Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It Hot!

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Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It Hot!

PostTue Oct 22, 2013 6:07 am

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NitrateVille Interviews John McElwee, Author of Showmen, Sell It Hot!

There are lots of old movie blogs, but one of the few I follow religiously is John McElwee's Greenbriar Picture Shows. McElwee's approach is to keep his writing on old movies practical in two directions— he only writes about movies that have recently had a new edition of some kind come out (and writes about how they look today), but he looks at them in terms of their original release and how they were marketed and how audiences responded. By focusing on the exhibition history of these movies, he brings back the reality of how they were made and received in their own times— illustrated with large numbers of rare original images from his collection of stills, ad campaigns, showbiz periodicals, promotional materials and more. (A few examples will appear here.)

His focus on the exhibition side of the great movie equation has now resulted in his oversized, handsomely illustrated book Showmen, Sell It Hot!, a fascinating look inside the world of exhibition, ballyhoo and audience response from the silent era to the 1960s. Part of what's great about it is that, as a resident of North Carolina since childhood-moviegoing days (at his local Liberty Theater in North Wilkesboro), McElwee brings back the days of the regional showman, who knew his audience better than Hollywood and sometimes made hits despite the studio in his own part of the world, an approach to the movie biz which ended in the 1970s, to be replaced by the era of the TV-saturating national ad campaign.

I'll talk to John about his new book in two parts, moving chronologically through the years as the book does. (Fittingly given our proximity to Halloween, how horror films were marketed is a recurrent theme, John being of what we might call the Famous Monsters generation.) Here's part one; part two will follow in a few days, and he'll also be happy to answer questions in the thread from NitrateVillains. To buy the book at Amazon, go here.

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You provide the ballyhoo, Orson Welles will provide the Kane.

So why is exhibition the emphasis for you? Of course box office success or failure affects what got made, but at some point... does it matter how Citizen Kane did? Doesn't it exist by itself as a work of art after so many years?

Exhibition in general has been addressed in a number of books, so I'm far from a first to venture there. I like the topic, however, because it hasn't been explored so much with regard to specific films. It matters to me how Citizen Kane was received, sold, revived, etc., even as I realize that for most people, the film does "exist by itself as a work of art," as you put it. After seventy years of others writing perceptively on Citizen Kane as said work of art, it wasn't likely I'd lay fresh meat at that table, so why not explore an aspect less pounded to burger? --- namely Kane's exhibition saga and the afterlife of Welles' "work of art." What interests me as much as exhibition in terms of first-run is tracking revered movies through an afterlife of reissues, non-theatrical, television, and home formats that include 16mm collecting, video cassette, and lately DVD/Blu-Ray.

What was a typical week's worth of programming for these exhibitors, and how did they approach individually promoting so many movies?

For most exhibitors changing three or more a week, there wasn't time or financial resource to promote individual movies to their fullest potential. Pressbooks were almost cruel in proposing lavish ballyhoo to showmen who could barely afford film rental and keeping lights on. Unless it was a really special attraction, many houses were content to run modest ads, put up a one-sheet, and hope to break-even. Movies tended to come and go in a hurry. Anything you wanted to see during a product-heavy Studio Era had to be caught on the fly. In small towns especially, one could wink and a show was gone. My hometown's Liberty Theatre, which I refer to often and utilize as a kind of template at Greenbriar Picture Shows, often ran must-see titles on a "Late Show Only" basis, which meant The Last Man On Earth, Invaders From Mars (a 1965 booking), and The Unearthly Stranger, to name three I missed, unspooled but once, and then were put on a truck for Charlotte the next day.

Hardly seems worth the shipping cost to get it from one theater to the next! I know that within a city, you had big houses for premieres, you had neighborhood houses which got things a few weeks later, you had little theaters that specialized in westerns or whatever. Were there also regional differences across the country in what played well and got promoted where?

The larger city theatres were dominated by the "Big Five" cartel of Paramount, Fox, MGM, Warners, and RKO, each of whom owned first-run houses in desired locations. Then there were large circuits allied with these companies and thus able to access the most promising releases. Independent venues block-booked with the majors as well. Beyond urban areas, there was much variation on what played best and was promoted most. Regions were targeted for openings and became test areas for many films that became hits and even classics. Bonnie and Clyde and The Wild Bunch were examples of this. A certain territory might take a movie to its bosom and run the thing for decades past shelf-life elsewhere. Thunder Road played North Carolina theatres into the mid-seventies, years after United Artists had sold it to television. So too did oldies Stars In My Crown, I'd Climb The Highest Mountain, Tobacco Road, Jesse James, and others that were seemingly customized for appeal to our mostly rural patronage.

