Cut-Ups & Creeps Right in Your Living Room

Guest blogger Paul Castiglia writes:

The 1970s and ’80s were a wonderful time to grow up for a classic comedy kid like me. In those years, nostalgia for old movies was fostered by regular airings on TV stations (I think kids of my generation were the last allowed to embrace black & white before it was stigmatized by marketeers as being something “outdated”), books galore on all sorts of classic movie stars, memorabilia like stills and lobby cards, and most especially the 8mm (and later Super 8) films featuring classic movie stars that people could purchase to run through their own projectors and project on their own movie screens at home.

Several companies offered classic movies and cartoons in various forms – sound and silent, color and black & white, full-length and abridgements. This was before the advent of VHS and DVD. Aside from checking the TV Guide or your local movie listings for revival screenings, this was the only other way to see classic movies. In a way, it was the first “on-demand” entertainment – if you wanted to see Laurel & Hardy, Abbott & Costello, W.C. Fields, The Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges or The Little Rascals all you had to do was thread your projector and let the show begin.

I was blessed to have parents who helped foster my love of old movies. They bought a movie projector and screen, and would buy me movies as gifts until I could pay for my own. The first projector we had (I can’t remember the brand) was a silent model that played by regular 8mm and Super 8 films. At some point, the lamp got so hot that it melted a rubber piece in the projector and the melted pieces started getting on the films. The films would also ocassionally break and burn from the heat. At this point my parents replaced the projector with a Super 8 sound projector from Kodak. This machine was a gem – a top-loading projector with a self-threading take-up reel built into the bottom.

My local library had a great library of 8mm and Super 8 films to borrow. I routinely took out all sorts of films from that library, with Laurel & Hardy’s The Live Ghost and the Three Stooges’ We Want Our Mummy being films I borrowed several times over. The thing about film collecting for a kid was this: a lot of the films I really wanted were too expensive. You could get an entire “two reel” comedy short but you had to pay more for that – that was 20 minutes of film. So for me, the really short abridgements which ran either 50 feet/three-six minutes or 100 feet/eight-10 minutes made the most economical sense.

There was such a neat variety of films to choose from. Some were released under their original titles while short segments were often released under new titles (that way if a company excerpted four different clips from the same film, they could market each clip as a “stand-alone” edition). The Laurel & Hardy and Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals) titles above were created for the home movie market (“Haunted House” was really a barely shortened version of Hide & Shriek, itself already a short one-reeler; not sure what “Grave Heroes” was but I suspect it might be a digest of Do Detectives Think?), and many Abbott & Costello abridgements received the re-titling treatment, too.

Ken Films offered a lot of films from 20th Century Fox including Mighty Mouse and other Terrytoons. Columbia offered the Three Stooges shorts and chapters from the Batman movie serials (but I never saw these for sale – they were not sold in stores by me it seemed). Atlas had really short Laurel & Hardy and Little Rascals reels. Blackhawk offered the definitive reels on Laurel & Hardy, the Little Rascals and other classic comedians but they were the real deal – full length and more expensive so I relied on my library for those (although I was able to afford some wonderful seven-minute Flip the Frog cartoons from Blackhawk). Best of all, however, was Castle Films. Their library consisted of Universal classics and some 1930s Paramount films. This enabled them to offer W.C. Fields, the Marx Brothers, the Frankenstein/Dracula/Wolfman and other Universal horror series, Woody Woodpecker and other Walter Lantz cartoons and, best of all, Abbott & Costello.

Laurel & Hardy have always been my favorite comedy duo but Abbott & Costello were a close second, particularly in my childhood (as an adult I’ve learned to spread the love around to also embrace double-acts like Olsen & Johnson and Wheeler & Woolsey, too). But the fact is it was just more economical to buy Abbott & Costello’s films than Laurel & Hardy’s. The 50-foot films were the least expensive you could buy, and the Bud & Lou digests were readily available at local stores like Two Guys, Sears and Builder’s Emporium (yes, I know that last one sounds weird – it was Lowe’s and Home Depot before there was such super-hardware stores… except with the added attraction of a camera department, where they kept all the Super 8 films)! By comparison I only ran across a 50-foot Atlas Laurel & Hardy once while shopping. So there are more Abbott & Costello films in my Super 8 collection than anything else.

One thing some critics and even some fans forget about is how good Costello was at pantomime and visual gags. The focus is usually on the amazing verbal patter routines of Bud and Lou, but the fact is that two of Costello’s biggest heroes (and influences) were Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel. This becomes very evident in the silent 50-foot/five-minute Castle abridgements, which focus on the visual set-pieces from classic Abbott & Costello films like Ride ‘em Cowboy, In Society, Hit the Ice, Buck Privates Come Home and others. The Abbott & Costello horror-comedies were another matter. Since they were more plot oriented, Castle released Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein and  Abbott & Costello Meet the Mummy in their longer formats, in both silent and sound versions. Only Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde received the 50-foot silent treatment.

There are a host of folks out there who experienced similar enjoyment collecting Castle and other home movies. I encourage you to read these great articles on the topic from Mark Evanier, Robbie’s Reels and Monsters from the Vault – just click on the bolded words to visit those sites. You can also buy old Castle Films Super 8 reels from several online sellers but I won’t make a personal recommendation since I haven’t bought any films from these dealers (although I am confident you’ll find reliable, honest home movie dealers out there). And if you’re really serious about collecting Castle Films, then you need to get a copy of my friend Scott MacGillivray’s book “Castle Films: a Hobbyists’s Guide.”

