Volume IX, No. 4, Summer 1982




THEY DON'T MAKE MOVIES LIKE THEY USED TO

A VISIT WITH RUSSELL O'DELL

Edited by Melanie StubblefieldPhotos by Gina Jennings


The hobby of collecting has been popular ever since the stone age. People collect things from rocks to computers, but a more unusual collection hobby is that of Russell O'Dell. He collects old movies and loves to talk about them.

Motion pictures and movie business is an art, just like music and paintings, but it has a brief history. It didn't start till the latter part of the 1830s to 1870s. The earliest idea was from the prehistoric painters on caves and walls. The only way they knew how to make an animal running was to give them a lot of legs to indicate motion. That was the first idea that people had of motion in pictures. One of the other early ideas was Joseph Plateau, a Belgian scientist, who had two discs on a rod. He put various articles, the subject he wanted to portray, around one disc, and he put holes through the other disc. By moving the disc at the same speed and looking through the holes it would look like it was moving and was changing pictures. In 1877 Eadweard Maybridge from San Francisco took twenty-four cameras in a row on a race track. He tied a string to the shutter of each one so if anything would hit it, it would snap a picture. He ran a horse down the track and each one of the cameras would take a different picture--a different action of the horse--and it would look like it was moving.

You've heard of George Eastman? He was a pioneer of making photographic equipment. After Hannibal Goodwin had invented film, or a plastic celluloid--something that was clear and you took a picture on it, and you could look through it, too--Eastman manufactured all this film. One of the first things he did was to make the main size of film thirty-five millimeter, so anyone in the country could use it in their projector. When you go to the picture show it's thirty-five millimeter. That's what they used in movie houses.

The first movie was a tableau in 1898. It was just a four minute affair, and the name of it was "Cripple Creek Barroom." It was a western type but it was made in New Jersey. It was called a western because it was made in the western part of New Jersey. The first movie with a story was "The Great Train Robbery," a complete story of robbery, directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1903. This movie kept the movie business from going under. Motion pictures would have gone under because it was the same as still photography. When they began to have a story to it, it developed into a great industry.

The first movie theaters were called Nickelodeons, because you'd get in for a nickel.

Before I even went to school, Clarence Fayant had the movie house in Lebanon, which was on the corner of Commercial and Jefferson. It later moved across the street. It was called the Lyric Theater as far back as I can remember.

The Star Theater was built in the 1940s.

In the first Lyric Theater there wasn't a lobby, just a window where you bought your tickets. You'd get in for a nickel or a dime, depending on how old you were.

The balcony was in the back. In the first theater after buying your ticket, you walked right in under the screen. The seats were facing you as you walked in. The seats sloped upward so everybody wouldn't have to look around everybody else's head.

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The first seats were plain, old wooden ones. Later they got cushions and those were pretty comfortable. They sure helped on those long movies!

When they first started showing movies, they always had two projectors. Have you noticed how fast they can change from reel to reel? The cartoon was on one reel and the serial on the other, so they had to be able to change it pretty quick.

Piano music for the silent movies in Lebanon was provided by Mrs. Charles Martin. The piano was at the bottom of the screen. Mrs. Martin played the background music since they didn't have any sound at that time, back in the early twenties. She would play before the show started for about fifteen or twenty minutes. There was an orchestra pit where instrumentalists performed. Occasionally the musicians played during the movie to fill in where the movie wasn't very exciting. But many times scenes became so exciting all you could hear was people cheering the hero or booing the villain.

The very first theater I went to, you couldn't even buy popcorn. There was no machine. Later popcorn came into the theaters and became quite a fad. At the first Lebanon theater the popcorn man was outside. One of the first was Old Man Farmer who owned his own popcorn machine. The theater owner would let him sell it. He sold many a sack of popcorn. Later the theater had its own popcorn machine. Many times you forgot about your popcorn because the movies were so exciting!

They didn't have candy bars in those days, just popcorn. You could bring your own candy if you wanted. They didn't have any cokes, either! There was a drugstore if you wanted to go get a coke.

Monday through Friday the theater would be open showing a movie each night. The weekend was different. There was a Saturday matinee and a regular movie every Saturday night but no Sunday night movies. There were movies all the time, but when the specials came on, that's when everyone wanted to go.

Russell O'Dell, a collector of old movies, focuses his projector for a clearer picture during a Laurel and Hardy comedy, "Busy Bodies."

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Clarence Fayant was the manager of the theater and he had a box-like thing--it was kind of like an organ grinder without the monkey, only he'd wind it and it would make an awful loud horn-like sound. Then the whole town knew it was time for the show to start. I never will forget the sound that thing made. Clarence Fayant was noted for that particular sound.

