The Underworld of Film Collecting
Not lost, but rare in the USA: Atragon in TohoScope.
Savant receives letters from time to time about film collecting, mostly from individuals
wanting to sell something or ask its value. Many of the writers seem anxious about the
murky legality of their hobby, and are not eager to publicize their possession of what
they fear might not be their legal property.
The death of 16mm collecting on a grand scale
Laserdisc and DVD have really pulled the rug out from under the market for 16mm films, which
once saw a brisk traffic in original and dupe prints of both public domain and copyrighted
studio titles. Savant used to screen his few 16mm prints constantly, just to enjoy them,
but after twenty years of video, just flipping a laserdisc seems a big bother, let
alone setting up the projector and screen. Add to that the inferior picture and sound
of 16mm, and it's no wonder that it isn't the hot ticket it used to be.
35mm collector paranoia
But there are still plenty of 35mm collectors around. Savant's experience with them was
in the 1970s
when he directed screening series at the UCLA Film School. Typically, we'd rent a 16mm
print of a
film to get legal title to screen it, but then also rent a collector's perfect 35mm copy and screen
that so it would look great on the big Melnitz screen. This worked fine until a night we showed
Invasion of the Body Snatchers and North By Northwest. With the 35mm tech print
of the Hitchcock film mounted onto house reels and ready to go, a notice on MGM stationery
showed up taped to the screening room door, saying that marshalls were going to sieze the
illegal print of the film. After a mad dash to hide the collector's film and get the 16mm
replacement, with anxiety and paranoia to spare, the note turned out to be a practical
joke from a fellow film student.
On another occasion we had to settle for a 16mm flat copy of The Incredible Shrinking Man,
because Universal wouldn't loan or rent us a 35. After the screening, a sci fi fan who
looked like an indigent hippie told me he wished he had known because he had a 35mm print
of the title at home.
How these collectors got these pristine prints, Savant doesn't know. The collector's
classified ads selling all kinds of 35mm prints, but most of them acknowledged that the copies were
badly worn or missing main titles. It was customary at the time for film salvagers to simply remove
the main title sequences before junking prints, sending the titles back to the studios as proof of
destruction, like the head of Alfredo Garcia.
A collector friend of mine who had a large number of early talkies and silents was very vocal about
the legality of owning personal prints of studio movies. He showed me a brochure from Warner Brothers
printed in the early '50s, selling prints of movies like Treasure of the Sierra Madre and
Dr. Erlich's Magic Bullet, outright, to schools and churches. Apparently a collector
had been on trial for having a Warner's film, which the Warner lawyers had argued was Warner
property, because no prints had ever been legally sold into private possession. The defense's
display of the contradictory brochure resulted in the case being thrown out of court.
The secret cinema
Not that collectors were less than cautious. I saw Tech 35mm secret midnight screenings of films
like The Wizard of Oz and Horror of Dracula only on the invitation of friends who
would not even divulge the names of the print holders. And the UCLA archives, which in the early '70s
stored prints for collectors on the q.t. (a practice long since abandoned) often disguised the
cans on the shelves under bogus titles. The funniest example was Ryan's Daughter, which
went under the name 'Tatum'. Paper Moon had just come out, if you missed the joke.
The fall guy
A big watershed came about 1983, when a hapless studio projectionist was busted for having a huge
private collection of 'stolen prints' in his possession. He'd made the mistake of showing
E.T. to some neighborhood kids, and word got out, and within a couple of days he was
the subject of giant articles in Daily Variety. With home video a brand-new game, and
studios suddenly more concerned about the libraries they'd been neglecting for so many years,
any hint of video piracy was enough to bring in the G-Men. This projectionist became the fall
guy for a generation of petty film pilferers. The list of stolen titles grew in the paper
day by day and it didn't matter that the projectionist had simply retrieved prints stacked for
destruction, or rejected for printing flaws. The poor guy lost his studio job, his pension, and
who knows what became of him.
It also didn't seem to matter that big directors who were film collectors (Martin Scorsese is
the main example that comes to mind) were routinely 'given' prints by studios or allowed to order
prints at cost. But Scorsese was a big name and this projectionist (admittedly one with
sticky fingers) was a scourge.
