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Monday, November 28, 2022

When Seeing Stuff Was Really Work


The Everson Want-To-Watches of 1954

All Hail Films in Review, around and prominent from early 1950 until print publication ended in 1997 (web presence still). They sold comparative lots, as never did I pace a dealer room w/o stumble-over a box of FIR’s, a dollar-to-five generally, or take ten for a discount. Films in Review was for its time a best there was. Historians w/ industry background (Cat People’s DeWitt Bodeen for instance), still-active execs, like Dore Schary, contributed thoughts and essays. The National Board of Review was umbrella over FIR and lent prestige, reviews for current films with career profiles, many which remain definitive source on respective subject. This is to preface a piece I came across in March 1954’s issue, William K. Everson on “The Films I Missed,” his reflection of when rare meant unattainable, a list of can’t-sees surpassing what-can by fretful margin, Everson at the time given largely up on titles we slip into disc trays and play pristine. Lesson learned (we hope): Don’t crybaby on one or few that stay elusive, not when what Everson and kin sought are close as Amazon buttons. The historian tells of quest made for 100 titles he most wanted to see since boyhood in England (b. 1929) and how it took twenty-five years and counting to almost reach that goal. Would you go AWOL from armed service to see Sunrise? Everson did. Also snuck into a German theatre, forbidden to Occupation personnel, for sake of The Big Trail. Worth risking the brig? Who could say amidst latter-day horn of plenty. (Sunrise and The Big Trail both stream in High-Def and are available on Blu-Ray).

Everson was my writing role model from when a Statesville cousin got for Christmas 1964 The Bad Guys, WKE’s survey of screen villainy from silents to Dr. No. There was wit to his words and informative besides. It came eventually to me seeking every book he did, whatever the topic. His Films in Review quest is personal, Everson “getting” movies by age six, fully grasping the art by ten when he saw Stagecoach and Of Mice and Men in theatres. He wasn’t long realizing that greats had come before him, a silent era just gone when he was born, quest thus begun for films voiceless that too few cared to be reminded of. The wish list taken down at age eleven was sixty silents to forty early talkers, process from there mere matter of checking them off, a struggle amidst poverty of resource that was the UK of late thirties and early forties where they had much to worry over besides Bill Everson satisfying his film crave. Friendly showmen gave him promotional material (shades of Colonel Forehand sharing pressbooks with me) and he bought trade magazines where they surfaced. Everson got an industry job at age fourteen thanks to wartime manpower shortage and so found out about film societies active in the area, for which he was eventually able to book titles thanks to distribution contacts. First struck off the hundred list was The Blue Angel, a tall order to locate in midst of war and again thank our latter luck for having it handy, and in multiple languages. The Blue Angel floated long a sea of non-access. I had but one televised swat growing up, thankful for mere that. How long was wait for classics? As long or more than Everson had to wait, I’d guess, for certain titles at least.

Image Restoration Courtesy of Mark Vieira/Starlight Studio

And what of The Blue Angel, his-then and ours-later? I’ll guess Everson was able to see it on 35mm judging by impression the film made upon him. What we got was off Educational TV, a Tennessee station barely materializing for a single broadcast, essence of “making do.” Truth is, I only sort of saw The Blue Angel that age-sixteen night, and it would be years before repeat occasion. Such was reality of much I gave myself credit for seeing, service stripes earned but barely. I faint understood what these pictures were supposed to look like, so little exposure there was to quality presentations. Again to ask: How did we stay interested in this stuff against ongoing odds? And shouldn’t there be many more embracing classics just because they can finally be watched properly, spectacularly in fact? Everson’s first view of Intolerance, in tinted 35mm, a full, live orchestra performing the original score … a transforming experience. “I emerged into the sunlight afterwards quite stunned by it all.” He was convinced that day that Intolerance was the Greatest Film Ever Made. A friend of mine years later felt nearly the same, even as his Intolerance was 8mm and he was obliged to change reels twelve times. So much is in the how we watch, and adjustments that must be made to see greatness through crack-glass of compromised presentation. In most ways of course, we are ahead of Everson, but miss his thrill of pursuit and unexpected discovery. He saw The Covered Wagon as did I, mine and perhaps his a 16mm Kodascope. Kino presently offers Blu-Ray of vastly better quality. Trouble is me consuming latter casually, a happening not at all a Happening like those Everson routinely had.

Foolish Wives
was always lost treasure. Erich von Stroheim took a first of career-to-come ritualistic beatings from it. Universal gelded his masterpiece even between first and second weeks of New York premiere play, again tampering between a second and third frame. What all of us have seen since 1922 is palest shadow of what Stroheim wished, but therein lay essence of him as abused and misunderstood genius, representing what art film could be if only talent were left alone to express themselves. Stroheim was that kind of hero to pioneer film scholars who needed martyrs they could admire and identify with. Historians who took cinema serious were outsiders too, so who better than Stroheim to speak for them, how good his films were a point quite beside the point. Now that movies have become at least somewhat more legitimized, we don’t need EvS so much, and it’s finally OK to call flaws where found. I enjoy Foolish Wives in ghost form, even as Blu-Ray barely helps, 143 minutes to remind me that despite tables cleared a hundred years ago, this was once a visual feast. Here too was chance to ID with Everson watching-as-act-of-faith, seeing through Stroheim’s heartbreak to what his goals ideally were, like going through an art gallery where canvases are bent, torn, splattered by mud. There should be award for traversing Foolish Wives today, honor the more as many if not most silent titles look so much superior than what once was hoped for. I almost expect Biograph shorts to seem shot yesterday, thanks to what surfaces at You Tube. Taking-for-Granted has become film appreciation’s worst enemy.

Movies had been around a comparatively short time when Everson made his list. Must-sees by his estimation seem less so today, not for selections being unworthy but because there now are so many more to draw from, plus modern inclination toward new to exclusion of old. His naming Sunrise at or near the top is something I don’t expect to see critics or historians repeat. Did Sunrise change or just people’s evaluation of it? Murnau as a name has not the magic once evoked, though his German output continues to surface from labels like Kino. Sunrise was released on Fox DVD as part of a Marnau-Frank Borzage box of silents that took Fox out of the big box classic business. There is a Blu-Ray import I’ll watch for spiritual connect with film canons as once were understood. Like Foolish Wives, Sunrise is not seen for fun (was it ever?), which explains why fewer with passing years see it. Where Everson was enviable to fans born later was 1947 and a sit through Mystery of the Wax Museum which neither he or anybody realized would be lost for a couple decades to follow. For said blighted period, he and that '47 audience would be seeming only humans to experience Wax Museum since 1933 when it was new. There were others Everson caught that few or none shared, outstanding among them London After Midnight, a fifties screening had but a decade before fire claimed MGM’s last surviving print. Everson bore witness also to A Kiss for Cinderella on pristine multi-tinted nitrate before whichever archive permitted it to rot. He’d later classify that boner with what happened at Balaclava Heights. No telling what else we call lost was watched at least once by him. In fact, Everson owned prints that were last of their kind, being an inveterate collector from New York arrival around 1950.

He would live in Manhattan, keep films like Egyptian treasure in an apartment spacious until he loosed an ocean of 16mm upon it. I went once to his Solomon’s mine, a reward for giving nitrate to the AFI once the amass of Moon Mullins. This was summer 1976. Everson hosted a day’s screening and lunch besides. As with favorite writers met, where fortunate, I expected Bill to be like his books, non-stop wit, fun unbound. He was a delight surely, if not the literary stand-up my immaturity figured upon. Everson the man, for me a star on par with anyone in movies, was kind and generous to a fault. Why should he have spent a day making this stranger’s dream come true? --- yet he did. We saw highlights of rarities. One was The Red Dance, a Fox silent directed by Raoul Walsh, with tints. I was invited to pick any feature from his library to see complete. Because Bill had lately written a Films in Review appreciation of Lady on a Train, I chose that, figuring under no circumstance could I ever see it elsewhere, as in for the rest of my whole life. Here was thought occupying us all during years when a one chance was often the only chance to snare a feature brought aground this precious once. Everson knew that sensation well, or better, than anyone. He had missed a mid-forties screening of Orphans of the Storm thanks to a second lieutenant that kept him on camp duty. This time Bill could not risk AWOL, so back went Orphans to MOMA in NY and he’d wait until 1953 to finally catch up with it. I pondered this while watching a hard-drive-preserved HD broadcast off TCM that Photoplay Productions restored from surviving elements. Another day … another watch taken for granted.

For Everson, for anyone in movie quest, it was like chase after serial villains. He hairbreadth-arrived to once-in-lifetime revival of The White Hell of Pitz Palu, as who knew if Leni would ever climb that mountain again? Racing two days across Germany, Holland, and the North Sea for a single screening, “my mental cross-cutting on that journey rivalled the climax of Intolerance!” Is there any film we would make such heroic effort to see? I’d say no, simply for so little left beyond our reach. Dan Mercer and I drove freeway clotted route to Ben-Hur (1927) with a live orchestra, something I’d not attempt today, if forever glad for journey taken then. I expect Everson’s movie memories were more precious than ours could hope to be. A thing got easy is not worth the getting, ancients said. By the by, he recalled in’54 that White Hell was “the only complete print … I have ever seen.” Reward for tenacity! So is Kino’s disc complete as well, or more so? We’ll never know. Everson winds up his essay with a plea for titles still elusive. Did Films in Review readership know whereabouts of A Woman of Paris, Mare Nostrum, Strike, or Hollywood? Three of the four are extant, in fact are available on disc. Exception is Hollywood, lost as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon. Could we be as eager to see it as was Bill? --- or have other totems been erected in its place? Note quote to effect that there are no “Archival Discoveries,” just films that were mis-stored, improperly labeled, never looked at despite years on site. Might Hollywood be amidst such overlook? Who’s for taking up spiral-bound binder and close inspecting every film in every archive? No more than a hundred years job that, so let’s get started.


Blogger John McElwee said...

Dear John:

"So much is in the how we watch, and adjustments that must be made to see greatness through crack-glass of compromised presentation."

Yeah. How true.

Thank you.

-- Griff

10:41 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

Everson was author of my cherished "The Films of Laurel and Hardy". This was when L&H were somehow vanishing from the airwaves even though the Rascals and Stooges were still in heavy rotation. Also, I placed it head and shoulders above most of the cookie-cutter "Films of" books crowding sale tables in bookstores in the late 60s. He also wrote "The Art of W.C. Fields", at the time one of the few Fields books you could take seriously.

At UCSC in the 70s, one could buy tickets to film class screenings even if you weren't in those classes. There were courses highlighting science fiction, animation, silents, musicals, and even swashbucklers, each of them presenting weekly double features in large lecture halls. Santa Cruz also had an off-campus revival house called the Sash Mill, big on golden age Warner Brothers. I was and am more a dilettante than a serious buff or scholar, but I definitely understood the rarity of these experiences.

There was an animation class where the instructor, through connections, laid hands on a 16mm print of "Pinocchio". It was run in the classroom very much on the q.t. and we were cautioned about blabbing, Disney's classics then being totally unavailable except in theatrical re-release or Sunday night excerpts. Imagine when Disney animation was a scarcity.

I wouldn't make epic journeys to see a nitrate unicorn, but in pre-video days I would set the alarm and get up in the middle of the night for even a commercial broadcast of rarities such as "The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes" (CBS removed the entire Russian ballet sequence), or last-gasp horror movie slots that prefaced bottom-of-the-barrel vampires with genuine serial episodes.

