Early & Silent Film

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The 4th Nitrate Picture Show

Posted by keith1942 on June 1, 2018

This Festival was held between May 4th and May 6th at the George Eastman Museum in upper New York State. The Eastman Museum is now one of the few places where one can see 35mm film prints on the stock that was once the standard for cinema, the flammable and luminous nitrate. The Museum’s Dryden Theatre was crowded for most of the weekend with archivists, critics and fans enjoying the distinctive image that the format offers.

Prior to the actual Festival, on the Thursday evening, we had a treat with a screening of Hamlet (1948) from a Library of Congress print. Lawrence Olivier’s film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s major masterpieces is a fine piece of work. He and his supporting cast are excellent. The play has been cut from its original length, but Olivier is a master of adaptation. The art design and cinematography are great to watch even though the technical standards of the period were more limited than now. The sound is equally well done and includes in the opening of the drama Olivier voicing the ghost of the dead king. The print showed up well on the nitrate stock. The frequent chiaroscuro looked good and the cast and their lighting had that silvery quality found on early stock.

As in previous years the actual programme was only unveiled on the Friday morning. This is one aspect of the Festival with which I have little sympathy. So we walked into Rochester centre to wander round the excellent second-hand bookshop there [Greenwood Books]. I watch the weight of my cases before I leave England because I know I shall succumb to the temptations in an extensive film section together with a wide range of other subjects.

The afternoon included two presentations. One was the annual James Card Memorial Lecture presented by Paul C. Spehr from the Library of Congress. James Card was the first curator of film at George Eastman and founded the collection there. Appropriately Paul talked about the history of archive collection at the Library of Congress. This has been a varied and at time haphazard affair. Early films were deposited [but not uniformly] on paper prints. And these were forgotten and only saved from decay in the 1940s. Even then whilst there was a copyright acquirement on film there was not a mandatory policy of collection. It is only in the last few decades that a mandatory deposit of film has become effective. So the Library’s collection, augmented in the 1990s by that of the American Film Institute, has some great films preserved but also lacks some key titles.

I should add that I retuned from Rochester via Washington DC. The Library of Congress has a memorial Mary Pickford Theater in it’s Madison building. I was fortunate that this was in a week in which one of the archive prints was screened, 711 Ocean Drive (1951). t is a delightful but small cinema on the third floor. And, as is usually the case, we veiwed a good 35mm print.

The first set of screenings at George Eastman were short films on nitrate. The programme commerced with Symphony of a City / Människor I stad (1947). This film, directed by Arne Sucksdorff, presented a day in Stockholm and the film won the Best Short Subject (One reel) at the 1949 Academy Awards. It was the Academy Award print that we viewed. We had enjoyed a Sucksdorff film in 2017, but that was a rural and night-time drama. This was a poetic treatment of the city, very much in line with the cycle of ‘city symphonies’ of the 1920s and 1930s. The film was in good condition with a rich contrast in the black and white imagery.

Father Hubbard’s Movietone Adventures: Lost Lake (1944). The ‘glacier’ priest’ was a member of the Jesuit Order who became famous for his explorations in Alaska from the late 1920s. He was a featured in several Fox Movietone shorts, a newsreel series that began in 1928. It used the Fox Movietone optical sound-on-film system. This later episode used Cinecolor, This was a subtractive two-colour system, one of a number of processes in the early development of colour on film. In this film Father Hubbard goes looking for a lost lake under an Alaskan glacier. With his companion the priest wends his way over ice and through crevasses, the latter seemed a rather dangerous route for exploration. Cinecolor produced fair results in bright colours like red but did not re-produce the whole colour spectrum. Whilst the expedition and commentary were conventional the print itself, from the Academy Film Archive, looked vibrant.

Lowell Thomas’ Movietone Adventures: Along the Rainbow Trail (1946). Another from the C20th Century Fox series, this time in brilliant Technicolor. Lowell Thomas was a long-time broadcaster who regularly narrated Fox Movietone shorts, He was also famous for his ‘discovery of T.E. Lawrence and, later in his career, his involvement in the development of Cinerama. The film includes ‘riding’ the rapids on the San Juan River in Colorado and then a hike to an impressive natural formation known as the Rainbow Bridge. Thomas’s narration is fairly conventional for the period but the landscape, especially the great red cliffs, looks impressive in Technicolor.

