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Brian Trenchard-Smith Presents: PULP FICTION B MOVIE NOVELLAS!

Remember those pulp fiction paperbacks of yesteryear and the movies they inspired? Hard boiled crime thrillers, full of murder, mayhem, betrayal, generally with a dame at the center of intrigue.  Many a B Movie came from a crime novella.

Blonde Hell-Cat On The Prowl

I want to introduce you to a trilogy of novellas that combines hard boiled noir with B Movie thrills. They are the latest work of actor, author, playwright, and screenwriter Dennis Pratt. He is also the great nephew of Boris Karloff.

Writer and Actor Dennis Pratt

This is one of Dennis Pratt’s acting headshots around the time we met. It projects a man you wouldn’t want to mess with. True. He generally played bad guys. But he’s also the most kindhearted decent fellow you’d want to meet, with an engaging sense of humor. He had been encouraged to write as well as act by a producer on the Magnum P.I series who admired Dennis’ ability to spontaneously come up with new dialogue on the set if a problem arose. Dennis entered the writer-for-hire market and soon scored two low budget movies. Kick Boxer – The Art of War and American Justice.

Kickboxer 3 Poster

American Justice Poster

A writer’s agent Michele Wallerstein introduced us. It was a good professional match. and we immediately collaborated on Leprechaun in Vegas and Leprechaun in Space, both of which reflect a shared sense of anarchic humor.

The Leprechaun and Elvis Impersonator In Vegas

The Leprechaun and Dr. Mittenhand in Space

When we co-wrote Britannic (a Titanic homage) and Operation Wolverine – Seconds to Spare (Die Hard on a train) together, I was blessed by Dennis’s understanding of the genres we were operating in, and a shared ambition to gives the fans of each genre as much of what they came for as budget would allow. 

Britannic Poster

Operation Wolverine - Seconds To Spare Poster

Dennis gained a reputation for fixing scripts that either missed the mark or needed remodeling for budget or cast. I brought him in to rewrite Deep Freeze, a blend of Them and Deep Blue Sea, to be shot in wintery Winnipeg, Canada, but the producers elected to shoot it in LA on the lowest possible direct-to-video budget, and I bowed out. Pity. It could have been an imaginative creature feature twenty years ago, but it needed name cast and quality visual effects.

Deep Freeze Poster

Between writing assignments, Dennis Pratt created a number of his own spec scripts. He had acquired a good ear for the language of officialdom from his time in the US Air Force. His gift for the banter of dubious characters probably came from moonlighting as a Los Angeles taxi driver between acting gigs. 

Dennis Pratt Taxi - Six Short Stories Book Cover

A couple of his screenplays got close, but we were never able to get them funded. I felt it would be a shame if nobody got to experience the oddball characters and hard-edged entertainment he created. I encouraged Dennis to remodel three of his screenplays into fast paced novellas. Just published on Amazon and Kindle, these are dark tales with vivid characters. Each explores a different crime milieu; mob crime, small town crime, future crime. 

Three books by Dennis Pratt

The front cover of THE SHOOTER AND THE KID is an homage to pulp fiction artwork of the 1950’s. Dennis Pratt grounds the story in a contemporary mid-level LA mob operation, with tentacles reaching across the Southwest. The criminal ambiance has pleasant echoes of The Sopranos and Breaking Bad.

The Shooter and the Kid Book Cover

Donna is the cynical, sexy enforcer of the Sean McGuire crime family. She’s reliable and discreet, generally achieving objectives without violence. This is an important stipulation when McGuire sends Donna to find out who has been skimming from his business enterprises. She is obliged to take with her a shy, stuttering 23 year old nerd, Max, who is McGuire’s nephew. Max is, however, a brilliant forensic accountant, and embezzlement bloodhound.  On the road to Vegas, a fractious chemistry develops, and Donna, shall we say, cures Max’s speech impediment. Max falls heavily in love. Their sex scenes are both funny and touching.  Against her better judgement Donna responds to Max’s inherent decency. She begins to re-evaluate her life. A confrontation with an embezzling casino manager results in an ambush, with Donna dispatching the thugs before a horrified Max. This triggers a series of gun battles and hairs breadth escapes as they go on the run from Donna’s vengeful boss. Max gets to grow up fast, and the story builds to a multi twist finale.  There’s plenty of muscular action and crackling dialogue in a tight 241 pages for fans of the genre.  It could make a fun Netflix movie if handled as an off-beat shoot-em-up, and the lead cast had palpable chemistry. 

The Only Place In Town Book Cover

The use of the widescreen movie format on the cover art of THE ONLY PLACE IN TOWN reflects its screenplay origin, a character driven suspense thriller, spiked with a dark vein of sardonic humor. With ownership of the gas station, the local store, and the diner, four brothers have a lock on a small town, until greed and ambition turn three of them against one. Their machinations become complicated by their long-suffering wives who contrive to escape the stifling misery of their marriages. Tensions notch up with the arrival in town of a mysterious man from their past.  I’ve always felt this twisted tale of deceit, treachery and murder would make a gripping movie in the vein of Blood Simple. I had Billy Bob Thornton in mind for the role of Zeb. But I was unable to get backing for it, and it passed to another well thought of director, but he too was unsuccessful. Perhaps producers ten years ago felt it was an ensemble piece with insufficient youth market appeal for theatrical release. But today The Only Place In Town, with seven juicy parts for name actors, is ideal for a streaming platform pick up. Think about who you would cast, as you rip through this fast paced novella.

Dreamland Book Cover

It is 2035 and many of our current fears have come to fruition. Air and water pollution, corroded infrastructure, civic corruption have become the reluctantly acceptable norm. Money remains the root of all evil. Sex has become a commodity rather than a bond. Think of it as an ‘R’ Rated Sam Spade story, set in a dystopian future, with an intriguing AI MacGuffin at its core.  

Each of these Pulp Fiction B Movie novellas is a fast read, full of excitement, suspense and surprises. Here’s where to find them:

Dennis Pratt Three Books

MAMBA… The World’s First Gory Talkie

A Cinema History snack by Brian Trenchard-Smith

“See the cruelest white man in Africa! See his brutal marriage, her adultery, his revenge!
A jungle uprising of furious natives all collide in a wild brawl of fists, whips and flying fur on the eve of World War One! See it now in blood-stained 2-Tone TECHNICOLOR!”

Trailer copy from those purple prose days sprang to mind. When a unique long lost Hollywood classic is found, it’s like the discovery of King Tut’s Tomb. There’s a treasure trove to unpack.
But let’s go back to the beginning.

Once Upon A Time In Hollywood – the Roaring Twenties to be precise – the production, distribution and exhibition components of the nascent “motion picture business” were settling into place, with many companies jockeying for dominance. It was a time of galloping technological change, fueled by strong public demand for drama and comedy displayed on a screen rather than a stage. Color and sound were on the way. One company – Tiffany Productions – made a big bet. In 1929, they put $500,000, five times their normal budget, into a single film – MAMBA.

It was the world’s first “all color” talkie, a ripping yarn shot out of doors, while other color movies were musicals, shot with controlled lighting on studio sound stages. The film contained scenes that would be forbidden by the Production Code a year later, which was rigorously enforced by chief censor Breen from 1934 for the next 25 years. MAMBA was a huge success.

Then a decade after its production, the negative was destroyed and the film deemed lost forever; and would have been, were it not for the sustained efforts of a number of people dedicated to movie preservation, in particular Australian cinema historian Paul Brennan and Swedish author and history professor Jonas Nordin, whose personal memories of the discovery and complex restoration process are linked at the end.

