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Monday, January 25, 2016

A Dinosaur That Came Before Digital


Only Purists Need Apply

Ventured to boy-room where my first 8mm "theatre" saw fruition, and names like Castle and Blackhawk were synonym for enchantment. There is no Back To Basic like return to 8mm. I was reminded how a small and steady hand is best to thread that narrowest of gauge. Plus a pair of young eyes. Everything about 8mm is scaled-down, the projector, film, its image as projected. Here was a format best enjoyed by children (age ten was start for me). For this last round, I needed two pair of specs on hand, one for close work, a second to view results. Thread process was like putting string through a needle minus its eye. Patience is a must when handling film, delay and frustration the bane of most screenings. A forty-year old projector I used had dubious benefit of self-threading, which means film chatters madly till you feed it in just so. Focus varied throughout, never what we, spoiled by digital, would call sharp. In fact, focus is no issue at all today, a concept gone as adjusting your tuner to pull in distant TV channels.

There is much on 8mm that you won't see anyplace else. Blackhawk used to offer reels that would go out of print like certain DVD's do now. If anybody cared, they'd be collector items. As it is, you have to work for your fun where it comes to 8mm. I got out two subjects for the hour remembrance of how things were, and won't be again. First was a Ken Film, one-time distributor of home movies for United Artists, then-owner of pre-49 Warner inventory. This 8mm spool was called The Swashbucklers, and ran about eight minutes. Every blurry foot was action, all but brief intro featuring Errol Flynn. Glimpse of Doug Fairbanks plus John Barrymore (from Don Juan) lead in, then it's Flynn for the rest, him referred to in "Superimposed Titles" as Greatest Of All Swashbucklers, a point to brook no argument then or now. I contemplated how this was once the only way you'd own footage of Flynn sinking ships, wielding swords, or leading a charge, barest souvenir of shows then less accessible on TV (fewer markets used them after the mid-60's, and by the 70's, mostly UHF). Theatres, save revival housing in NY or LA, had largely bowed out (a Charlotte theatre brought back Adventures Of Robin Hood in 1974, a Dominant print in black-and-white). The Swashbucklers, copyrighted 1967, was sunken treasure where outliers like me kept residence.

The Blackhawk box read Melodrama Rides The Rails, which could be anything of course, but sounded like more excerpts, maybe from serials or thrill-stuff done on runaway engines. BH chief Kent D. Eastin was a lifelong train buff, so catalogues were loaded with railroad reels, which I guess sold during days when collectors better remembered iron horses rumbling through town, or riding passenger on same. The fifteen minutes here was culled from ancient scraps --- a crash between steam engines staged for a county fair shortly after turn of the 20th century (explanatory titles said this was often a feature at public gatherings as obsolete trains were fazed out --- so why not exit them with a bang?) --- then there was A Rail Tragedy, where a robber on board cleans a woman's purse, then hurls her off the moving train. She survives, he's captured, so tragedy ends up a relative term, other than my own for not being able to keep the picture steady or get it in focus. Why didn't we 8mm collectors give this headache up and go play basketball like normal youth?

Highlight of Melodrama Rides The Rails was a 1911 Vitagraph short called A Mother's Devotion, or The Firing Of The Patchwork Quilt. High concept in a nutshell: Mother sees son off to engineer duty, later realizes a trestle is out, warns him by setting her patchwork quilt ablaze, laying it across rails as way to give warning. Vitagraph knew how to wring suspense from single reels, and there's fine glimpse of the big hoss chugging toward what might be disaster. My question, then: Once an 8mm collector bought Melodrama Rides The Rails, how many times would he watch? (notice I said "he" --- girls had better sense than to mess with this stuff) I enjoyed Melodrama Rides The Rails, but likely as not, won't go back. "Specialized Interest" is summed up by this very definition of toys you play with alone. Hard to imagine other members of a collector's household sitting in. Who knows but what love entails such, or greater, sacrifice? Many stand guilty of inflicting film passion on others less passionate, 8mm an outer edge of trivia's pursuit (and not a practical one --- where will I find a replacement when this lamp burns out?). Best then, to travel solo down that memory lane, annoying no one save GPS readers with relics and rumination arising therefrom.

45 Comments:

Blogger KL from NYC said...

Ken Films handled the AIP horror movies, and all those that I saw (and there were many that I saw) had subtitles that reflected re-written plots (completely different from the movie). In one of them, completely unrelated characters became brother and sister.
And one short-lived company offered early Hammer horror movies that had to be synchronized with a 33rpm flexi disc -- it never worked, even though I spent months (on and off) trying.

9:05 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Christmas 1961. Santa brought me a regular 8mm Tower silent film projector which his elves made at Sears.

