I have been thinking about editors lately, and how necessary they are. It is sadly clear that editing isn’t the priority that it used to be, and I’m not just talking about writing online; finding an obvious error in a newspaper, magazine, or even in a book, and knowing that it was preventable is one of the sadder and more frustrating experiences that all readers have had at one time or another. Everybody needs an editor: another pair of eyes will frequently notice typographical errors, missing or misused words, and ungainly repetition that I have overlooked (it’s so basic, but I still get annoyed when I find I’ve used the same word twice in a sentence or repeated it too closely in a paragraph). I happen to think I am a pretty good proofreader of my own stuff, but nobody’s perfect, and beyond the question of my writing ability, when I’m self-editing I only see what I think I’ve written, mentally filling in words I’ve left out or correcting spelling errors without even noticing them. An editor sees what I’ve actually written and can go from there.
Of course, what I’m describing is really proofreading and doesn’t even get into the more active roles many editors take in shaping their writers’ work. For a couple of years I wrote concert reviews for the Wichita Eagle. That was instructional, but newspaper editing has its own set of conventions: I learned quickly that I couldn’t write four paragraphs of critique and then turn it around with something positive in the last paragraph, because newspapers “cut from the bottom,” and that last paragraph was the first to go if space was needed, undercutting my rhetorical strategy and making it seem like I had nothing positive to say. I also found that phrases in parentheses or set off by em dashes were easy to cut, so I learned not to put anything too important in them. As far as grammar or word choice, though, I don’t recall many changes being made to my prose. My concert reviews were submitted via e-mail, where they would be posted first online and then usually appear in the print edition a day later (as you may expect, it was the print edition that sometimes made cuts for space).
Needless to say, Medleyana does not have an editor other than myself. With enough lead time, I can let an article rest and come back to it with fresh eyes, seeing clearly what is actually there, but realistically I don’t always have the time to let things settle before I hope to post them. Being online, I can always go back and correct mistakes if I find them later, but beyond errors of fact or simple typos, I try to resist the temptation: once you start rewriting, you may never stop. That said, my experience writing and reading lead me to have great respect for the editor’s art and skill.
There is another way in which the passage of time helps my writing process: in the realization that I’ve perpetrated a cliché. Clichés are often the byproduct of hurried writing or the initial stage of the process in which I’ll put something, anything down on the page to get started. You would think that a hackneyed phrase would immediately jump out at me, but if it fits into the rhythm of the passages around it, it can be camouflaged, only appearing obvious later, once I’ve pressed the “Publish” button. Sure, I take out clichés if I catch them during the proofreading/rewriting process, but it’s the ones I don’t catch that I really remember–and importantly remember to avoid in the future. (Lest I be accused of vagueposting, I already cringe when I see the sentence “What’s a girl to do?” in my review of Disenchantment, and that was only two weeks ago. Blecch.)
Weak endings, judgments that later seem too harsh or not harsh enough, and arguments or turns of phrase that come to me perfectly formed the day after I’ve published are examples of similar phenomena. The realization that I’ve written something trite or half-baked is a powerful incentive to do better, and a single published example I regret is stronger in that regard than a dozen unpublished aspirations. Still, as I said, I try to avoid editing old posts, because down that road lies madness. I’d rather look forward and try to apply what I’ve learned from my successes and failures to the next thing I write.
On that note, it’s now been five years since I started Medleyana; my focus has changed over time, with fewer personal essays and more reviews (especially my series Fates Worse Than Death, about which I’ll have more to say in an upcoming article). Some of what I have written seems excessive to me now, especially in the early blog entries, which were often about subjects I’d been thinking about for some time before writing; the search for fresh material often doesn’t leave as much time for exploring things in depth as I might like. However, I know from experience that if I don’t keep a schedule, I might never finish anything, because there’s always more “research” to be done, always some other nugget of information waiting to be uncovered. (And of course there are months where I don’t post anything at all.) It’s true that I don’t publish as often as I did when I started, but I plan to continue, and I’ve already re-upped my domain registration, so I guess I’m committed. I have some fun articles planned already, and October is usually a fruitful month for me with plenty of Halloween-related topics to write about, so please continue to check the site (or subscribe)!
