Raymond Rohauer: King of the Film Freebooters by William K. Everson

by Brent Reid
  • Infamous nitrate era film collector and one of its most contentious figures
  • He lied, stole and bullied his way into ownership of a vast archive of rarities
  • Retained an army of lawyers to threaten and sue anyone standing in his way
  • His hoard of films was unsurpassed by that of any other private individual
  • Altered and ruined many early classics while relentlessly pursuing false copyright claims
  • He finally died more than two decades ago – and film lovers the world over rejoiced
  • Left a legacy of universal derision and the fallout from his wrongdoings persists to this day
  • Ironically, one of the most important and respected figures in the history of film preservation gives his verdict on this deeply flawed man

When nefarious film collector Raymond Rohauer (1924–1987) died at a relatively young age, reputedly of complications related to AIDS (with his lover following only months later), few lamented his passing. But it is fair to say classic film lovers the world over breathed a collective sigh of relief and many openly rejoiced at the news. To this day, whenever his name is dragged up in any gathering of those in the know, loud groans invariably ensue. They’re swiftly accompanied by various anecdotes, all of which are guaranteed to paint Rohauer in a bad light. Renowned author, film historian and archivist William K. Everson (1929–1996) penned this article, which originally appeared in the no. 49, Summer 1994 issue of Grand Street magazine (1981–2004). Despite Everson falling foul of Roguehauer’s misdeeds on numerous occasions over the years, it’s as even-handed and comprehensive a summation of his life and activities as you’ll find, and is republished here for the first time.

Raymond Rohauer at the Austrian Film Museum, 12.1965

Raymond Rohauer at the Austrian Film Museum, 12.1965. Film collector and narcissistic sociopath.

“If Martin Davis, erstwhile head of Paramount Pictures, or young film-producing tycoon Joel Silver were suddenly to drop dead, there would of course be a certain amount of rejoicing—men in their position make many enemies—and a great deal of jockeying for survival positions among their confederates. But the dust would soon settle, and six months later, apart from immediate family and friends, nobody would remember or care. Certainly not members of the moviegoing public.

But a much less publicized, and apparently smaller, cog in the industry wheel—one Raymond Rohauer—died, in his sixties, on November 10, 1987, and the dust still hasn’t settled [nor even now!]. Nor has anyone who had any contact with him forgotten him. Most people— certainly those who came up against him in business—considered him a film pirate. I prefer the term “freebooter” since it suggests that certain cavalier charm that Rohauer possessed. Pirates were interested only in loot, plunder, and the wealth it brought; Rohauer was far more concerned with the extension of power the loot could buy. He was a complex and fascinating character: there was as much of Jack London’s Wolf Larsen in his makeup as there was Captain Kidd. In a historical context, he could be likened to the French Vidocq, the thief who became Paris’s chief of police, and was played so memorably by George Sanders in Douglas Sirk’s Scandal in Paris (1946). Indeed, if there were any way to turn the manipulation of copyright laws into a visually and dramatically exciting script, then the Rohauer story could have been an even more engrossing film than Robert Altman’s The Player (1992).

Coronet Theatre and Film Museum advertIronically, considering his major role in bringing dead films and forgotten personalities back to life, Rohauer’s early career included a brief stint as a Los Angeles grave digger. He made his first mark in the film business, however, in the late ’40s with Hollywood’s Coronet Theatre, a bizarre combination of art house, film society, and exploitation cinema. Production Code censorship was still at its peak, and by operating as a private film society Rohauer could legally show revivals, European imports, and experimental films that were all forbidden, usually for their sexual content, to normal commercial exhibition. While he posed as a crusading force for artistic expression, however, Rohauer filled his notorious foldout mailing programs with salacious or sensationalist promises that the films themselves (often of genuine merit) failed to supply. The French writer and director Jacques Prevert, invariably, through “typographical error,” found his name spelled “Pervert.”

