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Sunday, May 26, 2019

1974's Screen and Snow Combination


A Silver River Thread Among NC Collecting Gold

I want to tell this while the memory is still intact, because as transcendent moments in collecting go, this was near a top. Road trips with collecting mentor Moon Mullins took us to Carolina byways I bet census takers never saw. You'd almost expect to pass Alvin York plowing a field. Who'd figure film gathered amidst woods too rural even for rural free delivery? Best I could figure, and as Moon confirmed, most of bounty was out of Charlotte exchanges, prints discarded or sprung out of trucks or depots. Scavengers took mostly what they could get. Why opt for a 35mm print of Utopia if there was any other Laurel and Hardy to be had? A miles-from-stoplight collector we met had it because that's what his supplier had, so take Utopia or leave it. I did, one chilled day in 1974, for $50 plus Tit For Tat, idea being that lowly Utopia was at least rarer, certainly in 35mm, than anything Blackhawk sold. Quest for Buster Keaton led to 35mm nitrate of admittedly tepid Educational shorts the comedian had made at low ebb, but who'd pass when price tag was only $15 per? Long as stored prints didn't catch my parent's house on fire, I was OK.




Silver River came of a winter's drive to a small town once fully employed by the furniture industry, today a ghostly place long past 70's boom. We knew a collector there who was up a mountain largely inaccessible even when it wasn't snowing flakes big as golf balls, which was what I drove through under Moon's direction. "This road (gravel) is too slick. Maybe we'd better turn back," to which he memorably replied, "If you want these films, this is what you have to do to get them," a line I would direct in later years to neophyte collectors who shrank from challenge of the chase. It was jungle-like trek as opposed to Amazon ease of access and slipping discs into player trays. Our hilltop friend had a purpose-built 35mm booth in the woods, clearing trees for the beam of light between it and a screen he made way for. The sight of this took icy breath away, a theatre cleared out of wilderness. Late afternoon and darkish clouds enabled our viewing of Silver River, a not-great Errol Flynn western on 35mm, viewed at downward pitch from the booth its owner had constructed, as perfect an angle for projection as a million-dollar venue could devise. The effect was ethereal --- Errol Flynn seen through snow, and not the sort bad TV imposed. There had never been such a screening, at least for me (drive-ins came close perhaps, but they registered nothing like this). Of all events in collecting, here was by far a most memorable.




Maybe Ken had seen Silver River enough by then, for he turned the print over to me for $60 (backwood collectors were never hoarders --- they liked to keep stock on the move). Six reels in two canisters seemed a body's weight at least, and where oh where was space to keep them? Again, my parent's upstairs groaned under weight of film I would project there with assist of a military surplus 35mm projector that itself tipped scales at over 150. What exertion we went to for the sake of owning film and the means to watch them, but there was distinction in it, if not prestige of more tangible sort. Telling new-met classmates of old movies I owned was like raising a geek flag to full mast, or was it? How are those of us in the movie life perceived by others gifted with normalcy? Getting, then dragging, a 35mm print of Silver River through much of adult life (did I say adult?) was no bid for mainstream status, and only at places like Columbus (Cinevent) or Syracuse (Cinefest) would I be understood. Time dealt a vinegar hand to Silver River, which we finally junked after it stank up a friend's 35mm vault. The movie on TCM or Warner DVD is at least a souvenir as I then knew it, even as Silver River remains no great shakes, other than a customarily rich performance by E. Flynn and spirited-at-times direction by Raoul Walsh. I don't miss having it on 35mm, let alone physical effort of hoisting reels onto chain-driven meat grinder that was my old DeVry (they called it a "semi-portable," a real gasser considering size of the thing). Last query then: Does anyone continue to collect this cumbersome gauge, especially now that theatres don't even use it anymore?

11 Comments:

Blogger bufffilmbuff said...

What a great story. The image of the film being projected in the snow up in the mountains is magical.

9:06 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Fernando Martín Peña in Argentina is still collecting film stock that he still exhibit to public, probably with more success than anybody here in the States; he doesn't care about video except for what he needs for his television show.

10:02 AM  
Blogger Tom said...

Great story, John, and a reminder of what some film collectors were capable of putting themselves through in the days before video tape, let alone DVD. Your snowy venture (what price Flynn fan)for one of the actor's less celebrated outings is particularly noteworthy.

I have always been a fan of Silver River, though, excluding the film's rushed 15 minute finale which disappoints. The entire cast is fine, but, in particular, Flynn in one of his rare ventures at playing a self absorbed scoundrel and empire builder.

Anyway, I have my own Silver River anecdote going back to when I first viewed the film on TV as a 7 year old. Now Flynn was my movie hero so I paid little mind to the fact that his character in this particular film was ruthless, at times, and a bit of a rat. I just knew he was my hero so could do no wrong.

