CineSavant Column

Tuesday November 29, 2022



We wanted to take a moment to talk about an MGM colleague who passed away just a few days ago. James Owsley held different jobs at more than one studio, but Gary Teetzel and I knew him 20+ years ago at MGM, when we were located in Santa Monica. Owsley was a Director in the MGM Technical Services department, charged with mastering or remastering MGM’s film library on film and video, to fill orders for the various markets — home video, TV and cable, repertory theaters etc.

For some films it was just a matter of pulling out the printing elements and writing up lab instructions, but the Directors that handled ‘problem’ movies were also involved in film restoration. Writing my first online column at ‘MGM Video Savant’ I had a good excuse to poke my nose into what the film department was doing. I would find ways to praise these Technical Service Directors whenever I could: John Kirk was always working on interesting projects, restoring Truffaut pictures to their full length, etc..

I got to know James Owsley a little bit better when MGM acquired the Orion Pictures company and its film holdings. We knew that Orion held the bulk of the American-International film library, and we soon found that James was actively working on many of our favorite horror and sci-fi pictures. To our surprise James took a personal interest in the films. He seized the opportunity to remaster cut versions to their original lengths, uncover alternate versions and restore censor cuts. The work required special patience. A.I.P. had produced many pictures in England, and full documentation of all the variant releases just didn’t exist.

At this time I was introduced to James and found him to be a motivated professional, practical but painstaking. Extra censored bits for a Hammer/A.I.P. horror picture had been seen in outtake reels and video documentaries. When a search of film vaults turned up nothing, we’d learn that James had taken the initiative to approach Hammer Films, and was reconstituting uncut sequences from 35mm separations. The late 1990s was a good time at MGM — for most titles the Technical Services Department had the budget approval to simply go ahead and ‘do the right thing.’ That’s not always the case.

Of this period, Gary Teetzel recalls: “I was working in another department at the time and had no official role in the film restorations. But when James discovered I was an enthusiastic horror and sci-fi fan he would tell me about titles he was working on and would listen when I would share what I knew about alternate cuts. He was always receptive, and in general was the warmest and friendliest colleague I had at MGM. When I later moved into film remastering, I tried to emulate James’ dedication to the job.”

I got to talk with James Owsley for a couple of hours later on, when I edited featurettes about the restoration of the James Bond films for HD. He sat for interviews with producer Michael Arick. All this was quite a while ago, so I asked Gary Teetzel for more information. Gary recalled some of James’s more notable accomplishments at MGM, in addition to working on the 007 franchise:

•  James Owsley worked with producer Philip Waddilove to restore the definitive Michael Reeves cut of Witchfinder General.

•  He fully restored The Vampire Lovers.

•  He found the unrated trims for Stuart Gordon’s From Beyond and worked with Gordon on creating the unrated version.

•  He discovered and restored Gordon Hessler’s director’s original alternate cut of Murders in the Rue Morgue.

(All three linked reviews call out James Owsley’s restoration work for special praise.)

When Keith Aiken and ‘Loomis’ (Kim Song-ho) wrote an article for the Scifi Japan website about the release of the Korean fantasy film Yongary as an ‘MGM Midnite Movies’ DVD, Gary helped them obtain an interview with James Owsley. His restoration allowed fans to see the show for the first time in anamorphic widescreen. This nice quote summarizes James’s approach to remastering:

“Personally, I always try to go at the end of the day, ‘Well, we tried as much as we can,’  because I really do feel that every film is important to somebody. There was a lot of time and effort put into making Yongary and it means something to — not just one person, but a group of people. No matter how obscure or unknown a film is, it’s worth going to the mat for because it’s not easy to make a film.”



The outside CineSavant link today is to the latest DVD Classics Corner On the Air podcast: Dick Dinman brings back Warner’s George Feltenstein to dish the details on two recent releases from The Warner Archive and Criterion: They can’t ‘Hyde’ from ‘Arsenic and Old Lace.’

Both discs have attracted comments and emails to CineSavant — our reviews are up and readable: Arsenic and Old Lace (Charlie Largent) and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Glenn Erickson).

Thanks for reading! — Glenn Erickson