September 30, 2011
General Lew Wallace’s novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ was not an immediate hit when it was first published in 1880. But within a decade it had sold hundreds of thousands of copies, inspiring a stage adaptation by William Young that the famous theatrical team of Klaw & Erlanger produced in 1889. An unauthorized 1907 film version written by Gene Gauntier and directed by Sidney Olcott led to considerable legal problems, and in the process helped extend copyright protection to motion pictures. The second film adaptation, a troubled production that stretched from Rome to Hollywood, was an enormous hit for MGM when it was released in 1925. One of the many assistant directors on the project was William Wyler, who worked on the famous chariot sequence.
When MGM initiated a remake some 30 years later, Wyler took on the project in part as a dare, to see if he could “out DeMille DeMille,” a master of Biblical melodrama. Wyler also relished a return to Rome, where he and his family had lived while he was making Roman Holiday. Released in 1959, Wyler’s Ben-Hur was an epic blockbuster that went on to win 11 Oscars, a record at the time.
For its 50th anniversary, Warner Home Video prepared a new restoration, released on Blu-ray and DVD earlier this week. And lucky New Yorkers who were able to score tickets will see the movie on the big screen tomorrow at the New York Film Festival.
Ben-Hur has always been marked by excess. It was the largest, most expensive production of its time—on stage, in 1925, and in 1959. Statistics overwhelm artistry: Wyler’s crew went through a million pounds of plaster, 100,000 costumes, 15,000 extras, and 40,000 tons of white sand from Mediterranean beaches, data trumpeted to the world by MGM publicists.
Even the renovation work was epic, costing Warner Brothers $1 million. “We have been working on this extensive restoration for several years, hoping we could be ready with a 2009 release for the actual 50th,” Warner Brothers executive Jeff Baker explained in a press release. After attending a screening, Fraser Heston, actor Charlton’s son and a director in his own right, said, “It was an extraordinary, life-changing experience, like sitting next to Wyler in his answer print screening, only better.”
Wyler’s daughter Catherine was one of the many celebrities and dignitaries who visited the set, and she spoke to me about the impact the film had on her. A college student at the time, she spent the summer and vacations in Rome during the shoot and was well aware of the problems her father encountered during the production. “From having read the script and been on the set and listened to my father talk about it for a couple of years, I knew a fair amount about the film before I saw it,” she said. “I was prepared for it to be large-scale, for the acting to be terrific. But it doesn’t matter what your expectations are, the film was so much bigger and more epic and more outstanding than anything we had seen before.”
Ms. Wyler admits to a slight ambivalence about Ben-Hur, worried because it tends to overshadow the rest of her father’s career, and for the critical response he received. “There’s no question he was written off by the critical community with this film,” she said. “He was someone who was interested in making all kinds of movies, in giving himself challenges, and it wasn’t something that critics were willing to consider. But they should have asked themselves why Ben-Hur succeeded so much better than the other epics of the time. The impact of the chariot race is undiminished, but look at how well the intimate scenes work.”
She added, “My father spent so much time thinking about the project, how to portray Christ, how to portray the crucifixion, being aware that so many great minds through the centuries had taken this on. He used to joke that, ‘It took a Jew to make a really good movie about Christ.’”
Ms. Wyler, who directed a 1986 documentary about her father, Directed by William Wyler, hopes that the publicity for Ben-Hur will help introduce viewers, “especially younger people,” to his earlier movies, including such outstanding titles as Dodsworth, Wuthering Heights, The Letter, The Best Years of Our Lives and The Heiress.
Wyler had a reputation as a difficult personality, something his daughter attributes to his perfectionist streak. “It’s true that actresses found him difficult,” she admitted. “But he wanted them to come to work with their own ideas. It they didn’t, he could be short-tempered. Some called him inarticulate. But I think he wasn’t inarticulate at all, he just didn’t want to tell actresses, or actors, what to do. He wanted them to figure it out for themselves, show him their ideas. If he didn’t like those ideas he could always offer his own, but he always hoped there might be a better way.”
The perfectionism carried over to Wyler’s home life as well. “He expected a lot of himself and his kids,” Wyler said. But her memories of her father are warm: “He was full of humor and adventure, he was really fun to be with. He was also politically involved, he cared about the world and put his beliefs out there. He was madly in love with his wife. He was just a great guy.”
September 28, 2011
Leading the box-office for two weeks in a row, The Lion King 3D left film pundits shaking their heads. The rerelease of a 17-year-old film, albeit one converted to 3D, has already grossed over $60 million, a “remarkable” achievement according to Variety. But given the weak competition, and the fact that Disney insisted on 3D screenings with higher ticket prices, maybe it’s not that surprising that The Lion King 3D did so well. In some ways it was merely following a formula set out years earlier by Walt and Roy Disney.
