WALLY GARTEN

Pop culture historian and author of Exquisite Trash: A History of Neale Studios.

Official chronicler of, and point of contact for, the Robot Alien Prophet.

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The Robin Archer Recordings

by George Harding/Agnes Robert

In 1946, Julian and Ty Neale founded Neale Studios—an aspirational name, given that the brothers could barely afford one soundstage, let alone multiple “studios.” Young and ambitious, they dreamed of making the adventure serials they had loved as boys before the tragedy and horror of World War II had thrust adulthood on them and millions of young men like them. They arrived in Hollywood with two assets: a modest inheritance and an option on the “Robin Archer” potboilers written by reclusive but prolific author Alan Heywoode. Heywoode’s Archer novels found their ambiguous and largely silent hero (along with a young sidekick, Tono) in all manner of gloomy jungles, dangerous temples, lairs, manors, laboratories, Nazi fortresses, secret islands, and foggy mountain passes. The novels ended every chapter with a fight or a cliffhanger or both; they were ideal for serialization.

Unfortunately, the market for serials would soon dry up; by the early 1950s, television became the dominant purveyor of pulpy, cheaply-made heroic spectacle—and mostly Westerns, at that. The Neale brothers pivoted to making single-shot, low-cost adventure and horror films instead—including self-contained Robin Archer films. Forever undercapitalized and competing against better-funded (and, probably, flat-out better) outfits like Republic and Columbia, Neale Studios struggled for 25 years before folding in 1971.

From 1971 to 1978, Heywoode, the brothers, and Ty’s ex-wife Pamela engaged in a bitter and costly legal dispute over the intellectual property underlying the films. The rights and the original negatives were finally bought at auction by an investor who held a high position in the Shah of Iran’s government. In 1979, the investor disappeared during the Iranian revolution—along with the films. The entire body of work of Neale Studios—the Robin Archer serials (and later, B-grade features) as well as an assortment of forgettable Westerns and one very bizarre detective film allegedly ghost-written by Orson Welles—vanished in the tide of global politics, a sad Atlantis of small, poorly-acted dreams.

All this is well enough known to scholars studying the ‘B’ studios, and the films themselves are fondly remembered by movie buffs of a certain age. But, with the body of work no longer available, Neale Studios is largely a footnote even to discussions of adventure serials—at best meriting a paragraph devoted mostly to the studio’s unfortunate end, usually sandwiched between sections with names like “Republic: John Wayne’s First Home On The Range” and “Spielberg and Lucas Resurrect The Form.”

If the films themselves are relegated to the bin of history, one might think that the work of the artisans who made them is also gone. And until recently, that would have been true. However, in 2014, a set of original soundtrack recordings for several of the Robin Archer films was recovered in a garage sale in Eugene, Oregon. The trove also included some handwritten notes by the composer, George Harding, giving beat-by-beat descriptions of the action onscreen. Thus, with a small amount of sound restoration, we can now at least hear pieces of the Robin Archer films, and imagine what it would have been like to watch them.

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George Harding grew up in a deeply blue-blooded family in New England and was trained as a classical pianist and composer. Conservatory studies were put on hold for the war, however, and he returned from the European theater with a French war bride — Agnès Robert, a sometime Resistance operative, spy for the Allies, and electronic musician. Harding was also no longer fit for school or the concert hall. It seems probable that, like many men of his generation, Harding was suffering from undiagnosed trauma. He and Robert fled the dour Northeast for the warm promise of southern California, where they worked as session musicians until Harding was able to secure a series of composing assignments. Robert, on the other hand, was consistently rebuffed in her attempts to break into composing for film, but found work as a foley and effects artist. The couple met Julian Neale one night in a bar, and, finding his enthusiasm for cheap adventure movies healing, they agreed to head up the music and sound department at Neale Studios.