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Educating the nation about the Carioca.

I had never thought of Flying Down To Rio as a particularly pivotal film of the 1930s, but I thought you made a really good argument for how alien, in an aspirational way, that kind of Art Deco fantasy and in particular a figure like Fred Astaire must have been for a still relatively poor, rural, unsophisticated country in 1933.

A lot of what Hollywood released in the early 30's had to seem foreign to parts of the country not so far removed from frontier roots, but that very difference may have increased interest and curiosity over Fred Astaire and Flying Down To Rio, for instance, assuming a local showman could get out word within the short time his venue had the show. An exhibitor I knew, Garland Morrison, got his early start in the business passing out heralds for Flying Down To Rio among rural folk, many of whom had never seen an airplane or heard of Rio. Going afoot with his advertising, Garland met customers for Elkin, N.C.'s Amuzu Theatre on home ground of cow pastures and chicken houses. This wasn't Broadway, and the Amuzu wasn't Radio City Music Hall, where Flying Down To Rio had its opening, but Elkin's money folded good as any, even if there was less of it, and Rio was months late flying down to North Carolina.

Reading about the Frankenstein and Dracula reissues in 1938, I realized you could really make a case that our whole geek culture traces back to one theater owner who made hits out of them, thus kicking off horror as an essential genre for kids, which led to the monster toy and makeup craze of the 50s and 60s and the fact that horror and fantasy have been so central to pop culture ever since. How did that come about?

Frankenstein and Dracula were bound to be paired. I'm actually surprised it didn't happen before 1938. The so-called "geek culture" that sprang up among young people was stimulated, I think, by spook shows that enabled rowdy kids to participate by way of cat-calling response to would-be frighteners on stage. Spook shows could also be a lot more explicit than anything presented on screens. Monster movies would be plainer sold in the 40's as "all-in-fun," which made the serious chillers from Val Lewton really stand out, part of why those RKO films, at least initial ones, did so well critically. What really got monster fads going, I think, was a postwar market flooded with Realart reissues of the Universal horrors. These rented cheap, played often in pairs, or even as triple bill/all-night drive-in programs, and that's how a lot of children and teens discovered them prior to television release beginning in 1957. This, of course, was what touched off the explosion in popularity for classic monsters, for here was a first opportunity to see all the originals, plus sequels, spread across weekly tube schedules. It was syndicated TV's equivalent to taking online Master's courses, with toys, models, and magazines like Famous Monsters of Filmland as accompanying text.

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The whole monster movie craze goes back to this package of Universal reissues. History would be very different if 8-year-olds had gone crazy for Lady Tubbs.

One thing about the reissues in the late 30s, which went from horror to silent reissues and so on— they also kind of mainstreamed the idea that we might occasionally prefer to see the best of the past over what was playing now. Which I think was also kind of a sign that audiences found the late 30s a bit boring compared to the first half of the decade. I mean, take out Capra and Errol Flynn and personally I have a hard time thinking of many late 30s movies that I have real love for, compared to the pre-Code era and just after.

There had been reissues throughout the 30's, 1938 being trade-recognized as a banner year for them. I don't know if audiences found late 30's films "a bit boring" compared with earlier releases. Guess that would depend on the age of an individual viewer, and how she/he remembered moviegoing experiences. Certainly there were movies that stayed long in the consciousness of those who'd seen them first-run, and many would be requested in later years. Older titles were often unavailable, however, to showmen who asked for them. Enough demand might result in a reissue, as was case with King Kong, A Farewell To Arms, and others that were revived in 1938, the only letdown being cuts demanded by a strict-enforcing Production Code.

to be continued...
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Oct 24, 2013 7:46 am

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Here's part 2 of our interview with John McElwee about exhibition in the classic era and his new book Showmen, Sell It Hot! If you have any questions about the art of exhibition and exploitation back in the golden age, John will be happy to answer them in this thread.

So we were talking about the horror boom of the late 30s, and of course the biggest name in horror in the mid-40s is Val Lewton and his unit at RKO. You talk about his more sophisticated suggestive approach to horror, at the moment when Universal is making things like She-Wolf of London and Captive Wild Woman, but you point out what often gets overlooked— which is that audiences didn't really go for it! His movies didn't really lose money, but they didn't make that much either.