Rereleases have always played an important role in movies. In the early days, when bootlegging and piracy were rife, exhibitors would supply any titles they wanted to the movies they showed. The rise of movie stars like Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin gave distributors the opportunity to capitalize on their earlier work. William Fox, the head of a film company that would eventually become Twentieth Century Fox, was something of an expert at repackaging his studio’s material. In 1918, while the country was still in the grips of a deadly flu epidemic, Fox began reissuing films from as early as 1915. He continued the practice in 1919 and 1920, this time giving his old films new titles. 1916′s The Love Thief became 1920′s The She Tiger. (A few years later the New York State Superior Court ruled the practice illegal.)
In 1928, Harold Franklin, president of West Coast Theatres, Inc., split up the approximately 20,000 movie screens in the US into 9 categories, including third-, fourth- and fifth-run houses. Each level charged a different price to see movies, so if you didn’t want to pay first-run prices, you could wait until a film reached a lower-tier theater. By that time the practice of rereleasing films had become established among studios. If a hit title could still make money, why not show it again? And if a new film didn’t do especially well at the box-office, a studio could replace it with one that already did.
When the industry switched to sound, studios re-released old titles with new soundtracks. Some films, like Universal’s Lonesome, were rereleased with added dialogue scenes. The Phantom of the Opera was rereleased several times. When Lon Chaney, the star, refused to participate in a sound upgrade, editors had to restructure the story for the new version to make sense. (In fact, the original 1925 release no longer exists.)
William S. Hart released a sound version of his silent Western Tumbleweeds; D.W. Griffith offered a sound version of The Birth of a Nation. Chaplin rereleased his silent features throughout the 1930s and 1940s, adding a score, sound effects, and an intrusive narration to the 1924 1925 title The Gold Rush.
When stars moved from one studio to another (like the Marx Brothers switching from Paramount to MGM), it was the perfect excuse to bring back old titles to piggyback onto new publicity. John Wayne’s low-budget B-Westerns suddenly showed up in theaters again after he became a big-budget star.
Tightened censorship standards in 1934 (via the wide adoption of the newly-strengthened Production Code) had a marked impact on rereleases. 1932′s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde lost 15 minutes when it was reissued. Thelma Todd’s “college widow” scene in the Marx Brothers’ Horsefeathers (originally 1932) was torn to shreds. The drowning of a little girl was excised when Universal tried to rerelease Frankenstein in 1937. (Some of the material was found in a British print and restored in the 1980s, but the scene is still missing its close-ups.)
Frankenstein ended up on a double-bill with Dracula for a 1938 rerelease. After it reissued most of its monster films, Universal licensed them in 1948 to a company called Realart Pictures. Like Film Classics, Realart distributed older titles throughout the country.
When Paramount reissued 1930′s Morocco with Marlene Dietrich in 1936, it was on a bill with two older Walt Disney cartoons. Disney was always very canny about his titles. Perhaps apocryphally, he has been credited with the “seven-year rule,” in which his features would be shown again in theaters every seven years in order to capitalize on a new audience of youngsters. Bambi earned $1.2 million in 1942; $900,000 in 1948; and $2.7 million in 1957.
Obviously, seven years wasn’t a hard-and-fast rule, especially after the arrival of television and home video. But the Disney studio has been very protective of its hits because it realizes they still have the ability to make money. As a corollary to the rule, the studio “retires” titles, making them unavailable for a set period before reissuing them in “new” “deluxe” editions, as it did with Fantasia, Sleeping Beauty, Pinocchio, and just this month Dumbo. (Disney Vault tries to keep track of what is and isn’t in print.)
I learned a lot about classic film through the non-theatrical market. In 1912, Pathé Film introduced 28mm film stock, which was targeted for home consumers. Labs would make “cut-down” versions of features on 28mm (and later on 9.5mm and 16mm stock) which could be purchased to show at home. (In some cases these cut-down versions are all that remain of features.) By the 1960s two companies dominated the home or market, Blackhawk and Swank. They would not only sell prints, they would rent them to non-theatrical venues, mostly colleges but also churches and non-profit organizations. (A black church shows a Disney cartoon to prison inmates in the great Preston Sturges comedy Sullivan’s Travels.)
Really shrewd filmmakers who kept control over their titles could then oversee rereleases of their movies. Hitchcock was a genius at this, putting out titles like Rear Window whenever he felt there was a market for them. In the 1960s and 1970s, Warner Bros. and MGM developed an entire line of rereleases, the former with Humphrey Bogart movies, for example, and the latter, the Marx Brothers and Greta Garbo. Raymond Rohauer did the same with Buster Keaton’s shorts and features.
It would be nice to think these distributors were trying to introduce classic movies to a new audience, but they were really just trying to wring a few extra tickets out of films that had been given up for dead. Speaking of death, a star’s demise is the perfect opportunity to re-release films. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe were barely buried when their films were hitting the theaters again.
