A recent flood in my house forced me clean out my basement after years of promises, promises.
Digging through boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes of posters, DVDs, record albums, magazines, books and pretty much anything else connected to movies and the Philadelphia Phillies, I came across several boxes VHS tapes, unseen for at least the past decade.
Sifting through the disaster that was once my video collection, I came across the first film I ever purchased on home video: King Kong, the classic 1933 horror film, released by the long defunct Nostalgia Merchant company.
An aura of nostalgia overcame me just as the mustiness of the VHS-filled boxes led me to sneeze.
So there it was: No doubt purchased from Movies Unlimited, my guess would be in the $20 range, more than likely in or about 1980—33 years ago.
Although I had dabbled in collecting Super 8mm films—mostly 400-foot versions of horror pictures like Tarantula, The Bride of Frankenstein, Horror of Dracula (with not-so well-synched sound on a companion record), and cartoons—the thought of owning a favorite film in its complete form was something beyond me. No more waiting for the movie to show up on TV or appear at the TLA, the Bandbox or the New World Theater, Philadelphia’s repertory showcases. Whenever I wanted to watch King Kong, there it was, in all of its black and white glory. For a movie fan such as me, it was simply a dream come true.
Coincidentally, the discovery of the copy of King Kong occurred when I was asked to query the movie-obsessed people around me about what their first movie purchases were for an article on www.moviefanfare.com. Before seeing the cardboard box with Kong Kong perched atop the Empire State Building, dangling Fay Wray in one hand and swatting at a biplane in the other, I recognized the significance of my excavation. Before that, I didn’t have a clue what the first film I bought was.
For some, recalling their first movie purchase came easily. George, who sits across the room from me, actually had a copy of his first VHS tape on his desk: the silent classic The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, issued by Kartes Video in a generic box. Brian, another coworker who sits in the same room, couldn’t come up with the first VHS he bought, but knew instantly that The Hunt for Red October marked the beginning of his soon-to-be-extensive Laserdisc library.
The in-house poll continued, the question regarding first movie purchase often eliciting stories from folks. Fred wanted to buy a copy of Ridley Scott’s Alien, but when he discovered it wasn’t in stock, he settled for Raiders of the Lost Ark. Few may recall that Paramount set the Raiders retail at $29.99 after they experimented successfully with Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan at the $39.99 sell-through price. Star Trek did extremely well, but Raiders went through the roof, and the studio continued the same policy with many of their “A” titles. So we know that Raiders of the Lost Ark was the first buy of many video fans, including our warehouse’s Steve B.
Movies Unlimited was selling movies before most video stores, catering to hardcore film buffs and true collectors. The Paramount experiment made lots of sense to the company, and we pushed hard to get people used to buying movies. Of course, not all of Paramount’s priced-to-sell titles were as successful as Raiders; they also had The Lords of Discipline and Staying Alive, the follow-up up to Saturday Night Fever, as sell-through specials. They didn’t have the same zing as Indy Jones with a whip.
Damian, our returns administrator, thinks National Lampoon’s Animal House was the first VHS he copped, but is certain the first laserdisc he brought into his home was Everybody All-American, the football drama starring Dennis Quaid and John Goodman.
Mike, a longtime employee, recalls buying Gone with the Wind for his wife even though the multi-tape set was quite pricey. Before purchasing the epic picture, Mike asked his wife, “How many times are you going to watch it?” Mike says it turned out to be a wise investment.
Steve F. got his laughs from Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein –that’s “Fronk-en-steen”– while John S. stayed away from the water after he watched Steven Spielberg’s Jaws. Superman: The Movie, Airplane!, and Wise Guys with Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo, were also mentioned as numero uno video entries.
Joan A., our customer service head, recalls that “the first VHS film I purchased was in 1988, along with our shiny new VCR. It was Disney’s ‘Cinderella’.
“I had two small children at the time, but I think I enjoyed it as much as they did. I asked them yesterday what was the first VHS film they remember, and they both texted me back (God forbid they call their mother!) Cinderella.
“I remember thinking, ‘I can’t believe I am holding a Disney film in my hands!’”
It’s likely Disney films comprised many of folks’ first-time VHS purchases. Parents fondly remembered seeing them in theaters when they were young and wanted to pass the experience along to their children. Additionally, Disney typically took the VHS copies of their classic animated features out of circulation after a period of time, which, in turn, made titles such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Sleeping Beauty, Dumbo and Pinocchio instant collector’s items.
In the offbeat category, Scott recalls purchasing Frank Zappa’s Baby Snakes, a trippy mix of clay animation, music and concert footage. Meanwhile, Ed F., our internet specialist, sprung for Video Aquarium so he got a peaceful, easy feeling observing the Tetras and Angelfish swim around amidst the plants and rock formations.
Like now, the early days of video were filled with companies that produced public domain films. Even Movies Unlimited had its own line, boasting such popular PD titles at the time as Night of the Living Dead, Angel and the Badman and Santa Fe Trail.
Along with George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead, the biggest seller was probably It’s a Wonderful Life, the Frank Capra holiday classic with James Stewart and Donna Reed. And while it is no longer available in the public domain, hundreds of thousands of copies have been sold over the years.
We’re betting that many people made It’s a Wonderful Life their first VHS purchase. Jerry, the owner of Movies Unlimited, fondly recalls that it the initial choice for his library,
“In 1978 I bought my first VHS tape — It’s A Wonderful Life, a truly moving piece of filmmaking that shows that each man’s life touches so many other lives and what an awful hole would be left if he wasn’t around,” says Jerry. “In the early days of home video, that fabulous movie was thought to be in the public domain — it was before Republic Pictures showed their muscle claiming the movie belonged to them. At the time. the film’s director Frank Capra was still alive, and I never did understand why the movie didn’t actually belong to him.”
“It turned out that the movie was not legally registered in 1946, and somehow it became Republic’s property, even though it was released by RKO,” explains Jerry. ““None of this legal mumbo-jumbo fazed me — I had owned the 8 mm version since the late sixties and I recognized early on that this new easier-to-deal-with format was for me.
“I admit that threading up the projector was always a thrilling experience but let’s face it — what could be easier than popping a cassette into a machine? The quality was so much better than my 8mm version too and was somewhat astounding that I could actually pause the movie at any time for any reason — something I wasn’t able to accomplish with a film projector without impunity – the fear of burning a hole in the film.
“To this day, It’s A Wonderful Life is one of my favorites and I can just hear character actor Sheldon Leonard ringing the cash register and saying, ‘Get me. I’m givin’ out wings!’”
And for movie fans of all ages, the introduction of movies on home video proved it really was a wonderful life.
We’d love to hear about your first video purchases!
This is the latest in a series of recollections being featured on MovieFanFare in honor of Movies Unlimited’s 35th Anniversary.