There was a point in my childhood when I began to explore every closet and every drawer. I was searching for treasure, and every once in awhile, I found it. Under my grandmother’s bed, I found old photographs and in her top drawer there were more photos and negatives in orange and white envelopes. There was a drawer in the dining room that contained small cans and boxes of 8mm movie film. Some of the boxes had a Castle Film logo. On these boxes were pictures of cartoon characters like Woody Woodpecker and comedians like W. C. Fields.
It was the early sixties and a large part of what you could see on television was old movies. Sound films predominated, but it wasn’t unusual for silent films to turn up, presented as historical artifacts on the local public television station KQED.
Thanks to prime time TV shows like Paul Killiam’s Silence Please, hosted by Ernie Kovacs, and Fractured Flickers produced by Rocky and Bullwinkle animator Jay Ward silent films had an audience. One TV show offered abridged versions of silent classics while the other added a satiric twist by turning serious silent films into comic vignettes using the voices of actors usually associated with animated cartoons. Hans Conreid hosted Fractured Flickers and did scripted interviews with TV stars that were supposed to be funny, but they weren’t.
On the big screen, Robert Youngson’s When Comedy Was King introduced me to the comedic delights of silent film. I learned quickly that the slapstick comedies of Charlie Chaplin, Charlie Chase, Stan Laurel, Oliver Hardy, Buster Keaton, Fatty Arbuckle, Mable Normand, and the Keystone Cops were the real deal while contemporary films like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Great Race, and Those Magnificent Men and Their Flying Machines were feature length imitations.
There was a kid who lived down the street from me who loved making model cars and airplanes. These were cool, but the model that really impressed me was the one that looked like Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster. I’d seen it advertised in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine in the back section that also advertised 8mm versions of Universal horror movies.
There was a downstairs room in this kid’s house that was completely devoted to model making. There were huge planes hanging from the ceiling and shelves covered with model cars and ships, some of the ships were in bottles. He wouldn’t tell me how they got into bottles, but once, when he went to the bathroom. I discovered that you could take the bottom off the bottles and remove the ships
I don’t remember this kid’s name, but I remember his birthday party. His dad said he was going to take all the party guests to see a movie downtown. I was excited, because I figured we would see Fantastic Voyage, but no. This kid wanted to go see The Blue Max because of all the World War I dog fights over the Western Front. I couldn’t hide my disgust. I sulked through the entire movie. Ten year olds should not be subjected to expository scenes featuring George Peppard and Ursula Andress.
I never did see the 8mm films that lived in the dining room drawer projected. I checked all the closets, but I couldn’t find a projector or a movie screen. By the time I had my own 8mm projector those films were long gone to who knows where. When no one was around, I would go into the dining room drawer, open the film boxes, and unravel the reels. Holding the frames up to the light, I would try to read their story. Using my fingers as a film gate, I tried to imagine what those still images looked like when projected on screen. It’s hard to do that with video tape or a video disc. The beautiful thing about film is that when you hold it up to the light you can actually see something. I miss that.