Billy Anderson was the first western character. He made a lot of little movies. The most outstanding silent western was "Tumbleweeds," starring William S. Hart. William S. Hart was one of the first western characters. He made a lot of westerns. Tom Mix, Hoot Gibson, Buck Jones and Bob Steel were the main ones back in the twenties. We'd sit through their shows all afternoon enjoying it all immensely.

This silent movie I am showing you stars Douglas Fairbanks in "Zorro." It's an interesting story. Douglas Fairbanks made "The Mark of Zorro" in 1920, "The Son of Zorro" in 1925. I also have a Rudolph Valentine movie. You've heard of him, haven't you? He was one of the ladies' men. All the women thought he was a character, and he was a nice looking fellow. He was a great lover.

Most of the actions of actors and actresses back in the late twenties and thirties were not funny. They seem funny now, but back then, that was how they really acted. The way they wore their hair back then was in fashion. It looked pasted down. They tried to put little waves in them with spit curls. They didn't have hair stylists then like we do now. They had to wear heavy make-up to make their features distinct. They had to make-up their faces to keep from looking alike. Because of the poor quality of the photography, the film lacked clarity.

Most of the actors and actresses were paid a lot of money. For example Tom Mix would make twenty-five thousand dollars a week for making western movies. Not too many of them received that much money.

Some of my favorite early stars were William S. Hart, Walter Brennan, Wallace Beery, Buck Jones, Mary Pickford, Tom Mix, Clark Gable, Claudette Colbert, Hoot Gibson and Myrna Loy.

Most everyone watched for movies with Will Rogers, Rudolph Valentine, Mary Pickford, the Barrymores, the Beerys, Charlie Chaplin, and many others. They were favorites.

The regular Saturday movies would start at one or one-thirty. They would show the whole program twice. The same showing would be again at seven o'clock.

When you went to a big movie, you would usually go with your parents, but at the matinee Saturday it would usually be a bunch of kids, just a-yelling and squealing and going on and having a big time! Once in awhile a man would have to tell them to be quiet. They just enjoyed it and got excited. They didn't have anyone hired to quiet the people down. Once in awhile there would be a group that wouldn't be paying attention to the movie or interferring in some way. There was one fellow that I remember in particular that would talk out a lot, especially in the silent movies. He would yell for Gene Autry like, "Go, Gene!" or, "Git'em, Gene." We called him "Git'em Gene."

When they showed silent movies it was interesting to go to the show because you could almost guess what they say by their actions and their lips. But a lot of the times you couldn't, so you had to wait for the words to come on the screen. They'd give you time to read the words, then they went ahead with the next picture. I% doesn't take too long to show the words, but it does take up some time. In the average silent movie, ten percent of the movie time was taken up for the flashing of words.

They had some good special effects back then. They had to have them to explain the picture as they went along, and it helped.

Western movies were not necessarily preferred over others. Most of the younger folks liked the westerns. Mostly boys, but a lot of girls, too. Westerns were sometimes called "Oaters," or "Shoot'em ups." They made some of the westerns in as little as three days to a week. They were about an hour long. They were so popular at that time that there were several companies set up to make them.

Let me tell about the Saturday matinee. That was the main thing. That's where most of the boys and a lot of the girls spent their time on Saturday or Saturday night when there would be a comedy or two comedies, a serial and a feature.

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Tearing down the old Lyric Theater in Lebanon, Missouri in the 1960s. Notice the balcony and fancy light fixtures. The photo was taken from the stage. Courtesy of Kirk Pearce.

The theater would almost always show a cartoon before each feature. It wasn't animated. A regular comedy is what it was--Charlie Chase, Fatty Arbuckle, Our Gang or Laurel and Hardy. I called it a cartoon but really it was a comedy. Some of them would be ten minutes long, some would be twenty to twenty-five minutes long. Sometimes, these short features would give a little history that wouldn't be funny, but they were funny as a rule. The animated cartoons didn't come along until close to 1940. Laurel and Hardy started in the early twenties. The oldest one I have, "Liberty" in 1928, is silent. Laurel and Hardy get up on a building, and they almost fall off. It hurts to watch it! Their antics just go on and on.

A serial was another thing that was shown on Saturday. It would end in a predicament or in suspense, and you'd have to come back the next Saturday to see how it came out. They'd be about to drown or about to blow up in a building or about to do something, and you'd go back and see it. It kept on going for eight to ten Saturdays. Finally it would have an end to it. I sure liked those. I've got some of those serials. I have a Buck Jones serial, Tarzan and two or three others.

Then we'd always have a western feature on Friday nights and Saturday. Not every time on Friday, but almost every Saturday they'd have a western feature, and sometimes two. If they had one feature we'd sometimes sit through it both times to see it over again.

They always previewed other shows. If it was a serial or just a film during the week, or especially on Saturday, they would preview what would be on next week or next Saturday. They were called "trailers." Those can be purchased now. Each one has portions of five or six movies, so you can tell if you'd like to see one. You can also buy them.

