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Silent Cinema A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship. By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

Posted by keith1942 on March 27, 2020

The author in interview at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

I read most of this book during Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019, a week dedicated to screening films from the Silent Era. I was able to enjoy the silent films with new aspects to my understanding. Paolo Usai was one of the founders of this Festival, now in its 38th year. Since then he has worked in a number of archives, most recently as Senior Curator of the Moving Image Department at George Eastman Museum. These years of viewing, studying and preserving early film have fed into an impressive study of the thirty plus years of the new art and entertainment form of Cinema. He has also made good use of his discussions and collaboration with a host of scholars and archivists who receive acknowledgement here.

The sub-title of the book may suggest a specialist work. This is true in part, but the writing and presentation as generally accessible and the detail information and comment on the Silent Era is of a quality and comprehension that is not found in  preceding works with which I am familiar.

The book has three main components. First there is an introduction where he places photo-chemical film in the context of the digital age. He carefully points out the differing characteristics of early nitrate film [a combustible material]; its successor safety film stock; and the current digital formats. Whilst safety film is a less than complete copy of the nitrate originals he point out that digital is really a facsimile; something often overlooked in the hype of this new technology. The difference can be appreciated at one of the few occasion for viewing nitrate film, The George Eastman ‘Nitrate Picture Show’. I was fortunate to see Ramona (1928) in a fine surviving print, starring Dolores del Rio. Having seen the film a year earlier on a safety 35mm print I was able to appreciate the distinctive luminous image, typical of well preserved nitrate; I also enjoyed the musical accompaniment by Phil Carli; such accompaniments are now standard for ‘silent’ screenings.

The curtain rises for a nitrate screening in the Dryden Theatre.

Over eight succeeding chapters and nearly two hundred pages, Paulo Usai gives an account, section by section, of early cinema, when nitrate film without sound tracks was the form of moving image. He works through the actual film’s stock, including how it was processed: the equipment, both in the studios and in the theatres: the people, a host of roles in a variety of situations: the buildings, developing from primitive conversions to magnificent picture palaces: and the show, including the music or narrators [like the Japanese Benshi, a dramatic example] and even early attempts at synchronised sound. He points out, with detail, just how far from silent were early film shows. And also explains why surviving music for screenings can assist in working out more about how the film was presented.

This is detailed but only in a few places very technical. I was pleased to finally get my head round the colour systems used in early film, which were not all just in black and white. Usai also carefully discusses the factors that made for variation in frame rates [and therefore film running times]; an issue that remains contentious today. Paolo Usai is careful to draw distinctions, as far as research so far has identified, of the variants round the global industry. Early film prints were sold and the buyer could and did alter them; and the rental system, still with us today, only emerged slowly and territory by territory. Another recent area of research is the differences made by translations, including dubbing and sub-titling.

The final hundred pages address the recovery, preservation, restoration and presentation of surviving silents; only about a third of the total produced and circulated. As a case study he discusses the 2011 version of Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon (originally 1898) produced by Lobster Films from a number of surviving copies. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and was not happy about the digital version or the type of music used for accompaniment, which I found  inappropriate. The digital version, and indeed a 35mm version, looked good but they were closer to the distinctive visual patina of digital than to the more luminous patina of actual film. An example I prefer that he mentions is the 2016 restoration of Kean (1924) by the Cinémathèque française. The tinting and toning was done by the Czech specialist Jan Ledecký using the techniques from the 1920s. I saw this at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto; a film I had seen before but the difference in the 35mm was lovely to behold.

‘Kean’, 1924 with Ivan Mosjoukine

Usai describes how, over decades and at first involving dedicated cinephiles, the present approaches to archival work, study and exhibition developed. My first Pordenone in 1993 was rather like visiting an esoteric celebration; but also one of wonder. Now silent films are relatively common, though as Paulo points out, restrictions of funding and technological provision mean that seeing them on [reel] film is less common.

The Bibliography is very well set out. The appendices, examples of research tools in this area of endeavour, assist in illuminating the topic; for example, ‘The Film Measurement Table’ showing the running times of 35mm and 16mm at different frame rates. The copious illustrations are both well chosen and well produced ; the colour plates are a delight.

This book is likely to appeal to readers who already enjoy silent film. Paulo’ Usai’s description and explanation across the field of this median is absorbing and I thought fascinating. The coverage really does achieve a comprehensive picture of the median and the era.

Silent Cinema

A Guide to Study, Research and Curatorship.

By Paolo Cherchi Usai.

BFI/ Bloomsbury Publishing. 2019. Third edition, considerably expanded from previous editions.

403 pages, with Bibliography, three Appendices and an Index.

213 illustrations, 10 charts and diagrams and 53 colour plates.

In hardback, paperback 978-1-8445-7528-2 and electronic versions.

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The Fifth Nitrate Picture Show

Posted by keith1942 on May 21, 2019

The weekend this year ran from Friday May 3rd to Sunday May 5th. We missed out on a Thursday night treat as the George Eastman Museum was celebrating Julia Roberts and [I am pretty sure] she was never filmed on nitrate. Prior to the weekend, in a first, a cryptic pitch from the Museum hinted at some of the delights:

“There will be at least one Academy Award Winner for Best Picture

A film directed by Alfred Hitchcock

Jon Barrymore will be present on our silver screen

And, we’ll have every genre from mysteries and romance to westerns and film noir to comedy and cartoons! “

On our journey down we produced a list of potential titles. The only success was the Hitchcock title which Peter Rist had seen before and which he knew was a print at the Museum

The programme was announced Friday morning at 8.45 a.m. We were still enjoying a fine breakfast before walking up to collect a programme. Initially I wondered whether this would be a good year but it turned out to be excellent, with both interesting and entertaining films and generally good quality prints. We had enough time to walk in to town and visit the Greenwood Bookshop, a recommended stop for anyone visiting Rochester. We fortunately also had time to visit the Memorial Museum of Fine Art. This featured an installation by Isaac Julien celebrating Frederick Douglas. Douglas is buried in the city. This was a splendid feature. Ten screens, of varying sizes, displayed video films dramatising important events in the life of Douglas. It was very well set out; one could follow key screens and still be aware of the other screens and how the representations moved around these. I only had time for one viewing, [it runs half-an-hour], so I hope it will be seen in Britain at some point.

Friday afternoon started with two talks in the series ‘Keepers of the Frame’. David Russell from the Imperial War Museum delved into the history of that Institution and his own archival experiences to offer insights in to working with nitrate, especially the most important issue of preservation. He downplayed the hazards of the format though he stressed the problems of finding and keeping good copies. Elaine Burroughs followed presenting the James Card Memorial Lecture. She talked about her experiences at the British Film Institute and also with FIAF [International Federation of Film Archives]. She had some startling clips illustrating nitrate’s inflammability. So we enjoyed ‘Mr Ice’ and M/s Fire’; rather like the bout in The Black Dahlia (20026).

The programme of films followed the patterns set in earlier years. So the first session was devoted to shorts.

Battle of Midway (USA 1942), an 18 minute colour print from the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Shot on 16mm Kodachrome it was released in a 35mm Technicolor print. Commander [John] Ford supervised the filming. And well known actors, Ray Milland, Donald Crisp and Jane Darwell read the commentary. This is very much from the US side though it shows the casualties and wreckage of the US forces. There is some fine aerial cinematography. But the tone, as is the wont in US war movies, is stentorian.

Swooner Crooner, (USA 1944), was one of several colour animations, this by Frank Tashlin. This was also from the Museum of Modern Art. Running seven minutes it shows a battery of hens being encouraged to increase egg production. The hens are clearly stand-ins for the female work force in World War II, demonstrating the changes in representations between then and now.

Tulips Shall Grow was another war-time colour animation, (USA 1942), this time from the hand of George Pals. The print and the Technicolor were in fine condition , in a Library of Congress print. The plot involves a young Dutch couple who suffer when the ‘army of Screwballs’ invade. But ‘Mother Nature’ provides a catalyst for resistance and victory over the invaders. These were cartoon variations on thinly disguised allies and Nazis.

‘When Tulips Bloom’

Looking at London (USA 1946). This was a Fitzpatrick Travel Talk, running 10 minutes and in Technicolor, also from the Library of Congress. The film presents London post-war including the effects of the German bombing campaigns. Somewhat scratched the film seems rather bland compared with the documentaries and newsreel from the war years.

