I can’t help but wonder what Herb Graff would think about his 16mm film collection being donated to Yale University. He would certainly be proud, and pleased that his children made this possible. I also think he’d have a good laugh over the idea that dozens of odd, arcane, sometimes fascinating, often appalling short subjects would now be part of a major university archive. At one time, when the 16mm film market was thriving, these oddities were so much flotsam and jetsam—widely sold by such companies as Castle Films, Official Films, and the venerable Blackhawk, but I’m not sure anyone has been consciously saving them and seeing what value they may offer to our culture.
As a dedicated film collector, Herb not only sought out favorite movies for his library, but acquired a wealth of “miscellany” along the way. Decades ago, knowing that I was about to embark on a book about the history of Our Gang, he purchased eight giant cardboard boxes of silent comedy shorts that had once been used on the Howdy Doody TV show. They were unmarked, unidentified, and in some cases unwatchable. I agreed to log them all, reporting on content and condition, in return for the occasional reward of a rare Our Gang silent two-reeler. It took months to accomplish, and only a masochist would have seen it through; I stand guilty as charged.
I used to kid Herb about the staggering assortment of reels that held his films and the varieties of tape that held down the ends of his prints. We used to say that he could someday open a Museum of Tape.
Instead, much of his library, accumulated over many years’ time, is now in the good hands of the Yale Film Archive and its curator, Michael Kerbel. An inaugural public program on April 25 featured heartfelt speeches by Herb’s sons Bennett and Michael and a roster of titles that is typical of the eclecticism of their father’s collection: Top of the World (1933), a travelogue exploring the Arctic Circle, Santa Claus School is Opened (1960), one of a series of 3-minute newsreels provided to schools, the self-descriptive Maker of Walter Skis (1958), Robert Youngson’s nostalgic look at baseball historyBatter Up (1949), the famous Movietone interview with Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1927), and a promotional film for movie exhibitors offering a tour of the 20th Century Fox studio in Hollywood.
There were also two examples of Snader Telescriptions featuring Allan Jones and Tex Williams. Herb and I had a friendly competition to find the best possible copies of the Soundies musical shorts of the 1940s and the “Snaders,” which were produced a decade later in the earliest days of television. The object was to sift through the boring songs by untalented performers and get to “the good stuff” with people like Nat “King” Cole, Peggy Lee, and Jack Teagarden.
Michael Kerbel tells me there was a healthy turnout for the Saturday matinee, and the audience only became restless toward the end during the Fox studio tour, since many attendees didn’t recognize or care about the workings of “Movietone City.” Still, a number of people came to sample the Herb Graff collection and were entertained by what they saw.
For most of his adult life, Herb made a good living in the garment industry, but his heart was in show business. Film collecting led him to meet a series of influential people who welcomed him into their world and never questioned his background. The fact that he was blunt seemed to make him all the more appealing. Songwriter-playwright Adolph Green was an early and loyal friend, who in time introduced Herb to the venerable New York Times drama critic Walter Kerr. Walter’s playwright-wife Jean (Please Don’t Eat the Daisies) no longer cared to sample every single play that opened in Manhattan, so Herb became Walter’s “date” on opening nights for many, many years. A great raconteur, Herb made friends easily in the world that meant so much to him—without ever letting on that during the day he was selling Lucky Boy and Lucky Girl Shirts.
Herb even drew me into this circle from time to time. Because I lived in New Jersey and had a car, he asked if I’d be willing to drive two friends to his son Bennett’s bar mitzvah in Brooklyn. I said I’d be glad to—and had one of the great experiences of my life listening to Adolph Green and Isaac Asimov trading anecdotes and singing excerpts from their favorite operettas!
But Herb had a much more lasting impact on my life: he introduced me to my wife Alice. He said we were a match made in heaven, and he was right. We refer to him as our matchmaker and we will always be grateful.
It gives us great pleasure to know that his loving children have placed so many of his films in the care of Yale—which also houses the films of another of my mentors, the late John Griggs. God bless them and thank goodness someone is looking after the collections they amassed with such love and care.