This is the section where I’ll post various things from my archives. Keep checking for new stuff.
 
I received Quirk Books’ Pride and Prejudice and Zombies for Christmas and it inspired me to pitch the publishers with an idea for a book in the same genre. I’m a big fan of Samuel Johnson and James Boswell and thought the idea of Johnson as a vampire hunter was irresistable. Apparently it wasn’t. Quirk never replied to my query and they recently published their own Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. I must tip my hat to them, because Lincoln is certainly more commercially viable than Johnson.  
 
Here’s the opening to The Life of Samuel Johnson: Vampyre Hunter, in which the good doctor reveals some youthful experiences that run on a weird parallel course to a certain Hanna-Barbera cartoon.

Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Vampyre Hunter 

Edited and with an introduction by Tom Huntington  

“A box of earth from his homeland is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” 

–Samuel Johnson  

To write the Life of him who excelled all mankind in writing the lives of others, and who, whether we consider his extraordinary endowments, his various works, and his vigorous hunting and slaying of Nosferatu, has been equalled by few in any age, is an arduous, and may be reckoned in me a presumptuous task.  

 

Samuel Johnson, as he looked at the time of the hunt for John Wilkes.

As I had the honour and happiness of enjoying his friendship for upwards of twenty years; as I served serving as almost an aide de camp in his sanguinary quest across Scotland for the vampyre John Wilkes; as I had the scheme of writing his life constantly in view; as he was well apprised of this circumstance, and from time to time obligingly satisfied my inquiries, by communicating to me the incidents of his early years; as I acquired a facility in recollecting, and was very assiduous in recording, his conversation, of which the extraordinary vigour and vivacity constituted one of the first features of his character; as I alone am privy to the full details of his strange and horrifying death; and as I have spared no pains in obtaining materials concerning him, from every quarter where I could discover that they were to be found, and have been favoured with the most liberal communications by his friends; I flatter myself that few biographers have entered upon such a work as this, with more advantages; independent of literary abilities, in which I am not vain enough to compare myself with some great names who have gone before me in this kind of writing. 

 Johnson on the Supernatural: 

 Here it is proper, once for all, to give a true and fair statement of Johnson’s way of thinking upon the question, whether departed spirits are ever permitted to appear in this world, or in any way to operate upon human life. He has been ignorantly misrepresented as weakly credulous upon that subject; and, therefore, though I feel an inclination to disdain and treat with silent contempt so foolish a notion concerning my illustrious friend, yet as I find it has gained ground, it is necessary to refute it. The real fact then is, that Johnson had a very philosophical mind, and such a rational respect for testimony, as to make him submit his understanding to what was authentically proved, though he could not comprehend why it was so. Being thus disposed, he was willing to inquire into the truth of any relation of supernatural agency, a general belief of which has prevailed in all nations and ages. But so far was he from being the dupe of implicit faith, that he examined the matter with a jealous attention, and no man was more ready to refute its falsehood when he had discovered it. Churchill, in his poem entitled “The Ghost”, availed himself of the absurd credulity imputed to Johnson, and drew a caricature of him under the name of ‘POMPOSO,’ representing him as one of the believers of the story of a Ghost in Cock-lane, which, in the year 1762, had gained very general credit in London. Many of my readers, I am convinced, are to this hour under an impression that Johnson was thus foolishly deceived. It will therefore surprise them a good deal when they are informed upon undoubted authority, that Johnson was one of those by whom the imposture was detected. The story had become so popular, that he thought it should be investigated; and in this research he was assisted by the Reverend Dr. Douglas, now Bishop of Salisbury, the great detector of impostures; who informs me, that after the gentlemen who went and examined into the evidence were satisfied of its falsity, Johnson wrote in their presence an account of it, which was published in the newspapers and  Gentleman’s Magazine and undeceived the world.  

James Boswell as a young man in Italy. It was while visiting Rome that he had his first encounter with the Undead.

We drank tea with Mrs. Williams, who told us a story of second sight, which happened in Wales where she was born. He listened to it very attentively, and said he should be glad to have some instances of that faculty well authenticated. His elevated wish for more and more evidence for spirit, in opposition to the groveling belief of materialism, led him to a love of such mysterious disquisitions. He again justly observed, that we could have no certainty of the truth of supernatural appearances, unless something was told us which we could not know by ordinary means, or something done which could not be done but by supernatural power. I asked him if it was not true that for a time in his youth he investigated supernatural phenomena. JOHNSON. Yes, Sir, in a period shortly after I left Oxford I kept company with several youths of my own age who shared the same questing spirit and exhibited the same curiosity about such things as I did. One of them had a post-chaise in which we would ramble throughout the countryside whenever we received word of some event, that appeared inexplicable except through means not considered ordinary. In our more jocular moments we referred to our chaise as the Machina Mysterium, because we compared ourselves to those ancient playwrights who would drop their gods into the drama by means of a machine, or lever, as a way to resolve their plots, a technique known as deus ex machina. We perceived ourselves as having a similar function, by dropping into the midst of the events we investigated, and thus piercing the veil of the mystery. BOSWELL. Is it also true that one of your companions insisted on being accompanied by a large canine? JOHNSON. Yes, Sir, usually on our travels we had the company of a gargantuan but friendly mastiff, who exhibited the same obsession with food as did his master. Although both man and beast lacked somewhat the manly fortitude necessary to follow doggedly the trail of evidence leading to the mystery’s solution, their antics often prompted much amusement from the rest of our small party. BOSWELL. Did you ever investigate an occurrence which you felt could only be explained by a supernatural intervention? JOHNSON. No, Sir, we did not. On all occasions we uncovered a perfectly terrestrial chain of circumstances that occasioned the mystery. Usually it involved a groundskeeper or caretaker or even (here he turned to me with a sly smile) an attorney who contrived the events in question with the clear motivation of monetary gain. BOSWELL. And what was the reaction when you exposed such chicanery? JOHNSON. In most cases the perpetrator of the plot would curse us as meddling youths and use language most unseemly to inform us that, without our efforts, the nefarious scheme would certainly have borne fruit and delivered riches beyond the dreams of avarice. BOSWELL. And the hound? How did he react to the malefactors once they had been exposed? JOHNSON. By that point the dog, as well as his master, was usually eating. Both of them were possessed of prodigious appetites. BOSWELL. Did you, at this time, ever encounter the Undead? JOHNSON. No, Sir, we did not. For a long time I dismissed such stories, of the walking dead who drink the blood of the living, as little more than wild superstition. It was not until my fateful encounter with Lord Chesterfield that I received incontrovertible evidence that, not only did such monsters walk among us, but that the very continued existence of the human race was we know it depended on their swift and certain extermination. 

