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Posts Tagged ‘Film Preservation’

Lost Georges Méliès Film Found in Czech Archive

Wednesday, October 12th, 2016

A lost film by director Georges Méliès from 1904 has been found at the Czech National Film Archive.

As Agence France-Presse reported in The Guardian on October 11, 2016, “researchers at the Czech National Film Archive have found a film by early cinema pioneer Georges Méliès that was thought to have been lost forever. The two-minute silent film Match de Prestidigitation (‘conjuring contest’) from 1904 was found on a reel given to the archives by an anonymous donor, labelled as another film.

Méliès, a stage magician turned film-maker from France, is credited with many technical and narrative developments in the 500-plus movies he made between 1896 and 1912. ‘The reel was titled Les Transmutations Imperceptibles, which is the name of another work by Méliès. But our specialist immediately realized it was another film,’ archives spokeswoman Jana Ulipova said.

‘Based on detailed analysis and research at the national library of France, among other places, we can say with certainty that it is Match de Prestidigitation, up to now considered lost.’ The recovered film shows a magician who divides into two. The doubles then take turns to perform tricks before merging back into one man. ‘We are planning to show the film in cinemas as part of a collection of Méliès works,’ Ulipova said.

The Czech archives have 22 movies by Méliès, whose Le Voyage dans la Lune (A Trip to the Moon) from 1902 is seen by many as the first science-fiction film. Most of the films made by Méliès, who died in 1938, have been lost. A painstakingly restored color version of Le Voyage dans la Lune was screened at France’s Cannes film festival in 2011.”

Proof that once again, miracles do happen in the cinema.

Bertrand Tavernier on Edward L. Cahn

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Edward L. Cahn – a much maligned American auteur – is finally getting some of the respect he deserves.

As John Hopewell and Martin Dale reported from the Lumière Festival in Lyon, France yesterday in Variety, “Time puts everybody in their place. But often rather slowly. The American director, Edward L. Cahn, was best-known, indeed notorious for his prolific B-movie output in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Yet, this is the same man who, legend has it, oversaw or at least advised on the final cut of All Quiet on the Western Front, and made a clutch of movies in the early 1930s, one of which, Afraid To Talk, screened at the Lumière Festival on Sunday, being greeted as a masterpiece. ‘You might say he worked his way to the bottom,’ writes journalist Imogen Sara Smith.

Dave Kehr, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art, included three of Cahn’s films in an Carl Laemmle Jr. retrospective this May. This week, Lyon’s Lumière Festival screens the same titles: Afraid To Talk, Law and Order, and Laughter in Hell, introduced by the celebrated French director-film buff Bertrand Tavernier, president of the Institut Lumière. Here Tavernier adds his voice to others who have rediscovered Cahn’s early work. It is worth quoting Tavenier [extensively; as he noted]:

‘For some time now I have wanted to show the films directed by Edward L. Cahn. He’s a key director that for many of us remains an enigma, because my generation first became familiar with his work in the 1960s, essentially in Belgium where his films were released theatrically. They were never released in France. The smallest minimalist productions. Zombies of Mora Tau. Five Guns to Tombstone, westerns and horror films.

It! The Terror from Beyond Space, which we could say was the forerunner to Alien. When we see the film it is however rudimentary because of the creature. It’s true that it circulates in the corridors of the space ship.  But it’s hyper rudimentary, in comparison with Alien. It’s a kind of a guy wearing a rubber suit. Not great. But I recently saw two or three films that he made at this time that were very interesting, such as Experiment Alcatraz.

Between 1932 and 1934 he made four-to-five films, which are amazing – which are very different from these subsequent Z-movie productions, very demanding with a great deal of visual style: Law and Order, the first film about OK Corral. It’s a revisionist western film before the genre had been fully established which is kind of unique in the history of film genres – a film that contradicts the canon before the canon is established. Laughter in Hell. And my favorite film, full of energy, which is Radio Patrol.

Why did his career reach a hiatus at this moment in time? He left Universal and went to MGM. There’s something strange. He made a very personal and strange project. A film produced by the Anti-Defamation League in 1949. A film called Prejudice, which was only released in churches. Which I believe was a tremendous commercial flop. From that point onwards everything changed in his career. He became a mystery. Now just a little note.