Gardens of the Sea (USA 1947) and Landscape of the Norse (USA 1947) , both from the Academy Film Archive, were both documentaries studying places overseas; not one of the strongest suits of US cinema. The Australian coral reefs look good in the title’s Cinecolor and are a pleasure. The exploration of Norway picks up when the film travels to the northern reaches of the country. Both prints were from the Academy Film Archive,.

The Cobweb Hotel (USA 1936) was a delightful animation in colour from David Fleischer provided by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. The sardonic tone as flies battle to escape the malevolent designs of a spider are very entertaining.

Finally The Temperamental Lion (USA 1939) was a colour animation which offered rather conventional plotting. It has been preserved by the Chicago Film Society. Unfortunately it seemed to be a warped print which meant that the focus came and went. This last screening demonstrated the ageing faults that the projection team had to tackle in presenting the titles. All had some level of shrinkage and several had suffered damage to the edges and sprocket holes.

The evening meal break offered both the excellent Museum bar and [an innovation from 2018] food wagons by the entrance. If you were energetic you could also walk to a nearby restaurant, though these are at least ten minutes or more away.

The early evening programme was Luis Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or (1930). The screening was from a George Eastman print which they acquired from the legendary Henri Langlois and it was in reasonable condition. This is an undoubted classic and a fine example of surrealist film. It is longer and more complex than Un Chien Andalu (1929), partly because it has both title cards and recorded dialogue, plus recorded music and effects. Sex, violence, satire, subversion and sardonic humour engage one for just over an hour. I especially like the giraffe flying out a window, the cow on the bed, and a familiar figure with hitherto suppressed biography. The Catalogue recorded the disruptions to the original screening and also a fine example of right wing anger and bile:

“All those who have safeguarded the grandeur that is France, all those, even if they are atheists, who respect religion, all those who honour family life and hold childhood sacred, all those who have faith in a race which has enlightened the world , all those sons of France whom you have chosen to defend you against the moral poison of unworthy spectacles appeal to you now to uphold the rights of the censor.” (In ‘Le Figaro’, December 13, 1930).

If I did not already know the film I would have rush to see it.

The evening ended with The Beautiful Blonde From Bashful Bend (1949). This was the last major title directed by Preston Sturges in Hollywood. The print from the Museum of Modern Art was in good shape and the Technicolor format offered bold and vivid colours. The ‘Blonde’ (Betty Grable) is a western ‘sure shot’ whose main problem is her unfaithful boyfriend Blackie (Caesar Romero). The action tends to slapstick but is done with real panache. The climatic sequence is a lengthy gun battle full of witty visuals. The audience went to bed full of humour.

Saturday morning opened with the 1947 Nightmare Alley. This was a print from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. It was a pleasure to watch:

“The blacks are saturated to give the eerie feeling of night shadows and life on the dark side.”

Generally seen as a film noir the film lacks the flashbacks and confessional mode of the genre. And the femme fatale in this story is an overweening ambition embodied in fake spiritualist Stanton ‘Stan’ (Tyrone Power). In 2018 we had a fine Tyrone Power film, The Razor’s Edge (1946) adapted from the novel by Somerset Maugham. Both these films were directed by Edmund Goulding, a Hollywood talent that deserves greater recognition. This film also has fine black and white cinematography by Lee Garmes. The ‘Variety’ review (October 15, 1947)commented

“Despite the grim realism of its treatment, it has all the shuddery effect of a horror yarn”

The afternoon started with a short film by Arne Sucksdorff from the Swedish Film Institute / Svenska Film Institute, Strandhugg (‘Forays’, 1950). The print was in excellent shape and Sucksdorff’s films offer fine black and white cinematography. Two earlier Picture Show were graced by his work and this 15 minute film offers poetic sequences of the seaside.

 

The feature in this session came from the National Audiovisual Institute of Finland / Kansallinen audiovisualinen institutti: People of the Summer Night / Ihmiset suviyössä (1948) was directed by Valentin Vaala. Vaala made 44 films in a long career but this is reckoned to be his finest. It is adapted from a novel by Frans Eemil Sillanpää’s (1934). Set over one night in a small rural community we watch various relationships and actions among local people; these include birth, death, and conflicts fuelled by alcohol. There also seems to be a implicit gay character. The cinematography by Eino Heino is excellent. The film offers a ‘warm-hearted and sensitive’ evocation of the ordinary but compressed for dramatic purposes.

Late afternoon offered a Cinecolor western, The Nevadan (1950). Cinecolor was a two colour subtraction system, cheaper and quicker to process than Technicolor. Not that many features were filmed in the process which offered especially vibrant orange, red, blue and green.

“Ruggedness and realism, plus the employment of Cinecolor photography, have established several cuts above average westerns the sagebrush sagas produced by Harry Joe Brown and starring Randolph Scott.” (‘Boxoffice’, January 14 1950).

This is typical Scott hero. Upright and stalwart, as he outmanoeuvres and outguns the villains led by George Macready. And there is the young Dorothy Malone, not just a romantic interest, but involved in the action. The print from the Austrian Film Museum had quite a lot of scratches and noticeable splices but the colour was excellent.

Rebecca (1940) ticked an Academy Award winner, a Hitchcock film and a mystery movie. This was a George Eastman print in pretty good condition. There is some fine cinematography by George Barnes and a great score by Franz Waxman. I find that the first part of the film is really good as we encounter [through the eyes and ears of the unnamed heroine) the titular dead character. But once the past is revealed I think the film becomes less interesting and dynamic. The screening included a set of screen tests. Those with Joan Fontaine wearing possible costumes were poor; she had a high temperature and the costumes were clearly inappropriate. But the following two, with Nova Pilbeam and Anne Baxter, demonstrated how apt was the casting of John Fontaine.

The Sunday opened with a classic film noir, Dead Reckoning (1947). This was a Library of Congress print with signs of wear, both on the emulsion and on the sound track. However, it still showed off the qualities of this black and white film. The movie has all the characteristics of a noir thriller; the confessional mode, flashbacks, the world of chaos into which the hero falls, night and chiaroscuro and a femme fatale. But I did not find it had a strong noir feel. This is mainly because the fatale, ‘Dusty’ (Lizabeth Scott] seems more like the scheming female of private eye films such as The Maltese Falcon (1941). And Humphrey Bogart’s ‘Rip’ is in the mould of the same private eye.

The afternoon offered a John Barrymore film, Counsellor at Law (1933), finely directed in an adaptation from Elmer Rice’s play by William Wyler. The print was from the UCLA Film and Television Archives in very good condition. The early sound track apparently needed adjustment from time to time by the projectionists. Rice was Jewish, a socialist and had legal training; all of which fed into the play and the film. Rice also wrote the screenplay and apparently Wyler referred frequently to the original play during production. Barrymore is excellent as a shyster Lawyer George Simon, originally from the Jewish Lower East Side of Manhattan. The film [and play] follow his Machiavellian manoeuvres when a past case returns to haunt him. The pace and the dialogue are crisp and sharp; Isabel Jewell as telephonist Bessie is a delight. And there is one memorable scene when Simon agrees to defend the son of an old Jewish neighbour, Harry Becker (Vincent Sherman). Harry is a communist and in a terrific sequence turns on Simon who he denounces as a class traitor. Even though this is pre-code Harry later dies from injuries sustained from the New York police. Sherman was a target of HUAC in the 1950s, suspected of real-life communism.

Then to Blind Date. I find the mystery rather coy but this year the title was worth a wait, Gone to Earth (1950). The clue was a shot of the wedding cake after Hazel’s (Jennifer Jones) marriage to the Reverend Edward Marston (Cyril Cusack). In the adaptation of a novel by Mary Webb Hazel,

“as she races barefoot across the Shropshire fields, her hair streaming behind her, like some mystic being from a quaint old folk tale …..” (‘Picture goer’ October 21, 1950)

is caught between the religious but liberal Edward and the sexy but brutal Squire ‘Jack’ (David Farrar). Rather than a triangle this is a square, including Foxy, a young vixen [unfortunate not credited]. Jennifer Jones is miscast as this wild country spirit but she gives her performance real panache. Cusack is grave and convincing and Farrar probably had the female audience swooning with desire. Hugh Griffith watches balefully in an oddly bizarre performance as Andrew Vessons, manservant.

‘Whose cake?’

The print was from the George Eastman Museum, a donation by the Selznick family. Fortunately it was the British print not the shorter US version titled The Wild Heart. Watching it fitted the comment in ‘The Spectator’ (September 29, 1950);

“Beautifully coloured, it is as lively a film to look at as I have ever seen, and when the direction deigns to be mobile it is infinitely rewarding.”

The directors were those idiosyncratic romantics, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

So this was a rewarding weekend filled full of cinematic pleasures. The organisers and volunteers got a deserved ovation at one point. And, in a habit that is distinctive to George Eastman, the audience were also invited to applaud the projectionists who work overtime to presents these old and often delicate prints. One of the problems they encounter is the shrinkage of prints, a standard difficulty with nitrate. It is reckoned that once pass 1% screening becomes really difficult. However, two of the best looking titles of the Weekend, Strandhugg and Gone to Earth, both had 1.05%. I have noted the origins of the prints and many of these were introduced by members of the particular archive. We also had introduction from George Eastman staff. In previous years speakers have focussed on the history of the print in question. This year they tended to talk about the ‘values of ‘reel’ screenings’; I do prefer the print detail.

 

Punters who would like to see a whole programme of the original cinema format should note that next year the Picture Show Weekend is later, June 4th to 7th 2020. We were advised that Yuri Tsivian is on a mission for the Museum scouring European Archives for Nitrate Prints. Perhaps Sergei Eisenstein, Max Ophuls or Jean Renoir?

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Early film screenings in 2018

Posted by keith1942 on January 3, 2019

Brüder, Deutschland 1929, Regie: Werner Hochbaum

The Sight & Sound new double issue has a lot of space devoted to the ‘top films of 2018’. Alongside this are lists of commendations of titles from particular territories or genres and one devoted to ‘five silent films to see’. This followed an article on the silent films that were accessible in 2018. There were some I saw and some I missed. But the article, like to list of titles, did not inform the reader of how and where the writer saw the titles. There were some comments on the non-silent Peter Jackson’s ‘rip-off’ from the Imperial War Museum materials. These were rather muted and those in the Silent Cinema London Blog were much more to the point.

In both cases there must be question regarding the format and the screening. In Britain most of the titles from the silent era come round on digital, and 2K DCP at that. No-one in Britain seems to have yet taken the trouble to follow the specifications for frame rates below 24 fps, most common in the silent era. So these titles must be step-printed to some degree.

And 35mm prints are not necessarily better. We had The End of St Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (1927) in Leeds from a 35mm print and with a very good musical accompaniment. But the print was a sound version and the image was noticeably cropped because of the change in ratio. Some of the Yorkshire Silent Film Festival screenings were on 35mm but I only caught those in Leeds. Apparently part of the funding for this Festival comes for musical accompaniment. I assume this was the reason for experimentation. In this case the French film Ménilmontant 1926) on film but accompanied by Foley sound effects. This was not only bizarre but ruined the screening of the film. However, I am still able to travel and I was able to enjoy some fine quality films in good 35mm prints and screened and accompanied with due regard as the how films were presented in the earlier era.

The Berlinale had this very fine retrospective of Weimar Cinema. The whole programme was magnificent and even the digital transfers were well done. But the high point for me was:

Brüder / Brothers, Germany 1929 with a passionate accompaniment by Stephen Horne.

The Nitrate Weekend at the George Eastman Museum offered only sound features but included some pretty early prints. The Festival came to a fine climax with

Man of Aran, Britain 1934 with a well preserved print held by the Museum

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto offered what I thought was the strongest programme for several years. One of the real pleasures was series of film adaptation from the novels of Honoré de Balzac. One of the fine titles was;

Liebe, Germany, 1927. This was a well done adaptation of a fine novel with an impressive characterisation of the heroine by Elisabeth Bergner.

Le Giornate offers both 35mm and digital transfers, the latter of varying quality. But we had several of the latter that were very well done. Pride of place must go to;

Lasse Månsson fra skanne / Struggling Hearts, Denmark 1923. Set in the 17th war between Denmark and Sweden this transfer from 35mm looked excellent. The DCP was from the Danske Filminstitut. In other years there have been equivalent transfers from the Svenska Filminstitutet. The Scandinavian seem to have mastered this process.

The great beacon in Britain must be the Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. If I was richer I would move closer. Late in the year we had their fourth Silent Film Weekend. There was a rich variety of titles and music. My standout was;

Turksib, USSR 1929. The film alternates scenes of idyll with driving montage, well set up by the accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulis.

There were many other fine prints, screenings and accompaniments. So this remains a good time to enjoy early films. However, Britain is not the best place to do this.

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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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