 -end- 

 

Portrait of the author as a young werewolf.

It must have been in 2007 that Invention & Technology magazine assigned me to write a story about the history of monster-movie make up. It was a subject near and dear to me, because I used to love the classic monster movies, even though–growing up in Maine in the pre-cable, pre-VHS era–I actually managed to see very fiew of them. My knowledge of the great Universal classics and their heirs came primarily from magazines, publicatons like Famous Monsters of Filmland and especially the late, great Monster Times. I even dabbled in a little monster creation myself when I was a kid (see above).  

Anyway, I wrote the article and got paid for it, but then the magazine ownership changed and the article was left in limbo. I think it’s a pretty good feature. The main thing it lacks is an interview with Rick Baker, which I never managed to obtain. It’s a pity, because the article is all the more relevant now because he did the makeup for the remake of The Wolf Man,  which will come out in February 2010.  

So, without further ado, here’s Hand-Made Monsters.  

HAND-MADE MONSTERS  

Horrific creatures remain popular movie fare. It’s just that they don’t make ’em like they used to.  

 When director John Landis began filming An American Werewolf in London in 1981, he wanted to take lycanthropy into uncharted territory. “In most of the wolf man movies that have gone before, the beast himself, the werewolf, is almost always a two-legged creature,” Landis said. “As in Werewolf of London, where Henry Hull . . . goes behind these pillars, and as he comes out he becomes more and more like, you know, the lead in Grease. I couldn’t do that because I just didn’t feel like an audience would buy it now.”  

Landis didn’t want to show a mere wolf man. He wanted to have his main character turn into a four-legged demon beast in an on-screen transformation that would be “[h]orrifying, but also morbidly funny—funny peculiar and funny ha-ha; tragic raw, terrible, tortuous, grotesque.” Furthermore, he wanted it to take place under bright lighting, without shadows and darkness to cloak the techniques.  

It was a tall order. Fortunately for Landis, cinema technology had undergone its own slow transformation since makeup man Jack Pierce had transformed Hull and Lon Chaney, Jr. into werewolves for Universal Studios in the 1930s and ’40s. Pierce had used the primitive makeup technology available to create movie icons, including the square-headed Frankenstein monster. His work had inspired new generations of Hollywood filmmakers—who then employed the latest technological advances to move far beyond anything Pierce had done.  

One of Pierce’s spiritual children was a young man named Rick Baker, who would devise the makeup effects for An American Werewolf in London. Baker had first glimpsed Pierce’s work when he saw  Frankenstein on late-night television. “I couldn’t figure out how you could make somebody’s head look like that,” he told Filmfax magazine in 1992. “I was playing around with makeup, but it was mostly greasepaint and nose putty. I was wondering, ‘How did they make his head square?’ Finally I went and made a square headpiece out of a shoebox and put that on. It was pretty bad, but I was inspired to keep trying. It just seemed to be the hardest makeup conceivable.”  

Originally, the goal of movie makeup had been to make people appear normal on screen. Before long, some film actors tried to make themselves appear freakish or monstrous. Lon Chaney was a prime example. Using all sorts of materials—putty, mortician’s wax, cigar holders, fishhooks and wire—Chaney transformed himself into so many memorable film characters that he earned the nickname “The Man of a Thousand Faces.” “Don’t step on that spider,” said a joke from the time. “It might be Lon Chaney.”  

One of his most startling roles was as the deformed Erik in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). To give himself a skull-like appearance, Chaney glued a strip of fishskin to the tip of his nose, pulled it back, glued it down along his nose and up to the forehead, and then covered it with makeup. He made ragged teeth out of rubbery gutta-percha, donned a skull cap, and glued his ears back with spirit gum. The result chilled audiences. The movie, observed Variety, “is probably the greatest inducement to nightmare that has yet been screened,” and Chaney’s unmasking “a wallop that can’t miss its objective.”  

Chaney kept many of his techniques secret, even from his own son, Creighton (who achieved movie fame as Lon Chaney, Jr.). “There are tricks in my peculiar trade that I don’t care to divulge any more than a magician will give away his art,” Chaney said in an interview for Collier’s Weekly. “I’m supposed to have evolved some magic process of malforming my features and limbs. It’s an art, but not magic.” Chaney’s secrecy helped create many myths about his techniques. One story said he somehow inserted celluloid chips under his cheeks for The Phantom of the Opera; another claimed that the hump he wore for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) weighed 70 pounds. Biographer Michael F. Blake disputes the notion that Chaney put himself through extreme, masochistic torments. “While the rigs required by his grotesque characterizations were not particularly comfortable, they were not as excruciating as some writers made out,” he wrote in Lon Chaney: The Man Behind the Thousand Faces.  

One substance Chaney had in his bag of tricks was a sticky mix of alcohol, pyroxylin, and ether called collodion. The substance, which came in two varieties, a tough clear coating or a more pliable version, had been invented in 1846 for use in medical dressings. In 1851 London photographer Frederick Scott Archer began using it to lock photosensitive chemicals on his glass photographic plates. The technique became known as the “wet-plate collodion process.”  

Makeup artists discovered that collodion was also good for fashioning fake scars, and Chaney used it to build up his cheekbones in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, brushing it over alternating layers of cotton. It was not, however, a pleasant substance to use, and it was very flammable. Actors in collodion makeup were advised to avoid smoking.  

Collodion helped turn an obscure English actor named Boris Karloff into a movie icon. James Whale, picked by Universal to direct its adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein, had spotted the lanky Englishman in the studio commissary and thought Karloff would work as the “damned awful monster.” “Boris Karloff’s face has always fascinated me,” the director later told the New York Times. “His physique was weaker than I could wish, but that queer, penetrating personality of his I felt was more important than his shape, which could easily be altered.”  

The alterations were Jack Pierce’s responsibility. Pierce had been born Janus Piccoulas on May 5, 1889, in Greece. After immigrating to the United States, he became a decent minor-league shortstop before drifting into the young motion-picture industry. After stints at smaller studios, Pierce became the head of Universal’s makeup department in 1926, and derived his first makeup triumph by turning Jacques Lerner into an ape for The Monkey Talks. It was just a taste of things to come.  

For Frankenstein, Pierce wanted to create a monster that appeared to be the product of technology gone bad. “My anatomical studies taught me that there are six ways a surgeon can cut the skull in order to take out or put in a brain,” Pierce said. “I figured that Dr. Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practicing surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way. He would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a potlid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and clamp it on tight. That is the reason I decided to make the Monster’s head square and flat like a shoe box and dig that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together.” The two metal electrodes sticking out the monster’s neck were electrical inlets. “Remember, the Monster is an electrical gadget,” Pierce said. “Lightning is his life force.”  

