Tag Archives: UCLA Film & Television Archive

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The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of: “The Bat Whispers” (1930)

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“The Best Movies You’ve Never Heard Of” is a series of articles devoted to little-known movies of exceptional quality that dedicated film buffs may be aware of, but have somehow fallen through the cracks of the general public’s awareness.

Although it’s a crackling good thriller in its own right (if a somewhat dated one), Roland West’s little-seen 1930 “creepy old house” mystery-thriller The Bat Whispers has two main claims to distinction: (1) It was one of the very first widescreen features, and (2) Bob Kane cited The Bat Whispers, along with Douglas Fairbanks’ 1920 version of The Mark of Zorro, as his inspiration for the creation of Batman.[1] (Coming full circle, Tim Burton was obviously heavily influenced by West’s use of miniatures and mobile camerawork in The Bat Whispers when he made his 1989 version of Batman.)

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Like so many old house mysteries, The Bat Whispers had its origins in a hit Broadway play. In this case, the source was Mary Roberts Rinehart and Avery Hopwood’s 1920 play The Bat, based on Rinehart’s 1908 novel The Circular Staircase. (West first adapted the play as a silent film in 1925 under its original title.) Other successful plays of the period that belong in this particular subgenre were Paul Dickey and Charles W. Goddard’s The Ghost Breaker (1914), John Willard’s The Cat and the Canary (1922), and Ralph Spence’s The Gorilla (1925). The genre also flourished on UK stages as well, particularly with Arnold Ridley’s The Ghost Train (1923) and Edgar Wallace’s The Terror (1927). All of the aforementioned plays were adapted as silent films or early talkies or both. The genre was especially popular with the studios in the early days of sound because of their limited settings and plethora of dialogue. (The form was brilliantly lampooned in James Parrott’s hilarious 1930 three-reeler The Laurel-Hardy Murder Case. And even Alfred Hitchcock got in on the act with his 1932 thriller Number Seventeen, a surrealistic semi-parody that virtually deconstructed the genre.) [2] The talkie versions of The Gorilla and The Cat and the Canary (retitled The Cat Creeps) both just barely beat The Bat Whispers to the theaters by mere days in November 1930.

A former actor, West was an ambitious, innovative filmmaker, but not a terribly prolific one. He only made 14 movies during his brief 15-year career spanning 1916 to 1931, his only talkies being his last three films. (The Bat Whispers was his penultimate movie.) One of West’s idiosyncrasies was shooting only at night, between the hours of 6:00 pm to 4:00 am. This was not an eccentricity on the part of West, but rather a deliberate effort to avoid any attempts at kibitzing from the studio suits. As Una Merkel (who played the female ingénue in The Bat Whispers) was quoted in Scott MacQueen’s book Between Action and Cut: “He just didn’t want to be bothered with anybody. When he worked at night, there was nobody but him and the company. We all ate together at midnight, everybody at the same table” [3]

Like most innovators, West was inevitably drawn to new technology and The Bat Whispers was his opportunity to experiment with widescreen photography (in this case, the process in question was a 65mm format called Magnifilm) as well as utilizing recent cinematography breakthroughs to bring a mobility to images that were particularly noteworthy in those days when supposedly all talkies were doomed to be static. [4] The state-of-the-art equipment used on the film included a dolly-mounted camera crane and a 300-foot track suspending the camera by cables from overhead scaffolding. West also made creative use of miniature sets which allowed the cameras to give the illusion of swooping up and around buildings and the remote country mansion where the bulk of the story takes place.

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Because very few theaters of the period were equipped to show widescreen films, West covered himself by simultaneously filming an alternate version in standard 35mm. (The cinematographer for the 65mm version was Robert Planck and Ray June did the 35mm version.) For decades, the 65mm version of The Bat Whispers was considered to be lost to posterity, but in 1987, an excellent nitrate print was discovered in the archives of the Mary Pickford Estate, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive performed the restoration work with the result doing full justice to West’s remarkable widescreen compositions.

It’s fascinating to compare West’s silent and sound versions of The Bat. West was enamored of the visual stylization of the German Expressionist films of the 1920s, and his emulation of this approach is apparent in both versions. The silent version, in particular, looks like something UFA might’ve produced, with its deliberately unrealistic sets by William Cameron Menzies. But virtually all of the shots are stationary and relied on editing to go from one portion of a set to another. Not so in The Bat Whispers. There are entire sequences in which the camera is in almost constant motion. Also, the timelessly Gothic sets of the silent version were replaced with slick modern-looking settings, especially apparent in the film’s opening sequences in New York City.