The impression I got from the Lewton series was that so long as RKO kept spending low, they'd make profit. It was when negative costs began creeping up that the Lewtons got in Dutch. There was generally a limit to what any B picture could earn, since they were sold on flat terms and generally as the support feature. RKO wouldn't have expected these films to return large profits, but certainly looked for each to at least break even. Audiences went for the first Lewton, Cat People because it lived up to what advertising promised, while exhibitors appreciated exploitable elements of sex and horror. Later and more eccentric entries like The Seventh Victim made trouble for showmen who passed along complaints by patronage not getting scary stuff they bargained for. As a lot of these were kids and teenagers, you can figure at least some, if not many, felt a Captive Wild Woman gave better return for their quarters.

Hollywood obviously made itself part of the war effort, how did exhibitors react to WWII?

I wish I'd been there so as to give an eye-witness account, but trades and anecdotal recall by then-active exhibitors suggest these were boom years for theatres. Indeed, they had become focal points for a whole community, what with war bonds sold in the lobby, newsreels with possibly a glimpse of hometown boys in uniform, and Hollywood movies at an absolute peak of brash confidence. Money poured into boxoffices because war workers had more of it to dispose of, and many venues ran round the clock to accommodate them. It seemed everything made profit, good and lousy pictures alike. People really needed comfort and escape of movies during that uncertain period. If there was ever an ideal time to be in the theatre business, World War Two was it.

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Reissues started being a big deal in the 1950s even as movies went to TV— you talk about the 1952 King Kong reissue, which I think made it the #1 release of the year for RKO, but I didn't know that Little Caesar and The Public Enemy were as big hits as the Frankenstein/Dracula pairing in 1954. It's not like audiences were exactly starved for crime films in the noir era, so how and why did those two get such a response?

King Kong wouldn't have been the Number One overall release for RKO in 1952, but it certainly was the most profitable of their reissues that year (outside of Disney's Snow White that RKO only distributed), and yes, Kong rentals did exceed a number of first-runs the company offered during 1952. As to the other titles you mention, I don't have specific numbers to compare rentals for Little Caesar/Public Enemy in 1954 with Frankenstein/Dracula in 1938, but these revival bills were similar in that content of both had achieved something of a legend status with audiences who recognized them as Granddads of their respective genres. You're right in that crime films were long since commonplace by 1954, but few had the cachet of Little Caesar and Public Enemy, these credited, along with Scarface (another frequent revival), for having started balls rolling gang-wise. Young people would have heard their parents talk about these pioneering shoot-ups, and naturally wanted to see for themselves what all the fuss was about.

One of the most interesting things on your blog is talking about what a tough road British pictures had to getting play in American theaters— not really till James Bond came along did they get first-rank (pun intended) treatment. You have a great story in the book about how Hammer's Brides of Dracula (1960) had its U.S. premiere, with all attendant ballyhoo, in... Memphis. Any toehold you can get in America, I guess.

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I've been fascinated a long time at how British films went over in the United States. They sort of did and didn't speak our language. Showmen forever companied that patrons couldn't make out the dialogue. Some UK firms (including Hammer Films) made allowance for that by monitoring dialogue and discouraging heavily-accented line delivery.

There had been British films in US circulation since talkies began, and before. Alfred Hitchcock's 1929 Blackmail, for instance, got an American release. The trouble was much UK product being shunted off to art houses and kept off larger circuit schedules. It needed something exceptional, like an Alexander Korda special, or one of J. Arthur Rank's big productions, to break out and earn meaningful grosses over here. That would change, of course, with the huge popularity of British films in the 1960's, spearheaded by James Bond, Tom Jones, the Beatles, many others. The most remarkable aspect of Hammer Films' success for me was fact that their output stayed marketable in the US over a twenty-year period in which virtually all major US distributors recognized Hammer product as viable enough to merit stateside release. I don't know of another British firm that enjoyed such a lengthy and solid stateside run.

You talk about several mainstream 60s films that became regional hits, such as Bonnie and Clyde, which apparently really registered with rural audiences (even though it was made by a bunch of city slickers who came from things like live TV in Penn's case and Esquire magazine in Benton and Newman's). So what exactly was going on— Hollywood was making these movies but then too chicken to promote them until the Stix Pick Grit Hits, basically?