He was also a film editor. He was the editor of The Man who Laughs by Paul Leni. He is believed to have been the person who determined the final edited version of All Quiet on the Western Front, which he edited on the train between Los Angeles and New York. It took four days. And that’s where he finalized the version.

Finally it was the producer Carl Laemmle Jr., who commissioned his first film, Law and Order, co-written by John Huston, based on a remarkable book by W. R. Burnett, which is still in available. And then Afraid to Talk which was a film noir, inspired on a play by Albert Maltz and George Sklar.  Albert Maltz later became famous in Hollywood as one of the Hollywood Ten. He stopped working as a screenwriter under his own name and began working under a pseudonym.

He worked for example on the screenplay of Broken Arrow by Delmer Daves and other films. He returned with the films starring Clint Eastwood, Two Mules for Sister Sara and The Beguiled. So, Afraid to Talk was a stage play that had been heavily cut by the censorship, which had been adapted by Tom Reed – an ancient journalist who specialized in crime, the kind of person that Carl Laemmle Jr. employed as a screenwriter, to spice up the films – to give them reality.

So Tom Reed worked on three occasions with Edward Cahn and they produced quite amazing screenplays. For example Afraid to Talk. You will see that this is a film that is unrelenting. Which is incredibly strong in terms of its social content. Corruption, the problems of the gangs. On the cowardice of the public authorities.

It’s a very surprising film, almost expressionist in terms of its directing style, the search for light. It’s also a film that groups together a huge number of actors in the secondary roles that later became very famous. You will recognize them all. For example, Louis Calhern, but there are others. I hope you will be amazed.” Cahn’s work has indeed undertone a Renaissance of sorts, mainly because of the efforts of Dave Kehr, first writing for The New York Times, and now as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.

As I’ve often noted in this blog, Cahn’s films all have a sense of awful, deliberate pacing, which smoothly moves from one set-up to another with the precision and calm of someone like Robert Bresson – never in a hurry to move the narrative or camerawork along, but always in precisely the right place with each new shot. I’ve seen this film, which is remarkable, as is much of the rest of Cahn’s work; I hope you get a chance to see it, too.

Edward L. Cahn – another director getting more attention – thanks to Bertrand Tavernier.

Dorothy Arzner at the Lumière Festival

Monday, October 10th, 2016

Dorothy Arzner’s work as a director is being appreciated anew at the Lumière Festival.

As Damon Wise perceptively writes in Variety, “Dorothy Arzner died with no Oscars to her name, honorary or otherwise, and to date, her only reward, to mark a prolific career that spanned from 1922 to 1943, is a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame.

And yet Arzner, who receives a tribute at France’s Lumière Festival,  remains one of the most interesting, if not one of the more significant, directors of the so-called Golden Age. Rising swiftly up through the ranks in the silent era, Arzner broke the glass ceiling at the age of 30, becoming one of the first ever women allowed to call the shots within the male-dominated studio system.

In retrospect, it was perhaps not so strange that Arzner, born in 1897, was attracted to the movies – while she was growing up, her father Louis ran a famous Hollywood restaurant that served all the heavy hitters of the silent era: Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Mack Sennett and directing legend D.W. Griffith.

Arzner originally aimed to pursue medicine, having studied the subject at USC, but dropped out shortly after WW1. By chance, a flu epidemic had swept the country, and every industry needed workers, no matter how inexperienced, and the movie business was no exception.

Hired by Cecil B DeMille’s brother William, Arzner began at Famous Players-Lasky in the script room, and after six months progressed to the editing department, cutting, by her own estimation, some 52 movies, including the 1922 Rudolph Valentino classic Blood and Sand. Fatefully, Arzner also shot some (uncredited) bull-fighting scenes for that movie, and it was her desire to direct that brought matters to a head in 1927. Arzner had been moonlighting as a scriptwriter and was about to quit, to take up a directing job at Columbia.

But instead of walking out, Arzner wanted to say goodbye to someone – anyone – at the studio that had played fair by her. By chance, this turned out to producer Walter Wanger, who organized a summit meeting to keep her. Wanger offered her a directing job, but Arzner played hardball.