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The first 10-minutes of The Bat Whispers display some breathtakingly stunning filmmaking. Underneath the opening credits, we hear a large clock chiming eleven o’clock. The first shot fades in on the camera pulling back from a miniature of a clock tower looming over the New York skyline. The camera then swings down 90° and starts descending to the street below with its miniature cars and pedestrians. Upon reaching ground level, there’s a cut to an actual location with real cars and people. As a police car pulls up, a police lieutenant about to climb aboard is being harassed by a persistent newsboy hawking the latest news about the notorious criminal known as “The Bat.” The officer blows off the newsboy and gets into the car which pulls away with its siren blaring.

The film cuts to inside the police car as it speeds through the dark city streets. A radio broadcast provides preliminary exposition: The Bat, infamous thief and murderer, has sworn to steal the diamond necklace newly-acquired by millionaire Bell (Richard Tucker) precisely at midnight. A master shot shows the car pulling up to a brownstone apartment building. The lieutenant gets out and asks another cop guarding the building which window is Bell’s penthouse. After the cop points out the lighted window on the top floor, the camera rises straight up the side of the brownstone via an elevated crane and, with the aid of a jump cut, straight into the open window of Bell’s library and up to him as he sits at his desk. Another cut brings us to a close-up of the Bat’s threatening note to Bell: “Greetings, Mr. Bell. If you will be in your library alone at twelve sharp midnight, it will prove your nerve and test my ability to steal the Rossmore Necklace out of your safe. The Bat.”

Cut to a gun sitting on Bell’s desk and a clock reading 11:57 pm. In a wideshot, Bell gets up from his desk, pockets the revolver, and goes to a connecting door to the room beyond where a group of cops and reporters wait with a police captain (DeWitt Jennings). As Bell assures the captain that everything is all right, a radio announcer boasts that the police have obviously outsmarted the Bat because it has reached the appointed hour without the robbery taking place. Bell closes the door, goes back to his desk to check the time (12:05 am), then just to assure himself, goes to open a concealed wall safe.

Cut to a close-up of the open window. A black-gloved hand reaches in, grabs hold of the cord of the window shade, and starts flapping the shade as though a heavy wind is blowing it. Cut back to Bell at the safe with the necklace in his hands. He notices the shade flapping and goes to the window. An over-the shoulder POV shot shows the police on guard in the street below. The camera cuts to the outside of the window as Bell reaches out to adjust the shade and he’s jumped from above by the silhouette of the Bat, suspended from the roof by a rope. A cut back inside the window shows Bell’s lower body writhing as the Bat strangles him. The Bat’s hand reaches in, takes the necklace out of Bell’s dead fingers, and tosses in a folded note.

In the outer room, Bell’s butler (Wilson Benge) is calling out to his employer, accompanied by a lively fox trot coming over the radio. The captain goes to the door and starts pounding on it. Meanwhile, outside the library window, the Bat is climbing up his rope to the roof. Cut back to the outer room as the cops force the door open. Cut to inside the library. The cops and butler rush in and are horrified by the sight of Bell’s dead body slumped in the window. The captain shouts out the window for the rest of the cops to come up to the apartment, while the butler discovers the empty safe now bereft of the necklace. The captain reads the note left by the Bat aloud: “To the police, why waste time chasing rainbows? I always get what I go after. Bell was easy because his clock was fast and you boys were slow. Au revoir, leaving for the country to give the police a rest.” The captain orders his men to “get Detective Anderson” and then declares in apoplectic fury to the gathered reporters, “No cheap crook is gonna make a sucker out of me and get away with it!”

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Dissolve to the clock tower as the hands, starting at midnight, start spinning to depict time passing by. Another dissolve shows us the wheels of a train racing through the night, while yet another dissolve reveals miniatures of the New York skyscrapers speeding by. A cut to a POV shot from the train’s front as it heads down the track approaching a bend with a large billboard declaring the upcoming suburb of Oakdale (more miniatures).Another dissolve has the camera dollying along a row of streetlamps leading up to a large bank (yet more miniatures). Via another dissolve, the camera darts in through an upper window overlooking a dark, shadowy antechamber containing the bank’s vault. (This shot especially reflects the film’s German Expressionism influence.) With the oversized shadow of the Bat looming above, a man enters the chamber, opens the vault, removes a valise, and closes the vault, the man and the Bat’s shadow exiting simultaneously.

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Cut to the bank’s parking lot, with the lurking shadow of the Bat prominently cast over the pavement. The thief hops into his car, there’s a dissolve to an insert shot of the vehicle’s license plate (3007), then back to the master shot as the car pulls out of the lot and up the road. Cut to the Bat silhouetted against the night sky descending by his rope. He gets into his car and takes off down the road in pursuit. A cut inside the thief’s car reveals him pulling a switch activating a smokescreen, which another cut shows emanating from the exhaust. Cut to miniatures of the cars and the country road as the smokescreen envelopes the Bat’s car, throwing it off the track as the thief seemingly makes his escape. Fade out.

Fade in on the front gate of the Fleming estate (the mansion within is this thriller’s obligatory creepy old house) and the thief, with a glance over his shoulder, slipping in through the gate. Cut to further down the estate’s wall and road as the Bat’s car pulls up and a flashlight beam scans the thief’s car parked nearby. A quick insert to a close-up of the beam hitting the license plate, confirming that it is indeed the same getaway car. Silhouetted against the estate wall, the distorted shadow of the Bat lurches towards the gate. (A brief insert cut shows one of the Bat’s feet dragging on the ground.) Cut to the thief creeping up to the window of the mansion’s study. Cut to a closer shot of the thief with his back to the camera peering in the window, then a dissolve into the study, and the story finally gets underway with the film’s first extended dialogue scene. And that’s just the first reel!

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Although some of the dialogue scenes betray the customary staginess of the period, there still remains a considerable amount of creativity exhibited in the scenes where the visual action predominates as the house’s occupants and visitors roam (and sometimes run) through the numerous back hallways, stairwells, chutes, hidden passages, and even the rooftops, with intrigues and double-crosses taking place among the various parties competing for the story’s two MacGuffins, the necklace and the bank swag. The characters involved include Miss Cornelia van Gorder (Grayce Hampton), a caustic, middle-aged dowager who’s rented the Fleming estate for the season; Lizzie Allen (Maude Eberne), van Gorder’s whiny, moronic, and perpetually frightened comedy relief maid; the estate’s feeble-minded caretaker (Spencer Charters, who was unequalled when it came to playing feeble-minded types); Dale (Merkel), Miss van Gorder’s niece, who serves as the traditional damsel-in-distress; Brook (William Bakewell), Dale’s fiancé, a bank teller who’s been implicated in the robbery and is impersonating a gardener in hopes of locating the loot and clearing his name; the sinister Dr. Venrees (sepulchral-voiced, Satanic-visaged Gustav von Seyffertitz); Richard Fleming (Hugh Huntley), the nephew of the estate’s owner who’s in search of a hidden room where the bank funds might be stashed; Detective Jones (Charles Dow Clark), a bumbling hayseed country constable who’s the other comic relief character; a  stranger who’s injured and stricken with amnesia (Ben Bard); and a second masked fiend (S.E. Jennings). And presiding over events on that proverbial dark and stormy night is Detective Anderson (Chester Morris), a cynical, urbane sleuth obsessed with getting to the bottom of the mysterious proceedings.

After a series of melodramatic incidents, culminating in the torching of the estate’s garage, the Bat is finally captured (accidentally by Lizzie) and unmasked. But wait, there’s more! As the cast forms a tableau outside the mansion with the Bat tied to a tree, a curtain closes on the image and the camera pulls back to reveal a proscenium stage. Suddenly, an unseen stage manager starts shouting, “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! Don’t do that! We’re not through yet! Keep your seats, everybody!” A theater usher sauntering on-stage with a sign is admonished, “Don’t put out that sign! Pull back that curtain! Put on the lights!” The curtain parts to reveal a shadow of a large Oriental urn. “Where is the Bat?” the stage manger screams, to be answered with a “Coming! Coming!” from the actor playing said Bat. A silhouette of the Bat descends on his ever-present rope behind the urn. There’s a burst of flash powder. Then, the actor in question steps forward in evening clothes to address the audience with a tongue-in-cheek speech requesting them not to reveal the surprise ending to their friends who haven’t seen the movie yet because, when that happens, the Bat is “heartbroken and goes around for days killing people without the slightest enjoyment in his work.” If the audience will refrain from spoilers, the Bat “promises not to haunt your homes, steal your money, or frighten your little children. Is it a bargain?” And with that, the “The End” title fades in, with a jaunty jazz tune playing in the background. (This and the aforementioned fox trot are the only music heard during the film.)

