Anglish.” He nodded as if he had solved a deep mystery, then rose and left for the door. He turned back to me one last time, yelled “Anglish,” laughed, and was gone.

With this introduction the train rolled into Budapest. I pulled my luggage off the train and started for the end of the tracks. I was greeted by the Bathorys, Erzebet and her husband, who had arranged to meet me at the station. We packed into a small car, and sped off to a hotel, plotting our campaign.

The problem was simple: the Count was missing. This Drakula, was the name of a character from a Hungarian film, The Death of Drakula, made in 1921. Out of the hundreds of Hungarian silent films made between 1910 and 1930, at the time of my visit in the mid-nineties, only about eighteen complete films had been found. The rest had been destroyed or lost. The Hungarians are not alone in this tragedy. Silent films have shared the same fate all over the world. There are many reasons for these losses: accidents, war, and even intentional destruction. George Orwell said, “Those who control the present, control the past. And those who control the past control the future.” Our history and culture reflect not only the artistic achievements of the past, but also the whims and tastes of passing ideologies. Memory and history are preserved by delicate and often perishable means. In the struggle for control of who will be arbitrator of what is important in this world, vast stretches of cultural history can vanish forever, casualties of this war over what is remembered and what is forgotten.

As time has passed, films like The Death of Drakula continue to be lost, although for the last half century the reasons for their destruction have become consolidated into two overriding problems—time and money. Who will pay and work for their preservation? Dedicated enthusiasts from many different countries have taken up this challenge. Erzebet is such a person. Employed by the Hungarian film board in Budapest, one of her jobs is to be on the lookout for old films. One has to remember without the magic of a projector, these films are essentially of no value except for the their silver content. Their creators long since dead, these old films are like orphans, often victims of neglect and apathy. They were stashed, ditched, or thrown away. In their rusting cans these films are hidden in closets, attics, basements, barns. To do her job, Erzebet needs to be detective, antique collector, historian, and above all, very persistent.

The Hungarian film The Death of Drakula was screened for the general public in 1921. Like most of the films of its era, the film seems to have faded from attention almost as soon as it was made, although the reference sources suggested that a version of the film might have resurfaced for additional screenings in 1923. No records regarding the film other than the title were to be found in any available reference source. The Internet was still in its infancy in the early 1990s, and my visit to Budapest was to investigate primary sources only available in Hungary.

Erzebet and her husband took me to supper. The couple looked like they were going to simultaneously explode, and finally Erzebet asked me if she could smoke. The hands were going for the cigarettes before my nod was finished on my face, and I was amused at this display of politeness where I was the only person in the restaurant not smoking.

An artists caricature of Károly Lajthay

The next morning I met Erzebet at the Hungarian Film Institute. I spent the morning in their library, and was able to learn some useful information about my Count.  Although of course the film itself was nowhere to be found, we did find records of its production staff and cast. According to the information in the archives, Drakula was directed by Károly Lajthay, a prolific Hungarian filmmaker, who lived from 1885 to1945. His credits list at least thirty films, including The Death of Drakula made in 1921. None of Lajthay’s silent films are known to have survived. There was also an Austrian connection to this film. Erzebet explained to me that German-Hungarian co-productions were quite common at the time. Hungarian crews would travel to Berlin or Vienna to use the studios and available equipment. The cast included a Hungarian, Margit Lux (from her photos available at the archive, she was a Julia Roberts of her day), and two Germans—Paul Askonas, and Karl Jotz. The rest of the cast and crew were Hungarians. A central question remained. Was The Death of Drakula a film about Bram Stoker’s Drakula or perhaps the historical Romanian Count? In this the archives were no help. Across one record was a handwritten note that offered the faintest description of the story. The note mentioned the crew, then stated ‘scenario by H. G. Wells?’ I threw up my hands to Erzebet, who studied the marginal note and responded “The man who wrote that was by trade a lawyer. He came over in his spare time to help collect information. He was dedicated, but he was still an amateur.”

While the archives had no more information, I did learn that records of the intertitles might still be in Berlin or Vienna. With this information, I might still be able to find out the film’s plot. Another possibility was that references to the film could be found at the National Library in another part of Budapest. I could do no more at the Hungarian film archives, so Erzebet and I left to go to the city center.

The two towns, Buda and Pest are commonly joined in speech but in life they are separated by the famous Danube River. I found the city beautiful but odd in several respects—running your gaze over the old and beautiful horizon, one’s eye was rudely jarred by more recent buildings (built during the Soviet occupation), that were completely at odds with their surroundings. With these new buildings spread out as random grey dabs of concrete, Budapest looked like a beautiful city that had been shat on by a giant pigeon.  These physical monuments of the Soviet presence were impossible to ignore. They must function as both physical and mental irritant to the Hungarian psyche, I thought, a log in a mental eye that one cannot remove.