They provided most of the photographic materials in this article. And to whet your appetite, Jonas Nordin has created his own trailer.

The story of MAMBA’s creation, destruction, and resurrection offers the opportunity to turn back the clock a hundred years and look at the thriving world of Early Hollywood, and perhaps conclude that it was not much different to Hollywood today.MAMBA was made by Tiffany Productions. To give broader context to Tiffany’s most notable movie, I’ll chart the 14 year history of the company’s rise and fall. There will be occasional digressions into evolving technology and industry practice to provide a sense of the era. Think of it as the short subject that precedes the main attraction.

Tiffany was founded in 1918 by director Robert Z Leonard and his wife silent movie star Mae Murray. They followed other prestige partnerships like United Artists, formed two years earlier by Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Charlie Chaplin and DW Griffith, director of Birth of a Nation. Fifty years later major stars Barbara Streisand, Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier, Dustin Hoffman, and Steve McQueen would form First Artists to gain greater creative control and profit share in their movies.

Similarly, Tiffany’s purpose was to produce vehicles for its star Mae Murray, directed by her husband Robert Leonard, releasing them through rising distributor Metro to the nickelodeons of America. Leonard & Mae, the founders of Tiffany Productions, had sadly different career paths that are a window into the twists and turns of Silent Hollywood success stories.

Chicago born Leonard gave up law studies in favor of acting in 1907. For a period he drove a van to make a living. Over six feet tall with camera friendly looks, he quickly broke into the fledgling movie industry, becoming an established star by 1913, then directing short comedy features, His career took off when he was assigned a popular serial, The Master Key.
A contract at Universal followed, where he became chiefly associated with the films of his future wife, the ex-Ziegfeld Follies star Mae Murray.
Mae Murray, a striking beauty at 5’ 2”, with frizzy blonde hair, was born Marie Adrienne Koenig in 1885. In 1908, she joined the chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway and with determination and political skill beat out the competition to achieve headliner status by 1915. Her motion picture debut in To Have And To Hold a year later made her a major star for Universal. Roles opposite Rudolph Valentino in The Delicious Little Devil and Big Little Person followed.

Salary, in addition to profit share, for her 1922 hit Peacock Alley was $10,000 a week. She became known as “The Girl with the Bee-Stung Lips” and “The Gardenia of the Screen”. For a brief period she even wrote a weekly column for newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst. Critics sniped at her over-the-top costumes and exaggerated emoting, but the eight movies Tiffany Productions delivered to Metro were popular and financially successful.
Perhaps Mae Murray’s volatile personality became too much for Leonard and the couple divorced in 1925. Their lives diverged down sadly different paths. At that time three rival distributors, Metro, Goldwyn, and Mayer merged into a new powerhouse – MGM. Robert Z Leonard left Tiffany, joined MGM. An enduring marriage to another actress soon followed. Leonard was perfect for the new studio system, turning out musicals and light comedies, with occasional big hits like The Great Zeigfeld, which won the Best Picture Oscar in 1936, and a lavish 1940 version of Pride and Prejudice, starring Laurence Olivier, written (curiously) by Aldous Huxley. Leonard became one of the studio’s most reliable contract directors till his retirement in 1955. Fate was not so kind to his ex-wife Mae Murray, seen her with 4th husband European Prince David Mdvani.
Murray clashed with MGM chief Louis B Mayer, then, at the advice of Mdvani, whom she had appointed her new manager, she broke her contract. Later she would plead to return but Mayer refused. His enmity discouraged many directors from considering her. The dawn of the sound era was another blow.
Her first talkie Peacock Alley in 1930, a remake of her 1921 silent hit, revealed she had little flair for dialogue. It flopped, as did her two subsequent releases. She sued Tiffany for destroying her career and lost. Her husband/ manager Mdvani – how predictable – drained most of her wealth before their divorce.

In the 1940s, her nightclub appearances celebrating her past received reviews critical of her youthful costumes, the heavy makeup to hide her age, and her silent movie style. Perhaps she was an inspiration for Norma Desmond in Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard. Murray’s finances continued to collapse, and for most of her later life she lived in poverty, giving ballroom dancing lessons to teenagers. Yet nobody came to her aid. At her career peak in the early 1920s, along with such other Hollywood luminaries as Cecil B. DeMille, Harold Lloyd, and Irving Thalberg, Mae Murray was a founding member of the board of trustees at the Motion Picture & Television Fund – a charitable organization that offered assistance and care to industry members without resources. Four decades later, Murray was found homeless and disoriented, and spent her final years in the care of that excellent charity; a poignant irony. At the peak of their careers, both Mae Murray and Robert Z Leonard, the founders of Tiffany Pictures, received stars on the Hollywood Boulevard Walk of Fame. They were once a Hollywood power couple. How sadly different were their lives thereafter. They fade from the story of MAMBA now, but the company they founded would continue to be a Hollywood player, striving for a hit that would elevate Tiffany to the Major Studio level.

The man to do the job was producer director John Stahl, who was recruited, after the Leonard/Murray divorce, to be the new CEO. Along with executives Phil Goldstone and Maurice H Hoffman, he retooled the company for low budget production to generate cash flow. Tiffany has been called a Poverty Row studio, in the vernacular of the time, one whose films had lower budgets, lesser stars, if stars at all, and much lower production values than major studios. In fact Tiffany was more an independent production/distribution company with its own studio, having acquired the old Reliance / Majestic backlot on Sunset Boulevard.

Stahl renamed the company Tiffany-Stahl Productions and released 70 features, both silent and sound, 20 of which were Westerns. The new Tiffany invested in developing technologies to get ahead of the competition. They commissioned shorts subjects, photographed in a breakthrough color process known as Technicolor. The iconic Technicolor brand has a fascinating history and you can get into the weeds of it at this amazingly detailed website.

Your eyes may glaze as the differences between 2-Strip and 3-Strip Technicolor are explained, but it’s worth the study, because it demonstrates the ingenuity of the early camera pioneers; how fraught with mechanical and chemical complexities the process of creating a color image was. Today, just hit record on your phone.

Stahl, Goldstone and Hoffman were early examples of innovative hard driving studio executives that have their parallels in every decade of Hollywood history. The company would occasionally overreach in self-promotion. Their advertising slogan “Another Gem from Tiffany” caused iconic jewelry firm Tiffany & Co. to sue for trademark infringement. Tiffany Productions recognized the potential of synergy.
The huge demand for sound movies in 1927 enabled Stahl and his team to make a lucrative deal with RCA: If a cinema owner agreed to book a block of 26 Tiffany films, RCA would install the sound gear at a bargain rate. In the early days of this technology, sound came from a Gramophone disc played like a Gramophone record in synch with the picture. As many as 2,460 theaters signed up for the deal, providing Tiffany with a guaranteed distribution network.
For an understanding of the difficulties of early sound technology, the Vitaphone Wikipedia website is illuminating. Vitaphone was vulnerable to severe synchronization problems, famously spoofed in MGM’s 1952 musical about the Silent Era’s transition into Sound – Singin’ in the Rain. If a record was improperly cued up or bumped, the sound would stray out of sync with the picture, and the projectionist would have to try to manually acquire sync. The problem disappeared within a few years when soundtracks were printed in synch with the image on the 35mm film itself.
As sound movies swept the silent off the screen, Stahl felt ready to take on the next technological milestone: a full-length sound feature in Technicolor. The major studios had all rushed spectacular Technicolor musicals into production on their new sound stages, tying up almost all Technicolor’s twelve cameras. To jump ahead of the competition, Tiffany decided to make the world’s first outdoor spectacular in color and 3D.
However there is no record of Mamba being shown in 3D. They had to get the movie into theaters fast, and there was no time to perfect the process.

