My time with James Card

The following was my 2012 James Card Memorial Lecture given tonight at the George Eastman House's Dryden Theatre. It is an annual tribute to James Card and an introduction to that evening's film that I selected, Josephine Baker's Princess Tam Tam.
I would first like to thank all my friends at the George Eastman House for inviting me to give the James Card Memorial Lecture. I am truly honored since Jim Card meant so much to me in my early stages of my career. He still does to this day.
I did have this whole speech written out for some months on my praise for Jim as my mentor and promoter…

Then I read a little of his book Seductive Cinema this morning and realized that I had to change tonight’s talk. It’s been a while since I first read it and now memories came flooding back. It’s been only twelve years since his death but in some ways it seems like another time – when there were giants in the field who first stamped their feet on this earth to create the film archives where none had existed before them. People like Jim, Henri Langlois, and so many others.

I assume that many before me on this stage in past celebrations have talked about his brilliance, his generosity of spirit, his absolute passion and devotion to the moving image — and on and on. That all is certainly true – he had an incredible gift for living. He was a drama king in the best possible sense of the word. He taught me, through our few talks together, that storytelling is not only an art, but also an essential one in life. To be able to enthrall your audience and convince them is an important part of your work. And his ability to do this led to tonight’s film, but I’ll get to that later.

Now back to this morning. Reading the first few chapters of Seductive Cinema, I recalled our first meeting and why we were such kindred souls. Let me read to you just a few sentences from his book:

“The men who brought about the essential magic of speechless cinema are few. They include Eadweard Muybridge, James Williamson, Louis Lumiere, Georges Melies, Thomas Edison and George Eastman. Fellow historians who may actually chance upon these lines may be horrified by my omissions. I myself am horrified by the need to include Edison and Eastman.”

Remember, that he wrote this after having worked at the George Eastman House for almost forty years. Here’s another…

“David Wark Griffith believed he had invented the closeup. And film editing and the moving camera and even restrained acting. Griffith staked out his claim to the “invention” of all these basic elements of cinematic art by taking out an ad in the New York Dramatic Mirror of December 3, 1913. And such is the power of the printed word, and rarely have pre-1913, non-Griffith films figured in preserved study collections, that too many historians have believed Griffith’s preposterous claims.”

Whether he was right or wrong – though he usually right -- it doesn’t matter. What it reminded me of was this. As charming and wonderful as he was, Jim Card could also be a cantankerous son of a gun.… and this is what I loved best about him. We immediately found that we were both passionate about a striving towards perfection and had complete disdain for anyone who was willing to take the easy way in life. And this included several film archivists we immediately agreed about.

Another thing. Whenever anyone proclaimed something was the first or greatest, Jim would find it nonsense. He would always have a ready answer with another film that was earlier or finer. He felt that by proclaiming anything as finite and set in stone, you would be limiting your future discoveries. You wouldn’t be open for the next surprise in life. The next Louise Brooks, the next Josephine Baker. I took this philosophy to Milestone; we’re always looking for a way to screw up all those textbooks on cinema with our next find.

So while the British Film Institute was setting their Sights — and Sound — on the fifty greatest films of all-time and the Museum of Modern Art was busily creating “The Canon,” Jim Card and his compatriot-in-crime Henri Langlois were fighting every inch of the way. How can you search out and value the wonders of Paul Fejos’s LONESOME or Clarence Brown and Maurice Tourneur’s LAST OF THE MOHICANS when you are blinded by only the worth of Griffith and Eisenstein and their friends?

You might think my calling this a fight is a way to dramatize an intellectual conversation. Let me tell you this battle was very real  …. it was intense … and every inch was fought for in the halls of the archives tooth and nail. For Jim and Langlois were intent on saving everything – that all films must be preserved and not just those sanctified by the Archivist Gods who controlled the canon. And during those dark days, there were films, like Herbert Brenon’s Kiss for Cinderella, that were indeed allowed to disintegrate because they weren’t considered worthy of the cost of preserving them.

