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Tuesday, September 22, 2009

1970 Collector Hopes Raised and Dashed

I’ve spent this week mining my way into the hearts and minds of Fred Thomson followers who once carried banners for the long departed cowboy star and have for the most part joined him on the trail beyond. Members of Fred’s adoring legion were mostly around my age when they looked back from the early seventies, a time when silent moviegoers were still out there in abundance and publications like The Classic Film Collector served as community forums, much like online boards and discussion groups enable twenty-first century fans to compare notes. Big happenings for us include rediscovery of a complete Metropolis and whatever’s forthcoming on DVD. Sometimes announcements are too good to be true. Think of last year when some prankster claimed to have seen a print of F.W. Murnau’s Four Devils in a collector’s trove. There are sightings of London After Midnight as frequent as seasons change, all (so far) bogus. Back in Fall of 1970, it was a trio of thought lost Fred Thomson westerns that lit up silent enthusiasm’s world, their having allegedly surfaced in the archive of a North Carolina collector who’d soon make them available on 8 and 16mm. This was news of seismic import to readers for whom long ago Saturday walks to see Thomson in action were among happiest days of youth. Other silent cowboys had been accessible since respective 20’s peaks. You could still buy or rent Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, and Ken Maynard, or even watch them on television. Thomson was different for having died before talkies gathered him up, and being his output was silent, virtually all of it was consigned to bonfires and silver reclamation. I got a lowdown on the fate of Fred’s FBO output (Film Booking Office, then controlled by Joseph P. Kennedy) from author Cari Beauchamp, who kindly got in touch by e-mail following Greenbriar’s post about her fine book, Without Lying Down. She passed along the following from recently published Joseph P. Kennedy Presents: His Hollywood Years, which recounts correspondence between two key FBO employees soon after Fred Thomson’s death. Here, according to Beauchamp, was final stop for that star’s nitrate legacy:

Charlie Sullivan was still at his Gower Street office, but now on the RKO payroll and Pat Scollard was at the Pathe office in New York. Whatever their titles or, for that matter, whoever was paying their salaries, their first and foremost loyalty was to Kennedy. For weeks following Fred Thomson’s death, both men, from their respective perches, made time to collect Thomson’s insurance as well as press Paramount for a full accounting of the films still in distribution.
Scollard and Sullivan exchanged dozens of letters and, as necessary, sent updates to Kennedy. In the process, Sullivan told Scollard that there were over one hundred cans of Thomson’s FBO movies left in what were now the RKO vaults. "We are shortly going to need all of our vault space," Sullivan reported and he needed to know what Kennedy wanted done with the films. Pat Scollard, trained over the years to look at the next quarter’s balance sheet, instructed Sullivan that "unless there are some shots there that you could sell and get some money for, I think it would be the best plan to junk it all and send me a check for the scrap film." After all, that could bring as much as a penny per foot. In doing so, they destroyed 2200
pounds of "scrap film" or, in other words, Fred Thomson’s life work.

Tom Osteen was the Brevard, NC projectionist and collector who claimed to possess three of Fred Thomson’s Paramount features. A Sensational Announcement, he called it, with long lost Jesse James, Kit Carson, and The Sunset Legion slated for release through Osteen’s Sylvan Films. Classic Film Collector Publisher/Editor Samuel K. Rubin had visited Tom in Brevard and saw film boxes clearly labeled. He took Osteen’s word as to contents inside and began promoting the Fred Thomson westerns to come. Readers sent advance payments for Jesse James, its early 1971 delivery assured by Sylvan (with Kit Carson to follow in mid-1971 and The Sunset Legion set for 1972 availability, per Osteen). Outstanding artist Anthony Phillips again demonstrated uncanny ability to duplicate the look of silent film ads when he drew a full-page display for Osteen’s forthcoming slate (above). Orders (with checks) began pouring into Brevard. I well remember the breathless articles in CFC about Thomson’s westerns and their miraculous rediscovery. Being sixteen and well short of the needed $50 to buy an 8mm Jesse James ($160 for 16mm), I could only dream as to what awaited better-heeled collectors (there would even be glossy photo sets and poster reproductions available for Jesse James). Sam and Tom posed together before Osteen’s original one-sheet, as shown above, and the latter was making noises as to other thought-lost westerns he’d scoped out via collector friends with stashes of their own. Was North Carolina shaping up to become the great-untapped well of nitrate treasures? The months to follow would answer a resounding … no.

