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The Times (11/Oct/1992) - Magnificent obsession

(c) The Times (11/Oct/1992)

Magnificent obsession

Jef Aikman is a slightly built Canadian living in Cape Cod, Massachusetts who is 31 but looks 10 years younger. He admits to being an obsessive, and so he should, because he owns the world's largest private film archive. It began when he was 13, after his father gave him a Super-8 projector for his birthday. At that tender age he discovered studios were no longer interested in obsolescent 8mm films, and that he could buy the rights at reasonable prices. In teenhood he was already a mini-tycoon, and after buying up the Film Classic Exchange collection he moved into 35mm.

The Aikman Archive now consists of 24,000 American films for which he has full rights, 10,000 foreign films on which he owns rights outside their country of origin, plus documentaries, animation, television series, and even home movies in early Agfacolor featuring Hitler at play. Sixty per cent of them are on unstable nitrate stock, but he is transferring the most valuable items to modern safety film.

"A lot of the films I own haven't been seen since they were first released," he says. An indisputable fact: many are totally forgotten and are a treasure trove for historians, particularly if they are on the "lost" list. This week David Meeker, of Britain's National Film Archive, and Allen Eyles have brought out a fascinating book called Missing Believed Lost (BFI Publishing, Pounds 14.95), which gives details of more than 100 British films thought no longer to exist, including 12 directed by Michael Powell, and the second film made by Alfred Hitchcock, The Mountain Eagle.

Before television and video, films were not considered to have much value once their cinema lifespan was over. And when companies went bust, as they frequently did in the 1930s, the receivers would often order all the prints stored in the vaults to be melted down to recover the silver in the emulsion.

"I don't know if I've got The Mountain Eagle," says Aikman, "but I certainly have many others from that period."

Coincidentally, a pristine print of Hitchcock's first film, The Pleasure Garden, lacking only opening credit titles, recently turned up in Waco, Texas, when a widow was going through her late husband's effects. She rang the Southwestern Film Video Archives (SWFVA) in Dallas, which absorbed it and her other films from the 1920s into its collection. Last month I attended the opening of the superb building that the actress Greer Garson, in a fine burst of enlightened philanthropy that combines film history with living theatre, has just given to the Southern Methodist University. It houses an apron-stage auditorium, with the SWFVA film vaults below and viewing rooms above. As for the missing Hitchcock credits, the National Film Archive in Britain has been happy to supply them to Texas.

Saving and restoring films is one thing, but allowing the public to see them is another. Most private collectors, and even some official archivists, are secretive and unhelpful. Jef Aikman would rather share his treasures, and has set up his own commercial video label so that his films can reach a wide audience.

His intention is to release three or four a month, and the first two selections are out . It's a varied bunch. De Sica's Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow (PG) turns out to be a badly dubbed, ineptly pan-and-scanned version of the 1960 portmanteau of three stories with Sophia Loren and Marcello Mastroianni, but the sleeve carries a shot of Loren in The Millionairess. The Blue Angel (PG) is in German with subtitles, but appears to be the American re-issue print of the late 1940s, with the entire opening sequence missing. Larry Semon's The Wizard of Oz (PG), made in 1925, is very different from the famous version of 14 years later, and is of curiosity value in displaying the talents of a forgotten comedian (he played the scarecrow as well as directed) and in a small part an actor called Oliver N Hardy of whom we heard more of later.

Extase (PG) is the notorious Czech film of 1932, banned in Britain and the US and condemned by the Pope and Hitler, because its 15-year-old star, Hedwig Kiesler (later Hedy Lamarr) enjoyed a lengthy skinny-dip and lost her clothes. Lon Chaney, in spite of his deformities, acts subtly as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (PG), directed by Wallace Worsley in 1923, and the scale, with thousands of extras running around medieval Paris, is breathtaking. Other titles include M, Nosferatu and Metropolis, but I haven't seen them yet.