nitrate

Things You Find When You Live in a Former Movie Theatre

Living in a former movie theatre, it was the architecture of the place that connected my home to its former function–until this week. This week I went up into my attic, the former projection booth, to see how its roof has been holding up under the recent barrage of rain. My landlord was too good at clearing away the materials associated with movie exhibition. Most of the items in my attic were from recent tenants who used it as a dumping ground. I happened to notice a plastic shopping bag that hadn’t caught my eye before, and I picked it up to see what was inside. I found film!

As you can see above, the film isn’t in great shape. I stuck my nose in the bag to sniff. I was looking for a vinegar odor. That’s what decaying nitrate film stinks like. No such luck or peril! Touching the film, it felt like plastic. It must be safety stock. You can see the pieces vary in length, but all are short, and some have masking tape notations, which state the names of the movies they were once attached to. I had found mostly film leaders, the heads and ends of film used to thread movies into projectors.

I sorted through all the pieces to see if any contained images of interest. Most did not. I found some pieces with their titles imprinted on their frames, and I found three fragments of one theatre-specific film. I’ve included pictures of the ones that caught my attention the most in this post.

Two things I love about the above film leader–my home started as a silent movie theatre, so it’s fun to find a piece labelled sound, and the stencil font used is striking and vintage.

A lot of the film leaders are from sixties films, like this one for DEVIL’S ANGELS (1967), a Roger Corman production that starred actor and film director John Cassavetes.

NIGHTMARE IN WAX (1969) was a low budget horror movie that revisited the mad man populating his wax museum with stolen bodies plot.

Long-term readers of this blog know I am a Judy Holliday fan. I was smiling almost as big as Gladys Glover when she sees her first billboard when I found part of THE SOLID GOLD CADILLAC (1956) in my hands!

The above is my favorite! I’m guessing it is the oldest I found since it touts a Wednesday prize night, and it sports an Art Deco motif under the text. I’m going to take a closer look at it for dating. A visit to my town’s museum might help me find out what years the theatre ran their promotion. I’ve been meaning to go anyway!

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San Francisco Silent Film Festival Preview, Part 1

The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is almost here! Its first film fills the Castro Theatre’s screen on Thursday night. We’ll rewind our scene to before its audience sits, before they pile into the picture palace, before they stand in a line snaking down Castro and stretching around the corner down 17th, and stop where they chat with anticipation about the experience that awaits them with their friends. Let’s take a look at the films selected to celebrate the festival’s twentieth anniversary.

All Quiet on the Western Front Field Juxtopostion

It’s incorrect to say the festival eases into its first screening with only one feature. A centerpiece film always kicks off the event in grand style. This year it’s the silent version of war film All Quiet On The Western Front (1930), directed by Lewis Milestone. There were actually two versions of the film made simultaneously, a sound version for English-speaking audiences and an “International Sound Version,” essentially a silent with a later added score and intertitles, written for foreign language markets. While the talkie version was nominated for four Academy Awards and won two, festival Artistic Director Anita Monga says, “Many people consider it to be superior to the sound version.” The epic devastatingly details what happens to a group of young German boys recruited to the trenches of World War I. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra accompany the film.

An off-site opening night party follows the movie. The McRoskey Mattress Company‘s top-floor loft turns into the Kit Kat Club, a 1920s Berlin cabaret hosted by Swedish chanteuse Clara Gustavsson. Also performing are the Craig Ventresco Trio, featuring Meredith Axelrod. Fine food and drink are part of the festivities. Your party ticket gets you nibbles from Poesia Osteria Italiana, wine from Barefoot Wine and Bubbly, beer from Sierra Nevada, and a special cocktail—the Voluptuous Panic—created by Bartavelle‘s Suzanne Drexhage. Vintage attire and dancing are encouraged! Something called the Naughty Boudoir Photo Booth makes a first appearance. Whether you enter the booth before or after imbibing is up to you!

2014 Amazing Tales From the Aarchives Bryony Presentation

Photo by Pamela Gentile from the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s Site

If you attend the party, keep in mind that Day 2 of the fest begins bright and early at 10 AM with Amazing Tales from the Archives! If you miss this educational session, your hardcore silent film fan friends will brag about all the interesting facts they learned and rare films they saw. The ever entertaining Serge Bromberg, of Lobster Films, recounts finding Maurice Tourneur’s 1914 short Figures de Cire (House of Wax). Bryony Dixon brings a treasure trove of footage about the RMS Lusitania to mark the centennial of its sinking, and crowd favorite actor Paul McGann adds narration to her films. Festival President Robert Byrne describes the meticulous process of reconstructing and restoring William Gillette’s Sherlock Holmes. In recognition of another centennial, this time Technicolor‘s, Movette Film Transfer‘s Jennifer Miko screens a home movie shot at Hearst Castle and starring its architect Julia Morgan and W.R. HearstDonald Sosin accompanies this program.

Cave of the Spider Women

I’m excited this year’s Chinese selection deviates from past offerings. While the suffering women dramas previously screened, often starring Ruan Lingyu, were excellent, Cave of the Spider Women or Pan si dong (1927) offers something new to the program. It is a magic-spirit film, a genre popular in 1920s Shanghai, but quite rare to screen today due to so much of early Chinese film being lost. A nitrate 35mm print of the movie was discovered in the National Library of Norway‘s archives. This is not an unusual occurrence. Staffing and funding limitations mean that films listed as lost might lay in other archives undocumented and awaiting discovery and thus restoration before they deteriorate too badly to be saved. In the film. a monk and his followers—a monkey, pig, and shark spirit–search for Buddhist texts while facing dangers like the seductive Spider Queen and her handmaidens. Donald Sosin and Frank Bockius accompany the film.