Rohauer’s passion for acquisition began during this period: everything that passed through the Coronet’s projectors somehow found itself copied and added to the permanent Rohauer archives—a source of particular annoyance to the Museum of Modern Art when Rohauer entered the distribution field himself and didn’t always bother to remove the logos and very recognizable MoMA forewords from his duped copies. A number of other patterns in Rohauer’s career were also established at this time: he bought the rights to many films (especially European films standing no other chance of U.S. release that were thus available quite economically); he established lasting relationships with a number of surviving directors and stars of the silent era (there were many such, shamefully neglected in the Hollywood of the late ’40s); and he was largely responsible for rescuing much of the work of Stan Laurel and Buster Keaton. (Many of Keaton’s 35mm prints came into Rohauer’s hands after the actor James Mason discovered them in the garage of Keaton’s former house and notified Rohauer at the Coronet.)

Around this time, Rohauer also began to make the first in a long string of enemies whom he happily combatted through the legal system. And his number one enemy in Hollywood was John Hampton, the director of a theater devoted entirely to silent movies [and mired in tragedy from start to finish], which showed just enough of a profit to keep it solvent. Hollywood studios generally turned a blind eye to Hampton’s commercially harmless copyright violations. Rohauer, on the other hand, devoted an inordinate amount of time to suing Hampton for showing material that Rohauer claimed to own and to spurring others on to do likewise.

Eventually, despite the Coronet’s function as a valuable showcase for serious Los Angeles avant-garde filmmakers like Kenneth
Anger, its sexually immoral reputation got it into serious trouble with the L.A. vice squad. Rohauer might have successfully seen it through, but the theater had already served its purpose in establishing him as an exhibitor and distributor and he was ready to
move on—to New York.

Busby Berkeley, (unknown), Ruby Keeler, Rohauer, Peter Konlechner, Helga Konlechner and Peter Kubelka at the Austrian Film Museum, 12.1965

Busby Berkeley, (unknown), Ruby Keeler, Rohauer, Peter Konlechner, Helga Konlechner and Peter Kubelka at the Austrian Film Museum, 12.1965

As film curator of the Gallery of Modern Art—funded by millionaire dilettante Huntington Hartford and a short-lived alternative to the Museum of Modern Art—Rohauer had only a small theater at his disposal, but he made the most of it, bringing in personalities such as British star of the ’30s Jessie Matthews, choreographer/director Busby Berkeley, and Berkeley’s star Ruby Keeler for well-deserved tributes. But to Rohauer, the main appeal of the job was the name of the venue—the Gallery of Modern Art. It was all too easy to refer to it (accidentally) as the Museum of Modern Art, and to see himself in print as the curator of the Museum—while his old enemies at MoMA could only squirm in dismay.

Rohauer’s tenure with the Gallery was brief—or to be fair, the Gallery’s tenure as an alternate to the Museum was brief. It was too small to be profitable with the expenses incurred by Rohauer’s programming. But it gave him his foothold in New York, and from then on he devoted himself solely to his effort to buy, acquire, or control everything in the film world that wasn’t tied down. Buster Keaton’s films, most of which were already in the public domain (save a few early Metro films Rohauer had managed to acquire through bravado and a good lawyer), were to be the mainstay of Rohauer’s operations. At revival festivals in the United States and abroad, initially with Keaton himself as a participant, they brought in real money. Later TV usage of the Keaton material brought further revenue—as did Rohauer’s lawsuits against anyone who used so much as a frame or still of Keaton’s footage without payment.

Rohauer and Buster Keaton, 1960s

Rohauer and Buster Keaton, 1960s

Rohauer knew the copyright laws inside and out. And they varied in Europe, to his advantage. He knew that even if a film were in the public domain, it could be based on a story that was not. Very often, usually, the author was dead and the descendants had no knowledge of or interest in the property. Rohauer would seek them out, press a hundred dollars or so into their innocent hands, and come away with the story rights. In this way, he was able to sneak Rudolph Valentino’s The Sheik (1921) away from Paramount, and to insert himself as a kind of executive producer into Radley Metzger’s 1978 remake of The Cat and the Canary. By quietly acquiring the story rights to a J.B. Priestley novel, he was also able to claim exclusive distribution rights to one of Universal’s classic horror films, James Whale’s The Old Dark House (1932).

