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(From Animato, 1996)

Curiosity Shop

In Praise of 8mm

By Harry McCracken

Call me a technological renegade, a throwback. All my cartoon-loving friends seem to be investing in laserdisc players, 27-inch TVs, and satellite dishes, the better to watch classic American animation in all its glory.

So why am I sitting in my darkened living room, using an 8mm projector to cast an Inspector Willoughby cartoon against the wall? A silent, heavily-edited, black-and-white Inspector Willoughby cartoon?

It wasn't nostalgia that attracted me to 8mm cartoons; my family had no home-movie setup when I was a kid. None of my friends seemed to, either. Indeed, the only times I was reminded that anyone did was on rare ocassions when my father dragged me on a trip to the local camera shop: I'd entertain myself by browsing through the spinning racks of Disney films.

My only memories of actually watching 8mm animation come from occasional family dinners at the Ground Round. Walter Lantz cartoons flickered silently in one corner of the room, a sideshow to the main attractions: greasy steaks, pitchers of root beer, and free popcorn; for all I know, those cartoons flicker still today.

For whatever reason, though, I'm finally becoming addicted to 8mm home movies -- at least twenty years after the rest of the country forgot all about them. Where do you find an 8mm projector to buy these days? They aren't exactly plentiful. I got mine, a plasticky little GAF model from the 1970s, for $10 from a wizened old man who had a cellarful of them. It's decrepid and it's flimsy, but it works just fine and can play either ordinary 8mm or Super 8 reels.

The movies themselves are a bit simpler to locate; take a look around the nooks and crannies of your local flea market or antique store and you're likely to spot some, usually at giveaway prices. (To get to the cartoons, you'll need to sift through other 8mm fare, such as extracts from Abbott and Costello flicks and highlights from fifty year-old boxing matches.) I suspect that it's the colorful boxes that keep home movies in circulation, not the thought that anyone is going to want to watch the films inside.

But I do. And I'm discovering that 8mm home animation is -- or should I say was? -- a fascinating world.

For one thing, it's a distinctly different world than that of big-time theatrical animation. In a theater or on TV, Chilly Willy is a distinctly minor cartoon character; in the world of 8mm, he's a bonafide star, whose films were among the most widely circulated of any character. Walter Lantz characters in general had high profiles in the home-movie business, being, as they were, the top attractions of Castle Films, one of the leading home-movie companies.

Official Films was another home-movie powerhouse. I have one of its catalogs from the late 1940s that's a veritable museum of obscure cartoon shorts. Van Beuren, Columbia, Ted Eshbaugh -- the company dealt in the work of the most hapless of all cartoon studios. Most of the films it sold were one-shots with generic cartoon characters; about the closest it got to a star was Van Beuren's enormously forgettable Cubby Bear, whom Official inexplicably redubbed Brownie.

Whatever the studio, 8mm home-movie cartoons are generally edited down, ofen drastically so; they're in black-and-white; and they feature subtitles instead of sound. (I realize that color home movies with audio tracks exist, but I'm not interested in them; color and sound would spoil the purity of the experience, somehow.)

Chuck Jones has rightly said that you judge if a cartoon's any good by seeing whether you can tell what's going on with the sound turned down. But even when a silent 8mm cartoon passes this basic test, it usually isn't very funny. Viewing a silent Warner Bros. cartoon, for example, impresses upon you very quickly just how important Mel Blanc's voice, Carl Stalling's music, and the dialogue of such writers as Mike Maltese were. (8mm cartoons usually had extremely perfunctory on-screen captions, presumably so they could be quickly taken in by inexperienced young readers.) Even the most pedestrian of Woody Woodpecker cartoons takes on new qualities when watched on 8mm; seeing Woody laugh without *hearing* Woody laugh is an odd experience indeed.

Okay, so 8mm cartoons are a laughably rinkydink form of amusement by contemporary standards. It's worth remembering, though, that in the old days, home movies were by no means inexpensive fare. My Official Films catalog from the late 1940s lists 8mm cartoon prints at $5.50 apiece -- a considerable entertainment investment in an era when a comic book sold for a dime and a movie ticket cost a quarter. Projectors, too, were luxury items: the 1972 Montgomery Ward catalog lists several models, from between $60 and $160 apiece; more, in constant dollars, than a good VCR costs today. To put these prices into perspective, the same catalog has car batteries for $10, men's suits, for $55, and a sofa for $130. (It also has a primitive reel-to-reel, black-and-white video camera and player for $1200 -- one of the priciest items in the whole book.)

That we can now pay $200 or less for a high-quality video tape player is pretty impressive, but what's downright remarkable is how cheap, and widely available, cartoons have become. I can walk into just about any supermarket or drugstore in my neighborhood and choose from a selection of uncut, beautifully-restored Disney features -- with sound and color, even! -- for fifteen dollars or so apiece. If you'd prophesied this utopian situation to me twenty years ago, as I rummaged through 8mm cartoons at the photo store while waiting for my dad, I would never have believed you.

When pressed, I'll admit that I've got those glorious video copies of Snow White and Pinocchio on my shelf, and I'm grateful to have them. Still, I wouldn't trade all the Disney tapes in the world for my collection of ancient home-movie cartoons. Anyone care to join me for a private screening of the Super 8 edition of Paul Terry's The Happy Cobblers?