The theoretical division of labor was that Harding would compose the soundtrack music, and Robert was in charge of effects. But in practice Robert’s contribution was something more than gunshots and hoofbeats. As part of the Resistance, she had worked with Pierre Schaeffer at Studio d’assai and was part of the blossoming (if as yet unnamed) “musique concrète” movement. She had also, for six months, infiltrated a BASF manufacturing plant on a Resistance assignment, and when she returned home to Paris, it was with a stolen German Magnetophon tape recorder (and forty reels of tape) in the boot of her car—and the SS hot on her heels. For four months she and the Magnetophon moved from safe house to safe house, as the Resistance struggled to understand how best to exploit this new technology to increase the reach and flexibility of their propaganda efforts. At night, however, when the other operatives generally succumbed to wine and ideological sniping, Robert would sit with the machine and explore its non-propagandistic possibilities, recording snippets of guitar and piano, then chopping them up, playing them backward, or slowing them down or speeding them up. She would physically mangle tapes to see how they played afterward. Perhaps already haunted, Robert developed an affinity for what she called “the ghostly world of dead and tortured sounds.”

Unlike Harding, who preferred solitude when he was not composing or conducting, Robert kept active in the post-war avant-garde music scene—and Hollywood night life. (Legend has it that Neale Studios’ first magnetic tape machine came as a gift from Bing Crosby, after he and Robert spent an afternoon rapturously discussing the possibilities of the medium in Howard Hawks’s backyard.) She corresponded with Karlheinz Stockhausen and befriended Edgard Varèse and Tristram Cary. Relentlessly worming her way into electronic music studios, she experimented with the ghostly sounds of the ondes martenot and the theremin, observed firsthand the ring modulation experiments of the Barrons, and tested early modular synthesizer prototypes by Bob Moog and Don Buchla.

All this inevitably spilled over into Robert’s contributions at Studio Neale. Of course, Harding wrote the “scores” for the films, using the traditional orchestral tools. But those scores were, as the recently recovered recordings reveal, intricately intertwined with Robert’s concrète-inspired sonic experiments under the guise of “sound effects.” Together the pair imagined thrilling soundscapes that were neither wholly musical nor wholly abstract—Robert’s mangled and distorted monster voices murmuring under Harding’s chorus and drums in Robin Archer and the Beast From Below, for example, or the stuttering, staticky ghost tapes alongside the giddy, sneaking tuba in Robin Archer and the Haunted Relay Station.

All of which is not to elevate these compositions above their station; they were, after all, craft work done for pay. George Harding, in particular, made bitter, elegant jokes in his later years about the “trash” he had been called on to create in what he thought of as a profession of failure. Not that he wanted anything to do with the highbrow classical music world: on the one hand, the German composers he had admired as a student now seemed tainted by their connection to the Nazis; and on the other hand Harding was, by his own admission “too sentimental, too lyrical in my tastes” to follow the atonal experiments of the post-war composers. Perhaps he shared some kinship with the strand of composers who incorporated folk and jazz elements into their works—Copland, Ives, Gershwin. But Harding himself attributed a great deal of influence to the two giants of cartoon music, Carl Stalling and Scott Bradley—“quiet men,” he said, who “write for normal people” and “don’t feel the need to call attention to it every time they venture into the chromatic scales."

Robert's account, typically both more direct and harder to read: "Juli and Ty let us do whatever the fuck we wanted. Little did they know."

In any event, regardless of their intent, the discovery of this small trove of Harding and Robert’s work, long thought lost, contributes to our understanding of a certain period of scrappy innovation in independent film composing.

ROBIN ARCHER AND THE BEAST FROM BELOW

The earliest of the rediscovered soundtrack tapes corresponds to the first reel of the first Robin Archer feature, 1950’s Robin Archer and the Beast From Below. According to Frank Moritz, who has published the definitive history of the Neale Studios, the writers structured the film pretty much like a serial — one set piece after another, with only the slenderest connective tissue holding the plot together. Moritz, describing the opening passage from memory, says that Robin Archer is revealed suddenly in a flash of lightning atop a forbidding temple, which Archer then enters to, dodging temple guards to descend into the bowels of the earth and observe a demonic ceremony. This description matches Harding’s minute-to-minute, handwritten notes (transcribed below).