Basically, Rohauer operated under the principle of the Big Lie. He bent and used every loophole of the law to his own advantage— and when business opponents used the same loopholes, he descended on them with wrathful press releases and a battery of lawyers. This was a useful technique in the television industry. TV stations didn’t want lawsuits that could upset programming and delay or derail announced films. It was easier to settle. The more settlements Rohauer won, the more precedents he could cite in his favor. Even when he lost a lawsuit, as he did once with the Paul Killiam group, owners of the D. W. Griffith estate, he would claim (especially to overseas parties) that he had won. On one memorable occasion involving the showing of Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) at Dan Talbot’s New Yorker Theater, he signed a firm contract one day, verbally reneged the next, pulled in his horns when called to account, and then reneged again verbally the very next day.

Virtually everybody involved in the use of silent or archival film had their individual showdowns with Rohauer. One of the oft-relished highlights of his career was a long editorial that the London Times devoted to denouncing him and his methods [Sunday Times Magazine, p. 32, 19.1.1975; it was extremely, deservedly hostile: one unnamed source called him “the carrion crow of Beverly Hills.”]; far from repudiating the contents, Rohauer’s delighted response was to shower The Times and the author of the piece with a libel suit for several million dollars; he also sued, for similar amounts, all the people he assumed had provided information for the article. [It was actually for $460 million, against against The Times, Paul Killiam, author John Baxter and others. It was settled for payment of £1.] My own initial run-in with the gentleman was when he tried to ingratiate himself with MGM’s legal department, which was suing him over a major infraction, by siccing it onto me for an unlawful film society showing of the original silent Ben Hur (1925). FBI agents dutifully sat in on the small screening and confiscated the print, but recognized that it was at best an academic, nonprofit event. The case was almost immediately dropped—although for some time afterward Rohauer delighted in telling anybody who would listen that as a result of his intervention I was languishing in prison awaiting deportation to my native England.

Raymond Rohauer interviewing Groucho Marx

Rohauer’s business rivals found coexistence virtually impossible: very few, like Paul Killiam, had the guts to risk a considerable amount of money fighting him in the courts; most usually gave it up as a bad job. [Killiam litigated at least two suits against Rohauer that went all the way to the US Supreme Court. Ultimately, Rohauer was forced to sign a truce agreeing not to sue him again.] Rohauer’s staff overhead was small—representatives here and there to handle sales and oversee print storage and shipment. His most valuable assets were his fine-print-trained lawyers, who had a habit of changing periodically when they found his affairs consuming too much of their time. Most of his enemies were not his business competitors but the lovers of old film who, especially in pre-video days, had relatively few archives, institutions, and theaters to provide them with the films they hungered for.

One of Rohauer’s more exasperating habits was to buy up whole blocks of film—or by the purchase of a few films, to claim ownership of far more—and then to do nothing with them. He laid claim to the films of Harry Langdon, the silent comedies of slapstick comedian Larry Semon, the entire output of Douglas Fairbanks (though he showed only the most famous films), and similar material. Much of this was of questionable commercial value and it’s not surprising that Rohauer did little with it. But when an archive turned up with one of those films, which might well be legally in the public domain, he would pounce, demanding that the screening be canceled and the print surrendered to him. The archives often had a contract with an original donor that precluded them from surrendering the print to a later owner, but in order to ensure their ownership of the print in question, they would usually cancel all future exhibitions of it. Further incensing film audiences, Rohauer frequently made deliberately second-rate prints: first to discourage duping (something he was understandably paranoid about since it was the source of much of his own collection) and second to make sure that any dupes that were made would be of such poor quality as to be commercially unusable. This meant that some of the richest gems in the Rohauer collection—films like Fairbanks’s silent Robin Hood (1922), with its superb sets, art direction, and magnificently nuanced photography— were presented in murky prints where detail was lost in background blackness and facial expressions registered only as white blobs.

