A Celluloid Detective’s Adventures in the World’s Deepest, Darkest Vaults and Beyond
By Russell Merritt
When I remember David Shepard, I think of high adventure, the kind that turns film reclamation into a series of quests, conspiracies, improbable partnerships, witty banter, and second story work.
David passed away January 31, 2017. It caught hundreds of friends and admirers off-guard. He had given so generously of his time, knowledge, advice and film collection. The 22nd San Francisco Silent Film Festival is dedicated to his memory this year, running June 1-4 at San Francisco’s Castro Theatre. The entire Festival looks very strong but a do-not-miss program will be Magic and Mirth: A Collection of Enchanting Short Films, 1906-1924.
It plays once only at 10:00am on Saturday, June 3. The irrepressible Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films will commemorate preservationist David Shepard’s contribution to film culture introducing a truly mind-boggling collection of short films accompanied with live music by Donald Sosin and Frank Bockus. A great show for the whole family and perfect way to introduce people to the joys of silent film properly presented.
But back to that list of adventures.
Take, for example, the way we met. It started with a phone call, when in 1976 he asked me to collaborate on a TV series featuring the radio broadcaster and world traveler, Lowell Thomas. To an academic like me, it all sounded exotic, in a homespun sort of way. David was calling from Iowa, sitting on a stack of Fox Movietone newsreels acquired from a Hollywood lab, which he was supplying to a PBS station in South Carolina. He wanted me to help him ghostwrite scripts for Lowell, which Thomas would review from his office on Park Avenue. Although the show was called Lowell Thomas Remembers, the great man didn’t have time to remember much of anything. So David and I banged out copy, and that that gave Lowell something to recall from the 1930s. It was the start of a forty-year friendship, and it was typical of a man who spent his life cooking up adventures to bring vintage films back to life.
David’s generosity and passion for film – especially silent film – have become legendary. In my case, he thought nothing of arranging for me to take his place at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, which became the start of a lifelong collaboration with the Giornate. Or arrange for a visiting professorship at USC where we team-taught courses in film history. Or lending/ giving away an infinitude of films and film paraphernalia. Did I need title cards for a farce I was directing? David had his vintage printing press ready at his headquarters in Panama City. Did I want to produce the Great Nickelodeon Show? If you happened to see it, those were David’s movies we showed, and the chances are that David was the projectionist.
None of this felt remarkable, it was so typical of a man who devoted his life to sharing films with friends and appreciative audiences. He will be best remembered, I suspect, for his work in saving movies. As Leonard Maltin wrote in an eloquent tribute for his on-line journal, “If you’ve seen a superior print of a film by Chaplin or Keaton, Griffith or Murnau, chances are David had a hand in restoring it.”
By the time I met him, David was already a major force in film preservation. He had been hired as a curator by the newly formed American Film Institute in the late 1960s and made his mark negotiating a historic deal with Paramount. When he was done, two hundred Paramount films had been deposited in the AFI Collection at the Library of Congress, with other great deals to follow.
Then there was his stint with the Directors Guild of America where, to borrow another phrase from Leonard, he did more favors for posterity. He created an oral history project to record the careers of veteran filmmakers, including his friends King Vidor, Henry King, Rouben Mamoulian, Eugene Lourie, Gilbert Cates, and Robert Wise. In an all-too-rare gesture to bridge the gap between academia and the industry, David created the DGA Educators Workshop in 1978, which lasted twenty years. Each year, it provided an all-expenses-paid weeklong seminar for academics to watch Hollywood at work. During the first year, David invited Lee Garmes to host, and he set the pattern for the programs that followed. Participants visited sets to study film and TV productions in progress, and talk with production personnel. When David set up a retrospective of Howard Hawks films, the seminar moved to Laguna Beach to hear from Hawks. Members also attended panels and met in private homes to mingle with the likes of George Sidney, George Cukor, and John Cromwell.
In 1986 he masterminded special events for the DGA Golden Jubilee, and it nearly knocked him out. It was his spectacular, year-long affair, celebrating the 50 year history of the Directors Guild. For the occasion, David produced Chuck Wortman’s Precious Images for the Guild, a documentary that won the Academy Award for best Live Action Short Film in 1986.