To all my readers, whether you’ve been with me from the beginning or just discovered Medleyana, if you’ve shared links to my posts, commented on a post, followed me on Twitter, or just read something you enjoyed: thanks.
This past summer when I wrote about the practice of cutting serials to feature length, I wrote, “Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films.” A few weeks after that post, Wayne Keyser of goodmagic.com contacted me and offered to send me a DVD he had produced with his own cut-down version of two serials, Radar Men From the Moon and Undersea Kingdom. Of course I was interested, and after taking some time off from serials after my busy summer, I gave it a spin.
The disc, Serial Remix, promises “ALL the rayguns, spaceships, robots, action . . . LITTLE of the talk, ‘recaps,’ talk, car chases, and talk!” In his correspondence with me, Mr. Keyser elaborated, “I think it may be worthy of mention that every feature-length serial condensation I’ve ever seen is very short on what makes the serial interesting. When you’ve got rocket ships and robots, who needs bank robberies and car chases?” In that spirit, both films are cut to the bone, with a minimum of scene-setting and all the repetitive wandering around that pads out many serials eliminated. Readers of my reviews of these two serials will recall that they didn’t excite me that much, so I’m not offended by efforts to streamline them. (Unfortunately, Serial Remix is not commercially available, so my thoughts are offered in the spirit of a case study rather than a review.)
The versions presented are truly “remixed”: in addition to being edited for time, they have been reformatted for 16×9 widescreen instead of the original 4×3 fullscreen; some effects have been digitally sweetened (ray and lightning effects are added, sparks added to explosions, and so forth); and some shots have been moved around for pacing or to show off the models and other effects. One could easily refer to these as “Special Edition” serials, but few of Keyser’s adjustments are as obtrusive as George Lucas’s additions to the original Star Wars trilogy.
(It should also be noted that as ridiculous as both films are, the remixes are admirably straight-faced: there are no wacky sound effects or pop-ups added, and no Mystery Science Theater-styled riffs. The closest Keyser comes to making a joke of the material is a “Meet Our Characters” sequence preceding Undersea Kingdom that notes everyone’s propensity for funny hats. I can live with that.)
For the most part, these changes don’t considerably alter the story, but they do move it along and gloss over some of the fine details (not unlike the feature-length cuts made by the studios). In fact, watching Keyser’s remixes made clear how much is left to the viewer’s imagination in modern editing: serials were frequently quite literal in explaining the plot and showing every step of an action, whether it be the villain setting a trap for the hero, the hero’s miraculous escape, or the villain getting in a car and driving away. To some extent that was a function of the serial’s need to fill time, and when poorly handled it would indeed smack of padding.
It was also, I think, natural to the procedural storytelling mode that serials often engaged in: whether obvious or subtle, the situation must be established if there is to be any suspense. We don’t realize that the hero is walking into a trap unless we see it set up, or at least have an establishing shot that clearly shows the threat. And while the audience might assume that a rickety bridge is going to pose a danger in an upcoming scene, serial writers were rarely above tipping off even the slowest viewers by having a character say something like, “Be careful on that bridge; it’s liable to collapse if there’s too much weight on it.”
I might go even further and speculate that it is the seeming solidity of cause and effect in classic serial editing that makes cliffhangers so susceptible to “cheats.” The danger to the hero is so firmly established in dialogue, in premonitory close-ups (on the lit fuse, on the stuck gas pedal, on the clock whose midnight stroke spells doom), and often in the scene as filmed, that his death seems inarguable. We saw him plunge from the cliffside or fall beneath a hail of bullets, and the only way he can be saved is to undo the peril, to rewind so that in the continuation fate takes a different path. The audience may cry “cheat!” if they are observant enough to notice the switch, but such reversals are, I’m starting to think, a necessary part of serial grammar and the ability to literally cheat death a superpower peculiar to the heroes of the form. (Or perhaps not so peculiar: when Superman reverses the Earth’s rotation in Richard Donner’s 1978 film, undoing the disaster that has killed Lois Lane, he is simply performing a large-scale version of what serial heroes had been doing on a small scale for decades.)