With it...five, count 'em five, 3-minute Headline edition productions from my favorite studio (Castle Films). The projectionist at one of my family's drive-in theatres "professionally" spliced them all together onto a 200-ft reel.

My basement was soon my own neighborhood theatre jammed with all the local moppets enjoying ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN, TERMITES FROM MARS with Woody Woodpecker, THE FABULOUS HARLEM GLOBETROTTERS, HAWAII - OUR 50th STATE and an Audie Murphy western (the title has been deleted from my human hard drive).

It would be a full twelve years before I graduated to 16mm, with the purchase of my Blackhawk prints of TOWED IN A HOLE and BUSY BODIES.

11:20 AM  
Blogger brian pinette said...

I remember those times. I was fascinated by film and those little projectors. My Dad gave me the family projector. I wasn't even in Junior High School.

I saw a Blackhawk Films ad in a magazine. The first film I bought was a short, An Unseen Enemy (1912) the Gish sisters first D.W. Griffith movie. Including postage it cost $1.25.

There were other film catalogs I received by mail, Milestone, Niles and then i got a 16mm projector and bought sound movies from Gaines. It was fun. My first 16mm movie was a color episode of Bewitched and then, Dorothy McGuire in the feature film The Spiral Staircase.

Even though bulky and tedious to set up, it was an adventure. While popcorn was being made while I threaded the projectors, it was a family "media" event.

Now everyone sits with their hand helds or laptops or desktops and views, downloads, uploaded ...

No more projectors, or perhaps soon, no more movie theatres where once there were projectors ... where actual people gathered to share an experience, together.

12:07 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

While I bought many 8mm movies from Castle, Blackhawk and others I will never forget the day I saw an ad in FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND from John Griggs offering an 8mm version of METROPOLIS. Forry Ackerman raved about it constantly. By chance I had found the Ace reprint of Thea Von Harbou novel in a convenience store. METROPOLIS cost a whopping $50 (big money to my 17 year old self). My mother saw an ad for someone to cut chickens for the Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario KFC franchise. I didn't want the job so, naturally, they gave it to me. I had befriended a German woman who ran a camera store. She had been raped 90 times the night the Russians occupied Berlin. That, however, had not made her a bitter person. I asked her to order the film for me. I got 1.5 cents a bird for cutting chickens with a band saw. I doubt anyone worked so hard to see a movie ever. Would it meet my expectations I wondered. Well, it not only met them but far surpassed them. Then I got THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) from Griggs followed by many more. My parents were certain I was wasting my money. When I arrived in Toronto and people found I had films they could only read about they asked me to show them. Previously the friends I had shown them to quickly got bored. I discovered the great joy of sharing things I knew were great with strangers who knew that as well. After I began my screenings I upgraded to 16mm. Nothing however, before or since, has been as electric as the moment I first saw METROPOLIS projected on my bedroom wall. 8mm gave me a wonderful life.

1:30 PM  
Blogger phil smoot said...

My friend, Irl Dixon, was the son of the owners of Dixon Film Service in Belmont NC, and we used to look at 16mm films from their library. He got a lot of us together to go and see that 1974 35mm screening of The Adventures of Robin Hood, and he just about hit the roof when it turned out to be a black & white print of the Technicolor Classic. A monumental bummer.

3:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hey Phil --- I went to Dixon Film Service around 1974 and bought a bunch of the one-sheets they kept for promotion purposes. Fifty-cents apiece. Tried to get the lady to part with some of the 16mm, but she didn't want to let any of those go because of licensing deals with film companies. I remember all this as being at a private residence, all the features and shorts in racks downstairs, in the basement maybe.

Funny about that "Robin Hood" debacle in Charlotte. Believe it was at the Visulite Theatre. They did revivals into the 80's, as I recall. Harry Kerr, who had the Dominant franchise for NC, told me years later that the "Robin Hood" was one of his prints.

3:24 PM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

In 1981, I worked for a company in NYC that rented 16mm features, A/V equipment, and sold 8mm and videotape movies via mail order. Even though video was just starting to gain market, I was surprised how many people would order 8mm sound features at $100 or more a pop. I think the most expensive 8mm sound feature was Chinatown at something like $350.

4:13 PM  
Blogger Donald Benson said...

I was just a dabbler, getting the Blackhawk Bulletin, the Sears home movie catalog (which felt like it was outsourced to Blackhawk), and the little color brochures for Castle, Columbia and Disney. I'd get the occasional feature from the library, but mostly it was cartoons and silent shorts accompanied by a stack of LPs on the record changer. The initial machine was an already ancient Kodak that always smelled dangerous, followed by a 60s model with automatic threading and a Super8 switch. I held out against Super8, believing it was a flash in the pan. Regular 8 would endure.

