Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Confessions of a Film Collector

This week for the first time in over 80 years American movie-goers are realizing that silence can indeed be golden and that classic films, whether silent or sound, can be priceless!

Today Bijou colleague and Festival Films founder Ron Hall  recollects how silent films first captured his imagination and led to a lifelong passion for collecting and sharing treasures from his vault. 

The inspiring black and white "silent" movie The Artist just took the Academy Award for Best Picture of the Year.  I also loved Martin Scorsese's Hugo about the great pioneer of silent movies, Georges Melies.  Both films have caused me to reflect back on turning points in my life associated with silent and early sound movies.  A fascination with silent films especially as a child and teenager truly steered my life to a hobby that turned into a vocation that continues today.

Film collectors, buffs and Cinephiles recount many of these same experiences.  I have no memory of seeing any films before I was four, which is when the family moved from Texas to Wisconsin and settled in the small town of Deerfield, population 610, that had no movie theater!  So I grew up without Saturday Matinees or any weekly trips to the theater.

Being deprived of this experience in my early years only made me want to see more movies.  The few trips to Madison to see kiddie fare like a '25 Color Cartoon Festival' which were either Bugs Bunny/Roadrunners or Tom and Jerry/Droopy cartoons, were very special.  Of course we were taken to Disney films like revivals of Snow White (1937) and Song of the South (1946), plus first runs of Cinderella (1950), Lady and the Tramp (1955) and The Great Locomotive Chase (1956).

Free Movies in the Park 

Deerfield did host an outdoor movie series every summer to bring farmers into town for shopping.  This is a lost piece of small-town Americana I have never read about anywhere, but I was grateful to be part of it.  The shows did not start until dark around 9:00, but I hung around the traveling showman watching him set the screen, projector and speakers.  That first summer (1950) at age five I saw the first film I recall today -- Chapter #1 of the Universal serial Junior G-Men (1940) starring the Dead End Kids.

In the first chapter ending Billy Halop and pals are fighting in an elevator out of control.  It crashes!  I remember being terrified and covering my eyes.  I even remember the park bench and how close I sat to the screen.  Too close!  I really thought the Kids had died in my first exposure to the concept of death.

The Family 8mm Projector  

It was a Revere much like the one pictured here.  My father took home movies but in order to spice up a show starring us 3 kids he acquired a handful of Castle Films.  I recall The Three Little Bruins Get Into Mischief (1945), Andy Panda in Crazy House (1940) and the superb Mickey's Buzz Saw (actually 3 minutes from the 1934 The Dognapper) with Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Pegleg Pete being chased by a runaway buzz saw in a lumber mill.

Crazy House was a sound Technicolor cartoon but the home version was not only black and white but silent with inter-titles like real silent films.  I never knew at the time, but was simply captivated by the images of a fun house that runs amuck.

Castle Films  

My father had a few. Everyone's dad had a few in the late 1940s/early 50s.  One day I discovered them on sale in a department store bordering the state capitol building in Madison.  I haunted that display counter for years and one day actually purchased the 200 foot (about 3 minutes) version of The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) for something like $3.95.  I never could afford the deluxe 10 minute version at $8.95.   A few drops of film collecting fever in the blood can go a long ways, like a lifetime.

Famous Monsters of Filmland

This iconic magazine entered my life in late 1960 with Issue #10.  I had never seen many horror films up to then, but here was this kindly weird adult, Forrest J. Ackerman (FMF editor), telling all the kids that sci-fi, fantasy and horror movies were FUN and OK TO LIKE. (My parents forbade horror on some quasi-religious pagan grounds.)  I ordered the first nine back issues I had missed from Captain Company, who often did not deliver.  After losing a pile of quarters and dimes and still not getting Issue #4, I wrote to Forry about my dilemma.  He not only sent me one but autographed it as well, as shown here.

1950s Television  

Though missing first run movies in theaters, I devoured TV, saw my first mysteries, serials and cartoons there, Howdy Doody and the Mickey Mouse Club, Crusader Rabbit and later Rocky & Bullwinkle, all the TV western series, One Step Beyond, Maverick and on and on.  I also exhibited good taste at times and one love was Ernie Kovacs.

Silents Please 

By coincidence or fate, in addition to his many TV specials which often featured "silent" routines, Ernie Kovacs also hosted the 1960-61 series called Silents Please that presented cut down versions of silent movies.  The introduction and closing segments featured a quick shot of Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera (1925) that particularly sparked my imagination a few years before I was able to actually see the film.

So every week I tuned in Ernie and "Silents," said "Please" and hoped my best to see more of the Phantom.  As it turns out from this Silents Please episode guide the show never ran The Phantom even though it was in the public domain!  Ernie sadly died in 1962, and there was only one 39-episode season of Silents Please.  In Madison about the same time we enjoyed a similar series The Toy That Grew Up out of the PBS affiliate in Chicago, WTTW -- but I can't find any info on the web about it.  I recall seeing Johnny Hines and Rod LaRoque half-hour abridgements.

In college at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (1964-1968) I attended a packed auditorium showing of When Comedy Was King (1960) in which the entire room convulsed with laughter for 75 minutes.

They also had occasional outdoor silent screenings of Laurel and Hardy shorts with live organ accompaniment.   I met Harold Lloyd when he came to the campus testing his compilation film The Funny Side of Life. (1963)   It contained most of The Freshmen (1925) and was a huge hit with the young audience.  At the reception was pioneer producer and Wisconsin resident Harry Aitken, now in his mid-90s, who had co-founded Triangle Film Corporation in 1915 with his brother Roy.  The most gracious Harold said, "You know, Mr. Aitken, I always wanted to meet you because I started my career working for your company but never got the chance until today." 

Jay Ward's Fractured Flickers introduced more mesmerizing snippets of Silents like Stan Laurel as "Dr. Pyckle" in Dr. Pykle & Mr. Pryde (1925) and the robot in Harry Houdini's Master Mystery (1920).

Blackhawk Films  

Somehow I heard about Blackhawk films during this period and traded in some old 8mm cartoons for my first Laurel and Hardy 8mm -- Leave 'Em Laughing (1928). 

This started my hobby as a film collector and I had already acquired Metropolis (1927) and Phantom from Griggs Moviedrome while still in college.  Then one day the Blackhawk Bulletin mentioned a tiny publication called "The 8mm Collector."  Sam Rubin started the paper in 1962 to find silent movies to watch and also other collectors.  I must have gotten my first issue in 1967 since I ordered a dozen or more of the early issues.

The early history of The 8mm Collector is recounted at the Cinecon Website:

The Society for Cinephiles, Ltd, was established in 1965 by Tom Seller, an avid reader of The 8mm Collector magazine, and Cinecon 1 was sponsored by Samuel K. Rubin, publisher of The 8mm Collector, in Indiana, Pennsylvania.  It was a small affair with only a handful of die hard film fans. They gathered in a small room at the local Holiday Inn and showed each other 8mm silent films from their personal collections.  This was 1965 before videos and DVDs, a time when, if you wanted to see your favorite old film, you had to wait until it turned up on TV or else you had to buy a projector and start your own film collection in 8mm or 16mm.

The following year (1966) another cinephile, Clark Wilkinson, hosted the show in Baraboo WI and Cinecon officially became an annual event.  For the next several years the Cinecon moved from city to city as a sort of moveable cinematic feast.  Today, the fanzine 8mm Collector is known as the respected Classic Images magazine, and since 1990 Cinecon has made its home in the Los Angeles area.

Ironically, in 1966 I was a 20-year-old sophomore in Madison, Wisconsin, and Baraboo was less than an hour drive away.  I could easily have attended Cinecon 2.  I saw a newspaper article after it was over but did not know about the event in advance.  In fact 17-year-old high school student Leonard Maltin flew in for the event.  I could also have attended Cinecon 3 in Chicago the following year with guest Colleen Moore but was again unaware.  I did make it to Cinecon 4 in Hollywood over Labor Day in 1968 where I roomed with Leonard on his very first trip to Hollywood and also with an adult -- Bud LeMaster -- who wrote for The 8mm Collector and who I had met in St. Louis that summer.

Wanting to see as many silent films as possible, then to own them and finally to share them with others led to attending Cinecons from 1968 on, running The Xanadu Film Festival in Minneapolis 1971-1974, meeting my future wife Chris, making friends with film dealers, fans and collectors, and eventually starting Festival Films in 1976.

Meeting Chris, who came to the film society to make audio tapes of Marx Brothers films, stands above all else.  Chris also loved Ernie Kovacs, whose Silents Please helped lure me into the hobby of collecting old movies that brought us together ten years later.

So many of these films are at last available, renovated and uncut, over at Movies Unlimited and Alpha Video. Here is the inspirational opening to Silents Please that some may recall:

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