Monday, 26 January 2009

The long and short of it...

Given the amount of time and money I have devoted to researching Things to Come over the years, people have often asked me exactly why I find the film so fascinating. There are, of course, many reasons, but perhaps the most tangible is the very fact that what exists now represent only a part of what was originally intended - approximately three-quarters of it, in fact.

For decades, the only version of the film available from the rights holder in the United Kingdom was one that ran to 92m 42s, or exactly 89m on video or shown on television, due to the inherent speed-up when transfering 24 frames-per-second (fps) film to the European 25fps PAL video system. This was the version - which I retrospectively dubbed the "Standard Print" - first released on VHS and Betamax by Spectrum-Polygram in 1981, and - after a long absence from broadcasting - shown on BBC2 in early-1986. The latter was my first viewing of the film, but even then I knew that something was amiss, mainly because it fell well-short of the 113m quoted by most film guides, while Peter Nicholls's Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1979) even mentioned a 130m "rough-cut"! On top of that, I was aware of photographs of scenes that seemed to be absent, most obviously Boss Rudolf's "Victory Banquet" in the Town Hall after his forces take over the Floss Valley Mines.

Not long after the BBC2 broadcast I acquired a copy of Wells's published "Film Story," essentially the shooting script at the start/middle of production in early/mid-1935. I planned to do an article on the differences between it and the surviving footage for the media fanzine I co-edited at the time, but unfortunately I left both the book and all my notes on a bus (D'oh!). Over the years I retained an interest in the film, but this was mostly restricted to checking the shelves in secondhand bookshops for a replacement copy of the Film Story, or new bookshops in the hope that someone would publish a new edition.

What did turn up was Peter Frayling's exhaustive 1995 study of the film's production for the British Film Institute (BFI), which included tantalising details of Leon Stover's The Prophetic Soul - A Reading of H.G.Wells's Things to COme (1987), an academic book that reprinted not only Wells's first version of what became the film's narrative, but also what was described as the "release script." Frayling highlighted that this contained a number of additional segments of film that did not appear in the Standard Print, ranging from whole scenes down to fragments from others that at least partially existed. He also noted:
"The print shown at the trade show was, according to Rachael Low, 9,781 feet or 108.67 minutes; the Monthly Film Bulletin noted its running time as 108 minutes. The release print was 98 minutes, so between trade and premiere there had been cuts of ten minutes. Mysteriously, most of today's film guides (including Halliwell) list the original time as 113 minutes; some go as high as 130 minutes. But there is no evidence that a version longer than 108 minutes was ever publicly screened. Video versions tend to run about 95 minutes - which, allowing for different speeds, translates as the original 98 minutes in the cinema."
Frayling makes two misassumptions here. Firstly, Rachael Low's Film Making in 1930's Britain (1985) actually states the footage as "9,781, later 8,830" in her list of productions from that era. The first is implied as being the trade show only by default, and equates to 108m 41, while the second would run to 98m 07s, but is not explicitly identified as the version shown at the premiere. Secondly - and perhaps more importantly - as stated above, PAL videos of the film don't run remotely close to 95 minutes, but rather 89m exactly, so clearly not the 98m 07s print (a possible explanation for this is that the 1986 Central Video release of the film does indeed have it ending at the 95 minute mark, but only because it is preceded by a generic "Korda Classics" trailer). The waters were muddied even further by the other standard reference work, Dennis Gifford's The British Film Catalogue 1895-1985 (1986), which has the first release as 100m, noting a 1943 reissue by Exclusive Films as being "2,931 feet cut".

In 2000 the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) made its database of film classifications available online, revealing that Things to Come was submitted at a staggering 117m 13s, and passed with no cuts the day before the London premiere on 21 February 1936, while the Exclusive Films version was submitted at just 72m 13s and passed only after further unspecified cuts. The 2,931 feet noted by Gifford equates to a whopping 32m 34s, but was it cut from his vague 100m original, Low's 108m 41s, or Exclusive's 72m 13s (and therefore the BBFC's unspecified cuts)? The latter seemed unlikely, given that knocking it off the submitted 72m 13s would result in a film of just 39m 39s, but then adding it only took the length up to 104m 48s. Clearly everything suggested versions a lot longer than the 92m 42s Standard Print, but being more precise seemed impossible because nothing really added up.

