OBITUARY : William K. Everson

Kevin Brownlow
Monday 15 April 1996 23:02

William K. Everson was a film historian of the first rank, a popularist, rather than an academic, responsible for many books, hundreds of articles and thousands of programme notes - but above all, he loved teaching.

He was a brilliant teacher. I have often sat in on his lectures and wished that I could recall exactly what he said and how he said it. Yet this was not his most significant achievement.

He was also the world's greatest film collector. Unlike so many of the breed, he was not secretive; he was extraordinarily generous. And generosity sums up the man's character; if he recognised in you some enthusiasm for films, he would give whatever you needed, whether it be his time, his knowledge of the films themselves.

When I first went to New York, in 1964, to research my book The Parade's Gone By . . ., I knew hardly anybody in the city apart from Everson. He was as busy as he always was, and should have told me to return when he had some free time. Instead, he invited me at midnight and stayed up, showing me unique copies of silent films, until the early hours. This went on for three weeks. He also gave me introductions to stars and directors I wanted to meet - thanks to him, I met Lillian Gish. He answered all my questions, and by so doing gave me a groundwork in early cinema I could have got from no one else.

Everson had an extraordinary ability to convey enthusiasm. He was a gifted writer, and his programme notes were so vivid they made you long to see the film. Yet if you couldn't get to the show, he made you feel so familiar with the style and atmostphere of the film you could have passed an exam on the subject. I remember his description of Maurice Tourner's 1922 Lorna Doone; it was so poetic and so thrilling I instantly invested in a copy of the film.

It was not as poetic as Everson, alas, but it sparked a love affair with Tourneur, which was eventually requited when I discovered the glories of his earlier films. Many of these were shown to me by Everson himself, and he introduced me to a collector who had been a cameraman in the silent era. Don Malkames had installed a camera in his home capable of showing obscure gauges like 28mm - and one stunningly tinted 28mm print was the Tourneur production of Trilby (1915). Later, when a 16mm dupe was struck from it, Everson sent me one, downplaying his generosity by pretending it was "surplus to requirements".

Bill Everson was born in England. His name was Keith William Everson, but he loved the work of American director William K. Howard and switched his name to match. He was taken to the cinema when he was about a year old - to see Al Jolson in The Singing Fool (1928), ironically - but he could not be expected to remember the event. The first film he was consicious of seeing was what he called "a perfectly dreadful British film" called The Maid of the Mountains (1932), an operetta. From that point on, he had a distinct recollection of what he saw, because going to the cinema during the Depression was very much of an event.

It wasn't until he saw John Ford's The Whole Town's Talking (1935) that he became conscious of dialogue. "From that point on I was really hooked."

Everson had been collecting film magazines even before he could read them - in fact, he learned to read by picking his way through the articles on his favourite players. He was top boy at school, until he won a scholarship to Isleworth Country School - a school which took only scholarship boys. "And of course it was during the war and the classes I liked - English and history - were always being cancelled because of bombing raids and the classes I hated - geography and physics - were never interrupted."

He used to subscribe to trade papers, and in one he saw an ad for a company in Wardour Street which wanted a publicity man. "I didn't think there was any chance of my getting the job - I was 13, going on 14 - but I felt it would be good experience just to go up to London to see what it was all about." He knew that if they asked him questions about films he could answer - and he got the job. "They realised they could pay me peanuts.'' He gloried in the experience, even though he made a lot of mistakes, and he worked happily until the army caught up with him in 1947. He was posted to Germany - another boon, because he had just read Siegfried Kracauer's book on German film history. "Censorship then was very strong and anything with violence was taken out so they were reissuing a lot of the quieter German films from the 1930s, and German versions of American films like The Big Trail (1930), which I never thought I'd see, so it was a great education."