Erzebet and I arrived at the town center, and we met her daughter, Ursula, who was to take me around the town. Ursula was a serious twenty-four year old—her serious brown hair was pulled straight back, she wore a serious jean jacket, and her feet were in serious-looking granny shoes. Erzebet left me contemplating her daughter’s stern view of the world and returned to work.

This looks like the coffee shop where we had our drink, but the Internet says the New York was closed in the year I visited Budapest. Maybe it was partially closed? How easy it is to forget, and how hard it is to remember these details.

Trying to lighten the situation, I persuaded Ursula to go to the New York Coffee House, which my trusty guidebook said was the time honored location for pastries and coffees. She looked at the address and off we went. The New York was an essay in 19th century seedy opulence, and the pastries, like the decor, was too rich for casual consumption. There were only a few scattered German tourists in the restaurant. Near us, a piano player was busy unsyncopating Scott Joplin’s ‘Maple Leaf Rag’ by playing it like a Strauss waltz. The waiters ignored us. We waited. Ursula glowered.

“Is this your first time here?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is this going to be your last time here?”

“Yes.”

“Let’s go someplace that you like.”

Not the ‘A’ nightclub but a close proximity

She took me to the ‘A,’ an alternative nightclub, brick walls, dark and smoky. Everyone in Budapest smoked. I hadn’t seen any children smoking, but then I had only been in Budapest for two days. I had long suspected East Europe’s cigarette habit was a grand CIA conspiracy to win the cold war. The U.S. military had kept the Soviets occupied with stories of ABMs and Star Wars satellite lasers. Meanwhile, the real dogs of war, companies like Phillip Morris, had crept in and produced a culture of addicts. At the precise moment of an impending NATO invasion, the WARSAW pact countries would collectively gasp and defenselessly fall blue-faced to the ground.

Not that anyone in the CIA had anything against this part of Europe. When the Eastern Europe was carved up like a turkey among the winners of the WW II, Hungary was just the piece of the wishbone that ended up in the wrong camp. The spoils of a game-board view of the world. I asked Ursula about her feelings about growing up under a communist regime.

“I was forced into taking twelve years of Russian,” she explained to me. “Do you know how much of that twelve years I remember? Nothing. Nothing… No, that’s not quite right. I remember this—(and she quickly rattled off a sentence in Russian). It means ‘Hello comrade, I am well today and everything is going as planned.’ We repeated this sentence endlessly. This is what the communist government was to us. ‘Hello comrade, I am well today.’” She crushed her cigarette and lit another.

Ursula was in the Hungarian film school. She was completing a film about the Hungarian version of the Hell’s Angels, motorcyclists who drive around the country flaunting authority, going where they wish, doing what they want. She and her friends had shot twenty-five hours of videotape following these groups. “The bikers have formed local clubs, which are doing really well,” she explained. “But a lot of older Hungarians don’t like these clubs. They see the bikers as a threat. I am going to do two versions of this biker film,” she added. “One is for television. The other will be for school. It will be longer. I can make it…” she stopped, struggling for a word.

“More personal?” I offered.

“Yes. More personal. It will be my film. For TV you have to explain so much. The public is very scared of these people. But you know, these are really very nice guys. Very independent.”

“Would you like to join a biker’s club?”

“These clubs are not for women. There would be no place for me.”

“You know these guys often settle down, buy a house, raise a family.”

“Yes, sometimes, but I see men who are in their 60s, 70s—they dye their hair, come out on their bikes—it’s great!”

“Does is scare you to think what you’ll be doing when you’re older?”

She looked at me hard, then nervously laughed, “Yes, I think I’ll be a housewife and raise a family.” She knocked the ash off her cigarette. “This idea scares me a lot.”

I went to bed that night thinking of what we choose to remember and what we try to forget, and how often we even have a choice in the matter. Hungary had lost most of its cultural memory of its film history, partially from neglect, but largely from two World Wars raging through its streets. Then afterward, an occupying force had done what it could to impose itself on Hungary by forced education and architecture. And yet its grasp on the Hungarian cultural memory was tenuous at best, and in only a few years after the Soviets had left, the memory of its occupation was already slipping away. One conclusion was clear to me—it’s always easier to forget than to remember.

The next morning I went back to the Hungarian Film Archives to follow up with some research and was rewarded by the discovery of a film journal that gave a brief description of the film. More importantly, the magazine had two photos of the film while in production. The Death of Drakula, for decades just a footnote in musty reference books, had at last been sighted! I made copies of these two precious photos. This was a wonderful development, but there was much more to come!

(Next—an interview with an actress that worked with Lajthay, and a Drakula filmbook found!)

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4 Devils…Found!

For many years, 4 Devils was thought to be a lost film. But…after looking in a closet, it has been found…and here it is after many decades of being lost….4 Devils!

My 2 sisters, Alanna, Andrea, my brother Lyndon, and me.

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