Pierce used collodion to build up the square, boxy head. He first put down a layer of cotton, covered it with collodion, and repeated the process. Years later, when novice monster-maker Rick Baker tried to emulate Pierce by working with collodion, he gained a new appreciation for how much Pierce and Karloff suffered for their art. “I played with that stuff when I first read about Pierce and the fumes alone are enough to knock you out,” Baker said. “And your skin turns beet red. I could barely finish one test makeup with it, and here’s Karloff going through days and days of it.”  

Each day, Karloff endured four hours in the makeup chair to put his face on. Pierce attached the bolts to Karloff’s neck with adhesives and layers of cotton, so tightly the scars remained for years. Wax applied to the actor’s eyelids gave him the malevolent heavy-lidded appearance. Thin wires pulled down the corners of Karloff’s mouth. The actor also removed a dental plate, giving his right cheek a sunken appearance. A blue-green greasepaint photographed on the black-and-white film as a gray, death-like pallor. To build up his height, Karloff wore large, heavy boots. Steel struts attached to his legs made his walk even more shuffling and clumsy. Pierce painted Karloff’s fingertips black because he theorized that blood would have pooled in the extremities of a dead body.  

Pierce’s handiwork horrified moviegoers in 1931. “Boris Karloff’s make-up as the synthetic man pieced together from corpses is the most brilliantly horrible ever achieved on the screen,” said Film Weekly, which reported that a mother and daughter ran screaming from a preview in Santa Barbara.  

Karloff became Universal’s resident monster. The studio even billed him as “the uncanny master of make-up” in posters for The Raven (1935). The real master, of course, was Jack Pierce, who subjected Karloff to another elaborate getup for 1932’s The Mummy (although Karloff appeared in the full makeup for only seconds of screen time), and in two sequels to Frankenstein. But makeup didn’t exist in a vacuum. Movies are a collaborative venture, and studio technicians contributed to the art of monster making. For instance, cinematographer John J. Meschell helped make the colorful greasepaint Pierce put on Karloff look corpselike on film for the Bride of Frankenstein (1935). “Karloff’s makeup was blue-green in color, and to register this photographically, the light on him was projected through blue filters,” Meschell explained; “the makeup of the others were pink or reddish in tone, and lights of a corresponding shade had to be trained on their faces, and the blue lights had to be shielded from them.”  

As Meschell knew, black and white film allowed filmmakers certain latitudes that color didn’t. Universal exploited that for Werewolf of London (1935), in which Henry Hull played a lyncanthropic botanist. In one scene, Hull’s appearance begins to change in a single shot. To create the effect, Pierce’s department gave Hull two layers of makeup, a normal layer in one color, perhaps green, and another one showing wolflike tendencies in red. To change man into beast, the filmmakers placed a colored filter over the camera lens to screen out the normal makeup, so only the wolf layers reached the unexposed film. For the effect to work, though, the filmmakers had to make sure the base makeup, clothing and set decoration were all done in neutral colors that the filters wouldn’t affect. (Paramount had used the same trick in 1932 for the initial stage of actor Fredric March’s transformation from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde.)  

On the same film, John P. Fulton, who was in charge of special effects at Universal, and David Horsley, his assistant, devised a clever method to totally transform Hull into a wolf, seemingly in a single shot. In the movie, Hull runs through a garden terrace and becomes hairier as he passes behind columns. The shot was comprised of three different elements that were combined onto a single piece of film. The background was filmed normally. Hull, in different stages of Pierce’s makeup, was then photographed against black velvet. His image was isolated and matted into the background shot. The columns were matted in separately, at spots where the makeup changes occurred.  

Pierce had supposedly designed a full wolf man look for Werewolf of London, but Hull refused to wear it and Pierce had to create a minimalist version. Lon Chaney, Jr., was apparently less demanding than Hull, and he underwent the complete makeover for The Wolf Man (1941). His on-camera transformation was done as a series of lap dissolves—separate shots that are overlapped and blended, or dissolved, together. According to Chaney, filming a transformation required him to arrive at the studio at 2:00 a.m. to begin the tedious process. A plaster mold around his head kept him from moving, to avoid obvious shifts in position between the different shots. With the camera weighed down to keep it from shaking, the cameraman shot a few frames of film. Then Pierce added more makeup and the process was repeated. “Well, we did twenty-one changes of makeup and it took twenty-one hours,” Chaney said. “I won’t discuss about the bathroom.”  

It was a good story but, but according to film historian Tom Weaver in his commentary on the DVD of The Wolf Man, it was also “a lot of baloney.” The actual method was much less stressful. The crew set up a pair of 8X10 Speed Graphic portrait cameras on each side of the motion picture camera. All three cameras had frosted-glass plates attached to them. Chaney assumed his place, and crewmembers carefully traced his position over the images projected onto each of the glass plates. After the cameraman shot a few frames of Chaney in one stage of his change, the actor returned to the makeup chair so Pierce could add (or in the case of a transformation from wolf to man, remove) makeup. Chaney returned to his spot, the crew made sure he matched the tracings on the frosted glass, and the process was repeated.  

As much as he may have exaggerated his torments, Chaney did endure long sessions as Pierce attached a rubber wolf nose and then painstakingly applied yak hair (thick and easy to manipulate) and singed it with a curling iron. Then, when work was done for the day, Pierce turned Chaney back into a human being. “What gets me is after work when I’m all hot and itchy and tired, and I’ve got to sit in that chair for forty-five minutes while Pierce just kills me, ripping off the stuff he put on me in the morning,” Chaney complained.  

It didn’t help that Chaney and Pierce didn’t like each other. In fact, it appears that Pierce didn’t like many people. “He had his own sanctum sanctorum, and as you entered (you did not go in; you entered), he said good morning first,” recalled Elsa Lanchester, who played both Mary Shelley and the monster’s mate-to-be in Bride of Frankenstein. “If I spoke first, he glared and slightly showed his upper teeth. He would be dressed in a full hospital doctor’s operating outfit. At five in the morning, this made me dislike him intensely. Then, for three or four hours, the Lord would do his creative work, with never a word spoken as he built up the scars with spirit gum, pink putty, red paint, and so on. Nowadays you can buy stick-on scars for a few cents at a joke shop. But Jack Pierce fancied himself The Maker of Monsters—meting out wrath and intolerance by the bucketful.”  

Pierce’s time-consuming and expensive techniques eventually fell out of favor in an increasingly tight-fisted industry. In 1947, new management at Universal told Pierce that his services were no longer required. Pierce moved into television, a career decline that finally brought him to Mr. Ed, a show about a talking horse. When Pierce died in 1968, a mere 24 people attended his funeral. Only three of them were makeup artists.  

