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The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

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Posted in Archival issues, British sound films, Festivals, Hollywood, Italian film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Tell England, UK 1931

Posted by keith1942 on December 23, 2015

TELLENGLANDHERALD2

This film is an adaptation of a novel written in 1922 by Ernest Raymond, subtitled A Study in a Generation. The novel follows two young men who join up in World War I and become involved in the Gallipoli campaign. This was the attack on the Dardanelles in Turkey by the Alliance of Britain and France, in 1915 and involving troops from both European powers’ colonial territories – Australasia, India and North and West Africa. There were also civilian workers from Egypt and Malta supporting the troops. Gallipoli looms large in the British memory. I suspect partly that this is because it was generally regarded as a failure or a disaster. In that sense it parallels other infamous military campaigns such as the Battle of the Somme in 1916 or earlier the charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava in 1854. There are also strong memories in Australasia. Anzac Day is April 25th, the date of the landing in which Australasian troops were heavily involved. There the campaign was felt to epitomise the superior and careless attitudes of the British High Command to troops from down under. Intriguingly Raymond’s novel was also the inspiration for an Australian film, Gallipoli. In this version two young Australians join up and become involved in the campaign. This year has seen the release of The Water Diviner, directed by and starring Russell Crowe. Most of the film is set after the war. What I found striking about the film is the amount of attention given to Turks. This seems to follow on from the setting as Crowe searches for the graves of his sons. The villains, if there are any in the film, are the Greeks who invade Turkey. At the same time the British military are portrayed as officious and much less helpful than a Turkish officer. Tell England was screened at the British Silent Film Festival 2015. It was preceded by a presentation looking at some of the other films that dealt with the campaign. These included newsreel coverage and what were effectively information films. One of these, Fight for the Dardanelles (1915), included animated sequences. There were also films that showed the Australian troops involved, and even Indian troops, I am not aware of any feature films that deal with ‘colonial’ Indian or the African troops. Nor I have ever seen a Turkish treatment of the campaign. The British films tended to report and valorise the campaign, rather than dwell on its failure. A slightly critical note was struck in Heroes of Gallipoli (1915) from Australia in which there were critical comments about the training and treatment of Australasian troops. The presentation also included an extended sequence from Tell England, the initial landings, which is possibly the most impressive sequence in the film. map1 The feature itself was produced by British Instructional Films. The project started in 1928 but was not completed until two yeas later. It was shot as a silent with the sound dubbed on later and it still retains some intertitles. This was, of course, the period of transition to sound and the film was screened at Leicester as part of a programme of early British sound films. Rachel Low (Filmmaking in 1930s Britain) has written about the problems of the transition. She quotes a passage by Peter Birt, who worked on Tell England, in the magazine Close-Up;

“Two [recorded sound] tracks, taken separately, may be dissolved one into the other: fades may be made; sounds can be distorted by running them through the projector faster or slower than the speed at which they were taken. (This was how we obtained the background for the trench raid and the low-frequencies for the blowing up on ‘Clara’, in Tell England).” [‘Clara’ was a Turkish trench mortar that occupied a long sequence later in the film].

Low adds the following:

“He also said that Tell England had a track for the explosions made from a collection of suitable recordings plus ‘background from another projector and voices from the floor’.

The film used the Tobis-Klangfeld sound-on-film system: the major European brand at the time. Like other early sound films the technicians were having in experiment and innovate. This and the somewhat primitive state of the technology mean the soundtrack on the film is variable, both in tone and volume. Given the limitations of the time it works very effectively. The script is credited to Anthony Asquith with the additional dialogue for sound by A. P. Herbert. Geoffrey Barks is credited as co-director. It seems that he was responsible for much of the location film which was actually based in Malta. Low explains,

“It was directed by Asquith with much of the location work on Malta being handled by Geoffrey Barkas, who had also made silent films for BOF and had a flair for big crowd scenes on location.”

There was a personal dynamic at work on the film and the novel. Raymond lost friends in the Gallipoli campaign, as did Asquith. And Barkas had actually fought in battles on the Dardanelles. Both the novel and the film tend more to valorisation than to critical treatment of the campaign. Though both also dramatise the sense of loss that the ‘Great War’ occasioned. The cinematography is credited to three cameramen, Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell, James E. Rogers, but it is not clear who shot which parts of the film. Parker and Rodwell had both worked on The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Island (1927); And Rodwell worked on Asquith’s earlier films Underground and Shooting Stars (both 1928). Whoever filmed which sequences it is very well done. There is though a clear difference between sequences shot in the BIF studios at Welwyn Garden City and the location work. The film was edited by Mary Field. One assumes that Asquith was closely involved as there are, especially in the landing sequence, passages of montage, which one also sees in his other films. Once again there is a sense of the influence of the Soviet filmmakers. Indeed one striking shot as the forces land on the beach presents a low angle shot of a ship’s prow, reminiscent of the closing shot of Battleship Potemkin (1925). The Art Direction was by Arthur Woods; He progressed to direction and turned out quite number of features in the 1930s. Peter Birch is jointly credited with sound alongside Victor Peers. The film would seem to follow the novel relatively closely, though a major change is the downplaying of a religious figure, a parson who advises the two protagonists. These are Rupert Ray (Carl Harbord) and Edgar Doe (Dennis Hoey). The film introduces them in the same way as the book, as teenagers at home and at their public school. This is fairly conventional: with boating, a diving competition and a relay race. The latter has notable tracks along the swimming pool. Another important character is Doe’s mother (Fay Compton) who appears several times and who will come to represent the sense of loss in the film. This is a privileged and untypical [except in the movies] existence. A tolling bell ushers in the war and we see the anxious mother losing her son. However, as is conventional for the period, these volunteers are gung-ho about the conflict. The induction into the army is also conventional and here the war is presented as an opportunity rather than the coming disaster. It is here that we get the first reference to ‘Tell England’ s a quotation is made to the famous message at Thermopylae, ‘go tell Sparta’. In fact, Rupert has studied modern courses at school whilst Edgar studied the classics, and he translates the Greek for his friend. The sequences make effective use of tracks and dollies. The duo then finds they are destined for the Gallipoli campaign. We also hear about the use of Australian and New Zealand troops at a staff-planning meeting. As we arrive at the landing sequence we see Australian troops who sing ‘Australia will be there’. 1931-film-tell-england-screening-at-mcc-20121101   The landings on the Dardanelles by the troops of the Alliance are really impressive and runs for about fifteen minutes. There are extensive shots of the troops approaching the beaches in their crafts, of the actual landing and them the first fighting with the Turks. Some of the footage looked liked it was taken from contemporary newsreels. The editing adds to the feel of dynamic conflict. The variety of shots includes the fleet barrages, ship bridges, [one is clearly a studio set], seamen and stokers on the ships, the waiting troops, disembarking and then struggling through the water and onto the beach. Once ashore there is the barbed wire, the machine guns and some hand-to-hand fighting. It was justly commented that, –

“the beach landings sequence is one of the finest action sequences of early British cinema.”

There is an effective interplay of large-scale operations, specific detail and the actual responses of the men involved. At one point a waiting soldiers comments;

“We’re off – thank god!”

There is also an effective inter-cutting of synchronised and non-synchronised sound. Whilst the film’s viewpoint is predominately from that of the invaders, there are also point-of-view shots from the Turkish lines. In another Soviet influence, there are some dramatic low angle shots of fighting on the skylines. The film covers the several simultaneous landings made by the alliance. It also depicts the initial Turkish surprise and then the fierce counter-attack. The end result is trench warfare, which in many ways mirrors that on the Western front of the war. This part of the film is pretty similar to other treatments of this type of warfare of the period. Comparison has been made to Journey’s End (1930). The film now changes from the large-scale presentation to the smaller and more personal side. So we basically follow Rupert and Edgar as they cope, or try to cope, with the situation. There is the increasing tension and increasing desperation as the conditions in dugouts are accentuated by frequent bombardments. The focus for much of this is the Turkish trench mortar ‘Clara’. It is the attempts to take this gun out of action, which dominate the latter stages of the film. Inevitably one of the friends dies and there is the final parting. Followed by the sad receipt of the news back home. These sequences also make effective use of camera and sound. Clearly the scenes use both studio sets and location film. But there are still the range of camera shots, including tracks, dollies, low and high angles and dramatic positions, with more skyline shots. There are also intense close-ups at moments of drama and stress. And the sound continues to intercut both synchronised and non-synchronised dialogue and noise. At one point the assembled officers sing ‘Annie Laurie’, which provides a moment of pathos. There are at least two more references to the motif of ‘Tell England’. The film ends with the evacuation of 1916 and one of the graves stones of those who remained:

“Tell England, you who pass, we died for her and we have no regret’.

So the film ends with the validation of the war if not this campaign. But it also emphasises the sense of loss that was so strong in many of the films of this period. The film is a very fine war drama. It does have certain limitations, which are common in the period. Low comments: “Photography and editing oaf the battle sequence was magnificent, but the strangled patrician characterisation and dialogue and the true-blue patriotism seemed out of date.” British film did not achieve the production values of the Hollywood studios. And the reliance on stage actors meant that they often failed to give a recognisable depiction of class issues. However, the film is a demonstration of excellent ensemble work. BIF produced some very well done film dramas in the late 1920 and early 1930s. And Asquith, whose silent films were visually impressive, also bought flair to the new technique of sound. But this also shows how, like other directors, his work relied on the craft skills of his production team. His film work in the later 1930s is not of the same standard. It would be good if the film could be seen in 35mm around the UK. There was one little flaw in the screening at Leicester. As an early sound film the ratio was distinct, 1.20:1. However, the Phoenix did not appear to have the projection plates for that ratio and there was some cropping at the top and bottom of the frame. One reason for more screenings – in the correct ratio.

Posted in British sound films, Early sound film, Festivals, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »