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Scope It Out

Carny Elvis is this week's Technicolor Wonder.


There's something comforting about Technicolor. The film process favored by epics and musicals of Hollywood's golden age, Technicolor offers a reassuringly unreal spectrum of colors, an impossible warmth to go with improbable spectacle. Nothing looks better than projected Technicolor -- not high-definition video, not TV, not DVD. For something so visceral, you have to leave the house -- or even the city.

"American Cinema Tech in L.A., which always has great [film] series that never travel, was planning a Technicolor series for this year," says film collector Gary Huggins. But instead of booking a flight, Huggins answered with his own Technicolor Wonders, a short run of locally owned prints.

"Starting last fall, I came across one or two prints and started asking around," Huggins says. "The ones that came through are all pretty interesting films. They're not pristine prints, though some are worth quite a bit."

The series continues this week with the 1964 Elvis Presley-as-a-carny vehicle Roustabout. As good as the rest of the series is (John Ford's stout The Quiet Man with John Wayne is coming up), this Tuesday's bill offers one-stop shopping for the King, Raquel Welch, Billy Barty, Richard "Jaws" Kiel and "Wheels on My Heels."

But the ace up Huggins' sprockets is a neatly complementary musical bonus.

"Before the movies, we're showing Scopitones," Huggins says. If MTV had started in Paris and moved to Las Vegas, today's videos might look like Scopitones, the three-minute films named for the French-made machine that played them.

The Scopitones played on what looked like an average jukebox that happened to have a large TV mounted above eye level. The 7-foot-tall gadget rear-projected the 16-millimeter films onto a 26-inch screen. It was an ideal way to get a Brigitte Bardot fix or see Bobby Rydell perform "Bellazza" from the comfort of a barstool. But the combination of placement in adults-only venues (the urban jukebox market traditionally belonged to teens, not their cha-cha-ing parents), a then-hefty price (a quarter) and mechanical unreliability killed the Scopitone here only a few years after the machine's 1964 American debut.

"Everyone thought they'd be huge," Huggins says. "About half the films were in Technicolor. I bought a bunch on eBay."

He also continues to shepherd the midnight-movie Big Jeter AV Club, which kicked back into gear last weekend. Huggins would prefer a less cultish show time -- he admires the Alamo Drafthouse in Austin, Texas, a local institution that does blazing business screening eclectic films before the witching hour.

"I like Kansas City, but it's a bad circle," Huggins says. "When revival houses and things like that aren't here, people move away; and when the audience moves away, no one shows those things. I wish people would stay and do things themselves. Anyone can do this -- renting a theater, renting prints, getting the word out." Maybe, but it's movie roustabout Huggins upon whom fans of unusual cinema are becoming increasingly dependent.

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