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One activity that is particularly satisfying to me is making available a beautiful video version of a favorite film. Even better is to couple it with an excellent commentary track. Both are the case with “When Comedy Was King” and easier said than done.

In 1958, I saw “The Golden Age of Comedy,” Robert Youngson’s masterful silent comedy compilation at the Hill Theatre in Monterey, California – laughed until my sides hurt. I’d go so far as to say Kit Parker Films would never exist, certainly not in the form it has, had it not been for that night in 1958 as this turned me into a silent comedy buff overnight and inspired me to collect 8mm (later, 16mm) prints of silent comedies from the legendary Blackhawk Films.

Two years later “When Comedy Was King” also by Youngson, was released.   This time I saw it at the State Theatre in Monterey, and it was just as funny as its predecessor! Saw it many times later in 16mm, television, VHS and DVD, all lacking the vibrancy of the 35mm presentation at the State.

Earlier this year I contacted Sonar Entertainment, owner of WCWK, and made a deal to acquire DVD rights. Then came the time to examine the film elements: What a mess! A reel of this, a reel of something else, and the quality ranged from poor to marginal. Then, finally, Sonar’s ever-helpful Maura Grady sent us 9 cans of film, which weren’t properly labelled; they turned out to the original negative!

Our film-to-digital maestro, Doug Horst, did a masterful high definition transfer, and we were off and running. There were still several issues to work out, but they weren’t insurmountable, just time consuming: The images were a checkerboard of light scenes and dark scenes, endemic in working with original negatives. However, fortunately Tiffany Clayton, always up for a technical challenge, “timed” (the industry term for adjusting light and dark scenes) and did other digital clean up as well. Our HD transfer captured more image on the sides that had ever been seen on a video or television release. The only other issue was lack of a sound track, so Tiffany sweetened up the track from an older video release and synced it perfectly.

Next up, I wanted to provide a commentary track. Film historian, author, filmmaker and raconteur Richard M Roberts was up for it, and as my vote for Dean of Silent Comedy, he was the perfect person for the job. Richard was also influenced by the works of Robert Youngson as well, and created a commentary that intermixed his insight on the comedies themselves along with their performers, directors and producers. He also interspersed a long overdue biographical tribute to Robert Youngson himself. I asked Richard if he would allow us to use three rare comedies from his personal collection as a special feature. He agreed, but insisted they have a musical accompaniment, the cost of which would put an already over budget project further into the red. When it comes to quality, Richard doesn’t negotiate, so I bit the bullet and retained Donald Sosin, a leading silent movie composer. Glad I did.

You can buy it today for $14.99 exclusively from Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01MFX85QA

THE SPROCKET VAULT presents the restored high definition video release of Academy Award-winning Documentarian ROBERT YOUNGSON’s wonderful 1960 Comedy Compilation WHEN COMEDY WAS KING which showcased some of the funniest comedy scenes by famous comedians of the Silent Era, including Laurel and Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harry Langdon, Ben Turpin, and two of the great silent comedy producers, Mack Sennett and Hal Roach.

Remastered from the original 35mm negative and presented in its original full edge-to-edge 1:33 theatrical aspect ratio, audiences can once again enjoy classic comedy sequences from films like BIG BUSINESS (1929) with Laurel and Hardy, COPS (1922) with Buster Keaton, the only surviving footage from Harry Langdon’s THE FIRST HUNDRED YEARS (1924) and the other classic comedies. Thanks to Robert Youngson’s perseverance, the film source material of most of the comedies originated primarily from the sparking clear original camera negatives, not the jerky, flickery fourth generation copies that are so often shown.

THE SPROCKET VAULT’s new DVD release of WHEN COMEDY WAS KING features a commentary track by noted film historian, author, filmmaker and raconteur RICHARD M. ROBERTS, who provides fascinating facts and historical information on the comedy classics showcased. He also pays tribute to WHEN COMEDY WAS KING’s producer Robert Youngson, revealing his story and his important contribution to bringing these films out of obscurity and back to the attention of the film history community and general audiences alike.

As an extra bonus, Mr. Roberts graciously allowed TSV permission to showcase three complete, rare, wild and crazy silent comedies from his own large collection of early film. For the first time in over 90 years audiences can get a taste of undeservedly forgotten names from the hundreds of comedians making films in the Comedy Film Industry of the Silent Era: Hughey Mack and Dot Farley in AN ELEPHANT ON HIS HANDS (1920), Lige Conley in the frenzied FAST AND FURIOUS (1924), and the politically-incorrect Three Fatties (Frank Alexander, Hilliard Karr and Kewpie Ross) in the deliriously destructive Ton of Fun comedy HEAVY LOVE (1926), all featuring commentary by Mr. Roberts, and a new musical accompaniment by one of the leading silent film composers, Donald Sosin.