‘Not unless I can be on a set in two weeks with an A-picture,’ she insisted. ‘I’d rather do a picture for a small company and have my own way than a B-picture for Paramount.’ She got her wish: the result was Fashions For Women, with Esther Ralston, then a major star.

Arzner’s deal with Paramount was good by anyone’s standards. ‘I was under contract to Paramount for three years at a time,’ she told film historians Karyn Kay and Gerald Peary in a rare interview in 1974, ‘[and] paid by the week. I ended with a two-year contract, including choice of story. I never had to worry about control over phases of the production. The departments were geared to give a director what he wanted, if he knew exactly what he wanted.’

After five films, and a reshuffle of top brass, Arzner left Paramount to go freelance, which is when Arzner began to make her name as a director of women. Although she didn’t get to realize one of several dream projects – an anti-war movie called Stepdaughters of War with Marlene Dietrich, Arzner worked with many big names of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s, including Clara Bow, Katherine Hepburn, Joan Crawford and Lucille Ball.

The Wild Party, Arzner’s 1929 film with Bow, her first talking picture, is often cited as a key work in the director’s filmography, being the story of a college girl whose party lifestyle gets her into trouble. Made before the restrictive Hays Code was introduced in 1930,  The Wild Party features many of the themes that would recur in Arzner’s films, in which women choose independence and refuse to be dominated by men, or even each other.

Though Arzner remained private about her personal life, her sexuality was an open secret in Hollywood and has since made her films a treasure trove for latter-day critics and theorists. Legendary critic Pauline Kael described Arzner’s 1933 film Christopher Strong, starring Katherine Hepburn as a female aviator, as ‘one of the rare movies told from a woman’s sexual point of view.’

Sadly, Arzner’s most famous film is also one of her last; a film so ahead of its time that it didn’t find its fanbase until the ’70s. Starring Maureen O’Hara and Lucille Ball, Dance, Girl, Dance (1940) is an unlikely-female-buddy burlesque movie that conceals a withering attack on the male gaze under its showgirl wardrobe of sequins and feathers.

This was to be Arzner’s penultimate film – after contracting pneumonia that laid her low for a year, the director – who died in 1979, aged 82 – made the decision in 1943 to quit for good, and stuck to it. The story might have ended there, but somehow Arzner’s legacy endured, just as she herself had survived in her heyday. As Katharine Hepburn put it to Arzner in a telegram, when she was honoured by the DGA in 1975, ‘Isn’t it wonderful that you’ve had such a great career, when you had no right to have a career at all?’”

This last comment is a rather ironic comment coming from one of Hollywood’s greatest women of the screen during the era; and incidentally, Arzner didn’t quit the business in 1943 – in the middle of directing her last feature, First Comes Courage (1943), concerning a young woman, Nikki (Merle Oberon) who works undercover against the Nazis for the Swedish resistance, Arzner fell ill with pneumonia, and was replaced with another director, rather than allowing her to finish the film herself.

After that, it was Pepsi-Cola commercials for her long-time friend Joan Crawford, as well as a long career as a lecturer, teacher, and speaker. I’ve been saying this for years; why isn’t there a box set of her work? But there isn’t, and it isn’t likely to happen now, but nevertheless Arzner’s work remains, as a signpost to younger directors willing to take on the system and fight for what they believe – something that’s even harder to do today than it was then.

Dorothy Arzner – one of the great pioneers of the American sound film.

50th Anniversary Screening of The Chelsea Girls at Anthology

Sunday, October 2nd, 2016

Fifty years ago today, Andy Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls had its first public screening.

Tonight at Anthology Film Archives, Jonas Mekas will introduce the 50th anniversary screening of this indelible, inexhaustible masterpiece, which is a very difficult film to project, requiring two 16mm projectors, stereo sound, and a great deal of patience on the part of the projectionist.

Starring nearly the entire gallery of Warhol 60s superstars, including Nico, Ondine, Marie Menken, Mary Woronov, Gerard Malanga, International Velvet, Ingrid Superstar, Mario Montez, Eric Emerson, and Brigid Berlin, the film runs a mammoth 210 minutes, but is worth every second of your time.

As Anthology’s website notes, “Warhol’s double-screen masterpiece – consisting of 12 unedited reels, shown side-by-side, with only one soundtrack audible at a time – depicts the Chelsea Hotel as a teeming hive of Superstars, junkies, prostitutes, and generally out-sized personalities.