Rereleases continue to this day. Francis Ford Coppola keeps tinkering with The Godfather, offering different versions and packages of all the films in the series. Ditto with Steven Spielberg and his Close Encounters of the Third Kind and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Even before George Lucas started altering Star Wars, it had been re-issued four times within the first five years of its original 1977 release. James Cameron put out an extended version of Avatar, and is releasing a 3D version of Titanic on April 6, 2012. To date there have been seven different versions of Blade Runner.
The reissue strategy isn’t limited to movies. How many pop stars have repurposed their material by releasing “remixes” or “extended versions” of hit songs and albums? The next time you turn on your television and find nothing but reruns, you have, among others, William Fox and Walt Disney to thank.
September 23, 2011
Film festivals used to have two seasons, roughly spring and fall. Spring saw Berlin’s Berlinale and the Cannes Film Festival; fall was reserved for Venice’s La Biennale di Venezia, now in its 68th year and one that promotes itself as the world’s oldest. Since Venice first started handing out awards back in 1932, film festivals have grown into a year-round industry, with line-ups devoted to everything from medical films to silent Western star Broncho Billy Anderson.
Notorious for its parties and starlets, Cannes has lost some influence over the years. More distribution deals are struck at the Toronto International Film Festival, which this year screened some 300 films to audiences of distributors, critics, and moviemakers. Kevin Lally, executive editor of Film Journal International, gave me a rundown of his time in Toronto: “I saw 23 films and one shorts program in six days. For me, some of the best were less heralded foreign-language films like Terraferma and A Better Life (not the Chris Weitz movie). I suspect it was a good lineup this year, since there were a lot of well-received films I never got to. Three hundred movies is a lot to wade through.” (You can read more of Kevin’s impressions on his Screener blog.)
That’s the problem with most film festivals in a nutshell: how do you see all the titles on display? Toronto gave awards to Where Do We Go Now?, The Island President, The Raid, and Monsieur Lazhar, few of which will make it to your local multiplex. Venice gave its Golden Lion to Faust, loosely based on Goethe’s tragedy and the fourth part of a tetrology by the Russian director Aleksander Sokurov. (The other three films in his series concerned Hitler, Lenin, and Hirohito.) I bet more viewers wanted to see films like Shame and The Descendants at Toronto, and The Ides of March and Damsels in Distress at Venice—all of which will receive US theatrical releases.
With a limited number of award-worthy films available, it can be tough for festivals to find and preserve an identity. Schedules tend to lean to the middlebrow, with awards given to the films that most closely affirm the beliefs of their viewers. The treasures are often hidden behind more glamorous titles. Toronto had a new film by the great Hong Kong director Johnnie To, and the latest by Hirokazu Kore-eda, a Japanese filmmaker with a gift for depicting families and children. Venice screened a new Wuthering Heights, as well as Carnage by Roman Polanski and A Dangerous Method by David Cronenberg.
The New York Film Festival, now celebrating its 49th edition, operates under a different dynamic. Running this year from September 30 to October 16, the festival doesn’t give out awards, and limits its screenings to a relatively small number of feature films. The editing process becomes key. Over the years, filmmakers from Jean-Luc Godard to Pedro Almódovar, among others, have become festival “favorites.” Richard Peña, the Festival’s program director, has singled out several deserving directors and cinema trends that New Yorkers might not otherwise see. But the Festival needs customers, which helps explain the presence of such commercial titles as the aforementioned Carnage, A Dangerous Method and The Descendants.
Again, it’s the marginal titles that might be the most interesting to die-hard film buffs. This year the Festival’s long-running sidebar “Views from the Avant-Garde” offers 104 films from 80 artists, including the remarkable experimental filmmaker Ernie Gehr. Another sidebar celebrates the centennial of the Nikkatsu Corporation, including the noteworthy anti-war film The Burmese Harp. A “Masterworks” section includes a new edition of the monumental Ben-Hur as well as a digital restoration of Nicholas Ray’s last movie We Can’t Go Home Again.
Of the New York Film Festivals I’ve attended, none was more moving than the 2001 edition, which took place in the aftermath of the World Trade Center attack. Among the films that year was Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums. The sight of its star Bill Murray mingling with friends and well-wishers on the sidewalks outside Lincoln Center’s Alice Tully Hall prior to the screening proved to me that the city would recover.
September 21, 2011
Westerns were ubiquitous when I was growing up. On television and radio, in movie theaters, even at birthday parties, cowboys and their ilk ruled over everyone else. We couldn’t tell at the time, but it was the beginning of the end of Westerns’ cultural dominance.
You can trace that dominance back to the 17th century, when for young colonials the frontier signified everything from an evil unknown to a chance for a fresh start. Into the 19th century, James Fenimore Cooper, the Hudson River School and Manifest Destiny all pointed to what would become the defining characteristics of Westerns. We went West to find ourselves, to erase our past, to escape the law. We discovered a world of mountains and deserts, mysterious cultures, and stark moral choices. The genre became so popular in part because it was so adaptable, because it could address the central issues facing the nation. In Westerns, right and wrong could be cut-and-dried or ambiguous; Native Americans, enemies or victims; law, a matter of principle or an untenable burden.