When he was demobbed, his two closest friends, Alex and Richard Gordon, had emigrated to the United States. Feeling there was no hope of advancement in the England of the austerity years, he decided to join them. After a period as relief manager for a chain of news theatres (the Monseigneurs), he left for New York - where he quickly found a job with Monogram (later Allied Artists). He was delighted to discover that movie companies were transferring thousands of their old films to 16mm for the television market, and bootleg prints could be acquired by collectors. This was a risky business - and in later years downright dangerous - but several companies had good reason to be grateful. For Bill Everson rescued prints of titles which they had destroyed.

In the post-war period, the only people who retained any respect for silent films were elderly fans. The new generation regarded them as hilarious - and a TV producer called Paul Killiam marketed a series called Movie Museum, which showed old films with a jokey narration. He employed Bill Everson as adviser, and Everson gently but firmly taught him the error of his ways. He had acquired a great respect for the silent era (as he acquired more and more silent films), and soon Killiam, having moderated his tone, became the pioneer of the serious presentation of silent films on television.

Everson started the Theo-dore Huff Film Society with friends Huff, Seymour Stern and Herman Weinberg. When Huff died, he added the word "Memorial" - but by then he was running it on his own. It was a society that showed the rarest films - often in a double bill with a recognised classic. Everson's programme notes became world-famous (and let us hope that some enterprising publisher will bring them out).

In 1959, MGM's Ben-Hur received rave reviews and Everson felt that they were not deserved - so he showed the 1925 version at the Huff. Rival collector Raymond Rohauer, experiencing a little trouble himself over a lawsuit from MGM, told the FBI what Everson was doing and they confronted him after the performance. They seized the print, and Everson spent the next few days squirrelling other hot titles around New York. Lillian Gish had to intervene on his behalf. In the 1970s, the FBI instituted a "witch hunt" among film collectors, but by then Everson was too highly respected to be touched.

Archives came to depend on him - he would not only loan rare prints for copying or showing, but he would travel the world presenting the films he loved. I was astounded to meet him at an airport weighed down by three times as many cans of films as any human could be expected to carry.

He had the uncanny knack of finding lost films. It would be no exaggeration to say that single-handedly, he transformed the attitude of American film enthusiasts towards early cinema. He was scornful of archives who let his favourite films rot - but it was curious how he always managed to sneak a beautiful 16mm print before its negative finally disappeared. His name appeared on scores of documentaries about cinema history (particularly those by David Gill and myself) because his advice was as essential as access to his collection. His books ranged from picturebooks like The Films of Laurel and Hardy (1967) to the amazingly detailed American Silent Film (1978).

And now it can be told. There is one book which has been consistently available for more than 30 years - Classics of the Silent Screen (1959) by Joe Franklin, the New York talk-show host. Inside the cover is a minute credit; research assistant William K. Everson. You can tell that he really wrote the entire thing by the enthusiasm, the knowledge, and the frequent use of words emphasised in italics. No one else ever wrote quite like that.

He was a lucky man. He spent his life doing what he enjoyed most. But how few such people transform the lives of others? If his generosity will be sorely missed, at least he has made an indelible mark on the cultural history of his time.

He had been in a great deal of pain with his cancer - but he was a true stoic and he managed to teach two classes a week right up to the end of March. There will be no funeral, but a memorial service will be held at New York University.

I shall think of William K. Everson fondly as the young man who went without food to afford $90 for a print of Are Parents People? - a 1925 comedy with Betty Bronson. He fell in love with the screen image of Miss Bronson, tracked her down to her home in Pasadena and a firm friendship developed. He brought her to the Museum of Modern Art to introduce her classic Peter Pan (1924). She decided she would like to act again - so Everson, through his contacts at Allied Artists, secured her a good supporting role in Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss (1965) and this led to further work with Frank Capra, Disney and even a long-running television soap opera.

There are hundreds of other acts of kindness we will never know about. But the name of William Everson is now better known to film history than the director who inspired him to change it.

William Keith Everson, film historian, film collector, film teacher: born Yeovil, Somerset 8 April 1929; married twice (one son, one daughter); died New York City 14 April 1996.

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