Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Psychobabble Babbles with… Philip J. Riley!

Regular visitors to Psychobabble know of my fondness for the work of Philip J. Riley. Riley is the Indiana Jones of classic Monster Movies, executing daring vault raids and emerging with such invaluable artifacts as the long-lost script and treatments for James Whale’s unproduced version of Dracula’s Daughter, the Mummy-precursor Cagliostro, the version of Dracula in which Lon Chaney was to star, and the scrapped Monster Rally Wolfman vs. Dracula. Riley’s finds are fascinating both for their obscurity and for their often bizarre nature (a quick perusal of Dracula’s Daughter will reveal why Universal gave it a pass!) and can be read as part of his “Alternate Histories for Classic Film Monsters” series published by BearManor Media. He recently allowed Psychobabble to pop open his skull and pick his brain for the first fascinating installment of our new interview series: Psychobabble Babbles with…
Philip J. Riley

Psychobabble: You have a truly impressive catalogue of published archival scripts. How did you get started in your work as an ace researcher and what led to you publishing your finds?

Philip J. Riley: It all started with (Famous Monsters of Filmland-founder) Forrest J. Ackerman. I donated all my rare scripts and items, such as the hat and teeth from London After Midnight (Lon Chaney's lost 1927 MGM film), to his collection. While I was working with him during the day and playing music at night (I did a lot of session work with Elton John, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, etc. and occasionally played bass for the original US stage production of The Rocky Horror Show) I found out from Forry about some lost silent films, so I contacted a friend in MGM's legal department and got permission to use all the MGM material that was still on the lot— this was in the ‘70s when MGM was sold and before the auction.

MGM still had all their original nitrate 8x10 negatives at the time, so we had prints made from all the lost Chaney films — plus other lost films such as Garbo's Divine Woman for a 50 cent a piece! When I finished the reconstruction of the films I was encouraged to continue writing by many famous visitors to Forry's house, like Ray Bradbury, Robert Bloch, Fritz Lang. So I did, but it took 10 years until a publisher picked it up. In the ‘70s there was not much interest in "old films" and videotapes were just getting started, so no one really had a chance to see them except on TV, which rarely aired a silent film. And that's what started my publishing projects.

PB: If we can just back up for a second, I have to know how exactly you came into possession of Chaney’s teeth and hat.

PJR: The hat I found right at the costume building in 1974, I think, at MGM before the big sale went on. I traded the janitor, who was wearing it, for my beloved Stetson hat. The teeth I arranged for a permanent loan from the Museum of Natural History through their curator. Now that Forry is gone, I believe they went back to the museum— I hope they did!

PB: I love the image of the janitor sweeping up the MGM costume building while wearing such a priceless piece of Monster Movie history. So, what sparked your own fascination with the genre, and do you have a favorite Monster Movie?

PJR: I've always loved the old horror classics. I remember when I was 11 I took a paper route for the summer so that I could earn enough to buy a cheap 8mm projector and a full 8mm print of the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera, which remains my favorite film. I couldn't tell you what started it all— a shrink would probable tell you that I identified with the monsters as they were hated because they were different— or maybe it was a hidden desire to save the heroine from the monsters.

PB: As for the “Alternate History for Classic Film Monsters” books, did you go seeking these scripts and treatments with the series in mind, or did you just happen across some of them as part of your regular research, thus inspiring it?

PJR: I've been carting these scripts around for years. During my research for the Universal Filmscript Series by MagicImage Filmbooks, I had the chance to meet all the great actors, producers, musicians, and crewmembers that were still alive at the time. I was one of the few authors to be permitted access to the Universal Vaults. I’d been trying to get into Universal for 10 years, but they wouldn't even admit that they had a vault! Then one day I was having lunch at Universal with Patsy Ruth Miller (star of the 1923 The Hunchback of Notre Dame) and Leonard Maltin, when Patsy's brother grabbed my arm and said he wanted me to meet someone. Well, that someone happened to be (Universal Studios owner) Lew Wasserman, himself, who said in a loud voice so all the lawyers could hear, "I like your work, kid. Give this kid anything he wants for his books". That started me on the Classic Monster/comedy/Science fiction series for Universal.

I found many, many rare items in the vaults — some of them being the old Universal Exhibitor's Books, which announced what titles the theater owners could book in advance in the following year. That is where I originally found that Lugosi was to star in the sequel to Dracula and Karloff was to star in The Wolf Man and Cagliostro and Lon Chaney was to star in Dracula. But at the time, I didn't want to get sidetracked, and many of the announced but never produced films had very little production files. The scripts just came to me from many sources. The draft of Dracula's Daughter was given to me by the writer, himself, R. C. Sherriff, and several came from (former Universal Studios head) Carl Laemmle Jr., whom I befriended in his last years before he became too ill. Some were only available on Microfilm, so they had to be transcribed for the PDF format that modern publishing houses use. Then I saw some of the advance ads again in Ron Borst's wonderful book Graven Images, and that is what inspired me to produce the answers to practically the last mysteries about the Classic Monster films. The series was picked up by a great publishing house called BearManor Media run by Ben Ohmart. They deserve a lot of credit for getting these scripts out of my trunks and into the books. They recognized the historic importance in them.

PB: What kind of work goes into putting one of these books together? I imagine the research is intense.

PJR: Yes it is. Today it is harder to locate material since I donated all my collection to the Universal Archives, MoMA, and Forry Ackerman and the Academy libraries. But I've been very lucky to have kept transcripts of the interviews I did back in the ‘70s at a time when I was younger and could go diligently through thousands of articles and photographs just to find the right ones. So these books are as fun to produce as they are fun for the fans. Plus the Internet has been a great source of new material.

PB: Which find most blew your mind? I personally couldn’t believe you dug up the original Dracula’s Daughter treatment and script, nor did I imagine they would be so outrageous.

PJR: That is my favorite. I was told by Sherriff that James Whale did not want to do another horror film. Laemmle Junior insisted, though, but in 1934 when the draft was being written along side The Return of Frankenstein, Whale hatched a plot with his friends and they came out with the draft you see in the book, with it's mutilations, sexual overtones, and over-the-top scenes to drive the budget up. Whale secretly and anonymously submitted the script to the Censor who naturally went into shock! The project was stalled and Whale got to do his other projects like Show Boat. It's a script that could be made today and be enjoyed by the slice and dice generation. But without Lugosi — who knows?

PB: Are there any great, lost films that continue to elude you? What would be the ultimate discovery?

PJR: London After Midnight of course, Garbo's Divine Woman, Chaney's The Big City, A Blind Bargain, Thunder, Murnau's The 4 Devils, and Laurel and Hardy/Lawrence Tibbett's The Rogue Song, as well as the 2-color Technicolor Mysterious Island.

PB: So, what’s next in the “Alternate Histories for Classic Film Monsters” series?

: The next book, coming out for Halloween through BearManor Media will be Bela Lugosi in Frankenstein, followed up with Willis O'Brien's unmade MGM film War Eagles for which the production background is being written by David Conover. Then in the “lost film” series I have started a 2nd revised edition of my London After Midnight reconstruction — then Chaney in The Man Who Laughs, Karloff in The Invisible Man, and hopefully the first draft handwritten script by Noel Langley for Shirley Temple in The Wizard of Oz. Someday I'll get to writing my novels (laughs).

Thanks again to Philip J. Riley for his time and insights.
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