Foam rubber—also known as sponge rubber—was one of the new technologies that hastened Pierce’s downfall. Previously, makeup artists had sometimes made face-fitting makeup pieces—called appliances—from gelatin, but they tended to melt under the hot lights and would have to be replaced several times during a day’s shooting. Foam rubber offered a better alternative. A porous structure that traps air inside, it was both soft and flexible, and more durable than gelatin. Foam-rubber appliances were widely used in the movies for the first time on MGM’s The Wizard of Oz (see sidebar), but the available rubber was unreliable.  

George Bau, “one of the most unsung, but greatest heroes of makeup history,” according to the special-effects magazine Cinefex, developed a better rubber. Bau was a Minnesota native who had moved to California with his brother, Gordon, and began working at the Rubbercraft company. While there, Bau developed a formula—a mix of latex, plasticizers and curing and gelling agents—for a soft and flexible sponge rubber that he could manufacture with the extremely thin edges necessary to successfully blend a makeup appliance into an actor’s face. Bau kept his formula a secret.  

The Bau brothers used the new foam latex to transform Charles Laughton into The Hunchback of Notre Dame for RKO in 1939. They also had a memorable collaboration on Warner Brothers’ first 3D movie, House of Wax 1953). In the film’s climatic scene, actress Phyllis Kirk strikes star Vincent Price, and his face crumbles away to reveal his real, horribly burned, features beneath. Both visages were made with George Bau’s secret formula. “I’m told it was one of the most elaborately real makeups ever done,” Price said. Bau consulted with doctors to make the burn scars realistic. He then made a wax cast of Price’s face and enlarged it slightly to make a mask that mimicked his normal features but was large enough to fit over Price’s burn mask. “I wore two masks while the camera was set up for hopefully one perfect take,” Price said. “I sometimes had to wear the makeup for ten hours. I couldn’t eat because my mouth was partially ‘scar tissue,’ so I drank many liquids and because of the running around in makeup, I fainted one day from lack of oxygen.”  

George Bau, depressed after retirement, took his own life in 1974. His formula would have died with him, but shortly before his death, Bau revealed his secret to makeup man Charles Schram (who had worked with the rubber appliances on The Wizard of Oz). Schram later offered the Bau formula for sale, although some makeup men complained that Bau must have held something back, because the new foam rubber wasn’t as good as Bau’s had been.  

Foam rubber appliances scored one of their greatest successes on Planet of the Apes , Twentieth Century-Fox’s 1968 adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s novel. Fox was initially hesitant when producer Arthur P. Jacobs pitched the idea. Studio head Richard Zanuck liked the concept of a planet ruled by intelligent apes, but worried about its execution. “What if people laughed at the makeups?” he asked. To demonstrate the project’s feasibility, Jacobs produced a screen test with Edward G. Robinson in makeup conceived by the studio’s Ben Nye. “It proved that the idea could work,” said Zanuck.  

The studio hired John Chambers to improve Nye’s concepts. During World War II, Chambers had built prosthetics and designed artificial facial features for wounded soldiers. Moving into television, he had fashioned creatures for The Munsters, The Outer Limits and Lost in Space, and had even designed Mr. Spock’s pointed ears on Star Trek. Now, as he set creating a planet of apes, he too worried about inspiring laughter. “When you do people like that, you have to be very careful that you don’t make the audience laugh at you, but laugh along with you,” he said.  

The challenges were considerable. The appliances had to be flexible enough to allow the actors to emote with their own facial movements, and they couldn’t muffle their voices. They also had to allow the actors to breathe. Most of all, they had to be believable. “I can’t begin to describe how enormous the problem was,” said Dan Striepeke, who worked with Chambers as head of Twentieth Century-Fox’s makeup department. “We did things that had never been attempted before. In a sense, we opened the door to a whole new area of make-up.”  

The main actors wore two rubber appliances, custom-made from molds of their faces and carefully glued into place. One piece covered the actors brow down to his lower lip. Another covered the chin. Hard-rubber ears and several hairpieces added to the illusion, which was completed by carefully applying makeup to hide the edges of the appliances. The makeup crew also had to paint the actors’ teeth black so they wouldn’t be visible inside the appliances.  

To cut down on the time needed for each job, Chambers had make up placed on the appliances in advance, a step that required the development of a new, more durable paints. To prevent the actors’ sweat from loosening the pieces, the makeup team developed a spray-on paint that allowed their skin to “breathe,” and a new open-cell foam rubber that let the actors’ sweat pass through the rubber.  

More than anything, the makeup required a great deal of tolerance from the actors wearing it. “I had to report for work at five o’clock in the morning to spend a little under four hours in the makeup chair being transformed into a chimpanzee: but that’s not the main thing that bothered me,” remembered Roddy McDowall, who appeared in four of the five Planet of the Apes movies plus a 1970s TV series. “I’m not a true claustrophobe, but after a time, not being able to scratch my nose, eat anything or drink except through a straw really works on my nerves. After about 5 hours I really become a basket case!”  

Planet of the Apes was a huge hit for Fox in 1968, and the movie won two Academy Awards—one for costumes and one for score. Chambers also received an honorary Oscar for his work on the film. At the awards ceremony, actor Walter Matthau came on stage with a chimpanzee to present Chambers with his statuette.  

Chambers’ work provided young Rick Baker with further inspiration. He created his own ape makeup, and startled patrons of a local drugstore when he arrived in full simian guise to use the store’s photo booth. (History eventually came full circle. When Tim Burton remade Planet of the Apes in 2001, Baker did the makeup.) With help from legendary makeup man Dick Smith’s Monster Makeup Handbook, and later from Smith personally, Baker continued to improve his techniques. His first feature film was a low-budget shocker called Octoman (1971), but better things were on the way. When Baker reteamed with John Landis on An American Werewolf in London (their first collaboration was a low-budget ape movie called Schlock), he was prepared to try new techniques for the werewolf transformation.  

For some stages, Baker used traditional methods and attached appliances and hair to actor David Naughton. For more extreme stages, Baker shifted to a series of sculpted faces he called Change-O-Heads. Each head contained a fiberglass skull that could be operated remotely to “grow” things such as teeth and ears. Change-O-Head #2 had a mechanically operated snout that extended from inside the skull. Baker decided foam latex wasn’t stretchy enough for the snout, so he covered the heads with a skin of thin, urethane elastomer. The material was stretchy but unstable, and rapidly deteriorated into a sticky goo. Baker designed transitional makeup for Naughton to wear for shots that bridged different Change-O-Heads.  

