The Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society - A Brief History by William K. Everson
Theodore Huff was one of the country's foremost film historians at a time when almost nobody took film history really seriously. He grew up in Fort Lee in the early film-making days there, and made his own personal contributions to the field from the late 20's on. He worked at the Museum of Modern Art for 5 years from 1935, among other things arranging the musical scores for many of their silents; he taught film history at NYU, worked on documentaries at the Army Signal Corps., and during the war years worked with the National Archives in Washington, where he was directly responsible for the rediscovery of their valuable paper print collection. A cameraman and painter, he made a few films on his own, and of course did a great deal of writing on film (history and reviews) for Films in Review etc; he did some of the best in the Director Index series for the B.F.I., and also wrote one of the best books on Charlie Chaplin, with a detailed analysis of all the films. Other valuable research included the compilation of the shot-listings of The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance published by the MMA. For a far more detailed biography, we refer you to Films in Review of May 1953. Since Ted Huff was one of the founders of this society, it seemed only appropriate to name it after him when he died in 1953.
We began very informally in 1952 just calling ourselves, for need of some identification, The Film Circle. We weren't really a society - just a group of friends (Herman Weinberg, Seymour Stern, Bob Youngson, Charles Turner, Bill Kenly, Ted Huff) who all worked in the trade, and had access to prints - and a free 35mm screening room. We met regularly and economically, whenever one of us turned up something worthwhile. Stroheim's Dance of Death was one of the films we ran in that period. Ultimately, we lost our free screening room, and not wanting to disband, had to expand a bit in order to meet the costs of room rental et. Ted Huff died, and we changed - or rather, established - the name of our little group. It was still run on fairly democratic lines in those days, with a committee voting on the films to be used, one man doing the notes, another the music, and so on. Then a $10,000 lawsuit was launched against us for the showing of Extase - and we closed down for a few months to get that out of the way. When we re-opened, it was quite a struggle to keep going - especially as in those days we had less exciting films to fall back on, a much smaller membership, and a lot of costs. We tried various locations - once even working (appropriately) out of a psychiatric institute. One location was a regular film studio - with no chairs - and paying the studio rental, plus rental and haulage of chairs, was quite a nut to crack. Finding an ideal location was always a problem, since the big halls invariably seemed to be Union-operated - and after a few weeks we'd have the Projectionists' Union on our neck, demanding that we use one of their men or they'd strike the whole building! For a very brief period - awaiting a change to a new location - we even had to pay a union projectionist to come along and see the show (but keep his incompetent hands off the projector of course)! For that brief period we raised our admission price to $1.25 -- the only time we've ever gone above a dollar. Those first few years were quite rough, and we racked up a steady and abstantial loss each year. However, we also only ran once a month - then gradually, twice a month. Our audiences grew slowly; better films became available. Now, by showing every week we are able to reduce the overhead to manageable proportions, and the shows that we know will show a profit are spaced to support those that obviously won't. On the whole, the society supports itself very nicely now - though mainly because a lot of films are loaned to us by kind friends, or are bought outright and maintained by the society. Were these latter figures to be included in our calculations, we would never break even -- nor could we afford to rent many films. Film rentals have gone sky-high these days, and we literally need the large crowds we get for a Lon Chaney film to break even for that night when overhead and film rental are combined. But financially we have a good working system and support ourselves quite nicely. We're definitely non-profit, but we've managed to become non-loss as well.
As our regulars know, we are more concerned with film history than film art and/or appreciation. We love the classics and the masterpieces and will show all we can get, but we're perhaps even more interested in the lesser aspects of film history - the programmers, the B pictures, the interesting failures, that never seem to get much attention elsewhere. We have shown many bad films - and will continue to do so - as long as they illuminate some particular aspect of film history. Since we have acquired and shown (in some cases from European sources) a lot of really rare and otherwise unavailable material, many people wonder why we don't advertise and built ourselves. The reason for this is that we operate in a kind of no man's land of legality - many of the films we show we have permission to show, others we don't. The companies for the most part know about us and we have a good reputation, so they turn a blind eye; but any attempt to commercialise ourselves could ruin the good will we have, and cut off major sources of supply.
People genuinely interested in film history - as opposed to the transient nostalgia, trivia, and "camp" hounds - are relatively few, and we feel that ultimately they will automatically gravitate to us. Moreover, to build and maintain a large membership would entail a certain responsibility to that membership and frankly - with all due respect to our members, many of whom are old friends valuable scholars - we have always felt that our basic responsibility is to the film itself. To provide a showcase for it, to keep it alive, or to bring it back to life briefly -- even if only a handful of people show up for a given film, then it's justified. So we want to keep small, undercover, and to continue serving the interests of film history rather than coming up with blockbuster attractions to bring in huge crowds.
Through the year's we've seen a lot of surprises: the incredibly sparse attendance for Gance's Napoleon (well before the MMA and Lincoln Centre showings) was a major one. John Ford has slowly shifted from being film society box-office poison (inexplicable!) to being a good drawing card! To a certain extent, we reflect commercial box-office trends too - horror films and really representative early 30's films continue to be our most reliable films, Westerns and British films are the least reliable, while the good, solid (but unknown) silent film continues to attract the same basic group of hard-core enthusiasts. However, this kind of film - and I am talking now of silents like Capra's That Certain Thing and Brown's Smouldering Fires - tend to increase their audience-size and response every time we repeat them (every six or seven years) so presumably appreciation for them is growing.
The days of running the Huff by a committee are long since dead: it is now a thoroughly undemocratic one-man operation. There is no appeal against films that we decide should be shown -- and while suggestions are always cordially received, they tend to be redundant since if the films are available, we'd run them anyway. The only films we turn down (and these requests come mainly from brand new members, who may also be brand new to the world of old film) are the standards like Intolerance, Potemkin, La Grande Illusion etc. -- marvellous films, and we have nothing against them, but they're just so easy to see several times a year (and without much effort) that it would be futile to spend a date on them. Better by far to dig up some unknown films by Robert Florey or Walter Forde and fill in a few gaps instead of adding further cement to existing pedestals.
I think we've come quite a long way since the days when showing Ed Cobb in The Wolf's Trail was a real event in our lives! In one way we've declined perhaps - in the old days of fewer shows and much more time, we were able to turn out some quite elaborate program notes. Some of them ran for twelve pages and even had professional-standard art-work on the cover. We've also had no time of late to turn out reference works: in the past we issued several indexes on players, genres or directors. Perhaps that day will come again, but in the meantime, we're compensating for it with the films themselves.
It's gratifying that quite a number of stars have come down to the Huff to see their films in congenial surroundings, among them Lillian and Dorothy Gish, Blanche Sweet, Mae Murray, Nancy Carroll, Shannon Day, Leatrice Joy, and Cullen Landis. We can't perhaps compete with the Cinematheque in the number of successful directors who learned their basics with old film - but our alumni do include Radley Metzger, Milton Subotski and Stanley Kubrick!