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Sound movies started in 1928 and by 1930, we had sound movies here. When sound movies came, it wasn't usually sound all the way through. Sometimes they might have a musical part or a dance number. When the sound came a lot of stars became unknown because their voices were no good. They didn't talk very well so their film career was ruined, although they had been big stars in the silent movies.

Tom Mix was silent and sound both. He started back in the early twenties. He was one of those whose voice was acceptable for sound movies. Buck Jones was the same way. William S. Hart never made sound movies. He was all silent. Now they add the sound track to the silent films and have background music. It was too bad about some of them that were big characters. Their voices were either too feminine, too squeaky, or they had a speech defect. It left them out.

There were many problems with the first sound movies. I noticed in a lot of westerns the sound of the horses' hoof beats, was pretty rhythmic but sometimes it was way off! Even in modern sound movies they buff in the sound of horses' hoof beats.

Enjoying Charlie Chaplin and other silent film stars from his film collection.

With sound movies as with silent, there'd be a cartoon, a news bulletin and regular feature. They would have the Ziegfield Follies show which would be twenty or thirty minutes long, or an introductive number of that sort. The Ziegfield Follies started silent in the twenties and continued into sound. They were a dancing group.

There was always a cartoon and a little news bulletin before the feature. The news feature was one to three minutes. Pathe News or Movietone News gave the news, just like T.V. does now. They gave the main portion of the news before the beginning of the show. After the cartoon would be the regular movie.

Movies that were extra good were called big movies. Some cost millions of dollars to produce. Some of the first old timers for the big movies were "The Covered Wagon," [1923] "Wings," and "All's Quiet On The Western Front" 1930]. That was a story of World War I from a German soldier's standpoint. "cimmaron" was another good one. It was a western type on the order of covered wagon.

Will Rogers' movies were popular. The movie would start on Monday night and end on Thursday. They would show it four or five consecutive nights so everybody would get a chance to see it. Will Rogers made long and short movies. He started making movies in the 1930s.

John Wayne started making movies in 1931 or '32. He started with sound. I have an older one, "Stagecoach," which was a long movie, and largely responsible in his becoming a star.

The Three Stooges started making their films in the late thirties and early forties. They were a little later than Laurel and Hardy, and were followed by Abbott and Costello.

"The Lone Ranger" appeared in 1938 or '39. I have several of his, too.

I also have "Zorro" with Tyrone Power and Basil Rathbone. He played the villain. He also played "Sherlock Holmes." "The Mark of Zorro" was made in 1940. It's not in color, even though color was being used. Charley Chan also started about this time.

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As movie making improved, so did the theaters. The Lyric theater was remodeled several times. In the newer theater you walked into the lobby and the screen faced you as you walked in. The movie theater was fairly fancy then. Of course, you always went in when it was dark so you didn't get to see very much. The lobby was nice. You could buy popcorn, chewing gum and candy bars in the lobby. It was pretty plush, the last Lyric, I mean.

Color started in 1938. Boy, everybody wanted to see a colored movie. A lot of people came to see color, from all over the country, especially when they had specials.

"Gone With The Wind" is not an old movie, but it's fairly old. They even had intermission for that because it was so long. They'd go awhile and then give an intermission for about twenty or thirty minutes. Then everyone would go back and see the rest of it. I think they still do that now every once in awhile for the movies.

Some of the later movies were especially favorites. "The Robe, .... Ben Hur" and "The Grand Hotel" were all good movies.

To get into the big movies at one time they charged seventy-five cents to a dollar, and people thought that was outlandish. Inflation hurt the movie business when the prices were raised.

"When the first theaters opened, everyone went to see what a motion picture was like. Later on, the western movies were favored by both young and old. The movie house was where a lot of people were spending their time, and some still do, but I myself believe that they don't make movies like they used to!" said Russell O'Dell.

They would advertise movies in the paper. Movie posters were placed on billboards, on telephone poles and in the theater lobby to advertise coming attractions. Collectors buy these now. I remember when "Covered Wagon" came out. A controversy arose concerning a particular get-away scene in the movie that was also used as advertising. The herd ran about twenty-five horses over a cliff into a stream trying to perfect the scene, and in doing so killed several horses. The Humane Society protested the inhumane treatment of the horses.

Some of the church people thought you shouldn't go to the picture show. If you did, it might be as bad as going to a dance, drinking or playing cards in those days. The big reason was that Hollywood was just getting started and so many of the actors and actresses divorced and married six or eight times. People said that Hollywood was a dishonored place.

Nowadays the movie industry has developed into a booming business, with literally thousands of theaters all over the United States. "Although, the modern movies are popular," Russell said, "I, myself, will always be interested in the hobby of collecting the great, old movies.

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Copyright 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


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