It was in between these phases of his career that David re-shaped Blackhawk Films. In the four years between 1973 and 1976, he brought Kent Eastin’s company into the first ranks of nontheatrical distribution. Blackhawk had long been known for selling 8mm and 16mm films to the home market. David turned it into a prime source for university and other professional libraries. I knew his Griffith Biograph restorations best (full disclosure: I helped). But the great stories were about how he cornered those sparkling prints of Chaplin Mutual comedies. He discovered them as reissues that Van Beuren made in the 1930s and set out to buy the studio’s entire library of cartoons, shorts, and B-movies simply to get his hands on them. At first he was ready to write off the rest of the library as slag, but when we started watching them (guests at David’s house never escaped without an evening of screenings), he discovered the joys of Van Beuren cartoons and declared that Blackhawk’s customers needed to see those strange Technicolor Rainbow Parades for themselves.
The Sunshine Makers is a truly strange cartoon.
That was vintage David. He never distributed films that he wasn’t passionate about, no matter how obscure or noncommercial. He lost his shirt on Gance’s La Roue and didn’t do much better on Caligari or Griffith. As he put it, he could push more Laurel and Hardy in a month than he could sell Russians in a lifetime. It never mattered. He was particularly proud of his collaboration with Anthology Film Archives and Bruce Posner on the seven-disc collection of early American avant-garde film (Unseen Cinema), and of his work with Serge Bromberg on the brilliant and all-too-little seen French serial La Maison du mystère (1922). But then, he could always count on the Chaplin shorts. He named the cabin he built in the wilds of Northern California “Wit’s End,” but subtitled it “The House That Charlie Built.”
When home video arrived in the late 1980s, David started Film Preservation Associates, the high-water mark in his film distribution career. Film Preservation Associates not only gave him the chance to produce first-rate prints of rare and classic films but also turned him into one of the foremost producers of silent film music, enabling him to recruit musicians from around the U.S. and Europe to accompany his reconstructions. If you are reading this at the Castro, it is likely you have heard of Donald Sosin, Neil Brand, Frederick Hodges, the Monte Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Stephen Horne, and Timothy Brock, among the many artists who can be heard on David’s productions and at the Festival.
Meanwhile, finding kindred spirits in Serge Bromberg at France’s Lobster Films and Jeff Masino at Flicker Alley in Los Angeles, he was able to build a durable company whose work continues.
As I write this, Serge is completing a stunning new restoration of DeMille’s The King of Kings that David hoped would be unveiled later this year at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. It has been ninety years since the film’s premiere. More than that, The King of Kings was the film the marked the grand opening of the legendary L.A. movie palace. This was the kind of anniversary that warmed David’s heart.
The man behind all this was a wonderful friend, bristling with fresh, imaginative ideas. He was unbelievably generous, and his gifts were as inventive as he was. As much as he loved movies, he was equally passionate about all things mechanical: vintage projectors, cameras, bicycles, printing presses, best 360 camera 2017 for panoramic pictures, trains — practically anything with gears or springs. One of his gifts that I treasure most, certainly the one that sums him up best, is the Leatherman Skeletool, a combination wire cutter, knife, bottle opener, screwdriver, and needle-nose pliers. I never use it without thinking of him. Like him, it is multifaceted, ingenious, full of sharp edges, and, above all, complicated.
(This is an expanded version of the article published in the Silent Film Festival program book. Filled with great essays, it is available at no cost during the Festival.)
Russell Merritt teaches in the Film Studies Program at UC-Berkeley. His books can be ordered from local bookstores or purchased on the Castro mezzanine during the Festival. He is the co-author (with J.B. Kaufman) of Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney (Amazon or Indiebound) and is co-author (with Kevin Brownlow and David Gill) of the Emmy-nominated D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (Amazon or Indiebound). He began recreating nickelodeon shows in the early 1970s while a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and feels he is finally getting the hang of it.
Read a rare interview with David Shepard and lots of clip and rare photos on EatDrinkFilms.
More about his animation finds at Cartoon Research
Shepard discusses several of his projects for Flicker Alley.
Abbey Lustgarten on The Criterion Collection site.
And to learn more read this extensive interview on Digitally Obsessed
The Hollywood Reporter gathers tributes from Alexander Payne, Leonard Maltin and more.
Joe Rinaudo remembers his friend on Silent Cinema Society
Sight & Sound’s homage
More adventures with film and David’s favorite film revealed