Baker’s team also built a Change-O-Hand, a realistic-looking forearm and hand that contained remotely operated air bladders. When the crew injected air into the bladders, pneumatic rams stretched and transformed the limb. And there was a Change-O-Back, containing air bladders that made the skin along the spine ripple. For a shot that showed Naughton in full figure on the floor, well on his way to wolf form, the actor stuck his head and arms through a hole in the floor. The rest of the body was a mechanical device that the crew manipulated with a series of rods that were hidden from the camera. Clever camera angles and editing combined the actor and devices into a fluid sequence.  

All the hard work paid off. In its review of American Werewolf, the Los Angeles Times cited the “horrendously convincing makeup,” while the Monthly Film Bulletin lauded the “effortless expertise that makes one, quite properly, forget the artistry.” At the Academy Awards ceremony the next spring, Baker won the first Oscar awarded in the brand-new makeup category. Makeup artists would no longer have to be satisfied with special awards like the one John Chambers received.  

The continued merging of makeup with the techniques special effects, though, left some Academy members unhappy. “The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences wrestled with this issue for quite a while,” says Don Shay, the publisher, founder and former editor of Cinefex. Some makeup people raised objections, especially when Baker won another Oscar for Harry and the Hendersons (1987), a tale of a family who adopts a Bigfoot. An actor wore the bigfoot suit, but radio-controlled motors inside the head moved various facial features.  

According to the Academy today, makeup is “basically, anything that is applied to the face or body, whether it be flat of three dimensional,” says Leonard Engleman, who chairs the Academy’s makeup branch. “It has to be applied and glued to the body. It can’t be just slipped over, because then you start getting into, well, is it wardrobe? Is it makeup? What is it? So it has to be secured and glued to the face or body.”  

The rise of computer generated imagery (CGI) has had an even greater impact on monster making. One pivotal movie was The Two Towers, the second film of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, which introduced the computer-generated character of Gollum. “That was the first time I had seen a [computer-generated] character and I said, ‘Dammit, they’re doing it,” says Michael Key, the editor and publisher of Makeup Artist Magazine. By the time writer/director Stephen Sommers made Van Helsing (2004), a film that paid affectionate tribute to the great Universal monsters, the rampaging wolf beasts were completely computer generated. Van Helsing did employ traditional movie trickery—matte paintings, miniatures, and traditional makeup. “But on top of that, we have the best in the modern, new computer technologies that allow us to give these creatures and these characters a freedom that they never really had back in the classic horror days,” said Ben Snow, the film’s visual effects supervisor.  

“With CGI you could basically take it from a human character to the end character in one uninterrupted shot, if you want to do it that way, which they were never able to do before,” says Shay, but he doesn’t see computer technologies leading to the extinction of hand-made monsters. “There’s kind of a blend in technologies now in a lot of these things, where part of the effect is done with makeup and part of the effect is done with CGI,” he says.  

That’s not to say that some makeup artists aren’t somewhat wary of what the future holds. For Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006), computers created the features of the monstrous crew of cursed captain Davy Jones. “We wanted to be able to do things that would be very difficult or impossible to do with makeup or prosthetic appliances,” said visual effects supervisor John Knoll. For Davy Jones, who was slowly transforming into an octopus, the filmmakers did experiment with silicon appliances, but abandoned them. In the end they didn’t even use any of actor Bill Nighy’s facial features, not even his eyes. “We were determined to make the CG eyes look as good as Bill’s live-action eyes, and we never had to use the real ones,” said Knoll. During shooting, Nighy wore a gray unitard with horizontal bars that allowed multiple cameras to tracks his movements. Animators at Industrial Light and Magic used the motion-capture data when they created Jones’ gelatinous, tentacled face.  

Traditional monster makeup isn’t dead, although it continues to transform. Some appliances are now made with silicon. Makeup artist Christian Tinsley has devised appliances made from an acrylic emulsion adhesive called Pros-Aide. “The application time is extremely short, it’s not very expensive or difficult to make the appliances, and they last all day,” says Michael Key.  

“Makeup has been doing miraculous things since movies started—since before movies started,” says Leonard Engleman, who asserts that techniques continue to improve all the time. “If you compare Planet of the Apes that was recently done to Planet of the Apes that received a special Academy Award years ago, there’s a huge difference of credibility in the Planet of the Apes today compared to the other. And the other was brilliant. And it’s still brilliant. But what was done a few years ago was far more refined. There are other materials that are being used, there are other products as far as makeup, there are other ways that the hair is applied. You can do things today, you look at it and you swear it’s real—and you’re standing next to it.”  

“The computer is like the new kid on the block,” says Key, who points out that even with computers, the human factor makes an important contribution. Artists still paint the initial conceptions of movie creatures. Modelers and makeup artists still sculpt models that can be scanned and translated to the screen via computer. “There’s the technology, which is a wonderful advantage,” says Key. “But it only becomes masterful if it is accompanied with some brilliant artwork.” In other words, to make a monster, you still need a Frankenstein.  

-end-  

   

In the late 1990s Smithsonian magazine assigned me to do a story I had suggested, about the boom in film restorations. It was a fun article to write, and the magazine even sent me to Los Angeles to interview some key people in the field. In the end, though, the magazine killed the piece, saying it was  something only film buffs would enjoy.  

Well, I begged to differ, to no avail. The finished article languished, until the wonders of the Internet offered me this opportunity to give it a second life. Now it’s like something out of a time capsule–a little outdated, somewhat out of fashion, with all its once-timely references no longer relevant. I wrote this when DVDs were just beginning to come into their own. In fact, when I interviewed film restorer James Harris he gave me the first DVD I ever owned, a copy of the restored version of Vertigo.  

Everything Old Is New Again  

Some old movies never die, but quite often they fade away. Now a growing community of film restorers are making sure that classic films will look and sound as good as they did at their premieres.  

LAWRENCE_smallYou’d think that someone would have taken good care of Lawrence of Arabia. The winner of the Academy Award for best picture in 1962, director David Lean’s epic film also received Oscars for direction, cinematography and four other categories. By all standards, Lawrence was a classic film–and one worth treating well. Yet when film restorer Robert Harris set out to handle a re-release of Lawrence in the late 1980s, he found the original negative being stored rather haphazardly in Columbia Studio’s vaults, a former bowling alley on Long Island. “The studio had basically said to me, ‘The negative’s never been cut, it’s fine, we’re sure the tracks are all there, go take a look,’” says Harris. “And I found out it had not only been cut once, it had been cut twice. And the tracks had been cut. And pieces had been thrown away.” The film had been shortened by 35 minutes since its original release and nobody knew where the missing footage was.  

