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Tuesday, November 20, 2007

High Hills To Climb

Don several layers of clothes in the event you start any climb up German mountain films. I’m shivering yet from harrowing ordeals set upon summits unforgiving and icebergs collapsing. Survival movies aren’t for everyone, possibly on the theory we get enough hardship in daily life, but those emerging from Germany’s 20/30's cycle are surely best of the lot. Footage so spectacular outlived features whose highlights would be pillaged, then put before audiences of children there to watch serials and "B" action shows. What drew German crowds to begin with? It may have begun with climbing fads among University students. They’d pass hours under tutelage of martinet professors, then ascend nearby Bavarian Alps on manhood ritualized weekends. Some called it a dangerous cult, especially in hindsight when writers looked around for possible origins of the Nazi rise. Those associations, and Leni Riefenstahl’s extensive involvement with the genre, weigh like anchors upon the reputation of mountain films. Writer Siegfried Kracauer was among those first to pile on. Idolatry of glaciers and rocks was symptomatic of an antirationalism on which the Nazis could capitalize, said he in what many consider the definitive work on German film, From Caligari To Hitler. Others maintain climbing reflected heroic idealism on the part of those up to the challenge. Close examination will find plenty to support both theories, but chances are you’ll be so overwhelmed as to be two or three viewings away from reasoned consideration of social and political underpinnings. Is there dime’s worth of difference between motivations that drove German climbers and ones that propel latter-day IMAX adventurers seeking new horizons atop snowy peaks? Digital mini-cams and helicopters provide accompaniment along rock walls today with safety provisions German crews never dreamed of. The White Hell Of Pitz Palu came by its title honestly, for making this was indeed a five month’s hell on frozen earth, with primitive equipment there to record cast suffering unprecedented in movies before or since.

Dr. Arnold Fanck was a geologist who got interested in film as an adjunct to his obsession with mountains. Combining the two resulted in visual poetry unknown to German directors locked inside oppressive stages. Fanck got outdoors and thrilled his public with close calls often staged at the expense of terrified actors and crew. The White Hell Of Pitz Palu was shot in early to mid-1929 among the Swiss Alps. There were hopes it would break out and find an international audience. Toward that end, star Leni Riefenstahl suggested noted director G.W. Pabst to come in and punch up the human element, Fanck being frankly better with mountains than people. Both proved ruthless (and sadistic?) taskmasters. Pabst supervised interiors and drama while Fanck took charge of hazard shooting. The latter got out of hand at times. Pretty much everyone came down with pneumonia. Hot wine and punch was necessary to keep the company breathing. Temperatures plunged to thirty below zero. Riefenstahl got frostbite on her upper thighs and bladder damage that lasted the rest of her life (another seventy-four years!). Fanck hoisted the rope-bound actress up a jagged precipice, touching off an avalanche with dynamite for added effect. Blizzards supplied by nature were augmented with giant propellers aimed at performers tossed about like rag dolls. Icicles literally hung off faces. Siren of the snowcaps Leni was besieged with love missives left on her pillow nightly by a besotted Dr. Fanck, whose on location tyranny led to an escape attempt that nearly cost the lives of a desperate Riefenstahl and the guide she’d entrusted to lead her out. Sheer madness much of the time, but what got on the screen amazed and still does. Riefenstahl would achieve Euro celebrity doing these nature dramas, and according to her memoirs, American stardom beckoned by way of Josef Von Sternberg’s offer of a Paramount contract. But for not having taken that fork in the road, Leni Riefenstahl might have ended up a stateside cult figure, her legacy spared the controversy it acquired for having remained in Germany to helm Triumph Of The Will and Olympia. But could she ever have become a great director over here?