Moritz calls the scene “a brief, largely jaunty descent into hell.” However, the structure of this opening sequence, as revealed by the music itself and Harding’s notes, provides for a number of quiet moments. Indeed, Moritz commends the bookend scenes of Archer entering and leaving the temple on a rainy night. The ending, in particular, introduces Robin Archer’s longtime sidekick, Tono, who would have been familiar to audiences from the serials—helping to establish that this is the same universe and the same brand. Moritz also notes the extended ceremony sequence in the middle, which lingers on the lonely, ecstatic cries of moonlighting opera singers Nan Ellimore, Tanz Oberlin, and Herbert Olafsson for quite a while before unleashing Agnes Robert’s monster growls and then launching the final chase sequence.

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Harding’s notes:

0:00-0:11 — Our picture opens. Studio logo.

0:12-0:33 — A dark and stormy night. A grim, forbidding temple, hewn from rough stone. [Agnes — rain and thunder]

0:34-1:43 — A roguish adventurer slinks into the temple from an unused porch. Explores cautiously.

1:44-2:22 — Narrowly dodging out of the sight of burly, heavily-armed guards.

2:23-2:59 — Descending the stairs -- to where?? We don't know yet. Downward into the darkness. There is a shrill, unearthly voice, giving our hero pause before going forward again.

3:00-5:19 — In the depths of the terrible crypt. Unholy ceremonies to raise and appease... things... that we were not meant to see or know. [Agnes — monster effects]

5:19-6:35 — Our hero, caught in the act of filching some magical totem, is spotted by the high priestess. The jig is up! Flees — first the unholy things and the priests, then just the armed guards.
6:36-7:37 — Slips out the back way. Gives the signal. Nothing. Gives the signal again. Finally, the hero's sidekick appears — a plucky kid with a bicycle. They ride away into the night. [Agnes — rain, bicycle sounds]

ROBIN ARCHER WITH THE HAUNTED RELAY STATION

Unlike the tape from Beast From Below, this soundtrack excerpt starts in the middle of the film. From Frank Moritz’s plot summaries, this segment would appear to have fit in around the thirty-minute mark—what screenwriters call “the first act break,” when the hero has been convinced to take on a new mission or delve into a new world. Here, Robin Archer has been recruited by a radio network to fly to a mountaintop relay station that has gone mysteriously silent and investigate what has happened to the caretaker and his family. Archer flies in on a small prop plane, is dropped off on a cold, windy night, and finds the relay station deserted. Entering the broadcast booth/tape library, Archer discovers tapes, apparently of the caretaker’s child singing and playing a toy piano, before being taunted and teased by a ghostly child who has a fine time wreaking havoc on the tape machines. Archer’s attempts to catch the little imp are fruitless; the child vanishes, and only giggles remain, echoing in the lonely chamber.

In the morning, Archer rises to more pastoral sounds. The relay station, though it is on a mountaintop, is not quite so isolated as it had seemed the night before. There is a village below, and Archer observes a young local woman making her way up the mountain toward the station. It is hinted on the soundtrack that the ghostly child is watching Archer as Archer watches the young woman. The woman and her friends pause in their hike to rest and sing a folk song.

This 1954 film is the first Robin Archer that does not involve Tono, the hero’s loyal sidekick. It also seems to have been somewhat inspired by Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus—Moritz reports that the themes of forbidden romance and the allure of the exotic play a strong role in the film, and the connection with the remote mountaintop location is obvious.

Musically, Harding is in fuller command of his tools here — his brass, strings, and winds play together better than they did in Beast From Below, and he is more content to let long adagio passages unfold, rather than bouncing from one idea to the next pell-mell. He also introduces some atypical instrumentation, including a marimba and an acoustic bass guitar.

Robert’s effects work also comes more to the fore here. Whereas in the tape we have from Beast From Below her contribution is limited to atmospheric effects like rain and thunder, plus a few monster growls, here her concrète tape work is given a more prominent role, as Archer and the ghostly child fight for control of the tape decks in the relay station. Some sources also suggest that it is Robert’s whistling that accompanies the folk song section.

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Harding’s notes:

0:00-2:00 — Plane in flight. Plane touches down just long enough for our hero to get on the ground.

2:00-2:41 — Our hero enters the station, which is deserted.

2:41-3:45 — Finding the tape library. The first tape is the eerie toy piano.

3:45-5:10 — Chase through the tape library. Our hero tries to catch whoever’s switching the different tape consoles on and off. Disturbing and unresolved.

