Sunday, October 6, 2013

At Home With Castle Films

One upon a time, in that dark and ancient era called the 1970's, we didn't have Netflix, DVD's or video tapes. If you were lucky enough to have 4 channels on the TV it was because some low wattage college station with-in a few miles of your house was playing PBS. You could go decades without seeing a movie you loved and if your favorite television show got canceled, you better hope that it went into syndication or you might never see it ever again. I can't tell you how many people I knew who would take audio cassette recorders, and record the sounds from shows, just so they would at least have that.

A selection of Castle covers

It was not a great time for entertainment, and I suspect that people born in the last 30 years, can sort of picture the reality of it, but can no more truly understand what the world was like back in those days, then I truly understand what it was like with my mom growing up with radio or my grandparents childhoods in the day before wireless. Still, in those pre-HBO days, we did have at least one thing to keep us entertained and allowed us to have a whole world of entertainment options at our fingers tips. We had home movie projectors, and we had Castle Films.

Castle's House of Frankenstein 

Home projectors came normally as either as 16mm or the smaller more portable 8mm. Almost all 16mm machines came with sound, but in the case of 8mm there were some that had sound, but most were silent. The projector I own today is a 16mm machine that I bought from a school auction years ago that works like a dream and is pretty easy to find films for.

No home is complete without one

In the mid 1930's, Eugene Castle a onetime newsreel cameraman who had opened a business in the late 1920's producing training films, noticed that more and more Americans were making their own home movies and buying projectors to watch them on. Recognizing that people would want to watch more then just their own home movies, Castle began to purchase the rights to numerous old movies and cartoons for re-packaging to the home movie market.

Christmas Toy Shop, one of hundreds of cartoons released by Castle

From the late 1930's through the 1970's Castle films sold literally thousands of titles, most running about 8 minutes, the standard home movie reel size. They had licenses for animation from Warner, Paramount, Terrytoons among others. Bugs Bunny, Andy Panda, Woody Woodpecker, Superman, Popeye, Casper and dozen of other characters were put out from Castle.

Delivered weekly, The News Parade was a newsreel for the home

Along with repackaged movies and cartoons, Castle also had huge success with their weekly newsreel The News Parade. Castle's newsreel wasn't shown in theaters but instead was delivered weekly to the home of subscribers much the same way that a magazine would. The idea of watching movies of real life news events in your own home was revolutionary, and of course were a precursor of the what news coverage would be on television.

News Parade subscription form 1946

For a kid like me, more important then any newsreel was that Castle Films took classic films and edited them into 8 minute marvels. It was in these Castle film that many of us were first introduced to the Keystone Cops, Abbott and Costello, WC Fields and the Marx Brothers. Another home distributor, Blackhawk Films, specialized in silent shorts and carried Chaplin, Keaton and Laurel and Hardy, which between the two pretty much covered the gamut of early film comedy.

Castle's Here Comes the Circus

More important then the cartoons or the comedies though, for me it was the Castle editions of famous monster movies that gave me my first real taste of classic horror. It was in these shorts that I first met the Frankenstein Monster and his Bride. Saw the lord of the undead, Dracula stalk his victims in foggy London, and saw poor Larry Talbot transform into the fiendish Wolfman. In Castle films I saw the Mummy walk, the Creature in it's Black Lagoon, and the Blob destroy an entire town.

Bride of Frankenstein another classic Castle edit (this sadly is a reconstruction)

I would be well on my way to being an adult before I had the chance to see the majority of the Universal horror films in their entirety. Sure I'd seen a few on the late show here and there, but not as many as you might think. The local Creature Feature was much more interested in running more recent hammer and AIP films, and the old B&W classics just rarely were shown. When I as nine my only real knowledge of the Universal Monsters, and come to think of it, the comedy duo of Abbott and Costello was in the Castle films 9 minute cut of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

Castle's edited Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein

Speaking of the Universal Monsters, I fully expect people to disagree, and maybe it is because of my childhood exposure, but to be perfectly honest I have always enjoyed the 8 minute version of the classic Dracula, then the feature length film. The Castle cut is fast moving and to the point,where the original film, while sure a classic, is also a movie that just drags. The Castle cut on the other hand is fast paced and shows off Lugosi at his best.

Castle's condensed version of Dracula, is an edited classic

By the late 1970's and the rise of both the cable television market, and especially with the introduction of the home video player, using film to make home movies quickly faded away, and Castle's market along with it. By the end of the decade it was the end of the company. Yet for almost 40 years Castle films thrilled home viewers and gave them the ability to have whatever entertainment they wanted right at their fingertips.

WWII action was a Castle specialty 

Much of their material is easily found on YouTube, and trust me  lots of it is worth a look.

1 comment:

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