The Cliffhanger History of Movie Serials

Still from Quite by accident I stumbled upon a great huge treasure trove way back in issue 4 of the online film journal Images.

Gary Johnson has written a collection of extensive illustrated articles, beginning with “The Serials: An Introduction,” a five-part series covering the history of serials from 1912 through their ultimate demise in the mid-’50s.

This is followed by detailed summaries of ten of the great serials, including Phantom Empire, Flash Gordon (tho only the first one), Zorro’s Fighting Legion, Spy Smasher, and many others.

This Is Your Drugs on Brains

By way of Danelope, I learned of this astonishing wire news story from Vermont, evocative of the Harry Anslinger “Gore File” tales of old. (Read some of Anslinger’s testimony and documents here.) But unlike Anslinger’s notoriously fictitious claims, I’m afraid this one appears to be genuine. I’ve tracked down the original story (and the photo) from the local Vermont paper, and archive them here for future…something. As I read it I couldn’t help thinking, “Too bad this kid’s last name isn’t Limbaugh.”

Source: The Caledonian-Record (St. Johnsbury, Vermont)
Thursday June 29, 2006

Grave Robber Sentenced

By James Jardine, Staff Writer

ST. JOHNSBURY VERMONT — A Morrisville teenager who broke into a tomb and used a hacksaw to cut the head off of a corpse was sentenced Wednesday afternoon to 1 to 7 years in prison.

Photo of Nickolas Buckalew, convicted of sawing the head off a corpse to make a bong out of it.Nickolas Buckalew, 18, (pictured at right) pleaded guilty in Caledonia District Court to a felony charge of intentionally removing or injuring a tombstone and a felony charge of intentionally disinterring and carrying away the remains of a human body.

The Lamoille County case was transferred to the Caledonia courthouse in St. Johnsbury after a waterline failure left the Hyde Park courthouse without water.

On April 8, 2005, Buckalew went to a cemetery on the Washington highway in Morrisville and broke into an above-ground tomb, opened the lid of a casket and cut off the head of a corpse. He wrapped the head in plastic bags and took it home. He also stole eyeglasses and a bow tie from the corpse.

Buckalew told witnesses he intended to leave the severed head out and would then bleach it, according to the affidavit of Senior Patrolman Ryan Bjerke of the Morristown Police Department. He told witnesses he intended to turn the skull into a bong, which is a type of pipe used to smoke marijuana or other drugs.

After removing the head from the corpse, Buckalew went to an apartment house where he told residents of an apartment what he had done and that he had done the crimes because he was bored, according to police, who did not identify the witnesses because they are juveniles.

Buckalew was described by witnesses as “Gothic,” wearing all black clothing with spiked hair.

Witnesses went to the tomb to see if Buckalew did as he claimed and they looked through holes in the tomb and saw that the lid had been removed from a casket and there was a headless body in the casket.

On April 9 at 2:45 p.m., Morristown police executed a search warrant at Buckalew’s residence located at [address deleted] in Morrisville. They found a human head wrapped in bags, a necktie, a hacksaw, crowbar, garden trowel and two small parts of the damaged casket.

During Wednesday afternoon’s sentencing hearing, Judge Dennis Pearson upheld the plea agreement between the state and the defendant and sentenced Buckalew to a total of 1 to 7 years to serve in prison. Buckalew was given credit for the 14 months he’s served in prison awaiting trial. He will be sent to [facility name deleted], a therapeutic community residential treatment program, where he will obtain intensive counseling for mental health issues. He will remain there for an indeterminate period under a conditional community reentry program. He will be in the custody of the Department of Corrections for up to seven years under the conditional reentry program.

Dr. Philip Kinsler, a clinical psychologist and adjunct assistant professor of psychiatry at the Dartmouth Medical School in Hanover, N.H., testified that Buckalew suffered from a bipolar disorder that was described as “biologically based mental illness.” He testified learning from Buckalew that “he has always felt extraordinarily out of place” and that Buckalew told him that in the fourth grade he attempted to hang himself.

The witness told the court Buckalew also engaged in self-mutilation behavior.

Dr. Kinsler told the court “the defendant can be rehabilitated” and that he supported the plan to place Buckalew at [the residential treatment program] for treatment.

