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Monday, October 17, 2022

Another Collection Passed Down ...


Fun For One and One For All on 8mm

Seems I fall heir to another collection of 8mm film, a variant to before as this owner still lives, though minus machinery to run reels on, and no inclination to dig up means for doing so. Yes, there are cliffs between 8mm and 2022, especially standard 8, a format to scream analog loudest. Part why I return to such antiquity is colorful boxes, palm-size reels, each delicate in their way, so meaningful when new and treasures for privileged who got them when so. Consider comic books cost twelve cents, any Castle or Blackhawk subject many times that. There was a “headline edition” of Tarantula that parents cheerlessly paid for at a department store in West Virginia (why we were even there escapes me). It was part of a counter display … Castle reels aboard a spinning rack. Price was $2.98. I decided Tarantula should be tinted green (“the color of fear”) so I dipped the whole thing in food color. Miraculously not ruined, the monster marched three-minute trek to glory against a bedsheet to dwarf TV as it then was. And Tarantula’s cardboard container, what became of that? A large-enough vacuum cleaner may well have sucked it up.

Not to get all tingly and sense of wonder about 8mm, as I long passed nostalgia’s peak for it, yet the format is being collected again via eBay, younger people at most vigorous pursuit. Seldom do I see better magnetic sound reels for less than $60, so 8mm may well have risen from ashes. Physical film needs patience and physical dexterity which some among us no longer have. Feeding film to angry sprocket claws of my Eumig costs footage for each time tried, solution to trim film between sprocket holes before finessing them in, operator obliged to locate finger-length scissors for precision task. Collection what came my way was mostly comedy, natural and expected as this was sixties-early seventies mode of entry. Slapstick fit neatly on one or two reels and was at least somewhat affordable. Lots more buyers wanted Big Business than Intolerance, plus Blackhawk had sales where a dollar or three might drop from suggested retail. Back to recent haul of which Three Little Pigskins with the Three Stooges was part. I think Columbia missed a bet by waiting to enter the home movie Stooge market, like ten at least years late, then trying to sell the boys on sixties terms. Are those tie-dye pants Moe wears? The trio needed sound to emphasize grunts, groans, Curleyisms. Watching them silent was like something wrong with your television, except this wasn't television. Then came Bone Trouble, among “Walt Disney Character Films,” a bit imprecise, being fifty-feet where a bathroom break might cost whole of the sit. Best consign this to the Tarantula rack.

Next was From Soup to Nuts. I find setting up at boyhood home for 8mm L&H to be not a little spooky. Their very shades seem ready to step off the wall, or is it residual energy within the house from years past? The print was fuzzy as was much of Laurel-Hardy that Blackhawk licensed. We enjoyed exclusivity the silent shorts gave … none were on TV, so an only way of seeing them was at theatres using Robert Youngson scrapbooks. Blackhawk put explanatory titles with credits to tell who wrote-directed-edited the shorts. By a dozenth watch, data was memorized for life. Silent L&H may work best for 8mm because they were made silent, so there’s no sense of missing something as with Stooge shorts or an Abbott-Costello reel. Missing plenty was lot of those taking receipt of Sergeant York as teensy fifty feet from a 134-minute feature, many a rifle shot seen but not heard as Gary Cooper picks off Germans to force their surrender. That was all we got but maybe it was enough as trench round-up was for most the highlight of Sgt. York. The feature was generally cut to bone for television anyway, so what matter if yours was barest keepsake? York the feature was called “Best Ever” by many present when new (1941), and note NC kiddie shows still playing it in the mid-sixties, possibly a last 35mm print from Charlotte exchanges ending up in Moon Mullins’ shed (but there’s another story).

Speaking of war, there was the one sound subject from this collection, The Little Rebel, adapted by Castle Films from General Spanky, a 1936 full-length “Our Gang” of sorts with S. McFarland, Buckwheat Thomas, and Alfalfa fighting the war for Southern Independence and nearly winning. General Spanky was a rarity I often heard about but never saw until this modest reel unspooled before me. Curiosity made a difficult threading worthwhile, 8mm if nothing else the tiniest of mediums, and as with Sgt. York, the whole turns on fighting and outcome of kids taking on blue coats and fooling the enemy into thinking they number thousands, a nice self-contained story and undoubted money’s worth for those who sprang when The Little Rebel first came available. To have movies you could show the neighborhood was to stand out, for even where families had a projector, they seldom had anything other than home captures to watch among themselves or close relations. I made up lobby cards for Castle’s 8mm Dracula co-owned with two other boys and pasted the lot on basement windows. There were curiosity-seekers enough to yield thirty or forty cents for a typical Saturday. One attendee lately reminded me of a show he came to nearly sixty years ago. How many of specific sits does anyone recall from so far back, outside our own fraternity of fans?

Cartoons lend themselves to truncated reels since you can gather essential point of the situation without expending much footage. Crowing Pains was a Warner short with Foghorn Leghorn, plus a dog, cat, others. Conflict revolves around which of these can be convinced he has laid eggs. Sound is missed but not critical to viewing enterprise. Children would delight even in fifty feet of animation so long as it was theirs to enjoy at will. Color is less a loss since most were limited to black and white on home televisions. Two minutes of Crowing Pains will register well as the entire subject might. There are serious collectors of cartoons who got their start with these tiny reels. United Artists sold them during the early 60s with colorful art (our equivalent to album sleeves) and prominent credit for Associated Artists Productions, entity of which initially handled distribution of pre-49 Warner cartoons for TV. Container cameos of Bugs, Daffy, Sylvester etc. were potent draw for fans who longed for personal record of these characters in motion, a benefit even most vivid comic books would not supply. Next up came Abbott and Costello in one of Castle subjects that eventually brought about a lawsuit by the team against Universal and subsidiary United World for selling excerpts and not inviting A&C to share profit from them. No telling how many sold. One at hand called Riot on Ice was distilled from 1943 feature Hit the Ice, so there is comedy en route to Sun Valley and ice-skating attempts by Lou once they get there. As the reel concentrates mostly on visual foolery rather than verbal byplay between the boys, Riot on Ice plays fine sans sound. Between new features, reissued ones, television appearances for Colgate, and lively sale of the Castle shorts, Abbott and Costello enjoyed a peak of exposure if not popularity during the 50s. I never collected them on 8mm but judging by Riot on Ice, might have been well rewarded if I had.

Next came a tepid Tarzan reel, 1955’s Hidden Jungle, wherein Gordon Scott wore loin clothing for a first time. A safari is beset by natives and rogue elephants, during which I think I saw Jack Elam trampled under massive feet. The point of any Tarzan highlight reel is seeing him perform feats, in this case diving into a lion pit to rescue Vera Miles. Boys entranced by Tarzan would attempt vine swings but came often to naught, discovery that backyard foliage was not so resilient a too-late one. What became of Tarzan as cultural icon is anyone’s guess. Our enthusiasm turned most on who was cast as the jungle lord. Scott was best among later choices, better frankly than Weissmuller by plenty reckoning, but given too little opportunity to shine. Tarzan's Hidden Jungle was released by RKO, company having done the Lex Barker group and not inclined to spend color or location by a 50s point when these elements were sorely needed to attract any but a same and indiscriminate audience. Last of 8mm picks was 400 feet derived from a Republic chapter play representing slow but sure decline from what had been dominance of the field. Radar Men from the Moon has sci-fi elements to still engage, flying scenes with Commando Cody good as one could hope for in the early 50s. Why didn’t Superman use this technique for the television series? Radar Men being longer gives us a sense of what the serial in its entirety would have offered, being action continuous and one chase after unmotivated other. Little need in my watching the entire thing now, having nibbled these seventeen or so minutes. Serials yielded once a rich vein of pleasure. What a pity they had to go away so utterly.


Blogger Boppa said...

