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Thursday, February 04, 2010

J.D. Salinger --- Film Collector

I found out this week that J.D. Salinger was a 16mm film collector. While everyone was waiting for him to write another Catcher In The Rye, Jerry was holed up watching Bill Fields and The Marx Brothers. He fit the personality profile of many collectors I dealt with. Eccentric … check. Reclusive … yeah. Spoke in tongues and drank his own urine … well, that lost a few of us, although I knew one guy who stayed in the same pair of pajamas for three days as he ran through NTA’s entire package of Gene Autry westerns. So how much did 16mm shape this dean of American writers? I’ve never read a word of his output, being a functional illiterate as to fiction and not proud of it, but will confess to being intrigued by Salinger, more so now that I know he collected. They say he had lots of prints. Favorites included aforementioned Fields and the Marxes, plus The Thin Man, Lost Horizon, early Hitchcock, and bless him, Laurel and Hardy. Salinger’s daughter wrote a book about life around his Cornish, New Hampshire retreat. Our shared world was not books, but rather, my father’s collection of reel-to-reel movies, she wrote. Salinger would set up a screen in front of the living room fireplace, and they’d watch The 39 Steps, The Lady Vanishes, and Foreign Correspondent, among others. He’d later switch to videocassettes, but Margaret found them a sterile substitute for the sensuous delight of 16mm. That last part struck a chord, for I’ve heard many a loyalist to film express similar feelings. Perhaps there is something sensuous about handling celluloid, and digital profanes it. Salinger’s ritual of threading and rewinding was crucial to the authenticity of experiencing movies, and his daughter lovingly describes reel changes and splices he executed with precision (He wasn’t scared of getting cut at all …). I particularly enjoyed the part where she talked of running out of the room terrified during suspense scenes in Foreign Correspondent, and how Salinger lambasted her lack of nerve. Christ, all you and your mother want to see are sentimental pictures about Thanksgiving and puppy dogs.

So how did Salinger come by his prints? Sooner or later, every collector has to deal with others. I’ll bet Salinger did too, perhaps under another name. Did we buy, sell, or trade with him without knowing it? Chances are good that his heirs will find old Big Reels when they dig through the house for unpublished novels. But who will get the 16mm stuff? Little of that is worth much now, other than for Salinger having owned it. Consider what The Bank Dick in 16mm might bring on Ebay … then imagine the same with J.D. Salinger’s Personal Print on the header. How many English Department heads can we figure to bid on that? I wonder if a fellow collector could have gotten through Salinger’s barricade. One who tried was Warren French. He’d written the first book-length study of Salinger in 1963 and sent a letter asking if they could exchange lists and maybe a few rare prints. Apparently, French got no reply (maybe Salinger suspected French was using the films as a device to engage the author about his books). Another writer, John Seabrook, was invited by Salinger’s son to come over and watch a movie. That was in the mid-eighties, according to an article Seabrook recently wrote for the New Yorker. He describes how Salinger made them popcorn and ran his print of Sergeant York, with a good time had by all. Seabrook described his host as friendly and sociable. Well, isn’t any collector pleased to share his bounty with appreciative guests? The more I read about this guy Salinger, the more I think we would have hit it off. Not having read his stuff, I wouldn’t have peppered him with dumb questions about Holden Caulfield, Uncle Wiggly, and the rest. It would have been enough for us to ruminate over a screening of Chickens Come Home and discuss finer points of the Marxes at Paramount vs. Metro. I might even have found him an original print of Young and Innocent. From such bonding as this, I bet he would have taken my calls anytime.


Blogger Raquel Stecher said...

Great post! I like that it's come to light that JD Salinger was a film buff. Even though I am an English major myself and work in book publishing, I shirk at the thought of English professors lusting after Salinger's 16mm only because he owned them. If anyone gets those movies, it should be true classic movie enthusiasts!

9:28 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Raquelle. I really enjoy your "Out Of The Past" blog, and would recommend it to Greenbriar readers:

Lots of great stuff there!

9:55 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

THE CATCHER IN THE RYE...perhaps the most well-know novel to escape a filmed version.

Salinger would never sign a film deal.

Jerry Lewis hounded the author for years begging to buy the film rights.

Imagine Jerry's version, perhaps changing the main character's name from Holden Caulfield to Herbert H. Heebert.

10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A sterile substitute for the sensuous delight of 16mm."

Truer words were never spoken.

You know, lately I've been longing for the smell of VitaFilm.

10:15 AM  
Anonymous Griff said...

Wonderful piece, John. Prize-worthy.

Incidentally, in that New Yorker article, John Seabrook further described the print of SERGEANT YORK Salinger ran: "The movie was captioned, perhaps because he was going a little deaf."

The English-language 16mm print was captioned? How many of those have you run across?

11:30 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Griff, the captioned prints I came across were always cheaper because nobody wanted captioned 16mm prints. I'll bet Salinger was disappointed to end up with a "Sgt. York" like that. Some dealer rooked him that time. I knew a few collectors who got subtitled prints without being told in advance, and they were pretty steamed about it.