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In 1959, The Bat was remade again to take advantage of the horror revival resulting from the release of the old Hollywood horror pictures to television. Written and directed by veteran ‘B’ scenarist Crane Wilbur, this decidedly low-budget affair starred Vincent Price as the doctor (renamed Malcolm Wells), Agnes Moorehead as Cornelia van Gorder, Gavin Gordon (Mystery of the Wax Museum, Bride of Frankenstein) as Detective Anderson, and Darla Hood (the Our Gang comedies) as the female ingénue in her final film appearance. (In a too-cute-by-half touch, van Gorder was reconceived as a mystery writer on vacation.) Although this remake is the one most often seen on television, it has absolutely none of the visual style of its predecessors, and in no way threatenes The Bat Whispers’ status as the definitive version.

Fortunately for connoisseurs of classic cinema, Milestone Film & Video, an award-winning company specializing in releasing restored editions of lost and rare film classics, issued a DVD of The Bat Whispers in 1999, containing pristine prints of both the 70mm and 35mm versions. (The DVD is currently out of print, but new and used copies are still available from Amazon). The movie remains a cultural and historical artifact in addition to being a lot of fun to boot. Just remember, though: “The Bat always flies at night… and always in a straight line.”

[1] Yes, I’m aware that it’s now well known that writer Bill Finger deserves the lion’s share of the credit for shaping the character of Batman as we now know him (even though DC Comics gave Kane the sole credit), but even Finger admitted that the initial basic idea was Kane’s.

[2] Whereas most of these films stuck to their basic claustrophobic settings, it’s typical of Hitchcock’s perverse sense of humor that the last third of Number Seventeen is devoted to an elaborate cross-country chase scene.

[3] Some of this information was derived from Bret Wood’s TCM article on The Bat Whispers. Some caveats, though. Wood claims that West “altered the identity of the culprit from that of the four-year-old silent version of the film.” This is not accurate; although the surname of the character revealed to the masked villain is different in the talkie version, it’s still the equivalent of the same character in the silent film. Also, a warning, if you haven’t seen The Bat Whispers, you should steer clear of TCM’s cast list for the film; the identity of the actor playing the Bat is given away.

[4] West wasn’t the only filmmaker determined to bring camera mobility to the early sound cinema. Lewis Milestone, Alfred Hitchcock, and William Dieterle also went out of their way to avoid the stationary camerawork that plagued so many talkies of the period.

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Special Report: The Decline of Physical Media and the Rise of Illegal Torrents

Almost one year ago Stephen Bowie and Stuart Galbraith IV, on their respective blogs, began debating the aesthetic issues of watching movies via streaming video versus physical media like DVD and Blu-ray. That conversation, which you can read HERE and HERE, happily prompted a lot of good dialogue all over the Net where how one watches film is nearly as important as what one watches.

And, now, the conversation continues with a chat focusing on the subjects of bootleg videos and illegal torrents, as well as the related but fiendishly complex issue of once copyright protected movies gradually lapsing into the public domain, and whether this is good or bad for consumers.  

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Let’s start with the issue of buying bootleg videos. I think we’re pretty much on opposite sides of the fence on this issue, as well as the related notion of downloading/streaming movies officially unavailable.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, first of all, buying a bootleg is something I’m a lot less inclined to do than possessing a bootleg.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪How do you mean?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Because that does mean there’s a middleman who isn’t a rights holder but is making a profit anyway. I’ll only fill that person’s pockets if I’m pretty desperate to see something. I couldn’t do what I do, as a TV historian, without being heavily reliant on non-commercially released copies of shows. ‪Isn’t that also true of Japanese films for you? Let’s say there’s a private torrent site that contains a whole bunch of fan-subtitled Japanese films that you can’t purchase legally. Would you or would you not avail yourself of those? Would it make a difference if it was for “work” vs. pleasure viewing?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think needing access to movies/TV shows as a researcher is an entirely different issue. When, for instance, I was writing my Kurosawa/Mifune book, many of their films, particularly Mifune’s, weren’t available through normal channels. I ended up buying Hong Kong DVDs, for instance, Japanese DVDs sans English subtitles, and in some cases rented bootleg VHS tapes from Japanese rental stores in LA’s Little Tokyo and elsewhere. I’d rather fend for myself accessing what I’d need through rental shops here in Japan and, when necessary, going through official channels and viewing those titles I’d need to see through archives. ‪What I’d like to address is from the perspective of the ordinary consumer fed up that, for instance, Disney won’t release Song of the South, which has opened an underground market for that title.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Okay. And your response to that, from the consumer’s viewpoint, is what? “I guess I’m SOL then” and that’s the end of it?