Mamba was shot in approximately 10 weeks between September and December 1929 on what is now the Universal backlot, probably using left over sets from The Golden Dawn to recreate Neu Posen, a fortified border town separating British and German East Africa, the two competing colonial powers, on the eve of The Great War.
This wide establishing shot of Neu Posen is an example of a time honored in-camera effect known as the glass shot, where peripheral aspects of the setting are painted on glass which is then positioned in front of camera to blend in with the action visible beyond. Thus, painted jungle obscures the studio buildings adjacent to the set. The foreground lake is still used by Universal for movies and its theme park stunt show.

The deadly snake of the title is Auguste Bolte, the richest man in Neu Posen, Casting, as always, was important. The role needed a star character actor.

Acclaimed Danish stage actor Jan (Jean) Hersholt was chosen. With screen roles ranging from The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and Erich Von Stroheim’s Greed, his name while not a headliner, was meaningful. Hersholt is perfect in the part, avoiding the scenery chewing approach of many early sound era villains in favor of a grumpy smoldering malevolence.

Jean Hersholt plays Bolte as a corpulent, unkempt, boorish plantation owner, constantly boasting of his wealth, who whips his servants, and sexually abuses local women. He is despised by the European community, whose respect he craves. So, he purchases a beautiful bride, Helen Von Linden, daughter of an impoverished nobleman, by paying her father’s debts, in the hope this trophy wife will earn him the prestige he feels entitled to.


Eleanor Boardman added some marquee value as the luckless German heiress Bolte manipulates into marriage. A successful photographic model from age 16, she entered silent movies in 1922, playing leading roles in 25 pictures before MAMBA. The year before she had starred in her husband King Vidor’s Oscar nominated The Crowd. They were a power couple of their day.

Boardman’s performance in The Crowd was widely recognized as one of the outstanding performances in American silent film. In this, her first sound role, her acting is sincere intelligent and restrained.

As the luckless bride at the nuptials, Boardman’s face speaks volumes. Matters get worse from the wedding night onwards due to her reluctance to consummate the marriage, in a scene that was cut by the Australian censor.

The scene in which Bolte demands his conjugal rights, pressing his hand on her breast before she repels him, is mild by today’s standards, but it had the Australian censors of 1930 clutching their pearls. In fact, it is an eloquent MeToo scene, written way ahead of its time and undoubtedly the work of the only woman in the writing team.

Winifred Dunn wrote her first produced screenplay at age 18 and was soon, according to trade papers, one of the “busiest scenario editors in Hollywood”, credited with writing on over 40 productions. In 1925, major star Mary Pickford recruited her to work collaboratively on several projects. Dunn was in tune with women’s issues. She knew that all the scenes of humiliation and spousal abuse inflicted on the heroine would resonate with the women in the audience married to difficult men. The prospect of marital rape, too lurid and confronting for Australian guardians of public decency, serves to further heighten suspense at the heroine’s plight for the rest of the movie. “ When I want you, all the locks in the world won’t keep me out.” is the kind of dialogue the Production Code would soon forbid. Similarly, scenes where a husband raises a whip to his disobedient wife, declaring “Everything I own carries my mark” would be stricken from scripts for the next 20 years.

A noble German officer Lt. Karl Von Reiner prevents the lash from landing. He and all the German characters in the story bear the influence of a German born member of the writing team.

Ferdinand Schumann-Heink, born in Hamburg, the son of a famous opera singer, emigrated to America, and served in the US Army during World War 1, while his brother joined the German navy, and died when his U Boat was sunk. Schumann-Heink understood the ironies of war. Perhaps he based the character of Auguste Bolte on arrogant nouveau riche profiteers that flourished in Germany’s colonial heyday. A grasp of German manners and sensibility is also evident in the depiction of the Karl Von Reidel, the romantic lead, played by Ralph Forbes.

Ralph Forbes came from a British acting family. After playing supporting roles to Lilian Gish and Norma Shearer, he achieved leading man status when he played Ronald Colman’s brother in Paramount’s 1926 big-budget Beau Geste. A scar on his cheek caused by a college football accident, was airbrushed from his headshot by a vigilant publicist. But in MAMBA the blemish is amplified by make-up, to be a typical dueling scar a young Prussian officer might have received at Heidelberg University. It lends credibility to Forbes’ portrayal.

Boardman and Forbes have genuine chemistry. They project a delicate sexual tension in their scenes together. There’s a sense of repressed yearning in their exchange of close ups as the film progresses

While not an A list cast individually, Hersholt, Boardman and Forbes, seen here with director Albert S. Rogell in a break from shooting, were cumulatively strong enough to attract movie fans. Al Rogell broke into the film business at age 15; by 22 he was directing serials and shorts subjects. His specialty was tight action dramas and westerns, making him well suited for the task. Rogell would go on to amass 122 directing credits in film and television till his retirement in the late 1950’s. His confident affable demeanor is reflected in this picture posing with cowboy star Tom Mix, who he directed in The Rider of Death Valley two years later.

Rogell’s unbroken three minute moving camera shot establishing the town is masterful. A column of native workers, carrying ivory tusks, walk, heads bowed, past a whip-carrying British soldier. This starts the film with a disapproving comment by American creatives on colonialism. More on political undercurrents later.


The camera cruises by ponies painted with black and white zebra stripes followed by an ostrich trotting through the street. Then a river comes into view, with canoes berthing, goods being unloaded. A wide variety of African detail follows before the camera arrives at the first dialogue scene which sets the background to the story. A masterful Scorsese shot before Scorsese, though the Variety reviewer, while praising the photography, complained “ early panoramic shots are hard on the eyes.” In the following scene, we learn that the rival colonial powers that share the town have each raised detachments of native troops. Indeed, peacefully interacting tribes allied with rival powers would be forced to fight each other in the war to come This tragic aspect of WW1 would be depicted forty-five years later in Jean Jacques Arnaud’s French colonial drama Black and White in Color.

MAMBA’s next scene is where the writers’ sense of irony is most obvious.


A German and a British soldier come across a group of African children play fighting in the street. One group wear spiked German helmets, the other British insignia. The two soldiers lecture the kids that Germany and Britain are “fine friends.”
“Throw away your swords and popguns, and be like white men. Why, there are millions of us all over the world and we never fight.”
This advice is given, while engaging in badinage slyly scornful of each other’s nation. The German mutters “Sheinkopf” as an aside, while the British soldier taps the German playfully in the chest, but just a little too hard. When the children leave, the British soldier concludes: “Too many blacks here in Africa, too few of us whites to hold ‘em in line, once they get the fightin’ idea into their heads.” You could read that as a racist character’s lament for the end of colonialism, or, as I prefer, you could consider it to be the American writers’ statement of the inevitable outcome of history.

You could see the subplot of Bolte rejecting the child he has fathered by a local African, as symbolic of the treatment of Africa by colonial powers. Liberal writers had to be clever with their messages. I see the movie’s final shot of the British Union Jack flying over the colony as an ironic question mark, rather than a celebratory confirmation of status quo restored. The picture could have ended traditionally on the lovers’ kiss. There is so much to enjoy in both the politics and the political incorrectness of the film. Despite the writers’ good intentions, the handling of racial issues reflects 1930 Hollywood, paternalistic, racially insensitive, at best, but it makes the film all the more interesting to deconstruct. Audiences will be abuzz with opinion as they leave the theater.