To find it, the restorers had to manually roll through some 60 miles of film from cans in the studio vaults. At first all they found were the trimmed beginnings and ends, the “heads” and “tails” of shots that had been cut. Then Harris’s fingers felt a splice, “and that was a moment I literally felt the hair on the back of my neck rise,” he recalls. “I realized here’s a piece of film that was actually cut out of the camera negative in January 1963.”  

The restored Lawrence–after David Lean did some final tweaking it was classified as the “director’s cut”–returned to theaters to critical acclaim in 1989, one of the first historically significant films to be rescued from neglect before irreversible deterioration could set in.  

Film restoration is a relatively new phenomenon. In the days before television and, more recently, before home video created new markets for old films, the Hollywood studios didn’t do much to preserve their past productions. Movies weren’t art, they were business. Studios routinely chopped up their old movies for stock footage, destroyed them to save storage costs or left them to deteriorate in poorly maintained vaults. It’s been estimated that only half the films produced before 1950 still exist, with the survival rate under 20 percent for films from the 1920s and only about 10 percent from the 1910s.  

One culprit in the disappearance is the cellulose nitrate film stock in use until 1951. Nitrate film is a very unstable substance, extremely flammable and subject to deterioration. Sometimes film archivists open cans of nitrate film and find that only a brown powder remains. The industry stopped using nitrate stock in favor of acetate-based “safety” film in the 1950s but it turned out that acetate stock deteriorated too. To make matters worse, the Eastmancolor film used since 1950 faded badly, leaving color films only a pale shadow of their original selves.  

The UCLA Film and Television Archive has about 60 million feet of nitrate stock in storage at its Hollywood facility, in the building once used by the Technicolor film lab (The last film Technicolor printed here was Godfather II.) Film posters line the walls in the undeniably scruffy facility. Also on walls throughout the complex are clocks with the words “Nitrate won’t wait,” emblazoned on their faces.  

Curator Edward Richmond takes me downstairs to show me where the nitrate film is stored. I feel like I’m in a cellblock. We’re in a dim concrete corridor lined on one side by gray metal doors with Yale locks. Inside each of these narrow vaults are six-foot shelves of film canisters rising from floor to ceiling. A little light comes through the blow-out vent, which is intended to direct the flames in one direction should the unthinkable occur. (In 1978 the Library of Congress, which now stores some 100 million feet of nitrate stock in vaults at its facility at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, had a disastrous nitrate fire at its film vaults in Suitland, Maryland.)  

“For us every restoration is also a preservation,” Richmond tells me, “but not every preservation is a restoration. Preservation for us is the transfer of picture and sound images from an outmoded or deteriorating format to a modern, stable format. Restoration comes in where you not only have to do the transfer but you’ve got to do some work to recreate, to try to put back together the version that you’re trying to restore.”  

Film restorers usually try to get a movie back to the way it appeared on first release, with some exceptions. A few years ago UCLA restored two versions of Warner Brothers’ classic The Big Sleep, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. One was the 1946 release version. The other was an earlier version, completed and ready for release, that the studio shelved when To Have and Have Not suddenly turned Bogart and Bacall into a hot screen duo. The studio reassembled the production team to shoot new scenes with the two stars and re-edit the film to accommodate them.  

Other projects are more straight-forward. When UCLA restored the 1935 feature Becky Sharp, all they could find were prints that had faded so badly it was difficult to determine the original colors. “We went out and researched other archives, we researched companies, private collectors, we actually located a lot of different elements of this film that we thought could be useful in this process,” says Richmond. In the end they had to restore the colors on some reels with filters, without complete success. “If you look closely you’ll see in some sequences that the reds look a little on the orange side,” Richmond says.  

Sometimes it’s the sound that needs restoration. For instance, long before Saving Private Ryan, director Lewis Milestone tried to portray the horrors of war in his 1930 film All Quiet on the Western Front. “The original production team had decided they wanted the battle sequences to be as vivid and realistic as possible, so they intentionally over-modulated many of the bomb bursts and introduced distortion and things like that,” says Ken Weissman, the head of the Library of Congress’s Motion Picture Conservation Center in Dayton, Ohio. For the film’s re-release, the studio toned down the sound and added music over the ending, which had originally been all quiet. The restoration returned to the original sound design.  

SPARTACUS_smallSpartacus, re-released in 1991, was restored by Robert Harris and his partner James C. Katz to a version that the director, Stanley Kubrick, and producer and star Kirk Douglas had approved before studio censors requested some cuts, including a scene where Lawrence Olivier’s character attempts to seduce Tony Curtis in a Roman bath. The soundtrack for the scene had vanished and Olivier was dead, so Harris and Katz enlisted Curtis to read his part and actor Anthony Hopkins to impersonate Olivier’s voice. Kubrick couldn’t make it to the dubbing session, but he did fax direction. “And I think that’s the only time that an actor has had their job faxed to them,” says Harris. “But they both took it very seriously.”  

Good restorations are neither cheap nor easy. The work requires the skills of a sleuth, a lab technician and a film historian. “It’s kind of detective work,” says Weissman. “You have to do some research to decide what was seen at the time, and you can do that by looking at reviews, for example, checking running times and things of that nature.” That basic step is necessary because Hollywood films can exist in many different forms. A studio might have altered a director’s original cut before release. There could be foreign versions, television versions, censored versions or re-released versions. Before he embarked on a restoration of Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Weissman found five documented running times for the film.  

Next, the restorer has to track down the best possible elements. They could be negatives, release prints or interpositives–special prints made for duplication purposes. Sometimes color films have been saved as black-and-white separation masters–meaning the film’s three primary colors have been recorded through filters onto separate pieces of non-fading black and white film, which can later be reconstituted back into full color. At times restoration teams scour the world to find usable elements and missing footage.  

Restorers first look for the film’s original negative, but often it has either disappeared or deteriorated beyond usefulness. Sometimes entire sequences have been cut out and lost. In 1935 the notoriously tight-fisted Warner Brothers studio wanted some cheap battle footage for the Errol Flynn swashbuckler Captain Blood, so they used some scenes from a silent called The Sea Hawk. “Then, they’d just cut out the original negative and move it over to the new movie,” says Dick May, who heads Warner Brothers’ preservation division. “Who cared about a 1924 movie when you were making a 1935 movie?” Captain Blood suffered its own cuts in 1940, when Warners chopped 20 minutes from it before re-releasing it as part of a double bill.  

Or take the case of King Kong, originally released in 1933. When RKO studios wanted to re-release the movie in 1938, the film industry’s censorship board asked the studio to cut some scenes, including a sequence where Kong removes and examines some of Fay Wray’s clothing. Years later the only remaining versions of the cut sequences were inferior copies in 16mm format, which looked terrible when blown up and inserted into new 35mm prints. However, a private collector in Europe had a copy of an original 35mm print he was willing to loan for duplication. All he wanted in return was a sequence from the 1925 Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera.  

