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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 magazines ran 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 restoration.

Studio hostility

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

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