George Eastman Museum
The 5th Nitrate Picture Show
Friday, May 3 – Sunday May 5, 2019, with guided tours of the nitrate projection booth on Monday, May 6, with comments on the 4th Nitrate Picture Show, May 4-6, 2018.
In planning the Nitrate Picture Show, the richest opportunity to view vintage prints of films on nitrate stock in the world today, the organizers at the George Eastman House adopted the policy of not announcing the screening schedule in advance. One comes to the festival and views what is offered. This idea didn’t come from nowhere, since the founder and first curator of the film department at Eastman, James Card, implemented it at the Telluride Festival, which he co-founded in 1974. I was thrilled with this concept when I first attended the Festival in 2017, and it continues to hold its fascination. I might not have made an effort to see Hollywood “standards” like Anchors Aweigh or The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer unless I had already made the commitment of a half-day’s drive to Rochester and was happily grazing in the Eastman Museum’s pasture. However, if the program is not announced, the only way to preview an upcoming festival is to recount the previous event.
Lucas Miller has already done this admirably, and I won’t try to duplicate his work, but I found some of the films so surprising and rewarding that I’d like to make a few comments on them. As he observed, the selection of films, which is consistently brilliant and thoughtful, follows certain thematic motifs. Also, since the films are not exclusively taken from the vast collection of the Eastman Museum, but loaned from other film collections around the world, certain cinematic cultures are prominent in the choices. Hollywood understandably dominates to some extent, but there is also Czechoslovakia (as it was when the films were made), Scandinavia, the USSR, and Great Britain.
A special showing last year preceding the festival of a magnificent print of Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet strengthened the British presence. I had only seen this on VHS myself, so the beauty of the print and the concentration encouraged by a theatrical screening made this an especially valuable experience for me, since I write extensively about Shakespeare in the theater and also work with his plays onstage. Some Shakespeareans adopt a condescending attitude towards Olivier’s far from modest efforts in popularizing classics which had become pretty well locked within the confines of high culture by the 1940s, when the end of World War II gave him an opportunity to present Henry V as a patriotic spectacle for all the people, reflecting the demographic of Shakespeare’s own Globe, as well as the theaters around the world where through the 19th century people of all social and educational levels flocked to see the likes of Macready, Booth, Irving, Bernhardt, and Salvini celebrate the Bard in many languages.
For Hamlet Olivier eschewed Technicolor and chose to immerse his audience in a quasi-surreal noir atmosphere. For some Shakespeareans the Hamlet film teeters on the edge of kitsch if not fallen all the way, and the Freudian imagery has aroused as many titters as gasps of enlightenment, but this time around I was impressed by the care with which the unwieldy text was edited, with the great speeches, delivered as only Olivier could, whether one agrees with his expressive decisions or not, presented intact, and judicious cuts in the scenes, which brought out a consistent and hardly superficial understanding of the play. Among several epiphanies I was especially struck by the irony of the military honors accorded the most unwarlike prince at the conclusion—often entirely cut on stage. This print was shown only once before, if at all, being one of two prints required in those days by the Library of Congress to secure copyright.
George Cukor’s film of Philip Barry’s play, Holiday, looked sumptuous in a sepia-toned print for the UCLA archive, a practice I thought went out with silents. I found myself speculating where it might have been shown, imagining that this sort of film would have premiered at one of the semi-art houses of the time, like the Plaza or the Paris in New York, but in fact the first run of Holiday was at Radio City Music Hall, where the sepia would have harmonized especially well with the warm hues of the hall itself. But would a first-run print of such a successful film survive in such excellent condition?
Edmund Goulding’s The Razor’s Edge is a film I’ve seen more than once from a DVD. One quality especially treasured in nitrate prints is a sense of tactile roundness and depth, and this proved to be an important factor in appreciating the deep focus shots which are a crucial element in the storytelling of Goulding and his Director of Photography, Arthur Miller, who worked with Ford and Hitchcock, directors also especially given to depth in their compositions. Also, in the concentrated atmosphere of the festival screenings, I was able to get around the slick middlebrow treatment of Eastern spirituality which mars an otherwise compelling film—and novel. I imagine Maugham and Hollywood must share the blame for that, but I’ve always had a special fondness for The Razor’s Edge in spite of it—now more than ever.
Classics like Ingmar Bergman’s Summer Interlude (actually an early and lesser-known work), Anthony Mann’s Winchester 73, and Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes fared equally well, as did Robert Siodmak’s unjustly forgotten Cry of the City, which I especially admired for its eccentric flights of humor and Victor Mature’s uncharacteristically persuasive acting. Robert Siodmak is not really underestimated, but Cry of the City shows that more of his films deserve attention. František Čáp’s Mist on the Moors (1943), an affecting story of peasant life, is all the more affecting as an attempt at a patriotic film made to bolster Czech spirits during the Nazi occupation. The deep blacks and darker greys of the nitrate print enhanced the splendid cinematography and the latter-day imitations of Dvořák’s Vesyolye Rebyata by Jirí Srnka were charming.
The great surprise of the festival was Grigorij Aleksandrov’s Vesyolye Rebyata (1934) from the Austrian Film Museum, which once enjoyed especially good relations with the Soviet film industry. Moscow Laughs was the title given it at the Festival. It was originally released as Jazz Comedy in the UK, when Graham Greene reviewed it and is more accurately translated as Merry Fellows. This musical was by far the most popular film of the Soviet era, so much so, that the elements wore out, and by 1958, the director had to reconstruct it in order to continue circulation, using nitrate stock, which had gone out of use in most places by 1952. There was presumably some element of nostalgia in this.
Aleksandrov was Eisenstein’s assistant in the 1920s, and with Eisenstein he visited Hollywood 1930 at the invitation of Paramount Pictures. He fell in love with the musicals that flooded the American market with the advent of sound and took that back to the USSR with him. Vesyolye Rebyata was the immediate result. He fell in love with his charming star, Lyubov Orlova, and they went on to make several other successful musicals together. After her death in 1975 he devoted himself to a biography and documentary about her.
When Vesyolye Rebyata was first released, Graham Greene preferred its rough heartiness to the Gallic wit and polish of René Clair’s The Italian Straw Hat, and it is indeed a model of original, spontaneous filmmaking. It opens with one of the longest tracking shots I can remember seeing, saved from the Guinness Book of World Records by a couple of cuts in its final third, showing the male lead, Kostya (played by Leonid Utyosov), a shepherd on a collective farm near Odessa, lead a troupe of animals with his flute. A decadent amateur singer mistakes him for a famous conductor and invites him to a soirée at her villa on the Black Sea. When he plays the flute at the party, the animals come packing, invading the elegant house and creating total chaos. This anarchic satire on the few who managed to maintain a materially privileged life in the early years of the Soviet Union must surely have been inspired by Jean Vigo’s Zéro de Conduite, released just the previous year. Alexandrov’s revolutionary disregard for the niceties of Hollywood professionalism appear in the grand finale, usually the most meticulously crafted part of this most carefully wrought of genres, in which details of costumes—hats, shoes, and other paraphernalia—are switched around with no attempt at continuity.
The Nitrate Picture Show traditionally closes with the Blind Date with Nitrate, in which a frame in the festival announcement provides the only clue of what the film will be. In 2018 it was Robert Flaherty’s Man of Aran, my candidate for the greatest of all films in terms of cinematography and its role in the overall result, for which Flaherty himself was responsible.
I can’t imagine a more rewarding immersion in cinema. Can you?