It wasn't until 2001 that I made a real breakthrough with the aquisition of a copy of Stover's book. It turned out that the "release script" was a continuity/editing guide, with all shots not only numbered, but also "timed" in feet and frames of film. With 16 frames per foot of 35mm film, and 24fps projection, it was possible to work out the running time of the version of the film it documents with a high degree of accuracy. Comparing the script to the 92m 42s version revealed that there were a total of fourteen additional segments of film, which add would around twelve minutes, suggesting a total running time of almost 105m. It clearly wasn't the "release script," as this theoretical total fell mid-way between the two lengths quoted by Low, so I more generically renamed it the "London Films Script" (LF script).

The following year (2002), my flatmate Claire (now Mrs Cooper!) introduced me to the temptations of eBay. I'd seen references online to "public domain" prints of the film floating around in the United States with at least some of the extra footage from the LF Script, so I thought I'd see if it applied to any of the apparently many North American VHS releases, and - incredibly - the very first one came up trumps, although it was a pretty grotty copy. Although it contained four of fourteen missing segments, one was damaged in the middle, whilst elsewhere the film had been edited for both language and timing - every instance of the word "God" and the single utterance of "damn" had been crudely removed, and some of the longer montage sequences had also been trimmed down.

Using a combination of the actual duration of the extra footage and the London Films script for the damaged segment, I determined that but for the latter, they would add 3m 42s to the Standard Print, i.e. 96m 24s in all. This seemed to make sense, as most American sources - including the original review in Variety - had the release there as "96m". Although I quickly upgraded the initial VHS of this version with the additional footage, every copy in circulation came from the same damaged source, a 16mm domestic print distributed by the Chicago-based Walter O Gutlohn company. I subsequently did some further checking of the remaining ten lost segments documented in the LF Script, and came up with what I thought was a reasonably precise duration for that version as 104m 41s.

Following the acquisition of a better copy of what - for the obvious reasons - I came to describe as the "Gutlohn Print," in September 2003 I sent a copy of it to Christopher Frayling, and mentioned the BBFC's recorded length, information which would not have been easily available information at the time of his BFI book. His response was to the effect that it was good to see "new" footage, but that he was doubtful that a version as long as 117m could ever have existed.

In May 2005 I attended a screening of the film at the National Film Theatre (NFT), preceded by an introduction by Frayling. A previous NFT screening had used the Standard Print, but this time around it was the Gutlohn version, but a copy that was not only much better quality than I had ever seen it before, but also the additional segment that was damaged on all the US video releases was complete. This dispelled a nagging doubt I had had that this damage was around an edit point, whereas in fact all of the missing scripted footage was there.

I eventually revisited the issue of the length of the UK premiere and initial release, and realised that advertised screening times might at least give a maximum "time-slot" for the film at any given venue. One item acquired via eBay was a small promotional booklet for a cinema in Chatham, Kent, which advertised a rolling programme for the week starting 27/09/36 of:
13:38 - Bar 20 Rides Again
14:46 - Things to Come
16:40 - Bar 20 Rides Again
17:48 - Things to Come
19:42 - Bar 20 Rides Again
20:50 - Things to Come
This demonstrated that Bar 20 Rides Again was consitently shown in a 68 minute slot, while for Things to Come it was 114. According to the BBFC, Bar 20 Rides Again had a duration of 62m 53s, suggesting a 5m 07s gap between the end of it and the start of Things to Come. Assuming the latter was 108m 41s would make the gap between the end of it and the start of the other film a strikingly similar 5m 19s. Since analysis of two different films screened at the same cinema the week before showed a similar pattern (albeit with the gaps being uniformally just over 10m each), this was good circumstantial evidence that the 108m 41m print was in circulation for at least seven months after the UK premiere, while a later similar booklet for another cinema suggests that it had been replaced with the 98m 07s print before the end of 1936.

The question remained as to what exactly the LF Script was. The copy in Stover's book was undated and contained no additional details as to its purpose. Luckily, a photocopy of the original document came up for sale in July 2004, but that too lacked any real clues, showing that Stover's reprint was almost verbatim, although with Americanized spellings, and one of two transcription errors in some of shot timings. Bearing in mind that the script contained everything that was in both the US and Standard Prints, and that - with the exception of two brief cutaways - there was nothing in either that was not in the script, it seemed most likely that it constituted an early "draft" of what was destined for America, edited down from the 108m 41s UK version. Whether US distributors United Artists actually got both script and print to this length, but trimmed it further, or whether there were more cuts made by London Films beforehand, it is impossible to say. What did seem clear was that the version American audiences eventually got to see in April 1936 was subsequently trimmed again to produce the 92m 42s Standard Print. My own money was on this having happened in 1947, when the film was reissued by Film Classics Inc. in the States, or the following year when re-released by British Lion in the UK.