 

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I’m researching the 1928 Weiss Brothers-Artclass Pictures serial, “The Mysterious Airman.” It’s the only silent Artclass serial that survives in its complete form – complete except for Chapter 9, Reel 1.

All I had on the missing reel are records from New York Motion Picture Commission (then part of the State of New York Education Dept.), which was little more than a censor board.

A number of states had movie censor boards. As late as 1970 I recall seeing “Airport” (1970) in Baltimore, complete with a spliced on 1950s-looking black and white (spread out to Cinemascope) censor seal.

Between 1921 and 1965, distributors were required to submit all feature films, serials (each chapter had to be applied for separately), shorts, cartoons and newsreels to the Commission for screening. Objectionable scenes had to be cut from the prints before a license to exhibit in New York would be granted.

As you’ll see, the censors demanded “views of a machine gun” cut before a license would be granted, Reason? “…they will tend to ‘incite crime!’”

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First Graphic Exchanges, Inc., a division of Rayart (later Monogram Pictures), Weiss-Artclass’ States Rights distributor for New York. Weiss-Artclass didn’t have enough output or funds to afford operating their own exchanges, so licensed them to independent distributors who sold film in various territories.

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We first met in 1979 at a private tour of the Hearst Castle, “Xanadu” of “Citizen Kane.”

 

The Kit Parker Films staff and their guests were invited to a special behind the scenes tour as a reward from the Hearst people for giving them some silent newsreels produced by their patriarch, newspaper baron, William Randolph Hearst.   The tour was remarkable. It also turned out to be life changing personally and professionally:

34 years ago today I married one of the KPF guests. Her name is Donna.

She’s not only my life partner, but Kit Parker Films’ greatest supporter, cheerleader, sounding board, and sometimes crying towel. Although not involved in the KPF daily activities, Donna’s behind the scenes input through the years has been invaluable.

When I met her she could only recall seeing three classics, “The Wizard of Oz,” “Gone With the Wind,” and “Psycho.” To this day Donna is not what you’d call a super movie buff, although she does enjoy good films of all eras. I doubt she’s seen a fourth of my library, in many cases for good reason.

Donna is a trouper, perfectly willing to listen to esoterica exchanged between film buffs. She’s been known to refer to some of the more extreme ones as “mushrooms” (live in the dark, have no social life, and reproduce asexually). She once told me, “When the conversation degrades to a dissertation on Cinecolor, I’m outta here.”

Kit Parker Films, and now The Sprocket Vault (she’s in charge of social media), would not be the same today had it not been for her. I know I wouldn’t.

 

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My father was an avid 8mm home movie maker. He also owned a collection of various Castle Films, and one from Hollywood Film Enterprises, “Buzz Saw Battle,” a 50’ excerpt from the Mickey Mouse cartoon, “The Dognapper” (Disney-UA/1934), which was a real let-down because it ended right in the middle of action.  [Above: Original pencil sketch from “The Dognapper,” which hangs on my office wall.]

 

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In response to my previous blog, “The Actress Is,” which featured a Louis Weiss Co. (successor to Weiss Brothers-Artclass Pictures) home movie catalog, collector Jeff Missinne was kind enough to forward a Hollywood Film Enterprises home movie catalog from around the early 1950s. It was photocopied years ago, so the quality isn’t great.

 

 

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Jeff Missinne also gave me the following information which he has allowed me to share with you.

Hollywood Film Enterprises had four Laurel and Hardy reels: Three 400′ sound editions and one 100′ silent (“Three’s a Crowd,” the phone booth scene with Jack Norton), all from “Our Relations.”  I own prints of the sound reels and, oddly, a 100-foot dialogue sequence of the two women ordering dinner in the restaurant is repeated in two of them (“Mistaken Identity” and “Sailor’s Downfall”) while the phone booth scene isn’t in any of the sound editions!

 

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I just acquired three of the Patsy Kelly shorts but haven’t screened them yet, they are spliced together and only the first one has a main title, so I have to figure out which ones the other two are.  (Six shorts from one feature; five sound and one 100′ silent, that has to be some kind of record!)  Don’t know how many “Grandpop Monkeys” were sold, but check out that bizarre list of sizes…100′ sound “headline” versions.

 

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I asked Jeff for an approximate year of the catalog and he responded further:

 

Afraid I can’t pin down an exact date, but would say it is somewhere in the early to mid- 1950’s.  By then they had gone through the phase when they merged with another company and were briefly known as Carmel-Hollywood Films; some of the Gene Autry reels came from that period; and this was before they began offering color Disney cartoons in 8mm.  (They were edited to 100 feet each, same as the AAP Warner cartoons.)

