Lost and Found: “Mr. District Attorney” – “Counterspy”
Posted April 23, 2014on:
I hired a private investigator to find the heirs…
My passion is to seek out “orphan” movies, and adopt them into my film library. Sometimes it takes a few months, sometimes over 10 years. I never give up.
First, I need to determine why a movie has been lost in limbo for 50 years or more. It takes lots of digging through old contracts, copyright records, television syndication files, and so forth. Here’s the short version on how I unearthed the “Mr. District Attorney” and “Counterspy” movies.
By 1961, the rights to both series reverted to Phillips H. Lord, creator of the radio programs. However, he elected to do nothing with them, and died in 1975. My next job was to find out who inherited the movies.
As with comic strips (see previous blog: “Lost and Found – Gasoline Alley and Friends”,) radio programs were naturals for the movies, and studios actively acquired the best programs for transition into motion pictures. Not all the deals were the same, but generally they seldom varied much from this:
The Creator of the radio show licenses a studio the exclusive use of the title, and characters in a radio show. Usually option money is paid to the creator, and the studio has a year or so to exercise the option, otherwise all rights (and the money!) revert to the Creator.
If and when the option is exercised, the studio pays the Creator the licensee fee, and commences production on the first film. The distribution deals normally had a duration of 7 – 10 years. After that, the studio and creator may or may not renew the license. If not, the movie falls into limbo because it cannot be exploited without the agreement of both the studio (owner of the negative) and the radio producer (owner of the underlying rights.) Occasionally the creator was assigned all rights to the negative and walked away with full ownership of the film.
April 3, 1939, marked the start of a 13-year run of the popular crime drama, “Mr. District Attorney,” first on NBC, and later, ABC. It was the creation of Phillips H. Lord, a successful and respected producer during radio’s golden age. He created 16 dramatic radio series, including “Gangbusters,” authored six books, and 15 musical compositions.
In 1940 Lord licensed Republic Pictures rights to produce three feature films based on the characters appearing in the “Mr. District Attorney” radio program. The resulting films were “Mr. District Attorney” (1941), with Dennis O’Keefe, Florence Rice, and Peter Lorre, directed by William Morgan, “Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case” (1941), with James Ellison and Virginia Gilmore, directed by Bernard Vorhaus, and “Secrets of the Underground” (1942), with John Hubbard and Virginia Grey, directed by William Morgan. I have no details on the original deal other than all rights were to revert to Lord in 1948, and the productions could not be shorts, serials or television programs.
In 1945 Columbia Pictures approached Lord to produce two of their own MDA movies. The problem, of course, was that Republic still had 3 years left on its two picture deal, and Columbia didn’t want two other MDA movies in the marketplace, since Republic would inevitably sieze the opportunity to re-release their own MDA films in order to capitalize on any forthcoming Columbia productions. This prompted Lord to exercise a $750 option contained within the Republic/Lord contract, against $7,500 to buy outright the negatives to “Mr. District Attorney” and “Mr. District Attorney and the Carter Case.” “Secrets of the Underground” remained with Republic (now, Paramount), presumably because the main title wouldn’t conflict with the new Columbia productions, although at one time Republic later did re-title the movie “Mr. District Attorney Does His Bit.”
The 7-year Columbia deal was set to go upon payment of $30,000 (approx. $400,000 in 2014 dollars), which included rights to the 9 months of radio scripts aired prior to February 29, 1940, a quitclaim of rights to the Big Little Book, “Mr. District Attorney on the Job” (aka “Smashing the Taxi Cab Racket”) (1941), along with four Dell Comics, “The Funnies,” from 1941-42. A prerequisite minimum negative cost of $150,000 per picture assured Lord the movies would have at least respectable production values.
The result was “Mr. District Attorney” (1947) with Dennis O’Keefe, Adolph Menjou (!), and Marguerite Chapman, directed by Robert B. Sinclair. A second feature was never produced, and the reason why is open to conjecture. However, some sort of arrangement between Lord and Columbia was made to allow ZIV to produce a TV series based on MDA for the 1951-52 season, and again for 1954-55.
In 1949 Columbia again approached Lord, this time to acquire rights to produce one or two features based on another one of Lord’s hit radio crime dramas, “Counterspy,” which first aired in 1942 on the NBC Blue Network, and continued through 1957. The deal was $15,000 per feature, with an extended playoff of 15 years, resulting in “David Harding, Counterspy (1950), with Willard Parker, Audrey Long, and Howard St. John (as the title character), directed by Ray Nazarro, and “Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard” (1950) with Howard St. John (top billing this time), Ron Randell and Amanda Blake, directed by Seymour Friedman.
Steve Wachtel to the rescue…
I retained a frequent collaborator, prominent Los Angeles-based private investigator, Steve Wachtel. As a movie buff he enjoys my assignments of determining the who and where of heirs to film people.
In the case of Phillips H. Lord, the heirs turned out to be three sisters, one lived in New York City, and the other two only a dozen miles from me, one in Glendale AZ, and the other in Scottsdale. None had any idea they owned any movies.
I made a deal with them for all rights.
Next job: Find good film elements from which to digitize. The original nitrate negative of “Mr. District Attorney” (1941) had decomposed, and only the picture negative survived, and it was in poor condition. I found an excellent duplicate safety film negative at the British Film Institute in London, and borrowed it to make a digital master. “Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case” only survived only as a poor condition nitrate picture negative, as well, but couldn’t locate a sound track…and I searched around the world. Let’s consider it lost…for now.
Normally film elements aren’t an issue because most movies were released to TV, thus requiring multiple duplicate elements on safety film. But since the two Republic MDA’s had never been reissued theatrically, or sold to TV, there was no need to create duplicates. What is left of the original nitrate negatives are stored at the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
The Columbia movies were another story…there were plenty of film elements still stored by the studio, and they were cooperative in giving me the material. I came up with advertising materials from Columbia, The Margaret Herrick Library (AMPAS), and good old eBay.
One of the pleasures of my business is producing extra features for the DVD’s.
One Lord sister graciously invited me to her house and showed me scrapbooks of her family, and father at work, then allowed me to copy them. She later consented to an interview by film historian, Richard M. Roberts, who is also an expert on golden age radio. And as always he knows the right questions to ask.
Phillips H. Lord Radio Programs:
Counterspy (aka: “David Harding, Counterspy”)
The Cruise of the Seth Parker
Gang Busters (Original title: “G-Men”)
Mr. District Attorney
The Country Doctor (aka: The Old Country Doctor)
Phillip Morris Playhouse (Original title: “Johnny Presents”)
Sunday Evening at Seth Parker’s
Seth Parker’s Singing School
The Stebbins Boys
Uncle Abe and David
Under the Sidewalks of New York
We, the People
Seth Parker and His Jonesport Folks
Seth Parker Fireside Poems, Gems of the Air
Seth Parker’s Album
Seth Parker’s Hymnal
Seth Parker’s Scrap Book
Uncle Hosie the Yankee Salesman
Counterspy Meets Scotland Yard *
David Harding, Counterspy *
Gang Busters (1945 serial)
Gang Busters (1955) (Compilation of “Gang Busters” TV episodes)
Guns Don’t Argue (Compilation of “Gang Busters” TV episodes)
Mr. District Attorney (1941) *
Mr. District Attorney (1947) *
Mr. District Attorney in the Carter Case (Only picture negative survives)
Obeah (Lost film)
Secrets of the Underground
Way Back Home
The Black Robe
Mr. District Attorney
Back in the Old Sunday School
(with May Singhi Breen and Peter De Rose.)
Has Anybody Found a Trouble?
If You’re Happy
Jesus Is My Neighbor
Sailing with My Father
That First Little Sweetheart of Mine
There’s Four in Our Family
We Are Gathering with the Lord Today
You Go to Your Church and I’ll Go to Mine
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