So when I met Jim, we found we were similar in nature. It was about absolute commitment, a constant search for what I now call “outsider” cinema, a desire to find the next amazing film, to be passionate and intense about your beliefs and yes, a hatred of certain people who were too stodgy and set in their ways to believe that there will always be new discoveries. All that came very easy for me.

So this was in the mid-1980s when I was very young and just starting out at Kino -- with absolutely no experience in the archival world, Jim helped me immensely in my first two restorations – guiding me through Erich von Stroheim’s QUEEN KELLY and being an essential collaborator on Raoul Walsh’s SADIE THOMPSON. He also taught be an incredible lesson — that to save a film, sometimes you have to break society’s laws. Yes, and I confessed this first at a Selznick Commencement speech only a couple years ago that even though he was retired, he did help me pay off a guard to enter into the George Eastman House film archive one Saturday morning to find the missing soundtrack to QUEEN KELLY.

His wonderful stories aside, here’s the best part about Jim’s mentorship. During the restoration of these two films, sometimes, when I was bafflingly stupid and going in the wrong direction, Jim would pause for dramatic intent and say sternly, “think about it Dennis.” And he allowed me – and to be honest, it took much longer for me than it did for him – to come up with the solution myself. That he was very proud of me when I got it right was something, but even better, only the most confident of teachers allows their students to think for themselves. That’s a much better education.

So to end this speech and to tell you why I chose this film tonight. After QUEEN KELLY and SADIE THOMPSON were out and my career was launched – I sent him a long-desired 16mm print of DIARY OF A LOST GIRL as a present from Kino.

A few months later, Jim was back in New York City and wanted to take us to lunch to thank us. After we dined, we were walking down Broadway. Jim was suggesting a lot of films we could do, but Don was not into any big silent film projects. (One of them, DRAGON PAINTER, Milestone got to release many years later.) To be fair to Don, SADIE THOMPSON had cost a lot of money to produce and it was still deep in the red. So that’s when Jim mentioned two films that he promised would make us a lot of money. They were Princess Tam Tam and Zou Zou. They were two films made in France in the 1930s that featured incredible performances by the great Josephine Baker and he enthralled me with stories about the films and the great Josephine. Honestly, I had no clue what the hell these films were and I probably had no idea who Josephine Baker was.

Well, Don would have no part of this idea. For six months I pleaded to acquire these films. Not because of anything I knew, but I always fell easily into Jim’s spell – and let’s face it, I still wanted to impress and please my mentor. Finally, Don agreed on one condition — that we could get them cheaply. And this is where I can talk of Jim’s generosity. He told me that PRINCESS TAM TAM was with the GEH and I had to negotiate with them on the film. But he told me his secret – to preserve ZOU ZOU for GEH, he had himself paid for a 35mm negative with his own money and it was at John Allen’s lab. But since John had given him such a good price, that it was really John’s negative. So I called John Allen and he insisted that Jim owned it. I called Jim back and he insisted that John did. But a few days later, just in order to see the film out there and for people to see Josephine Baker again, they both agreed to give Kino free access to the negative as long as we made prints at John’s lab.

And with ZOU ZOU in hand and with Jim’s blessing, GEH readily agreed to give us access to PRINCESS TAM TAM for no advance money and a percentage of future income. This gave Don the confidence to go ahead with the project. And here’s the thing. The country fell in love once again with Josephine Baker and these two films. Critics acclaimed them and audiences flocked to these fifty year old unknown films. Kino made a ton of money. John Allen made money making us prints. George Eastman House made a huge amount of money from royalties on Princess Tam Tam. And Jim? He was truly happy for all of us and never asked for credit, a dime, or even another 16mm print. So when I was asked a few months ago to choose a film tonight, I knew it wasn’t going to be one of my films. It had to be Jim’s.

Despite my youthful ignorance, Jim immediately welcomed me into the club of film archivists. Even if I didn’t believe in myself, he did. Back then, competition was rife among film archivists and petty disagreements could last a lifetime. Yet he never saw me as competition even as I worked on some of his favorite films. I can’t really tell you if he ever put his arm on my shoulders to encourage me, but to this day, I can still feel his encouragement and his warmth.

Please pardon any gramatical errors. This was a lecture meant to be in my voice and not an academic presentation.