When the Earth Trembled Poster

Poster Image Courtesy of EYE Filmmuseum, Desmet Collection

When the Earth Trembled (1913) fills the local interest slot. If you’re guessing by the title that it’s about the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, then you are correct! The movie may be the first fictional one made about the disaster, and it incorporates real newsreel footage shot in the earthquake’s aftermath. That’s of special note since the Lubin Manufacturing Company later lost the majority of its newsreel footage in a vault fire, so contained within this disaster epic is a chance to see true life scenes that otherwise would have been destroyed. Director Barry O’Neil‘s insistence on realistic recreations adds to the sense of danger. His leading lady Ethel Clayton almost died when a chandelier fell on her during an earthquake scene. Due to his attention to detail and film mogul Siegmund Lubin devoting four months to making the movie, when normally his studio cranked out two pictures a week, they produced a mega-spectacle that’s sure to thrill today. Multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne accompanies the film.

F.W. Murnau Der letzte Mann 1924 Grooming Scene

Film critic Paul Rotha described The Last Laugh (1924), or Der letzte Mann, as “cine-fiction in its purest form.” Director F.W. Murnau‘s technique was revolutionary. He created a drama focused on an ordinary man’s fall using few intertitles, a fluid camera, and the best of Emil Jannings‘ acting ability. Jannings’ character, a hotel doorman, takes pride in the fine uniform his job provides him. The uniform brings him respect and gives him greater status in his workingclass neighborhood. When his job and uniform are taken away from him, his identity and position are the greater losses compared to the income. The perilousness of work instability and its impact on self-worth and class and social status can resonate for today’s audiences experienced in recession. Berklee Silent Film Orchestra, in its inaugural appearance accompanies the film.

Ghost Train 1927 Still

Image Courtesy of the British Film Institute

The Ghost Train (1927) is the first film adaptation of the popular stage play by Arnold Ridley. It blends horror and comedy elements in depicting what happens when strangers are stranded at a supposedly haunted train station. I’ve seen the 1941 version starring Arthur Askey, which emphasized comedy over the supernatural, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Hungarian director Géza von Bolváry was freer to play up the story’s spookier and darker aspects. After American horror hits Dracula and Frankenstein upset some vocal members of the public, the British Board of Film Censors created the H(orror) certificate as an advisement in 1932, but in reality that resulted in children under 16 being banned from cinemas showing films labeled such. British filmmakers avoided getting the certificate by avoiding the horror genre. Online clips from the silent version show clever uses of animation and superimposition. Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius accompany the film, and Paul McGann provides narration.

This concludes Part 1 of my San Francisco Silent Film Festival preview. Part 2 follows tomorrow!

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For the Love of Film Blogathon 2015

Kay Francis The Man Who Was Lost Publicity Shot

Yesterday I wanted some background noise TV, but when I turned it on an error message popped up on my screen, and that led me to contacting cable support, who worked me through a series of steps only to tell me that my receiver/DVR combo unit had died. I thought I had lost all my recordings. So many movies had been waiting to be watched! Most were recorded off of Turner Classic Movies, and many were pre-codes. Some starred Kay Francis, whose photo starts this post. I wish I could say I was as cool to the news as she looks above, but I wasn’t.

Sharing the news on social media brought out not only support from friends, but also their own stories of movies and old time radio show recordings lost when technology failed them. To put things in perspective, we were sad to lose quick and easy access to digital copies of entertainment to watch or listen to at our leisure. Even if some of the films or programs aired rarely or were harder to find, their originals or other copies existed. The chance remained to get more copies. Amassing them all again would be time-consuming, not impossible.

LOC Late Stage Nitrate Film Decomposition

From the Library of Congress: Late stage nitrate film decomposition.

Now imagine that there are no surviving original prints or copies. No theatre audience ever would have the chance to view these movies. There would be no moments of shared laughter, tears, gasps, or the rare applause. No solo viewer could binge-watch an era, genre, screenwriter, performer, director, or gender. Entire film careers could be lost or their evaluations impacted by missing important works, and cultural history would be written around these gaps or rely solely on aging firsthand accounts.

Let’s take a step back and say the prints that exist are damaged and deteriorating. Feel a little relief? There’s little chance anyone will get to enjoy these movies unless action is taken. There are those people whose skills and connections allow them to find, restore, preserve works, and grant others access to them. Most of us can promote film preservation through spreading the word of its urgency and by fundraising or making donations. The good news is there’s an opportunity to do any or all of these things!

Cupid In Quarantine Still 2

The For the Love of Film Blogathon: The Film Preservation Blogathon returns tomorrow! Starting Wednesday, May 13 and running through Sunday, May 17, dedicated film bloggers will be writing about science fiction movies to raise awareness and funds for film preservation. I’ll be among the participating bloggers. This year the event is co-hosted by Ferdy on Films, This Island Rod, and Wonders in the Dark. The goal is to raise $10,000 to restore, score, and stream silent film Cupid in Quarantine (1918), “a one-reel Strand Comedy that tells the story of a young couple conspiring to stay together by staging a smallpox outbreak.” I know you want to see that! Bonus: If the fundraiser is successful anyone will get to watch this romantic comedy for free. So check out the host blogs for post links, share the word, and contribute if you can!

 

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