A lot of attention went into tuning make-up, design and lighting to the best aspects of 2-Strip Technicolor, while trying to minimize its limitations. The Cinematographer was Charles P. Boyle, who would amass 84 credits, like Oscar nominated Anchors Aweigh, which integrated cartoon characters with Technicolor live action, before concluding his career at Disney with the iconic Old Yeller. These images taken from screen grabs do reflect the richness of the 2-strip color palette.



Director Rogell had to work around delays due to Technicolor camera availability but managed to get four cameras for the big scenes. The budget ballooned, causing Tiffany cash flow problems. The company was funding the movie largely out of revenue coming in from completed films in release which was sometimes irregular. In order to fool the creditors, the production reportedly kept two sets of identical costumes available so that the cast and crew could keep working in case one set was confiscated. Production cost landed at about $500,000, a colossal amount for Tiffany, which was accustomed to make movies for $100,000. Rogell managed the problems well and delivered a 78 minute movie with camerawork, like the opening tracking shot, and the editing of action scenes that is surprisingly modern for the period.

His staging of the climactic battle scene is spectacular and well covered, with angles regularly integrating attackers with defenders, making the flow of the conflict clear.

There are a few false notes, like the speeded up shots of the charging natives, presumably to make them more frenzied looking. But overall it plays well. And for an audience in 1930 it must have done. High drama, crowd scenes, blazing buildings, and blood – all in color and sound at last!

What an impact this movie must have had on the previously monochromatic cinema-going public. I wonder if a 16-year-old lad from Pennsylvania, named Cy Raker Endfield might have seen MAMBA in 1930 or in subsequent reissues. He would go on to co-write and direct ZULU, in 1964, the iconic African colonial war movie.

These were the days when people wore jackets and ties to the set. Here are the key men who made MAMBA. Well, some of them. Grips and electrics not included. Women are noticeably absent. Crew photos have evolved since.

The 5 Technicolor studio-bound musicals released to substantial box office ahead of Mamba served to build the public appetite for big color drama. The recent Wall Street Crash had not yet affected cinema attendance, now at a peak.

As contrast to the wholesome color musicals on offer, Tiffany mounted a substantial campaign emphasizing the lurid: violence, adultery, and the tropical African setting – in color. It was an exploitation marketing approach Roger Corman and American International Pictures would decades later perfect.


MAMBA premiered in March 1930 at New York’s Gaiety Theater at the top price of $2 per ticket. It ran two weeks, a record at the time. Reviews were good. Photoplay Magazine concluded: “ ends with melodrama … and revolting natives “


Playdates across America followed. There are some reports that MAMBA’s eventual box office gross was $1.3M. No records remain of its international receipts. It was banned in Germany for being “ denigrating to Germans”; a tribute to Jean Hersholt’s performance.

Tiffany was surely on the verge of being admitted to the studio “A League”. Perhaps Stahl and his team had made a few enemies along the way. Somehow Tiffany’s access to exhibition outlets shrank. Apparently the “A League” made deals with exhibitors to supply multiple star laden pictures provided their theaters never played a Tiffany-Stahl release. This was to cripple a rising competitor. Illegal restraint of trade, but it was the Wild West of entertainment law at the time. John Stahl sold his shares in the company after MAMBA, perhaps seeing the writing on the wall. Denial of market access is an issue still with us in the digital world.

With revenue on Tiffany’s new product line substantially reduced, debts piled up. The recession started to bite. Box office dropped 30%. Tiffany Studios final production had a prescient title.

Eventually Tiffany filed for bankruptcy in 1932. The studio complex was later bought by Columbia Pictures. Another transition was in play. The highly inflammable nitrate stock used to shoot all silent and many early sound movies was soon to be replaced by the safer emulsion stock. Their negatives were considered obsolete, as indeed were silent films; they were of no value. Exhibitors wanted pictures that talked.

In 1938 producer David O. Selznick needed a generous supply of fuel for the burning of Atlanta sequence in his forthcoming Gone With The Wind. He recognized that the now obsolete nitrate stock was a potent and enduring source of flame, as fires in movie theaters had shown, so Metro Goldwyn Mayer purchased Tiffany’s nitrate original film negative library and scattered it across the civil war Atlanta set in Culver City, then ignited by the studio’s pyrotechnicians . The cameras rolled, and tons of nitrate negatives burned for hours providing consistent fiery backgrounds. As Rhett Butler drove his wagon between blazing buildings, the original negative of MAMBA was going up in smoke, along with vast numbers of silent movies, some classic, lost forever.

Within decades only two reels of a used print in America remained in existence. MAMBA was considered lost, until early 2009 when Paul Brennan, film assessor for events at Heritage Cinemas in Sydney, Australia, stumbled upon an entry at the IMDb message board.

“I have just had the opportunity of viewing the complete 1930’s Tiffany Production of Mamba… …Unfortunately, this was seen without the accompanying Vitaphone [RCA Photophone] disc soundtrack… The early two-colour Technicolor was amazingly bright and made this screening a surprisingly pleasant experience. …according to the authors of Forgotten Horrors, ‘only about 12 minutes of silent footage remain.’ I can refute this information as there exists in Australia a complete 35mm version of this film, in good condition.”


Paul contacted the author of this post, a retired cinema projectionist and collector of abandoned 35 mm movies, Murray Matthews, pictured here with his wife Pat, alongside Paul Brennan. The Matthews had located a complete nitrate print of Mamba in an old warehouse in a remote area of South Australia. All nine reels were in great shape. They were even stored in original Tiffany cans. Only four of the nine Vitaphone soundtrack records were to be found All nine Vitaphone sound discs had been preserved luckily.


Australia and New Zealand was the end of the distribution line. Sometimes it took years for a movie to reach this far from Hollywood. The prints were often in bad shape or incomplete when they finally arrived. MAMBA probably survived intact because the Australian distributor demanded the quick dispatch of a brand new print in exchange for an advance against future revenue. Australian projectionists must have handled it carefully over its five year run in light of its final condition. When the rights expired and the picture was to be shipped back to Hollywood, Tiffany Productions had simply ceased to exist. So the sole print of MAMBA remained forgotten in Australia gathering dust in a warehouse till Pat and Murray Matthews rescued it.

Paul Brennan persuaded the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia to make a digital copy of the print and the 4 surviving sound discs to his friend Swedish Cinema history buff Jonas Nordin, who accomplished the laborious task of re-synchronizing the sound – now at a different frame rate – to the digital picture. The demonstration of the 4 reels with synchronized sound was enough to get other parties involved to fund a full 35 mm restoration from the surviving print, with a soundtrack taken from original Vitaphone discs that had luckily been preserved in America. Much thanks is due to UCLA, and Kino Lorber also for stepping up to the plate.

The 35mm restored print of MAMBA will soon be available to Festivals and specialty cinemas. Without the dedication to the preservation cause by everyone involved, this unique snapshot of Cinema history would never have been seen again in its original form. Thanks.
Pat & Murray Matthews, “the guardians of the nitrate” tell their story here.

Jonas Nordin wrote about the restoration process here.

Paul Brennan is interviewed for Film Buffs Forecast here. He’s hilarious.

ROYAL SCANDALS – We Can’t Get Enough of Them.