The Lydeckers’ flying technique, which involved a papier mâché dummy running on a wire, was very effective for Republic’s helmeted hero, Commando Cody, but less so their unhelmeted one, Captain Marvel. Which is probably why it wasn’t used on Superman, although the technique was resurrected, briefly, for a few distant shots in the 1978 movie.

10:22 AM  
Blogger Rodney said...

That early Nimoy role was actually in Zombies of the Stratosphere, an honest mistake if there ever was one.

11:49 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

I was very much a dilettante collector, but had enough cartoons and silent comedy to amuse visiting young kinfolk while the grownups mellowed out. Also, a junior high school friend did light shows at dances and invited my to project Bugs Bunny and such on the cafetorium walls, betwixt psychedelic slides (dyed, then burnt with a match) and album covers (on the school's bulky overhead projector). My dream was to become rich enough to own a Bell & Howell Filmosound and rent real movies from the Films Incorporated catalog.

The very last 8mm I remember buying was the Ken Films reel of "Star Wars", 150' silent, B&W. It was defective. Took it back and got a replacement, also defective. Now an official adult and eyeing them newfangled VCRs and RCA videodiscs, I effectively retired 8mm.

When I got into VHS, I found myself snapping up Republic serials, packaged on two cassettes. During boomer youth and adolescence they'd be floating around on TV, but I never quite caught any of them in their entirety. In fact I had limited interest in new films on tape. Most of them were still very present on cable, but only on VHS could you then see older stuff uncut by local stations and undistorted by bad UHF reception.

One of the ironies of the DVD/bluray revolution is how tons of once-unseeable rarities are suddenly available and affordable, just as demand is fading away. I have a glorious excess of complete serials, Universal monsters, silent comedy, toons, etc. But it's nigh impossible to get anybody to sit down for even a two-reeler. This includes relatives who once sat enthralled by 8mm, accompanied by random LPs stacked on a record changer.

I could go on a lot longer, so count yourselves lucky.

5:50 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I showed my youngest brother my condensed to 2 reels 8mm print of NOSFERATU on my bedroom wall silent. It haunted his dreams for months. Boy, this takes me right back to the beginning. Those were fun times. Thank you.

3:36 PM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Another bulls-eye post, Scott! I think your observations speak for all of us who grew up on Castle, Ken, Columbia, and Blackhawk. As a buyer and collector of nearly fifty years standing (where'd the time go?), I have plenty of fond memories of sharing these little bits of Hollywood with family and friends. And thanks to YouTube, Kickstarter, and especially eBay, I've been able to own all the films I missed out on buying so long ago.

10:41 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I once made the mistake of turning off Laurel & Hardy's "Liberty" midway through and picking it up again later. It never occurred to me that the bulb remained hot for a while afterwards. One or two frames were forever burned.

3:31 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

These were my treasures back in the sixties, comedies, cartoons & monsters (lots of monsters!) all in glorious standard 8mm. Transitioned over to 16mm in the early seventies, gave, sold or traded almost all those little gems away. Over the decades though, a small collection of 8mm has magically reconstituted itself on a shelf upstairs as friends & relatives have given me little rummage & auction finds - "Saw this for a buck, thought of you!" How many of you were able to rebuilt a longer version of a classic by splicing together cheap Atlas Film clips? Oh, and I still have the very first film I ever owned: ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET DR.JEKYLL & MR. HYDE, 8mm headline edition in the original box.

4:02 PM  
Blogger Randy said...

You want to baffle younger generations? Try and get them to bend their brains around what was so great about owning a silent, 200-foot extract from a favorite horror movie.

My 8mm collection has been mostly digitized. I have working 8mm projectors, but maintaining those gets tougher every year, so they are reserved for special occasions.

I remember when we got a super 8mm sound projector. Brother, I thought I had arrived. I spent a good chunk of my yard mowing money on some goodies from the Blackhawk catalog. Seemed like forever waiting for them to arrive. There's another thing younger generations can't relate to. Wait six weeks for something you've ordered? My niece is unhappy if it takes longer than two or three days for a package to show up.