 

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I went thru my paper files and found my letters from Wally Shidler of HFE, but no further info on dates, etc. Shidler’s letter stated that HFE’s relationship with Walt Disney ended around 1960, but I have some reason to believe it may have lasted a little longer, as they were offering 8mm Eastmancolor prints of Disney cartoons and Disneyland travelogues, and I’m not sure if Eastmancolor was commonly used for 8mm printing until after 1960.  Most if not all earlier color prints I’ve seen were Kodachrome or Anscochrome.  It certainly ended though when Disney decided to open their own 8mm division in the mid-60s.  Wally stated that HFE was primarily a lab, and the home movies were just a way to keep the place busy between outside orders.   (I am fairly sure Eastmancolor was being used for 16mm printing by 1960, but maybe not 8mm yet.  (For example, when Castle started offering 8mm cartoons and travelogues in color in the late 50’s, they were Kodachrome; and I know a collector who at least claims to own some 8mm AAP cartoons on Anscochrome.)

 

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HFE existed before Castle Films.  They were making home movie subjects at least as early as 1930, maybe even before then; Eugene Castle didn’t enter the home movie field until 1937-38, though he was making 16mm and 35mm industrial films before then.  So apparently either HFE approached Disney or the other way, and they were releasing his cartoons as early as 1933.  Disney was apparently satisfied with the deal as it was renewed over and over for decades.

 

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At one time or another HFE also had Walter Lantz’s “Oswald” and “Meany, Miny & Moe” cartoons, though only in 50′ 8mm and 100′ 16mm silent toy projector lengths (I don’t know if their deal was with Lantz himself or Universal) and some of the Harman-Ising MGM cartoons in full length 16mm sound editions.  When Universal bought out Castle Films, HFE lost the Lantz rights, and Castle then offered the cartoons in a complete range of silent and sound versions.

 

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Jeff –  Thanks a million for providing the catalog, and especially your comments! — Kit

 

Footnotes:

[Jeff] —

“Grandpop Monkey” was based on cover illustrations by an artist named Lawson Wood that ran in Collier’s magazine.  The animated versions were made by Cartoon Films, Ltd. which had been the Ub Iwerks studio.  They were backed by British money and may have been made to run there first (not sure.)  Monogram Pictures (!) released them theatrically in the US.  The 3 titles HFE had were the only ones made, and were produced and released in Cinecolor in 1940.

One of the weirdest color films I have is an 8mm Ub Iwerks cartoon in original Cinecolor.  I like Cinecolor, especially for cartoons, where it gives a sort of “old Sunday funnies” effect.  Cinecolor’s color registration was very good in 35mm, not bad in 16mm, but by the time you get down to that tiny regular-8 frame it looks like a failed anaglyph 3-D image!

[Kit] –

Weiss licensed Hollywood Film Enterprises the rights to create home movie versions from some of its silent films. Weiss-Artclass Tarzan serial cut-downs were sold as “Tarzan of the Apes”; B-westerns in which Jean Arthur had a supporting role became “Jean Arthur Westerns,” and “Bible Stories,” were adapted from the 1920 Italian epic, “La Bibbia,” which Weiss-Artclass had released in truncated form in 1922 as “After Six Days.”

My family had some 8mm Ub Iwerks Cinecolor prints: “Sinbad the Sailor,” “Little Black Sambo,” and “Pin-Cushionman” (retitle of “Balloon Land”), all 1935. As with Jeff, I was enamored by the color.  The box art, “Fun Cartoons in Color,” was cool, too.

 

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Up until the mid-1930s, movie theatres used hand tinted glass slides for advertising – akin to today’s “pre-show entertainment.” I found these on eBay.

 

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Jean Arthur is the actress in these rare slides.

Jean Arthur was the female lead in over a dozen low-budget features produced between 1924-26 by Action Pictures productions, and released by Weiss Bros.-Artclass Pictures. The original negatives were destroyed in a fire. In 1979 I asked Ms. Arthur if she recalled appearing in them…she quickly changed the subject.

 

By the 1940s Louis Weiss had bought out his brothers and was operating his own company, Louis Weiss Co.  He became very successful selling low and ultra-low budget feature films to television when the studios were afraid to do it for fear of repercussions from exhibitors.  Weiss didn’t care because he ceased releasing feature films ten years before TV.

 

Louis also sold 8mm and 16mm movies for home use. “Jean Arthur and an All-Star Cast” one reel abridgements were offered by his company. [page two, top right]

 

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Retire?

No way…I’m still finding too many interesting movies to release on DVD/Blu-ray.

Hard to believe Kit Parker Films just celebrated its 45th year in the distribution of classic motion pictures! Back in 1971 the 16mm non-theatrical industry was thriving, but it was largely owned by corporations which were passionate about money, but dispassionate about films, and the quality of the film prints showed it. I saw a niche to be filled — renting out quality prints at affordable prices, and Kit Parker Films was born.