Keyser (and other editors turning serials into features) swerves around that paradox by eliminating the cliffhangers, of course; each peril is now simply a beat in an action sequence. But the elimination of excess verbiage and travel is closer to the grammar of a modern action film, in which the audience is swept up in the heedless forward motion, and goes along with it because there is little time to take a breath and question it. I didn’t watch these films with a stopwatch, but my general impression is that the average shot length was shorter than in the original, again making the films feel more contemporary in their rhythm. (Consider how little down time there is in the Indiana Jones movies, particularly Temple of Doom, in comparison to the serials they draw from; at least Star Wars alternates its action sequences with moments of repose.)
To get down to specifics, Radar Men From the Moon, as you may recall, features George Wallace as Commando Cody, whose signature costume is his rocket-powered flight suit. The same concept (and effects) had appeared in Republic’s earlier serial King of the Rocket Men, and would later inspire Dave Stevens’ character the Rocketeer. In Radar Men, Cody and his team are dispatched to the Moon (on a rocket ship also designed and built by Cody) by government agents who suspect that recent disasters on Earth are linked to atomic activity detected on the lunar surface. After a trip as comfortable and uneventful as a coast-to-coast passenger flight, they discover a dying lunar civilization that is indeed softening up Earth for invasion; the lunarians are already on Earth, advance scouts coordinating explosions and acts of sabotage with the assistance of Earth criminals!
In Serial Mix, Radar Men is cut to a brisk 64 minutes, with an emphasis on Cody’s flying suit and other gadgets and the adventure on the lunar surface. Excised almost entirely are several middle chapters focused on the lunarians’ Earth helpers, Daly and Graber, as they steal supplies or attack Cody’s laboratory. Those sequences are entirely mundane, and aren’t missed. Daly and Graber still appear, essential to the story as they are, but they get much less screen time.
Undersea Kingdom, at 77 minutes, is (to my mind) more successful in its adaptation. With a few exceptions, the story of Crash Corrigan’s journey to Atlantis is adapted closely but with transitions and redundant material elided (often with the use of wipes imitating those in the original). The scene in which Corrigan is forced to take part in gladiatorial combat and wins the loyalty of fellow prisoner Moloch is skipped, as is the scene in which Corrigan saves the life of Atlantean high priest Sharad, earning him an invitation to lead the Atlantean army. The comic relief subplot with Smiley Burnette is omitted entirely (and since his scenes were shot and included after the fact, and his character doesn’t interact with Corrigan or the others at all, it’s an easy decision to make and takes nothing away from the main story).
As one of a few special features on the disc, Keyser narrates “Remixing the Classics,” in which he describes his love of the serials and their effects and describes the process of editing them to shorter length. He points out some of the enhancements he made to the special effects, with before and after shots, and discusses the challenge of finding appropriate places to cut while preserving necessary plot information. This feature was of great interest to me and further illuminated Keyser’s approach.
Before and after: Keyser replaced a view of the lunar surface with a shot of the lunar city
Keyser also proves to be an engaging and knowledgeable host and storyteller; it’s clear that Serial Remix is a labor of love, and in addition to looking at the choices involved in editing, he takes a broader look at the conditions under which serials were made. Often rushed (he points out that Undersea Kingdom was made in 25 days) and made for low budgets, the serials naturally fell back on recycling props (such as the electrical devices built by Kenneth Strickfaden and used for set dressing in hundreds of films), costumes, story lines, and locations (such as Bronson Canyon near Hollywood). Keyser has no illusions as to the great artistic merit of the serials (I’ll accept his judgment that The Phantom Empire is “goofy,” but “bad”? No way!) but his enthusiasm is nonetheless one I share. Seen as one fan’s tribute to the boy’s-adventure spirit of the serials, Serial Remix is a very enjoyable and polished package.
Kenneth Strickfaden shown adjusting one of his electrical props
The studios that produced serials were nothing if not parsimonious: considering the ways in which stock footage, costumes, and other production elements were reused, it is not surprising that the films themselves would be repackaged and rereleased as many times as were profitable. During the heyday of the serial format, a popular serial could be rereleased in its entirety after a few years (there were no options for viewers to see them in any other way, of course, and since most were aimed at youngsters, a new audience would arise over time).