Friends and relatives give me 8mm reels they've come across. I always thank them, though I think by now they all know that I don't need any more copies of Abbott and Costello in "Have Badge, Will Chase." The fifty-foot headline edition that, I think it was Bell and Howell, used to include as a freebie with their projectors.

It surprises me how many of these films I'm given are missing all their leader and part of the main title, eaten by bad threading and poorly maintained projectors over the years. My dad, a 16mm guy from way back, always emphasized to me the importance of splicing a foot of white leader to the head and tail of everything, even if it was just a cheapie Atlas or Carnival print. But I suppose everyone's dad wasn't so conscientious about print maintenance.

Funny thing, I've gotten rid of most of the 16mm I had, but I hang onto the 8mm stuff. Sentiment, I guess.

1:05 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Right you are, Randy -- sentiment is exactly why veteran collectors keep their 8mm reels as souvenirs of their youth. I can state this as a fact because of the magic word Americom. Americom 8mm was a Canadian company of the mid-1960s that licensed feature films from 20th Century-Fox of Canada, and offered one-reel versions for the home-movie market (and a couple of two-reel subjects). These all had superimposed subtitles replacing the dialogue, but the gimmick was a flexi-disc phonograph record of the soundtrack, electronically doctored for silent-speed projection. Americom was the only company that offered soundtracks a la Vitaphone, which piqued the curiosity of many a movie fan. The biggest sellers were Laurel & Hardy (in multiple clips from three 1940s features) and Hammer horrors.

Getting back to Randy's point, every collector I know who ever owned an Americom print always hung on to it. Freaky format, conversation piece, adolescent souvenir, whatever reason -- collectors tend to keep 'em. And so do I. I haven't screened them since 1980, but they're still on my shelves.

Thanks, John, for another entertaining post. I wish you had written those Blackhawk "history lessons" for their silent subjects!

9:11 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Recall checking out a film with disc from the library. It was a segment from a minor Zorro movie. Spent a good hour trying to sync it with my ancient Kodak projector, which had a speed control knob. I never made the investment in magnetic sound (that is, never badgered parents into it), my faith in magnetic tape undermined by misadventures with little reel-to-reel recorders. When we got a new projector that ran 8mm and Super8, I still bought 8mm films. They were slightly cheaper and I suspected Super8 was a passing fad.

Whippersnappers raised with cable, home video, streaming and the rest can't grasp what even the illusion of owning a movie or cartoon meant. Beyond those little reels, we scooped up soundtrack albums, Viewmaster sets, paperback novelizations with a few slick pages of stills in the middle, Whitman storybooks (Authorized Edition) full of drawings, souvenir books/programs with slight text under lots of big photos, comic adaptations, and making-of magazine spreads.

For the young semi-buff with classic tastes, pickings were slimmer but not nonexistent. There were those wildly variable "Films of" volumes ("The Films of Sherlock Holmes" and Everson's "The Films of Laurel and Hardy" being my favorites). These were the equivalent of the Sears Christmas catalog, where one would drool over movies as unattainable as the super-deluxe electric train with complete landscaped layout. Beyond those there were various coffee table opuses and real books. Kenneth MacGowan's "Behind the Screen", Arthur Knight's "The Liveliest Art" and John McCabe's "Mister Laurel and Mister Hardy" were my near-sacred texts, acquired in used paperback form. So was a first edition of Schickel's "The Disney Version", not a flattering bio but the most substantial one at the time.

The honking big "Art of Walt Disney" came out in '73, just as I was graduating high school and my interest was tapering off, at least for a while. Then the floodgates opened and there were piles of lush books about Disney, Termite Terrace, silent comedians, genre films and everything else. Stuff that would have made my head explode a few years prior. Insert muttering about modern kids not appreciating what's available.

A sigh for the days when a printed page about "Towed in a Hole" had to tide you over until its next unexpected appearance on TV or in a pizza parlor, or you'd stack the two-LP "Star Wars" soundtrack on a record changer for a hint of the movie's adrenaline.

5:05 PM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Give-A-Show-Projector anyone? I have one up in the attic.

10:31 PM  

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