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     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, first off I believe Disney will get around to Song of the South eventually. The mighty dollar supersedes political correctness any day. Over time labels have gotten around these issues with (for my money, overly PC disclaimers and warnings), driven by legal concerns more than anything else.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪But that’s sidestepping the issue a bit. Are you arguing that someone curious about Song of the South would be wrong to avail him/herself of a pirated copy?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪From a historical and artistic perspective, it absolutely should be released. Besides, my argument with regards to that film is that Uncle Remus is smarter and wiser than all the white people in that movie. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other Hollywood movies from the 1940s, and certainly the racial stereotypes are far more offensive in Gone with the Wind.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Still doesn’t answer my question, though.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪No. I myself have a copy that was given to me as a gift. I haven’t watched it, partly because the picture quality isn’t where I want it to be. However, of the handful of bootlegs I have, all I’d gladly replace with legitimately purchased copies when and if those become available. But I don’t think that’s the case with those who rely on torrent sites for 50-100% of what they watch.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Right. That’s closer to the way I feel. My own primary concern about bootlegs is aesthetic — I’d rather wait and see if a remastered copy comes out somewhere. I even dumped TCM, finally, after deciding that even a recording straight off the air didn’t pass my quality check. Most of those were piling up unwatched in the hope of a legit release.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪With regards to your SOL comment, I think part of the problem is that many folks today want instant gratification. Old fogey me, I remember if you wanted to watch, say, Touch of Evil, what you did was buy TV Guide every week and hope, pray, that sometime over the next 6-9 months one of the 6-7 VHF and UHF channels would air it, and hopefully not at 3:00 am! For me the current state of home video is an embarrassment of riches. It’s positively amazing that so many obscure titles are easily accessible. Sure, there are a bunch I’d love to watch RIGHT NOW that are presently unavailable, but I have no doubt a good percentage of those will turn up sometime over the next year or two. I don’t mind waiting. A good measurement of that is DVD Savant’s Wish List. It was huge 10 years ago, but something like 80% of those titles are now available in some form.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪And I know collectors who yell at me for not having taped, say, The Wackiest Ship in the Army when it ran on CBN in 1984. The fact that my age was in the single digits at the time doesn’t buy me much sympathy.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Even those folks who have been complaining for years about George Lucas’s suppression of the first theatrical versions of the original Star Wars trilogy probably won’t have much longer to wait, now that he’s been bought out by Disney.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Or: I spend 20 years and a lot of money hunting down some rare TV show, and now it’s on YouTube. Any tool who wants can see it in three seconds. It’s infuriating, but that doesn’t have much bearing on the state of things now.

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Another thing: I’d bet many of those loudest bellyachers probably have a huge stack of unwatched DVDs and Blu-rays stacked up, gathering dust. Why not look at those while you’re waiting?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Look, I agree with that in general: Like you, I’ve had so much stuff to watch during the DVD era that for the most part (aside from my area of specialty, which is a big exception), I haven’t needed to go outside the proper channels to find stuff to watch.But: One reason I felt like this was a natural extension of our conversation last year is that the shift from physical media to streaming changes this equation.‪ If the market is tilting away from the possibility of a consumer legally purchasing (as opposed to streaming / “renting”) a copy of a movie, does that alter the ethics of bootlegging?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think that shift hasn’t so far stopped the flow of new and interesting releases, for one thing. Sure, if DVD and Blu-ray and all other physical media came to a full stop, that might change the rules. But that hasn’t happened. DVD and Blu-ray have been “dead” for several years, supposedly. I don’t see that now or in the immediate future. What I do think bootlegging and torrents are doing is having some, probably unmeasurable, impact on marginal titles. If everyone who wants a copy has one on their hard-drive already, what’s the point in releasing it to Blu-ray, DVD, or as a MOD?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ll bet they are cannibalizing the same niche audience that small indie home video labels need. Which is a problem. Well, then, take it as a hypothetical, or look at some of the isolated instances where it’s true now. For instance, Criterion’s Hulu channel. Even if that’s not a dumping ground for films they don’t plan on releasing on disc (which it seems to be), it’ll take them 20 years to get to all of them. And while I can stream those if I want to (which I don’t), in Japan, you can’t. Don’t you feel the impulse to have someone make copies of those rare Japanese films? Would you ever feel justified in doing so?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Well, I found ways around accessing the U.S. version of Hulu while still paying for the service. But if I couldn’t, probably, no, I wouldn’t ask somebody to burn a BD-R for me just because I want to see something. For research purposes, probably yes. I suppose the bigger question is: By dumping titles they’ve licensed on Hulu, is Criterion damaging the financial incentive to eventually release those titles to DVD and/or Blu-ray?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s a good question. Yes, I suspect that Criterion starting that Hulu channel was a tacit admission that most of those films wouldn’t get a disc release, and so they wouldn’t be cutting into that revenue. But I do see a lot of people on movie forums talking about streaming a film to see if they like it and then if they do, buying a copy. For me that’s backwards — I’ll always seek out the best copy possible for a first viewing, even if it means blind-buying a Blu-ray of a movie I might hate. But it may be that for others streaming and disc purchases aren’t mutually exclusive.

     Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As the author of a recent piece here on WCP bemoaning the lack of Jacques Rivette titles on home video, would you pay money to obtain those unreleased titles as bootlegs or torrents, and if so would you then re-purchase them should they come to DVD or Blu-ray?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s true that Milestone and a few other small labels have publicly said they’ve dropped plans to release films for which they have the rights because they’ve already been heavily pirated. So that’s not completely immeasurable. It’s really frustrating but, at the same time, still sort of an isolated example. I mean, I’m not going to download a Lionel Rogosin film now because Milestone is working on his stuff, and it’s probably reasonable to wait on almost anything that could come out via Warner Archive. But a ’30s Paramount title? I wouldn’t counsel anyone to hold their breath on that. ‪Would I purchase the unavailable Rivette titles from a bootlegger now? No. But, that’s what I was getting at earlier — I wouldn’t have to. These days it happens anonymously on the Internet rather than via one-on-one contact, but I could essentially “trade” for custom-subtitled rips of French DVDs. I’m not in a huge hurry to do that, but I would also have no compunction about it. For instance: I recently borrowed a gigantic set of Portuguese DVDs of Manoel de Oliveira’s films from a friend. There were three or four Oliveiras I hadn’t that weren’t in the set or weren’t subtitled so, yes, I did indeed acquire non-commercial copies of those so that I could drop them in chronologically.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Technology-unsavvy me asks, “What exactly are you trading?” in terms of technology? And how do you make each other’s needs known?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t want to give away too many trade secrets (and I don’t know many, because I’ve only dipped a toe into this world), but essentially there are private, invitation-only websites where cinephiles upload rare stuff that others can then download as a digital file. In some cases the standards of commercial unavailability, and image quality, are quite high.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Hmm. This sounds like the 21st century version of secretive hoarders of 35mm prints in the old days! In any case I’m guessing we’re talking about numbers too tiny to have any major impact on even the niche catalog marketplace.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Exactly. Also, I believe you mentioned a kind of pool where you and some others commissioned subtitles for rare Japanese films, 20 years ago? Perhaps you can say more about that, but custom-subtitling is one of the factors that drives this underground community, and I think it’s one of the things that makes it ethically defensible.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, well. Around the time I was researching and writing about Japanese fantasy films – this being something like 22 years ago – none of the original Japanese-language versions of these films were available in the U.S. officially. Local TV markets had stopped running them, and the only licensed versions were panned-and-scanned, dubbed into English, and often heavily recut from their original versions. Gradually some of the films became available on VHS by people who’d obviously obtained Japanese laserdisc versions (for the most part) and then had them subtitled privately. Eventually I learned the main dealer doing this was making so much money that he was able to fly First Class to Tokyo several times a year (a $5,000 ride) on all the dough he was making. Fans didn’t care. They just wanted to see the movies. I, however, got to know many of the original filmmakers – directors, screenwriters, composers, actors, etc. – people who’d normally be entitled to royalties from their studios had these movies been legitimately licensed. Clearly this guy was getting rich while the people who actually made those movies got nothing. There was a time before that when I was invited in to a small, private group (mostly fellow researchers) that would all chip in to have these movies privately subtitled. In that case most or all of us already purchased the Japanese laserdisc of the titles in question, so this was, to my mind, merely a self-financed supplement to that experience.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, I started to say that I don’t care if some douchebag gets rich if the end result is wider availability for the art; it’s incidental. Then the second part of your comment makes that seem heartless! But at the time, you have to admit, English-language licensing of those films had to seem extremely unlikely. I can only counter with my own experience, is that often people who made TV in the 50s and 60s ask me, “How did you see that?” And only one or two have then gotten annoyed that I had a copy of some never-released show that they helped to create; dozens, however, have asked me to send them one, because they didn’t have it themselves.

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪That’s the thing: Back in the early 1990s it seemed very unlikely that any Japanese fantasy films would ever be released in the west in their original form, except maybe the 1954 Gojira. Nor did I think I’d ever get the chance to see any of the original Cinerama travelogues from the 1950s unless I trekked several hundred miles to John Harvey’s custom-built Cinerama theater in Dayton, Ohio. Now, of course, virtually everything is available, on its way, or under consideration.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Dave Kehr would kick you out of Movieland for writing that! There was more available on 16mm in 1975 than there is on DVD now! Don’t you know that?