By the time I discovered bigger catalogs, I'd resolved to back off until I owned a 16mm projector and was rich enough to rent the real treasures from Films Incorporated and the like. My 8mm collection came out when we had other kids over, and when I helped a friend who put on light shows for our junior high dances circa 1969 (burnt slides through color wheels, dish of food coloring on an overhead projector, etc.). Then I went through a period of going to real theaters and seeing new movies (and college town showings of old ones). VHS arrived, and the 8mm pretty much stayed in the closet.

It's a measure of age that I regarded Ken Films with the gloriously bad cover art as the "new", last-gasp 8mm label (and their UA phase as a final sickly mutation). Previously AAP put out the Looney Tunes and odd live-action titles. Their cover art was slicker if sometimes unrelated to the film enclosed.

Castle Films was the biggie in the early years, with 150ft and 50ft versions of movies and stars I'd actually heard of. My collection started with gifts of "The Great Chase" and "Hurry Hurry", the big chase endings of "The Bank Dick" and "Never Give a Sucker an Even Break." Oddly, I never got a Woody Woodpecker or an Abbott and Costello title (although I now have near-complete sets of both in tidy DVD sets).

The Disneys, which I discovered via Sears, offered glorious color; their feature reels were especially lush. If memory serves, their silent short cartoons never had subtitles and didn't need them.

Blackhawk, of course, was the king. "Double Whoopee" was the favorite for my captive audiences. My first copy of "The General" was a Blackhawk VHS in a classy brown case.

Sometimes I coveted the Kenner Give-A-Show movie projectors. Yes, they were far inferior even to my creaky Kodak. But they had current TV cartoons and much less setup time.

4:18 PM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

Wonderful piece, John! Now I'll be wandering around the house in a daze, remembering all the great times 8mm and I shared. I'm pretty sure my first real projector was the one on the left in your triad. Sure looks familiar! Of course, my first EVER projector was Kenner's Easy Show (which I wrote about here: http://betterlivingtv.blogspot.com/2010/05/video-on-demand-ala-1965.html). Your comments about disappointing focus and brightness don't really apply to me; after four years of the Easy Show, my Kodak 8mm was totally state of the art! Castle, Ken, Atlas, Columbia and eventually Blackhawk wove my personal magic carpet. Although the projectors are long gone, I still have some of the films up in my closet, and will occasionally take them down and run them through one of those desk editors. Much more fun than flipping through a high school yearbook and sighing!

Michael

5:20 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks Jr said...

Jeez, I could go on for weeks relating the influence, fun, and wonder that 8mm provided for me as a lad but I won't for your sake. I received the most influential machine of my life, a Thunderbird 8mm tin projector for Christmas 1971. It still works with the original lamp. K-Mart is where I thought was the only supplier for 8mm films. Ken, Castle, and Columbia. I bought MALICE IN THE PALACE while it was still owned by Colombia. I saw many films in my large closet because I could not wait for it to get dark outside. The next year my mother returns from a Montgomery Ward catalog store and plops a Blackhawk Bulletin before me. My life changed again. My mind started gauging everything by how to make money for my next film. One of my favorite quotes off all time was uttered on this blog by its scribe John McElwee. I don't have the exact quote so I am paraphrasing here: "Did any other mail order company in this world ever receive money for its wares that was more hard earned?"

Later I bought Charles Barr's WAR DECLARED book on Laurel and Hardy that provided addresses for other companies like Thunderbird and Griggs

By 1975 our Sons of the Desert meetings became too big for 8mm and I switched to 16mm. My first 16mm film was BUSY BODIES which was on sale at Blackhawk for half price.

I still have a stash of Standard and Super 8mm and pull them out from time to time and still love watch me some small gauge. I have a Standard 8mm of FACE ON THE BAROOM FLOOR that is unique to anything I've seen on it before or since. Some silent comedy films only survived in 8mm.

Tommie Hicks

7:18 PM  
Blogger rnigma said...

I discovered the Blackhawk catalog in 6th grade or thereabouts thanks to one of my teachers - she would show silent Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy films to us, using an LP of "Music for Silent Films" as accompaniment (the only cut I recall is "Maple Leaf Rag").
I remember ordering Laurel & Hardy's "Big Business" and the pie fight from "Battle of the Century," and the Our Gang silent "Cat Dog & Co." Future purchases were doomed when the Hunt brothers' cornering of the silver market around 1980 caused Blackhawk's prices to double (and they remained high after silver prices returned to sanity). But I treasured those catalogs for the historical info they contained, and Dick Bann's "Free Wheeling" column. When Bann collaborated with Leonard Maltin on their Our Gang book, I was pleasantly surprised to find many of the synopses for the films were taken near-verbatim from the Blackhawk Bulletins.

I also had a few Castle films, though the only one I recall is a silent B&W print of the Woody Woodpecker cartoon "The Great Who-Dood-It." A middle-school classmate had a silent 8mm print of the Columbia "Batman" serial, which we had a good laugh over.

And I had an Easy-Show projector, though I usually used my dad's old 8mm projector. He eventually gave me a new auto-loading Bell & Howell Super 8 projector for my birthday. I still have it, though it hasn't been used in years. I've also got an old 16mm Kodak sound projector, which still runs.

8:51 PM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

I got a Thunderbird 8mm projector sometime in the mid-70s. I was lucky - my local public library in Ashe County, NC, had dozens of Blackhawk prints in their collection. I spent many hours getting introduced to silent Laurel and Hardy, Chaplin, Griffith and Tom Mix films. Later, I was able to pick up an Argus Super8 projector used. I'll never forget watching "The Gold Rush" from the public library with my mom and dad in our living room.

In college, I picked up the bug for VHS collecting, but didn't really have the money to dive into 16mm. A few years after college, when I was working at Wake Forest, I did pick up a couple of Bell and Howell projectors. I checked out prints from the collection at Wake Forest, a friend who worked at UNC-G would check out prints there, and, through the Forsyth Public Library, we'd check out 16mm features from the State Library in Raleigh.

Every Saturday, we'd have a few friends over for a double feature in my apartment, the sound piped through my stereo system. Some great finds - wonderful Tech prints of "5,000 Fingers of Dr. T", "Jason and the Argonauts"; gorgeous B&W copies of "Streetcar Named Desire", "A Face in the Crowd", Blackhawks of Hitchcock's "39 Steps" and "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and many foreign films by directors like Bunuel, Fellini, and Sajit Rey that you just couldn't find on video.

It was quite an adventure, since you never quite knew whether you'd be getting a beautiful pristine print or something mangled and turned almost pink.

A print of "The Collector" from UNC-G had been purchased several years before and never had the lab seals broken on it. Wake Forest's print of "Golddiggers of 1933" included the original dual Vitaphone sound on disc and sound on film leaders on the reels. Their print of "Citizen Kane" was so spliced that we started calling the movie "Roseburp". Wake's print of "Rashomon" gave me a chance to see it the way US audiences did in the fifties, dubbed into english and with the original RKO titles. Some (all?) of the prints at Wake were rumored to have come from the Zach Reynolds estate.

I collected a few movies on 16mm and traded with another collector in Raleigh who had an IB Tech 16mm copy of "Star Wars" and, oddly enough, every episode of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" on 16mm. I remember he called me up heartbroken one night. He found some reels of 35mm film from the teens at a local flea market and, not knowing anything about nitrate film, snipped off some frames and put them in a slide projector to see them better. They burst into flames and his girlfriend ran screaming from his apartment, vowing never to come back because of all this weird film stuff.

Ah, good times.

9:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Interesting that you folks in Ashe County also had the Blackhawks in your public library. Ours bought a large inventory of 8mm in 1969. I thought I'd faint when I walked in ... and there they were. This is how I filled in viewing gaps for many BH titles.

Also used to check stuff out of the State Library in Raleigh. They had good ones like "Dance, Fools, Dance," "The Big House," "Directed By John Ford," though it wasn't very long before prints got banged and eventually useless. Guess they were eventually chucked into landfills.

Did not know some of Wake Forest's prints came from the Reynolds estate, but that makes sense. They had quite a collection, also some of the smartest student programmers around (Hays McNeil, and later Doug Lemza, who wrote "Rediscovering The American Cinema" for Films, Inc.). From the late 60's when I first saw shows there, and got film notes from a sister's boyfriend who attended, Wake was a film mecca . Tribble Hall was the showplace as I recall, a lecture classroom with slanted floor and OK seating. When I eventually started law school there in 1976, Wake still had a great series. A big event was when the James Bonds first went non-theatrical, and they played the whole lot, including double-bills that duplicated original reissue pairings, like Dr. No/Russia, Goldfinger/Dr. No, etc.

5:00 AM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

With my first job in 1969 I was finally able to purchase a 8mm projector at Willoughby - Peerless in NYC. My first short was the 3 Stooges' "Dizzy Doctors". Me and my friends supplied the "nyuk-nyuk-nyuk" as I projected on the living room wall in my apartment. I became obsessed and made pay day visits to W-P much to the delight of my friends. After my second purchase, "Abbott & Costello Meet Jekyll & Hyde" I decided that silents were the way to go and bought some Laurel & Hardys and my swashbuckler "The Black Pirate". The joy of collecting was put on hold to raise the family but later resurfaced in the '90s with a fetish to movie poster/still collecting. Great essay, John and loved the posted memories.