The Meghan Markle/Oprah Winfrey bombshell interview, with allegations of racist attitudes in Buckingham Palace, was a perfect storm of feminist and Black Lives Matter issues guaranteed to produce a media feeding frenzy, largely along tribal lines.. The situation was not unpredictable. British comedian John Oliver could see it coming when he appeared on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in 2018 just months before the royal wedding.

“I don’t think you need to have just seen the pilot episode of ‘The Crown’ to get a basic sense of, she might be marrying into a family that could cause her some emotional complications. They’re an emotionally stunted group of fundamentally flawed people doing a very silly, pseudo job. That’s what she’s marrying into. So I hope she likes it. It’s going to be weird for her.”

So spoke an anti-Royalist, whose irreverent lampooning of the privileged and powerful is always fun to watch. Personally, I’m not an anti-Royalist. The Monarchy represents a thousand years of British History, and as such is a useful institution in governance, providing a titular head of state without any power to interfere in politics. Occasional behind the scenes influence maybe, but no effective power.

Constitutional monarchy provides a symbol of the country’s traditions, image, and values around which the citizens of different political persuasions can unify for the good of the nation. In my view, the Royal Family has great benefit for the UK, substantially in excess of its cost. They are an essential component in British tourism.

In this clip @ 3 minutes 30, you can see both sides of the debate on the economic value of the monarchy.

The Royals make easy targets for cancel culture enthusiasts angered by centuries of colonialism and inequality promoted by the British class system. But I see the Queen’s extended family more as deer caught in the headlights of rapid social change. They are human and therefore fallible, like the rest of us. Their essential humanity is well depicted in the Netflix series The Crown, albeit in the style of historical drama rather than documentary.

The Crown Poster

Critics complain of its inaccuracies, political point scoring, and oversimplification, but on balance, having grown up in England and observed British life ever since, I find each season of The Crown is a compellingly believable portrait of a long standing yet vanishing institution; a Monarchy, struggling to adapt to the post World War Two world. The motivations of all the players are delivered in shorthand. But it’s great shorthand, full of wit and insight, broadly truthful and lavishly staged, with stellar performances from all the cast. This recap of the first seasons will give you a sense of the institution into which the Royal Family were born, one which they were indoctrinated from birth to support as a God-given duty.

This recap summarizes subsequent episodes to date. We’ll have to wait till 2022 to see how the events leading up to Princess Diana’s death and the subsequent fallout are depicted.

When Rupert Murdoch arrived on the British media scene, he saw how anti-Royalist sentiments could be harnessed to provide a cash cow for a public hungry for grievance issues. Born to wealth, profit was his motivation not social change. Racism, sexism, hyper nationalism were all useful buttons to press in Murdoch’s global quest for political power and influence. When Diana Spencer was chosen by Prince Charles, to be a compliant Royal wife, the opportunity for the Murdock press to build her up then tear her down was irresistible.

The moment she bucked the rigid control of the Buckingham Palace bureaucracy, the Murdoch media were there to pounce on every perceived infraction of protocol leaked by the Palace. Princess Diana died in a high-speed car chase caused by tabloid jackals hungry for the big bucks that a revealing snapshot would earn. Without conscience they swarmed around her dying body for that purpose. Will a future episode of The Crown re-enact that scene? It should. Of course Murdoch is not solely to blame for the toxification of news media. We, its customers, share the guilt, with our appetite for celebrity culture and envy-driven schadenfreude.

So, to return to the Oprah interview, it is no wonder that Diana’s son Prince Harry, robbed of his mother at age 12, would want to protect the woman he loved from the same fate. Certainly Harry and Meghan broke ranks when they went public, they bit the hand that fed them, they caused a sacred British institution embarrassment, with suggestion of endemic racism in British society. But clearly the Palace hierarchy, unwilling to modernize, and in thrall to the UK tabloid media, failed to see teachable moments in either the Wallis Simpson saga or Princess Diana’s mental health issues. They badly mishandled the smooth entry of another independently minded American divorcee into the complications of royal duties. I applaud the Sussexes for their painful candor.
Lord Louis Mountbatten

My personal connection to Royal circles has been only tangential. First I was asleep in a cot when my mother poured a couple of gin and tonics for Lord Louis Mountbatten when he visited my father’s RAF base. He was apparently a charismatic personality and enjoyed a drink. Pity I missed such an historic figure.

Lord Brabourne

My wife and I met Mountbatten’s son-in-law John Knatchbull, 7th Baron Brabourne, CBE, professionally known as John Brabourne, a twice Oscar-nominated producer, at an Australia film industry function in Sydney. We chatted about a movie he produced HMS DEFIANT/DAMN THE DEFIANT(US) a ripping yarn of Napoleonic warfare, which broke new ground in its day for a vivid flogging and gutsy boarding party combat. A couple of months later, John Brabourne survived the IRA bombing of a motorboat that killed his father in law, Lord Mountbatten, his mother, one of his sons and a crew member.

On the 9th of April 1951 my father Wing Commander Eric Trenchard-Smith attended a Royal Air Force Ball in Malta given in honor of the visiting Princess Elizabeth, who would become Queen the following February upon the death of her father, King George VI. All twelve attending officers were given one dance each with the Princess. In my father’s case, it was a foxtrot. He told me in his final years that the Princess was amply endowed and that he was glad to have the length of arm sufficient to avoid the risk of contact with the royal bosoms. My father had a wry sense of humor. He also recounted that the future Queen was charming and seemed genuinely interested in him, his Australian background, what RAF life was like, what his wartime experience had been. Princess Elizabeth herself had served in the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial service as a mechanic and truck driver during the war, and her new husband Prince Philip was a Navy man.

RAF Pilot Eric Trenchard-Smith dancing with Princess Elizabeth

After the dance, Princess Elizabeth sat down with my father, and ordered a glass of Orangeade. When the waiter put the glass down, he spilled a little. My father had been taught always to carry a spare clean handkerchief to a social gathering. He was able immediately to pull it out and mop up the little puddle, softening the embarrassment of the waiter and getting a smile from the Princess. (You may be certain that if you have any social encounter with me, I will come equipped for spillage.) The future Queen continued to ask questions till it was time to dance and converse with the next officer. His good impression of the future Queen has no doubt transferred to me.

In Australia in the mid 1990’s I once chatted with a group in a cafe for five minutes without realizing one of them was Sarah Ferguson, Duchess of York. She was then separated from Prince Andrew and on a promotional tour in Australia. I had stopped by to say hi to actor Shane Briant who introduced his three friends by name, the last being a redheaded lady in the corner he called Sarah. Lighting in the Avalon Cafe that winter was not up to scratch – that’s my excuse. I focused on Shane, not his guests, and thanked him, a Hammer Film veteran for taking a small role in my low budget supernatural horror thriller Out of the Body back in 1987. He had never seen it. I hoped I would be able to give him a decent role one day in the future.

The redhead spoke.
“If you don’t give him a decent role I certainly won’t help promote your movie’s opening.”
“Oh dear. ” I said, still unaccountably unaware of the context.
“I’m Sarah Ferguson” she said, extending her hand.
“Oh, forgive me for not recognizing you, silly me” I said. The focus of the table then returned to her. We chatted briefly, before extricating myself without further embarrassment.

Princess Alexandra and husband Angus Ogilvy

Flash back to March, 1967. The News Department of Channel Ten Sydney occasionally sent me out as a cameraman/field reporter when they were shorthanded. Once I was sent to Canberra, the nation’s capital, to cover Princess Alexandra of Kent, cousin to Queen Elizabeth, planting a tree at Government House. The shrub was already loosely positioned in the ground. All the Princess had to do was heap a last shovelful of dirt onto it for the photo op. I joined the gathered camera crews and photographers, equipped with a clockwork wind Bell & Howell. While we waited for Princess Alexandra to arrive, I took some scene-setting shots, and forgot Rule One of cameras powered by clockwork: rewind after every shot.

So, just as the Princess scooped earth onto her shovel, the camera cut out. I rewound frantically, but by the time I was ready to roll again, the Princess had deposited the requisite shovelful of earth at the foot of the shrub and was smiling at the gathered media. Applause all round. Oh God, I’ve missed the money shot! So without hesitation I asked: “Excuse me, Ma’am, my camera jammed, would you mind doing that again?” Sharp intake of breath issued from British embassy officials who were aghast at this lapse of protocol. But the Princess graciously obliged. Later at the press reception, I was able to thank her. She and her husband Angus Ogilvy, relaxed and friendly, asked me questions about Australia from a young ex-pat’s perspective, before a royal equerry steered them away to more important guests.

As mentioned, I’ve always had sympathy for the Royal Family. They symbolize British heritage and make an important contribution to tourism. Lifelong representation of an historic institution is a difficult job, made all the harder by a coprophagic tabloid media. Being on duty, under the microscope, all day, every day, for life, is a taxing job, which the Netflix series The Crown makes clear. The royal diadem is really an iron vise.

The success of The Crown has sparked a number of high quality depictions of major British political scandals. I enjoyed the latest account of the Profumo Affair.in the BBC/Netflix production The Trial Of Christine Keeler:

You’ll get another perspective on the Keeler / Profumo Affair in this documentary.

Politicians behaving badly – both jaw-dropping sagas.

For more of my views on popular entertainment and British history check out my book Adventures in the B Movie Trade.

Dennis Pratt’s Vintage Radio

Meet my friend, actor, screenwriter, and author Dennis Pratt. We have been writing partners on multiple projects since 1993, including Leprechaun 3, Leprechaun 4 in Space, Britannic, In Her Line Of Fire, Omega Code 2, The Cabin, and Drive Hard. He brings an actor’s insight to the characters he writes. He will make occasional contributions to this website.

Actor, screenwriter and author Dennis Pratt

Greetings, Earthlings! Before there was Netflix, before there was HBO, before there was cable, and before there was television – there was the wonder of… Radio!
Radio cast rehearsingVoices from distant places piped into the homes of people who used their imaginations to create their own version of the characters who spoke to them from afar. The radio stations used RCA 44BX microphones, which had two live faces and two dead ones. Thus actors could face each other and react. An actor could give the effect of leaving the room by simply moving his head toward the dead face of the microphone. The scripts were paper-clipped together, to minimize unwanted sounds. Actors would drop finished pages to the carpeted floor after use.

There were mysteries like “The Shadow,” wherein Lamont Cranston, man about town, solved mysteries using his ability to “cloud men’s minds” and make himself invisible.

The Shadow poster

The Shadow poster

The premise was, by today’s standards, impossible to believe, but in the 1930s and 40s, an age of comparative innocence, people accepted the improbable. Orson Welles starred in several of these half hour episodes in order to finance his Mercury Theatre company.

Orson Welles acting for radio with hand raised in front of microphone

Welles never rehearsed. He would be rushed by ambulance, siren wailing, from a Broadway theatre where he was rehearsing his next production, to a radio studio where he would arrive just before air time.
His distinctive, cultured voice would bring the character of Lamont Cranston to life for thousands of people who would hang on his every word as the story unfolded.

“Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men …the Shadow knows.”

Old time radio to me is a connection to my childhood when we used to sit around the kitchen table, listening to shows like “Gangbusters” and “Gunsmoke,” while we ate popcorn and talked about what was happening in Dodge City, or the backstreets of New York, or Chicago.

We were small town people taking a journey through radio to places we might otherwise never see or experience. It was like having the actors we saw on a movie screen coming to our home and speaking directly to us.

And there was always a mail-in offer from sponsors. If you mailed them a certain number of cereal box tops, you might receive a decoder ring, or a membership in a secret crime fighting society. I remember as a four year old, putting a shredded wheat box top into our mail box, without an envelope, or a stamp, hoping I would receive an autographed photo of Hopalong Cassidy, and through some miracle it arrived two weeks later! No idea if it was the postman or my parents who made it happen, but it was such a thrill to get something like that in the mail! “Hoppy” was my friend forever!

Hoppalong Cassidy advertisement for a radio priced $16.95
Hopalong Cassidy advertement for a bicycle

Radio was a major advertising medium.

Stars of the silver screen were lured to radio with exorbitant salaries that helped pay for the mansions and the Duesenbergs that personified Hollywood royalty. Ed Wynn who never really wanted to go into radio was asked what it would take to get him on the air. He replied “$5000 a week” and was handed a pen and contract.
Actor Ed Wynn
In 1946 Bing Crosby was paid $8,000 a week for his show on the ABC Radio network, the equivalent of over $100,000 a week in today’s money.

Bing Crosby radio show poster
Bing Crosby in a tobacco advertisement
Quite a few stars endorsed tobacco in those days.

Unfortunately, a high salary like Crosby’s resulted in the supporting players receiving much less. Most of the actors surrounding the star would get something like $40 a week, which, in those days, was still a livable wage. Tax rates for those earning more than $70,000 a year as individuals were high, rising to 91%. But, by producing and selling their own shows, some stars were able to get a 25% tax rate.1

The extraordinarily popular George Burns and Gracie Allen were getting $9,000 a week.
George Burns and Gracie Allen
Audiences fell in love with the scatterbrained Gracie and sympathized with the ever patient George Burns as he tried to unravel the confusion that surrounded Gracie wherever she went.

I hope these extracts encourage you to explore the world of old radio online or CD. They are a great window into a bygone era.


I’m going to be involved in the publication of a series of Film Noir novels based on some Dennis Pratt’s screenplays. His stories are unpredictable, full of poetic imagery, leavened with irony. To give you a sense of that, here’s the blurb from his last novel ANGEL UNKNOWN:

“The dead and the living come together in this hard-edged story of faith and redemption. A mentally challenged boy experiences the supernatural when he braves countless dangers to take his critically ill sister on a 2,000 mile odyssey to reach Hollywood where they hope to find Dr. Ned, a television character whom the boy believes is the only man alive able to save his sister. These two children will need all of their spiritual strength because waiting for them at the end of their journey is a pink-cheeked, baby-faced serial killer looking for his next victim.”

Book cover of Dennis Pratt's Angel Unknown


1. Source: https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-nocera-tax-avoidance-20190129-story.html

Pimpin’ Pee Wee and the Case of the Missing Member – NSFW

Here’s a story about one of my very non-PC guilty pleasure movies. (Not safe for work!)

PROPS CREW don’t get enough respect, I’ve always thought. The right prop enhances the credibility of an actor’s performance. In emergencies property masters have to improvise. On the reboot of the PORKY’S franchise, subsequently titled “Pimpin’ Pee Wee”, I experienced what a director dreads on a tight schedule: the theft of a vital prop just before the scene is to be shot.

You see, the character known as Meat was having trouble getting laid because the sheer size of his member frightened prospective candidates. A porn star comes to the rescue in his pay-off scene, which I thought would be a bit blah without a sight gag. I had set up an Austin Powers-style hide-the-penis gag in a dimly lit room. Meat’s enormous erection would be seen rising from his reclining body as a backlit silhouette, accompanied by Zarathustra-like chords evoking Kubrick’s 2001. Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom etc.

Film crew places artificial penis on pedestal for shadow effect.

The aroused member was a beautifully sculpted stone phallus, acquired from a Hollywood sex toy shop, mounted on a rod secured to a C-stand. From the camera’s point of view, the shadow of Biggus Dickus was positioned to align perfectly with the silhouetted outline of Meat’s loins. On cue, the rod would be slowly elevated from horizontal to vertical. We had it all set up, ready to go after lunch. That’s when Murphy’s Law kicked in.

During the lunch break, someone, perhaps an extra, walked off with our distinguished phallus. It being mid-December, perhaps he saw it as an ideal Christmas gift for that special someone, but for us, it was the centerpiece of a key scene. The nearest sex shop was an hour away in traffic. We were cock-blocked in Canyon Country.

Luckily, we had Mike, a resourceful props man in the hot seat. With the clock ticking, Mike rapidly sculpted a replacement for the missing member, matching the necessary dimensions with gaffer tape! He got us shooting within twenty minutes and the shadow of Meat’s mighty member rose in perfect alignment.

The set of Pimpin' Pee Wee with penis shadow effect

Props departments rarely get enough recognition for what they contribute to the texture of a film. Hail Prop Master Mike! Appropriately, I added the following reassurance to the end titles:

No dildos were harmed in the making of this motion picture…

There’s more about all the fun you can have behind the camera in ADVENTURES IN THE B MOVIE TRADE.

Writing is Re-writing… Persistence Wins!

I have writing credits on 14 movies, and have written many screenplays that never made it to production. One of them was a paranormal action/adventure entitled “The Executioner’s Daughter.” Between 2004 and 2009 it was optioned twice for good money, but we could never get a female star with the required level of wattage to trigger a studio distribution deal. But the story still gnawed at my liver, so I rewrote it as a novel and published my revised version in 2018 as ALICE THROUGH THE MULTIVERSE. It was critically well received. Best selling author Richard Christian Matheson wrote: “A brilliant and thrilling novel. Order it today and let it take you away…”

Here’s the trailer that my friends at BFX Imageworks made:

Here are some extracts from Amazon and Good Reads reviews:

"I flew through this book in two days because I couldn’t stop reading it. It was fast paced, clever and constantly engaging. A rollicking good read."

"Alice Through The Multiverse is a thrilling, high octane page turner that never lets up. It weaves elements of time travel, romance, history, espionage, action, and international intrigue into a unique story with vibrant characters."

"The writing style was fresh, cinematic, and the book reads as if you’re watching a movie unfold on the pages in front of you. Highly recommended."

"WHAT A FABULOUS ENDING!"

(Yes, actual caps!)

"This is a slam bang, non-stop thriller that never lets up."

"ALICE THROUGH THE MULTIVERSE is a time-shifting delight that is rich in historical detail, populated by compelling and engaging characters, and filled with rousing action and provocative ideas. The book is both smart and accessible, a narrative with the strong structure of a classic that nevertheless contains the wild twists and turns only a maverick artist can provide."

"ALICE THROUGH THE MULTIVERSE has the same kooky energy of a ‘Destroyer’ novel. Would make for a poppin’ mini-series."

"The story is gripping and mesmerizing, rich in sensory detail and emotions."

"The characters are engaging and relatable. The prose is expert, with highly developed description and detail and a distinct sense of setting and emotion investment as you engage with the action of the novel. This is one of the most engrossing, fast paced and entertaining novels I have read in a long time. You’ll love it. It’s a great read."

Promotional illustrations for Alice book with woman's face, axe and gun.

Here is the full text of a review from someone experienced in the genre:

"I’m a big fan of time travel on the page and on screen, though in many cases the complexities and paradoxes of the notion can overwhelm a story to such an extent that any entertainment value is ultimately undermined (I’m looking at you, Terminator: Genisys.) In the case of Alice Through The Multiverse, however, the story and characters are – and remain – the focus throughout, whilst big questions are raised for the characters (and readers) to ponder.

Happily, the characters – both historical and contemporary – are well-rounded, and their decisions and actions never feel incompatible with what we have come to know about them. In the case of modern characters, this isn’t such a tough task. With historical characters, however, there are a plethora of potential issues that might arise to drag a reader out of the story – language, psychology, behaviour, belief, etc. The choice of the author to at least partly build his story around a medieval English peasant girl (the Alice of the title) is therefore a brave one. So, has he succeeded? In a word, yes. I cannot think of a single false beat when it comes to Alice, meaning that I whizzed through the thriller elements of the novel without losing my emotional involvement. As for the central mystery, I did think I’d solved it within the first 10 pages… but I ended up being wrong. (Not to stick the boot in, but the big Terminator: Genisys twist was ruined in the trailer… so Alice beats Arnold once again.)

If you’re looking for a thriller with heart – with mystery elements (and even theological considerations) thrown in – this will be a hugely worthwhile read. I’m looking forward to a sequel…"

The reviews are gratifying. More important than revenue, to this author at least, is that his words are read, that his ideas are shared, his imagination explored. It’s why we write. My advice to screenplay writers, if your script does not gain traction, turn it into fast paced prose. Persistence wins!

You can find Alice Through the Multiverse on Amazon.

Cinema Miniatures: A Matter of Perspective

The visual effects shot – an optical illusion sufficiently persuasive for the audience to suspend disbelief – has always fascinated me. Nowadays VFX are the domain of the computer. But it was not always so. Effects used to be done in camera. Here’s a simple illusion, snapped while walking past my neighbor’s field.

Photograph of fence and field illustrating forced perspective where tree appears to be sprouting from fence..

Momentarily it looks like the tree is sprouting from the fence. But then you realize it’s the effect of forced perspective. As a kid I was drawn to films with lots of magical eye candy so George Pal and Ray Harryhausen movies became early favorites.

The War of the Worlds (1953) Poster
Jason and the Argonauts and Mysterious Island posters

“How did they do that giant castle/volcano/tornado/earthquake/parting of the Red Sea shot?” I wondered, as the credits rolled on each new VFX-enhanced movie. Miniatures played a big part. My first introduction to a miniature was in 1963, when the school Film Circle visited the set of Becket starring Richard Burton, as the 12th Century King Henry the Second, and Peter O’Toole as Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury whose murder the king unintentionally ordered with the words ” Will nobody rid me of this meddlesome Priest!”

Poster for Becket film

Elizabeth Taylor, recently married to Burton, arrived on the set during the lunch break with a small entourage. We spotty-faced teenagers gazed at the icon with awe. She smiled acknowledgment, but her face really lit up at the sight of her husband returning from lunch with his co-star Peter O’Toole. Burton clearly saw her but walked right past her without acknowledgment. The Cut Direct. What was that about? I saw her smile change to a jab of hurt. Hmm, stars have human foibles too.

Interior of Canterbury cathedral in Becket

We were given a tour of the enormous sets. Shepperton Studios Stage H barely contained an actual size replica of the inside of Canterbury Cathedral, the largest set that had yet been built in Europe. This was the work of our host, the film’s production designer John Bryan, whom I had met the previous year at the location shoot of Tamahine at Wellington College, my school. He took pleasure in showing us an early Hollywood device still in use for making a large set even bigger at minimal expense: the perspective miniature. He had commissioned a miniature of the half of the cathedral dome over the altar that was visible from inside the front entrance. This miniature was semicircular, three feet in diameter, and painted in fine detail. The dome was then suspended from wires above the camera and lowered into a wide angle shot of the cathedral, so that it sat in perfect alignment with the top edge of the set.