An underground sensation upon its release, it ultimately broke out of the underground cinema circuit, invading a ‘respectable’ uptown theater and leading uptight New York Times critic Bosley Crowther to declare, ‘now that [the] underground has surfaced on West 57th Street and taken over a theater with carpets…it is time for permissive adults to stop winking at their too-precious pranks….’

Before having the gall to blow uptown minds, however, The Chelsea Girls premiered in 1966 at Jonas Mekas’s Film-Makers’ Cinematheque at 125 West 41st Street (apparently far enough downtown for Crowther), where it sold out many of its initial screenings and enjoyed several return engagements, before moving to the Cinema Rendezvous on 57th.

To celebrate its 50th anniversary, we present this special screening (safely downtown), hosted by Jonas Mekas himself, who will share stories of how The Chelsea Girls was let loose on the world.”

The original projectionists were Jerome Hiler and Bob Cowan; the Cinemathque in this particular iteration was run by the late Greg Sharits; and as the notes above indicate, it was an instant smash, with ads running in The New York Times, and nearly universal critical acclaim.

More than any other film, with the exception of La Dolce Vita, The Chelsea Girls holds a mirror up to the culture of the 1960s; it is at all surprising that the late chanteuse and actor Nico is in both films?

So, if you’re in New York City tonight, this is a must see – of course, there’s also a great new production of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde playing at The Metropolitan Opera this week, so that’s something – just something – of a toss up. But that should give you some idea of just how important The Chelsea Girls is as a cultural landmark – it’s an absolutely brilliant, merciless, and altogether stunning experience, of equally epic stature.

The Chelsea Girls is on my “top ten” list – which has 250 films in it – see it if you can.

New Article: T. S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral

Thursday, September 15th, 2016

I have a new article out in Senses of Cinema on the restored film of Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral.

As I write, “I’ve always had a curious affection for George Hoellering’s 1951 film adaptation of T.S. Eliot’s verse play Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot composed it as a stage play in 1935, with the first performance taking place on June 15th that year in the Chapter House of Canterbury Cathedral, in every way an appropriate location for the production. As is well known, Eliot’s play deals with the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket by four knights in 1170 at the Canterbury Cathedral. This crime was committed at the behest of King Henry II, who was seeking both to establish his own authority on a higher scale and to break ties with the Papacy in Rome. Eliot’s play uses a great deal of material written by one Edward Grim, who saw the actual assassination of Becket in person, and was even wounded during the attack.

The first production at Canterbury Cathedral featured actor Robert Speaight as Becket, which then was transferred to London’s Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for a modest run, with Speaight reprising his leading role. As many have noted, the main theme of Eliot’s play is the power of resistance to authority that one believes to be either corrupt or fraudulent. Since Eliot wrote the work in the shadow of Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, there can be little doubt that he had the usurping forces of fascism in mind as he composed Murder in the Cathedral. It’s a superb accomplishment as a text, and requires a minimum of dramatic translation for the stage: it is essentially performed as a series of tableaux, and so eloquent is Eliot’s text that it needs little more in the way of staging or blocking.

Subsequent stage productions included Robert Donat’s turn as Becket in an Old Vic production directed by Robert Helpmann in 1953; a 1971 New York stage version with Dark Shadows alumnus Jonathan Frid in the title role; a Royal Shakespeare Company version in 1972 starring Hammer Films regular Richard Pasco as Becket; and most recently in 2014 at St. Bartholomew-the-Great Church in London, testifying to the continual appeal of Eliot’s work. Murder in the Cathedral also served as source material for one of the very first experimental television broadcasts: the 1936 BBC presentation of the play directed by George More O’Ferrall, which according to Kenneth Baily (who witnessed the transmission on television) included ‘the earliest recollection I have of a really inspired use of the close-up in television drama.’

But there the matter of a visual translation of Eliot’s work rested, until George Hoellering stepped in. He was an Austro-Hungarian filmmaker and entrepreneur who had fled the continent in 1936 to escape the Nazi onslaught, with only a handful of films to his credit. Hoellering brought Murder in the Cathedral to the screen in what was clearly a ‘passion project,’ with Eliot’s full help and participation. Hoellering’s previous films included the 1936 movie Life on the Hortobagy (a slightly fictionalized feature documentary centering on the everyday life of Hungarian peasants) and the 1944 British-made shorts Tyre Economy (of which the title says all) and Message from Canterbury (essentially an ode to Canterbury Cathedral, centering on a sermon delivered by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. William Temple).

What resulted was the product of a collaboration between one of the 20th century’s most gifted and exacting poets and a filmmaker intent on creating a feature film based on Eliot’s work, which had moved him deeply since his youth. The most conspicuous – even conscious – aspect of Hollering’s film of Eliot’s play is its theatricality, coupled with an austere visual sensibility that prefigures the dark landscapes of such later films as Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1943), or harkens back to Carl Th. Dreyer’s equally severe Day of Wrath (1943). For many years, Murder in the Cathedral has been out of circulation – even as a 1952 book by Eliot and Hoellering on the making of the film, replete with numerous stills, remained tantalisingly in print – but now, in a newly restored DVD and Blu-ray combination release from the BFI - we have a chance once again to see Murder in the Cathedral for ourselves.”

You can read the entire article by clicking here, or on the image above - essential viewing.

Manohla Dargis on “The Race to Save the Films We Love”

Sunday, August 28th, 2016

Manohla Dargis has an excellent piece on the race to save classic films in today’s New York Times;

above, a scene from Lewis Milestone’s Seven Sinners (1925), before and after restoration.

This, of course, is a subject I have been hammering home for years, writing in The Moving Image Archive News, on this blog, and elsewhere, that as the saying goes “nitrate won’t wait.” All films before 1950 were shot on cellulose nitrate film, which is highly, even eagerly flammable (as the image below of a nitrate projection booth from the 1920s in Great Britain aptly demonstrates), and if not properly stored, nitrate film rapidly begins to decompose into a sticky, gelatinous goo in a process which is impossible – or nearly impossible – to reverse. Today, nearly all motion pictures are shown digitally, and film itself has disappeared.

I have had the great privilege of screening a nitrate print of Terence Fisher’s sharply observed matrimonial comedy Marry Me! (1949) at the British Film Institute in London, and I remember vividly how the Steenbeck flatbed viewing machine was situated in a separate room on the roof the the archive’s building in a small, somewhat claustrophobic room, with fire extinguishers and buckets of sand regularly placed around the room at strategic intervals.

Only one reel at a time was brought up to me for screening; that way, if one reel caught fire, at least the rest of the film might be saved, the archivist told me. I was not to stop the film in the Steenbeck once it started running, for fear that the projector bulb might ignite a frame of the film, which would then instantaneously spread to the rest of the reel. And as each reel was finished, I was told to press a bell. An attendant would appear, take the finished reel of film with him, and appear with the next reel, in 1000 ft. (10 minute) chunks, until I had seen the entire film.

Visually, the experience was dazzling; I remember reading that Jean Cocteau complained that safety film prints (which replaced nitrate prints entirely in theaters around the world) of his film Beauty and The Beast (1946) in no way matched the luminous, silvery sheen of the original nitrate prints, but recognized the dangers and inherently instability of the nitrate medium, and so acquiesced to safety film screenings of one of his most sensual and visually lavish works, with remarkable cinematography by Henri Alekan.

A British nitrate film projection booth in the 1920s; the same precautions would have to apply today.

Ms. Dargis also relates some truly appalling horror stories from the long period in cinema history when the studios simply didn’t value the films they made, including this shocker from the history of Universal Pictures,

“In 2011, the historian David Pierce gave a talk on silent films at an annual event in Los Angeles called the Reel Thing. At one point, he showed a 1925 photo of a few dozen Universal Pictures stars next to a stack of crates holding that season’s negatives. He asked if anyone recognized these stars and was met with mostly bafflement. We soon found out why.

Twenty years after this photo was taken, Universal sent a letter to its East Coast lab ordering the destruction of all but 17 of its silent-film negatives. The studio had already lost numerous older titles in fires, and now it was junking the rest of its silent features — hundreds — having decided that most were not worth keeping. It’s no wonder that those stars were unfamiliar: Their own studio destroyed their legacy.”