Serials were also frequently edited down to feature length (anywhere from sixty to a hundred minutes), either released simultaneously with the serial or later rereleased as “B” pictures. The arrival of television introduced a new market for “featurized” serials, as well. (As an example, in 1966, Republic made a number of its films available to television, both complete serials and several cut down to one hundred minutes.) Sometimes, but not always, these shortened serials reappeared under new titles: Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars was released simultaneously with the feature-length Mars Attacks the World, its title chosen to exploit the notoriety of Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast; Undersea Kingdom surfaced on television as Sharad of Atlantis; and so on.
(Note that the photos on the poster are drawn from the 1936 Flash Gordon serial.)
Since I began exploring the serials last summer, I’ve been curious about these feature-length cuts: how do they differ from the serialized originals, and how effective are they at conveying the story and its thrills? There is no one answer: even a cursory survey reveals differing approaches to editing and marketing, and the context of production and the studio’s goals can have a big impact on the final product. In theory, one could cut the titles and credits and the redundant material from the cliffhangers and have a perfectly serviceable movie. In reality, the end product would still be too long for what was considered “feature length” in the mid-twentieth century and the pacing might prove unsatisfying for one sitting. From what I can tell, most cut-down serials come in somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half. (Editing down a serial into a more modern feature length would undoubtedly be an interesting project for a film student or anyone who wants to learn more about the pacing and construction of these films. Indeed, YouTube searches reveal a range of cleaned-up and “restored” versions; how far these restoration efforts extend into actual recutting is a question I haven’t explored in depth.)
For purposes of comparison I sought out a few “featurized” versions of serials I have already reviewed for this series. An approach that I would assume is typical is seen in the shortened cut of Shadow of Chinatown: at a brisk 69 minutes, the feature zips through the major events of the serial. Much of the “Oriental” color is done away with, as are scenes that have Martin Andrews’ manservant Willy Fu briefly kidnapped, and a car chase between Los Angeles and San Francisco. What is mostly eliminated is repetitive or slow-moving, however; everything that’s left is worthwhile, and more importantly the story makes sense. Willy gets in a few of his pseudo-Confusion aphorisms, and Bela Lugosi still has enough screen time to justify his top billing.
Interestingly, however, the reduction of the action to its most exciting elements makes reporter Joan Whiting a more obvious (and sympathetic) lead character than the mansplaining Andrews, at least for a while. Also, the ending cuts off one final twist in which Lugosi’s character comes back from an apparent death to strike at Andrews: this time, he gets his comeuppance the first time. There are a few other small changes, such as the addition of musical underscore to scenes that were without accompaniment in the serial, at least the version I watched; that seems to be pretty standard practice, a way of covering the seams and updating the production. Although I enjoyed the full serial of Shadow of Chinatown, I would consider the feature version an adequate substitute for an interested viewer.
By contrast, the feature-length cut of The Phantom Empire feels rushed. Admittedly, its story is complex, with Gene Autry and his Radio Ranch friends pitted against both an unscrupulous radium-hunting scientist and denizens of Murania, the hidden realm located 25,000 feet beneath the surface. Much of what I appreciate in this serial is around the edges, however: those small atmospheric moments or character beats that make it unique. As a feature, The Phantom Empire is still very distinctive. Autry’s musical numbers, integral to the plot (he must broadcast every day or else lose his radio contract, and thus the ranch), are still there, as are Frankie and Betsy Baxter’s DIY electronics lab and their club, the Thunder Riders. Missing, however, are those scenes in which Murania’s Queen Tika spies on the surface world through her television, seething with disdain, as well as a similar scene in which she shows Autry the realities of poverty and war on the surface. Gone also are most of Autry’s fight scenes and a sequence in which, near death, he mumbles in the backwards “language of the dead” before being revived by the miracle of radium. The murder of Tom Baxter is glossed over even more than in the serial, without much time given for it to sink in.
