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Film History A La Carte

Film History A La Carte

It used to be that if you wanted to pursue film history, you consulted a book or magazine, or attended a lecture. Now there are countless options online, some of them quite inventive. (How else could rare Laurel and Hardy home movies be exposed to a worldwide audience?) Frank Thompson, a prolific author and film historian of the first rank, has launched a podcast called The Commentary Track, where he posts audio interviews with notable colleagues.

You can listen to such eminent writers and scholars as Kevin Brownlow, Rudy Behlmer, Carl Davis, Joseph Musso, Randy Skretvedt, Marilyn Moss, Patricia Hanson, Thomas W. Holland, and John Bengtson. New episodes are being added weekly, and you can subscribe on iTunes (where you can also leave feedback, which helps to spread the word about this worthwhile endeavor).

A young man I met at last year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival told me he wanted to become a historian. I encouraged him to pursue his passion,  through any means at his disposal. Tim Warren has now established a website called Primary Shadows with the slogan “Classic Films as Primary Documents.” Tim is a good writer, and his latest essay compares the 1929 and 1940 versions of The Letter, starring Jeanne Eagels and Bette Davis, respectively, and examines each picture in the context of its time period. I like what I’ve read so far and intend to visit Tim’s site on a regular basis.

New York-based silent film accompanist Ben Model has gone one step farther: he is now posting rare silent short subjects with his piano tracks on YouTube every other week. Ben realized that like other longtime collectors, he has accumulated a number of 16mm prints that, if not unique, are certainly uncommon. Technology now offers him an opportunity to share them with fellow buffs. He also provides informal on-camera introductions and updates. If you enjoy silent comedies with the likes of Lloyd Hamilton, Harry Langdon, Big Boy, British comic Walter Forde, and what can only be called “odds and ends” be sure to check out Ben’s site.

I’ve written before HERE about the amazing home movies and photographs of vaudevillian George Mann. The latest to be unearthed and posted on YouTube is something no comedy fan every dreamed of seeing: home movies taken on location for a 1928 Laurel and Hardy silent comedy Should Married Men Go Home. Other folks have posted later home movies of Stan and Babe, which are fun to see, but no one has ever found behind-the-scenes footage of the comedians at work—or fooling around for a fellow performer’s 16mm camera.

Home movies, and many Hollywood films of this era, are easily circulated because they are out of copyright, having fallen into the public domain. But longtime film distributor Kit Parker, who now produces material for distribution through VCI, has written an interesting piece about the perils of p.d. as he experienced when he first dealt with the 1945 Lewis Milestone film A Walk in the Sun. It’s well worth reading.

Finally, another old friend (and veteran film distributor), Ron Hall of Festival Films, has inaugurated a new DVD series called Lost and Rare. Ron has always had a knack for finding rare and unusual material and he’s at it again. (How about a color film about the history of aluminum starring a young Alan Ladd?) The first completed disc collects unsold TV pilots featuring Jane Powell, Ed Wynn, Frank Lovejoy, and Margaret O’Brien, and the second spotlights “Sports Immortals” as seen in vintage theatrical shorts: Babe Ruth and Ty Cobb (speaking at the opening ceremonies of the Baseball Hall of Fame), Joe Louis, Helen Wills, Red Grange, and many more. You can find more details and learn how to order at But wait—as they say in those infomercials—there’s more. Ron has unearthed even more goodies, from rare silent animation to what he correctly calls prehistoric television, for Volume 3 of his series; find more details HERE.

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