An Interview with David Shepard
Excerpt from Georges Méliès’ Conquest of the Pole
Jeff Joseph and Dennis Bartok recently published their fascinating book on movie collectors, A Thousand Cuts: The Bizarre Underground World of Collectors and Dealers Who Saved the Movies. It is filled with passionate film buffs, crazy characters, chases, FBI raids (including the arrest of movie star Roddy McDowell) and enough unbelievable “You couldn’t make that up” adventures a series of exciting movies. Ultimately it is a salute and appreciation for what these people have gone through doing their part to save our precious and often lost movie history.
The authors conducted dozens of fascinating interviews and sadly some had to be cut. A second book is a possibility but for now we offer a sneak preview of what might included.
Here, for the first time, is their interview with film preservation and restoration master David Shepard who passed January 31, 2017. There will are links and videos below for background and samples of the films Shepard found, saved and restored.
David Shepard was one of the most-admired and knowledgeable figures in the field of film preservation. In the late 1960’s, he joined the then-new American Film Institute, where he was instrumental in rescuing a number of imperiled treasures, and in 1987 he took over the legendary Blackhawk Films library. Working with archives, collectors and other preservation specialists from around the world like Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films in Paris, Shepard restored films for public screenings and for home release via Image Entertainment, Kino Films, and Flicker Alley. It is safe to say he worked on hundreds of movies including movies by or featuring Charlie Chaplin, Abel Gance, Georges Méliès, D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks, F.W. Murnau and John Barrymore as well as collections of silent early Soviet films, “The Civil War in Silent Films” and Avant-Garde cinema with Bruce Posner for The “Unseen Cinema.” (See a partial list of the films he restored.)
Alexander Payne (director of About Schmidt, The Descendants, Nebraska, Sideways and Election), told “The Hollywood Reporter” of meeting Shepard when “he left USC for a while and taught one quarter at UCLA. I was in my first year of graduate school there and had been a film nut since I was a kid. I signed up for his class on the history of silent cinema and realized to my astonishment that this was the guy who had curated the Blackhawk Films collection, where all of my allowance money had gone as a kid. By the time I was 14, I had the Chaplin Mutuals and the Buster Keaton collection and Phantom of the Opera – and I still have them. But he would lend me prints, which I took home.”
Leonard Maltin added, “ David really cared about movies, and silent films in a particular. He cared more about them than he did about his own ego. There are some people who want a lot of praise and attention for what they do; but he was more concerned with getting the films saved, preserved, rescued and shown — emphasis on shown. Like our mutual friend William K. Everson, the great film scholar, he believed that saving it and putting it on a shelf was not the point.” (Excerpted from The Hollywood Reporter’s tribute to Shepard)
Jeff: What do you think got you interested in the movies?
David: I grew up in northern New Jersey, not far from New York City. My father was an executive with a supermarket chain, called the Grand Union Company. I don’t think it exists any longer. My mother was what you’d call a homemaker, to be politically correct. In those days they used to call them “housewives.” The German hausfrau. But she was trained in art history and studio art, and after my father died, she went back to those. She’d grown up in New Orleans loving films and seeing virtually everything. Probably 20 years ago the Gene Autry Museum ran the silent western The Covered Wagon with Gillian Anderson conducting a live orchestra, and I brought my mother. She remembered seeing it when it first came out. She’d seen it at The Sanger Theater on Canal Street, the main business street of New Orleans, in 1923. On the way to the screening — I’d picked her up at her home –, she was telling me what the big scenes in the film would be. She remembered the music and where she sat in the theater, and this was probably at least 50 years before. As an elderly woman, she used to go down into Koreatown and Chinatown, and see the Asian films that played at the ethnic theaters there. She really kept up on films. She was very supportive, more supportive later on when I got into restoration and she started seeing my name on screen with films I’d worked on.
My father never really understood why anyone would be professionally interested in movies, but he used to take me as a boy to the movies. He especially loved the Preston Sturges films and used to take me to those.
And yes, I had some family in the business: I had an uncle who was an actor, Everett Sloane. He was in the Mercury Theater with [Orson] Welles and was in a number of films. We lived adjacent to each other, and his daughter Abby was one of my best friends as a child. One of my memories as a child was going to see a film he was in called Prince Of Foxes, directed by Henry King, which I haven’t seen since I was probably 9 years old. And in the film Everett gets his eyes put out.