The biggest loss is the erasure of Queen Tika’s motivation for keeping Murania hidden and, ultimately, deciding to stay with her kingdom during its destruction instead of fleeing to the upper world with Autry. Speechifying is something sci-fi fans often tolerate rather than enjoy, and it’s usually the easiest thing to cut when editing for length, but in this case reducing Tika’s presence drains the serial of much of its personality, turning her into another cardboard villain. If most viewers between the 1950s and 1990s were only able to see the feature-length cut, it’s not surprising that The Phantom Empire is appreciated only by aficionados: without the atmosphere and dramatic build-up found in the full version, it comes off as a diverting novelty in the mold of Undersea Kingdom.
The New Adventures of Tarzan was actually edited into two feature films. The first, also called The New Adventures of Tarzan, is a longer version of the first two chapters of the serial, in which Tarzan joins the Guatemalan expedition of Major Martling in order to find his friend, the downed pilot D’Arnot, who is trapped in the same “lost city” in which Martling hopes to find a legendary idol, the Green Goddess. Also hunting for the idol is Raglan, a rival explorer working for a foreign company that wants the explosive formula hidden inside the idol. Although two chapters doesn’t sound like very much, the first chapter of the serial is an unusual forty minutes long, so stretching the film to seventy minutes isn’t as odd as it sounds.
(Also worth noting: while the feature’s release date is given as 1935, a release simultaneous with the serial, the version I watched is obviously a later rerelease, as the leading man is listed as Bruce Bennett; Brix changed his name to Bennett in 1939, a change that coincided with a transition into more prestigious Hollywood fare such as Sahara, Dark Passage, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. The music that accompanies these updated credits also sounds like something from the 1940s.)
As I mentioned in my review of the serial, I had trouble following the first chapter’s setup, as the sound was patchy and some of the dialogue was hard to understand. The feature version clarifies things a great deal by including extra scenes of dialogue and improving the sound. Some of the dialogue is obviously dubbed, and the voice coming from Tarzan’s mouth doesn’t sound like Herman Brix; I wonder if this version was the cause of John Taliafero’s complaints about Brix sounding like a “school master:” it’s both higher and fussier than Brix’s normal speaking voice, and it doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of the lord of the jungle. As for the rest of the dubbing, it at least helps the story make sense, and there are also added background music and sound effects that give the film a more complete, modern atmosphere.
Even so, the film begins with an apology for the sound quality, recorded under difficult conditions, and begs for the indulgence of the audience. It’s hard to imagine any modern film making such a plea, unless it were a documentary. Taliafero mentions that the Ashton Dearholt expedition that filmed The New Adventures in Central America ended up with enough footage for both a serial and a feature film, and sure enough there is a great deal of footage that doesn’t appear in the serial. Much of it is atmospheric footage of wild animals, natives, and the exotic country, and while it is impressive on its own, its inclusion in the finished film often smacks of padding, giving the film the air of a travelogue punctuated by a few scenes of action. (Particularly shameless is a flashback to D’Arnot’s plane crash that includes almost five minutes of aerial footage of animals before the actual crack-up.)
Some of the events from the serial are rearranged slightly (and obviously the cliffhangers from the serial are simply played out as action scenes without interruption), but the biggest change is at the end: in the serial, Raglan is able to steal the idol from the lost city and make away with it, with Martling and Tarzan on his trail. In the feature, Tarzan recovers the idol from Raglan almost immediately after he steals it and Martling is able to open it right there, finding the jewels inside. A happy ending for all!
Of course, Raglan gets away, and his (as well as the lost city cultists’) attempts to take back the idol are the main thread of Tarzan and the Green Goddess, the 1938 feature that includes the rest of the serial. In this film, the raw material of The New Adventures undergoes a more interesting transformation. The last chapter of the serial takes place at Lord Greystoke’s British estate, where he is holding a Gypsy-themed costume party; some of his guests ask him to recount his recent adventure in Guatemala, and he does so in flashback, turning the last episode into a belated “economy chapter.” Green Goddess puts this frame device around the entire film, which takes up the action following the escape from the lost city. The movie barely reaches an hour in length, and without the padding found in the first feature the plot moves at a breakneck pace (although it still finds room for a scene in which Martling’s valet George chases a monkey who has stolen his yo-yo). Despite being edited together with more sophistication than the 1935 releases, I’m glad I had seen the whole serial before watching this, for the sake of clarity.