That said, most of the article deals with the restoration of several classic films, even going to the extent of replacing lost dialogue by hiring actors to mime the voices of the performers in one film where the soundtrack has been destroyed, and points out that while 99.9% of all “movies” today are actually projected digitally – something I’ve discussed in this blog time and time again – a few film booths, and even one nitrate booth at The Egyptian Theater in Los Angeles, still survive. Films aren’t really films unless they’re shown on film; it’s that simple.

And it’s also worth nothing, as Dargis does, that “even as major studios have stopped distributing film prints, they make film copies of the elements of their new releases, including those shot on digital. Studios like 20th Century Fox may maintain digital archives of their current releases, but the ‘analog solution,’ in the words of Schawn Belston, its executive vice president, media and library services, ‘is still the most trusted and has well-established archival longevity.’”

With so many films already lost and beyond recall, all we can do is desperately try to save those that still exist. And the film medium, whether on nitrate or safety film, remains one of the most evanescent artistic mediums in human history. If I take a book, throw it on the floor, deface it, mark it up, even tear up pages, just as long as the book can be reconstituted so that it’s legible, new copies can be created be re-setting the type, and reprinting the book. Not so with film; there’s just one negative, and when it’s gone, it’s gone.

Absolutely essential reading for anyone who loves films; check it out by clicking here.

The Memory of the World

Sunday, July 17th, 2016

As this report from The United Nations makes clear, libraries are in jeopardy.

As the report notes, “every year, precious fragments, if not whole chunks of the world documentary heritage, disappear through ‘natural’ causes: acidified paper that crumbles to dust, leather, parchment, film and magnetic tape attacked by light, heat, humidity or dust.

As well as natural causes, accidents regularly afflict libraries and archives. Floods, fires, hurricanes, storms, earthquakes . . .the list goes on of disasters which are difficult to guard against except by taking preventive measures. Every year, treasures are destroyed by fire and other extreme weather conditions such as cyclones, monsoons.

It would take a very long time to compile a list of all the libraries and archives destroyed or seriously damaged by acts of war, bombardment and fire, whether deliberate or accidental. No list has yet been drawn up of the holdings or collections already lost or endangered.

The Library of Alexandria is probably the most famous historical example, but how many other known and unknown treasures have vanished in Constantinople, Warsaw, Florence, or more recently in Bucharest, Saint Petersburg and Sarajevo? Sadly the list cannot be closed. There are so many more, not to mention holdings dispersed following the accidental or deliberate displacement of archives and libraries.

The present document, prepared within the framework of the ‘Memory of the World’ Program, under contract with ICA and IFLA, by J. van Albada and H. van der Hoeven, is an attempt to list major disasters that have destroyed or caused irreparable damage during [the 20th] century to libraries and archives, whether written or audiovisual.

The most endangered carriers are not necessarily the oldest. In the audio domain substantial numbers of acetate discs and tapes are lost each year. The world of film was the first to become aware of the decay of the polymers used to record sounds and images.

War, in particular the two world wars, caused considerable losses, numerous libraries and archives have been destroyed or badly damaged in the course of fighting, notably in France, Germany, Italy and Poland. War has also been the source of untold destruction to libraries and archives in the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

Shelling by gunners of the National and University Library of Bosnia and Herzegovina started a fire that burned down the building and destroyed most of the collections. Many books in the library had been salvaged from collections in libraries that were damaged during World War II.

This document is not meant to be a sort of funerary monument, but is intended to alert public opinion and sensitize the professional community and local and national authorities to the disappearance of archival and library treasures of inestimable value and to draw attention to the urgent need to safeguard endangered documentary heritage all over the world.

Librarians and archivists work hard to anticipate and prevent disasters affecting their holdings. Yet, even as [we enter the 21st century], it appears that documentary heritage housed in the world’s libraries and archives always remain at risk. Let us move into the 21st century with renewed commitment to protecting the ‘Memory of the World’ through disaster planning, through vigilance and through the pursuit of world peace.”

Sobering reading; this report was completed in 1996, but is even more relevant now.

An Essential 5 DVD Set: Pioneers of African-American Cinema

Saturday, April 30th, 2016

A restoration of these films has been a long time coming – get this set when it comes out in July.

