Monday, September 13, 2010

An Encounter with F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre

In June, the 59 year old writer F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre took his own life. He set his book and paper-filled New York City apartment on fire and died in the resulting blaze. It was an ugly ending to what was certainly a sad, even tormented life. On Sunday, the New York Times ran a long article on the enigmatic, Scottish-born author.

Little is known about him, except that at one point, in order to escape his troubled past, he changed his name to "Fergus MacIntyre." According to Wikipedia, the allusive author acknowledged he took the middle-name of "Gwynplaine" from the protagonist of The Man Who Laughs, the memorable novel by Victor Hugo turned into an equally memorable 1928 film starring Conrad Veidt. In those works, Gwynplaine was the disfigured, always smiling malcontent who later inspired “The Joker” character in Batman.

MacIntyre was best known as a genre author whose sporadic output included science fiction, fantasy, horror, and mystery stories as well as a science fiction novel and a book of light verse and humorous pieces once praised by Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury. Reportedly, a number of unpublished manuscripts were burned in his apartment fire.

MacIntyre also authored newspaper articles and book reviews, and ghost authored and contributed to other works. According to Wikipedia, MacIntyre “contributed substantial script material” to a 2006 documentary on the silent film actress Theda Bara, The Woman with the Hungry Eyes. It was directed by Hugh Munro Neely, who also directed Louise Brooks: Looking for Lulu.

MacIntyre’s reputation in the film community (which is curiously not addressed in the New York Times article) rests on his having written reviews of lost films which he sometimes claimed to have only recently seen. These reviews appeared on IMDb and film message boards, where they live-on to this day.

Such claims, made convincing through MacIntyre’s skills as a writer, drove film historians to distraction. To many in the online film community, he was little more than a prankster playing with the facts while playing a joke on serious film enthusiasts. MacIntyre's claim to have seen various lost films included at least one featuring Louise Brooks, A Social Celebrity (1926).


In the spring of 2006, I emailed MacIntyre regarding his 2002 IMDb review of that lost Brooks film. Not then knowing his reputation, I wrote “I am preparing a book on the films of Louise Brooks, and noticed your thoughtful comments on A Social Celebrity on the IMDB website. I am wondering if you ever saw the film? (The last known copy of A Social Celebrity was lost in a disastrous nitrate fire at the Cinémathèque Française in the late 1950s.) If you have in fact seen the film, I would be very curious to know when and where.”

MacIntyre responded the next day.
Greetings to Thomas Gladysz (do you pronounce it Gladdish?) from Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre, whom you contacted regarding the film A Social Celebrity.

Although I've read your IMDb review of Looking for Lulu, and your email address is an obvious tribute to Brooks, I'm surprised to learn that you're writing a book about her. Surely every possible fact about Louise Brooks has long since been unearthed?

I wish you good luck with your book, and I encourage you to avoid the cliche which several other authors (including Brooks herself) have perpetrated when writing about her: please do not refer to Brooks as 'Lulu'. Lulu was one of the characters she played onscreen. Louise Brooks was a far more fascinating and complex person than Lulu was.

To answer your question: yes, I have seen a print of A Social Celebrity. It was a 'flash print', meaning that it possessed the original (Paramount) intertitles, but they ran for only a few frames each; the print was intended for distribution in a non-Anglophone market, and the local exhibitor was supposed to use the flash titles as a guide for translations, which would occupy more footage than the flash versions and be onscreen longer. I viewed this print more than ten years ago, and it was already slightly deteriorated due to nitrate instability.

This print is (or was) in the personal collection of a private film collector in Europe, who does not wish to be publicly identified. He owns several original nitrate prints of films that were released in the 1930s and earlier. I was given some limited access to some of the films in his collection, solely in order to examine their physical deterioration, and to advise him as to which reels of film in his collection were most urgently in need of restoration or duplication to acetate safety stock.

Normally, when a reel of film has deteriorated to the point where I'm unwilling to subject it to the vagaries of a motorised projector, I will inspect the footage through a hand-held Steenbeck viewer. Several reels of the Social Celebrity print had begun to decompose, so I Steenbecked them rather than running them through a projector.

I have offered to put this collector into contact with several professional film restorers in Europe and Britain, and it is my understanding that he will eventually have most of the nitrate films in his collection converted to acetate stock. I have very little ability to influence his actions in this matter.