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I do think Kehr may be right about classical Hollywood films on 16mm in the ’70s, but that gap, if true, is certainly narrowing. Also, to rent (not buy) a 16mm print from a distributor was comparatively expensive, anywhere from, say, $40-$200, just to rent a print for a couple of days. ‪I do want to address a related issue, the fact that we may be entering a new age in which classic films from the 1930s may fall into public domain, most famously Disney’s early cartoon shorts, but also everything from King Kong and All Quiet on the Western Front to Warner Bros. gangster movies and Fred Astaire musicals, etc. Some argue this is a good thing, that it will free-up long unreleased titles. What do you think?

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    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪First off, I think you’ll see new legislation that extends corporate copyrights before huge swaths of sound films start going PD. That’s one reason why I’m provisionally pro-piracy in some circumstances: because big corporations (not the artists who work for them) have been writing US copyright law in recent years. But, generally, no, I think we’ve seen that public domain status does no favors for a medium as technically complex as cinema (or television). ‪I don’t pretend to have all the details figured out, but I’ve always said that the only way to pry the gems loose from the studio vaults is to create some kind of tax incentive for making that stuff commercially available. Obviously a non-starter in the current anti-NEA, anti-arts political climate (although who knows, maybe the corporate handout aspect would have some traction).

   Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Exactly. As someone who’s worked with home video departments in various capacities, I’m aware of exactly how expensive it is to store and maintain film elements, to create a new video master, etc. If, say, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs suddenly became available from any and every PD outfit for five bucks, Disney would have zero incentive to ever remaster it again. I’d hate to live in a 2040 world where everyone was watching movies all mastered before 2014. As for private funding, to some extent that’s been happening for years. Hugh Hefner has facilitated the restoration of many films through his projects at the UCLA Film & Television Archive and elsewhere. And as much as people gripe about DVD-R programs, it’s an avenue in which studios have found a way (well, some have, MGM’s is DOA) to make obscure, extremely niche titles that probably sell a couple hundred units cost-effective.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There are a lot of Universal TV shows trapped in that kind of limbo now: The existing tape masters burned in the vault fire a few years ago, and no licensee is ever going to be able to afford to retransfer from the negatives. So your only shot at seeing BJ and the Bear at this point is old syndicated broadcasts posted on YouTube, basically. No, I’m very schizoid when it comes to the studios: If they’re taking good care of stuff and releasing it commercially, I’m their best friend. If they’re neglecting it, fuck ‘em: I’ll “steal” it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Of course, with TV there’s the problem of volume. It’s easier for Warner Bros. or Sony to remaster an hour-long Buck Jones Western and market it to hard-core B-Western fans with a $19.98 SRP than it is to take a chance on a 30-year-old TV show with 150 50-minute episodes.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes. Although many distributors have found a way to do that on DVD, and in fact I think Time-Life and Shout! may have realized that “complete series” box sets are in some cases more marketable than a slow trickle of the same series. However, that may also explain how you and I are coming from different places here. As a TV guy, it’s always been up to me to acquire what I want to see, either by recording reruns or from collectors. Only in the last 10 years has it been possible to buy more than a handful of old TV shows.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Clearly, also, emerging computer technologies are making previously prohibitive projects, like the reconstruction of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World possible. Twenty years ago the same work might easily have cost ten times what they were able to bring that title in for.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪There, you see the kind of thing this demon technology can spawn? Shudder.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Yes, and also content-starved media like Hulu I’m sure is driving TV (and film) availability like never before. The damnedest TV shows seem to be turning up on Hulu.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Actually, I’m mildly surprised that streaming hasn’t liberated more old shows. Researching my David E. Kelley piece, for instance, I found that only early seasons of The Practice, Picket Fences, and Chicago Hope were on Hulu; presumably, only what had been remastered for potential DVD releases (most of which didn’t materialize). Warner streams a few shows (e.g., Hawaiian Eye) where they can’t clear music rights for whole season disc releases, and some recent shows that didn’t get a disc release (like Rubicon) will show up on Amazon or Netflix. But I’ve yet to see a motherlode that didn’t also appear on DVD.‪ I don’t think, in other words, that streaming is really driving that side of the home video business … which may be a good thing. I don’t know.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪As a resident of Manhattan, I want to ask you about the bootleg scene in NYC and how that’s changed, and also if you ever checked “specialty” dealers in, say, Spanish or Chinese neighborhoods.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I’ve done a little bit of that, but because ethnic video stores are targeting native speakers, there’s a limit on how much I can infiltrate them. I used to live in a neighborhood with some Indian video stores, but couldn’t make heads or tails of the DVDs in there. You may remember that I came to you for help when I found a cheap, very well-stocked Japanese video store in midtown. ‪In that case, I ended up printing out box art from Amazon Japan and other websites in order to find some of the few Japanese DVDs that had English subtitles. And I did find most of the Juzo Itami and Hiroshi Shimizu films that aren’t available here. But … once I started renting, I realized that most (though not all) of the rental copies had been replaced with bootlegged copies! So, even though Japan is not one of the countries we generally associate with video piracy, there you have it.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I find places like that fascinating. In Los Angeles I used to frequent Hong Kong and Chinese places recommended by Hong Kong cinephile Jeff Briggs, partly for those movies but also because they sometimes sold LDs or VCDs (and, later, DVDs) of obscure Japanese movies. There was a time, for instance, where the only way to see some of Kurosawa’s early films with English subtitles was via Hong Kong DVDs and VCDs.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Well, at one point I counted, and I have directly ordered DVDs from over 15 different countries!

