Maryvale movie maven Jack Hardy has problems. Reel problems. Luckily, his family understands.

"My wife is very supportive of this," says Hardy as he gingerly picks his way through the maze of film cans, videocassettes, editing tables and movie-history books that have transformed his west Phoenix home into the equivalent of a three-bedroom projection booth.

"If she wasn't, she'd have kicked me out a long time ago. As you can see, this thing has long since taken over the house."

"This thing" also has taken over Hardy, the 49-year-old owner, operator and sole employee of Grapevine Video, the country's largest library of silent-film videocassettes.

Hardly a day goes by that he isn't burning up the long-distance wires, ferreting out a long-lost silent movie that's just turned up in someone's barn or verifying the veracity of some collector's latest Valentino find.

A film buff since his teens, Hardy began marketing videocassette copies of his collection through the mail in 1979. Thanks to the boom in home video and a lack of competition, Hardy's video business grew so successful that he quit his construction job three years ago.

Hardy's collection might come as a real eye-opener to modern moviegoers who mistakenly dismiss silents as a cavalcade of herky-jerky slapstick and hammy melodramatics. For instance, who could resist taking a peek at Captured by the Mormons, a 1922 propaganda opus in which our virginal heroine is seduced into a polygamous hell? Or the cocaine-themed Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1914), with swashbuckler Douglas Fairbanks as "Detective Coke Ennyday"? And while Hardy has yet to add them to his catalogue, he's even dredged up examples of pre-talkie porn, including a racy cartoon, date unknown, called Buried Treasure.

Most of Hardy's offerings, however, are mainstream cinema featuring the likes of Mary Pickford, Charlie Chaplin, Tom Mix and Gloria Swanson. The Grapevine catalogue lists more than 500 silent feature films and shorts, most of them from the period 1910-30, many of them copies of one-of-a-kind prints. The company, which has received favorable press in Film Comment and other film fanzines, offers titles in both VHS and Beta formats; most sell for less than $20.

In an era when a silent-screen giant like Fatty Arbuckle is better remembered (if at all) for his much-publicized shenanigans with a showgirl and a pop bottle than for his dozens of comedies, Hardy realizes that he's playing to a relatively small house.

"There's a very limited market for these films," says Hardy, who claims that these days it's hard enough getting people to watch a black-and-white talkie. "There really aren't that many people who are fanatical about seeing silent films."

But thanks to the unique nature of his business, Hardy's pretty much got the market cornered. (He says his only real competition is the smattering of silent titles released by the home-video arms of MGM and Paramount during the past few years.) "I've been real lucky because I've really never had to do any advertising," says Hardy, who explains that he calls his company Grapevine Video because "everything has pretty much been word of mouth." (Grapevine is reachable at P.O. Box 46161, Phoenix, AZ 85063.)

Grapevine's current mailing list includes 1,400 collectors, some in such remote outposts as Japan, Australia and the Netherlands. If the customers have anything in common, it's probably that they're among the few people alive who have actually seen movies like His First Flat Tire, Lily of the Tenements or Mary, Queen of Tots--this last a pre-Spanky-and-Alfalfa Our Gang outing.

According to Hardy, a lot of his customers are older film buffs with fond memories of seeing silents years ago in first-run theatres. Younger collectors, meanwhile, reportedly buy the videos to re-create the silent-moviegoing experience they never had. Hardy claims that several of his steady customers (like the daughter of silent-screen stars John Gilbert and Leatrice Joy) avidly scan his catalogue for films featuring parents, grandparents and other stellar relatives.

Sadly, says Hardy, "most people have never been exposed to a great silent film. If they had, they'd want to see more because there really are some fantastic ones out there."

