By Phil Hall | September 11, 2009

This week marks the 300th entry in The Bootleg Files series, and I thought I would shift gears on this anniversary to talk about the circumstances that brought about this column and my adventures in researching and writing about the previous 299 entries.

First and foremost, this column would never have reached the 300 mark without the support of the Film Threat family – the various editors who supported the series since its inception in 2003 (Eric Campos, Mark Bell and Matthew Sorrento) and the readers who have been returning every Friday to check it out. Thank you to one and all for your input.

The Bootleg Files actually came about from a somewhat irrational fear of being left behind. Back in the summer of 2003, there was a sudden flurry of new columns being created on Film Threat. It seemed that every regular contributor had a column – everyone but me. Not wanting to be left out, I felt that I had to come up with a column.

The idea for the column came from random research I was doing to track down older films that I’ve heard about but could never find in retail channels. I did miscellaneous reviews for these films, most notably Stanley Kubrick’s “Fear and Desire” and Otto Preminger’s “Porgy and Bess,” and I thought it would be unusual to do a weekly column reviewing films that could only be located on bootleg videos. Chris Gore, the founder of our Film Threat feast, agreed with the concept, but not with the original name I had for the column: F****d Up Films. A somewhat less provocative name was chosen – The Bootleg Files – and the format of presenting each film as a file entry (Bootleg File 001, Bootleg File 002, etc.) was created to offer a sense of continuity.

As the series progressed, I expanded the concept of bootlegging to incorporate both the unauthorized reproduction of films and the legal duping based on expired copyrights. Public domain films represent a legal form of bootlegging, but it still comes across as a bit of a sleazy way to make money – making second-, third- or even fourth-generation dupes of old films and selling them to unsuspecting movie lovers who have to sit through visually crummy knock-offs. I have also discovered that many films being sold as public domain titles are actually not in the public domain – and they are openly available through major retail chains. Where’s the Federal Trade Commission when you really need them?

Initially, The Bootleg Files was not actively promoted. On the old multi-tiered Film Threat layout, the column showed up on the very bottom of the page. Outside of a thread on the site’s Back Talk section, there was nothing else to call attention to its presence. However, I had the very good luck to see the column run every Friday – the key day when new films are opening.

Soon after the column began, however, I started getting recommendations from my fellow Film Threat writers and from readers about hard-to-find titles that could only be appreciated on bootleg video. Some generous people began sending me copies of their favorite bootleg titles. One person even sent me a bottle of whiskey!

In the five years that I’ve been writing this column, I have received invaluable film history lessons. The Bootleg Files spans the entire spectrum of cinema, from the 1894 Thomas Edison-produced “souvenir strip” of Eugen Sandow to the controversial 2004 offering “Submission.” The artists featured in these columns have included Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa, D.W. Griffith, John Huston, William Wellman, Satyajit Ray, Oscar Micheaux, Walt Disney, Vittorio De Sica, Samuel Fuller, Andy Warhol, Frederick Wiseman, Fritz Lang, Charles Burnett, Stanley Kubrick, Leni Riefenstahl, Francis Ford Coppola, Winsor McKay, Robert Altman, Howard Hawks, Richard Lester, Charlie Chaplin, F.W. Murnau, Chris Marker, Spencer Williams and Edward D. Wood Jr. Really, no one is safe from being bootlegged!

Looking back at five years of bootleg goodies, there are plenty of surprises that popped up along the way. One of my most satisfying achievements was locating the long-lost 1976 oddity “All This and World War II,” which offered the unlikely union of wartime newsreel footage and war-related narrative films to bizarre covers of Beatles tunes. Trust me, you haven’t lived until you see the bombing of Pearl Harbor married to Leo Sayer singing “I Am the Walrus.” It took me a couple of years to track that one down, but it was worth the search.

The most surprising bootleg discovery was “The Driver’s Seat,” an obscure 1974 Italian production with a wildly over-the-top Elizabeth Taylor as a deranged woman with a pronounced death wish. I was literally caught off guard by the ferocity of the film’s camp contents – this one makes “Valley of the Dolls” look like “The Passion of Joan of Arc”!

The column that sparked the highest level of feedback was, surprisingly, one of the more obscure titles: Vittorio De Sica’s 1970 “Sunflower” starring Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni. For a few years, I received a light stream of e-mails from people who were eager to know how they could get a copy of this long-unavailable gem.

My least favorite bootleg, hands down, is the 1978 four-hour atrocity “Renaldo and Clara,” directed by and starring Bob Dylan. I think it is very worst film ever made – it is impossible to imagine that something worst could ever be made. Dylan is also a factor in the most intriguing entry in the series: “The Madhouse on Castle Street,” a 1963 BBC television drama with a then-unknown Dylan as an unlikely member of the ensemble. No copy of this production exists – the only known tape was wiped clean by some idiot at the BBC – and all we have that survives are bootlegged audio recordings made by British viewers who were savvy enough to hook up their reel-to-reel machines to their televisions.

The Bootleg Files was responsible for saving Daniel Bourla’s 1968 experimental film “The Noah” from complete obscurity. After reading my column, Bourla contacted me. I wound up putting him in touch with Pathfinder Pictures, which helped track down the film’s long-lost negative. “The Noah” was released on DVD in 2006.

Actually, I am happy to say that a number of films and TV productions that first appeared in The Bootleg Files have since found their way into proper commercial distribution: “The High and the Mighty,” “Liza with a Z,” “The Paul Lynde Halloween Special,” “Mourning Becomes Electra,” “Chastity,” “Gold Raiders,” “Anna Lucasta,” “Killer of Sheep” and “The Optimists” can now be officially appreciated. Some titles, though, are always rumored for upcoming commercial release, such as “Song of the South” and “Let it Be,” but those rumors never amount to much. And some titles, for obvious reasons, can never be commercially released: “The Star Wars Holiday Special,” “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” and “A Charlie Brown Kwanzaa” won’t be found at your local Blockbuster or in your Netflix queue.

As for me, I have plenty of bootleg titles to keep me going for some time. Plus, I am still searching for elusive titles – anyone with a lead on the 1933 “Mussolini Speaks,” the Ray Bolger musical “Where’s Charley?”, the Oscar-winning documentary short “Chagall” and the “Othello”-inspired musical “Catch My Soul” should get in touch with me ASAP.

All told, it has been a fun adventure. Thanks for being there with me!

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  1. Phil Hall says:

    Does the Paley Center for Media may have a copy in its collection? I am unaware of a gray market copy, but it is possible that something might surface because of the attention surrounding Andy Griffith’s recent death.

  2. Alan Kohan says:

    For many years I have been searching in vain for a copy of a TV special made back in 1969 for network TV called “Looking Back”. It was an Andy Griffith special that ran only once on the network, and the guests were Don Knotts, Tennessee Ernie Ford, Janet Leigh, and Lee Ann Merriweather. Since Andy’s passing recently there might be a possibility that someone has a copy and would get in touch with me. I was one of the producer/writers of the special and have been unable to find any copies, legitimate or otherwise, of the show. I specifically want to get a copy of the finale which I wrote called “The Creation” which was based on a text by James Weldon Johnson called “God’s Trombones” in which Andy plays a country preacher backed by a choir and full orchestra. Anyone have a copy? Thanks in advance for letting me know.

  3. Greg Pasqua says:

    Phil Hall, contact Eddie Brandt’s in North Hollywood Ca, they used to have a VHS of “Where’s Charley?” Ray Bolger WB available to loan from an old TV broadcast (they do not rent it out because it has never been released but you can arrange to borrow the tape for a few days free of charge)

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