Dreams That Money Can Buy
BILL DAVISON reports on the heartaches and the joys of collecting 8mm package movies
I'M SURE it will come as a surprise to many readers to learn that I am a lover of the 'old' cinema. Many people have the impression, as a result of my Ten Best winners, that I am a 'way-out' film maker who has no time for the conventional cinema. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Since the tender age of five I have been an avid film fan — from the Saturday morning serials when I panicked for the safety of Flash Gordon in the clothes of Emperor Ming, to the present day. As a child I almost lived at our three local cinemas. In those days they changed the programme twice a week with a 'one- night-stand' on Sundays. It was possible, therefore, to see a different film every night in the week and still miss a film!
Things have changed a great deal since then — and I don't intend to argue here whether it's for better or worse! Suffice it to say that the sheer escapism of the old movies has largely disappeared in today's cinema.
When I started collecting old movies several years ago the selection available on 8mm was pretty grim: the familiar line-up of tired old Chaplins, Sooty and June Palmer! As the popularity of 8mm spread so the package film distributors became more aware of the market potential.
The first film I bought way back in 1965 was a cut-down of Hammer's Revenge Of Frankenstein. It was poorly edited and badly sub-titled but it was a sign of things to come. This was followed by an extract from Columbia's Bridge On the River Kwai. Universal, under their package name of Castle, delved into their archives and my collecting days had begun.
Since then the progress made has been amazing as can he seen by simply glancing at the many advertisements in this magazine. What started with a handful of titles now runs to several hundred.
I've a bit of a reputation for not mincing words; so before I 'sing the praises' of the films available let's clear the air first with a few grouses. I collect one and two reel extracts, in the main, so am not particularly interested in the full length features. There are two reasons for this — first, cost — at the average rate of about thirty pounds a feature and double that for colour, it's not everyone who can buy these regularly — and second, the titles available!
Reading through the many lists of 8mm features for sale I often wonder why some of the distributors bother. The vast majority are second rate 'B' pictures and worse — frankly, I believe you can count on the fingers of one hand the 8mm features worth watching let alone buying! Top of the pile is Hitchcock's Psycho which is one full length print I did buy. Sadly it is rather difficult to get hold of at the moment so if you want a copy you'll have to keep an eye open for a used print.
I realise this situation is not the fault of the 8mm distributors — they print what the `big boys' are prepared to lease out to them; the few crumbs which drop from the 16mm table! One can only hope this position will improve, it certainly can't get worse.
The scene is totally different in the one reel extract field. Here many excellent old and more recent movies are available — from Karloff, Cagney and Mae West to Dean Martin, David Niven and Peter Cushing. I feel, however, that far more could be released. Surely a seven minute extract for home use is not going to jeopardise the cinema or TV reshowing of that movie. On the contrary, I would have thought an extract from the latest James Bond or Julie Andrews singing on a mountain top would act as an appetiser to the home viewer and tempt him to leave the goggle box and venture forth to see it in full at the cinema.
This, however, is wishful thinking at the moment; so what of the titles available? Well, there is a fantastic range to suit all tastes. The problem is, what several distributors do to the films when preparing the extracts. With the vast number of 8mm magnetic sound projectors in use today, you might well think every title would be released with a soundtrack. Not so. I have recently received a new film catalogue which lists such marvellous titles as DeMille's Ten Commandments and Samson & Delilah; Hitchcock's To Catch A Thief; Bogart and Ustinov in We're No Angels — all released in silent versions only! Such great scenes as the parting of the Red Sea, Victor Mature's heavy breathing as he demolished the temple single-handed, Grace Kelly's suspicions of Cary Grant — all in black and white silent!
Other distributors are also guilty of striking the stars dumb; you have to view, in Columbia's 8rnm version, the destruction of the Guns Of Navarone without so much as a peep out of those mighty cannons. Until very recently all Disney's characters leapt about in a strange, silent world. While this situation persists the only answer is TV.
