The Saga of Spring Night, Summer Night

The saga of Spring Night, Summer Night is worthy of a bio-pic all its own. It has all the trappings of a classic Hollywood melodrama: a character with great promise overcomes countless roadblocks along the way to success, and when finally given the big break, gets trapped in a Faustian bargain and winds up losing everything and watching all that promise fade away – and that’s just speaking of the film’s production and release, and not the film, itself. But the quiet desperation of the characters in Spring Night certainly fits the bill.

Reconstructing the film back to its original release version, as intended by its creative team of J.L. Anderson and Franklin Miller, has been the culmination of a 13-year effort by The Restorationists, myself and Ross Lipman of Cinema Preservation Alliance. (Warning: This spoiler-filled essay should absolutely not be read before viewing the film.)

In 2005, I was co-owner of a small art house/first run/repertory movie theater in Albuquerque, New Mexico, called the Guild Cinema (still operating today by my former business partner, Keif Henley). And we were one of the venues to host a (very) limited touring series which was called the Rural Route Film Festival, programmed by Michael Schmidt, made to showcase independent films around a vaguely “small town” or non-urban theme. Spring Night, Summer Night was the sole repertory title in the series, and I was drawn to its beguiling description as a kind of “Appalachian neo-realism” picture, a rarely-seen low budget black and white film shot in Ohio. Indeed, once I was able to see the film – even under less-than-ideal conditions: on a laptop, on an airplane, from a preview DVD – I was so moved that I turned to the stranger next to me on the plane, who spoke limited English, and through watery eyes, said, “wow, I just watched a really special film.” I think he mustered a polite, “that’s nice.”

Through Michael Schmidt, I tracked down Anderson and Miller, who I was very happy to know were both still alive and well. It turned out that Schmidt had been one of Miller’s film students, and he’d goaded Miller into letting him watch this feature film which Miller had said he’d made at one time, but had tucked away into the closet of sad memories: it was a breech birth, a great loss, a missed opportunity back then. It was too painful. But Schmidt persevered, and upon seeing it, realized just how special Spring Night, Summer Night actually was, and promptly programmed it into his Rural Route Film Festival, where it went on to be shown in a handful of cities around the U.S., to great acclaim to the few who were able to view it – albeit projected on video, from this same DVD I viewed, which was made from the only surviving print of the director’s cut.

Clearly, in 2005, this was a film in desperate need of proper preservation and a public revival. What I would go on to learn about Spring Night, Summer Night was that it wound up never being released as that film at all.

When Anderson and Miller completed their little-engine-that-could film in 1967, shot over two years with an all-volunteer student crew, they were paying a tribute of sorts to the neo-realist filmmakers they loved, while trying to kick off a sort of “Appalachian Independent Cinema” movement that never materialized. It premiered to some acclaim at the 1967 Venice Film Festival – appropriately enough – and was all set for a slot at the New York Film Festival in 1968. But then, along came a little film by John Cassavetes called Faces, and they were unceremoniously bumped. Fresh from the sting of their U.S. no-show, they began scouting around for distribution – not so easy in any case, especially when your prestigious festival appearance is cancelled – and were finding few takers, when Joseph Brenner and Associates came calling. Brenner, an exploitation maven whose catalog included titles such as Karate, The Hand of Death and Cry of a Prostitute, insisted on not only some cuts to “tighten it up”, but – more egregiously – the addition of nudity and entirely new sex scenes. To add the final, most punishing touch, he retitled it Miss Jessica is Pregnant (the fact that there is no character in the film named “Jessica” not withstanding) and dumped it onto the Southern drive-in circuit at the bottom of varying double-feature bills. And that was his release of what once was Joe Anderson and Franklin Miller’s Spring Night, Summer Night.

Gamely attempting to salvage a dire situation

Gamely attempting to salvage a dire situation, Anderson insisted on shooting the additional “spicy” scenes himself. They are not good. They look much like what they are: quickly conceived (pardon the usage) and awkward, often in shadow, with as much of an arty touch as could be forced upon them under the circumstances to smear lipstick on a wriggling, sweaty pig. None of the sequences really work, and of course add not one iota of depth to the trajectory of Miss Jessica is Pregnant (to say nothing of what they would have added to Spring Night, Summer Night, to which they would look dropped into from another galaxy). Furthermore, Brenner insisted on some truly lame-brained trims, such as excising the hard cut to black after the fateful sexual encounter between Jessie and Carl, which clearly demarcates spring from, well, summer.