This collector is a private individual who only very rarely grants access to his film collection. I was given very limited access to his collection, solely in order to inspect his films as physical artefacts in need of restoration. I do not have direct contact with this gentleman; I contact him only through his attorneys, who are strongly inclined to refuse all requests for access to his collection. He has made it clear that he will not grant public access to his collection. As this gentleman has been helpful to me in my own business endeavours, I must respect his privacy.

Thank you for reading my IMDb reviews. I'm not an employee of IMDb, and they don't pay me for my reviews. I'm a full-time journalist and author. If you log onto www.amazon.com and go to their Books section, then key a search for my by-line "F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre", you'll see the covers of two books that I wrote and illustrated. One of these is my Victorian erotic horror/romance novel: The Woman Between the Worlds, featuring Conan Doyle, Aleister Crowley, GB Shaw, WB Yeats, Arthur Machen, Sir William Crookes and several other eminent Victorians united to aid an invisible she-alien during an invasion of London by alien shape-changers. This novel got rave reviews from Harlan Ellison on his Stateside cable-tv show. I'm also the author and illustrator of a humour anthology which was praised by Ray Bradbury and other authors: MacIntyre's Improbable Bestiary, likewise available on Amazon, which contains some original material I wrote about Lon Chaney and silent films.

To whet your appetite, here's the cover (my artwork and typography) of my anthology: http://images.amazon.com/images/P/1587154722.01.LZZZZZZZ.jpg

I took some notes while I was Steenbecking A Social Celebrity. If you have any specific questions about the content of this film, I will gladly try to answer them for you, but I must decline any request to give you access to the print.

Straight on till mourning, Fergus (F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre)
Could it be true? I wondered. In my naiveté, I hoped it would be. I responded immediately and pressed MacIntyre for details, sent him specific questions, but didn’t hear back. I am sure I came off as too eager, and MacIntyre wasn’t willing to go extra innings.

A few days later, I wrote MacIntyre again. “I am not sure you received my email. I am glad to know that a copy of A Social Celebrity still exists in some form - even if that copy is unattainable - and may one day be given to a public archive. I shall await that day!” I never heard from him again. And as time passed, I began to feel this curious character with unsubstantiated claims had been pulling my leg.

The New York Times noted MacIntyre worked night jobs in order to spend his days at the New York Public Library researching things which interested him. Those subjects included early film, of which he was by all accounts knowledgeable. Undoubtedly, he relished their depictions of days gone by – and of a world, made safe through the passage of time, which no longer existed.

MacIntyre was something of a pastiche artist - witness his own description of his sole published novel. To me, his reviews of silent films he couldn’t have seen read like a kind-of critical pastiche of reviews found in the old film periodicals housed at the New York Public Library. That occurs to me now when I reread his IMDb review of A Social Celebrity. Its last line, “Louise Brooks is as seductive as usual, but she has very little to do here,” echoes the kind of observation made by a number of film critics in the 1920’s.

It’s hard to know why MacIntyre claimed to have seen A Social Celebrity and other lost films – and thereby muddied the historical record. He must have known it irritated others. Perhaps it was a game. Perhaps it was one way of getting attention. Perhaps it was his way of asserting control over a world in which he felt increasingly out-of-sorts. We’ll never know.

MacIntyre was an enigmatic, intellectual loner. He once wrote, “I collect the fragments of time that other people throw away, and I put these to good use.” Not everyone agreed.

5 comments:

  1. Wow, I had an eerily similar encounter with him as well. I contacted him after reading his review of the 1966 tv version of Blithe Spirit starring Dirk Bogarde. I desperately wanted to see it, so I sent him an email asking how he obtained a copy. He told me that he saw it at The Paley Center in New York (which was true, and luckily I did get to go see it after learning this from him!) but he also made quite a point of proving that although I was a fan of Dirk Bogarde, he certainly was not. He also told me that he had written one of his books in the same place that Noel Coward had written Blithe Spirit, and that he had met Noel Coward once. I responded to him and received one more reply before he stopped corresponding with me. His last email included an awfully bizarre story about a friend of his with a mom/Barbara Stanwyck obsession. It was really weird!

    I wonder how many people had contacted him on imdb only to receive one reply before he vanished into thin air..