Buckalew, with a short haircut and wearing black framed glasses, was dressed in a light brown suit. He was quiet and expressionless throughout the hearing. At the end of the hearing, he addressed the court saying, “It was a horrendous thing that I did — what I did was appalling.” He told the court, “I didn’t think of the victim.” Buckalew told the court: “I want to get help for my mental problems.”

Georges Melies Titles from the Blackhawk Films Anthologies

Back in the mid-1970s, Blackhawk Films managed to acquire the distribution rights for a number of Georges Méliès films, mostly from his incredibly prolific 1903-1904 period. In those pre-VHS days, that meant Super 8 and 16mm prints sold mainly to the home and library markets, which was pretty much Blackhawk’s whole business.

After acquiring the commercial rights in 1975, Blackhawk assembled a number of one-reel anthologies that each included two to four Méliès films. Several titles were also released individually. These included A Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la Lune, 1901) and Conquest of the Pole (À la Conquête du Pôle, 1912). (You can jump to the title list here.)

The tale of those Méliès prints is actually a rather interesting one (to those who are interested). Georges’ brother Gaston had run the Star Films branch here in the US, which had been set up circa 1903 largely in an effort to staunch the incredible amount of bootlegging that was robbing Méliès of enormous sums. Georges (usually shooting with 2 cameras side-by-side) would ship cut negatives to Gaston in the US, who used these these to manufacture prints — thus circumventing costly import duties levied on individual prints. Gaston also copyrighted many Star Films releases, depositing dozens of 35mm paper prints with the Library of Congress, many of which remain preserved today.

Initially based in New York, Gaston later moved operations out west, where he also began producing his own films, mostly one- and two-reel westerns. (This is somewhat ironic. Many US filmmakers during the period fled to the western states to escape the reach of the genuinely thuggish efforts of the Motion Picture Patents Company [aka the Edison Trust], an international combine of 10 movie producers and manufacturers that sought to control the entire movie industry right down to the cameras. Georges Méliès would be one of the MPPC’s members. The MPPC was ultimately ruled an illegal monopoly after a long litigation.)

In 1912, when Star Films went bankrupt, Gaston was in charge of liquidating the company’s US holdings. Supposedly without the knowledge of Georges (although this seems debatable), Gaston sold to Vitagraph all of the prints and negatives in his possession (numerous films by both brothers). Gaston then set sail for Asia, shooting films along the way. Sadly, he died not terribly long after, and most of his last films succumbed to poor storage and other climatic ills. (Although not a remarkable film artist, Gaston Méliès is himself worth a rediscovery by cinema historians. The only book I know of to discuss him at any length is The Star Film Ranch: Texas’ First Picture Show by Frank Thompson [Plano, TX: Republic of Texas Press / Wordware Publishing, 1996; ISBN 1-55622-481-8]. It includes a comprehensive filmography, numerous rare photographs, and reprints of contemporaneous Texas newspaper articles. But I digress….)

Ten years later, in 1925, Vitagraph was bought by the new Warner Brothers company.

Flash forward to sometime in the 1930s, when none other than legendary producer Leon Schlesinger (best known for Looney Tunes and Merry Melodies cartoons) became interested in the collection of Méliès films stashed away in the Warner Brothers vaults. He managed to convince Warners to sell the negatives of a number of the Georges Méliès films to him. Schlesinger held onto these for the rest of his life.

When Schlesinger died in 1949, his widow donated the films to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences but, for whatever reason, refused to permit access to them. Later, in order to preserve the decaying nitrate negatives, the Academy made fine grain duplicates. In 1975, after 26 years, Mrs. Schlesinger turned over full control of the collection to the Academy. Blackhawk Films purchased the commercial rights, while the Academy made prints for its permanent collection and then deposited the original negatives with the Library of Congress.

Thirty of those 65 films Leon Schlesinger prised from the Warner Brothers vaults proved to be titles thought to have been lost forever. This was a significant recovery, because at the time scarcely 100 of the 500 or so films made by Georges Méliès were known to have survived. (The search has continued over the years, thanks in large part to Georges’ grand-daughter, who was raised by he and his wife. In 2000, the 200th Méliès film to be recovered was screened for the first time in nearly a century at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival in Italy.)

Blackhawk’s Super 8 and 16mm Melies anthologies and individual films circulated widely. Most film libraries had at least one if not more Blackhawk Melies titles, pizza parlors that ran Super 8 film loops (a ’70s lost tradition) always had a couple, and home collectors all over the world bought them up.