Sometimes cut footage disappears forever. After the premiere of the 1954 version of A Star Is Born, Warner Brothers cut almost a half-hour from the film. When archivist Ron Haver set out to restore the cut sequences for a 1983 re-release, all he could find was the soundtrack. He had to make do by running still photos from the lost sequences over the soundtrack. Before the release of The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes in 1970, United Artists told director Billy Wilder to cut an hour from the film. For a 1995 video disk release, researchers could find only the soundtrack for one long sequence and the visual for another.  

Even worse, consider the case of Erich Von Stroheim’s silent classic Greed. The director’s cut ran over nine hours, so MGM’s Irving Thalberg had it cut by more than seven. When producer Rick Schmidlin decided to restore Stroheim’s film, the cut footage had long since vanished. Schmidlin was able to put about 45 minutes back in, by using Stroheim’s own continuity script and using stills to bridge the gaps.  

MFL_smallThe search for lost footage can lead to surprises. During their restoration of My Fair Lady, self-described “vault rats” Harris and Katz discovered the vocal tracks that Audrey Hepburn had recorded. Hepburn had hoped to do her own singing for the film, but the studio her songs recorded by Marni Nixon. While working on their 1997 re-release of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo,  Harris also uncovered an unused ending. Universal studio heads worried that some foreign audiences would not like the idea of villain Gavin Elster escaping and asked Hitchcock do something about it. He filmed a short epilogue in which Jimmy Stewart’s character returns to his friend Midge’s apartment, where they hear a new report on the radio about the Elster’s impending arrest. Since the scene had no dialogue, overdubbing it for foreign markets would have been easy. The sequence (no doubt to Hitchcock’s relief) was never used.  

Sometimes entire films disappear. As I talk with Dick May in his office across from the Warner Brothers lot in Burbank, California, he’s awaiting the delivery of a piece of film that recently turned up from a long-lost 1930 MGM operetta called The Rogue Song. “For some reason the entire movie disappeared,” May says. “No prints survived, no negative survived. MGM was very good about saving things. We don’t know why that got away. But at any rate, the last record we could find in the MGM film library was a file card that had a date on it in 1937 for the negative. It just said ‘Shipped.’ It didn’t say where it was shipped.”  

A few years ago a short segment of the movie, featuring a gag appearance by Laurel and Hardy, resurfaced. It seems that a theater owner may have clipped it from a print. Now another piece, a six-minute dance number, had turned up under somewhat mysterious conditions in Maine. Is the rest of the movie out there someplace? Nobody knows, but it’s not impossible. In 1995 one reel of a long-lost 1927 Greta Garbo silent, The Divine Woman, was discovered in a Moscow archive.  

ROBERT HARRIS’S HEADQUARTERS are in a nondescript office building next to the train tracks in Bedford Hills, New York. Walk inside his office, however, and you’ll immediately know that film work is done here. There’s an editing bench in the outer office, beneath one of three different Lawrence of Arabia posters (one of which is signed by David Lean). There’s also a poster for the Harris and Katz Spartacus restoration, and in a hallway a huge poster for the restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoleon, a project on which Harris did some work. In the conference room, one entire wall is filled up with a shelf of film books; in a corner are stacks of film cans from two Hitchcock restorations, Rear Window and Vertigo.  

Rear Window is the fourth restoration Harris has done in partnership with producer James Katz. Where Harris works on the east coast, Katz is based in the Los Angeles area; right on the Universal lot across from the Alfred Hitchcock Theater. In 1984 Katz had been head of Universal Picture’s publicity department when the studio re-released five Hitchcock films that had been stuck in legal limbo for years, Vertigo and Rear Window among them. Back then they had to make do with what Katz admits were “terrible prints” because so much material had been destroyed. In his office Katz has copies of studio memos taped up on what he calls his “wall of shame.” They record the studio’s efforts to destroy all the prints of the Hitchcock films, mainly to save storage costs.  

Both Harris and Katz are outspoken about restorations they feel are not up to their standards though Harris keeps some of his more detailed critiques off the record. Both have a cartoon taped up in their offices. It’s titled “Showbiz: How It Usually Works” and consists of two panels. In the first a producer-type is yelling, “Do it faster! Do it cheaper!” In the other the same producer is demanding, “Hey! How come this looks like crap!”  

“There are restorations that are just badly done, very badly done,” Harris says. “They take the original negative, warts and all, and they print it. And they call it what? A restoration. It’s a print. All that they’ve done is worn and endangered an original negative. They’ve duped it. That’s been done any number of times and we’ve gotten to a point where we feel like the restoration police because we come down on it.”  

Katz picks up the complaints when I visit him a week later in California. “The term restoration has become a marketing tool,” he says. “And I think we’re partially to blame for that and I say that immodestly because we’ve proven that if you do a good restoration and you put something up on the screen that’s worth looking at, people are going to come and see it.”  

VERTIGO_smallBefore restoring a film, Harris and Katz do their research. They find continuities–the shot-by-shot analyses of a completed film prepared by the studio in case it needs to repair or dub it. They look for the camera logs for information about what cameras, lenses and filters were used, which help them visualize the original look of a badly faded film. To determine the color of the car Kim Novak drove in Vertigo, they went directly to the source. “Jim called Jag-u-ar, as they call it,” Harris says, “and they came up with a paint chip from a ’57 Jaguar, so we knew what color we were trying to replicate in the printing.” For Rear Window they found the shorts worn by “Miss Torso,” one of Jimmy Stewart’s neighbors in the film.  

Frames from the 70mm restoration of Vertigo.

Frames from the 70mm restoration of Vertigo.

Once they’ve decided on how the film used to look, they have to recreate it. For example, on Rear Window, Harris found that the original Eastmancolor negative for one reel in particular was in poor shape. “The original negative is very faded,” Harris says. “In 1962 , when the film was eight years old, it was already printing green. Now it’s way green, it’s horrible, I mean it’s orangey green, it’s a horrible color. The yellow layer is just gone.” Fixing it was not simple. First, Harris used the old negative to make a new interpositive, a positive print made especially for duplication purposes. Working with the Pacific Title film lab, Harris took the new interpositive and, using filters, restored the red and green information onto a new negative. To restore the yellow layer (which prints as blue on a print), they had to go back to a separation master and expose that onto the same negative–a process that required precise overlaying of colors to avoid registration problems, and a way to blend contrast levels that differed between the two sources. “See, you have two pieces of information coming from Eastmancolor and one coming from black and white,” Harris explains. “That was never done before.”  

