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By Phil Hall | November 9, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 453: “Collector’s Item” (1958 TV pilot starring Vincent Price and Peter Lorre).

LAST SEEN: It is on YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: From a few labels specializing in public domain titles.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An unreleased production starring two iconic film stars.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: A restored version is possible, but not likely at this time.

I can distinctly remember the first time I learned that a market for bootleg films and television shows existed: back when I was a kid in the 1970s, my mother bought me a book called “Vincent Price Unmasked” by James Robert Parish and Steven Whitney. At the time, Price was my favorite movie star thanks to the countless TV broadcasts of his Edgar Allan Poe flicks. In the book, there was a fleeting reference to Price’s work in a 1958 television pilot called “Collector’s Item.” Parish and Whitney noted that the pilot was not picked up to become a regular series, but that it was available for sale in the 16mm print black market.

Needless to say, the bootleg market has shifted far away from the 16mm print format. Today, “Collector’s Item” is still around, and I only got to see it for the first time last week. Sadly, it is among the least intriguing titles circulating the hazy world of bootlegs.

Going into 1950s, Vincent Price was mostly known to public as the urbane villain of movie thrillers. During that decade, Price made a number of television game show appearances that enabled him to display his extraordinary knowledge of art history. Audiences were happily surprised to see the actor who chased starlets about in “House of Wax” could also wax eloquently on the intricacies of classical painting and sculpture.

Price was approached by CBS and TCF Television Productions (the small-screen unit of 20th Century Fox) to shoot a pilot for “Collector’s Item,” a potential weekly television series that took place in the fine arts world. To sweeten the deal, Price’s pal Peter Lorre was brought in as his co-star. Entertainment trade press reports noted that glamour girl Eva Gabor and former silent movie idol Francis X. Bushman would also appear in the pilot, but neither made it before the camera.

The pilot episode was titled “The Left Fist of David,” and the production introduced Price as Henry Prentiss, the owner of the world famous art appraisal company House of Prentiss. Lorre lurked around the company as Mr. Munsey, Prentiss’ European business partner, while lovely Whitney Blake played their secretary.

In this episode, Prentiss and his posse prepare to head to Florida to catalogue the Vanderlocken Collection, an extensive private art collection belonging to a recently deceased millionaire. A mysterious stranger, played by veteran movie baddie Thomas Gomez, turns up and talks about the Left Fist of David, a legendary artifact that was looted from a Mexican church 200 years earlier. However, the legend of the Left Fist of David is so vague that no one knows exactly what it is. The stranger believes that this item is in the Florida art collection, and proposes that Prentiss set it aside for illegal sale. Prentiss refuses to be involved in such a scheme.

Down in Florida, Prentiss and Munsey explore the dead millionaire’s collection, and they are appalled by the hodgepodge mess around them. “The Vanderlockens must have collected their art by the yard!” exclaims Munsey, while Prentiss quickly identifies a previously listed Donatello as a fake. But that mysterious stranger who visited them shows up at the estate and begins to create mischief by firing a crossbow right near Prentiss’ head. Prentiss and Munsey decide to create a fake Left Fist of David to fool this creep, but the nefarious art fiend realizes immediately it is a fraud. A fight ensues and gunfire is exchanged – with ricocheting bullets destroying prized pieces of the collection – until the bad guy is subdued and the real Left Hand of David is discovered hidden within a chandelier that Munsey originally dismissed as a piece of junk.

“Collector’s Item” was certainly a good idea for a series – the world of art theft and forgery could certainly inspire a wealth of elaborate schemes being hatched in exotic locations. Unfortunately, the pilot seemed to ignore that potential and barely focused on the intricacies of the subject. Indeed, when Prentiss blithely dismisses a faux-Donatello, there is almost no explanation on how he is able to tell an authentic work from a forgery – or, for that matter, to explain who Donatello was. After all, the majority of people watching TV back in the 1950s probably couldn’t tell Donatello from Donna Reed.

Instead, “Collector’s Item” emerged as a tired, B-level thriller with the mildest threat of danger. There were few attempts to provoke chills, most notably in the weird plot twist involving a poisoned cat, but the show was stitched together in a connect-the-dots fashion that quickly became tiresome. And when the plot devolved into a climactic fight between the 6-foot-4 Price and his zaftig co-stars Lorre and Gomez, the effect is so silly that it is difficult not to break into laughter as these physically mismatched actors (and their non-look-alike stunt doubles) crash around furniture and break up sculptures.

As for Price and Lorre, neither actor was visibly enthused by the project. They lumbered about the production in a somnambulant manner, voicing their lines with no sense of irony or energy. Considering that both stars could easily chew up scenery without pausing to burp, their lifeless acting here is quite a shock.

CBS nixed the idea of bringing “Collector’s Item” to weekly television, and there is no record that the pilot episode was ever broadcast. How it emerged into the black market is not clear, but (as cited earlier) it has been a bootleg staple for many years. A few labels specializing in public domain films has released “Collector’s Item” in the home entertainment retail market, but I don’t believe it is a public domain title. It is also on YouTube, albeit in a slightly fuzzy print with an annoying buzz on the soundtrack.

All told, “Collector’s Item” is hardly a collector’s item. But any fan of Price and Lorre might find it amusing to look up this obscure hiccup in their otherwise memorable careers.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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  1. Cheryl says:

    You’re welcome, Phil! Hope you get a chance to read the book. Some of the people Stephen Youngkin interviewed mentioned a “second pilot” being filmed for the series. “Appraise the Lady” was that second pilot.

  2. Phil Hall says:

    Thank you, Cheryl. This is the first I’ve heard of “Appraise the Lady” – Mr. Youngkin appears to have located a production that no one else knows about, because I don’t see any mention of it outside of his book.

  3. Cheryl says:

    Very nice post, Phil! I’m a long-time Peter Lorre fan myself, and I’ve seen this pilot. Your comments are right on. Did you know that a second pilot for the series was filmed as well? It’s called “Appraise the Lady”, the cast includes Eva Gabor, and the print is at UCLA. My friend Stephen Youngkin published a book on Peter Lorre — “The Lost One: A Life of Peter Lorre” — and he interviewed some of the people who worked on “Collector’s Item”. As a Vincent Price fan, you might want to take a look at that section.

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