A great example of a very short Abbott & Costello 50-foot digest from Castle Films is “Have Badge, Will Chase,” excerpted from Abbott & Costello Meet the Keystone Kops. It is chock full of visual gags, and actually plays better in shorter form (the actual feature being one of the team’s weaker efforts). Again, the visual slapstick really cut down well into small segments for these Abbott & Costello Castle Films reels and–together with their TV show–prove that the team could have had a vibrant career making theatrical two-reelers.

“Have Badge, Will Chase” also gives you an approximation of the basic Castle Films experience, particularly of watching their shorter reels in the silent format with subtitles. It may seem odd in these high-tech days that this was considered great entertainment in your living room, but I think I actually paid more attention to the acting and stories without all the extra distractions by simply gazing upon them on my home movie screen.

Paul Castiglia has been writing and editing comic books and pop culture articles for 20 years.  Among his many credits are editing the Archie Americana series of classic comic book reprints, writing comic book stories featuring classic Tex Avery animation characters and contributing a chapter to a book of essays on Vincent Price. His website is Scared Silly: Classic Hollywood Horror-Comedies.

  • Blair Kramer.

    Yes indeed. When I was growing up I spent a lot of money on silent 8mm home movies from Castle Films. What made Castle such a great company was their wide selection of Willis O’Brien and Ray Harryhausen titles. Since this was before the advent of videotape, I thought they were terrific. And I still fondly remmber those silly, silent, 8mm films. In fact, if you were a kid with a big allowance, you could even buy some films with full magnetic soundtracks! Imagine that! Unfortunately, I didn’t have a big allowance! Oh well…

  • ed

    yes and still have a lot of the old castle films in 8mm. also have 8 mm errol flynn movies robin hood charge of light brigade and dawn patrol. it was like hd in the 60′s for us old kids

  • Samuel Hough

    I started collecting 8mm silent Blackhawk films after leaving the Army in 1966. When Laserdiscs became available I collected them. I do DVDs (but not Blue-Rays). The Birth of a Nation cost, as I remember, $125.00 for eight reels–and had to have splicing glue at the ready. Now one can get the film, with sound track, for much less. Great time for seeing old films.

  • walter mulvey

    regarding laurel & hardy films.every month i could not wait to receive the monthly catalog from blackhawk films featureing L&H films with the monthly half cost special.they were really a quality company and produced a excellent product.it seems that they must have had the rights to their shorts at the time.approximately $10 got you a 20-30 minute short in silents.as all L&H fans know their films even in silents were great.i belonged to one of the TENTS that was their fan clubs.i wonder if these tTENTS still exist.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kenneth.m.henderson Kenneth Henderson

    You forgot to mention there was heaps of stuff on various forms of Laserdiscs before DVD came about.

  • Shawn McGinnis

    @Walter There are several Sons of the Desert TENTS still in operation. My dad belonged to the Los Angeles chapter in the 70′s and 80′s and had a wonderful time at the meetings. Just google Sons of the Desert and see if there’s one near you.

  • Bobby Alexander

    Love the Movies

  • Joe Bagnardi

    I collected many of films from 67 onwards. I ended up with 85 of them. The last was a 12 minute version of Star Wars. I also had some Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (THE MOVIE) which came with small records to play during the film.
    Ah, the good old days.
    JB

  • Jackie

    I have a Bently 88 mm movie projector that you only watch through a tiny screen. I had a Bently movie Camera that went with it. It worked quite well. I was told that there were 88 mm cartoon reels that would fit my little player. I rememember seeing them advertised in the backs of some old comics my husband had but when I wrote to order some the return mail said they were no longer in business.Does anyone out there know if this camera and viewer are antiques? Where might I find 88 mm reels? I LOVE this old stuff!!

  • Jeffrey Shimmin

    I still have my collection of great Castle Films. But the old Bell & Howell projector lamp went kaput years ago. I always loved the box cover art on those old films.

  • Blair Kramer.

    I also had the severely edited, 8mm editions of “Voyage To The Bottom Of The Sea.” I believe the complete set for that title came to two or more. Anyway, in order to hear the sound while running the film, one needed to play the thin, flexible, vinyl soundtrack record on a nearby turntable. Unfortunately, it was essentially impossible to keep the film in sync with the record. If you’ve ever seen “Singin’ In The Rain,” you know the problem I’m describing. It was deliberate comedy in “Singin’ In The Rain,” But when you have the same problem in your own home, it’s no joke!

  • Jackie

    Blair,I can just imagine the hilarity of Gene Kelley dancing and singing out of sinc ( because I know about trying to match the audio with the video with those old players ) it is impossible!

  • Blair Kramer.

    Jackie,

    I also had a severely edited, 8mm, Castle Films version of “The Horror Of Dracula.” It too came with a thin, vinyl, soundtrack record. And it was also impossible to keep in sync! But what the heck did I know? I was a kid. Since video-tape and DVD were years in the future, I loved those 8mm films. They were all that was available at the time. I was such a huge movie fan I was thrilled to have them.

  • ed

    i have a 3 minute reel of a&c meet frankenstein in reg 8mm. still have my castle film and errol flynn dawn patrol charge of light brigade and robin hood. i remember seeing bridgeon river kwai and major dundee in super8 in sears stores back in 60′s and the orginal batman serial in a sporting store. anybody know where you can purchase old camera lightbulbs for those cameras

  • denny daniel

    great article! very personal and informative. I have many of these films from all the various companies in the Museum of Interesting Things. I will have to invite you to the screening to help string up the projector. i have not debuted them yet.