Wednesday, January 14, 2009

UCLA's restoration of "The Scarlet Claw"

The ULCA Film & Television Archive has restored a number of old classics, including some of the Sherlock Holmes films. One of the most famous of these is "Sherlock Holmes: The Scarlet Claw" (1944), originally distributed by Universal, directed by Roy William Neill, and relatively crisp at 74 minutes. Basil Rathbone (of course) plays Sherlock, with Nigel Bruce as Dr. Watson, and Gerald Hamer as the “culprit” Alistair Ramson.

The “claw” looks like a garden pitchfork, and, not, the Project did not colorize it red (like the famous girl’s dress in Spielberg’s “Schindler’s List”) in this black-and-white classic.

Some of the ideas of the film are interesting. The detectives travel to friendly wartime Canada, where near the Quebec village of La Mort Rouge (“The Red Death”) a few people have been savaged murdered, their throats slashed, in the nearby heath. Some sheep have also been slashed, an anticipation of the “cattle mutilation” controversy to start thirty years later.

Furthermore, the “phantom” is shown, with effective filmmaking, and illuminated ghost.

Later, Sherlock tracks down a local, escaped (but supposedly killed in the attempt). It seems that he is a versatile actor, who once killed another rival (a bit of “The Player”) and can play a number of characters with “costumes”. (This brings up the whole matter of “Pagliacci”, reviewed Jan. 8 on my “plays” blog, and the idea of fiction mixing with reality and the legal and life consequences thereof – a problem that seems new with the Internet but now seems very old). In fact, he’s able to use white phosphorus (any high school chemistry student is supposed to know that the allotrope is poisonous and very dangerous) to glow and look like a ghost.

The film ends with an apt wartime quote of Winston Churchill. There's also a curious passage where Watson almost gets swallowed up by a peat bog behaving as quicksand.

The DVD (now distributed by MPI) includes an interview with Robert Gill from the UCLA restoration project. Gill explains that this film was a difficult restoration, done from pieces of acetate film, without reliable positives and negatives. I have some old family 8 mm footage of the Buckingham area of Arlington VA from the days of segregation (the 1940s), that might be valuable (to a filmmaker, maybe me) if I got it restored and copied onto a DVD. I may look into that. I suspect there are film projects around that would buy historical footage of old neighborhoods from WWII times.

Gill says that they had to add back the Universal trademark (here, it’s a New Year’s globe, recently used in “Changeling”), and even the War Bonds ad from WWII. Original distributors or studios have often sold their rights to these old films.

The “cattle mutilation” issue has rarely been treated in film. MGM gave us “Endangered Species” in 1982, directed by Alan Rudolph, with a story by Judson Klinger and Richard Clayton Woods. I do remember seeing this, and the story migrated from the sci-fi and the government helicopters keeping people out to the politics of cattle barons. There is a 25 minute short called “Cattle Mutilations”, directed by George Kuchar (1983), and if any visitor knows where to find the film (legally), please let me know in a comment.

In fact, on Saturday August 6, 1994 (I hope I’ve got my perpetual calendar right), I remember eating lunch in Sterling, CO, an epicenter of supposed cattle mutilations (it’s on the plains in the East, away from the mountains), and coming to the decision to write my first book. It’s a moment I still remember well.

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