11:47 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

What would be really great would be if suddenly everybody recognized him from Cinefest. Oh, that Jerry!

Yeah, it'd be great to have Salinger's The Bank Dick. To go with William M. Gaines' King Kong, of course...

8:24 PM  
Blogger J. Theakston said...

More likely, Salinger ordered prints from the studios who were eager to oblige in order to gain favor for optioning rights to his stories.

9:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Spring '77. Dartmouth Film Society, Hanover NH.

We were showing "Snow White and the 7 Dwarfs"...just released by Films Inc., I think, for a brief college window. It was a 16 mm print in mint condition. I was the Film Society Director at that point, and a big animation nut, so I added a few other animated items to the program. A Fleischer short -- I think "Bimbo's Initiation" --plus a great 16 mm print, in color, of "The Mickey Mouse Club" opening. The entire audience of 900 students/locals sang along, I kid you not. That was a great movie audience moment for me.

My mistake on this one particular night, at least as far as one of our patrons was concerned, was that I front-loaded that night's program with too many trailers for upcoming Dartmouth Film Society screenings. I was very excited about some of our scheduled features, I had gone to some trouble to round up the trailers, and I wanted to show them off. This was an eclectic mix of coming attractions: some Hollywood classics, some foreign films, some hits, some total obscurities, and I thought the wide range of the trailers was exhilerating.

My excitement was not shared by this one member of our audience who, after enduring about 20 minutes of the 25 minute reel of coming attractions, came storming out of the theater and up to the ticket desk, where I was manning the station. He proceeded to give me a serious tongue-lashing, explaining in no uncertain terms that he had come to see the movie that was advertised to be playing, and he didn't want to be subjected to a half hour of advertisements for upcoming junk that he had no intention of ever seeing, and he told me that he never again wanted to be subjected to such an onslaught of trailers. After his boisterous tirade, he turned and stomped off. He was an old guy, and he was genuinely angry.

My boss, Blair Watson, who created the Dartmouth Film Society in 1948, was there that night, and he had watched this altercation from the far side of the lobby. Once the feature was underway, the mood calmed down in the lobby, and Blair came over to the desk to pick up the box office receipts and to see how I was faring after being chewed out. I was still a little rattled.

Blair said he knew the old guy who was ticked off...the guy was a regular, had been coming to the Film Society for years. And every now and then this regular would get bent out of shape about something. The same guy had blown off steam a few times before. So I wasn't to take it personally. I thanked Blair for his support.

But then Blair asked me what he really wanted to know: "So -- how does it feel to get chewed out by J.D. Salinger?"

From that point on, at the Film Society, we never ran more than two coming attractions per show.

Tom Ruegger

4:24 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Tom, what a priceless anecdote! I should have guessed that Salinger would attend college film shows. Thanks so much for sharing this experience with us.

5:24 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Twenty-five minutes of trailers IS a bit much.

Ten minutes tops.

But at least it commanded an audience with Mr. Salinger.

9:22 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There was a movie called "My Foolish Heart" that was based on one of Salinger's short stories - "Uncle Wiggily In Connecticut." It starred Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews. Salinger hated it. And that's why there's never been a movie of Catcher In The Rye.


5:33 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As usual, a fascinating post!

As a film buff for over 50 years, I went through the 70s and 80s collecting 16mm and later 35mm, first having a carbon arc 35mm booth in an apartment, later two different homes, ending up owning a theatre.
Film is indeed great, but now that digital looks so good on the screen, and previously unavailable titles are released by the major distributors, I am glad to be on the receiving end of this new technology. No more dupes, vinegar syndrome, overpriced prints, difficult sellers or buyers and much easier storage. I can assemble a show on a computer without losing frames splicing often.

I do miss the mechanical interaction of a big Simplex or Motiograph 35mm machine, handling those big cans full of film, but now virtually all the titles I want are within reach at the price I can easily afford.

Even Salinger began the transistion...

7:10 AM  
Anonymous r.j. said...

Thanks, "anonymous" for calling attention to "My Foolish Heart". Absolutely true. It spawned a great title song by the great Victor Young, but little else, and apparently did turn Salinger off from ever repeating that mistake, no matter how large the bait they dangled.

By the way, it is undoubtedly no coincidence that the central character's name is "Holden Caulfield" -- "Dear Ruth" had been a big hit at that time, based on a Broadway show and starring (in the film Paramount did), William Holden, and my old friend, Joan Caulfield! Of course Salinger was a movie fan -- wasn't virtually everyone then?

John, speaking of "old friends", what a killer shot from "The Bank Dick" -- I'd never seen that one before -- thanks for including!


10:50 AM  
Blogger Jennythenipper said...

Though, I'm not a fan of his writing, this post plus the piece in the Newyorker on Salinger's pre-Catcher life, make me want to go back and read his stuff again.

His film collection sounds great, too. I love his taste in movies.

Salinger is the Greta Garbo of the writing world. They both were famously reclusive, inspired fanatical and sometimes scary fan bases and I think their status as icons tended to overshadow their status as genuine talents in their fields.

12:45 PM  

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