8:13 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks Jr said...

Super 8 magnetic sound still has a vogue in England. Before I went 16mm I had about half the L&H shorts in super 8 mag. I tried to sell them in the '70s to obtain more 16mm but no one I knew collected that genre in that gauge. Ten years ago on eBay I put them up and received an average of $150 per short! My Super 8 mag of WAY OUT WEST went for $290!

I also had a super 8 mag of PAY DAY I was supposed to send back to Blackhawk in 1991. I didn't send it back to Blackhawk, Please don't rat me out to David Shepard.

Tommie Hicks

P.S. Why isn't DOUBLE CROSS AT CRISSCROSS on A&C's IMDB page? ;-)

11:17 PM  
Blogger Jerry Kovar said...

i believe DOUBLE CROSS AT CRISSCROSS was WISTFUL WIDOW OF WAGON GAP

6:31 AM  
Blogger coolcatdaddy said...

On Super 8 in England ... I recall there was an outfit there in the 90s, maybe up into the 2000s, that was offering brand-new prints on S8 sound format of classics. They were offering a print of "Gone With the Wind" for something close to a thousand bucks, if my memory is right.

7:10 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Thanks to Blackhawk, I finally got to see a couple of the Laurel & Hardy silents I'd read about in the William Everson book, "Liberty" and "Laughing Gravy." And being more interested in the offbeat movies, the only Chaplin short I bought was "The Bond," which seemed to perplex everyone but me. But I felt really clever when I projected a reel of 1920s race car crashes while playing a recording of "The Blue Danube."

A friend of mine had an incredibly faded print of "Hop To It" which was credited to Laurel & Hardy. I couldn't convince him that it was Semon & Hardy.

10:17 AM  
Blogger opticalguy said...

I cannot believe how exciting it was getting films back then! Although the 8mm and Super 8MM stuff is long gone I still have quite a few 16mm Castle Films cut-downs.

10:31 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

ANY arrival of an 8mm Blackhawk print was Christmas morning for me.

10:40 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Jerry Kovar--the rental/sales company I worked for was located above Willoughby Peerless on 33rd(?) Street. We also had the 8mm/video sales concession in the store.

In those early days (spent hours phoning mail order customers who didn't specify VHS or Beta), if someone wanted to rent a tape, the guys in the store would just pull it off the shelf. When it was returned, they'd bring it upstairs to re-shrinkwrap it and sell it as new.

10:51 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers his first (and second) 8mm projector:


This piece on 8mm film collecting has certainly struck a chord with your readers, but then, there probably aren't many film buffs above a certain age who didn't try to have their own movies when they were children.

It was that way with me. When I was about 10 years old, my parents gave me a little plastic hand-cranked projector with a battery-powered lamp. It came with a small reel of film, "Lucky Texan," with John Wayne. It showed the title of the film, then a sequence of the Duke riding hard with two bad guys in pursuit. As he gallops under a tree, he reaches up and hauls himself into its branches, letting his horse run free. The bad guys come on, apparently not realizing that they're after a horse with an empty saddle. As they come under the tree, Wayne jumps down on them, knocks them from their horses, and then dispatches them after some perfunctory fisticuffs.

That was it. The reel was only 25 feet long, or about three minutes worth of action, if I cranked the projector just fast enough to create the illusion of motion. I loved it, though, and ran it over and over, even putting on a show in the garage for my friends. My parents must have figured that if I liked it so much, they'd get me a real projector for Christmas. They did, a darling Argus 8mm projector with a gray, crinkled paint finish, but alas, the actual giving of it proved to be something of a disappointment for them. My dear sister had discovered the secret of those packages, in the closet, wrapped in brown paper. They were our Christmas presents, even more fascinating than the fruit Eve gave Adam. Though she was two years younger than me, she was persuasive, and soon I was climbing up there and unwrapping them. I supposed we might have gotten away with it, had we done it only once or twice. After the fifth or sixth time, the wrappings were becoming a little tattered and gave us away.

My parents were understanding and we still received the presents, but even that proved to be a disappointment. I knew that there was a projector waiting for me under the Christmas tree, and without waking anyone up, I stole out there and fired it up with the 200 foot Heckle and Jeckle reel that came with it. So even the formal giving was ruined.

I was awful.

Later I put "Lucky Texan" on the new projector, but it was really ragged by that point. Do you remember the first time you saw an 8 mm film get hung up, with the frame momentarily frozen just before the image is obliterated? Well, that's what happened to old Duke, just like the soldiers in "War of the Worlds."