From its earliest days, cinema turned to the West. In the 1800s, the Edison Studio filmed Annie Oakley and other stars of Wild West shows. The country’s first bona fide blockbuster, The Great Train Robbery (1903), was a Western, albeit one filmed in New Jersey. Some of the industry’s best directors started out making low-budget Westerns. John Ford for one, but also Victor Fleming, William Wellman, and even William Wyler. By the 1920s, every major Hollywood concern relied on the income from Westerns, and the genre later helped studios like Universal survive the Great Depression.
We tend to forget that for early filmmakers, the West was still real and not yet a nostalgic fantasy. An exciting new DVD set from the National Film Preservation Foundation makes this vividly clear. With over 10 hours of material on 3 discs, Treasures 5: The West 1898–1938 provides an unparalleled look at how filmed helped shape our concepts of the frontier.
The forty films in the set range from newsreels to features, with travelogues, sponsored films, documentaries, and promotional movies all providing unexpected insights into Western life. You’ll see the first cowboy stars, like the winning Tom Mix, famous for performing his own stunts; as well the expert comedienne Mabel Normand and the “It” girl herself, Clara Bow. Directors include slapstick pioneer Mack Sennett, W.S. Van Dyke (The Thin Man), and Victor Fleming (Gone With the Wind).
Equally as intriguing are the set’s lesser known titles, like Romance of Water (1931), a government-sponsored short that in 10 minutes encapsulates the political background to the great 1970s film noir Chinatown. Or Last of the Line (1914), which finds Asian star Sessue Hayakawa battling Native-Americans. Personally, I loved travelogues promoting sightseeing spots like Yosemite National Park. The women and children in Beauty Spots in America: Castle Hot Springs, Arizona (1916) are unexpectedly and appealingly giddy at the prospect of riding ponies and diving into pools. Lake Tahoe, Land of the Sky (1916) still conveys the excitement travelers must have felt at encountering the area’s incredible vistas.
Annette Melville, director of the NFPF, singled out The Better Man, a 1914 film recently repatriated from the New Zealand Film Archive. “The Better Man is fascinating because of its treatment of ethnic themes,” she said in an interview. The story contrasts a Mexican-American horse thief with an Anglo father and husband, with unexpected conclusions. “When it premiered at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival it was greeted with cheering,” Melville recalled. “It was kind of wonderful, really, no one expected that such a modest film could pack such a wallop.”
The Better Man was produced by Vitagraph, a studio considered the equal of any in the industry during the early twentieth century. Comparatively few Vitagraph titles survive, however, which is one of the reasons why The Better Man was included in the set. “We want to introduce audiences to films that there is no way on Earth they’d be able to get a hold of otherwise,” Melville said.
As Melville points out, Treasures 5: The West 1989–1938 presents a different version of the West than the one found in the classic Westerns of the 1950s. “It was more of a melting pot and had more variety,” she said. “In our set, the West was still being used as a backdrop in industrial films and travelogues to incite business and tourism. Like Sunshine Gatherers, a film about the canned fruit industry that likens the beginnings of the orchard industry to the Father Junípero Serra’s founding of missions. In the story, the fruit becomes an embodiment of California sunshine that can be put in a can and shared with people all over the world. Of course with an understated Del Monte logo because it was put out by the Del Monte company to make every girl and boy want to have their canned fruit.”
September 16, 2011
Their fans include Gene Kelly, George Balanchine, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Fred Astaire thought their “Jumpin’ Jive” production number in Stormy Weather the greatest musical sequence of all time. Over a career spanning eight decades, they starred in vaudeville and nightclubs, on Broadway and television, and made a huge impact in film. And yet the Nicholas Brothers are largely unknown today. And an important part of their legacy is in danger of disappearing.
According to Bruce Goldstein, Director of Repertory Programming at New York’s Film Forum, the Nicholas Brothers—Fayard (1914–2006) and Howard (1921–2000)—were “the greatest dancers of the twentieth century.” Mr. Goldstein put together a compilation tribute to the team that received a standing ovation at the recent TCM Classic Film Festival; he’s repeating that program at the Film Forum on Monday, September 19. Grab any opportunity to see the brothers’ work you can, because not much of it is available.
The brothers grew up in Philadelphia, where their parents performed in the Nicholas Collegiates band in vaudeville houses. As Goldstein told me in a phone interview, Fayard could wander backstage and meet all of the great African-American acts of the time. “He’d watch them and copy them, then went home and taught their steps to his little brother.” Apart from some courses in acrobatics that Harold took later, the brothers had no other formal training. By 1932, with Harold not yet a teenager, the brothers were a featured act at Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.
“We tend to think of them now as stunt dancers because of their acrobatics,” Goldstein said. “But that takes away from the fact that they were incredibly graceful, elegant dancers. They were great comedians, too, with a real chemistry between them, and Harold was also a wonderful singer.”
