Snow and a Picture Show

For those of you who may be curious, no, I did not see my shadow on Wednesday. I am not the sort of person who spends a snow day bothering with snow. Snow days are for books and hot chocolate and sitting before a roaring fire. (Which rather bothered my building manager, since I don’t have a fireplace. But that’s another story.)

But the Newberry opened again right away and yes, by gummibears, somebody did come over with books Thursday. I imagine that come the day our sirens start up and don’t stop, and the bombs drop all around us, I will get a call, “Is there time for me to drop off eight bags of paperbacks?”

I’ll say yes, of course. They’ll do for fuel when we’ve run out of volunteers.

Anyway, as I was going to say before I was so frostily interrupted, I get asked sometimes why I have novels in the Show Biz section at the Book Fair. “Those are Photoplay Editions,” I say. “See? It says right here above the price: Photoplay edition.”

“But it’s still a novel,” they tell me. And they are kee-rect. But I’m right.

Photoplay Editions go way back, and I suppose someone even now is trying to figure out when the first one came out. In essence they worked like this. Movie makers like to make movies out of classic novels: there’s built-in name recognition and they’re frequently in the public domain. Publishers, always looking for a nice, easy dollar, would buy the rights to print a new edition of the classic novel and illustrate it with stills from the motion picture. It’s cross-promotion: seeing the book makes people think of the movie, seeing the movie makes people think of the book.

Once in a while, a publisher might go to the expense of having somebody novelize a screenplay, but going with the classics was cheaper all round: all you needed to do was print up some pages of pictures and a nice jacket based on the poster for the movie, and you had a quickie, cheapie movie tie-in.

Grosset & Dunlap published the most famous of those, beginning during the silent era and moving on into the early years of talkies. Tower and World kind of picked it up into the 40s and 50s, generally doing an even cheaper job, with all the pictures from the movie on the endpapers or even just on a special dust jacket. After that, to a great degree, everyone wised up to the money available in merchandising, and movie tie-ins started to be handled differently.

You can tell if you have one of these photoplay editions because the title page will say something like “Illustrated with scenes from the Warrner Brothers photoplay of the same title”. There will often be a frontispiece showing the main stars of the movie in a major scene, sometimes with a caption telling you this is Elmo Lincoln and Enid Markey. There will be half a dozen more throughout the text, sometimes with captions and sometimes not.

Naturally, since these were cheaply made and little regarded, everybody threw them away when the movie was old news. So everybody wants them now. The ones that are especially wanted (sometimes to the extent of 4-digit prices) are copies in their lurid jackets of the lurid movies you’d have been ashamed to have your grandma know you were seeing: Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Unholy Three, and such. If the original owner was a really shameless maniac and took that copy of Dracula over to Bela Lugosi and asked for an autograph, you may find out what the cliché “trash to treasure” really means.

And that is why sometimes a novel (usually something like Vanity Fair or Seventh Heaven, neither of which had Boris Karloff in it at all) turns up in Show Biz. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to go brush some of the water and salt off the loading dock. Somebody chose today as the best day to bring in their mother’s Encyclopaedia Britannica. Well, anyway, I bet Boris Karloff’s in it. 

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