The irony came fully forward when it turned out one of the films recovered was a pristine print
of the 1954 A Star is Born, which Warner's had just spent a lot of money restoring to
its roadshow length. Picture for several cut scenes had been lost, so animation director
Robert Swarthe was hired to create sequences of artfully animated stills to cover them. The
projectionist's print, thrown away by the studio ten years before, had a major missing scene;
in the nick of time, the 'evil film pirate' had provided the basis for a really
significant restoration, a major miracle for A Star is Born but just salt in the wounds
of the criminalized collector. Animator Swarthe didn't know how to react when the musical
number was restored. He was happy the scene had been found, but frustrated that some of
his best work would never be seen!
The Hollywood insiders did it too
Savant was involved in the Hollywood 'home screening room' cult of the time. In the '70s, many
studio executives maintained elaborate, sometimes palatial screening rooms in their Beverly
Hills and Bel Air homes. A constantly circulating group of prints made the rounds. I
projected at one time or another for Mike Frankovich and Barbara Streisand, and once
for Barry White, whose deep, DEEP voice was no put-on! Frankovich must have been at the top of
the screening pecking order because he and wife Binnie Barnes would always get the top titles.
I first saw Taxi Driver there, and met Dino de Laurentiis when they screened
The Shootist. Unfortunately, these royal types didn't have much desire to talk to
lowly student projectionists. Each of these screening rooms seemed to have lots of prints
lying around - Barry's favorite was the '33 King Kong, which I screened twice for him in one evening!
Savant believes the added security consciousness that came with Home Video put the cramp on
the screening circuit for all but the biggest fish. Rumors abounded of screening rooms
where the film being shown was run through a telecine at the same time, and pirated on cassettes
to be sold in foreign countries! Savant lost track of the screening room scene as soon
as I got my first 'real' job. (I was a really lousy projectionist, too)
The rarities are out there
There are plenty of collectors today with rare items, many of them unique, precisely because of the
studios' penchant for cleaning house. Lots of films are missing all kinds of elements, like stereo
soundtracks, and roadshow version trims. It's A Mad Mad Mad World was reassembled on laserdisc
in 1991 only because a former UA executive located a projectionist collector who had saved several
reels' worth of 70mm roadshow trims. Rumor is that an original 70mm roadshow element for all or most
of the film has been located, so maybe the holdup on a really REALLY restored Mad Mad World
is possible again (die hard fans cite scenes missing from even the laserdisc restoration).
The '33 King Kong is another example of collectors saving film history, twice, as a matter of
fact. In the '60s, a private collector came forward with a 16mm copy of the scenes censored from
Kong and simply thrown away by RKO, soon after its original release. Then later, a 35mm print
was found (in Argentina?) in
which the scenes were preserved almost perfectly. Thankfully, before they were projected to death they
got back to RKO or Turner or whoever and the present cut of Kong on TCM is a beautiful
One of the main problems with getting these materials back in the hands of studio restorers is
the new corporate atttitude of the studios themselves, who have become much tighter with their
library assets and far more likely to prosecute even an innocuous collector. Competition
between studios has bred a race of corporate entertainment lawyers for whom mercy and compassion
have no meaning; Savant would not like to be dealing with any of them, were the gray area of
film collecting in any way involved. After detecting and locating the missing ending to
Kiss Me Deadly, it soon surfaced on the grapevine that collector's uncut prints had
been showing semi-regularly, but none of those collectors has stepped forward, even after the fact.
Apparently they were unconcerned that a big piece of film history was going unrestored.
Every studio has its missing elements and films that archivists suspect were foolishly
discarded by earlier studio regimes; obviously some of these treasures have been rescued
by private hands at labs and vaults, not for profit but for the love of the movies themselves.
Instead of being punished for rescuing priceless reels from dumpsters, these collectors
need a mechanism that would allow them to bring their holdings out in the open.
A modest proposal
It's not unusual for studios seeking good stills for their films to deal amiably
with outside collectors. While working on a documentary for West Side Story,
Savant saw a collector's book of original color photography from West Side, that had
obviously once been studio property, but was now being loaned back to the studio through
some mutually acceptable arrangement.
Perhaps the next AFI project should be a Yearlong event touted as Collector's
Amnesty Year, where any and all manner of film treasures could be returned to
studios (or the Library of Congress, or the AFI?) without fear of retribution. In
Savant's opinion, acknowledgement and gratitude would be more in order.
Text (c) Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson