George and his autograph books
George S., of Raleigh, North Carolina, arrived at the Atlanta ROADSHOW in August 2011 with an impressive archive of over 400 autographed photos of some of the greatest movie directors of all time. His collection spans the history of cinema, including modern masters like Scorsese and Spielberg, pioneers from the early days of motion pictures like Fritz Lang and Alan Dwan, and international avant-gardes like Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini. But even more remarkable than the scope of George's collection are the individual behind-the-scenes stories of how he collected them all.
Fritz Lang, 1974
George told ROADSHOW appraiser Laura Woolley that he began writing to directors in 1974, as a graduate student at the University of Georgia, where he watched 35mm films at the university library and on Ted Turner's burgeoning cable channel. "I was very interested in the movies," George explained, and he said that he had always thought of the directors as the driving force behind the movies.
Fritz Lang, director of the groundbreaking German-expressionist film Metropolis (1927) and the later M (1931), was the first to respond to George's request for a signed photo. Above his signature Lang scribbled, "This is the way I looked when I made the movie M that you liked so well."
"I was hooked after that," George told Woolley.
George said he slowly made his way through every director working in the US that had at least one or two feature films. "And this was before the Internet," he remarked. The process was tedious and time-consuming, but George was determined. "If I didn't hear from them in three or four months, then I would buy a photograph and I would send that to them and ask them to please sign my photograph and return it."
When George didn't hear back from "master of suspense" Alfred Hitchcock, he was particularly anxious, because he'd read an article about how generous Hitchcock usually was with fans. George wrote a second time saying it was fine if Mr. Hitchcock didn't want to give George his autograph, but could he please return the photo? A week later, Hitchcock sent the photo back — with signature.
Federico Fellini, 1975
George didn't limit his collection to great American filmmakers though; he also wrote to influential European and Japanese directors of the day. He enlisted the help of fellow university students and professors to translate his letters into Spanish, German, French, and Italian. "I would sit there and transcribe the letters into those foreign languages," George said. "Like Federico Fellini, I wrote him in Italian." Fellini, most famous for his 1960 comedy-drama La Dolce Vita, responded via airmail special delivery with this signed photo.
Steven Spielberg, 1983
Some big-name directors were trickier to track down. In 1975, after writing to Steven Spielberg, George received a typed letter from Spielberg's assistant, with her apologies: "Mr. Spielberg does not make a habit of handing out his photograph, and is superstitious about giving out his autograph."
Spielberg had just released Jaws (1975), which achieved box office records and became the highest grossing film at the time. That would not be a fluke distinction for the director, however. With the 1982 film, E.T., and 1993's Jurassic Park, Spielberg exceeded his previous records. And at some point, the blockbuster director apparently abandoned his superstitions, because George found this signed photo for sale and added it to his collection around 1983.
Terrence Malick, 1977
In some cases George wrote to directors so early on in their careers that his was one of the few fan letters they had ever received.
Terrence Malick may be a recognizable name in Hollywood these days — his most recent film, Tree of Life, was nominated for three Oscars in 2012, including Best Director and Best Picture — but when George wrote to Malick in 1977, the now-famous director had only made two films and said he didn't have a photo of himself to sign. George improvised and sent Malick this grainy image, which he had photocopied from a magazine. This time, Malick was happy to oblige.
Alan Dwan, 1976
The names and faces in some of George's most treasured autographs may not be as recognizable as Malick or Spielberg, but to George that makes them even more remarkable. People like Alan Dwan, Fritz Lang, Clarence Brown, and Henry King were so integral to film's rise as an art form that they were still building the platform upon which future directors would one day stand and be recognized. "When I began this in '74," George told us, "the pioneers in the industry were still alive. Lots of the early directors passed away shortly after I wrote to them."
Director Alan Dwan began as a silent-filmmaker in 1911 and made over 400 films during the course of his career — his last in 1961. In '76, he autographed a photo from his heyday for George. "I too was young long ago," he wrote.
Henry King, 1976
Henry King directed his first film in 1915 and was one of the founding members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. When George reached him in '76, King too had long since folded his director's chair, but was happy to hear from a fan. "I am delighted to send you a photograph," King wrote to George, "however, the only one I have is one that was made on a fishing trip to Baja California a couple of years ago." … "It might interest you to know," he went on, "that the photographer was Bing Crosby." Six years after sending the letter, King passed away.
Budd Boetticher, 1976
Budd Boetticher, a director from the 1950s who was famous for a series of low-budget Western films, was so happy to learn of George's interest in his work that he called George at home and told him if he was ever in San Diego, he should come down and have a drink and talk about the movies.
Martin Scorsese, 1975 (on Taxi Driver set)
It's hard for George to say who his favorite director is, and even harder for him to pick a favorite movie, but unsurprisingly, he is drawn to movies about movie making.
He was thrilled to see Martin Scorsese's Hugo nominated for Best Picture at the 2012 Oscars, because in the film, the young protagonist meets one of cinema's earliest innovators, Georges Méliès, and helps inspire the director to recover and preserve his original film reels. Though George is hesitant to name a favorite director, it's clear that he holds Scorsese and work like Hugo in particularly high regard. "Scorsese is doing a lot to try to protect old movies," George says, adding that that's important, "because so many of them are already gone."
With his collection, George is also doing his part. According to appraiser Laura Woolley, the five binders of signed director and actor photographs that George brought to Atlanta would carry an insurance value of $30,000 to $40,000.
Ultimately, George would like to donate his work, perhaps to the University of Georgia — the unlikely location where his love of cinema began. But since his visit to ROADSHOW in 2011, George says he's been inspired to put (metaphorical) pen to paper again (he's upgraded to email these days).
"It's been 40 years," he explains. "There are two generations worth of directors out there to collect!" For George and his collection, it isn't time to roll the credits quite yet.
Watch the full appraisal in our ROADSHOW Archive