I have bought several silent prints of films I have particularly wanted, and waited for the titles to have a re-run on TV. I then get out the tape recorder, tape the scenes which appear in the 8mm version, have it striped, and try my patience by matching sound to picture. It's laborious but it works; I have just added sound in this way to my print of Charles Laughton's superb performance in the 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dante.
Without sound some distributors feel obliged to add sub-titles to keep the viewer abreast of the storyline. Fair enough, a necessary evil in the circumstances; the trouble fits with the chaps who actually write the darned things! Far be it from them to do a straight word for word sub-title of the missing dialogue; instead we are treated to such gems as the one mentioned by Denis Gifford in an extract from Disney's Snow White.
In the original, Snow White raises her dainty hand to her mouth and calls, in that sugary, typically Disney princess voice: "Supper's ready."
Straightforward, simple stuff to sub-title — just two words. How can you make a mess of that you may wonder. Well, in the silent print the sub-title spells out in large letters — "COME AND GET IT!" An invitation no self respecting dwarf could refuse!
There are more blatant examples far too numerous to list here. My answer to this is to hide the offending titles; by carefully masking off the bottom of the projector gate, you can prevent the banal prose from appearing on the screen. So, you lose some of the picture area but surely it is worth it.
Is that all our friendly distributors can do to these great films ? Not on your life, they Can sell you prints of atrocious quality. I have just paid a little over four pounds for a silent print of a film released in the cinema in 1970; there are more 'tram-line' scratches, blotches and fuzziness than you would find on a 1920 Chaplin. This is not just an odd, faulty print, the whole of this distributor's range is of the same grim standard.
After that list of moans you may well ask why I, and many others, bother to collect 8mm extracts. Well, I said I wanted to clear the air and, having got that lot off my chest, let's look at the reverse side of the coin.
The leader in the field of one-reel extracts is, without doubt, Castle Films. Over the past few years they have released such gems as Mac West insulting her male admirers in I'm No Angel; the great punch- up between John Wayne and Randolph Scott in The Spoilers; the brutal arena scenes from DeMilles Sign of The Cross (packaged as Nero's Gladiators) and many more - all with excellent quality soundtracks and top rate print definition. Several Marx Brothers extracts are now on the way from this worthy distributor.
Another company deserving high praise is the Disney Organisation whose films are released here in England by GAF Ltd. Though never having seriously attempted to make a cartoon myself, I have always been fascinated by the whole business, and Disney has delighted me since a child. In one reel extracts you can now own clips front such classics as Bambi, Pinnochio and Peter Pan to name but a few features, together with a large range of the Mickey Mouse and Company shorts.
Richness of colour
The print quality is unbeatable - richness of colour never seen before in 8mrn prints. Until recently they have, however, been guilty of holding out on the soundtracks but this is slowly being rectified as the feature clips are now appearing with all the splendid Disney music; now, at last, you can hear Snow White call - "Supper's ready"! Rather on the expensive side it is, but worth paying the extra to be guaranteed such print quality.
Those are two international distributors of high repute - now let's turn to a home grown variety. I refer to Derann Films of Dudley; they have, in my opinion, done more for the amateur collector than any other distributor. Now one of the largest 8mm libraries in the country they also release many one and two reelers for outright sale.
I'm a fan of the old style musical and Derann can offer you examples to suit all - from Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire's song and dance routine in Paramount's 1946 Blue Skies to George Formby playing his ukulele! If your taste is for more up to date music they have two separate reels which, when combined, form an interesting piece of musical history.
A Pathe News dated 1963 shows the Beatles arriving in Manchester and performing two of their early hits Twist & Shout and She Loves You, both accompanied by thousands of screaming girls. Splice this to a one reel colour print of the same Beatles singing La It Be, one of their last recordings together. The two films bridge a career of ten years; from four youthful, brash Liverpudlians to four career weary, disillusioned men about to go their separate ways.
Derann also specialise in old newsreels of which I have three or four in my collection. Though I'm not particularly interested in the actual events they depict, I find them fascinating in the way the news was presented to the public in pre and post-war years - a far cry from the TV news bulletins of today.
Before this develops into a fan letter on behalf of Derann Films, I will just add that all their tempting extracts are very reasonably priced, indeed a one reel sound print from Derann costs less than a silent reel from several major distributors. Their monthly news lists always contain some interesting items; only recently I paid just three pounds for a new colour sound print of a 1934 MGM Happy Harmonies cartoon. Beat that for value if you can. By the way, I'm not connected with Derann in any way - just a satisfied customer!
Another distributor specialising in newsreels is one of the oldest packagers in this country - Walton Films. Their range started many years ago with Chaplin, travelogues and the like. They now have some first rare examples front the early days of British cinema - James Mason beating hell's delights out of Margaret Lockwood in The Man In Grey; Trevor Howard being very stiff upper lip in the excellent, though now rather dated Brief Encounter; Kenneth More being devious and Kay Kendall playing her trumpet in Genevieve. Great titles from a first rate company whose print and sound quality can rarely be faulted.
I'm not, personally, very interested in the pre-talkie era - 1930 and earlier. Powell Films of Windsor, however, have some interesting clips from this period. Most spring from a recent cinema compilation called Days of Thrills And Laughter. This has been broken up into one and two-reel excerpts; one I have in my collection is Monty Banks in a sequence - Play Safe. This features a most hilarious chase on a runaway train - it has an added music and effects track which complements the film beautifully; ideal entertainment for young and old.
As it's the party season, just a word on the ever popular cartoons. As well as the Disney material mentioned earlier there is a wide selection from several other distributors. For the really young audience there is the Walton series of Animaland characters. These are beautifully animated and, I may add, far more reasonably priced than the Disneys.
I have examples of TV cartoons in my collection, if only to enhance my admiration for the vintage cartoons - these TV efforts are so crude in style. If you are about to give a show to youngsters, don't fall into the trap of thinking that they will want all the TV characters - Yogi Bear, Dastardly and Muttley etc.; I have found that they soon tire of them. The exceptions to the rule are Popeye and the Tom Versus Jerry sagas - and these aren't exceptions when you think about it for they were produced in the vintage years of full animation and just happen to be getting another airing on the box at the moment.
Popeye and Olive, in excellent colour and sound, have been available for some time from Capitol Films. The big event at the moment on the cartoon scene is the release on 8mm of Tom & Jerry by Walton. Despite all the tutt-tutting from the child psychiatrists about the excessive violence between cat and mouse this is. I believe, the funniest cartoon series ever produced.
They also suit all ages which can't be said of the wacky Warner Brothers characters, such as Bugs Bunny and Road Runner, available via Derann. Their humour is above the kiddies' heads.
A last word on cartoons; sound is so essential to them that, if at all possible, always buy the sound version. Without the crash, bang, wallop of the soundtrack, cartoons, in my opinion, are lifeless.
So - a large slice of the old cinema is available for you to own and run in your own home. Some people like nothing better than to curl up with a good book; well, I get similar enjoyment from viewing old movies - Margaret Lockwood puzzling over a nun wearing high heel shoes in Hitchcock's 1938 The Lady Vanishes; the kaleidoscope patterns of girls' legs in Busby Berkely's 1932 42nd Street; the incredible escapes of flabby Lewis Wilson in the 1943 Batman serial; Claudette Colbert speaking some of the corniest dialogue ever written in the 1934 production of Cleopatra; Henry Fonda daring Bette Davis as Pzabel to go to the ball dressed in red; Jack Lemmon learning how to ride a horse in the 1957 Cowboy; Dean Martin in the 1963 Silencers having a bath with one of his girl friends, called Miss Lovie Krovesit!
All these marvellous clips I have in my collection. If you get the same pleasure front your own 'bootlace' library and have some rare clips you want to talk about - or some grouses you want to get off your Chest - drop me a line care of Movie Maker. I'll be glad to hear from you. In the meantime, let's hope the distribution giants smile kindly on 8mm in the new year and open their archive doors a bit wider so that many more glimpses of the old cinema become available to the collector.
Bill went on to write the 'Bootlace Cinema' coloum starting with the September 1974 issue of Movie Maker