5:10-5:45 — Our hero wakes up to a brighter, fresher world. Animals in the distance.

5:45-6:47 — Beautiful young local approaches on horseback. Our hero watches intently. Someone may also be watching our hero.

6:47-8:15 — The local woman, playing guitar on horseback, whistles & sings a simple song in an unrecognizable foreign tongue. Birds sing, too.

ROBIN ARCHER AND THE HOWL OF THE ROBOT WOLVES

In the early 1960s, the studio was suffering financially. Both the encroachments of television and the incursion of a leaner, hipper style of independent, small-studio filmmaking (think AIP) had started to siphon off market share from outfits like Neale Studios.

According to legend, Julian Neale and George Harding repeatedly fought over the music and effects budget. At one point Julian threw down out a number, absurdly low in Harding’s opinion, and Harding shouted, “Fine! What section of the orchestra would you like me to do without?” Neale swiftly retorted: “How about those shrieking strings? What are you, fucking Bernie Herrmann?” In a fit of pique (again, according to legend), Harding wrote a score for the next Neale Studios production that was indeed devoid of strings.

This may be the stuff of Hollywood mythmaking. In fact, at the time Harding—like many composers for film—was becoming interested in using jazz elements in his scores, especially jazz percussion. The score for Robin Archer and the Howl of the Robot Wolves is Harding’s farthest foray into this area of interest—the score is dominated by a set of chipper melodies for xylophone, clarinet, and bassoon, along with a few exercises for horns.

These weave in and out of a set of eerie sounds created by Robert. It is unclear how she created the “howl” that opens the section caught on tape here. Frank Moritz interviewed an audio engineer who claimed the sound was constructed from pure feedback, though George Harding is supposed to have said that it was a half-speed recording of a squeaky door on the lot at Neale Studios. Perhaps this was a joke. In any event, Robert also created an assortment of robot “servo” effects for the lab sequence. But she also contributed more overtly musical elements — ring modulated electronic sounds for the “disruptor” that incapacitates Archer, which are reminiscent of the Barrons’ famous Forbidden Planet score, playing over a tape-mangled atonal trumpet part. It seems clear Robert’s contribution to the composition of this section was significant, since the taped sections would have had to have been the base layer against which the bassoon line (presumably, though not certainly, written by Harding?) played.

This scene itself is the earliest of the recordings to introduce what was a more dominant theme in the Heywoode novels — Archer’s frequent drunkenness and concomitant social isolation. Angela Carew has described Archer memorably as “James Bond unmoored from M, Q, or Her Majesty’s government.” The comparison is not one-to-one — far from Bond’s prowling bachelor, Archer is asexual and perhaps even somewhat gender-fluid. But all that seems to be merely symptomatic of the character’s fundamental alienness and alienation. Archer is alone in the world — except perhaps for Tono. But as this scene shows, Archer frequency abandons Tono.

The story is simple. Archer and Tono are staying in a castle with a baron. (This thinly explained beginning is typical of the writing of the series, which tended to keep these stories rooted firmly in the realm of cheap paperbacks/B movies.) The countryside is plagued by wolf attacks, and the locals are murmuring about werewolves. Tono, however, finds a secret laboratory in the castle. He drags a half-in-the-bag Archer to the lab, but they are both assaulted by a “disruptor device” booby trap. (More halfhearted screenwriting.) Archer passes out, but Tono finds the elevator to the secret secret lab, where he observes their host tinkering with a robot wolf. The wolf, hearing the cries of others on the moors, snaps its restraints, attacks its creator, and pursues Tono through the castle.

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Harding’s notes:

0:00-0:47 — Robot wolf howls over the moor. [Agnes]

0:47-1:12 — Our hero, drunk, slouches through castle.

1:13-3:04 — Is found by Tono, who tries to direct our hero toward the laboratory. Some comical light-stepping as they sneak about.

3:05-5:53 — Disruptor device in lab incapacitates our hero; Tono must go on alone. [Agnes — weird whistles and trumpet tapes]

5:54-7:00 — Tono descends into the lab; sees Friedrich working on one of the robot wolves. [Agnes — robot sounds]

7:01-7:15 — Robot wolves howl on the moor; robot in the lab hears them. [Agnes — howls]

7:15-8:37 — Friedrich continues work. [Agnes — robot and mechanical sounds.]