Which, at last, brings me to the point of this post. It seems that nowhere online is there a complete list of the Méliès titles included in the Blackhawk anthologies. So…here it is. Some of these I own, but most I’ve culled from various stray library listings online as well as the Em Gee Film Library catalog. To aid anyone who comes a-Googling in the future, I’ve mostly eschewed the accents in the Blackhawk titles.

If you know of any that I’ve missed or mangled, post a comment and let me know. (And thanks to Bruce Calvert for having done just that.)

La Comedie et Magique de Méliès (aka The Comedy and Magic of Melies)
The Witch’s Revenge (Le Sorcier, 1903) and The Inn Where No Man Rests (L’Auberge du Bon Repos, 1903)

Extaordinary Illusions of 1904
The Mischievous Whiskers (aka Untamable Whiskers; Le Roi du maquillage, 1904) and Tchin-Chao, The Chinese Conjurer (Le Thaumaturge chinois, 1904)

La Fantasie de Méliès (aka The Fantasies of Melies)
Extraordinary Illusions (Illusions funambulesques, 1903), The Enchanted Well (aka The Magic Well; Le Puits fantastique, 1903), and The Apparition (Le Revenant, 1903)

The Imaginative George Melies
Bob Kick, the Mischievous Kid (Bob Kick, l’enfant terrible, 1903), The Oracle of Delhi (L’Oracle de Delphes, 1903), The Drawing Lesson (aka The Living Statue; La Statue animée, 1903)

The Magic of Melies
Jupiter’s Thunderbolts (Le Tonnerre de Jupiter, 1903), The Mermaid (La Sirène, 1904) and The Magic Lantern (La Lanterne magique, 1903)

Melies at the Opera and Elsewhere
Faust and Marguerite (Damnation du docteur Faust, 1904), A Moonlight Serenade (aka The Miser Punished; Au clair de la Lune ou Pierrot Malheureux, 1904), The Apparition (Le Revenant, 1903)

Melies Prestidigitator
Ten Ladies in an Umbrella (La Parapluie fantastique, 1903), Tit for Tat (aka a Good Joke With My Head; Un Preté pour un Rendu, 1903), The Wizard Alcofrisbas (aka Alcofrisbas, The Master Magician; L’Enchanteur Alcofrisbas, 1903).

Melies’ Tales of Terror
The Melomaniac (Le Mélomane, 1903), The Monster (Le Monstre, 1903), The Terrible Turkish Executioner (Le Bourreau Turc, 1904)

Mysterious Marvels of Melies
The Mad Musician (aka The Melomaniac; Le Mélomane, 1903), The Terrible Turkish Executioner (Le Bourreau Turc, 1904), The Magic Well (aka The Enchanted Well; Le Puits fantastique, 1903), and The Wizard Alcofrisbas (aka Alcofrisbas, The Master Magician; L’Enchanteur Alcofrisbas, 1903).

The Mystical Magic of Melies
Jack and Jim (Jack et Jim, 1903), Jack Jaggs and Dum Dum (Tom Tight et Dum Dum, 1903), and The Mystical Flame (La Flamme merveilleuse, 1903)

The Supernatural of Melies
The Infernal Caldron (Le Chaudron infernal, 1903) and The Damnation of Faust (Faust aux enfers, 1903)

The Surrealism of Melies
The Ballet Master’s Dream (Le Rêve du maître de ballet, 1903) and The Fairy Kingdom (aka The Kingdom of the Fairies; Le Royaume des fées, 1903). The latter is probably a truncated version.

Transformations by Melies
The Clockmaker’s Dream (Le Rêve de l’horloger, 1904), The Cook in Trouble (Sorcellerie culinaire, 1904), A Spiritualist Photographer (Le Portrait spirite, 1903)

Super-Rare Syd Barrett Demo

Repetition be danged, Goddess bless the WFMU Blog. In commemoration of the recent death of Syd Barrett, they’ve posted an MP3 of “Lucy Lee” (aka “Lucy Lee in Blue Tights”). The song, having a very garage-psych sound, was written by Syd and recorded as a demo in late 1965 by the group that would later call themselves Pink Floyd.

The musicians included guitarist Bob Klose, whom I gather (not being that much of a Floyd-aholic) left the group before they christened themselves Pink Floyd. The recording was made available in 1996 in an unnamed Italian book.

Being a (Not So) Brief Rumination on ‘Luncheon’ and Related Mealtime and Diurnal Terminology

Having recently used the word “luncheon,” and being a sometimes word nerd, I decided to look into it.

