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Sunday, April 30, 2006

Selling, Chasing, and Collecting The Mummy

When it comes to the subject of Universal horror films, critical objectivity is quite beyond me. Sentiment and nostalgia are guiding principles wherever these come up, good or bad by anyone's measure quite beside the point. Casual search of the Internet will confirm I'm not alone with such enthusiasm. Remarkable how one package of features, already years old when they made a first appearance on television (1957), so completely captured the imagination of fifties and sixties youth. Part of mystique was difficulty in seeing the things. Most TV markets carried the "Shock" group (a syndicated umbrella covering most of the Universal horrors), but you were lucky if a local station ran them twice in a year. A few in my area spaced them far further out, and you had to rely upon Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine to refresh memories of beloved icons such as Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, and the rest. Some of us can recite day and date of each encounter with Bride Of Frankenstein, The Black Cat, and other classics. They were ones we saw when it was possible to be truly impressed by a movie, long before regrettable onset of maturity when one applies critical standards, and nothing’s capable of really exciting you anymore. I saw it coming at fourteen, and recognizing signs even then. Sneering at The Green Slime, walking out on Destroy All Monsters, even turning my back on a Hammer film, Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed. Childhood’s warm embrace of all things horrific would not last beyond 1968 for me, and yet, the essentials remained dear, and of all these, perhaps The Mummy remains most cherished.

The chase after The Mummy was launched with 16mm collecting. This was long before videocassettes. Why wait for the thing to show up on television when you can score your own print, preferably one of those rare originals? Now an original was that elusive specimen generated through the legitimate auspices of the current copyright owner. In this case, it was Screen Gems distribution, the syndication arm of Columbia. They had leased the horrors from Universal and supplied individual TV stations with 16mm prints. Your hopes of getting one of those were pretty nil. A few got pilfered out of storage rooms and distribution terminals, but you didn't want to get your hands too warm handling contraband like this. Better to settle for a "dupe" (a bootlegged copy made from an original) or an older legit print that had cooled off by virtue of its having been with the same collector for a number of years. This was how I finally got my bonifide 1957 original of The Mummy. Collecting comrade Robert Cline and I ventured forth once again into that bizarre netherworld of obsessive film hoarders who’d long since retreated from society as we know to a place largely unknown among normal, functioning adults. Our host on this occasion was the male counterpart of Miss Havisham, his darkened home filled with hundreds of loudly ticking antique clocks. He must have spent all day every day winding the things. I don’t know how he slept among all those timepieces. Actually, I don’t think he slept at all. One or two of his cats resided in the refrigerator, as I recall. Their means of ingress and egress were not explained to us. His print of The Mummy resided in yet another of those suffocating basements so beloved by collectors. You couldn’t read the titles on the reels without a flashlight, and naturally, his had dead batteries. You see, Vitus, the batteries are dead. Even the batteries are dead. So, was it worth all this? Emphatically yes! Big yes! That liquid, silvery Kodak safety positive looked like a vintage woodcut. I could almost read those hieroglyphics right along with Bramwell Fletcher during that opening sequence. Would I go through something like this again? No. Decidedly no. DVD’s have made my collecting life simpler. But nice as the DVD of The Mummy looks, it’s still not quite the same experience as watching that 16mm beauty I once owned.

The Mummy pursuit wasn’t confined to 16mm. There were also original posters, at least those few that actually survived. A friend of mine found out about one of them by sheer happenstance. Seems there was a handyman who’d done yard work for an elderly woman with whom he’d become friendly after several seasons of lawn and gutter work. One day over a tall glass of Lipton’s, she casually mentioned an old movie poster which had been given her as a wee child by a kindly old exhibitor way back in 1933. Would he care to see it? Not wanting to appear rude, the tradesman feigned interest as the old lady unfurled the folded original one-sheet for The Mummy she’d had for the last sixty years (here’s what one of those looks like). His reaction was calm. He neither tried to barter for it, nor dispatched her with a claw hammer to steal it. Instead, he went about his business, and only mentioned it to my friend’s father weeks later because he knew the man had a son who was into movie posters. My friend (who shall remain nameless, as he wishes to avoid being tortured into revealing the woman’s name and address) immediately commissioned said handyman to return to the woman with an offer. This time her radar was up. It wasn’t just no, but hell no! She’d been pestered by these would-be purchasers before, and she wasn’t about to be done out of her priceless Mummy poster by any guy that raked leaves for a living! Needless to say, the deal went cold. That was over ten years ago. My friend told me yesterday it’s still cold. In fact, for all he knows, that old lady might be cold as well. It’s a cinch you won’t get any updates on her from that handyman. He’s clipped his last hedge at her place. Meanwhile, there’s a one-sheet for The Mummy unaccounted for. But please, you rabid poster collectors. Don’t bother torturing me for her name and address. I asked my friend never to reveal those --- for my own protection.

