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generation were the last allowed to embrace black & white before it was stigmatized by marketeers as being something “outdated”), books galore on all sorts of classic movie stars, memorabilia like stills and lobby cards, and most especially the 8mm (and later Super 8) films featuring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.