Sam Rubin put out calls for Fred Thomson articles to further trumpet pending release of his westerns. Classic Film Collector readership sallied forth with affectionate tributes able yet to bring tears to my eyes. Longtime fan William Barton contributed Fred Thomson Rides Again, and that writer’s pal James Pierce (erstwhile silent era Tarzan!) lent commentary re his then forty year ago friendship and professional association with Thomson. So many old timers were still around in 1970, access to them as simple as picking up a telephone. I’m astounded by resourcefulness of pioneering historians who got researching jobs done even as they worked unrelated jobs and juggled family obligations (Sam Rubin ran a furniture store while moonlighting as CFC publisher/editor). Another who related a very personal account of boyhood devotion was Tom Brennen, whose I Can’t Forget Fred Thomson in CFC Issue 30 was a moving recollection of that bleak Christmas Day in 1928 when a local news extra informed him, at age 11, of the cowboy star’s death. I don’t know if Brennen is still alive. He’d be 92 if he were. In whatever case, his article is a masterly evocation of a screen idol passing and the shattering effect it had on at least one youngster who I’m sure spoke for others mostly gone now.

Joyful contemplation of Fred Thomson collector prints to come was shattered when Sam Rubin headlined bad news in CFC #2. Lost Films Lost Again! preceded an account of massive flooding in Tom Osteen’s basement that washed away all the Fred Thomson reels, plus an FBO Tom Mix, "Son Of The Golden West," he (Osteen) was going to release (as if readers needed further salt in wounds). It was the local gas company what done it. They were digging in front of Tom’s home and struck a water line. Nearly 100% of the collection was destroyed. Osteen claimed possible recourse to another print of Jesse James he’d borrow from a fellow enthusiast, but reader disappointment over the announcement was acute. Cannot understand why he had not decided to have prints made up after having them for all this time, said one letter. One negative should be kept in a bank vault, and a spare negative elsewhere, remarked another. Refunds would be forthcoming, according to Osteen, and maybe one or two Thomson fragments could be printed from what little footage was salvageable. Doubters began speculating that Osteen never had the nitrate to begin with. And even if he did, weren’t copyrights renewed by Paramount on the Thomson westerns and thus protected? Maybe it was all just a sham. Months would pass in silence from Brevard. Checks sent had been cashed, but those refunds weren’t happening. Osteen ran an ad looking to dispose of printing equipment, so clearly Sylvan had tossed in the towel with regard generating film. A year plus six months went by before Tom landed in the CFC’s Collector’s Court, a one-man tribunal Sam Rubin established to keep dealers honest. But there was no luck bringing Tom to earth. Well, maybe those NC mountains had swallowed him up. Brevard was (is!), after all, about as remote as wilderness that once gave Alvin York refuge. Was fifty dollars tossed at phantom 8mm prints worth venturing into such a benighted region?

Many Thanks to Cari Beauchamp for information regarding the fate of Fred Thomson's westerns.
Coming in Part Three: My Brevard Trip at Age 19 to find Tom Osteen and Whatever Became of his Mythical Fred Thomson films.


Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

WOW! John McElwee is the new Master of Suspense! Great story, beautifully told, and very evocative of the hobby's bygone days. Just like seeing Chapter 14 of a serial... can't wait for the payoff!

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I also wait on tenterhooks to hear the rest of the story. I must say Mr. Osteen looks none too respectable at this stage of the story. Did anyone ever follow up with the Brevard gas company to determine whether such a flooding ever actually took place?

5:47 PM  
Blogger bbunny2009 said...

I agree with Scott. A great story. Too many movie print tragedies like this. So few with happy endings.
I too look forward to the rest of the tale. Thanks so much for briging this to life...

Tom Ruegger

6:05 AM  

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