The Nicholas Brothers were a hit on Broadway in both The Ziegfeld Follies of 1936 and Babes in Arms in part because choreographer George Balanchine was a big fan. “He had them doing amazing things,” Goldstein enthused. “I think Balanchine’s the one who came up with Harold sliding in a split through the legs of like ten showgirls at once. Amazing stuff.”
But the brothers never starred in their own movie, a source of frustration to them over the years. “Being black made them a specialty act in Hollywood,” Goldstein explained. “The Nicholas Brothers got big billing in most of their films for Twentieth Century-Fox, but they never got a featured role. They only made five films for Fox because the studio didn’t know how to use them.”
The brothers’ films at Fox included Down Argentine Way, where they could skirt around racial issues by pretending to be “Latin American,” and Stormy Weather, whose all-black cast also included Bill Robinson and Lena Horne. When Fayard was drafted, Harold performed solo in two movies. At Gene Kelly’s insistence, Fayard and Harold re-united on screen for MGM’s The Pirate.
“Originally in The Pirate they had speaking roles,” Goldstein said, “but the studio cut them out. You can see snippets of them in the background of shots, but basically they had one number, ‘Be a Clown.’ And it’s not their greatest piece because Gene Kelly couldn’t do what they could do.” But Kelly could copy them, and The Pirate features some of his most virile and stunt-laden work. Goldstein believes that Harold helped coach Donald O’Connor, his life-long friend, for the “Make ‘Em Laugh” number in Singin’ in the Rain.
Fed up by racism, Harold left the country for Europe in the 1950s. But the brothers’ influence can still be felt throughout our culture. Bob Fosse modeled his first dance act on them, for example, and Joseph Jackson hired Fayard to help train his children, The Jackson 5. Both Michael and Janet Jackson were later students of the brothers. Fayard and Howard also taught at Harvard and Radcliffe.
Goldstein’s compilation clips feature some of the Nicholas Brothers’ best routines on film, a succession of jaw-dropping leaps, flips, and splits executed with flawless style. The tribute also includes selections from their home movies, a source of considerable worry for the programmer.
“I’m very concerned about the home movies,” he said. “No one seems to know where they are. Back in the 1930s, the Nicholas Brothers had a 16mm camera, and they filmed wherever they went. When they got to Hollywood in 1936, they filmed in front of all the studios, they took shots with their friend Joe Louis, and there’s a clip of them dancing behind a soundstage with Fred Astaire.”
According to Goldstein, the UCLA Film & Television Archive made video masters of the footage in the 1980s, but the films themselves appear to be missing. “Twenty years ago I had the 16mm prints in my hands, and now I don’t know where they are. They are such a valuable document, not just of their lives but of the entire era.”
September 14, 2011
Animator Robert Breer died this past August in Tucson; film distributor Donald Krim, in New York this last May. (And on September 6 came news of animator Jordan Belson‘s death.) Their loss narrows a cinematic world that in some respects is in danger of disappearing.
Born in Detroit in 1926, Robert Breer served in the Army during World War II, then lived in Paris for a decade, where he intended to become a painter. It was while documenting his art with his father’s 16mm Bolex camera that Breer first started working with film. “I’m interested in the domain between motion and still pictures,” he once wrote, and his films are distinguished by their playful, endlessly inventive use of movement.
Breer drew inspiration from animators before him, the wonderful Len Lye, for example, or the New York filmmaker Mary Ellen Bute. But he amplified on their work, hand-painting his film stock, re-editing home movies and found footage, assembling collages, and exploring every corner of animation. In Breer’s films, time repeats, reverses, expands and contracts in on itself with jazzy insouciance. His pieces move with blazing speed, at times at the limits of comprehension. Viewing them becomes more an emotional experience than a rational one.
Breer was admired by his colleagues, but he worked in a narrowly circumscribed world of experimental and avant-garde movies. As a result, it’s difficult to view his movies. Breer’s closest brush with mainstream fame may have been his contribution to New Order’s “Blue Monday ’88″ music video. He also made films for the Children’s Television Workshop. In 2002, his Fuji (1974) was selected for the National Film Registry. But apart from Eyewash (1959), which can be seen in two versions on Treasures IV: American Avant-Garde Film, 1947–1986, Breer’s movies have not been released to the home market. You can purchase or rent them from The Film-Makers’ Coop or Canyon Cinema, assuming of course you have access to a film projector. And the Anthology Film Archives have restored several of Breer’s pieces on 35mm stock. Essentially, you must watch them on a screen.
Donald Krim worked in the “industry” part of cinema, and his career coincided with the shift from projected film to digital media. Born in 1945 in Newton, Massachusetts, Krim started out at United Artists after earning a law degree from Columbia University. He helped form United Artists Classics, a specialty division devoted to niche movies. In 1978 he purchased Kino International, then as now a theatrical distribution company that focused on “classics and foreign language art films.” Kino got on its feet by licensing and distributing titles from Janus Films. Soon the company was handling titles from the Alexander Korda library, Grove Press, post-WWII RKO, David O. Selznick, and Charlie Chaplin. But Krim had something more in mind.
While attending film festivals, notably the Berlinale, Krim began purchasing distribution rights to “one or two films a year,” as he told DVDTalk in 2002. Krim helped introduce works by some of the most respected filmmakers of the past thirty years to American viewers: Shôhei Imamura’s Vengeance Is Mine and The Ballad of Narayama; Percy Adlon’s Sugarbaby; André Techiné’s Scene of the Crime; Wong Kar-Wai’s Days of Being Wild; and Kelly Reichardt’s Old Joy. Just as important, he had an abiding respect for the classics of the past. He released a restored version of Fritz Lang’s 1927 Metropolis; when additional footage was discovered in Argentina, Krim helped sponsor a new restoration in 2010 and released it theatrically.
Krim formed Kino Home Video in 1987; today, it is one of the most respected of all home video distributors. It features works by D.W. Griffith, Buster Keaton, Sergei Eisenstein, Ernst Lubitsch, and other cinema pioneers, as well as a panoply of foreign directors. Invaluable as an educational resource, Kino Home Video also brings distinctive, if not especially commercial, works of art to the public. Krim’s taste as well as his conviction have improved cinema for all of us.
In 2009, a holding company for Lorber Ht Digital acquired Kino International Corporation; the resulting merger became Kino Lorber, Inc., with a library of over 600 titles. When Krim succumbed to cancer this past spring, he left behind an enviable legacy.
As Gary Palmucci, Vice-President of Theatrical Distribution for Kino Lorber Films, wrote me in an e-mail: “I was privileged to work with Don at Kino for twenty-three years, during which I saw my own cinematic horizons grow and the company find success helping to introduce filmmakers like Wong Kar-wai, Amos Gitai and Michael Haneke to mainstream arthouse audiences, as well as hundreds of classic reissues both in cinemas and on home video. Don was that rare combination in our business: he had an appreciation and knowledge of the whole spectrum of cinema history, unshakeable personal integrity and solid business sense.”
September 9, 2011
If it’s surprising how ephemeral film can be, survival rates for video processes are even more alarming. Primarily to save money, many networks routinely erased programs to re-use videotape. As a result, the roll call of missing television programs includes sporting events like World Series and Super Bowls; episodes of The Tonight Show and soap operas like Search for Tomorrow; and almost all of the output from the DuMont Television Network. The Paley Center for Media devotes this site to “lost” radio and television programs.
While preparing for HBO’s 40th anniversary, archivists found enormous gaps in HBO Sports programming. As Max Segal, Curator/HBO Sports, wrote me in an e-mail, “We have searched multiple HBO libraries and databases and finding much of our Sports programs from 1972-75 are just not there.”
Today Mr. Segal sent out this update:
The big challenge regarding early HBO Sports programming is 1972-75. Most of our sports programs from 1972-77 came from Madison Square Garden. They have no video from this time period. We have reached out to the sports leagues and promoters of our 1970’s programs. They have no video from this time period either.
What we have pieced together so far:
• originally tapes were stored at HBO Studios on 23rd Street, NYC
• in the 80’s, long-term storage was shifted to Bonded
• Tapes went regularly missing at Bonded and a decision was made to leave Bonded
• In 1991, HBO reels were moved to Preferred Media Storage, where they are today
• No one at Madison Square Garden has clues to where there the two-inch reels went.
For added perspective, two-inch reels were very expensive, especially for a start-up network. It was common practice for all networks, including HBO, to either sell-off once used two-inch reels or simply record over them. The positive is, HBO regularly made 3/4 inch screeners of our early 70′s programs, as many as 20 copies per program:
• We were able to recover two 70′s college basketball games from announcer Len Berman this way.
• Sports Director Brad Schreiber had about 10 boxes of these original 1970′s 3/4 inch screeners. He junked them 13 years ago.
• Spencer Ross had a storage unit full of 1970′s 3/4 inch reels. He got rid of them about 7 years ago.
If three people saved early 70′s HBO programs, others must have too.
We need clues of what happened or who may still have any personal copies of 1972-75 HBO Sports programming, either on original two inch or more likely, three quarter inch screeners.
We need help from good detectives.
Help us keep hope alive.
If you have any information, contact Max Segal at Max.Segal@hbo.com. Interested readers can obtain a breakdown of the 1972-76 Sports Programming from him.
The past twelve months have seen some major rediscoveries, including Upstream, a comedy-drama with a theatrical setting by John Ford, and The White Shadow, the earliest surviving credit for Alfred Hitchcock. Now comes word of a newly restored feature from Ernst Lubitsch, a director prized in the 1930s for his sly sophistication.
