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A Collectors Journey: Part One

One day, in the early 1970s, my life took an unexpected turn.I was practicing architecture in Philadelphia when a co-worker,knowing about my love of movies, asked me to recommenda film that he could rent to use for a fund raiser. I had just seen a revivalof Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here with Alice Faye and CarmenMiranda in New York, and I thought this colorful wartime musical would be the perfect choice for him. I contacted 20th Century Fox (my favorite studio) and was given the name of the independent distributor. When I phoned him, he was not that receptive. However, he was planning a trip to Philadelphia so we made plans to meet. I picked him up at the 30th Street Station and we were headed to the Philadelphia suburbs to screen some films.You have to realize this was back in the day before the advent of home video,so the idea of watching a movie in someone's home was a unique and exciting experience for me. We arrived at the home of a very friendly gentleman and we were introduced to his wife and kids. It was a typical family in every respect except for one big difference. Part of his basement had been converted into a mini-movie theater, complete with a screening room with old movie theater seats, a separate projection booth and, of course, a giant silver screen. As the lights dimmed and the curtains parted, we were about to watch the famous 20th Century Fox logo followed by the appearance of Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe singing Two Little Girls From Little Rock from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. I was awestruck. The wheels in my head were spinning and I knew in that instant the collector in me had been awakened. After the screening, I was given all the information I needed to contact thosein the business of selling 16mm prints to those of us interested in spendingany where from $50 to $200 for one black and white film or $200 to $500for a color film. There were private individuals all over the country buying and selling, and even a collector's newsletter which was filled with ads for the sole purpose of connecting buyers and sellers. As with collecting anything, there is a lot to learn and many warnings which need to be heeded. I soon learned there were many unscrupulous dealers out there in the business of selling inferior prints, known as dupes, and passing them off as originals. A dupe is the result of taking a print and making a negative from that print and then making other prints from the new negative. An original print is struck from an original negative resulting in far superior quality prints. Some dupes can look good, but for the most part the quality is inferior to an original. Another problem in dealing with unsavory sellers was the dreaded print in terrible condition, such as one loaded with splices, scratches. Some prints could be missing opening logos, credits, scenes or entire musical numbers. Then there was the matter of Eastman color prints which would eventually fade to pink. Some sellers were even capable of sending you a print already faded. The gold standard of color prints is IB Technicolor – rare and highly desirable due to the fact that the Technicolor process was not know to fade. If all this wasn't bad enough, there was one more frighteningaspect to collecting 16mm prints – the law and copyright infringement.All of those 16mm and 35mm prints technically belonged to the studios and they were not happy that there was a widespread underground of collectors. The Disney people were the most aggressive in protecting their product. Pressure was exerted on the government to confiscate prints and even jail those trafficking in the sale of these films. As it was told to me, the authorities were not as concerned with the buyers (as long as they weren't charging admission). The focus was on the sellers and those duping films and selling the dupes many times over. However, there were nightmare stories of collectors like Mel Torme and Roddy McDowall having their entire collections seized. One scary story involved government agents peering into the windows of a suspected collector and seeing cans of films in his home and confiscating them. Paranoia among collector's was rampant throughout the country. At one point, I had hidden all my films under beds, behind dressers, etc. and even contemplated sealing up a closet where all my films were stored and creating a secret access panel to the closet from the adjacent bathroom. It was all very crazy, but I didn't want to lose any of the films I had collected in a few short years. With a little help from my collector friends, I had put together a very nice collection of original prints such as Eleanor Parker in Caged (the best women's prison movie ever!), Joan Crawford in The Women, Alice Faye and Betty Grable in Tin Pan Alley, Murder At The Vanities (a little known gem). Rita Hayworth in Gilda, Johnny Weissmuller in Tarzan And The Amazons and Tarzan And The Leopard Woman, Charlie Chan At Treasure Island, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland In Babes On Broadway, Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions and many others. There were beautiful Technicolor prints as well: Betty Grable in The Dolly Sisters, Moon Over Miami, Down Argentine Way and Mother Wore Tights, Gene Tierney in Leave Her To Heaven, June Haver in Three Little Girls In Blue, Lana Turner in The Merry Widow, Hitchcock's Man Who Knew Too Much and Rear Window, James Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, Tyrone Power in Mississippi Gambler, Danny Kaye in Secret Life Of Walter Mitty and many more. I should tell you that collecting 16mm films is not a good investment.They do not increase anywhere near in value to the way movie postershave skyrocketed in value over the last 40 or 50 years. Original black and whiteprints in excellent condition will retain their value, but with the arrival of home video, I would imagine the demand is not as great except to the purist. The Technicolor prints,on the other hand, have become rare and sought after. I am only guessing, but a Technicolor print of Leave Her To Heaven in excellent condition, for which I paid $425.00 in 1974, could be worth as much as $3,500.00 but this is the exception. So, this is a very expensive hobby. Since I have not been collecting for over 20 years, I may be out of touch with some of my facts. In addition to the high cost of each film, the collector had to purchase a 16mm projector (two projectors, if you would like a back-up), exciter bulbs,reels, rewinds, a splicer and on and on. I have to say the DVD makes watchinga movie at home a lot easier and a lot less expensive, but there are those whowill never surrender to such a readily available product. Collector's can be snobsand the whole point of collecting for many people, is to have what is rare anddesirable – to have a collection envied by others. The purist would tell you, there is nothing special in a commercial product like DVDs, which are so readily available to everyone. I hate to admit it, but I was probably guilty of that attitude at the time. Still, entertaining friends with a home cooked meal, followed by a private screening of selected shorts, a cartoon and a wonderful old movie, projected on the silver screen, made for a very special evening. The idea of collecting movie posters to hang on the walls the way they were in the theaters was an obvious next step, which I will discuss in the next installment on my life as a collector.

John Malanga



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