This incredible collection – coming out shortly on DVD and Blu-ray, is a must for any serious library of American cinema, featuring some of the most historically vital works of America’s legendary first African-American filmmakers, and is the only comprehensive collection of its kind. There have been DVD releases of many of the individual films included here, but in cheap editions, without digital restoration, and now, finally, we can see them as they were meant to be seen.

Funded in part by a highly successful Kickstarter campaign, the packaged set includes no fewer than a dozen feature-length films and nearly twice as many shorts and rare fragments. Subject matter includes race issues that went unaddressed by Hollywood for decades. The directors include Oscar Micheaux, Spencer Williams, and many others whose films deserve a much wider audience.

Films in the collection include: Birthright (1938), The Blood of Jesus (1941), Body and Soul (1925), The Bronze Buckaroo (1939), By Right of Birth (fragment, 1921), Commandment Keeper Church, Beaufort, South Carolina (excerpt, 1940), The Darktown Revue (1931), Dirty Gertie from Harlem USA (1946), Eleven P.M. (1930), The Exile (1931), The Flying Ace (1926), God’s Stepchildren (1938), Heaven-Bound Traveler (1933), Hellbound Train (1930), Hot Biskits (1931), Mercy the Mummy Mumbled (1918), Regeneration (fragment, 1923), The Scar of Shame (1929), S.S. Jones Home Movies (1924-26), The Symbol of the Unconquered: A Story of the KKK (1920), Ten Minutes to Live (1932), Ten Nights in a Bar Room (1926), Two Knights of Vaudeville (1918), Veiled Aristocrats (1932), Verdict Not Guilty (1934), We Work Again (1937) and Within Our Gates (1920).

The set features musical scores (for the silent films) by Paul D. Miller (aka DJ Spooky), Max Roach, Samuel D. Waymon, the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, Donald Sosin, Makia Matsumura, Alloy Orchestra, Rob Gal, Andrew Simpson.

Bonus Features: Optional English Subtitles, 80-page booklet with essays and detailed film notes; Interviews with series curators Charles Musser and Jacqueline Stewart; Documentary on the restoration of the films; Documentary on the restoration efforts of the Library of Congress; Archival interview with actors Ethel and Lucia Moses (1978); Tyler Texas Black Film Collection promo film (with Ossie Davis, 1985) and more!

Although these films have been available for many decades – I’ve run them in my classes for a long time – the film prints were often battered and scratched, 16mm dupes that lacked the depth and quality of the original negatives. Here, these films have been lovingly restored in a collection that is an essential part of the history of the American cinema. This is the part of film history you’ve probably missed – and shouldn’t.

This is an amazing act of historical reclamation – a must have for everyone.

Lois Weber’s “Shoes” (1916) Saved by Eye Museum, Amsterdam

Friday, April 29th, 2016

The EYE Museum in Amsterdam has restored Shoes (1916), a nearly lost film by director Lois Weber.

As the EYE Museum’s YouTube site notes, “the film Shoes (1916, USA, Universal Bluebird Photoplays), directed by Lois Weber, starred Mary MacLaren, Harry Griffith, Jessie Arnold, and William Mong. The film is a social drama about the dime store clerk Eva Meyer (MacLaren), who desperately needs a new pair of shoes. However, because her father is unemployed, Eva’s weekly earnings go into the household budget, bringing a new pair of shoes completely out of her reach.”

As historian Shelley Stamp writes of Lois Weber on the Women Film Pioneers Project website, “Lois Weber was the leading female director-screenwriter in early Hollywood. She began her career alongside her husband, Phillips Smalley, after the two had worked together in the theatre. They began working in motion pictures around 1907, often billed under the collective title ‘The Smalleys.’

In their early years at studios like Gaumont and Reliance, they acted alongside one another on-screen and codirected scripts written by Weber. Indeed, their status as a married, middle-class couple was often used to enhance their reputation for highbrow, quality pictures.

In 1912, they were placed in charge of the Rex brand at the Universal Film Manufacturing Company, where they produced one or two one-reel films each week with a stock company of actors, quickly turning the brand into one of the studio’s most sophisticated.

