Movie buff passion explored in 'Magnificent Obsession': Q&A with film historian & author Anthony Slide
In varying degrees of fervor, single-mindedness, and societal danger, there's the celebrity-obsessed, the religious freak, the sports fanatic, the firearms psycho, the political junkie, the history devotee, the porn aficionado, the gym rat, the power-mad, the thrill addict, the chocolate nut, the money maniac, the compulsive texter, the comic book nerd, and, among other such types, the movie buff.
Largely ignored and/or dismissed by scholars, historians, academicians, and film people themselves, the movie buff has been around for – almost – as long as the movies themselves. Perhaps as early as the dawn of the 20th century, when the first fans of the new invention/art began collecting reels of Georges Méliès or Alice Guy shorts or compiling lists of the flickers they had watched at the local nickelodeon.
This particular brand of movie fan is the chief topic of the latest book by veteran author and film scholar (and closeted movie buff?) Anthony Slide: Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics (University Press of Mississippi, 2018).
From screenwriters & gay porn stars to J.D. Salinger
According to the University Press of Mississippi's Magnificent Obsession press release, Tony Slide used his “more than fifty years in the field” to offer “his personal, up-front knowledge” of the sometimes humorous, sometimes tragic, and always intriguing movie buff world.
Among the eclectic movie buff types of various eras, backgrounds, and interests found in Magnificent Obsession are the following:
- Screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen (Cat People, The Enchanted Cottage), included for being a contributor to the well-regarded publication Films in Review.
- Actor André Beranger a.k.a. George Beranger, who was featured in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, Intolerance, and Broken Blossoms. As found in Magnificent Obsession, Beranger was also “a pioneering Hollywood film collector,” with more than 100 28mm prints of silent era fare.
- Los Angeles' Silent Movie Theatre manager and quirkily affable con artist Laurence Austin, who presented each screening after strolling down the aisle to the tune of Edward Elgar's “Pomp and Circumstance March.” Throughout his Silent Movie tenure in the 1990s, Austin screened hundreds of silents, including still nearly impossible-to-find titles such as the Mae Murray star vehicles Valencia and Altars of Desire, plus Norma Shearer in The Devil's Circus and After Midnight, and Joan Crawford in The Understanding Heart and The Taxi Dancer. In January 1997, Austin, who – falsely – claimed to have been the nephew of either Albert Austin (The Kid, City Lights) or William Austin (It, Silk Stockings), both small-time silent era actors, was shot dead at the Silent Movie during a screening of F.W. Murnau's 1927 romance classic Sunrise.
- Film archivist, collector, and essayist William K. Everson, who got in trouble with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer after screening a print of the Ramon Novarro version (1925) of Ben-Hur right when the studio had the – far inferior – Charlton Heston version out. Later on a teacher of film courses at New York University's Tisch School of the Arts, Everson was also a major fan of actress Betty Bronson, a silent era star after playing the titular characters in Herbert Brenon's Peter Pan and A Kiss for Cinderella. He eventually helped the by then retired actress land a role in Samuel Fuller's crime drama The Naked Kiss (1964) and had her introduce Peter Pan at a 1969 Museum of Modern Art screening in New York City.
- New York talk show radio and TV celebrity Joe Franklin, known in some quarters as “The King of Nostalgia” and as the author of Classics of the Silent Screen (1959) – which may actually have been written by William K. Everson. Franklin's guests ranged from Salvador Dali and Leopold Stokowski to Debbie Reynolds and Barbra Streisand.
- Films in Review contributor Larry Lee Holland, who, besides writing “first-rate, well-researched pieces” on, among others, silent era actors George Walsh, Lila Lee, Florence Lawrence, and sisters Katherine MacDonald and Mary MacLaren, also worked in gay porn films. And so did Rick Sandford, who, as Ben/Benjamin Barker, was seen in hardcore fare like The Boys of San Francisco and Rear Deliveries. As a (non-adult) film researcher, Sandford contributed to Robert Osborne's 50 Golden Years of Oscar and Ronald Haver's David O. Selznick's Hollywood, and “in true film buff fashion, he kept a list of every film he had ever seen.”
- And let's not forget reclusive The Catcher in the Rye author J.D. Salinger, described in Magnificent Obsession as an unacknowledged “celebrity film buff and film collector.”
More on Anthony Slide
Back in the 1960s in his native Britain, Birmingham-born Anthony Slide co-founded and co-published The Silent Picture, in his own words, “the first serious quarterly devoted to the art and history of the silent film.”
Since then, he has authored dozens of film books, among them Early American Cinema, The Big V: A History of the Vitagraph Company, The Silent Feminists, and Silent Players. Two of them – The American Film Industry: A Historical Dictionary (1986) and The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville (1994) – were named Outstanding Reference Source of the Year by the American Library Association.
Slide, whom Lillian Gish once called “our preeminent historian of the silent film,” has also directed several documentaries, including Portrait of Blanche Sweet, about the popular D.W. Griffith discovery, and Vi: Portrait of a Silent Star, about top Metro Pictures actress Viola Dana.
If that weren't all, he has taken part in quite a few Q&As for Alt Film Guide that should be of interest to the movie buff, the film scholar, and everything in between. Here are links to eight of them:
- The Encyclopedia of Vaudeville.
- It's the Pictures That Got Small.
- Inside the Hollywood Fan Magazine.