Exterior of Canterbury Cathedral in Becket

A split diopter lens on the camera then balanced the focus between the foreground miniature and the deep background beyond. Bryan explained that same effect could also be achieved by a matte painting of the dome on a sheet of glass positioned in front of the camera in the same alignment with the walls beyond.
Here is a screen capture from another scene in Becket using the same technique.

Giant bell in foreground of Becket crowd scene

A reduced size replica of the swinging bell is mounted in a reduced size version of the belfry, set up in front of the camera on a high platform, viewing down at the King’s arrival. A full sized bell tower would have been cost prohibitive.

The silent era pioneered the use of hanging miniatures.

A three image diagram of how a foreground miniature works.

Here a quite substantial miniature has just been positioned to add floors and a tower to the buildings beyond.

Silent film hanging miniatures being set up

Silent film miniatures in intermediate stage of setup.

Fully set up silent film miniatures with crowd in front.

The set for the 1925 Ben Hur’s chariot race was only one side of the arena, where all the action was shot. The race around the other identical side of the arena was achieved by simply flopping the negative. Left to right speeding chariots then hurtled right to left, matching the correct screen direction once chariots had rounded the corner.

Hanging miniatures for the chariot race in Ben Hur (1925)

Careful examination will reveal that above the wall surrounding the stadium and the first rows of bleachers, there hangs a miniature with moving ‘puppet’ people that can rise and fall with the human extras. The main reason for using a miniature in this way is that, unlike a painting, the light on the built set will always be the same as that on the miniature making it possible to shoot in a variety of different ‘lights’ during the day. I have such respect for the early pioneers of the art of Visual Effects.

If I’ve whetted your appetite for more factoids about old style cinema magic, here is an extensive website to peruse: MAGICIANS OF THE MINIATURE – Matte Shot.

There are more stories of the magic of movies in my book Adventures in the B Movie Trade.

Musings on Netflix’s “The Crown” and Winston Churchill

I have enjoyed all 4 seasons so far of the Netflix historical drama series The Crown. Great writing, performances and style give us a fascinating insight into the competing personalities of the British Royal Family and the Palace hierarchy for the last hundred years. I was 6 when Elizabeth Windsor was crowned Queen of England and later watched her motorcade cruise down Odiham High street in Hampshire.

Odiham High street in Hampshire

Among the many fascinating portrayals of the political figures of the Queen’s reign is John Lithgow’s take on Prime Minister Winston Churchill. There were those in my parents’ circle who were part of Churchill’s social circle. My mother passed on this possibly apocryphal tale which I have written as a scene:

EXTERIOR BUCKINGHAM PALACE NIGHT

February 4 1954. A light dusting of snow blown by a strong wind swirls around a line of limousines, Rolls, and Bentleys, as they pass through the Palace gates. Supervising policemen and Household Cavalry Guards shiver in their uniforms.

John Lithgow as Churchill at a royal procession

INTERIOR PALACE HALLWAY NIGHT

A state dinner is scheduled to commence in 2 minutes. The Prime Minister’s chief Aide looks at his watch. Before the Queen can enter the banquet hall, all guests must be seated. Particularly the guest of honor, the Prime Minister.

The Aide stares at a door on which a sign in Gothic lettering reads: “Gentlemen’s Convenience.” As if in response to his anxiety, the door opens and 80 year old Sir Winston Churchill emerges, still sharp as a tack and looking forward to a grand evening.

The Aide, being a highly paid civil servant, trained in matters of etiquette and decorum in the pre-zipper era, sees that the Prime Minister has neglected to button up his fly. This will certainly be noticed when he stands to make the keynote address in front of the Queen. Amongst the British upper classes of the time there was a euphemistic code for warning a fellow against this potential social embarrassment.

AIDESir, you’ve…dropped sixpence.

Churchill glances down and observes his error and responded in classic Churchillian cadence.

CHURCHILLDon’t worry. An old bird does not fall
out of its nest.

Lithgow as Churchill and the real Churchill side by side

Winston Churchill’s life and accomplishment have for some time been undergoing historical re-evaluation. He inspired England to fight on against fascism. He also made many mistakes, political, military, and moral. Dresden, and Iraq for instance. But he was a complex man, with a progressive streak within his hidebound conservatism. Stephen Fry the British writer and actor told this version of a story that if nothing else reflects Churchill’s sense of humor:

INTERIOR CHURCHILL’S BEDROOM MORNING

Sir Winston rarely sleeps more than 3 hours at a time, so he is already up sitting at his credenza and going through Cabinet papers, when a knock on the door announces the arrival of his regular morning tea, toast, and a copy of The Times.

A servant enters, deposits a tray, and leaves. Accompanying him is the Aide who was his escort the previous night. He has Sir Winston’s Times in his hand which he places on the tray. In those social circles it was impolite for one man to touch another man’s Times before he did.

CHURCHILLSomething of interest in today’s paper?

AIDENothing of note, Sir. But the afternoon tabloids
and certainly next Sunday’s News Of The World
will be running a story that is of concern.

CHURCHILLNot another war profiteer exposé, I trust.

AIDENo. I’m afraid last night one of our Defense
Under Secretaries was caught in Regents Park
with a young Guardsman. The Guardsman got
away, but the Under Secretary was arrested
and charged with gross indecency.

This could become a media football, given the rabid homophobia of the Lord Chief Justice Rayner Goddard, the recent arrest of renowned stage actor John Gielgud on October 21 1953 in a public toilet.

Edmund O'Brien and John Gielgud in Julius Caesar

Here is Gielgud (right) that year, playing Cassius to Edmond O’Brien’s Casca in Julius Caesar. The feeding frenzy in tabloid media caused his Knighthood, weeks away, to be postponed for years. America revoked his visa. Lord Montague of Beaulieu had recently been jailed for 12 months on lesser offenses. Embarrassment to the government was a news cycle away.

Daily Mirror newspaper cover with headline about Lord Montague

CHURCHILLWhen was this?

AIDE2.15 AM.

CHURCHILLIn Regent’s Park?

AIDEUnder a tree, Sir.

CHURCHILL It was rather cold, I thought…last night.

AIDE Coldest February day on record
according to The Times, sir.

Churchill muses for a moment.

CHURCHILLMakes you proud to be British…

I had written these stories in my first draft of ADVENTURES IN THE B MOVIE TRADE, but as it neared 600 pages, I felt that some social history sidebars that were not specifically film related would have to be saved for another day. As I binged on The Crown I remembered my mother’s stories. You’ll find more about the England of the 1950s in the book.

Once Again I’m a Film Festival Juror

Probably no one looks forward to being on a Jury… except if it is a Film Festival Jury. The 15th Cyprus International Film Festival invited me to join their Jury panel, and conduct my duties remotely from Oregon. The Festival takes place live at the K-Cineplex, Nicosia Prime, Cyprus, from November 15 tο November 22, showing a combination of 126 short and feature films competing in several categories from five continents.  Film fans around the world may also purchase one pass for the entire CYIFF 2020 online festival. That’s a rich bingeworthy feast for Cinephiles seeking stories from diverse cultures.

I have started viewing and am impressed with the quality of the line-up. More to say when the votes are tallied and winners announced. On November 19th at 10 am Portland Oregon time, I will be the focus of a live webinar on “Ozploitation genre and the current Australian Film Industry – the ‘other’ genres.” It’s going to be a lot of fun.