Posted by David Kalat on June 9, 2012
Having retired from the DVD business, I am realizing now that I’m sitting on 15 years’ worth of anecdotes from behind the scenes that I never felt like sharing publicly at the time, because I worried they didn’t gibe with my marketing plans, and I was also mindful of not misusing this forum for self-promotion. But I no longer have a vested interest in any of these movies, and I’m now starting to feel more willing to talk about what went on in the making of some of these DVDs. I’m posting a few stories these weeks to gauge reader interest.
This week I want to talk a bit about my triptych of DVDs with the estate of Victor Pahlen!
Pahlen was a producer of some modest success. I met his daughter Kyra in 2000 when we worked together to put out Pirates of Capri as one of my Edgar Ulmer Collection releases. Pirates of Capri was a fantastic lost gem, a sort of pro to-superhero film. Louis Hayward played a swashbuckling pirate hero whose Robin Hood-ish exploits are concealed by his secret identity, a foppish wastrel. The Bruce Wayne/Batman aspects are nicely played, the action is well staged, it’s a zippily paced little matinee piece, which had totally vanished into obscurity. Ulmer’s fans today are mostly turned on by his noir and horror work, and getting them to look to comedies, dramas, or action films was an uphill marketing battle (even when these other genres showed a more indulgent and proficient level of production value than the likes of Detour)–and the fact that this film belongs to an entirely moribund genre didn’t help.
I didn’t learn my lesson, though, and came to back to the Pahlen well to license another of his films–this time a true-blood noir that I figured would be an easier sell. Gunman in the Streets came from some of the same production team as This Gun for Hire, was set in postwar Paris, is really dark and violent, and has Simone Signoret. There. That’s a movie, right?
Ha. Joke’s on me. Fewer buyers thought Gunman in the Streets was worth tracking down than had Pirates of Capri–which was pretty much my nadir.
In an effort to spike interest in the film, I staged a theatrical screening at New York’s Anthology Film Archives. You see, Gunman had never been formally released in the U.S. for some oddball reason–it had played Canada, and had had some U.S. television screenings, but never a proper theatrical run. So I thought, fine, let’s give it a NY premiere, 50 years late, and get some press.
It was scheduled for early October 2001.
Well, yeah. Bad timing on my part.
Actually, here’s my stupidest 9/11 story of all–I had to reschedule the screening by one week for some reason, and for the morning of September 11, 2001, it was on the top of my to-do list to call the airline and rebook my tickets. Needless to say, I never made that call.
Instead, I took the train, and carried the 35mm print in a wheeled locker with me all the way to the theater. I was so cash-strapped in those days, I couldn’t afford the cab fare and simply walked the damn thing–which weighed 200 pounds–from Grand Central Station all the way to Anthology Film Archives. I made that trek, and something like a dozen audience members did too. So much for my big publicity push. The world had other things on its mind then.
But Kyra came to the show, and she introduced the film, which was fun. Afterwards we got to talking and she asked if I was interested in licensing a third film from her father’s estate. I was reluctant, but she forced a screener into my hand and urged me to watch it. Later that night, back at the hotel, I took a look. . .
Cuban Story is just nuts. Actually, let’s get the title right–the actual onscreen title reads:
Which kind of says it all right there.
It is a delightfully preposterous movie. I know Kyra has never liked that I say that about it, but if she’s worried I’m hurting it’s marketability I beg to differ. As a documentary about the Cuban Revolution, it is a bizarrely paced and fairly slapdash thing. It has original and unique footage of the Revolution, taken from the ground as it happens, and Kyra was right that news agencies would be interested in that footage–indeed, I think that most of the revenue we saw off this title came from licensing clips to news shows and documentaries.
But in terms of ordinary audiences, and trying to convince them to part with $20 and a couple of hours of their time to actually buy and watch this oddity, the true selling point is its psychotronic nuttiness.
Put simply, this is a documentary about the Cuban Revolution that insists on a viewpoint that Fidel Castro is the good guy, but does so without taking any pro-communist ideological stance, and is narrated by Errol Flynn, who is clearly drunk.
Here’s how it went down: Flynn and Pahlen were drinking buddies who used to spend time in Batista’s Cuba enjoying the high life. They just happened to be there when things kicked off in 1953, and they started filming. The movie was completed during that short window of time after Castro’s rise to power when the official U.S. stance was that he was an ally, and not a communist. That was a short window, mind you, and as soon as the U.S. attitude towards Castro darkened, Pahlen found himself with a movie he couldn’t sell. That unsellable movie, though, is a fascinating time capsule of its era, and a trippy insight into Errol Flynn’s more Charlie Sheenish-side.
The master 35mm elements were stored in the U.K., so I made arrangements to have them shipped to me in Washington DC, where I had my operations at the time. I drove out to the airport to meet them at customs, and expected to go through the usual routine when I collected imported film materials at the customs office. When it was my turn at the counter, though, the clerk clucked her tongue at me, “Don’t you know we have an embargo on importing things from Cuba?”
Well, yes, but–
I tried to explain that this wasn’t an import from Cuba, it was just pictures of Cuba, pictures that were taken long before we had that embargo! The item being imported was the legal property of a U.S. citizen, and I–another U.S. citizen–had a legal right to access it on her behalf.
The clerk wasn’t persuaded. She said I’d have to provide documentation to prove this wasn’t Cuban property, and until then the Customs Office would keep it.
Kyra was none too happy. This was the only copy of the film, and she saw it as a key asset that was now sitting in the non-temperature-controlled environment of the Customs Office and who knows if we could get it back. I put together a fat dossier of documents showing the chain of title, and establishing that no Cuban property was involved, but it was late on a Friday and I was going to have to wait until Monday to take my second bite at the apple.
I returned first thing Monday morning, with my fat dossier under my arm, and went up to the counter. I was all set to make my case–but before I knew what was happening they handed the film over to me and that was that. They never even asked to see a single document.
That one clerk was just throwing her weight around with no real authority–and if I had simply waited out the shift change and tried again that first Friday afternoon, I’d probably have gotten the film then.
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