The couple increasingly turned their attention to multireel films, completing a four-reel production of The Merchant of Venice in 1914, the first American feature directed by a woman. Later that year they moved from Universal to Hobart Bosworth Productions where they were given more freedom to make feature-length films, among them Hypocrites (1915).

By the time the couple arrived back at Universal in 1916, Weber had emerged as the dominant member of the husband and wife partnership and, indeed, as one of the top directors on the lot. She was the sole author of scripts the couple adapted for the screen, and marketing materials and reviews singled out her work on the productions. Reporters visiting the couple on set found Smalley repeatedly turning to his wife for important decisions.

During these years Weber made a series of high profile and often deeply controversial films on social issues of the day, including capital punishment in The People vs. John Doe (1916), drug abuse in Hop, the Devil’s Brew (1916), poverty and wage equity in Shoes (1916), and contraception in Where Are My Children? (1916) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1917) [. . .]

Weber achieved the height of her renown during these years: her name was routinely mentioned alongside that of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille as one of the top talents in Hollywood. In 1916, she was the first and only woman elected to the Motion Picture Directors Association, a solitary honor she would retain for decades.

While at Universal it is also likely that she helped to foster the careers of other actresses employed at the studio, many of whom she had directed, including Cleo Madison, Lule Warrenton, and Dorothy Davenport Reid, who would become directors or producers in their own right.”

Read Stamp’s complete essay on Lois Weber by clicking here – an essential figure in cinema history.

Criterion Archivist Phoebe Harmon on “The Beep” in Il Sorpasso

Friday, April 22nd, 2016

Gwendolyn Audrey Foster brought this to my attention – one of the many surprises of restoring films.

Although it’s now obsolete with the advent of digital cinema, during the filmic era, which comprised most of the 20th century since the inception of the cinema, academy leader “countdowns” were part of every film, usually on every 1000′ reel of a 35mm film print. The leader would count down the final ten seconds of leader before the first image appeared on the screen, ending with a “beep” at the 2 second mark, alerting projectionists when to switch from one reel to the next.

Before the advent of digital projection, working in a projection booth was a very labor intensive affair; even with two 1000′ (ten minute} 35mm reels spliced together into a 2000′, twenty-minute section, the most footage a standard 35mm projector of the era would hold, that gave the projectionist just 20 minutes to load up the next 2000′ section on the second projector, set up the automatic changeover so that the film would be screened without an interruption, and to keep on doing this all day long.

With the introduction of “platter” projection in the 1990s, an entire 35mm film could be spliced together a huge platter in an endless loop, and run through a 35mm projector without a break, but one still had to monitor the process very closely, as 35mm film could often get tangled, or ripped, and projection remained a very delicate job.

Of course, we’re only talking about so-called “safety film” here – this doesn’t even begin to take into account the perils of projecting cellulose nitrate film, the standard for 35mm projection before 1950, which was best described as “eagerly” flammable, and projection booth fires with films from the 1890s up through the early 1950s were a regular occurrence when film got jammed in the projector gate.

In any event, since countdown leader was a part of every film of the “filmic” era, in many cases, the labs that prepared the prints would prepare their own individual leaders, such as this one for the Italian film Il Sorpasso. As Criterion archivist Phoebe Harmon writes, “as a restoration artist, I am often responsible for the initial assembly of a film. This means putting all the reels together and removing each reel’s heads and tails (also known as leader).

I always find it interesting to see what’s on the leader. For instance, the ‘China girls,’ [also known as China dolls] which are images (usually of women) that were historically used to calibrate color, can clue you in to when a movie was made—based on the style of their clothes, hair, and makeup—and the countdowns are always different.

I was assembling 1962’s Il sorpasso [directed by Dino Risi] in November 2013 when I saw the beep. The design is aesthetically brilliant, and I love that it comes from a time when nothing was digital; someone actually made that by hand. All the elements on leaders are functional. They are not meant to be seen by the consumer. So this beep is like a little message coming through history, sent from behind the scenes to projectionists and technicians of the future.

There is no reason it needs to look so cool, but it does. It’s a nice reminder that film, at its heart, is truly an art; even though the way it’s created (and preserved!) can be very technical, all of us who work on a film get to be a part of a collaborative creative process.”

Thanks to Gwendolyn Audrey Foster for this tip!

About the Author

Headshot of Wheeler Winston Dixon Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

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