Abby and I ran home. I rushed over to his house because I was so worried: I’d just seen him get his eyes put out on screen. And of course he was all right. That was probably the first time I understood there was a difference between what happened in the movies and in real life. My uncle took us back to the theater and explained what happened to the manager, and the manager let us back in to see Prince Of Foxes again. I also had an aunt that worked at Warner Bros. during the transition to sound, and she had a lot of great stories and memorabilia in the attic.
But my real interest in film came about because of some schoolteachers I had, and the father of a friend of mine, a boy I knew at school. The father’s name was John Griggs; my friend’s name was Timothy Griggs. John was a New York stage actor. He was also a very busy radio actor, a good friend of my uncle Everett, and did some live TV in New York. He had a theater in his basement, and would invite people over like Buster Keaton and Dorothy and Lillian Gish, and Walter Kerr. I’d come over for those occasions because I’d run his projector and get to meet all those people when I was a teenager. So I suppose you could say I was inoculated rather young. John Griggs died when I was in my early 20’s, as did my father. Tim, my friend, went into the Foreign Service – I think he was CIA. He was murdered in Spain, in the late 1960’s. He was my age. I was born in 1940.
The very first film I remembered seeing was Bambi, on its original release. In my generation, I think everybody’s first film was probably a Disney film. Anyway, my mother took me to see it, and when Bambi’s mother was killed, I was terrified and I went under the seat in the theater crying, and my mother had to take me out. That was my first film, probably 1943. I didn’t see it again until I was in college. Now I think it’s one of the greatest films ever made. Probably not the film for a 3-year-old though.
The things that I remember were mostly special events. My father took me to the Museum of Natural History in New York, where Robert Flaherty was speaking and showing excerpts from his films. I couldn’t have been more than 7 or 8. The Land was the basic film he showed, but I think he also showed clips from Man Of Aran. The Land is not such a hot film, but he was a fantastic storyteller. I was taken as a boy to The Museum of Modern Art to see Million Dollar Legs with W.C. Fields and Lyda Roberti as “Mata Machree, the Woman No Man Can Resist!” I thought it was very funny then and I still do today.
Jeff: When were you at Blackhawk Films? I visited there briefly in 1971.
David: I went to work for Blackhawk in 1973 and left in 1976. Kent Eastin worked there for 50 years: he started the company in 1927. Martin Phelan [Eastin’s later partner at Blackhawk Films] is still alive. He was living in Florida — at least as of 2 years ago he was alive and fine. He was a businessperson. They were both people of tremendous integrity. They really were a model for me of what a human being ought to be, both of them. For their honesty, their concern for quality and for the treatment of customers. For fairness. That came right down from Mr. Phelan and Mr. Eastin. I admired them both very much. I could never bring myself to call them by their first names. I always put them on a pedestal.
Jeff: I feel the same way about Bill Pence, co-founder of the Telluride Film Festival among other things.
David: Bill Pence and I are the same age. He was at Carnegie Tech when I was at Hamilton College, and we both ran film societies. We worked out a system to share prints. On Monday mornings we’d ship them special delivery to each other, and they’d get there the next day, so we’d show them to ourselves and they’d return to the distributors on time. We’d pay one rental and have the film out for no longer than the amount of time allotted on the booking sheet. Of course we didn’t do public shows of the films — it was just for us. My other good film education was summer jobs working for both Brandon Films and Contemporary Films. They didn’t pay much money, but we did have free access to take home any films we wanted. Bob Epstein was working for Contemporary when I was working for Brandon, and we’d get together in the evenings and have screenings. Bob later started the UCLA Film Archive. A lot of those are no longer in distribution. There was a wonderful Danish film, Ditte, Child Of Man that made a huge impression. Sort of like a Danish Greed, the story of a mistreated child. I thought it was great Carnival In Flanders made a huge impression. The Dybbuk, a Polish film … Contemporary had the Bergman Films. That’s when I first got to see The Seventh Seal, Smiles Of A Summer Night and The Magician. They had some nice Yiddish films like Green Fields, directed by Edgar Ulmer. That was our film education, putting ourselves in the way of places that had 16 mm. films and we could screen them. I’m sure it’s true of everyone, but the films I still think are great are the ones I saw when I was young and thought were great.
Dennis: When did you become interested in collecting films?
David: I was 12. I asked for money for my 12th birthday to buy a 16mm projector. I bought a pre-war Bell & Howell sound projector for $50. The reason I wanted it was because in those days, before television, almost all large camera stores had 16mm film rental libraries where you could rent prints for children’s birthday parties and such.In fact my father used to rent films for my birthday parties as a child.
There was a store in Hackensack, New Jersey, not far away from where we lived, called Riger’s Camera Store. They had a pretty big film rental library. This was like 1955, after television was well established. I had a paper route and was making about $3.50 a week. They were selling off the films in their library for $1 a reel, and they were intrigued by the idea that a kid would be interested in these movies. And they’d let me put down 50 cents on this movie and 50 cents on that, so they’d hold them for me. And I’d pay them off and bring them home on my bicycle. That’s how I began, buying films from Riger’s.
Dennis: Do you remember which prints you bought from Riger’s?
David: Oh yes. As long as I had my collection, I had Kodascopes of The Covered Wagon and Hands Up. The Lost World.
I loved the Rin Tin Tin films: The Night Cry, Clash Of The Wolves, The Lighthouse By The Sea. They were all nice tinted prints from Riger’s. Good Kodascope library prints. This was the period when you could get a lot of films from rental libraries that were shutting down. Even Blackhawk started out as a rental operation and sold off their prints in the 1950’s. I would get prints from these libraries going out of business: Willoughby’s in New York had a big rental library, and Abbe Films on 44th Street in New York was selling films. There was a Mogul’s camera store that had a huge rental library and was selling off films. There were films that you couldn’t get – very rarely could I find an MGM film. But lots of films you could get because they’d been leased for the life of the print to rental libraries, which as they closed would sell them off.
Dennis: Do you have any favorite stories of discovering rare prints that might have otherwise been lost?
David: Most of that was when I was working for the American Film Institute in the late 1960’s. I had the opportunity to go to people that I’d done a little bit of trading with as a collector. At that time they were elderly – probably younger than I am now – but at the time they seemed old. I was able to get their whole collections in some cases. There was a man named George Marshall in Vineland, N.J. He had a shop that did automotive electric. He had a big sign in front of his auto shop that read: “Old Movies Bought And Sold.” He’d amassed a large collection of 35mm and some 28mm films, mostly silent.
By the time I was there, George was in a wheelchair and couldn’t do much with his films. So he sold the whole collection to the AFI and it went to the Library of Congress. George was mostly interested in the films from the Teens and earlier, so what we got there were a lot of unique one- and two-reel films, a few early features like some early Douglas Fairbanks Triangle films, and a few hand-colored prints like a Selig film, The Coming Of Columbus. You’re not talking about films that would be recognizable titles to a casual movie buff. There was also a white Russian named George Post in San Francisco. He never learned much English and was a projectionist in a movie theater. His life revolved around the movie theater, so he didn’t encounter many people outside that world, except his wife when he got home at night and she was Russian also. Their English was very limited and their circle of friends was all Russian émigrés. But he also had a lot of friends at the film exchanges and collected a lot of silent films. He and his friends understood enough English to read the intertitles. That’s why they liked silent movies. He collected opera films and silent films that didn’t depend on snappy speech. I was friends with him, and after he died I was able to buy that whole collection. It was divided between the Library of Congress and UCLA. There was a Mabel Normand – Goldwyn feature there called What Happened To Rosa? that I think was unique. I think only two of her Goldwyn features survive — one of them came from the Post Collection.
Dennis: Were you at all affected by the FBI film raids during the 1970’s?
David: Yes, I was. I had a very nice film collection that was in the basement of my home. This was when I was living in Davenport, Iowa, working for Blackhawk. I went away over the weekend to a Cine Con Convention – and when I came back my home had been burglarized. All the paintings, all the silverware, and all the films in the basement were gone. About five or six months later, the thieves were caught and I got back almost everything that had been stolen – but at that point, the existence of the film collection became public.
The FBI came in, confiscated the whole thing and said, “you have no right to have this or that. These things were never sold, blah blah blah.” So I hired a lawyer. Their whole line of argument was that no prints were ever sold, so all prints that I had were property of the producers, and were therefore stolen. The defense from that was to show that prints had been sold: if there was a “first sale,” the producers no longer had exclusive right to all prints. I got testimony from various friends who’d bought prints for TV stations where they worked. Even the Disney films had been sold during the period that RKO had distribution rights. And of course the Warner films had been sold: any collector could legally buy a print through Associated Artists for a time. There was a man there named Stanley Stark who, quite legitimately, was selling used prints for $125 and new prints for $300. I actually bought a brand new Technicolor 16mm print of The Adventures Of Robin Hood from him for $300. Films Incorporated sold used prints of any of the RKO films for $125. So with my lawyer we went armed with a large pile of evidence about first sales, since that was the whole basis on which the film companies were prosecuting collectors on at the time. They didn’t want that information introduced into public record. I got my collection back and they went away. I guess other people weren’t as fortunate. There was an assistant U.S. attorney in California named Brown …
Jeff: Chet Brown?
David: That sounds like his name, Chet Brown. He was behind all that, going after film collectors, but he wound up going to prison for something. Once he was out of the picture it all stopped. I was swept into that by the accident of the burglary, and swept out of it by being able to introduce all this evidence of first sales that demolished the argument that no copies had ever been sold.
Jeff: Can you talk about how you came to work for Blackhawk?
David: I established a relationship with Blackhawk through my work at the AFI and the Library of Congress, and they eventually offered me a position. I felt then and still feel today that films which are only preserved on a shelf have no life. They only mean something when they can bring some thoughts and some pleasure to people who want to look at them. At the Library of Congress, we were putting thousands of films on the shelves, but Blackhawk was putting them in front of eyes.
I felt that was a very important thing to do, and still try to achieve that through restorations on video. When Blackhawk asked me to come to them I accepted. It was a very happy time for me, until Mr. Eastin and Mr. Phelan wanted to retire, and I wasn’t very simpatico with the new owners. I didn’t last long there under the new ownership, about 3 months. I went to Europe for about 3 months, and then started at the Directors Guild.
I’ve been a member of the Academy [of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences] for over 30 years. My dues are $250 a year, and I think they’ve been that the whole time. The Oscar show has allowed them funds for all their activities. The UCLA Archive is an absolute miracle. Bob Rosen did a great job integrating the [UCLA Film] Archive into the U.C. system [i.e. University of California system]. And of course he found a billionaire to fund it. In England, the BFI had J. Paul Getty III, and as long as he was funding them, they were able to do magical things — but when he died, that stopped. The British government has had economic difficulties like everyone else. So they’re struggling along with very little at the BFI, and what happened to the AFI is happening to them now.
I’ve never made a lot of money. My stepfather used to get on me all the time. He said, “with your brains, why aren’t you rich?” At the time I think I did have some brains. I’ve worked my whole life with more than enough money to get by, doing what I’d surely have done for free, and I don’t regard that as a sacrifice. I haven’t lived a personal life that would have been my dream. My marriage failed, although it lasted almost 20 years. I’m not in touch with my ex-wife any longer …
I live a pretty solitary life up here in the woods (Hat Creek, California), but I still do produce restored editions for home video – a market that, of course, is now in free-fall. Some people might regard the way I’ve lived as sacrificial — but I’ve made my choices with my eyes open, and I have no regrets. When I was in my 20’s, I shared a house with Joe Adamson and Lindsay Doran. Joe now works for the Academy, and Lindsay was President of United Artists and is a very successful independent producer. Together we had a party one night that we called “Narcissus Night,” where everybody brought home movies that their parents had taken of them as small children. And one after the other, you could absolutely see the adult in the child. I’m the boy my parents raised.
Serge Bromberg, Leonard Maltin and Kevin Brownlow tell stories at a Tribute to David Shepard at Dartmouth College on November 7, 2o16.
Dennis Bartok is Executive Vice President of Cinelicious Pics as well as The American Cinematheque General Manager; before founding Cinelicious with CEO Paul Korver, Bartok served as the Head Programmer at the Cinematheque. Bartok is involved in Cinelicious’ Acquisitions department as Senior Acquisitions Executive. Dennis is also a screenwriter and filmmaker.
Jeff Joseph is a motion picture archivist and formerly one of the best-known film dealers in the United States. Jeff and his wife Lauren were the owners of SabuCat Productions. He is currently working with the UCLA Film and TV Archive in restoring the Hal Roach/Laurel and Hardy library and has presented major festivals devoted to 3-D films.
The Thousand Cuts Facebook page is a great place to find out about special showings and appearances with the authors.
Read David Bordwell’s review to whet your appetite to read this unique book.
Read the Roddy McDowell chapter.
The Projection Booth presents a fascinating podcast with the authors.
There have been many tributes to David Shepard.
Leonard Maltin’s Adieu to David Shepard
Ub Iwerks color cartoon restoration by Shepard
Shepard discusses several of his projects for Flicker Alley.
A very bizarre short film restored with Lobster Films.
And to learn more read his interview in Digitally Obsessed