- Frank Lloyd: Master of Screen Melodrama.
- “Jimmy Edwards: 'Conservative' Gay British Comedian.”
- Hollywood Unknowns: A History of Extras, Bit Players and Stand-Ins.
- Now Playing: Hand-Painted Poster Art from the 1910s Through the 1950s.
- A Special Relationship: Britain Comes to Hollywood and Hollywood Comes to Britain.
The Curse of the Movie Buff
Shortly before its publication, the Magnificent Obsession Q&A (done via email) was inexplicably lost in both mine and Anthony Slide's computers. Call it The Curse of the Movie Buff.
But just like in movie buff/screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen's The Curse of the Cat People, there's a happy ending: Tony Slide generously agreed to do the Q&A all over again, and that's why you can find it immediately below.
For more information on Magnificent Obsession: The Outrageous History of Film Buffs, Collectors, Scholars, and Fanatics, check out the University Press of Mississippi website.
Movie buff history book 'Magnificent Obsession': Q&A with author Anthony Slide
- Regarding Magnificent Obsession: Why a book about the movie buff fixation?
Why not? I like to believe that all my books are original in that they deal with subjects that no other historians or scholars have tackled previously. It was in many ways a challenge to write about film buffs and their history in that not much of that history is recorded. To a certain extent, part of the book is a memoir, with my own reminiscences of film buffs that I have met, known and, quite often, liked.
I also wanted to document as much as possible the world of the film buff. So I write about the earliest film buffs; the autograph collectors and their world; the most important film buff publication, Films in Review, which managed to be both scholarly and buffish at the same time; the Silent Movie Theatre [in West Hollywood/Los Angeles]; Chaw Mank, who made a career out of running fan clubs; Joe Franklin, who similarly made a career as a radio and television personality out of his film buff background; celebrity stalking; and much more.
I even manage to titillate my audience by discussing sex and the film buff. And don't worry, André, you didn't make it into that chapter.
What's a movie buff?
- How exactly would you define a movie buff?
That is difficult to explain. I know one when I meet one. There is a certain similarity to be found among film buffs. Most of them are male, most of them are gay, and a large number tend to live with their mothers. Apart from that, they are often rather weird — and sometimes wonderful.
I do try and explain that the film buffs of the past, those from the 20th century, were generally decent, kind, and helpful human beings — always willing to share their knowledge and their collections (be they of paper or actual 16mm film prints) with others.
The film buffs of the 21st century are very different, defined by their use of social media, their assurance that whatever they say or think is correct, their rudeness (on the most part), and their lack of willingness to share anything unless there is money to be made.
Movie buff vs. movie fan
- What separates a movie buff from a movie fan?
That is really a difficult question to answer.
I do explain in the book that many fans cannot fairly be defined as buffs. Also, a lot of fans tend to grow out of their fan worship.
It is something with which they are obsessed as teenagers. Once they discover girls, boys, sex, and become adults, they tend to take on other interests in life.
Movie buff vs. film scholar
- What separates a movie buff from a film scholar? I mean, both are information databases when it comes to film-related subjects of their choice/obsession. And as seen in the chapter “Film Buff Meets Film Scholar,” one can be both, right?
I don't truly think that film scholars would regard themselves as information databases. Many would argue that they are not obsessed with facts, like the typical film buff, but rather approach film from a critical, historical, and aesthetic perspective.
I do point out that too many film academics lack the passion of a film buff. They don't love film the way you and I love film. In the book, at least one academic, Gary Rhodes, proudly identifies himself as a film buff. And since the book has been published, another, Tony Williams, is also anxious to be identified as a film buff.
In fact, as an aside, I have been attacked by many readers because I did not include them in the text and did not identify them as film buffs. By the way, Tony Williams has an excellent and very entertaining review of the book at the Film International site. There is also a review in Sight & Sound by an academic, which, while not a negative review, typifies in my opinion how academics approach any film text outside of their range of knowledge and expertise.
The chapter “Film Buff Meets Film Scholar” is about Films in Review, praising that wonderful, and largely forgotten publication for the manner in which it could address both audiences. Brilliant career articles by the likes of DeWitt Bodeen and others. Shameful that nobody today remembers DeWitt and his pioneering work. Also, Films in Review boasted an extraordinary, eccentric editor, Henry Hart, and I am glad to record his life and career in Magnificent Obsession.
Movie buff evolution
- Before you became a film historian, according to your own criteria could you have been labeled a movie buff?
I certainly do not like to be described as a film buff. I suppose I might have been labeled one when I first became seriously interested in film.
I don't think you can “become” a film historian just like that. It requires you to prove yourself through your writings, lectures, or whatever. Of course, William K. Everson once wrote or said that it takes thirty years for a film buff to become a film historian. But that is not what I think or believe.
“Movie Buff History: Author Anthony Slide Discusses the Lives & Times of Film Fanatics” follow-up post – “Film Fans' Outrageous History: From Classic Hollywood Screenwriters to Gay Porn Actors.”
Images featuring Anthony Slide, Leonard Maltin, William K. Everson, Blanche Sweet, Charles Phillips Riley, and Robert Giroux: Courtesy of Anthony Slide.
Rudolf Nureyev and Michelle Phillips Valentino image: United Artists.
The Curse of the Cat People image: RKO Pictures.
“Movie Buff History: Author Anthony Slide Discusses the Lives & Times of Film Fanatics” last updated in October 2018.