Were they still with us, you could ask David Manners and Zita Johann about The Mummy chase. Both of them lived long enough to experience it, though I’m not so sure they enjoyed the experience. After all, how do you evade an army of fans when you’re pushing ninety and all of your pursuers are hale and hearty mid-lifers (and even the most fragile of us monster acolytes are capable are breaking into a dead run at the sight of a surviving Universal horror star)? Boris Karloff and Edward Van Sloan were the lucky ones. They died before us monster kids grew up. Neither of them had to face the prospect of anxious would-be interviewers banging on their nursing home door. Poor Dave and Zita made it into the 1990's. Manners lived to a ripe ninety-seven. He got to where he was telling fans he’d rather die than submit to another interview. He just wanted to eat pancakes in the dining room with the rest of the seniors. Telling yet another horror fan what it was like working with Bela Lugosi was worse than a rectal exam for him. Not that I’m setting myself above his inquisitors, mind you. I once wrote Mr. Manners a fan letter, back in 1969, and wouldn’t you know it? He didn’t want to talk to me either. Zita was more receptive. In fact, she even supplied the forward for a really neat book about the production history of The Mummy (written by that ace researcher Greg Mank). Zita dished all sorts of inside scoop on that long ago month she spent in the company of Boris Karloff (a true gentleman) and director Karl Freund (total bastard). She was living in Nyack, N.Y., her serene retirement interrupted only by a gentle tapping, someone rapping, at her chamber door. Sure enough, another fan with questions about The Mummy. Zita almost made it to ninety. I suspect a lot of those Mummy-philes would have gladly followed her over to the other side, if only such a thing weren’t so --- permanent. Hey --- could be worth it at that --- just imagine, a full cast and crew Mummy reunion! Can Heaven really hold the promise of such delights? Let's hope so!

And now --- these pictures. I know I harp a lot on going back in time, but honestly, wouldn’t you just give anything to have walked down good old Main Street, past the starving depression folk selling apples, and encounter theatre-front displays like these? How about facing that store window with the live Mummy and "sleeping woman" tableau (those spectators look fascinated)? And that girl who "comes to life" in the lobby? Did she lie there all day? Wonder what they paid her. Roving mummies in the street --- mummies giving out dollar bills (Wow! Bet those mummies were more sought after than an octogenarian David Manners!). Over in England, they had two dozen guys with sandwich boards taking to the sidewalks, in addition to the street mummies. Those UK showmen sure knew their onions. Closer to home, that marquee that reads, "The Mummy – It Comes To Life" is Charlotte NC’s own Broadway Theatre, now long leveled and gone. To think, I could have walked to that show from where I live. Only ninety miles. Yeah … easy walk.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Brilliant work once again. Yes what I wouldn't do to take that stroll with you. What happened to your 16mm version? And do you think the romance of collecting is all gone now because of DVD(and before video) or is it better because more people can appreciate it?

6:52 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

Those 1930s Universal horror movies were the best when I was a kid watchting them on late-night TV; nothing that came afterwards could match them for sheer atmosphere. Cool ballyhoo pictures there, too! PR "experts" are so dull these days. Let me know when you find the time machine to take you back to those theatres -- I'll happily pay my way!

7:49 AM  
Blogger J.C. Loophole said...

Another excellent post! This is another example of what makes Greenbrier the place to be! I think what I enjoy most is the behind the scene glimpse into marketing you provide combined with your enthusiasm and knowledge of the stars and film. I make sure to read the "news" first and then make my ritual morning visit to Greenbrier so I can get the bad stuff ("news") out of the way and have a more pleasant day thinking about Karloff, or Universal monsters... or Bebe Daniels... or whatever treasure I can find here. As always- thanks for your site, your hard work, and enthusiasm. Don't worry I won't come knocking on the door of your retirement home for an interview. Well, maybe just for a glimpse at any posters you have lying around...

8:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My first exposure to The Mummy was in the early Sixties on local TV, NYC metro area. They showed the film every night for a week and I saw it at least three times. The ending always impressed me. I was about ten at the time.

10:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been enjoying Greenbriar Picture Shows for a while now and just wanted to say Thanks! The promotional materials in this post in particular are wonderful. Your writing is a joy to read and your efforts are very much appreciated.

12:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, I love your site, and have linked to it a couple of times, but may I make a small design suggestion? You have the text in the comment section set to dark grey on a black background; this is unreadable to me unless I highlight it with my cursor. If you make the text a lighter grey, or perhaps a wheat color, it would be much more eyeball friendly.

Like you, I also remember waiting anxiously for the local tv channels to rerun a particular Universal horror favorite. Very frustrating.

10:24 AM  

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