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 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!!”