Our Navy (1918) was the only silent film in the programme and it was a pleasure to hear Phil Carli providing a lively accompaniment at the piano. This George Eastman Museum print was tinted and toned and in fair condition. There were some impressive shots of Dreadnoughts at sea but essentially it was a conventional display of the US navy and the film-maker’s patriotic zeal.

Let’s Go to the Movies (1949) was the first in a series by the Academy of shorts designed to celebrate the art and craft of motion pictures: we had a later film from the series in 2017. This film celebrated Hollywood films from the 1920s to the then present. There were clips of important films and stars, all designed to impress audiences at a time when the studios were facing severe problems.

The pick of the programme was Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo (1937) in a print from the Museum of Modern Art. Only six minutes in length this is fine example of the work of this talented animator. Made for the General Post Office, officially the film was an advertisement for the role of the service in trade. In Lye’s hands it became a dazzling tapestry of colours, full of symbolism and metaphor.. Lye worked from existing film stock, turning the footage into a montage of bright coloured fragments. The sound track offered vibrant dance music from the Lecuona Cuban Band. The nitrate print was in fine condition and provided one of the highlights of the weekend.

The Friday early evening screening is traditionally a foreign language print and we were treated to an early Ingmar Bergman film, Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951). The US release had a changed title of ‘Illicit Interlude’, rather anachronistic: the Swedish title with ‘karlek’ suggests ”dear-play’. Much of the film presents a youthful romance in flashback. The main character, Marie (Maj-Britt Nilsson) is a star ballet dancer. Between flashbacks we see rehearsals, the ballet and post-ballet sequences of a performance of ‘Swan Lake’, [more on ‘play’). Her flashbacks concern a summer romance that ends tragically and the flashbacks are motivated by a diary record of the summer. However, the films ends with an upbeat finale in the present as Marie lays to rest the ghosts from her past. I think it is the first Bergman film with recognisable authorial narrative and characterisations. The majority of sequences were filmed in an archipelago over water and islands, and the dappled woods, sun-lit rocks and changing water hues were a real pleasure on nitrate. The print was from Kansallinen auidovisuaalinen instituutti {KAVI Finland]. The Brochure included several contemporary reviews of which my favourite was from the ‘New York Herald Tribune’:

“Some of the action and nuances of dialogue are a bit daring by American movie standards but the whole thing is played in such a frank and open-hearted manner that it never gives offence.” (Otis L. Guersey, October 27, 1954).

The late film, starting at 10 p.m. was the 1938 Holiday, directed by George Cukor for Columbia Pictures and starred Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. The two leads and supporting cast were good but I was not convinced by the script. The Cary Grant character, Johnny, is supposedly a free-thinking individual immune from desires for wealth and status. The original play by Philip Barry seems to have had a darker tone,

“divorcee and infidelity, chronic drunkenness, self-destructive tendencies. (Patrick McGilligan, ‘George Cukor’, 1991).

All these crises are played down with comic eccentricity. Partly for this reason I found the Grant character unconvincing. Katherine Hepburn, who had played the role of Linda on Broadway, worked better for me. The film itself is well produced in terms of design and cinematography. The print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive was reasonably good. It was also tinted in a sepia tone, a rare technical finish. And the film did look good in the screening.

Saturday morning saw only one film, The Razor’s Edge (1946). This was adapted , fairly faithfully, from a novel by Somerset Maugham.

“The novel’s title comes from a translation of a verse in the Katha Upanishad, given in the book’s epigraph as: “The sharp edge of a razor is difficult to pass over; thus the wise say the path to “enlightenment” is hard.” (Wikipedia).

The protagonist Larry has suffered a trauma through the death of a friend in World War I. He rejects the standard US pursuit of wealth and status to seek meaning in life. Along his odyssey he finds an answer in ancient Indian mystical philosophy: a point where the novel crosses over with James Hilton’s ‘Lost Horizons’. The other main character provides foils for Larry’s ruminations and values.

The film starred Tyrone Power as Larry. The protagonist suited Power’s persona, which whilst often swashbuckling is also frequently divided psychologically. I found him more convincing as a social outsider than Grant’s Johnny. His main foil is a New England snob, Elliott, who is also a Roman Catholic; played with a fine acerbic tone by Clifton Webb. Herbert Marshall was engaging as the writer (Maugham) though his commentary was much reduced from the book. The Indian visit seemed more like the Buddhist Monastery in the film of Lost Horizons (1937). But the film does retain much of Maugham’s cynical characterisation, despite the mysticism. Opposite Tyrone Power are the young Anne Baxter, Sophie  [sympathetic] and Gene Tierney as Isabel [manipulative and unsympathetic]. Tierney enjoyed some of the best sequences in the film with a character that shared some traits with Ellen in Leave Her to Heaven (1945). The film was directed by Edmund Golding, an underrated director in Hollywood. He works well with actor and made several titles with Power. And he works well with the cinematography. There are frequent finely executed tracking shots which give the film an continuing flow as years and settings change. There was also good production design and a generally suitable score. This was Gene Tierney’s fourth appearance in a Nitrate Picture Show programme; [Leave her to Heaven, Laura (1944) and Night and the City (1950). Who is the unpublicised fan at the Museum? The official explanation was given that because Tierney worked at C20th Fox she benefits from the extensive Fox Archive at UCLA. The flaw in the argument is that this well-preserved print came from the Academy film Archive.

Then lunch. This year the Museum bar was augmented by food trucks out front. Fortunately whilst there was quite an amount of rain over the weekend it was absent in the meal breaks.

After lunch we enjoyed a print from the Narodni filmy archiv in Prague, Mlhy Na Blatech / Mist of the Moors (1943). This was a rural drama on fairly conventional lines.

“One of the most important components of the film is the nature, which ceases to be a mere stage for its plot – it serves almost as an autonomous plot agent.” (Festival Brochure).

This was true. The characters did not generate much concern for me, but the landscapes certainly held one’s attention . There were sequences where these landscape, with trees, hillocks and ponds showed up well on nitrate and shots of the lake covered in mist..

There followed an early Anthony Mann western, Winchester ’73 (1950). This is not Mann’s finest work but James Stewart, displaying the psychotic side of his character that was bought out in Mann’s films, is excellent. The film manages to include a shooting completion, Indians and cavalry, a bank robbery and an exciting finale. There are some fine landscapes and at the end an intense struggle between brothers on a steep cliff. It was some years since I had seen the film and I was surprised how much ammunition was expended in this struggle. One of the pleasures of the film is a cameo by Dan Duryea as Waco Jonny Dean, smoothly villainous. The one female part, with Shelley Winter as Lola, is not well written. The print came from the Library of Congress. It looked pretty good but did suffer from some warping which affected the focus.

The day ended with a real treat, a nitrate print of the marvellous Powell and Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948). I remember Ken Brownlow in a broadcast comparing silent film to ballet: this sound film is a tour-de-force of movement and colour. Apart from the brilliant ballet shot with great skills by Jack Cardiff, there are the pleasures of the acting/dancing with a terrific performance as a Svengali impresario by Anton Walbrook. The print was quite worn and the shallow focus was more noticeable than I remember. But the Technicolor was vibrant and the recurring tones set off the melodrama. In fact the projection relied on two prints, partly from a George Eastman Museum print, and for the final two reels a personal copy belonging to Martin Scorsese. The rationale for the change was a slight sound problems. I did think that the final two reels were of slightly better quality.

Sunday morning is usually the slot for a film noir, a genre which, with its chiaroscuro, suits the palette of nitrate. This year we had Cry of the City, a 1948 RKO film directed by Robert Siodmak. The film’s lead was Richard Conte as petty gangster Martin Rome. He is hospitalised and trying to avoid a murder rap. His nemesis, Lieutenant Candella, is played by Victor Mature.

“The principals are two men who had the same start in life – they were both of Italian parentage, came from poor families, and lived in the same rundown district; one made easy money the wrong way, the earned a small salary and did it the hard way …” (quoted in the Festival Brochure).

