Set decorations from movie ‘Paranoia’
  • Props from the upcoming movie ‘Dead Man Down’
  • Early movie poster of Richard Wright’s “Native Son”
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    Auction Finds

    An array of Hollywood movie canisters, but no films

    I did not notice the containers when I walked down the ramp to the long yard at the back of the auction house. My mind was focused on the box lots on the tables. That’s where the goodies usually were.

    As I shifted items around in a line of boxes – looking, hoping for a bit of buried treasure – I soon realized that this trip was a going to be a bust. So, I turned my attention to the four long rows of disparate items laid out on the ground, and that’s when I spotted the metal and plastic canisters on a long bench on top of a table.

    There were almost two dozen of them in orange, blue and dull gray, octagonal in shape (two were in the shape of computer towers), about 8 inches wide. Most were dented and rusted.

    movie canister

    A plastic movie canister with two empty reels. There were nearly two dozen of the canisters at auction.

    I strained to open the one nearest me, and found inside a large empty bright green plastic reel. On the outside of the next few canisters were labels bearing the names of Hollywood movie companies (20th Century Fox, New Line Cinema) and movies:

    “Runaway Bride” (1999, Julia Roberts and Richard Gere)

    “Dark City” (1998, Rufus Sewell and Keifer Sullivan. I had never heard of this film; apparently, it did not do well at the box office.)

    “Cats Don’t Dance” (1997, animated musical from Warner Bros.)

    movie canisters

    There was film inside one of the movie canisters. On the handwritten label is the name of the movie "A Civil Action."

    One canister held several small and seemingly incomplete rolls of film that had stuck to itself like glue. One was labeled “A Civil Action (1998, John Travolta and Robert Duvall).” Another had two plastic reels inside. Most, though, appeared to be empty; some had locks on them and others I couldn’t pry open.

    I figured that these were movie canisters from a theater, and as I stood there pondering them, another auction-goer walked up beside me.

    “This is what they used to send movies in to the theaters,” he offered. I wondered if he was guessing or actually knew what he was talking about.

    movie canisters

    A long row of movie canisters ready for bids.

    He mentioned that he had several of them at home. “Some go back to the ’20s. These were plastic and metal,” he added.

    The canisters were big, bulky and heavy, and they sat upright, not like the round aluminum ones I’ve picked up and seen at other auctions. Once, I paid too much money for several that purportedly had “Star Trek,” “Superman” and “Star Trek” TV pilot shows on them (one of my auction buddies suspected that they contained porn).

    I needed a 16mm projector to watch them – which I didn’t have and had to buy cheap at an auction. It didn’t work out so I had to buy another one cheap, but I still haven’t watched the shows.

    Another time, I found one of those old stiff cardboard containers I remembered from my elementary-school days. It contained a plastic canister with a 1971 educational film titled “Bill Cosby on Prejudice.” It is Cosby the comic in a spoof on bigotry. The film likely came from a school library.

    movie canisters

    The names of movies from the late 1990s were on some of the canisters' labels.

    And another time, I bought a box lot of items that included a World War II anti-Japanese propaganda film titled “Menace of the Rising Sun (1942).” One auction-goer wanted to buy it from me but I never re-sell anything on-site that I’m unfamiliar with.

    At the auction, I continued checking the fronts, backs and interiors of the canisters to see what else I could find out. None of the labels bore the name of a movie house; in fact, most had been marred by rain and the elements, faded and torn.

    I spent so long with the canisters that another auction-goer soon drew near. “My wife would kill me if I brought these home,” he said jokingly, adding that I would likely be the only one bidding on them. He wasn’t sure about how to use them.

    movie canisters

    A movie canister bearing a label for the 1999 movie "Wild Wild West" sits along with reels at an auction house.

    I liked the idea of the canisters but not enough to buy one. I wasn’t sure, either, how one could be re-purposed (for decoration or as a conversation piece?). There was at least one that caught my eye because it looked to be the oldest among them. But it had one fatal flaw: I couldn’t get it opened.

    I finally gave up on the canisters and made my way to another auction house nearby. I was browsing the items for its auction the next day when I stumbled upon a movie canister like the ones I had just seen at the previous place. Coincidence, or did these come from the same movie theater?

    There was only one of them alongside a box of plastic reels. It was a Paramount Pictures canister with a label for a tongue-in-cheek western that I enjoyed back in 1999:

    “Wild Wild West,” starring Will Smith and Kevin Kline.



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