One of the dangers of Book Fair donations is the peril of being plunged into a bygone world. You can be working along, minding your own business, and then some little ephemeral piece of literature pushes you into another era.
This happened a few months ago when someone donated a number of references and other works dealing with the videocassette market. Suddenly, there I was, cast away on the bright, cheerful shores of 1980, surrounded by the glories of science fiction sagas trying to rip off Star Wars, exercise videos by anyone who could afford stretch pants, and celebrities who blazed brightly only to be forgotten, at least by me. (Bud Melman’s name, for example, had not occurred to me in at least twenty years.)
It happened to me again last week, with one slim 24-page booklet. A glance inside this copy of Castle Films Home Movies and I was tossed into a silent, black and white section of 1963.
Once upon a time, before the Internet, or the DVD, or even the videocassette, the three minute reels of Castle Films were a cheap, easy way to arrange your own entertainment viewing at home. Yes, they had more deluxe items available, but a black and white silent three minute cartoon or movie clip, at $3.95, was their most popular work, to be found not only in the pages of the catalogs, but in camera shops and dimestores across America.
Eugene Castle was a newsreel cameraman who went into business for himself, producing advertising films for businesses. In 1937, he began buying up film footage other companies had no use for, and started putting out films that the average American could show at home. Newsreels were his first line: having no television, people were amazed that they could show the Hindenburg exploding on a screen at home. He branched off into cartoons (again, he had no competition from television) and silent films, which could be cut up into three minute gag reels, or the more deluxe nine minute versions. Wrap-ups of the previous year’s sports headlines, special Christmas presentations (the highlight of a Christmas party for the neighbor kids), and patriotic short subjects during World War II spread the fame of Castle Films.
After the war, Castle Films was essentially bought out by Universal pictures, and now castle Films just exploded with new bestsellers. Three and nine minute clips from all the classic Universal horror movies blossomed on store shelves. All of Woody Woodpecker, most of Abbott and Costello, large chunks of W.C. Fields were all part of Castle’s stock in trade.
Of course, it all came crashing down in the videocassette era. Why settle for three minutes of Hopalong Cassidy when you could get an entire movie on one video? Who needed a newsreel anyhow, when the evening news could keep you up to date? Sound and color did not cost extra when you bought the video. Had the coffin still been open, cable and the Internet would have finally nailed it shut.
And yet…. I look through the pages of this catalog and I wonder. Is there any place now where you can select from half a page of “Chimp Comedies”? I see these “Willie Mouse” cartoons can still be found under their original 1930s titles before someone decided to rebrand them as a new series, but whatever became of Pierre Bear, listed here as a “riotous new cartoon comic”? Who made the “Three Little Bruins” films (five of those listed here, as opposed to only two for Pierre Bear). And I’d like to know what happened to “Princess Cinderella”: I don’t happen to recall that part of the story where the Prince has to go find magic water to cure her broken heart. What was that before Castle Films released it? What, exactly, would I have seen had I bought this Lady Godiva movie?
There are Castle film collectors out there, and some have posted their treasures on YouTube (mainly the monster movie clips and Christmas films). But where are the Chimp Comedies?