My guess is that Warner marketers initially viewed Bonnie and Clyde as a latter-day Jesse James, with potential outreach to the same rural and action-oriented audience that traditionally preferred that sort of entertainment. It was the same with The Wild Bunch, I think. Staff charged with selling these pictures were less concerned over elite critic reaction than filling drive-in lots and getting investment back quicker. Positive reviews were helpful, of course, and Bonnie and Clyde's campaign utilized them, but critic quotes were figured to get more traction in urban markets. Southeast and Midwest openings were useful too as test areas for these and other films that needed careful handling.

I'm sure Warners learned a lot from "stix" bookings of Bonnie and Clyde, applying those lessons toward bigger grosses once the picture widened out. I've long thought it sheer myth, and quite untrue, that WB "mishandled" Bonnie and Clyde. On the contrary, as argued in Showmen, Sell It Hot!, their marketing from beginning to end was creative and very forward-thinking.

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How did the age of showmen come to an end?

Several elements combined to kill off grassroots showmanship. I think the greatest culprit was television. People were simply staying home to watch their movies, especially after 1960 when so many more post-48 feature titles showed up on the tube. People figured they could wait around and see everything in their den eventually, and indeed, that became increasingly the case as the 60's wore on and windows between theatrical and TV exposure narrowed. No wonder film companies devoted so much of their advertising budgets to TV saturation. That's where your mass audience had migrated to, especially now that they were purchasing color sets to look at.

Add to that less foot traffic in downtown areas, thus less reason to decorate theatre fronts. Print ads also got much more expensive. It was tough for individual exhibitors to stay creative with theatre attendance such a lower priority in people's lives. I remember when our Liberty dropped illustrated ads in 1966, shrunk buys with the local newspaper, and began listing titles and showtimes only. Even at age 12, something in me realized that a Golden Era of showmanship was done.  

Thanks to John McElwee for participating in this interview at NitrateVille. To order Showmen, Sell It Hot! at Amazon, go here.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Oct 24, 2013 8:47 am

An older acquaintance of mine was a theatre usher here in Halifax in his teens, and got to take part in some of the late night "spook shows" they'd run from time to time, usually dressing up in a monster costume and running up and down the aisles and so on. One prank they pulled involving a person reclining in a coffin getting up and scaring the bejeebers out of someone actually rated a mention in the audio commentary on Something Weird's MONSTERS CRASH THE PAJAMA PARTY DVD.

Boy do I wish I hadn't missed out on the golden age of moviegoing.
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Oct 24, 2013 12:45 pm

John has posted his reaction-slash-promo to the interview here... and the floor is yours to ask questions about how they sold the movies in the old days.
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Oct 24, 2013 1:37 pm

Least us forget, that the 1962 British spy film, Dr. No open in the USA as the "B" feature for a Drive-in double released only in the south. It was not released nation wide until it was re-issued after the success of From Russia With Love.

You can also make a case for the end of showmanship to the end of showmen running the studios. Yes, it was always a business that existed to make money, but by the 1970's, Paramount was owned by Gulf+Western, a paper products company. Warner Brothers was owned by Kinney National, a parking lot company, Columbia was owned by Coke, as soft drink company, United Artist by Transamerica, an insurance company, MGM by a venture capital firm, Universal would eventually be owned by Segrams, an alcohol beverage company. The creatives were no longer calling the shot in the upper management. The studio owners were only interested in the short term return on investment that each picture brought in. Little thought was given to actually cultivating new talent or future audience.

Further, while the weekly family audience had been declining for many years do to reasons posted above, starting in the 1970's the studios virtually abandoned the family audience. "R" rated films virtually sold themselves with relatively little promotion and they could not be shown on television uncut. The unexpected downside to this move to more adult oriented programming is that it broke the weekly family film going habit, which is why now going out to the movies is an event rather than a normal weekly occurrence. I have to wonder if the parents of today's teenagers had been taken out to the movies every week, would they have continued that tradition even with all the alternatives now available. I don't know, but most of the non "film" people I know can't remember when they last went out to a movie.
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Oct 24, 2013 10:35 pm

Thanks for the interview, Mike and John. The 1938 revival fad is of particular interest to me, given it seemed to be the first time silents were taken seriously - or regarded at all - since the coming of sound.

I wonder if you could speak a bit about the relationship between the major studios and the smaller distributors like Astor Pictures and J. H. Hoffberg, who handled the reissues? Was the trend towards revivals driven by the studios, or these distributors? I get the impression that the majors were a little sheepish about the implication that decade-old films were being considered more entertaining than their current product - though on the other hand, it would have provided a source of income for no outlay beyond the striking of new prints (and perhaps not even that).