As per ye olde Wikipedia: “In medieval England, there are references to nuncheon, a non hench according to OED [the Oxford English Dictionary, yo], a noon draught — of ale, with bread — an extra meal between midday dinner and supper…” I suspect I’m not alone in feeling that a true olde English nuncheon of bread and ale around mid-afternoon sounds just about perfect.

Of course, here “dinner” is what most us folks call “lunch,” though as Wikipedia once again points out “dinner” actually means simply the biggest meal of the day (at whatever time), and even more formally (esp. outside the US) “dinner” is any meal with multiple courses. “Supper” (descended from the French souper and, obviously, related to soup) typically is the evening meal, though again with some regional/national (and sometimes even economic class) variance. This usage — “dinner” as lunch and “supper” as big evening meal — is, if I read all this right, essentially British and classically Southern US. (Which makes perfect sense given the Britain > Apalachia > South/Midwest migration of the old times; cf. bluegrass music.) I remember as a child ca. the very early ’70s in Indianapolis (stone’s throw from the Mason-Dixon Line) being schooled in this usage by my slightly-older and then-best-friend Mary Lumsey.

Ah, but I digress! (This, naturally, being approximately three-fifths of the fun of word-nerding. By the way, I highly recommend playing with a huge, old dictionary while tripping.) But before I proceed, I simply must mention the wonderful word tiffin, which sounds rather like a kind of pudding but actually means, basically, a “portable light midday meal.” The word entered currency in India during the British colonial period, being a bastardization of the older English slang word “tiffing” which itself means taking a sip. As you might imagine, tiffin is largely a working class phenomenon.

I looked up the oh-so-enticing word “nuncheon” in my 1955 edition of the Oxford Universal Dictionary on Historical Principles (impressively bulky but not hernia-and-myopia-inducing like the OED), which reports it is a “slight refrehsment of liquor, etc., originally taken in the afternoon.” The root “shench,” from the Old English “scenc,” means draught or cup.

Sometime around the industrial revolution, with its (relative) burgeoning of the upper classes, “luncheon” came to refer (at least in England) to midday meal gatherings held by Ladies, who were forbidden by custom to eat in restaurants. (Not-so-funny, ain’t it, how women could only serve meals and not be served themselves?) This usage and custom continued well into the mid-20th century and, indeed, was so equated with women that once (again according to the Wikipedia) “when the Prince of Wales stopped to eat a dainty luncheon with lady friends, he was laughed at for this effeminacy.”

What is perhaps most amazing when one delves into the argot of mealtimes is just how much people used to eat. There was breakfast in the morning, second breakfast (in Germania and Scandavia…and Middle Earth) or elevenses (in England) around 10:30 or 11 AM, then dinner or tiffin or lunch at midday, followed by tea or nuncheon in mid-afternoon, capped by dinner in the evening. Among the upper classes in the late 19th century, dinner could be a truly gut-busting affair. If you’re curious about it, the thoroughly engrossing book Devil in the White City takes some delight in reciting the truly overwhelming menus of 1895-period dodeca-course dinners in the upper aeries of Chicago society. Obesity was a stereotypical trait of the upper classes, invoked by everyone from Charles Dickens to Thomas Nast. What I find (tragically) interesting is we modern Americans supposedly eat fewer meals and yet are ubiquitously plagued with obesity, especially among the lower economic classes. (Here I inevitably think of my dear olde friend Tom, who coined the delightful if dismaying term “Indiana Butt Disease” and, I think, the phrase “Gravy is a beverage.”) In the space of less than a century, obesity as a defining characteristic shifted from the very richest to the poorest and even the middle class. I would be remiss to not refer passingly here to corners of African American culture that extoll “big asses” as the paramount of sexy, though I’ll not comment further on it, being a suitably white-guilty honky motherfucker.

But yea, all this talk of midday naturally brings us to mind of the word noon and its original meanings. By navigating my faithful 1955 Oxford Universal Dictionary I learn the word is derived from ancient English and, duh, Latin, words meaning…nine of all things. Indeed, in England circa 1420 noon meant the “ninth hour of the day, reckoned from sunrise according to the Roman method, or [brace yourself] about 3 p.m.” This obviously assumes sunrise occurring at 6 AM. As a resident of Seattle, located at a relatively far northern latitude, this would mean that during winter time, my local “noon” (by 15th century reckonging) would be more like, oh, 5 PM or so.

Beginning around 1560, says my faithful Oxford Universal, and evidently extending at least to 1709, “noon” could also refer to something called the “hour or office of Nones,” which I gather is a typically Brit-cryptic way of meaning “office hours.” The term Nones apparently originates from Roman antiquity and means (in typically randomistic fashion) the “ninth day…before the Ides of each month, being thus the 7th of March, May, July, and October, and the 5th of all other months.” What confounds me here is that while studying Shakespeare’s Julius Ceaser in high school, I was instructed that the famous “Ides of March” basically meant sometime around the 15th. This is clarified by the selfsame Oxford Universal, which informs me that “ides” means (in the ancient Roman calendar) the eighth day after the nones. Clearly these are the same lead-besotted, adlepated bastards who coined such completely misleading grammarial rules of thumb as “i before e except after c.” How fitting, then, that “nonens” means “something which has no existence; a nonentity.”

In any case, Oxford Universal 1955 amorphously implies the definitional shift of “noon” to mean 12 of the clock (i.e. o’clock) “probably” had something to do with “anticipation of the eccl. office.” Clearly a reference to the Church…with a possible veiled invocation of mechical clocks…except I thought the Church saw clocks as the work of Satan (bloody typical).

Interestingly, by the very earliest of the 1600s some sort of linquistic fad took hold whereby “noon” also applied to the night, namely midnight or, even, “the place of the moon at midnight.” Could this be the end-of-life influence of courtly alchemist and spy John Dee?


Finally, here is a pointer to “What Time is Dinner?” (History Magazine, Oct.-Nov. 2001) which explores the evolution of mealtimes.

Bon appetit!

Post scriptum: If you ask real nice, I’ll excavate and post my even longer etymological treatise on “corned beef”!

Inexplicable Chrono-synclastic Shift

At some point over the weekend, time in my apartment shifted 4 minutes into the future. Darnedest thing.

Being a little prone to tribe time (and having a tendency to — when I want — stay focused on stuff until I absolutely have to tear away), I set my clocks ahead a few minutes. For no particular reason, I wound up with my alarm clock set ahead 6 minutes from “real” time. (Don’t get me started.)

But over this past weekend I discovered my alarm clock is now 10 minutes ahead, with no intervention on my part I assure you. Stranger still, even the internal clock on my computer has moved ahead 4 minutes from what it had been (“real” time plus a minute or so). Time on my cel phone is still “true”…and radio and TV shows still start on time…so I don’t think the atomic clock in Colorado or wherever jumped, and anyway they only do tenths of a second every couple years or so, not no minutes nonsense.

Dunno. Maybe it has something to do with the baby-blue golf tee that mysteriously appeared on the floor just next to my bed a week or so ago? If only all the albums I’ve mislaid over the years would start re-appearing, or the cash on my nightstand started jumping in denomination by 10 dollar increments…


Anyone who remembers the ol’ Ripley’s Believe It Or Not cartoons knows about the fabulous coelacanth, an ancient fish thought to be extinct since the Cretaceous period that was rediscovered off of South Africa in 1938.

A new species was recently found and filmed in the seas near Indonesia.  Dig this BoingBoing post about it, which also links to some gen-yoo-ine video of the critter on YouTube.

The Big Bike Ride to the Sky

Sad news came today of the death of yet another giant of music. It was announced that Syd Barrett, co-founder of Pink Floyd, died on July 7, 2006 due to complications related to diabetes. He was 60 years old.

Anyone who has listened to Pink Floyd’s first album, Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which Syd (real name, Roger) wrote pretty much single-handedly (not to be unfair to the prodigious talents of his bandmates) — let alone his solo albums — knows what a unique talent he was, and what a gloriously peculiar sense of musical structure he had.

Syd, of course, had a huge influence on music and musicians — including David Bowie, who issued a statement today saying, in part, “Syd was a major inspiration for me. …His impact on my thinking was enormous.” With a recorded output consisting essentially of three and a half albums, plus a collection of previously-unreleased rarities (1998′s Opel), Syd became a genre unto himself. Many (including Bowie) tried to imitate Syd, but none ever came close.

Okay, I’m already being glib and the man deserves far better than that. So I think I’ll just go put on Piper and let the music wash over me and carry me away.

Thanks, Syd. Tashi dalek.