While there is certainly grief over all the films genuinely lost, current frustration centers on what DOES exist but isn't available -- at least not in American formats. "The Lost Films of Laurel and Hardy" remain the only official US release of their silent shorts, and those are marred by crude reissue music tracks. Columbia's pre-UPA theatrical cartoons remain vaulted up, as well as Terrytoons. And as you've written in the past, is there enough of market remaining for these antiquities?

I'm amazed and grateful we finally got the Hal Roach talkies of Charley Chase, Thelma Todd and even Harry Langdon. And lately Sony / Columbia has released economy-sized packages of vintage Bs via Mill Creek. But it says something when even my peers give me blank stares when I enthuse about "Serpent of the Nile" with Raymond Burr as Marc Antony.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Jorge Finkielman said...

When I began to read the William K. Everson books I was actually already exposed to many films that ended vanishing from the TV screens in Argentina by the end of the 80s. Local television was almost a cinematheque, and we still had a lot cineclubs screening things in either 35mm, 16mm, and other formats.

Today, I can get his books for free and times have changed. I have never really liked TCM because I always feel that they are always doing the same even though sometimes, and at marginal time slots, they would feature something that was worth my time. But once it became a more expensive channel, we let it go with no regrets and now that we have at home HBO Max, I find that the classic film and cartoon library in there is quite deplorable.

As a seeker myself for rare films, I remember reading on the newspaper about a restoration of a film that it was impossible for me to watch when it was officially released. Two years later, it was streamed and and I watched it (in the days when the signals were still bad). Eventually, it was uploaded to YouTube.

In fact, many films I would like to watch are actually available for free on YouTube. I don't need to pay for a cable channel to see GONE WITH THE WIND or CASABLANCA again, which I have already seen it enough times.

Everson book about westerns is excellent and his criticism of DANCE WITH WOLVES is totally right. The ironic thing that the first movie I saw in the United States when I moved here 19 years ago was another western by Kevin Costner, which was a much better film by far even though it was not celebrated.

12:36 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Great article, John. I was also one of those movie-crazy kids who could count on William K. Everson for a good and authoritative read. I never dreamed I'd actually be speaking with the man in later life, the time all the more precious because he was then in fragile health and no longer available for interviews, but he made a special exception in my case.

In his books, Bill would occasionally touch on the rarity of certain subjects and his own perennial treasure hunt as a collector. So much of it was based on movies he had savored in his younger days. He once described his feeling of delicious horror as he watched a jungle serial building to a suspenseful climax. He couldn't remember the name of it, but he knew it was one of a handful of titles. But he deliberately avoided tracking it down and seeing it again. He wrote something I'd always remember, and I'm quoting from memory: "But some memories are too delicious to disturb, and why take the risk?"

7:55 AM  
Blogger MikeD said...

Those "Films of..." books were invaluable resources for me back in the early 70's. How else would I have known about 'The Story of Dr. Wassell' or 'Cuban Rebel Girls'?

8:17 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

A WOMAN OF THE SEA aka SEA GULLS (1926) Von Sternberg/Chaplin. Now there is one to dream of even if it is the worst film ever made. The IRS made Chaplin destroy it if he wanted to write it off. They cost history a landmark collaboration. I felt Chaplin probably kept a copy. He did. His widow destroyed it before she left us. As I look at the Black Friday discounts Blu-ray and DVD manufacturers are offering (as well as the bins in stores offering three or more for $5 to $10) I feel the decrease in sales of same is largely because people got wary of paying premium price for a new release only to see it offered for far less later. Now that so many once unattainable titles are available everywhere the culture that sustained us for so many years is vanishing. That's fine. I'd rather have the films. Producers needed a valid reason beyond a few bums on seats at Film Forum to dust off and spruce up their back catalogue. The home market gave it to them. I met Everson in Toronto when he came here for a Toronto Film Society Screening. Got to hang out with him after. That was a treat.Great post as per usual.

11:44 AM  
Blogger rnigma said...

Everson appeared as himself in the mockumentary "King of the Zs," critiquing the output of the fictional Vespucci Pictures, such as "Block & Tackle Meet Scary People" and "The Dog That Got Real Big."

8:30 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I was privileged to know Bill Everson and there was no more dedicated or knowledgeable film journalist/fan extant. My visit to his NYC apartment was mind blowing--he had so many stacks of film prints there were only a few pathways to go from room to room. My own modest 16mm collection ended up bowing the ceiling of my downstairs neighbor in a Philly apartment building, so I could only assume he had a sympathetic landlord. When he passed a treasure trove of knowledge went with him, but there's a website that collects a lot of his voluminous program notes.

7:06 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer remembers William K. Everson and the BEN-HUR excursion:

Yours is a fascinating glimpse of one of the great men in film studies and collecting. If the phrase, “there were giants in those days” is applicable, certainly it is to one such as him.

My own acquaintance with him was almost entirely literary. The books you mentioned were on my list and now on my bookshelves, even “American Silent Film,” which I searched for fruitlessly for years, in the days when that consisted of letters to various bookshops with stamped, self-addressed envelopes, until one Christmas you kindly brought it to a happy conclusion.

There is, however, one memory, very near the end of his life, attending a film convention and seeing him in the dealer’s room, in a wheelchair, sick unto death, but casually perusing the book offerings on various tables. His wife, Karen, was nearby but keeping a certain distance, that she might better be the guardian of his solitude. Thus, the essence of his personality continued to shine brightly, even when the life itself had become more ash than flame.

By the way, that trip you mention to the Southern University of New York for a showing of “Ben-Hur” was memorable, certainly for the film itself, with full orchestral accompaniment and an introduction by Kevin Brownlow, though possibly also for the sort of car I drove then. I believe it may have concluded at the Newark airport, where, already late, you hurried to catch your flight while I considered the import of the coolant pooling beneath my vehicle.

6:36 PM  
Blogger Beowulf said...

I first met William K. Everson one night at a... Wait a minute. I NEVER met Everson; damn it!

12:31 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

I met him a few times. The best was when he showed a bunch of Paramount Bs, including a picture called Wild Money in which Edward Everett Horton winds up fighting it out with gangsters. I got a good laugh out of him when I asked if Horton made any other two-fisted he-man pictures.

6:55 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I grew up on Everson's books, "The Bad Guys" and "The Art of W. C. Fields". And when I delved into silents in my teenage years, I knew full well that Joe Franklin couldn't have written "Classics of the Silent Screen". Anyone who grew up in the NYC area knew Joe Franklin from his local TV show. "Classics of the Silent Screen" was written with elegance and wit, two qualities that Joe Franklin, though extremely pleasant and enthusiastic, seemed to entirely lack. It was only after several years did I notice, hidden in some acknowledgments, "Editorial assistant: William K. Everson". Aha, I thought, I knew the author's voce sounded familiar.

Later, a friend of mine who attended Hofstra University on Long Island met Bambi Everson, Bill's daughter, and told me some tales of the Everson household. It wasn't until a Film Forum series in the late 980's, or very early 90's that I got to meet him. He was there to introduce a double bill of "Dancing Mothers" and , I believe, "So This is Paris". Patsy Ruth Miller was there, also , to get up on stage afterwards, and talk about her experiences making the 1926 Lubitsch film.

William K. Everson was everything I expected him to be. He rose and spoke, in his rumpled, thin lapelled, decades old, black suit (the same one I'm sure he is wearing in his photo that accompanies his brief bio on the inside jacket of "The Art of W.C. Fields"). His words, delivered so casually and off handed, were spoken with wit and surgical precision. It was a treat and a privilege to listen to him.

11:40 PM  

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