Eventually my interest in the film came to the attention of Network DVD, who were planning the first UK retail DVD of the film, and I was asked to advise on the release and to write the accompanying "viewing notes" booklet, documenting the background to the film, its production, and other related issues, including its current much-truncated form. Although they had been supplied a copy of the Standard Print from the current rights holders, I pointed them in the direction of the longer US Print held by the BFI, although it took some time to secure a copy. When it came to detailing the various running times in the booklet, I used the ones that - at the time - previous research suggested were correct, i.e.:
LF Script - 104m 41s
US Print - 96m 24s
Standard Print - 92m 42s
However, when the copy of the BFI's print was eventually obtained, I was surprised to discover that it clocked in at 96m 30s, six seconds longer than expected. By implication, this meant that I had also underestimated the length of the LF Script by at least the same amount, but by that stage it was too late to amend the text of the booklet. Six seconds, of course, does not seem like very much - enough time to read this sentance out loud, in fact. Yes, it could have been a reinstated line of dialogue, but a by now exhaustive (over?) familiarity with the film suggested otherwise.

The DVD release came and went, but I while I never expected it to be the "final word" on the film for me, even I didn't think that any major new information would come to light as quickly as it did. This was in the form of trade promotional material for both the 1943 Exclusive Films and 1948 British Lion re-releases, which stated the exact footage-length of each version. In this case of Exclusive Films this was 6,850 feet or 76m 07s, which was 3m 54s longer that the version the BBFC reckoned was submitted to them before they cut it further, but in retrospect it seems logical that the reverse was actually the case, i.e. that it was submitted as 76m 07s and passed after cuts at 73m 13s. One simple calculation, at least, now made sense:
Low - Gifford cuts = Exclusive publicity
9,781ft - 2,931ft = 6,850ft
108m 41s - 32m 34s = 76m 07s
With that little mystery out of the way, what of the British Lion print? I had always thought that this was the 92m 42s Standard Print, but the publicity material stated 8,398 feet - 93m 19s, a difference of 37s.

I returned to the LF Script and compared it to a working copy of the BFI print, which had been transferred at 25 fps, but time-coded at 24 fps. Paying particular attention to the shots either side of the ten still-missing scripted segments, it became clear that in most cases there was material lost either side of these edits - sometimes single frames, but in places more, and they all added up. It showed that my original estimate of the LF Script length was under by around 21 seconds, so a more accurate duration for it - based on the simple "adding" back in of the still-missing ten segments - was 105m 02s, making it "only" some 3m 39s shorter than the initial UK circulation of 108m 41s.

I then looked again at the Standard Print and found that compared to the US Print, overall it had "lost" not 3m 42s, but 3m 48s. Most of this was the four edited segments themselves, but collectively they were slightly shorter than I'd originally thought, whilst there were other losses elsewhere. Originally presented on eleven 10-minute projection reels, the ten change points on the Standard Print all showed a similar loss of frames documented in the LF Script. Such change points are often subject to damage, losing frames, or else when combined on larger projection reels. The "lead out" at the end of each reel usually prolongs a shot longer than necessary, just in case the exact change to the next reel is missed, and these are often shortened when combining reels. It seemed likely that much of this occurred in the twelve years between the first release of the US Print - which in the form of the BFI's print lacked these omissions - and British Lion's reissue, so it was probable that it was already incorporated into the latter's length of 93m 19s. Since the Standard was effectively a subset of the US Print, could the British Lion print be an intermediate version between them, 37s longer than the Standard?

Of the four additional sequences that differentiate the US and Standard prints, two are over a minute long, one is 31s, and the remaining one runs to.... exactly 37s. This is the sequence in which Passworthy rants at Harding about the Christmas Eve attack meriting a war of vengeance on their enemy. Ironically some commentaries have suggested that this segment was removed early on, because audiences wouldn't take to a portrayal of such an obvious British warmonger, and yet everything now suggests that it survived until after the Second World War, and was actually the last single "loss" to occur.

I still wasn't satisfied with my analysis of the LF Script, as checking the specific missing segments has highlighted the occasional anomaly "either side" of some of them, while spot-checking what seemed to be suspiciously abrupt edit-points elsewhere in the extant footage suggested more. What I really neeed to do was to go through the Script shot-by-shot, all 1000+ of them. In the event, the results surprised even me, but that's for another post....



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