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think generally immigrant neighborhoods of all nationalities tend to do this, less so classic films and more often tapes of ordinary network prime time shows shipped to the States for homesick emigrants.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪That’s interesting. That Japanese store did have a lot of JP (and Korean) TV shows, and many US films & TV shows, which would’ve been cheaper for me to rent there than from a regular video store … if they’d been the real thing! And understand, my objection to those bootlegs was aesthetic as well as moral, because they’d been compressed from dual to single layer in most cases. Fortunately the Itami discs were the originals, for some reason.

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ There was a time when in, say, Times Square, you could openly buy bootleg copies of the very latest movies, as in within a day of their theatrical premiere and even before, usually taped by a guy sitting in a theater with a camcorder. (Seinfeld did an episode all about this.) Does that sort of thing still exist today?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I was thinking about that — yes, I still see the guys on the sidewalk with the blankets full of $5 pirated DVDs, though not as often. And I’m assuming they’re downloading those off the internet, not infiltrating a theater with a camcorder. Backing up one medium: When 35mm gave way to DCP, it took out the key ingredient in the experience of going to movie theaters for me. Yes, you still have the size and the shared audience experience … but I realized that what mattered most to me was that photochemical quality of celluloid. Without that, I lost the motivation to go to the cinema, and shifted most of that viewing to my home theater….

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪Same here….‎ ‪So, onto my last point: What’s the scene going to be like five years from now? Will torrents and downloads, legal and illegal, kill DVD and Blu-ray for good?

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪It’s not quite as dire, but in the same way, I feel like I would at least partially reject streaming video if it were to supplant physical media as the dominant delivery mode for home video. And what follows from that, naturally, is what do I do next? That has caused me to adjust my thinking about piracy somewhat.‪ Not because I feel entitled to free stuff (which is why many people download movies illegally) but because I do feel entitled to keep a movie in perpetuity if I purchase it, and to own a physical copy. Or am I not entitled to that, ethically? What do you think?

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    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪So then, almost bringing this full circle, yours is predominately cautious measure while I see no immediate end to this party, content that new DVD and Blu-ray titles will continue to flow in the foreseeable future, maybe not in exactly the way we’d like it all the time, but with enough new interesting stuff to keep me more than busy for the time being.

    Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪I don’t think I really have a prediction as to how fast things will change, but I think it’s clear that (1) there’s less demand for physical media, and that DVD & Blu-ray are evolving into a boutique market (like vinyl); and that (2) the rental market was a “bubble” that’s almost gone, and the future of consuming movies will mainly be a choice between buying or stealing. So, again, I ask it directly: If the choices are between streaming legally and acquiring a superior copy of it extralegally, what would you choose? In that future, would you censure cinephiles for congregating around private torrent sites?

    Stuart Galbraith IV:‎ ‪I think I’ve always been pretty clear on this point: As long as physical media exists for me that trumps even legal streaming, let alone poor quality bootlegs. I think where we disagree is about the speed and certainty about it going away for the most part or completely. Should it go away completely then, I suppose, all bets are off. It may come to that eventually but not, I don’t believe, anytime in the next five or six years.

     Stephen Bowie:‎ ‪Yes, I think that’s true in terms of the time frame. It’s even possible that I should be more worried about being able to buy another plasma TV when the time comes than about finding discs to watch on it.

 

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