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Wednesday, February 08, 2017

Chancy Game That Was Collecting

Our Hospitality (1923) When It Was Ill-Got Gain

We're ninety-four years past release of Our Hospitality. Ninety-four years! That's as far as Buster Keaton was removed from the period he recreated for this, his second feature, and first acknowledged masterpiece. Which raises a question, how many of such masterpieces did Keaton create? --- I mean to fall in that undisputed category. Besides Our Hospitality, do we add Sherlock, Jr., Seven Chances, The General, and Steamboat Bill, Jr.? Any others? In event the list closes on these, that's half of his independent features, and all done in first half of a long career. I remark on the 94 years because Our Hospitality stays so undated. It will please as well today as for audiences when new, maybe better. They were bound to have taken great comedy more for granted then. But wait, I said comedy, when fact is, I look at Our Hospitality in period adventure terms as much as mirth, a stance even more applied to Keaton's ultimate venture into past that was The General. A best comedy is one we'll watch and admire long after laughs have been had and surprises spent.

For Good Boys and Girls, There was The General from Blackhawk. For Others ...
I won't gab over merit of Our Hospitality because others, lots of others, have done so more eloquently before, and will again. Instead there's collecting tale I'll dredge from early 70's when Our Hospitality could not be legitimately had, even seen, outside Raymond Rohauer-guarded cocoon, him the ogre who'd deny seekers after 8 and 16mm ownership. At that time, 1972 specifically, there were only three Keaton features sold above-board for home watching. They were The General, Steamboat Bill Jr., and College, the trio released in the late 20's by United Artists, and all Public Domain. Blackhawk and/or Griggs Moviedrome offered them, so we could rely both on quality and promptness of delivery. Other seven of key Keaton ten were outliers, not to be legally had, which of course, wouldn't stop those who dealt off bottom of collector decks. One of such was a freebooter who offered still-protected silent classics under disguised titles, ordering from him a coded affair where actual titles would not be mentioned in any correspondence or face of checks sent. An 8mm print of Our Hospitality, for instance, was listed as "The Feud," a tip as to identity of the film, but obscure enough to evade detection by law-dogs on the alert.

Only those of us in the know, knew, and if tagged by cops, could disavow knowledge of Our Hospitality being trafficked. It was "The Feud" we ordered for $60 (to think --- I could have a glorious Blu-Ray nearly three times for that money today). So Our Hospitality came stealth to my address in early 1972, a "hot" movie an incautious collector could acquire provided he was willing to deal with devils, a route I'd take and keep taking. This was what the game was about in those days. The best of what we bought was pilfered, bootlegged, or snatched out of labs and TV stations. Had I been older and with more sense, or better instinct for self-preservation, I'd not have taken risks like those routinely engaged when collecting was such perilous pursuit. So what, then, of Our Hospitality, or rather, The Feud? Well, my print proved somewhat a dud. You could watch it, make some of action out, but for most part, this was like clouds through bottom of a Coke bottle, a mess to any but hardest-core rarity seekers. My peace was bought by fact this was forbidden fruit ripe in my hands, a trophy others could not, dare not, acquire. Issues of quality or clarity were secondary to joy of just having Our Hospitality for my own.


Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I was much more fortunate. I was able to get really great 16mm prints of all the Keaton features except THE THREE AGES of which even Rohauer had a poor print. I met the man once in New York. Had dinner with him. He knew I had the films. He also knew I did not give a fig for his threats.

It was, to say the least, an interesting moment. Nonetheless, give him the credit he is due. He acted to save films when too few gave a damnn.

In the beginning I got burned when buying prints but once I found people I could trust who cared I stuck with them. One fellow said, "You are my favorite customer." I asked why. He said you call, ask if I can find a title and when I have it and quote a price you say, "Fine." Everyone else spends a half hour or more trying to get me to lower the price." I never haggled because I wanted his good will and his enthusiasm. These things can't be bought but they can be earned. In the long run they are what matters. In the case of the Keaton films I presented them with scores designed to be as unintrusive as possible. Too many today think because the movies are comedies the music should be funny thus creating scores that fight with the film for laughs. I once forced 800 people out for The Marx Brothers in A DAY AT THE RACES to watch SEVEN CHANCES first. They were furious when it started. They laughed so hard the building practically shook. It was thrilling to see. There can be no argument from me that each of the silent shorts made with Buster Keaton from his shorts up to and including THE CAMERAMAN are perfect. The problem for Buster was that his sound films made for MGM made way more money. This was for MGM a validation that their methods were better than Buster's. I did a 2 1/2 hour dramatic improvisation out of Buster's life a few years back. To do it as Buster I had to do it without rehearsal improvising on the spot. It was thrilling. I did it for several months. Each performance showed me how to better shape the material for impact. I titled the MGM section MGM: Mighty Gawdawful Moments. They were. If you have only experienced these films in your living room by yourself or with a handful of friends you have not experienced them in the best possible way. I'd love to see anyone of them with 5,000 complete strangers. Now that theatre would shake from the volume of the laughter.

9:16 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I can't tell you how illicit I felt mailing a postcard to Argentina for Enrique J Bouchard's catalog. When I finally bought an 8mm print from him I knew I had wandered off the straight-and-narrow never to return.

9:42 AM  
Blogger Neely OHara said...

The "disguising" of titles continues (albeit not for profit, but still to avoid copyright laws) on YouTube. Full length, often HD movies turn up when searched by a couple of cast members' names, while nothing turns up when searched by title. For instance (just to use a stinker that won't be missed should it be pulled) 1969's "How To Commit Marriage" turns up as "Make A Match."

11:09 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I never got beyond basic 8mm film myself, focusing on silent shorts from Blackhawk and a flurry of Disney cartoons and feature excepts (back when it was tough to see any Disney outside a theater or the Sunday night show). Perfectly legal reels were enough of a crapshoot. I dipped into black and gray market in the VHS and DVD eras; main acquisition being "Song of the South" (sold in play sight at a toy collector's show).

These days my main wish list item is a good release of the silent Laurel and Hardy shorts. I've got the ancient "Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy", but they're not that great.

6:51 PM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

But in 1924, the options for 9.5mm were infinitely better.

11:42 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I remember Charlie Tarbox at Film Classics Exchange sold some Laurel & Hardy silent films with alternate titles. I remember he had SAILORS BEWARE when Blackhawk didn't. I have heard both that he did have the rights to sell these films and that he didn't.

2:20 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I bought some home-burned DVDs from a guy who had prints of old movies that either weren't available otherwise or were recorded off TCM. Received regular catalogues from him... Until they stopped coming. I dropped him an email, never got an answer. I guess the movie police shut him down.

2:25 PM  

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