The 4th Nitrate Picture Show

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 Museum’s Dryden Theatre was crowded for most of the weekend with archivists, critics and fans enjoying the distinctive image that the format offers.

In fact those of us there on the Thursday had a pre-festival 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 adaptation uses judicious cutting to present an impressive drama. And the art design and cinematography are great to watch, given the technical standards at that time. The sound is equally well done and includes in the opening of the drama Olivier voicing his father’s ghost. 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.

Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Shown: Laurence Olivier (as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)

The Festival programme was only announced on the Friday morning, a tactic I find rather coy. So we walked into Rochester centre to wander round the excellent second-hand bookshop there. One watches one’s baggage weight on the way out in order to be able to select from an extensive film section together with a wide range of other subjects.

The afternoon included two presentations. And, as is usual, the first set of screenings were short films on nitrate. It commenced 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. There was the only silent film at the Festival, Our Navy (1918) for which Phil Carli’s accompaniment added élan. There was an early Cinecolor short, filmed using a sub-tractive two colour process. This presented a Roman Catholic priest, [a Jesuit I think] exploring a glacier in Alaska. Following this was a 1946 Technicolor travelogue,Along the Rainbow Trail, found on the San Juan River. But the pick of the programme was Len Lye’sTrade Tattoo(1937). Only six minutes in length this is fine example of the work of this talented animator. On nitrate stock the film was a dazzling tapestry of colours, which involved hand painting and a certain amount of surrealist imagery.

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). Much of the film presents a youthful romance in flashback. 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 late film, starting at 10 p.m. was the 1938 Holiday, directed by George Cukor and starring 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, supposedly immune from desires for wealth, seems more about facilitating the plotting than presenting a convincing character. The film is handsomely produced and the print was good quality.

Saturday morning saw only one film, The Razor’s Edge (1946). This was adapted , fairly faithfully, from a novel by Somerset Maugham. It starred Tyrone Power as a man searching for meaning in life over decades. The protagonist suited Power’s persona, which whilst often swashbuckling is also frequently divided psychologically. Herbert Marshall was engaging as the writer (Maugham) though his commentary was much reduced from the book. Opposite Tyrone Power were the young Anne Baxter and Gene Tierney. Tierney enjoyed some of the best sequences in the film. This was her fourth appearance in a Nitrate Picture Show programme; who is the unpublicised fan at the Museum? 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.

Then lunch. This year the Museum bar was augmented by food trucks in front of the Museum. Fortunately whilst there was quite an amount of rain over the weekend it was not 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. But there were sequences where the landscape, with trees, hillocks and ponds showed up well on nitrate.

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. There are some fine landscapes and an intense struggle between brothers at the finale on a steep cliff. 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 but the Technicolor looked great. 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. 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 a gangster hospitalised and trying to avoid a murder rap. His nemesis is played by Victor Mature. Conte is striking whilst Mature is excellent, though he does not quite fit a character from the same Italian neighbourhood. The print was in good condition and was a pleasure to watch.

The afternoon film was a Soviet musical, a rarely seen genre. The director was Eisenstein’s assistant from the silent era Grigoriy Aleksandrov who made several film in this genre. 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. 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 much of the sound track was rerecorded.

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 correctly. Apparently at the first Nitrate Picture Show one visitor correctly identified t a footprint in a flower pot – from The Fallen Idol. This year I suggested a mining film.

The clue in the Brochure

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 a n 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 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. 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 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).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.