But surely the most serious damage done to Spring Night, Summer Night shoots through the very crux of the film: the sexual relationship between Jessie and Carl, the (possible) half-siblings at the heart of the story. Exactly what discussions, if any, that transpired between Brennan and Anderson are lost to history, nor is it fully understood how closely Anderson actually supervised the final cut of Miss Jessica Is Pregnant, but the pivotal re-shot sex sequence manages to completely distort the narrative’s careful ambiguity: it awkwardly adds a flown-in reaction shot of a relaxed and happy-looking Jessie from later in the film (illustrated here) and butchers the only shot we see of her in the original cut, looking somewhere between distressed and very distant (also illustrated). All of this happens in a clumsy jumble amidst the rapid nude shots, and removes an absolutely essential (silent) sequence filmed through the windshield of Carl’s car, as he and Jessie clearly argue after he violently hauls her away from the bar, setting up the tryst that follows. It’s a stunning re-thinking of the sequence, seemingly tossing out the heart of the characterizations to make an easier transition to a graphic sex sequence. As of this writing, Franklin Miller has still never seen Miss Jessica Is Pregnant.

Working directly with Joe Anderson and Franklin Miller as advisors, the Restorationists have taken on the task of re-creating the director’s cut of Spring Night, Summer Night as seen by only a handful of audiences since 1968.† Ross Lipman and UCLA Film and Television Archive carried out the first stages of a preservation in 2015 when a duplicate negative was made from the sole surviving print, held by Anderson and Miller, of their version – but that print was quite worn from use and, of course, is a print, and not the original.

The fact that the original negative (which, unfortunately, had been physically recut into Miss Jessica is Pregnant) survives at all is no small miracle. It was rescued from the oncoming wrath of the 2008 “500-year floods” from the basement of the University of Iowa when a quick-witted student of Miller’s was frantically looking for things to save as the waters rose, noted Franklin’s name on the box, and called him to ask if he should grab it before fleeing. It is a further miracle that the negative was returned to Miller and Anderson after the Brenner and Associates debacle, a truly rare occurrence in the independent film universe.

But because the negative had been butchered by Brenner in 1968, it had long been thought that the only way to restore the film was to duplicate the removed sections from the old print, so the Restorationists were thrilled to open a poorly-marked canister and discover it was full of nearly every one of the tiny bits of 35mm film Brenner’s cutters had excised from the precious original at the time, each rolled into a small unlabeled hub. Ironically, the only sequence entirely missing from the negative trims turned out to be the excised original sex sequence, so that had to be replaced from the 35mm print, but everything else – even bits as long as a few seconds – were recovered from the original materials.

Restorationist Lipman laboriously prepped each of these trims so that they could be scanned, and in the process discovered several entirely unused sequences filmed during the forced re-shoots. A determination is still to be made as to whether we’ll release these oddities to the public as bonus material in the future, as they are not part of the Spring Night narrative flow.

And our historical research gave us an interesting little thread to pull on: in 1968, Joseph Brenner and Associates, like many low-rent distributors and film producers of the time, employed various under-employed budding filmmakers to carry out grunt work: cutting trailers, censoring films for television, forced re-shoots, adding sex scenes, etc. One of the young cutters working for Brenner at the time of Miss Jessica is Pregnant was Martin Scorsese. Legend has it that it is Scorsese who was tasked with hacking the film down as per Brenner’s orders, but upon viewing the work, told his boss, “I think you should leave it like it is.” A source close to the director recently verified with the Restorationists that this may well have taken place in 1968. But did Marty do the actual cutting? That little factoid is lost to time, and memory, forever.

Fast forward 50 years, and not only has Spring Night, Summer Night finally now been released to the world, but one particular wrong was righted: it was re-invited to the New York Film Festival in 2018, and the reconstruction had its world theatrical premiere to a full house, with Franklin Miller, Judy Miller and myself in attendance. The circle is complete.

† This new version of Spring Night, Summer Night does make two subtle changes to the 1967 original, which were authorized by Anderson and Miller, both of which are in the “kitchen dinner” sequence in the beginning of the film. A brief shot of Jessie in the bathtub has been inserted from Miss Jessica Is Pregnant: this shot is the point of some confusion 50 years after production, as it appears to have been accidentally omitted from the negative at the time of the original editing, (or it was lost, or never filmed and was added as a pickup shot during the forced re-shoots later). It was agreed that it was integral to the flow of the sequence, and was thus “added” to the 1967 Spring Night, Summer Night. The other change made is that the soundtrack for the kitchen dinner sequence is the mix from Miss Jessica is Pregnant, which reduces some of the thunder sound and makes the dialogue more audible. The original release versions of both Spring Night, Summer Night (albeit in duplicate print form) and Miss Jessica is Pregnant have both been preserved in full by UCLA Film and Television Archive.

Peter Conheim is a film curator and preservationist based in El Cerrito, California. He is also the co-founder of the performing group Wet Gate, which uses only “found footage” and 16mm film projectors to create a live cinema collage, sampling the sound from the film tracks in real time, as well as Mono Pause, a long-running “Situationist rock” group (and its Southeast Asian music spin-off, Neung Phak) and a member of “culture jamming” legends Negativland. His Cinema Preservation Alliance non-profit organization is dedicated to the long-term survival of endangered motion pictures of all stripes.