12:34 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That freeze-up and resulting burnt frame happened to my Super 8 magnetic sound "Complete" edition of "The Spoilers," during the John Wayne-Randolph Scott fistic set-to (which made up most of that actionful reel).

Then there was memorable occasion when the Liberty's 35mm print of "Samson and Delilah" hung up in the gate, then roasted as we saw blind Vic Mature pushing his grist wheel. Luckily, it wasn't a nitrate print (being 1968's reissue), so damage was localized to the one frame.

12:41 PM  
Blogger FrankM said...

My brother and I regularly got parcels from Blackhawk, Peak Films, Niles and others to our home in the Irish midlands. One of the postmen complained that he never got to see any of the films he delivered, so we had to do a show for him and his mates.

We have fond memories of a great night screening "Last Train from Gun Hill" in Super 8 to a house full of postmen. After that, whenever they had a package for us the first question was always: "Is it a western?"

3:51 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

The first 8mm movie I owned was HAVE BADGE, WILL CHASE, a fifty ft., Castle Films Abbott and Costello short that was apparently packaged with Bell & Howell projectors for some years. First I bought myself was KEYSTONE HOTEL, a 200 ft., silent super 8mm condensation of the 1935 2-reeler. Shortly thereafter, I got three Disney cartoons for my birthday. They were silent, but I remember being impressed by how good the color was on those reels. First purchase with sound was KNIGHTS OF THE BATH, a Castle Abbott and Costello. My favorite of those early purchases was Laurel and Hardy's BIG BUSINESS, my first Blackhawk and still one of my favorites. I ran the daylights out of that reel. When I graduated to 16mm, my first purchase was a collection of used TV prints, in pretty decent shape, of Popeye and Warner Bros. cartoons, all from United Artists. They came from a film collector who said my obsession with the images on those strips of film reminded him of when he was young.

Film collecting brought its adventures. TV prints of feature films where about every ten or twelve minutes there would be cue marks and then an abrupt splice where commercials had once been cut in. Those splices were always jarring because little niceties like dissolves and fade outs/ins would often get lopped out and never replaced, and you would have a sudden cut from the end of one scene to the beginning of another. I remember having two prints of one of the 1940s Lon Chaney mummy movies, and experimenting with combining the two prints into one so I could get a print without the cue marks and commercial break splices. Really didn't work too well. There was too much variation in print quality.

I do remember, when I first started collecting 8mm, that my dad taught me to splice two or three feet of blank leader to the beginning and end of each reel. He never thought that 8mm's had enough head and tail on them to really protect the film from beginning and end of reel wear and tear. Sometimes there was barely enough to get the film wound onto the take-up reel without being halfway through the main titles when you started running the thing.

I still have a soft spot for 8mm, whatever its weaknesses. That's something I've discovered you can't explain to kids, though. Why it was such a cool thing to own a black and white, silent, subtitled print of a Woody Woodpecker cartoon.

7:58 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Wow...this edition awakened a responsive and mellow chord in me. As a teenager in the early-mid 70's, I learned the joys of the monthly Blackhawk Bulletin, and the frustration of countless hours spent figuring out what I could afford. Luckily, my dad was sympathetic and usually took advantage of their nationally-advertised Christmas sale. Oh joy! THREE classic two-reel comedies at half-price. I remember the credit slips you'd receive with your order, to make up for the excess shipping you'd paid. Many a happy hour was spent with our old Revere 85 Standard 8mm. I still have it - and most of the Blackhawk, Americom, Castle, Ken, and Columbia shorts I bought. This is a now long-gone media source, but some of us can bring it to life, either in reality, or in very cherished memories.

8:40 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks Jr said...

Here is a sensibility that will never be known to the present generations: Choosing which film you want to see when you want to see it. When most of we dotards were young, you could not choose what to watch unless you owned a film projector. You had to take whatever the television station or cinema had to offer. One of my first films was the last reel (8mm silent mind you) of ANOTHER FINE MESS. I liked having the power of putting Thelma Todd on my closet wall pretty much whenever I wanted. Collecting films removed one from being victim to arbitrary programming. When I became an A/V aide in 8th grade our Junior High had a closed circuit video network. Here is where I first put my hands on video tape and I can remember being impressed that I chose those images to be on that TV tube.

Now I have about a thousand film comedies converted to mpeg on an external drive which I can watch whenever I want to. It took me ten years to see about 1/4 of A&C's output before the home video age, now I have DVDs of every single film they made at my disposal. Despite the convenience, video will, for me, never replace the projected image experience with the projector smell while running or the noise it made and the inherent awe of actual cinema in a darkened room on a screen.