Finally, there is the issue of availability. After long years of being hard to find, even for collectors (Harmon and Glut’s 1972 The Great Movie Serials, a book I have found an invaluable resource for this series, was partially based on memories of serials sometimes seen years before, and occasionally the distance shows in distorted or jumbled details), home video made it possible for many serials to be seen as they were originally released, and websites like YouTube and the Internet Archive have made it even easier for anyone with an internet connection to watch these films. In the case of feature-length cuts, the internet is frequently the only choice, as even high-quality restorations for home video don’t usually see fit to include them (I watched the feature versions of both Shadow of Chinatown and The Phantom Empire on YouTube).
Having said that, since many serials and their feature cuts are in the public domain or can be considered “orphan works,” I have found that they also turn up on cheap movie-compilation DVDs. Both of the Tarzan features I have discussed here are included on a Mill Creek collection entitled Wrath of the Sword: 20 Legendary Movies, which includes several Tarzan movies from the 1930s, a bunch of sword-and-sandal movies from the ’50s and ’60s, and (for some reason) one random Christopher Lambert movie from 2005. There’s nothing in the packaging of Wrath of the Sword that would indicate that the two Tarzan movies are related sequentially or derived from the same serial, but that’s part of the fun of this sort of quantity-over-quality package: you never really know what you’re going to get, and you have the opportunity to make discoveries and draw your own conclusions.
Next week I’ll be back with regular serial coverage as I examine The Green Hornet.
“Why, if I had half the chance, I could make an entire movie using this stock footage!” exclaims Johnny Depp as the title character in the 1994 film Ed Wood as he examines film clips of explosions, military maneuvers, and stampeding buffalo. Although Wood never went quite that far, later filmmakers would take up that challenge, and the scene illustrates just how much movies in the black-and-white era depended on footage of stunts, special effects, and locations culled from other sources in the studios’ extensive libraries to cut costs. (Even into the 1970s and ‘80s it wasn’t uncommon for low-budget directors to build films and TV episodes around footage of car crashes and stunts, matching the actors’ clothes to the pre-existing clips.) As a kid in the 1980s, I was indirectly exposed to a great deal of older movies and television by the flood of repurposed stock footage on TV at that time.
Certainly it was more common to find old movies, shorts, and black-and-white shows on television as part of cheap daytime syndication packages (I watched Leave it to Beaver, I Love Lucy, and The Little Rascals after school—can you imagine that today?) and the “late late show.” Sunday afternoon was reserved for the “Creature Feature,” a phrase that in my naiveté I thought the local station managers had come up with themselves. Creative editing into new formats such as music videos, commercials, and interstitials was just the next step for this material, much of which, before the explosion of cable channels and the revival of TV shows on DVD, was considered nearly worthless.
An appetite for old film clips excerpted from their context began to develop in the 1970s with the emergence of full-length “docutainment.” The pioneer of the nostalgic clip movie was That’s Entertainment!, a celebratory look at movie musicals made in 1974 to commemorate Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s fiftieth anniversary. In addition to editing together highlights from both classic and obscure MGM musicals, That’s Entertainment! brought together a large number of the stars from Hollywood’s Golden Age to talk about their experiences filming such classics as Singin’ in the Rain and reminisce about the good old days. (A recurring theme of both the film and its marketing was that this would be the last time so many stars would be gathered in one place—although there would be two sequels—and even the trailer emphasizes its escapist quality in the Watergate era, ending its ballyhoo with a hilariously downbeat “That’s Entertainment! Boy! Do we need it now.” Ah, the 1970s.)