This is a conventional plot line, typical for crime stories of the period. The weakness is the casting of Victor Mature as Italian/|American, which he is palpably not. However he is good as a humane cop. Conte is standout as the gangster, exuding his regular charisma. The noir elements are only partially there. We have the victim hero, the world of chaos and the flashbacks. But there is not really a femme fatale though Rome does have an obsession that leads to his doom. The black and white cinematography by Lloyd Ahern is excellent and was striking in a good nitrate print.

The afternoon film was a Soviet musical, a rarely seen genre. The director was Eisenstein’s assistant from the silent era Grigoriy Aleksandrov; he made several film in this genre; the most famous Volga – Volga (1938) was a personal favourite of Joseph Stalin. Moscow Laughs (Vesolye Rebyata, 1934) offers a plot which centres on an a musical shepherd who is mistaken for a famous visiting conductor. The film opens in Odessa and there are some well done set-ups and a fine travelling shot on a local beach. There is a splendid sequence where the animals invade a local bourgeois reception creating chaos: the sequence offers almost surreal incidents. Later the ‘conductor’ takes his orchestra to a Moscow theatre. The latter stages are rather hammy and a little clunky. This is not socialist realism: more like a embryo effort for a new genre.

“When the Muscovites produce a film which does not mention Dnieprostroy, [a reference to a major hydroelectric construction under the Planned economy], ignores the class struggle and contains no hint of editorial Marxism, it immediate becomes one of the great events ODF international cinema. “New York Times quoted in the Festival Brochure).

In fact the class struggle is in the film, but in a minor key. The review demonstrates how little comprehension US critics often bought to Soviet films. I did speculate that the chaos created by the animals in a mansion of the bourgeoisie was not only class revenge but a subtle critique of the downplaying of political struggle in socialist realism.

The print’s distinction was that the film was restored in 1958 on surviving nitrate stock, making it the most recent film on nitrate seen at the Festival. The restored print apparently followed the original closely but some of the sound track was re-dubbed. The print came from Österreichischen Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum] who have quite a collection of Soviet prints.

This bought us to the ‘Blind Date’ screening. With even more coyness than over the programme the title of this film is only revealed as it runs on-screen. To tantalise the audience a single still is included in the Brochure as a clue. I have consistently failed to guess any of these correctly. In fact, this year’s was a second attempt. The still had appeared in the Brochure of the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show, but not the film as it was replaced by Ramona (1928), a wonderful screening with live music by Phil, Carli. In fact, this turned out to be nearly as memorable.

There was a ripple of response when the shot/still appeared in an early scene, a hole waiting repair on an upside down curragh used by The Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous docudrama from 1934. This is an epic portrait of a small isolated community on the edge of the Atlantic. We saw the central family fighting the rough seas, fishing for giant sharks, and laying out sparse potato patches on the inhospitable terrain. This was a fine demonstration of the virtues of nitrate. The roaring seas, the glistening foam, the sun-lit cliffs and shadowed rocks all looked magnificent. It was a high quality print of a striking film. The print was gifted to the George Eastman Museum by the Flaherty estate in 1964. It would appear that this was a print that had not experienced the variable treatment in exhibition and looked really fine.

The Festival Brochure includes details of the prints including the shrinkage. It is now reckoned that nitrate prints have a longer shelf life than acetate prints, whilst comparatively digital dies in childhood. But nitrate prints do shrink over time; it is reckoned that once shrinkage reaches 1% projection becomes extremely difficult or impossible. However, Len Lye’s Trade Tattoo had a shrinkage 1.15% and looked fine when projected. This is one of the difficulties faced by the projection team who also work with Projectors that contain safety features in case of fire. So there was frequent applause for the team during the Festival. We also had digital sub-titles for several films but I thought the Museum has not yet mastered the technology as on several occasions the English titles went out of sync with the foreign dialogue. Not a serious problem.

We had a full and rewarding weekend. Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 3rd to May 5th. This means it will fall on several important birthdays, notably that of Karl Marx. I suggested that a good title for next year would be Fame is the Spur (1947), a film by the Boulting Brothers which includes a rare feature, a photograph of Marx on the wall of a Manchester bookshop. Or there is May 3rd, the birthday of Mary Astor. It would be great to have a nitrate print of The Maltese Falcon (1941) or even Red Dust (1932).

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