8:38-9:00 — Robot in the lab breaks its chains; releases it’s free. [Agnes — howls; chain sounds.]

9:00- 10:39 — Tono flees the lab, pursued by 500 lbs. of newly-freed robot wolf.

ROBIN ARCHER AND THE SWORD OF TIME

In 1965 Ty Neale was in Hong Kong trying to drum up funding from a British investor. Legend has it he ducked into a movie theater to avoid a blast of monsoon rain, only to find himself face to face with the wuxia film The Six-Fingered Lord of the Lute. Dazzled by the stylized, dancelike fight sequences and imaginative fantasy conceits, the story is that he ran through the rain all the way to the producers’ office to pitch an American co-production marrying the Robin Archer property to a wuxia-style sword-ballet.

The influx of additional foreign funding (Ty eventually found his British patron), as well as a stunt infrastructure utterly new to the Neales (and Western filmmakers in general), resulted in what is by all accounts the most lavish and beautiful of the Robin Archer films. Archer is hired as a bodyguard and escort for two Chinese fencers, a man and a woman, traveling to an international exhibition. On a rest break during their travels, the two fencers practice-duel in a forest glade. The woman’s practice sword is knocked from her hand and falls into a small cavern. When she enters the cavern to retrieve the practice sword, she discovers a beautiful blade, the Sword of Time, that gives its bearer the ability to slow down, reverse, and otherwise manipulate time during a fight. Adventures ensue, naturally.

This tape covers the discovery of the sword in the cave, but it starts somewhere else altogether — a nightclub scene in Shanghai, for which George Harding composed a short piece of ersatz Chinese music, employing a guzheng, wood block percussion, and a pentatonic scale for an “Asian” feel. The piece raises uncomfortable issues of appropriation for modern listeners, though scholars who have viewed the scene seem to think it was generally played straight, and indeed Angela Carew speculates, in her essay “Kung-Fu Hustle: The Neale Brothers in Hong Kong,” that Harding and the producers may have been attempting to pay respect to their hosts and co-producers. The attempt nonetheless comes off a bit hamfisted today.

The rest of the score, however, appears to have been more standard orchestral fare (note that, with the larger budget, Harding is working with a full complement of players once again). The tape is notable primarily for Agnès Robert’s reversed tape work (which went hand in hand with editor Charles Bowden’s trickery with the visuals) and her use of primitive, “wah-wah”-style filter effects to give the choral parts an otherworldly sound.

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Harding’s notes:

0:00-0:45 — Nightclub scene; our hero watching the entertainment and drinking.

0:45-1:13 — Transition titles.

1:13-1:42 — Swordfighters practice. [Agnes — swords, bg forest]

1:42-2:34 — Descent into the cave. [Agnes — footsteps, bg cave]

2:35-3:19 — The sword. [Agnes — distorted sopranos]

3:20-5:03 — Return to surface; more swordfighting; time unravels. [Agnes — distorted sopranos, swords, time-reversed fighting, bg forest]

5:04-6:38 — Mei’s heroic theme; discovery of her powers.

ROBIN ARCHER AND THE VAMPIRE’S KISS

The Sword of Time was a commercial flop, even by the Neales’ modest market standards. The production was reportedly beautiful, but American and British audiences were not ready for a highly-stylized, nearly operatic film about a swordswoman who can manipulate time, against a general backdrop of leaping, flipping martial artists. It was probably half a decade too early.

The studio teetered on the edge of bankruptcy for several more years, surviving by churning out a series of micro-budget biker exploitation films. When a young director, Russell Pemberly, convinced them to return to the Robin Archer well one last time, the studio was all but exhausted, and the final film in the series, Robin Archer and the Vampire’s Kiss, is a sad, dispiriting film in every sense.