Asked to select several films for a hypothetical Introduction to Silent Cinema class, Hardy names a trio from the Twenties: Ben-Hur (1926), The Covered Wagon (1923) and his personal all-time favorite silent, Sunrise (1927), the story of a poor farmer driven to murder by an adulterous affair. Actress Janet Gaynor won the first-ever Best Actress Oscar for her role as the doomed wife. The movie's stunning cinematography (also awarded an Oscar) and production design are generally considered to be among the most artistic examples of those crafts ever put on film.

"That's the film I always show someone who's never seen a silent film," says Hardy. "It's such a remarkable film that it just sucks you into the story to the point that you forget there's no sound."

Ironically, Hardy can't get his hands on the rights to those three classics. He deals exclusively in films that have fallen into public domain after the film studios that produced them neglected to renew the copyrights.

If those studios' shortsightedness has been a blessing for Hardy's business, it's also been the bane of silent-film collectors.

"There are directors and stars we'll never see whose work is lost forever," reports Hardy, who estimates that 90 percent of all silent movies ever produced no longer exist in any form. Because few studios saw any future in silents after the introduction of talkies in 1927, silent films were routinely destroyed, discarded or simply allowed to decompose in their cans.

One of the biggest victims of this negligence was silent-screen vamp Theda Bara, who was among the best-known actresses of her day. Of nearly 40 films Bara starred in, says Hardy, only two are known to exist today. Perhaps one of the biggest offenders was Warner Bros. After releasing the landmark talkie The Jazz Singer, the studio reportedly burned every silent negative in its vaults, wiping out its entire catalogue of Vitagraph features.

Today, the only Vitagraph features that survive are those rare prints that turn up where they are least expected--like a cache of mint-condition silents that was found buried under an Alaskan snowbank several years ago. Hardy personally hit pay dirt when he learned about the death of a Tennessee projectionist who'd left behind a garage full of 35mm silent prints; he finally located the man's widow, who has since sold him those films.

But Hardy says the majority of the titles in his catalogue actually belong to other collectors. "I know a lot of collectors and most of them feel like I do," he says. "They want people to be able to see these old films, so they're willing to loan them or rent them or do whatever it takes so I can transfer them to video."

Because virtually all silent films were printed on highly flammable nitrate stock, the prints pose a potential fire hazard for collectors. As a result, Hardy donates all of his personal acquisitions to various film-preservation groups after he's copied a film onto videotape masters.

"It's still a one-man business, but I don't know how long I can keep it up," says Hardy. When and if he ever gets around to building a combination film workshop/storage facility in his backyard, Hardy plans to hire a couple of employees.

"Actually, I'd hire them right now if I had the room," says Hardy. He doesn't--as anyone who's been to his house will tell you.

In addition to filling orders, answering mail and handling the other day-to-day chores involved in running a mail-order company, Hardy is up to his neck in film restoration. He reports that he's got a backlog of 300 films waiting to be transferred to tape.

Among other projects, he's currently trying to piece together a complete print of Ransom's Folly (a Twenties feature starring matinee idol Richard Barthlemess), pulling the best scenes from two incomplete versions of the movie.

After unearthing a rare print of the 1929 German classic Diary of a Lost Girl (a long-lost Louise Brooks film rediscovered seven years ago), Hardy is in the process of reshooting the film's German title cards for domestic audiences--a task that has involved tracking down an English version of the film's shooting script.

And one of these days, he hopes to get around to duping a pile of early Westerns he borrowed from an East Coast stock-footage library, a free loan he negotiated in return for supplying the library with video copies of its films.

Hardy relishes the challenge of preserving Hollywood's ephemeral past, but he admits that there's a downside to being able to plug Mary Pickford or Charlie Chaplin into the VCR.

"I used to get together with a few collectors around town and we'd watch movies together on the screen," Hardy muses. "Since video became so pervasive, I don't think we've gotten together once. And I miss that."

Hardy's customers are among the few people alive who have actually seen movies like His First Flat Tire.

Hardy hit pay dirt when he learned about the death of a Tennessee projectionist who'd left behind a garage full of 35mm silent prints.


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Dewey Webb