Columns, Glenn's Nitrate Lounge


By • Sep 11th, 2016 •

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KING OF THE KONGO has it all! Scary gorillas, hissing dinosaurs, pumped-up jungle explorers, Boris Karloff and sound. It is credited as being the first film serial with sound. Unlike the conventional “optical soundtrack” most sound films used, KING OF THE KONGO was one of few early sound films that had its soundtrack played back on a phonograph record synchronized to a film projector.

Produced and released by Mascot Pictures in 1929, KING OF THE KONGO was a big budgeted serial, with cool special effects and exotic second unit location photography of a Cambodian temple. This “wild animal serial” also had an expensive advertising campaign. One theater in Indiana closed local streets and marched animals through them. Its plot is filled with energy; a secret service agent and a young woman search the jungle for lost relatives. Along the way they encounter beasts, bad guys and the route to a hidden treasure. The key bad guy was played by a pre-FRANKENSTEIN Boris Karloff.

Mascot Pictures, who specialized in serials and singing cowboy B-westerns, merged with other small film companies to become Republic Pictures. As with many film corporation mergers, their archives were given little attention and began to suffer. KING OF THE KONGO was ready to slip into the abyss of lost films until film historian/restorationist Eric Grayson came along.

“A lot of the Mascot materials were destroyed in a fire, so negatives were just not out there. I’m not sure whether Republic, who inherited the Mascot films, ever had a set of complete sound discs.” noted Grayson. “There are records of the whole serial being shown as late as 1934-6, mostly capitalizing on Boris Karloff’s new-found stardom. I bought the print I own from a collector in New Jersey in 1989, and he told me that he and his buddies made silent reduction prints from 35mm to 16mm in the 50s, having loved the serial as kids. He said they made 4-5 prints, and that the nitrate film they used had deteriorated.”

Only about a third of the KONGO sound discs were known to exist. “Each chapter runs two reels, with two accompanying discs,” Ron Hutchinson of The Vitaphone project stated, “So for the entire serial there were 2 times the number of chapters needed. I only had about four of the KING OF THE KONGO discs.” Hutchinson knew of a collector who had more KING OF THE KONGO sounds discs. “His discs were in poor shape, most of them cracked and very dirty. Most collectors are very cooperative and anxious to help on restorations but this guy was different. After much discussion, he agreed to sell Eric the needed KONGO discs at an exorbitant amount. Eric bought them because no others were known to exist.”

The National Film Preservation Foundation, a non-profit group that has preserved thousands of “at-risk” films, funded the restoration of two of the chapters. Hutchinson did the transfers for Eric. “Each chapter has two reels and each reel has one talking sequence, with the rest music and effects. Most of the surviving discs had been stored very poorly, so they had to be cleaned. At least two of the discs were cracked; Chapter Ten Reel Two was almost unplayable, but it also contained the most critical scenes in the picture, where we figure out who the girl’s father is.” remarked Grayson. “My audio technician, David Wood, modified a special turntable and got all the sound transferred even though the crack was pretty obnoxious. We had to match the speed of the transfer with the surviving film. The whole process took months.

The entire picture and the screenplay exists, but the sound for Chapters 1,2,3 is completely gone. “Chapters 4,7,8, and 9 each have one surviving disc for one reel, but the second reel is still missing. We only have complete sound for Chapters 5, 6, and 10, which have now been restored,” Grayson concluded.

“I have an engineering degree and worked as an electrical engineer for 20 years. When I got outsourced, I was determined to get a job that would not allow me to be cut out again… I wanted to be my own boss. I do film shows and presentations all over the country. When I do a restoration, I apply a lot of my background in forensic imaging to the film project. I use a lot of science in what I’m doing. I tend to work on things that I know the “big boys” won’t handle. Right now I’m working on restoring the legendary Milan Indiana basketball championship game films, (This is the famous game that inspired the 1986 film HOOSIERS with Gene Hackman and Dennis Hopper.) Grayson is also working on a restoration of the 1918 film LITTLE ORPHANT ANNIE (Not the “Daddy Warbucks” Annie, but based on a famous poem by James Whitcomb Riley)

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