Despite its having been shot silent, and at a late date, Universal committed to US distribution and scored the first booking of a German feature in New York’s deluxe Roxy Theatre. The White Hell Of Pitz Palu came at twilight for non-talkers in distribution after 1929. Universal tried covering the anomaly with two distinct versions utilizing music, narration, and effects. These were ping-ponged among theatres from June 1930 into the autumn of that year. One was discredited straightaway and hasn’t been seen since. Critics lambasted popular newsreel personality Graham McNamee’s feature length stating of the obvious. To have this knight of the superlative describe the wondrous views in the Alps is to gild the lily with a vengeance, said TIME’s review. Much better was the alternate (scored) version by Universal staff composer Heinz Roemheld, whose themes would be used again (and again) in many a beloved horror film and serial (The Mummy, Flash Gordon, more). Both US editions of The White Hell Of Pitz Palu were cut down to a manageable 75 minutes from the original German (over) length of 135. Universal invested $68,922.93 in its purchase of the German negative and preparation of the two domestic versions. White Hell was available for outright purchase through Universal’s Show-At-Home library during the thirties, but was otherwise little seen afterward. It seemed the critical establishment viewed it as more of a stunt thriller than legitimate classic. The Cambridge Film Society in England played White Hell as part of a G.W. Pabst series in the early forties, and New York’s Cinema 16 ran it among that group’s alternative film offerings on November 1 and 2 of 1955. The Museum Of Modern Art listed the so-called 1935 "sound" version (a doctored German reissue in which voices were overdubbed to create ersatz dialogue for otherwise silent players) as part of their circulating library (there was also a 1953 remake made up of stock footage and sound stage mountain mock-ups). Universal’s Heinz Roemheld scored edition meanwhile made the rounds among latter-day collectors and was for years the version shown at conventions and buff gatherings (it's available here). Kino’s DVD release of the full-length German version was the long awaited opportunity to at last see White Hell Of Pitz Palu intact.

Much was mined from the frozen husk of White Hell. You could build entire serial chapters out of footage spectacular as this, and on at least two occasions, Universal did. Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe was third (and last) among serial adaptations of Alex Raymond’s comic strip. Epic wasn’t a word you’d ascribe to chapter-plays, yet here were three the likes of which no matinee audience had dreamt. They were a hypnotic mix of deco settings, eccentric costuming, and sputtering rocket models, augmented by generous music borrowings from past Universal scores. Stock footage was there when they could match it, but this being science fiction, opportunities were limited along those lines. Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe did manage a hefty lift of White Hell highlights during Chapters Two and Three. The snowbound entrapment of Flash and Dale on the planet of Frigia dissolved into a near complete replaying of the search and rescue sequence from the German film, even to the point of reusing Heinz Roemheld’s music from Universal's 1930 release. The vintage material was woven so adroitly as to suggest it was shot fresh for the serial, and since the Flash Gordons were pretty elaborate to begin with, audiences were spared obvious mis-matches between old and new. Universal’s license in the character was unfortunately limited to the general release of the serials and several feature versions derived from these. King Features Syndicate wound up with the negatives, Flash Gordon Conquers The Universe being one that would lapse into the public domain just in time to be widely sold by 8 and 16mm distributors. The three serials played television with replaced titles. Space Soldiers was an umbrella for all the chapters and stations could strip them over weekday afternoons alongside Rocky Jones and Captain Video, though the latter space operas looked puny indeed beside Universal’s (now King’s) lavish product. Flash Gordon was hugely popular in his prime. I’m not old enough to remember, as these were heady days of comic strips, the ongoing serials (three over a six-year period), and coverage in mass circulation magazines. Had Universal maintained rights to Flash Gordon, we’d have likely enjoyed at least one more generation in the character’s firm embrace, for they would surely have spun him off into Castle Films and Aurora Models, two ancillary markets that sustained the legacy of the studio’s monster franchise. Maybe I wasn’t looking closely enough during the sixties and seventies --- were there Flash Gordon trading cards, billfolds, or build them yourself action figures then?

A well-known landmark on film history’s calendar of infamy was Universal’s decision to junk their silent negatives during the late forties. If not valuable for commercial purposes, weren’t these at least useful as continuing sources for stock footage? Maybe not, for by then the studio had abandoned its serials and "B" westerns. Could this discontinuation have led to disposal of most pre-thirties output? Once their kiddie litter was cleared out of the box, what use could Universal have for ancient (and voiceless) reels of black-and-white indian attacks and rides to the rescue? Thus were hundreds of treasures lost. What’s left of them can be glimpsed in cowboy and chapter-plays released in the talking era. Lost City Of The Jungle was Universal’s penultimate serial. This was 1946, and juice was squeezed from fruit cultivated since the company’s start. Few cliffhangers are so listless as this one. Extensive footage from White Hell Of Pitz Palu is immediately recognizable, being among highlights few to take us out of doors and away from cramped sets. Himalaya Horror is the title given Chapter One. It wasn’t uncommon for serials to shoot their bolt during opening installments. Universal’s idea of a sock beginning was to give us their best old material, and so far as that went, White Hell ranked among the most exciting stuff they owned. Did mid-forties starlet Jane Adams realize she was doubling for Leni Riefenstahl? Probably not, as most players never had (let alone sought) the opportunity to watch themselves in chapter-plays. Rental collected for matinee filler was not adjusted for post-war (increased) costs of making serials. Exhibitors were on the same downward slide as producer/distributors. Owing to its product split with the Allen, the Liberty didn’t play Universal output, but records show Colonel Forehand paid Republic only $6.50 per chapter for Daughter Of Don Q, and this was the same year Lost City Of The Jungle came out. Hard to justify spending real money on serials with revenue expectations low as this. Universal’s lost city was more like a screening room you’d go to each week to watch highlights from movies past. In addition to White Hell, there were chunks out of Jon Hall/Maria Montez exotics, chief among these White Savage, which was itself only a few years old when consulted for stock by Lost City Of The Jungle. Russell Hayden and Keye Luke point beyond foliage on a 1946 soundstage and volcanoes erupt again beneath Jon Hall and Sabu. Universal by this time was even skimping on fistfights, their serials so plot heavy as to crowd out physical action altogether. Endless discussion over atom bombs, glowing goddesses, and those inevitable detonation devices confuse to the point of audience surrender. What's left to enjoy, if anything, is spotting the double necessitated by Lionel Atwill’s death during production. Lost City Of The Jungle survives in that public domain wilderness of serials forgotten by their owners and ignored by all but hard-core completists. The Serial Squadron has done the nicest job of restoring it. Their dedication to chapter-play preservation continues to bear fruit.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Actually my generation did have a brief introduction to Flash Gordon when the feature film came out in 1980 or so. I think they resurrected Flash in an attempt to keep up with the craze created by Star Wars at the time - which I suppose is the same reason why James Bond found himself floating around in outer space with ray guns in the mid-late 70's.

As for the German mountain films, I had no idea that such a genre even existed. I certainly want to see some of those films now! With all the concerns over liability I'm not even sure that Fanck could make such a film today without the computerized effects, etc.

As for Leni Riefenstahl, I got just a hint from your blog that she had somehow lost credibility because of her relationship with the Reich during WWII, so I googled her to learn more. Seems to me, from what I've read, that you could dedicate an entire article just to her and her subsequent fall from grace.

Keep up the great work!!

4:04 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I don't know about action figures, but the Flash Gordon films were familiar items in the 70s at pizza parlors where they played, I believe, on those Fairchild 8mm cassette machines. (Not video cassette-- film inside a cassette, no projectionist necessary. When I wrote a lawn mower industrial film in the mid-80s, we still made a few Fairchild prints for dealers who, unbelievably, hadn't gone VHS yet.) Does anyone collect Fairchild cassettes? Maybe they break them out of the cassettes for 8mm collectors.

Anyway, as far as Kracauer and hints of incipient Nazism in the mountain films go, it may be a stretch in some cases but certainly not in The Holy Mountain, which has all the Nietszchean staring into the abyss and self-destructive yearning for gotterdammerung you could wish for in a German feelgood movie. Watch it and you'll understand a little more about the early 20th century German genius for catastrophe.

7:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Michael --- Was that Shakey's pizza that used the Fairchild cassette units? I never actually saw movies in their parlors, but I certainly remember that they showed Blackhawk Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy subjects, and I always wanted to go, but the closest Shakey's was in Winston-Salem, and I was too young at the time to drive down there. Does anyone remember seeing what kind of projection equipment they used in those places?

Will, the Leni Riefenstahl saga's been covered well by not only her own memoirs, but other bios as well. She actually showed up at a Cinecon I attended in LA some years back. I watched her signing autographs, although I never got one myself. Were any other readers at that show?

7:49 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

My specific memory is of a local (Wichita, Kansas) chain called Straw Hat Pizza, where I indeed saw Flash Gordon as well as Laurel and Hardy and Charley Chase (in The Heckler; I never knew what short that was until some years later, it popped up on a screen and matched my long-ago memory). However, I think Shakey's did it too (and that location may well have been an ex-Shakey's, so they probably inherited the machine). In any case, I'd bet on Shakey's having used the Fairchild system, too; that's the kind of situation, along with trade shows, it was pretty much made for, no projectionist or training necessary.

10:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just got my KINO catalog for the 2007 holidays, and they've got an entire page spread selling their Riefenstahl films. I noticed WHITE HELL OF PITZ PALU (for a split second I thought - - sounds like a silent DeMille film!)The Kino description really doesn't do it justice (for selling purposes anyway) but your narrative makes it sound quite intriguing. Another very nice write up.

10:22 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Michael, I wonder what the deal was with Blackhawk for all their subjects that Shakey's ran. Did the latter just buy the prints and show them? Playing these in a restaurant would seem to amount to commercial use ...

Erik, take my word --- all the Kino/Riefenstahl stuff is first-rate. Many extras and the alternate American version of "SOS Iceberg" is included on that DVD.

12:05 PM  

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