A further attempt to “protect” his rights involved changing the original films. By rewording and replacing some of the subtitles in Keaton’s comedy classics, Rohauer was able legally to create “new” entities that could be recopyrighted—and instantly recog-
nized if illegally duped. Keaton’s titling was always minimal, subtle, and respected the intelligence of the audience—a well thought-out punctuation of the film. Change it, and the rhythm of the film was destroyed. With Carl Dreyer’s early sound horror classic Vampyr (1932), Rohauer decided to improve on Dreyer’s suggestively evocative terror—which avoided any of the traditionally visual horror tricks—by inserting all the blood and guts Dreyer had found unnecessary into the subtitles. Since the film was short, he placed his long titles after the already long and largely untranslated Danish titles. The result: one read his version of Vampyr almost as much as one saw it. Small wonder that around this time, Rohauer began to be affectionately known as Raw-Horror, and audiences—around the world—hissed in unison when the logo RAYMOND ROHAUER PRESENTS appeared on the screen, followed by his name on the copyright notices, usually printed in larger letters than the star or director of the film. David Shepard, a West Coast archivist and technician, delighted aficionados when he issued, as a parody, Edison’s 1894 vignette The Sneeze, broken up into segments, each separately copyrighted as if by Rohauer, and carrying a stern warning against anyone sneezing without Rohauer’s permission since he carried a copyright on that process too!

One of the more amusing and least harmful of Rohauer’s ego-dominated activities was to tote a camera around with him at all times. Whenever he had lunch with, or met, a celebrity, out came that camera, and the victim was posed, often quite unwillingly, with him. In a day or so, the picture would appear in print, protected by a copyright in Rohauer’s name.

[Perhaps not so harmless: “Rohauer was said to have been very charming in person. Dick Bann said he was a very pleasant guy, but if you had a meeting with him, he always brought a third person along who would then take a photo of the two of you ‘as a keepsake.’ In reality, the photo was proof that a meeting had taken place and the third person was a witness as to what was said. Rohauer was certainly a very paranoid guy, which explains his desire to hoard ‘his’ films.” – Jon Mirsalis]

It would be all too easy—and admittedly very entertaining— to go on and on listing Rohauer’s practices, lawsuits, and apparent pursuit of total power. Let’s wind up the negative side—and yes, there is a positive side too—by citing one last supremely frus-
trating example. To Rohauer, acquiring rights to a film on paper meant that he had the film in actuality. When, a few years before he died, he acquired nontheatrical release rights to whatever Griffith, Norma Talmadge, and Constance Talmadge material still existed, he immediately issued an ornate, expensively produced catalogue on glossy art paper, listing all of their films as being available for rental. Running times were given, rental prices were allocated. No mention was made of the fact that fully half the films no longer existed, and that archives the world over had been searching for years for films like D. W. Griffith’s The Greatest Thing in Life (1918). His offices accepted bookings, confirmed them, and even had the gall to send invoices for films that had not been sent because they just did not exist. Clearly, all Rohauer wanted out of the deal was that catalogue proving his ownership.

Rohauer (L) and David Gill of Photoplay Productions. Gill and Kevin Brownlow were accessing the Little Tramp's Mutual outtakes for The Unknown Chaplin documentary.

Rohauer (L) and David Gill of Photoplay Productions. Gill and Kevin Brownlow were accessing the Little Tramp’s Mutual outtakes for The Unknown Chaplin documentary.

And yet there was a positive side to this incredible man. While he wasn’t a scholar, he was a shrewd judge of offbeat and unrecognized talent. He espoused the cause of director Albert Lewin, and was responsible for keeping his remarkable Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951) in circulation. Harry Langdon’s popularity was brief, probably achieved only because his peak coincided with Chaplin’s off-screen years, and he has never been re-established. He is a quirky comedian, an acquired taste, the Carl Dreyer of the clowns, and Rohauer had the acumen to acquire legally all of his First National features and his shorts; their preservation as a body of work is largely due to Rohauer’s efforts. Although he had run afoul of Chaplin’s people at one time in his career (for showing a retrospective of all of Chaplin’s major films without clearance), Rohauer was still able to buy out an en-
tire warehouse of Chaplin outtakes and other unused material, footage that proved to be a minor treasure trove to film historian Kevin Brownlow when he made his genuinely classic TV trilogy The Unknown Chaplin (1983). [Brownlow/Photoplay’s similar, acclaimed three-hour documentary Buster Keaton: A Hard Act to Follow (1987) also included material from Rohauer. In return, he insisted on interview appearances throughout.] Many of the groups of films Rohauer purchased from lesser producers together with scores of individual films— from Conrad Veidt’s German silent The Hands of Orlac (1924) to the odd, Gothic directorial debut of Terence Young, Corridor of Mirrors (1948)—have considerable academic and, who knows, perhaps even commercial value, once his Aladdin’s cave of treasures is assessed and sold.

