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Bill Everson: Terminal film buff

March 22nd, 2008 · 1 Comment · History and criticism

My previous post, in which I discussed the role played by William K. Everson and the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, spurred me to dig out this interview I did with Everson for an April 1973 issue of The New York Herald, a short-lived weekly newspaper. For more on Everson, check out the Wikepedia bio, my brief tribute for Animation World Magazine, Kevin Brownlow’s obit in The Independent, and more importantly the New York University’s William K. Everson Collection website, which includes scans of many of his program notes, among other wonderful items.

This article, which was published near the start of my writing career, shows me under the influence of The Wall Street Journal, whose delightful front page stories captured my attention. P.K., who wrote the postscript, was the paper’s arts editor whose name I have forgotten.

William K. EversonThe police had been staking out the third floor apartment on West 79th Street for several months. The constant flow of men in and out at all hours of the night had brought New York’s finest to one conclusion: this was a house of ill-repute — obviously!

One night, when two out-of-town businessmen wearily exited the building in the wee hours of the morning, the police accosted them. Under pressure, the men finally broke down and confessed: “We was only watching some old movies, Honest.”

And you know, they were telling the truth. For that third floor apartment was not a cathouse, but merely the residence of one William K. Everson, film historian, teacher and film collector par excellence.

Whether the above tale is true or not is besides the point, for it does tell much about Bill Everson’s character. His obsessive devotion to film and film history; his willingness, even his eagerness to share both his knowledge and his collection of 16mm prints (about 4,000 features, plus selected short subjects), has made him a sort of unofficial guru of New York’s community of film scholars.

The author of many popular books — The Western (with George Fenin), The Bad Guys, The Films of Laurel and Hardy etc. — he also runs the film program at the New School and the now legendary Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society. He teaches at the School of Visual Arts and is a professor at New York University. Everson is constantly loaning his films out for exhibition and aiding film archives with their programming. Right now He’s helping Rochester’s Eastman House with a British retrospective.

Born in Yeogil, in Somerset (“The center of the English cream cheese industry”), his father was an inspector in the aerospace industry. His mother an ex-teacher. From as far back as he can remember, Everson was always interested in movies. When his father took him along to an aerodrome, he would just jump into a handy plane and “read movie books all day long.”

His father thought this behavior somewhat abnormal, “Which I may have been,” Everson notes. And felt that his only child would never amount to anything.

Although he passed his elevens’ exam, Everson found secondary school too competitive. And when he was only 14, with his father’s blessing, he took a job in the British film industry as a publicity writer. This was during World War II and there was a manpower shortage. Besides, Everson passed himself off as being nearly 16. Around this time he also did some film criticism for a local paper. “They were the most opinionated things you ever saw. I shudder when I think back on them now. I was holding forth like Andrew Sarris in the Village Voice.”

In late 1950, realizing that there was little future for him in England, he came to the U.S.

In New York he landed a temporary job with a small producer-distributor who was, Everson claims, “an absolute nut.”

After that he landed a publicity job with the international division of Monogram Pictures (before it became Allied Artists). In 1955, like many other budding film historians of the day, he went to work for producer Paul Killiam. First working on the tail end of a 15-minute Movie Museum TV series, he then moved on to help develop and write the Silents Please show.

In the meantime, he became active in an informal film society that had been started by others, including Theodore Huff, the film historian who wrote the definitive book on Chaplin. It met once a month and specialized in silents and early talkies. Everson also began his film collection with the $90 purchase of Mal St. Clair’s delightful comedy, Are Parents People? (1925). (To buy it, he saved his money by going on a diet of peanut butter and bread.)

The film society, which had a membership of 20-30 lost its access to its original, free screening rooms and was forced to expand. Over a period of months it changed its locale often, once even screening (appropriately) in a psychiatric institution. In 1954, Ted Huff died and the society was named after him. But when a lawsuit for illegally showing Ecstacy (the Hedy Lamarr skin flick) forced the society to close down. The founding members were wary of trying to continue after the suit was settled, so Everson took charge and has been running it ever since.

But now, after 20 years, the Huff Society is in danger of closing up shop, or, as seems more likely, going back to the once a month screenings of earlier days (it currently screens weekly). Everson has just found the Huff too much of a burden. He also feels that it is not needed as much as it once was, seeing how the number of revival houses have proliferated. The last program before the fatal decision is made will feature Johnnie Walker in Captain Fly By Night (1923), directed by William K. Howard. (Everson’s real name is Keith William Everson and was changed around in honor of Mr. Howard.)

Everson characterizes the society’s hard core following as consisting of the serious film students, who will see almost anything from a masterpiece to an obscure footnote to film history. And a group which he loosely terms “losers.” These are the escapists “who sort of look back on the period in which they were themselves fairly happy and optimistic. It had been the best period of their lives. And they seem to relive that period through the films of that time.”

Among the visitors to the Huff there have been such varied personae as filmmakers Stanley Kubrick and Radley Metzger, as well as every film historian in the area. Plus an assortment of old time film stars and directors who drop in to see their films.

Everson’s own opinions are not what would be considered to be in the main stream of critical thought. His taste is heavily weighted by an affection for the sentimental, for Westerns and for Musicals, all which is common among British critics. He also harbors a special liking for action-packed “B” films. If he had been born earlier, Everson confesses, he might have enjoyed working on such films during the 1930’s, when one could operate with considerable freedom within certain limits. However, he has no ambitions to make a personal statement.

Even as a child, he admits, he always had a liking for older movies. And unless it’s a film by a director he likes (e.g., John Ford or Hitchcock) Everson only sees new films he knows his students will surely see — like A Clockwork Orange.

“Of the new directors, I’m very fond of Truffaut because he veers more towards the older style of filmmaking. I just don’t like directors such as Godard who are totally self-indulgent[, who] don’t care whether they are using film as well as they should. They expect the audience to understand their films without giving them clues to work at.”

Today’s movie critics, he finds shockingly ignorant of film history. “They don’t seem to realize that almost anything in film builds on something that came 20 or 30 years before. In some cases it might be a tremendous improvement. In other cases it might be quite a letdown.”

Asked whether he had any pet peeves, Everson comments that there is a total lack of fun in moviegoing today. Theater personnel such as ushers and ticket sellers lack courtesy. Projection is often sloppy and the management does nothing to correct it. And the audiences, he adds, “are so attuned to watching films on TV at home, they behave the same way.” As he feels much of the enjoyment of going out to the movies is in the pleasure of being catered to, there just isn’t much fun left.

No wonder Bill Everson prefers his apartment on 79th Street — police surveillance and all.

As we go to press Bill Everson has decided to continue the Huff Society, through the summer, on a weekly basis. Meetings will be every Monday at 7:30 p.m. on the 18th floor of Academy Hall, 853 Broadway (at 14th Street). Beginning in the fall, meetings will be monthly. Seating is limited and there’s a contribution of $1.00. - P. J.

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One Comment so far ↓

  • Jerry Beck

    Wonderful article, Harvey. Nice tribute. I came in late, only attending the waning years of The Huff (at SVA) and his class at The New School, but Everson’s influence on film historians in New York cannot be overstated.