I actually filmed bits of classic comedies on TV with my super 8 silent camera. I received semi-acceptable results except for the 60 hertz line roll throughout the image. It cost about $40 in today's money to get two minutes and thirty seconds of classic comedy in this manner.

9:25 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

It is indeed that "inherent awe" we've lost, Tommie, whatever the riches otherwise available on Blu-Ray, streaming, or hard drives.

9:42 AM  
Blogger phil smoot said...

John:

For a very short time (when I lived in Charlotte for a year or so around 1974-75), when I was not working on a film or commercial, I would pick up some much needed extra cash over at Dixon Film Service in Belmont by checking the films and doing some work there. Irl Dixon and I had met as Radio/TV/Motion Picture majors at UNC-Chapel Hill, and we became good friends and roommates for awhile in Charlotte. We worked on a lot of Earl Owensby's movies together.
-Phil

1:44 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Phil. I've wondered what became of Dixon Film Service. It was the only occasion I had to visit a "rental house" back in the day, let alone one operated out of a suburban home. So far as I know, this was the only 16mm facility of its kind in NC, unless you know of another.

2:15 PM  
Blogger phil smoot said...

I do not know of any other than Dixon Film Service. I was able to see a lot of movies that otherwise would have been unavailable, and the quality of those prints was very good. They rented to customers all over the South.

4:59 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon looks back on 8mm collecting during the 60's:


8mm? Ah, you're talking my language. I owned like FOUR different 8mm projectors! And they were heaven to own and operate. I had some Castle Universal monster movies that were edited down to the bone, as anyone old enough and rash enough to purchase them remember. There are currently German Blu-rays of some of the later Universal-International sci-fi/horror films from the '50s that have amusingly opted to actually transfer copies of the Castle Company's draconian edits---in real 8mm!---as 'extras' on the discs. One or two online critics have dismissed these as "useless", or "unwatchable". Ouch! Thus do our precious childhood memories suffer abuse! Of COURSE they're going to look pathetic (in the way they were edited down to near trailers) and in the abysmal 'quality' of 8mm, versus the glorious fidelity of Blu-ray/HD renderings available today. But, back then, they recreated that wonderful movie 'world' for us on the walls of our bedrooms, and we had those movies, or movie moments, all to ourselves, reflecting our dreams back at us, and stoking them at the same time. Those dreams propelled me into an interesting profession, and for that, and all the joy and fascination they provided me with at a very unguarded, non-cynical and avid time in any man's existence---his early boyhood---I am forever grateful to them, and I respond to your memories of those "entry level" home movie thrills with a very open heart.

Craig

7:19 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Among "entry levels" for me was the "Headline" edition of "Tarantula" from Castle Films, via a department store we stopped by while driving through West Virginia. The thing barely lasted three minutes, was nothing beyond the spider being spotted, then blown up, but what a thrill owning it!

7:22 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

For me, the catalogs were as much fun as the prints. The Blackhawk Bulletin was the champ, especially in its pre-1973 days when it was the size of a tabloid newspaper. The other mass-market distributors (Castle, Ken, Columbia, and Americom) were fun, but I also liked the smaller outfits like Atlas. The Willoughby-Peerless catalog is still the only one where I ever saw Irish Bob Murphy as the star of a film.

7:42 AM  
Blogger phil smoot said...

I really liked Don Key (a very friendly person) and his film collecting publication "The Big Reel."
And, as for those short Castle Films and such, I still have my boxes full of them, and I feel that the editing
and thought behind many of them was top notch.

5:38 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Don still comes to the Western Film Fair in Winston-Salem every year.

6:18 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Okay, I held off from commenting on this post because... well, because so much of my story is already spilled out in the previous comments! Lived for 8mm films (and the catalogs!) in the 60's, grew up (a little) and transitioned to 16mm, the Big Reel and Film Collectors World in the 70's.

I did live to fulfill what would have been the wildest dream of my younger self (does that sentence make sense?) As an adult, I worked down the street from a public library that went whole hog on 8 and 16 mm formats in the 70's and 80's. Then one day they simply threw all the 8 and super 8 stuff on carts by the check-out desk. Walked in and picked up the kit and kaboodle for 25 cents a reel. Still had a Dual 8 mag sound machine in the closet, so I spent a couple of years leisurely sampling Castle one reelers, 20, 30 and 40 minute cutdowns of everything from STAR WARS to A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, PD features, the works! The print of SONS OF THE DESERT was well worn but complete, most of the Chaplin and Disney stuff in tatters but a lot of the silent Blackhawks were in terrific shape! In time, traded and sold MOST of it in the aforementioned monthlies.