That’s Entertainment! is a film that I’ve returned to several times over the years, but 1982’s It Came from Hollywood was more my speed at the time: comics Dan Aykroyd, John Candy, Gilda Radner, and Cheech and Chong introduced clips from dozens of science fiction, horror, and cult movies, ranging from cheap B movies and serials to the monster classics of the 1950s and focusing on such niche categories as drug panic, juvenile delinquency, and even musicals. In addition to the skits setting up each category (which also included “Monsters,” “Gorillas,” “The Brain,” and “Aliens,” among others), they offered a running commentary, often razzing the cheapness or tastelessness of the films in a manner that echoed the audience participation of The Rocky Horror Picture Show and the mockery of The Golden Turkey Awards (in fact, Golden Turkey winner Edward D. Wood, Jr. is the subject of his own segment in It Came from Hollywood, the only filmmaker so “honored”) and anticipated the format of Mystery Science Theater 3000.
It Came from Hollywood is doubly nostalgic for me now, hearkening back both to an era of drive-in double features and Saturday matinees I only experienced second-hand, and to the early 1980s heyday of the hip comedians (younger at the time of filming than I am now, and two of them sadly since passed away: seriously, did anyone in 1982 think that of all these comedians, Cheech Marin would have the strongest career in 2014?) I considered the height of cool back then. Unlike That’s Entertainment!, It Came from Hollywood didn’t bother to name most of the films it excerpted (except in a long list during the end credits), lending a dissociative, dream-like quality to the proceedings (and often leaving me unable to place a particular image for years, until the internet made it easier to find such information, not to mention the films themselves).
Another film that must have had a considerable influence on me was 1977’s Gizmo!, produced and directed by Howard Smith, which, unlike my two previous examples, drew most of its footage from films that purported to be true (or were at least staged for publicity: mostly Depression-era newsreels, from the look of it). Many of the clips are of gadgets and contraptions made to solve the petty problems of life—a dog-powered washing machine, a self-rocking cradle, and a spaghetti fork mounted on a hand-held drill so as to twirl automatically—in the truest Rube Goldberg spirit. Gizmo! casts a wide net, however, including many examples of “self-invention” as well, people with strange talents or driven by obsession: human flies and high wire walkers, a “human camel” drinking gallons of water and washing it down with kerosene, feats of strength and endurance.
Obsession and invention come together in the numerous doomed-to-fail flying machines, each presentation inevitably preceded by the delusional inventor’s proclamation that “what we are about to see will change the world.” The succession of disastrous ornithopters, “triphibians,” rocket planes, and bat-winged flying costumes fizzling, burning out, or simply tumbling off the ends of their take-off ramps was probably the inspiration for a similar passage in Airplane! (1980) in which former pilot Ted Striker suffers the most pathetically hilarious flashback in all of film.
In fact, the Airplane! sequence is just one of many examples of footage that was insinuated into public consciousness through its reuse: while it may not have been the first film to revive them, Gizmo! contains many images that have become iconic, such as performer Frank “Cannonball” Richards being shot in the belly point blank by a cannon. If they didn’t see Gizmo!, viewers in the 1980s might have seen this image in numerous other contexts such as commercials or music videos; it was ubiquitous enough that when The Simpsons parodied it in “Homerpalooza” they could assume that the majority of their audience would get the reference.
As it happens, I did see Gizmo! several times: in addition to appearing on HBO (like both of the other films I’ve mentioned), it was a favorite of my middle school shop teacher, good old Mr. Lundquist (who would often joke that he couldn’t use a typewriter because he had lost his “typing finger” in a bandsaw accident—he was truly a shop teacher of the old school). Whenever we had an inactive day (for whatever reason), Mr. Lundquist would pop Gizmo! into the VCR for us to watch, on the pretense that we might glean some insight into mechanical engineering from it: I must have seen the damned thing at least half a dozen times in school.
Although now mostly forgotten, Gizmo! (along with other docutainments) led to such programs as That’s Incredible! and Real People with their mix of weird talents, record-breaking attempts, and magazine-like pieces on strange subjects, kicking off a brief “reality TV” craze twenty years before Survivor. In a more serious vein, the obsessed oddballs of Gizmo! are the forefathers of Errol Morris’ subjects in the similarly anthology-like Fast, Cheap & Out of Control.