Looking through the exhibition schedules for the small independent rural theatres in Australia, I imagine the situation was very similar to rural America. It must have been like living in a parallel universe in some cases - where Fred Thomson was a bigger star than Douglas Fairbanks, and FBO was Hollywood's greatest production house!
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostFri Oct 25, 2013 5:52 am

To start with, Brooksie. I really like your Tumblr site, Brooksie's Silent Film Collection. As to revival of silents during the late 30's, I think a lot of that had to do with availability of titles that were owned by independent producers or companies they had established. The majors may have been disinclined to revive pre-talkies (one exception being Paramount's reissue of The Sheik in 1938), but independents might be persuaded to lease properties if the price was right. Add to this the fact that a younger generation had come up since the transition to sound, and they were alternately curious, or amused, by the styles and technique of silent movies. The best-received of oldies during this period were probably the Valentino features, several of which came back and proved lots of fun for old and young alike. For greater detail regarding this topic, I would defer to, and highly recommend, William M. Drew's outstanding book, The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films On American Screens In The 1930's.
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostFri Oct 25, 2013 12:10 pm

Valentino's films got revived frequently after his death in the silent era and in the 1930s.

Here's a 1930 theater program listing screenings of Frivolous Wives (aka The Married Virgin).

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And here's a 1926 program listing a revival of The Conquering Power soon after his death.

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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostFri Oct 25, 2013 5:18 pm

Thanks for the kind words, John! My blog should be updated much more frequently than it is, but a couple of other project have got in the way.

The Valentino revival fad was particularly successful in Australia - at one point, two theatres in Sydney were running competing seasons of The Sheik and The Son of the Sheik respectively. It was a natural fit, as Valentino had always been huge there. Even Monsieur Beaucaire was a big Australian hit.

Thank you again for the book and the website - perhaps it's because it's part of an era that is now passing out of the living memory, or perhaps because it was so incompatible with the subsequent era of filmmaking (and film criticism) that was more interested in authenticity and gritty realism, but the importance 'showmanship' once had in filmmaking has become deeply neglected.
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostSun Oct 27, 2013 1:03 pm

John McElwee wrote:To start with, Brooksie. I really like your Tumblr site, Brooksie's Silent Film Collection. As to revival of silents during the late 30's, I think a lot of that had to do with availability of titles that were owned by independent producers or companies they had established. The majors may have been disinclined to revive pre-talkies (one exception being Paramount's reissue of The Sheik in 1938), but independents might be persuaded to lease properties if the price was right. Add to this the fact that a younger generation had come up since the transition to sound, and they were alternately curious, or amused, by the styles and technique of silent movies. The best-received of oldies during this period were probably the Valentino features, several of which came back and proved lots of fun for old and young alike. For greater detail regarding this topic, I would defer to, and highly recommend, William M. Drew's outstanding book, The Last Silent Picture Show: Silent Films On American Screens In The 1930's.

Thanks, John for alerting me to Brooksie's awesome site! I had no idea it exsisted. It IS awesome, Brooksie!
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostSun Oct 27, 2013 6:28 pm

And may I recommend everyone (particularly the other Australians on Nitrateville) to read John's recent post on the marketing of On The Beach (1959)? A post-apocalyptic drama set on the other side of the world (with Fred Astaire as an Aussie, no less) seemed a pretty hard sell, and I always wondered how they managed it.

(Thank you, too, for the nice comment, earlytalkie! :) )
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostMon Oct 28, 2013 8:12 pm

Mike, thank you so much for this great interview. Greenbriar is a terrific site - I visit it almost daily (which is about how frequently it's updated!) There's really something there for everyone! :D
Yours for bigger and better silents,

William D. Ferry
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostTue Jul 29, 2014 9:51 am

John McElwee Talks! on the podcast TV Confidential. You can listen to it here. He's on the show for July 23rd.
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier
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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Jun 01, 2017 9:23 pm

I don't have my old programs handy, but didn't ALIAS, JIMMY VALENTINE run at Ciencon in the eary 1990s - or am I thinking of something else?


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Re: Nitrateville Interviews John McElwee on Showmen Sell It

PostThu Jun 01, 2017 10:05 pm

The 1916 could have, but the '29 is lost. Not sure why that's in this thread though...
“Sentimentality is when it doesn't come off—when it does, you get a true expression of life's sorrows.” —Alain-Fournier

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