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  2. a cautionary tale for all collectors of ephemera, as well: don't let the past overwhelm the present, or obliterate the future.

    although in this case the fire was intentionally set-
    photos, clippings and stacks of paper are an instant bonfire, waiting to happen.

    here is a related bit, that some may find of interest-
    re: a story james card told about louise brooks...

    from http://www.acsu.buffalo.edu/~bjackson/card.html

    When Louise and I were really hating each other I devised the perfect murder. It was really perfect." I asked him what he'd come up with. "She smoked in bed and she still drank a lot. I don't know how many times she nearly burned herself up with those cigarettes in bed. I thought I'd pour some volatile fluid around the bed, one that would burn totally. Then I'd put magician's flash paper all around her. You know, that stuff that bursts into flame at the slightest spark and leaves no residue? When she was drinking, she wouldn't notice things like that. She get into bed, she'd smoke, and–ha!–she'd go up in smoke."

    "That's horrible, Jim," Diane said. "To burn her to death?"

    "I didn't do it," he said. "I only had the idea."

    "But," Diane said.

    "Why didn't you do it?" I said.

    "We were fighting then, so I never had the opportunity. Then I wasn't that mad any more. When we got to be friends again I told her about it. She said it was a wonderful idea, that it was a perfect way to murder someone like her, and she could understand why I'd come up with it. Louise always liked good plots."

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  3. He was a very fascinating man, and I had the immense pleasure of corresponding with him right up until his final days. Here is a cut and paste of the first message he ever sent to me:

    Greetings to Tyler Philip from Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre, responding to your query about my IMDb review of the movie "Black Oxen". I find both your name and your email address quite intriguing. I assume that "thisgunforhire" is a reference to Graham Greene; if it were a reference to Bruce Springsteen you would have made it "this gunsforhire".

    You have cited the title incorrectly: the Gertrude Atherton novel and its subsequent film version are both titled "Black Oxen", not "THE Black Oxen". The title is a reference to time's passage ... explained by an epigraph at the beginning, a quote from Yeats: "The years like great black oxen tread the world."

    I have read Gertrude Atherton's science-fiction novel "Black Oxen" twice, and I own an excellent copy from 1923, the year of its original publication. "Black Oxen" remains the ONLY science-fiction novel ever to be the #1 best-selling book in its year of publication.

    There is also another science-fiction novel, completely unrelated but with the same title from the same source: "Black Oxen" by British author Elizabeth Knox, published in 2001 and set in the year 2022.

    I have viewed the film "Black Oxen" (starring Corinne Griffith) only once. A private collector who possesses a print of this film asked me to inspect it (and several other films in his collector) for nitrate decomposition, and to advise him on restoration. So as not to damage the print in a motorised projector, I viewed the movie through a hand-held Steenbeck viewer. The collector does not wish to be publicly identified, and I am no longer in direct contact with him; we communicate only through his attorney.

    I am quite certain that, about three years ago, I saw a reference to the film "Black Oxen" being released on home video or DVD. I didn't pay much attention because I'd already viewed the film and didn't want to see it again, so I didn't make a note of what company was issuing the film. But I'm quite certain that it is (or at least WAS, just a couple of years ago) available on video or DVD. Have you checked for those formats?

    Good luck with your viewing!

    -- Fergus (F. Gwynplaine) MacIntyre

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  4. It also is possible that Froggie, as he was known in the sf community, actually did see these films and knew what he was writing about. That his work continues to be disparaged gives a sad footnote to his often sad life. He had great talent - but he had trouble living in this world.

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  5. It is a cliche, I know, but I'm stunned. I had no idea I had been so busy these last several years that it is only now, on May 25th of 2013 E.V., that I have learned of Fergus' death. And after reading the New York Times story I feel even more saddened to hear about his death...and his life.

    I really did not know the man. I reviewed a work or two of his on my web site, www.gmkelly.com, and he discovered and read those reviews then e-mailed me to thank me for what he saw as a kindness. He seemed to be sincerely touched, and here I refer to his heart rather than his mind. We exchanged only a few e-mails but he always seemed so gentle, sweet even, and there was no hint of his "eccentricities".

    I honestly feel a deep sadness and wonder what could have made him the way he was until finally coming to such a tragic and bizarre end.

    It reminds me of the tragic life and death of C. F. Russell. Basically a very sweet, nice man, but utterly mad. My correspondence with him was quite extensive, although his letters were always brief, and he was a very kind man with a good, caring heart.

    It saddens me that individuals like this could end up leading such mad lives and come to such tragic, sad ends.

    Say what you will about F. Gwynplaine MacIntyre, mad perhaps, but there was something very good about the man that had been twisted by something or someone in life so that all of his potential was only slightly realised. I make no excuses for the man. I'm merely saying we should keep in mind that what we didn't know about him was probably much finer than any story he had created about himself through word or deed. Throughout his life he was probably reaching out to people ... and no one took his hand.

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