The son of a tailor, Lubitsch made his reputation in Germany, where he was known for broad comedies and big-budget historical dramas like Madame Du Barry (1919, titled Passion in the US) and Anna Boleyn (1920, Deception in the US). He formed his own production company to make Das Weiss des Pharao/The Loves of Pharaoh (1922), and poured money into the project, in part to impress Hollywood. In fact this would be Lubitsch’s last European film before heading to the United States. After a troubled stint with Mary Pickford, and an expensive one at Warner Bros., he hit his stride in Hollywood at Paramount, where he made ground-breaking musicals like One Hour with You and the romantic comedy Trouble in Paradise. He was the director behind Ninotchka, the MGM hit in which “Garbo laughs,” as well as The Shop Around the Corner, a timeless classic about mismatched pen pals who fall in love (later reimagined by Nora Ephron as You’ve Got Mail).
Although a success on its release, The Loves of Pharaoh seemingly disappeared in the 1930s. A tinted nitrate print turned up in the Russian Gosfilmfond archive, and later a fragment was found in a collection now held at the George Eastman House. Thomas Bakels of Alpha-Omega Digital GmbH spent years assembling and digitally scanning the prints as well as overseeing a new orchestral recording of Eduard Künneke’s original score.
Dennis Doros of Milestone Film & Video saw a sneak preview of the nearly completed restoration and wrote in an e-mail: “Thomas did an exceptional job putting all the pieces together (there were a lot). It is minor Lubitsch if you’re looking for ‘the touch.’ However, as a calling card to Hollywood (Lubitsch showing he can do Reinhardt-Griffith-DeMille-like grand spectacle) and the coincidence that 1922 was the finding of King Tut’s tomb, it’s all pretty cool. I had a fun time watching it.”
Starring Emil Jannings, the first man to win a Best Acting Oscar, The Loves of Pharaoh will screen at the Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles on October 18 prior to its release on DVD and Blu-Ray.
September 7, 2011
As school boards across the country struggle with budget cuts, parents and students can find themselves fighting over issues more political than economic. Case in point: American Sign Language, according to a recent New York Times article, is the fourth most-popular language taught in colleges. (Read the entire Modern Language Association report.)
But as Monica Davey reported in another Times article, several states—including Indiana, Kansas, North Carolina, Oregon, South Dakota and West Virginia—are threatening to reduce funding for state schools for the deaf, limiting the available options for deaf students who want to learn A.S.L. From the story:
Some advocates for the schools now worry that financial concerns could push the debate toward sending deaf children to “mainstream” schools, which would, in the eyes of some, ultimately encourage methods of communication other than American Sign Language.
The conflict between A.S.L. and what some refer to as “oralism,” or a listening and spoken language approach, extends back many years. Schools promoting oralism formed as early as 1867, and a 1880 conference in Milan, the International Congress on Education of the Deaf, voted to ban sign language. Nebraska passed a law in 1913 outlawing sign language. Alexander Graham Bell was one of the most insistent proponents of oralism.
That was the atmosphere behind a remarkable series of films made between 1910 and 1921, under the auspices of the National Association of the Deaf. Formed in 1880, the NAD fought to “preserve, protect and promote the civil, human and linguistic rights of deaf and hard of hearing people,” in particular in the “acquisition, usage, and preservation of American Sign Language.”
“The only way in which this can be done is by means of moving picture films,” wrote George William Veditz. Born in 1861, Veditz lost his hearing at the age of eight due to scarlet fever. Graduating from Gallaudet College as valedictorian in 1884, he became a teacher and later president of the NAD. The Association formed a Motion Picture Committee in 1910 with a mandate to film “excellent examples” of sign language and distribute these movies throughout the country.
The 14 films produced by the committee are now part of the George W. Veditz Collection at Gallaudet University. All of the titles have historical significance, according to Patti Durr, who blogs about deaf issues at People of the Eye. But Preservation of the Sign Language, which records a 14-minute speech by Veditz (above), may be the most moving. “Veditz is my hero,” Durr wrote me in an e-mail. “I totally adore his foresight and fortitude. If he were alive today he would without a doubt be involved in the exact same issues.”
Even if you do not understand A.S.L., Veditz is a forceful and persuasive presence in Preservation of the Sign Language. As Dr. Carol Padden (the first deaf recipient of a John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur fellowship) wrote, “His hair is parted neatly in the middle, so his face can be clearly seen, and he is careful to sign precisely and in large gestures.”
Dr. Padden has translated Veditz’s speech into written English; Veditz wrote out his own version in a letter some years after the film was made. It was only by comparing the two that I began to appreciate A.S.L. Previously I had thought of sign language as a sort of literal translation of spoken English, with a one-to-one correspondence between spoken words and signs. But I now view A.S.L. as an actual stand-alone language, with its own vocabulary, its own grammar, its own rhetoric.
Take the following signed sentence as an example. Padden translates it as: “But for thirty-three years their teachers have cast them aside and refused to listen to their pleas.” “Cast aside” Veditz signs as “grab-hold-forcefully-push-down.” His written English equivalent: “For thirty-three years their teachers have held them off with a hand of steel.”
Watching Preservation of the Sign Language and the other films in the Veditz Collection connects us directly to battles that are still being waged today. It also gives us a glimpse at some remarkable people who found a way to utilize motion pictures for their own ends.
September 2, 2011
It’s one of the most famous films in cinema, a special-effects, science-fiction extravaganza that became an international sensation when it was released in 1902. Almost instantly it was pirated, bootlegged, copied and released by competing studios under different names. And for decades it’s only been available in black-and-white copies.
Now, after a 12 year project that approached a half-million euros in cost, Lobster Films, The Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage, and Fondation Groupama Gan pour le Cinéma are unveiling a new version of A Trip to the Moon, “resurrected,” in the words of preservationist Tom Burton, from an original, hand-colored nitrate print. For the first time in generations viewers will be able to see the color version of the film that stunned early 20th-century moviegoers.
Le voyage dans la lune, to use its French title, is one of over 500 movies made by Georges Méliès, perhaps the first filmmaker to fully grasp the potential of cinema. The son of a wealthy shoemaker, Méliès was born in 1861. Fascinated by magic and illusions, he left the family business in 1888. Buying the Robert-Houdin theater from his widow in Paris, he developed a successful act with illusions such as “The Vanishing Lady.” Méliès was in the audience when the Lumière brothers held their first public film screening on December 28, 1895, and within months was exhibiting movies at his theater.
Méliès made his first film in November, 1896, built his own studio in 1901 and formed the Star Film brand to market his work in France and internationally. He made movies about current events and fairy tales, replicated his stage illusions on screen and developed a highly advanced technical style that incorporated stop-motion animation: double-, triple-, and quadruple-exposures; cross-dissolves; and jump cuts. More than any of his contemporaries, Méliès made movies that were fun and exciting. They were filled with stunts, tricks, jokes, dancing girls, elaborate sets and hints of the macabre.
A Trip to the Moon had several antecedents, including the 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne and A Trip to the Moon, a four-act opera with music by Jacques Offenbach that debuted in 1877. Méliès may also have been aware of a theater show at the 1901 Pan-American Exhibition in Buffalo, New York, called A Trip to the Moon. Filming started in May, 1902. It was released on September 1 in Paris and a little over a month later in New York City.
At the time exhibitors and individuals could purchase films outright from the Star Films catalog. Color prints were available at an extra cost. Probably not too many color prints of A Trip to the Moon were ever in existence, but it came out right around that time color became a real fad. Within a couple of years, the hand-painting was replaced by tinting and stencil process, so color became more prevalent and less expensive. Several color Méliès films survive, but it was believed that the color Trip to the Moon had long been lost.
But in 1993, Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films obtained an original nitrate print from the Filmoteca de Catalunya. The only problem: it had decomposed into the equivalent of a solid hockey puck. In 1999, Bromberg and Lange, two of the most indefatigable of all film historians, began to try to unspool the reel by placing it in the equivalent of a humidor, using a chemical compound that softened the nitrate enough to digitally document individual frames. (The process also ultimately destroyed the film.)
Years later, Bromberg had some 5,000 digital files, which he handed over to Tom Burton, the executive director of Technicolor Restoration Services in Hollywood. In a recent phone call, Burton described how his team approached this “bucket of digital shards.”
“What we got was a bunch of digital data that had no sequential relationship to each other because they had to photograph whatever frame or piece of a frame that they could,” Burton recalled. “We had to figure out the puzzle of where these chunks of frames, sometimes little corners of a frame or a half of a frame, where all these little pieces went. Over a period of about nine months we put all these pieces back together, building not only sections but rebuilding individual frames from shattered pieces.”
Burton estimated that they could salvage between 85 to 90 percent of the print. They filled in the missing frames by copying them from a private print held by the Méliès family and digitally coloring the frames to match the original hand colored source.
“It’s really more a visual effects project in a way than a restoration project,” Burton said. “A lot of the technology that we used to rebuild these frames is the technology you would use if you were making a first-run, major visual effects motion picture. You’d never have been able to pull this off 10 years ago, and certainly not at all with analog, photochemical technology.”
For Burton, A Trip to the Moon represents the beginnings of modern visual effects as we know them today. “Seeing it in color makes it a whole different film,” he said. “The technique involved teams of women painting individual frames with tiny brushes and aniline dyes. The color is surprisingly accurate but at times not very precise. It will wander in and out of an actor’s jacket, for example. But it’s very organic. It will never rival the way A Trip to the Moon first screened for audiences, but it’s still pretty amazing.”
A Trip to the Moon was shown at the opening night of the Cannes Film Festival in May, and is screening on September 6 at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Bromberg will be showing it at this year’s New York Film Festival, and on November 11 at the Museum of Modern Art, along “with the world premiere of my documentary about the restoration. An absolute must!” as he wrote in an e-mail. Was this his most exciting restoration? “One of them, of course,” he answered. “The best one is the next one!!”