Had to wait more than a decade before the county auctioned off the 16mm library. A buddy and I nabbed most of that with the expenditure now in the hundreds but, of course, thanks to eBay, this later business turned out to be a profitable investment as well as a boon to my still existing collection. Still, the second transaction didn't have that special thrill of the first. I'll always remember the day I brought home those boxes filled with dozens of reels and imagined how excited the 12 year me would be surveying all that 8mm booty!

4:35 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That must sure have been a red letter day, finding such bounty of 8mm at 25 cents per reel. Our library did a similar clean-out back in the early 90's, and a young-at-the-time collector I knew took the lot. As with your experience, print condition varied ... some clean, others barely able to thread.

5:28 PM  
Blogger brickadoodle said...

Your words take me back to a simpler, happier time. In the 60s, thousands of us experimented with "cinema" in our bedrooms, our basements and attics, with jittery 8mm projectors in the heyday of Blackhawk and Castle Films, which we salivated over in the pages of Famous Monsters and Publishers Clearing House and the Sears & Roebuck catalogue. My first projector came from Sears and was powered by six D cell batteries, a leaky, corrosive affair, made so by an especially humid environment, in the cellar of my parent's house wherein an inch of groundwater was usually sloshing underfoot (my "screening room" had previously served as a fallout shelter in anticipation of Castro's assault on America). Mounted on a gray plastic not much larger than a pocket watch, a 50-foot version of BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN comprised my entire film library and I watched it over and over, squinting at postage stamp-sized images of Boris Karloff that were broadcast on a bulkhead of cinder blocks, its gravelly surface whitewashed and splotched with mildew. After a while my print of BoF became sticky to the touch and acquired a scummy greenish tinge, a purely accidental and uncannily appropriate colorization of a b & w horror classic, so I thought at the time. When I think about it now It all seems kind of primal, as if I had been some ancient cinephile hunched over a fire, watching the play of lights and shadows on the darkened walls of a cave.

9:43 PM  
Blogger John Sabotta said...

I could never really afford anything in the Blackhawk catalog, but the great thing about Blackhawk was that they would send you - free! - a 200 ft sampler reel of excerpts from silent classic films they sold.

When I was trying to make a science fiction epic in Regular 8mm (using black and white Regular 8mm film purchased mail-order from the Superior Film Company - another lost world!) I found that the free Blackhawk film reel excerpt from D.W. Griffith's INTOLERANCE useful. The "Babylon" scene from INTOLERANCE did nicely as stock footage for a supposed terrifying and bizarre world of the far future. (This was explained by hand-written titles "Good Lord! A glimpse of the world millions of years in the future!") Oh well. Sorry, D.W.


(Among other thrilling features, the 8mm film of mine in question had a terrifying lumpy clay dinosaur, defeated by scratch ray* and a awe-inspiring futuristic self-opening door to the scientific laboratory, courtesy of a neighbor's automatic garage door opener).

*Scratch ray. The 8mm impresario did not have access to optical printers or effects animators - therefore a ray gun would be portrayed by scratching a line with a pin on the film emulsion. Sometimes this didn't look too bad, and there are one or two Hollywood theatrical science fiction films that used the same advanced technique. (Not good ones, though. Think TEENAGERS FROM OUTER SPACE.)

3:53 AM  
Blogger John Sabotta said...

Pathetically, I tried to make my own 8mm feature excerpts by filming a movie shown on TV with my 8mm camera. The results were, uh, less than satisfactory but it is a measure of how badly one wanted a permanent version of a film one loved to watch over and over again, back in the days before VCRS, that I did this more than once. (And besides, that no-name regular 8mm b/w film stock Superior carried was pretty cheap.)

3:58 AM  
Blogger John Sabotta said...

And do you know, now that you can see practically anything on YouTube, usually in far better resolution (and with sound! And complete!) I find I don't really want to watch anything at all. And if you had told me that's how I'd feel someday, when I was thirteen years old, I never would have believed you. I never believed I could ever be like that. When I was thirteen, I couldn't imagine not caring and no longer wanting to make the effort.

But I never really believed that I would get old, either, when I was thirteen. And now here I am, just like the old men I though I'd never be like, even I did happen to live that long, I told myself then. It would be different for me! I thought.

But it's just the same.

4:09 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks a lot for these observations, John. It seems from yours and all the above comments that a lot of us had a very similar experience with 8mm collecting and related film enthusiasms.

5:03 AM  
Blogger John Sabotta said...

and here it is, the Prevue reel. And seeing that box brings it all back...

http://www.reelclassicdvd.com/BlackhawkFilms.htm

4:53 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That is such a great page, John. Thanks for the link. I really enjoy Mark Roth's site. His DVD releases have been top-notch as well.

5:41 PM  

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