The prints for Rear Window will be made using an old technology called dye-transfer, in which the colors are separately placed on the prints, almost like printing, rather than being created chemically in a film emulsion. Dye-transfer was part of the original three-strip Technicolor process, a ground-breaking technique that used filters and three separate pieces of film to capture the three primary colors–red, green, and blue–necessary to recreate the full-color spectrum on film. Technicolor had its drawbacks–most obviously the bulky and expensive camera it required–but the process created dazzling colors for films like Gone With the Wind and The Adventures of Robin Hood. Eventually the Technicolor process was supplanted by more user-friendly technologies like Eastmancolor (which later showed a distressing tendency to fade). The dye transfer process disappeared too; 1974’s Godfather II was the last film to use it.  

In 1996 Technicolor decided to revive dye-transfer, starting with a restoration of George Steven’s Giant. But when Turner Entertainment Company followed suit with 1998’s re-release of Gone With the Wind, it got mixed results, both from a restoration and a technical standpoint. Technicolor didn’t have the licensing necessary to print from an original nitrate negative, so Turner a non-original internegative instead. In addition, printing problems resulted in some out-of-registration reels and some soundtrack problems.  

 TODAY FILM RESTORERS have to grapple with the issue of how good they should make their projects look and sound. Improved film stocks and advances in sound technology and restoration tools are creating the opportunity to make films that look “better” than they did originally–a concept that restoration purists look on with horror.  

One tool restorers have today is digital technology, which can allow them to translate a film element–picture or sound–into digital information, use software to clean up defects, and then transfer the information back to film. Harris and Katz used digital technology for My Fair Lady to restore the credit sequence and to clean up some damaged sections. Michael Friend at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences did a digital restoration of an entire Frank Capra silent film called Matinee Idol, while Disney has done many digital restorations (including a $7 million effort to restore Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs).  

Sound can also be translated to a digital format, as it was with the restored version of Gone With the Wind, but people in the restoration field argue among themselves whether they should digitally enhance the sound of a movie. “A soundtrack from 1939 has no body to it,” says Roger Mayer, the President of Turner Entertainment Company. “And with the sound systems today, it sounds even worse! So I think that’s the proper thing to do now.” Yellow Submarine returned to theaters (and video) in 1999 with the Beatles songs on its soundtrack completely remixed (with Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr’s seal of approval). When Harris and Katz restored Vertigo they not only converted the dialogue to digital, they also re-recorded the score and recorded an all-new sound effects track. “I think we did a pretty good job on it, actually,” says Katz, but they received some criticism for it from restoration purists.  

TofE

A newspaper ad for Rick Scmidlin's recut version of Touch of Evil. Note that the copy doesn't say "an academic study."

Producer Rick Schmidlin is a purist. Working with Academy Award-winning editor Walter Murch, Schmidlin recut Touch of Evil, director Orson Welles’ 1958 film noir classic, in accordance with a 58-page memo Welles wrote to Universal Pictures after he saw the studio’s version. The re-cut Touch of Evil played in theaters in 1998 to great reviews but Schmidlin is adamant that it is not a restoration. “Anytime you do something that was not in the original version of the released film, it is not a restoration,” Schmidlin says. “This is an academic study.”  

The story of Orson Welles is one of the greatest cautionary tales in film history. Hailed as a young genius, Welles delivered on his promise with his first film, Citizen Kane. After he finished shooting his second film, The Magnificent Ambersons, Welles started a pattern that would haunt him for the rest of his career. While he was in South American preparing a movie called It’s All True, RKO studios cut Ambersons, shot new footage and tacked on a happy ending. “They always tear the film out of my hands–violently,” Welles later lamented.  

Touch of Evil had a similarly unhappy story. Once he finished shooting, Welles headed off to Mexico and another project. The studio, Universal this time, brought in another director to shoot some additional scenes. When Welles saw what the studio had done, he sent the memo requesting changes. The studio made some but ignored the rest. After a disastrous preview screening, the studio cut the film even more. (The longer version disappeared until 1976, when a UCLA professor requested a print of the film from the school’s archives and realized it was a different cut. Both the short and long versions are available on video.)  

When Schmidlin heard about the Welles memo, he approached Universal Studios with the idea of recutting the film. He tackled the project with an academic’s rigor. For instance, Welles had asked the studio to dub in a “Shhhh” he had forgotten to add to a scene where one character hushes another. The studio ignored the request. Schmidlin tracked down the original actor, Valentin de Vargas,  in New Mexico and had him record a dozen takes of the shhh on digital audio tape. “I would have never thought to have somebody else doing it,” Schmidlin says.  

Another change involved removing the credits from Welles’ amazing opening shot, which runs for more than three minutes while the camera swoops over buildings and down streets as it follows a car with a bomb in it. Schmidlin and Murch also recut some sequences so they could play off each other the way Welles had wanted. And they drastically changed the sound. Welles, who had a radio background, wanted to create the sense that all the film’s music was coming from ambient sources like radios and speakers on a garish strip in a Mexican border town. “It is very important to note that in the recording of all these numbers which are supposed to be heard through street loudspeakers that the effect should be just that, just exactly as bad as that,” Welles wrote in his memo. It was an approach to movie sound that Murch thought he had invented when he edited American Graffiti.  

 ON THE OTHER END OF THE SPECTRUM from prominent projects like Touch of Evil or Vertigo are movies that lack either owners or the commercial potential to attract big money for restoration. They include newsreels, documentaries, avant-garde films, ethnic and regional films, and some silent films. Organizations like the National Film Preservation Foundation and archives like UCLA and the Library of Congress try to focus their attention on these so-called “orphan” films. Recently the Library of Congress restored director Oscar Micheaux’s Within Our Gates, the earliest surviving film by a black director. “Another one we’re probably going to do here shortly is a film titled Big Fella, which is a Paul Robeson film,” says Ken Weissman.  

While the orphan films will continue to languish in relative obscurity, other big-ticket restorations will continue to reach the public. They may appear on cable networks like American Movie Classics or Turner Classic Movies. They may be at your local theater. Rear Window, currently being held up by an underlying rights dispute, should be released sometime soon.  

Then there’s Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons, his butchered masterpiece. Rick Schmidlin has heard rumors that maybe–just maybe–Welles’ original version might exist, that RKO Studios may have shipped a print of it to him in Brazil when he was filming It’s All True. As Schmidlin tells me this over lunch in Los Angeles, I begin to feel like I’m at the start of an Indiana Jones adventure. “The person who said he no longer has it–that he burnt it–who is no longer alive, was a film collector,” says Schmidlin. Would any collector really burn a film when he could have squirreled it away someplace? Could there be an Orson Welles cut of The Magnificent Ambersons out there someplace, in an attic or an obscure film vault? For a film restorer, finding it would make the Holy Grail look like, well, just a cup. 

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