Watching the film that first time I was particularly impressed by a scene in a bar in which Flynn placed his hand on the shoulder of baddie Barton MacLane then suck punched him with a right cross knocking him to the floor. Once he was on the floor Flynn took it a step further by breaking a balsa wood chair over his head. It was such a cool moment to my young Flynn adoring eyes.

So immediately after the film ended I left my home and sought out my best friend, Stevie. With images of the Flynn suck punch still dancing in my mind, I took Stevie to a semi-secluded location, placed my hand on his shoulder then punched him in the stomach. Thank goodness there was no chair nearby.

Well, Stevie screamed in shock and pain and ran home crying and I stood there watching him not quite understanding my own feelings. What had looked so cool when my hero did it on TV did not feel cool at all after I did a reasonable facsimile of it in real life. Besides, MacLane had it coming in the movie while my pal Stevie did not.

I went home confused and, feeling guilty about my deed, made a full confession of it to my mother. She demanded, rightfully, that I cross the street and apologize to Stevie.

A few minutes later I standing at his front door and I recall Stevie's mother answering the door, with a sniffing Stevie peering out at me from behind her. I fumbled out some kind of an apology to him.

Well, Stevie eventually forgave me and our friendship survived, and I never again let a scene in a movie so influence me that I would afterward do anything as stupid as that again.

I learned a valuable lesson that day, thanks to Errol Flynn and Silver River. What can appear effortless and cool in reel life can often have no proper place if transferred to real life.



11:24 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I bought my first 8mm prints of METROPOLIS, THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, etc. the friends I showed them to thought me crazy for wasting my money on them.

When, at the invitation of the late "Captain" George Hendersen I began screening films in a room at his stores VIKING BOOKS and then MEMORY LANE I discovered the great joy that comes with sharing these treasures not with "friends" but with absolute strangers who know their value.

There is no greater pleasure.

12:03 PM  
Blogger mndean said...

Ah, the good old days when "portable" meant "it has either a handle or wheels", and "semi-portable" meant "it doesn't need to be bolted to the floor". The weight was what it was and if it took three people to move it, at least it moved, which was enough.

12:06 PM  
Blogger Tom said...

To add to Reg Hart's comments, I, too bought an 8mm print of Chaney's The Phantom of the Opera (no soundtrack, of course). In fact, I still have the eight reels tucked away somewhere.

I also recall with great affection Captain George's store on Markham Street in Toronto where he allowed fans to make purchases of movie memorabilia at such incredibly cheap prices that it showed he had a love of old movies first, and was a businessman second. Among other items, I purchased an original White Heat half sheet poster for peanuts ($10 or $15), along with a million or so lobby cards of various films. Captain George was kind kind enough, when I was taking a journalism course in the '70s, to allow me to interview him about his store.

There will never be another store like Memory Lane.

6:45 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Had I known how much easier it would be to watch these movies -- and restored to their original luster! -- I would have ignored the Blackhawk 8mm catalog.

By the way, "Silver River" showcases one of Flynn's very best performances. Nice to see him playing an anti-hero for a change!

9:39 PM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I'm light years from true collectordom, but I hoard enough old-school media (mainly modern reprints and discs with old-school content) to puzzle and worry my relatives. Yes, old movies, TV, and even classic radio can be downloaded or streamed or whatever cheap or even free. But there's still a magic to having the media in your hands and owning it, especially if the ability to enjoy stuff on demand is a new thing in your memory.

I never got beyond 8mm before transitioning to video, but even I still hear the faint siren call of the big screen. A video projector would be beyond nonsensical, yet the thought of projecting Rathbone and Bruce on a screen in the patio, or silent comedies on the garage door on a summer night ...

11:07 PM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

In the late 60's and early 70's the Denver Public Library had nearly every Blackhawk film in Standard 8. I would check these films out and go down into our crawlspace and watch them instead of waiting until dark. The smell of the running projector and Earth dirt still linger in my nose's memory. One of these film was the HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. When I see the film today those aromas return to my memory.

7:43 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

From Dan Mercer:


This was obviously the heroic age of film collecting, with the prize hard won and perhaps as much the reaching out of the imagination as for anything tangible. You would have been Duncan Reynaldo to the Harry Carey of Moon Mullins in a remake of "Trader Horn," driving down roads that made only a tenuous connection with what passed for civilization in the hill country. An Edwina Booth would have made the quest complete, but even that exquisite beauty could hardly be compared to the sublime pleasure of discovering a 35 mm print of "Silver River." As Mullins would have said, "A woman is a woman, but a film is a show."

There is the comedy of it, but in what comedy would there be an image as sublime as that of a film being projected upon a cascade of snow? Only the human comedy, only life, and only if one's heart and mind are open to the possibility of wonderful things happening.

6:11 PM  
Blogger Barry Rivadue said...

I still recall the dankness of my basement when, in the '60s, running an 8mm edition of A & C Meet Frankenstein. Worked very well!

12:05 PM  

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