It was on basic cable that stock footage became almost a medium in itself, continually reshaped and recombined by editors, filling in the cracks in programming and propping up commercial messages like the media equivalent of duct tape. Rick Prelinger, collector and curator of countless educational and industrial films, was one source, financing his more serious preservation projects by supplying film clips to cable channels and other buyers. Nickelodeon and the Comedy Channel frequently ran old shorts in the late 1980s when their own programming was thin on the ground. And it’s a cliché by now to complain that MTV no longer runs music videos, but what I really miss are the incredible variety of cult films and the kind of sponsored films that Prelinger specialized in: safety, hygiene, and civil defense films from the 1950s and ‘60s, presented uncut but ironically juxtaposed with the rest of the channel’s programming.
Black-and-white footage was especially felicitous for film collage: just as the low-budget filmmakers of the time had reused stunts to cut costs, counting on the consistency of the film stock to hide discrepancies, modern editors could draw on a vast body of film to assemble an original world from spare parts: in It Came from Hollywood, the invaders of Earth vs. the Flying Saucers could share the screen with the alien masterminds of Mars Needs Women and the ape-like Robot Monster could trade places with the gorilla from The Perils of Nyoka, making the visuals as archetypal and interchangeable as the storylines. Later filmmakers could, and would, go much farther in assembling collages (the work of Craig Baldwin, for example, deserves a write-up of its own, to follow at a later time); the uniformity of black-and-white film bears comparison to the Victorian engravings that Max Ernst turned into the surreal graphic novel La Femme 100 Têtes, the consistency of the illustration style allowing for a greater suspension of disbelief than more typically disjunct visual collage.*
In fact, my memory of the 1980s is so colored by the reuse of kaleidoscopic Busby Berkeley routines, death-defying stunts, and proto-steampunk flying machines set to new soundtracks, that they largely run together in my mind. For example, I had completely forgotten that Gizmo! has a voiceover, yet the announcer talks over the clips almost continuously. I wonder, too, how much effect this had on other members of my generation: I was beguiled by these hints of an older world, touched by both history and fantasy, and I eventually had the opportunity to dig deeper, to watch complete films. But the emphasis on dippy inventions and quaint habits of the past might have equally fueled the perception that old movies (and even the world they represented) were uniformly corny, boring, and dumb—an attitude that can be hard to overcome.
Similarly, the use of editing to present only the highlights—a pattern that is already evident in That’s Entertainment!, but which would accelerate with each passing year—both artificially juices the excitement level and misrepresents the more leisurely pacing that was the norm in old films. (That’s not to say that editors of the 1930s and ‘40s never used quick cutting—they did—but over the length of a feature intense and exciting passages were generally balanced with slower sequences.) From a modern perspective, one of the most interesting sequences in That’s Entertainment! edits together the numerous examples of Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland in the so-called “Backyard Musicals” series, saying “Let’s put on a show!” (or a dance band, or a rodeo) in rapid succession, a predecessor of the supercuts that now thrive on YouTube.
Perhaps like any fad, the use of stock footage on television began to fade; by 1994, Turner Classic Movies was on the air, providing a more respectable home for both feature films and ephemeral short features that could be presented original and uncut. Likewise, many of the original sources from which features like Gizmo! drew are available online now and can be easily seen; it isn’t as necessary for them to be edited together for general viewers. What is needed is context, and curators like TCM or Criterion are able to provide that. With the availability of this footage has come easy-to-use editing software, so that anyone can create the kind of collage that was once trendy on television. As for the low-budget producers, they are now more likely to lean on the crutch of CGI for their features, which may not be any more believable than stock car crashes or explosions, but can be quickly produced and can be tailored to their specific needs. And MTV? Well, everyone knows they don’t show videos any more, anyway.
* In this connection, the most intriguing example of this from the 1980s is Tom Schiller’s 1984 film Nothing Lasts Forever, a black-and-white homage to Golden Age Hollywood that uses stock footage to lend authenticity to the trippy journey of a young would-be artist. More popular was Carl Reiner’s Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), a film noir parody in which Steve Martin played the detective, interacting with characters from classic movies through the magic of intercutting.