The 16mm library expanded throughout the years until home video made inroads into the industry — the quality of VHS was marginal at best, but the price was right. By the 90s I branched out into the 35mm theatrical arena, eventually becoming the go-to source for classics in the 35mm film format.

In the late 1990s I realized the days of projecting celluloid were going to be replaced by DVDs, so slowly phased out the “old” KPF, and in 2001 began purchasing the copyrights to vintage films. Over the next 15 years my collection grew to include hundreds of feature films, television programs, serials and shorts.   Many of my acquisitions required a great degree of patience and detective work to clear rights and locate suitable elements, but those efforts unearthed many films that had seen little or no exposure for decades.

Launching my library on DVD was a success, but like other producers, my profit was far too diluted by wholesalers, and their related “expenses” that I had to pay for, but that was the traditional method media (starting with books) made its way to stores and customers for over 100 years.

Amazon has been amazing for people like me who don’t like to go to stores. By 2015 they were by far the #1 seller for my DVDs.  Over time I noticed that some items I’d buy would say “Sold by ‘Acme Company’” and “Fulfilled By Amazon.” Amazon is making 90% of my DVD sales…I had a lightbulb moment! I can’t say why it took so long for me to figure out I could sell exclusively through Amazon, pay their fulfillment fee and continue to grow my business.

This means I can continue to augment my release schedule and continue to take a chance on projects that may not even recoup their costs. How many people are going to buy a silent serial, or an obscure cult film?  In this business you never know, but I’ve built my career on taking new risks.

So, I did it, and my new company, The Sprocket Vault, was born. Although TSV was created originally to sell my own DVD/Blu-rays, other producers have started approaching me to sell theirs…so my company is growing, and that means lots of new releases of interest for you.

 

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OK, finally got enough requests to convince VCI release these two on DVD!

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During the 1940’s – early 1950s before television killed “B” movies, army comedies, musicals (MGM or Monogram…didn’t matter,) themes about Tinsel town, and of course westerns, were guaranteed hits in small town and rural America.

 

Producer/distributor/exhibitor, Robert L. Lippert, decided to combine the genres for sure-fire hits.  He did, and they were.

 

“G.I. JANE”, is a musical-comedy taking place at an army camp starring Jean Porter (sorry, not Demi Moore,) Tom Neal (Hollywood’s real-life bad-boy), Iris Adrian, Jimmie Dodd (“Jimmie” from the “Mickey Mouse Club,) and Jeanne Mahoney, with direction by B-movie stalwart Reginald LeBorg.

 

At a remote Army training camp in the desert, our boys in uniform want to do more than wave at the WAC’s, and a new recruit bets them $500 he can make this happen. A stern female lieutenant makes things tough but eventually it’s Mission Accomplished, the barracks filled with beauties and ballads.

 

“I Love Girls,” “Line-up and Sign-up in the Army Corps,” and “Nervous in the Service,” are a sampling of the musical numbers.

 

“GRAND CANYON,” a comedy with two songs (“Love Time in Grand Canyon” and “Serenade to a Mule”!) about Hollywood producers filming a western, staring Richard Arlen, Mary Beth Hughes, Reed Hadley, James Millican, Olin Howlin, Grady Sutton, and Joyce Compton, with Paul Landres in the director’s seat.

 

There’s grand fun, grand feudin’ and grand fightin’ in this spoof on low-budget Hollywood moviemaking. Assigned by Robert L. Lippert (who appears as himself in a pre-title sequence) to make a Western on indoor sets, Reed Hadley farcically tries and fails, and finally convinces the front office to allow him to shoot on “location.”  Rural audiences howled when an Arizona cowboy showed them Hollywood types a thing or two about acting, and ends up with the starring role!

 

Here’s where the filmflimflam comes in:

 

The advertising claims the movie was filmed at the Grand Canyon, and a prologue to the movie even thanks the Department of the Interior for its cooperation.   Sure, the exteriors are, but the scenes with actors, most of the movie, are filmed on sets, against process shots, or in a familiar location spot near L.A.…but who’d go see a movie called “Bronson Canyon?”   There are a couple of scenes with “actors” filmed on location, but are in reality stand-ins, shot in such a way that the audience couldn’t tell.

 

The fight scene featured in “Mike’s” dream was taken from “The Return of Wildfire,” another Arlen/Lippert film. Arlen’s opponent in the fight is Reed Hadley, his “director” in “Grand Canyon.”*

 

Viewed today, these movies are fun to watch, but remember they were made for the Princess Theatre in Meredosia, Illinois, not the Radio City Music Hall.

 

*Thank you Bob Dickson for this tidbit.

 

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Contact:  kit@kitparker.com

 

 

 

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