One of the ironies, perhaps tragedies, of Rohauer’s career is that had the tremendous energy he threw into lawsuits and intrigues been harnessed to the exploitation and exhibition of his collection, he might well have become one of the heroes of the archival preservation movement, instead of one of its chief irritants and villains. In his final year or two, Rohauer mellowed considerably, and, while maintaining access, he donated a lot of valuable 35mm nitrate material to the Library of Congress to ensure its preservation.

The disposition of Rohauer’s vast and valuable collection of films has not been finalized. Fortuitously, it rests in the hands of one Richard Gordon, a film producer and a gentleman of the old school who was also smart enough always to be at least one step ahead of Rohauer in his dealings with him, and thus to be one of the few people to earn his trust and respect. The film collection itself is enormous, and since Rohauer was always secretive and didn’t necessarily commit all of his holdings to an official listing, it will probably contain all sorts of surprises invaluable in this preservation-conscious era. Whoever finally acquires his material, and digs through all those cans and boxes stored in several large vaults here and in England, may even come across the filmic “Rosebud” to explain what made Rohauer tick.”

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) – many of his films suffered at Rohauer's hands. Rohauer, unlike Fairbanks' titular hero, robbed from the poor to feed his ego.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922) – many of his films suffered at Rohauer’s hands. Rohauer, unlike Fairbanks’ titular hero, robbed from the poor to feed his ego and bank balance.

Rohauer’s collection has had several owners since his death, the most significant of which was the Douris Corporation (1995–2008). After they went into receivership, it was eventually bought in 2011 by Trump-styled real estate tycoon Charles S. Cohen, who used it as the basis of his newly formed Cohen Film Collection to carry on Rohauer’s material and spiritual legacy. The old pirate/freebooter would doubtless approve with all his heart – but that was one thing he could never possess.

This 1993 William K. Everson interview provides additional background, including more on how Rohauer tried to have him arrested by the FBI! Roguehauer has also earned himself numerous dishonourable mentions in books such as:

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Diane MacIntyre
1st September 2019 05:41

A very intriguing article well worth the read on an era of movies
their ownership and distribution. The crafty “free booter” Raymond
Rohauer is given further autopsy of his personality and machinations.
Some are quite grateful for his “Preservations” despite the back story
of his questionable acquisitions. His methods remind me of a grasping
inventor named Edison who started it all in America!

William Ferry
William Ferry
6th December 2020 20:44

I like to think Rohauer is in a place where he has a theater, all the films in his collection, but no light bulbs available for any of his projectors. Oh, and every time he tries to run a film, he gets a visitor from General Film Company, to collect his $2 per reel fee!

Dennis James
Dennis James
24th May 2022 04:32

I can add yet another personal encounter anecdote. In my budding silent film music performing career back in circa 1984 I had the misfortune to have a fully approved and contracted personally with R.R. screening of Fairbanks’ THE BLACK PIRATE in 35mm Technicolor format scheduled with my live theatre organ scoring at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco – only to be suddenly cancelled without explanation days before the event. My fiancée at the time suggested we immediately fly from Los Angeles to Columbus to invite R.R. to lunch together with us. We had a most cordial encounter calculated in… Read more »

2nd March 2023 09:33

This certainly is an eye-opening article. What little I’ve known of Rohauer led me to believe that he was a champion of silent film lovers. I’d never have guessed that his tactics and motives were so unprincipled. Thanks for bringing this rather enigmatic figure to light.

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