Pemberly was influenced by the French New Wave, especially Godard, which in turn meant he idolized Hitchcock—even to the point of importing, undigested, Hitchcock’s Freudian worldview, though with little of Hitchcock’s visual flair. Even in his B-movie viewing, Pemberly gravitated toward Roger Corman’s ponderous horror films, not the adventure serials the Neales had always aimed to recreate. Apart from the harrowing tunnels sequence early in the film, most of Vampire’s Kiss is a bizarre, My Dinner with Andre-style philosophical dialogue between Archer, a jaded and pessimistic superego, and “the Servant,” a human procurer who finds victims for his vampire “masters” (an unrelenting id). Even those who are otherwise firm fans of the Neale Studios oeuvre have found Vampire’s Kiss to be “tiring” and “not much fun.” (Agassi, 1991.)

The composers, on the other hand, appear to have been having a ball. With the studio in serious decline, George Harding and Agnès Robert were able to afford just one session musician for the score. They chose Herbert Gove, a longtime friend, to contribute sad cello lines (and, during a fight sequence, harsh scrapes and squeaks. But once Gove’s part was taped, Harding and Robert absconded overseas with the workprint of the film to the Bristol house of a friend who had a large collection of strange electronic instruments. (Some sources say it was Mike Pinder of The Moody Blues, though I have not been able to confirm this in any reliable way.) There Harding and Robert pieced together an entire score mostly using a brand-new Mellotron — gone even is the trumpet used to play Robin Archer's leitmotif, replaced with warbly Mellotron brass. Older proto-synthesizers like the Hammond F100 and the Novachord make appearances, and for the grim labyrinth scene, Harding and Robert employed an early modular system of unknown provenance to make shrieking, tuneless sounds in unpredictable rhythms.

To voice the bloodthirsty “masters,” Robert recruited a trio of high school girls who hoped to break into R&B, passing their creepy chants through a variety of filters. The girls never made it as an R&B group, but two of them did form a punk band, Heap, that gained a small amount of local fame in Bristol. In an interview with a town paper’s arts editor (who comes across as baffled but game), the girls remembered their brief time with Harding and Robert. They describe, somewhat gushingly, a happy musical partnership (notably, Harding’s notes for this film do not contain requests for Robert to fill in sound effects, suggesting that they were writing and playing together, not dividing labor):

“It was the sweetest — couple old geezers having the time of their lives playing together. And they didn’t give a fuck — kept just trying to be weirder and weirder. Like, they had us record ‘we need blood’ a bunch of different ways — that was actually in the script. But then later when we were hanging around the studio, Agnes would be like, ‘Kate, come over here and try to scream like a baby.’ And you’d do that for half an hour while she fiddled with knobs. And sometimes she’d use it, and sometimes she wouldn’t. And George would be in the corner going, ‘Does it sound like doom yet?’ They’d just mess around for hours. And that was how the whole thing got built.”

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Harding’s notes:

0:00-0:24 —Splash credits.

0:25-1:15 — “We need blood”: the Servant is assaulted by the masters’ demands.

1:15- — Street scene. The Servant wanders forlornly through the night crowds, trying to resist the urge to find a victim for his masters.

2:32-2:44 — Our hero, drunk and wandering the streets, too. Notices something off.

2:45-4:12 — The Servant follows a reveler home, attacks him, beats him, strangles him half-to-death.

4:13-4:37 — Our hero, still drunk but sobering up fast, follows the Servant as he drags the poor victim into the tunnels of horror.

4:37- — Dark, winding, underground tunnels. Our hero follows the Servant further and further into the disorienting labyrinth. Becomes hopelessly lost. The monsters approach.

END NOTES

Vampire’s Kiss was the last film released by Neale Studios, which collapsed amid disastrous legal wrangling. George Harding passed away in the night from heart failure two years later. Robert, only in her early fifties, moved into video editing, working at a public television station for a time and eventually producing a trio of well-regarded science fiction films for television that cleverly used a combination of compositing and video feedback to create swirling non-humanoid aliens. In 1989 she died in a car accident in West Germany. Her will, not formally executed for several months, left her “entire tape library” to the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, but no such library was ever found. It appears that whatever tapes she had may have been assumed to be worthless and sent to a flea market by overly-efficient relatives cleaning out the house. Periodically, collectors claim to have surfaced Robert’s tapes in ones or twos, but few such tapes can be traced as definitively as these, which each bear the Neale Studios logo and are accompanied by Harding's production notes on studio letterhead. I hope you enjoy them as much as I have.