Very few people have seen Michael Curtiz’s A Million Bid (1927), but it’s an interesting picture, moreso than its meager reputation would suggest. The film merits barely more than a paragraph in James Robertson’s The Casablanca Man: The Cinema of Michael Curtiz and earns a passing mention in Alan K. Rode’s newly released Michael Curtiz: A Life in Film. (Rode provides additional context on A Million Bid in his recent interview with Ben Sachs.) Yet the story of its production, release, and restoration of A Million Bid suggests a film of enduring, imponderable mysteries. Rather than attempt a critical evaluation of the film, I hope to demonstrate how rich and contradictory a record A Million Bid left behind in primary sources alone.
The neglect of A Million Bid is understandable. The script is rote melodrama, and the film itself (presumed lost for decades until a copy was rediscovered in Italy) is somewhat extraneous in assessing Curtiz’s legacy. It was Curtiz’s second American film, but his first, The Third Degree (1926), long ago preserved by the Library of Congress, seemed a sufficient example of his work from this period. The Third Degree was released amidst of flurry of Warner Bros. publicity, touting the studio’s newest filmmaker (already a veteran director of sixty films in Europe) as a technical wizard. “I do not see a scene with my eyes,” boasted Curtiz in a Los Angeles Times profile, “I see a scene with camera-eyes.” The film earned decent reviews, with favorable comparisons to E.A. Dupont’s Variete, one of the German imports frequently invoked as a rejoinder to pedestrian Hollywood technique. Continue reading
In 1967, the newly-formed American Film Institute released a preliminary list of 150 significant feature films that were considered endangered, already lost, or thought to survive only in substandard copies. Lewis Milestone’s 1931 adaptation of The Front Page was among the titles at risk.
Based on the reviews that greeted The Front Page in 1931, it’s sobering to recognize that the survival of such a highly-regarded film could be in doubt scarcely four decades later. To put that in perspective, it would be as if no one could readily ascertain whether a single copy of a film like Reds or Atlantic City still existed in 2017.
Admiration for The Front Page was professed in publications high-brow, low-brow, and every brow in between. The Chicago Tribune’s spectral critic Mae Tinee proclaimed that “Lewis Milestone’s direction is the last word in snap: lines click, photography and sound are all to the good. What this production lacks in nobility it makes up for in ‘It.’” Writing in Vanity Fair, Harry Alan Potamkin rhapsodized that “Milestone’s contribution in The Front Page is the first American contribution to the ‘philosophy’ of the sound-sight cinema. It puts forth the principle of pace set by the verbal element. The film itself is a tour de force, a vehicle which by its speed makes a superficial cargo appear profound.”
The Front Page earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, too, but the passion aroused by the film was perhaps best captured by Pare Lorentz’s column in Judge:
Before tonight’s screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice, we’ll be presenting a rare short: Doom Town. Call it a prelude or a grim appetizer to Tarkovsky’s vision of the apocalypse, but Doom Town is so compelling in its own right that it deserves a few words. Originally released in polarized 3-D, Doom Town will be screened in 2-D, in a print made directly from one of Doom Town’s original camera negatives.
Whenever I try to explain the Film Society’s interest in physical media to a mixed audience, I shamelessly shoplift from other disciplines. Approach film prints like an anthropologist, I suggest. Who made them? Who used them? What do the print’s material characteristics suggest about its origins and purpose? Continue reading
Film preservation is rarely a sexy endeavor, the fantasies of archivists themselves notwithstanding. Preserving or restoring a film often requires years of semi-scholastic drudgery—research, grant-writing, lab tests, hair-splitting assessments of continuity and color-timing. The reward at the end of the process is posterity—for the film, not the preservationist, who must be content with providing a sound bite on a DVD extra. (Bonus points allotted if the preservationist is shown at a messy desk, futzing with an ornery reel or holding it up to the light for inspection, like a fastidious jeweler.)
Point being, preservation work is a consummate behind-the-scenes job. On a certain level, that work should be invisible: if the goal is to return a film as close as possible to its original state, then eluding audience detection through seamless tradecraft is a mark of success. Hiding the gulf between disparate source elements and suppressing the ravages of time are laudable, essentially self-effacing, achievements. Film restoration hews closely to the physician’s Hippocratic Oath—first, do no harm. (By this standard, touting a new surround sound remix, digitally removing the intrinsic grain structure of the image, or valiantly intuiting a long-dead filmmaker’s unrealized intentions would automatically command suspicion, to say nothing of colorization, integration of new footage, and the like.) The highest compliment is not to be noticed at all.
The deliberations behind a restoration are even more obscure. They are almost always private and sometimes even proprietary: convincing a foundation that a particular film is culturally auspicious enough to merit underwriting its preservation, persuading a superior to allocate scarce discretionary funds to an emergency salvage project, negotiating a fair licensing agreement with a copyright holder. These are inherently delicate situations, so it’s no surprise that they don’t often unfold in the public square. Continue reading
No sooner had this blog observed that film’s death watch was leveling off than the Los Angeles Times delivered a bombshell: Paramount Pictures was the first of the big studios to drop 35mm, with Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues being its last title released on film. Henceforth, all Paramount titles would be DCP only, beginning with The Wolf of Wall Street. (How ironic that, in one of Wolf’s best scenes, Leonardo DiCaprio teaches his charges how to scam small-time investors by selling them shares of Kodak before moving on to worthless penny stocks.)
Richard Verrier’s Times piece was thinly sourced, with the studio refusing to comment and the “theater industry executives” who leaked the news remaining anonymous. The article included no quotes from the memo itself, nor any indication of how many people received it. In some ways, this is old news. Anchorman 2 was released a month ago, and the gist of the Paramount memo was circulating on specialist message boards like film-tech.com back in November. At least one forum member cited a Wolf booking at a 35mm venue, but the balance of the evidence suggests that the phantom memo is, in fact, true. Continue reading
In the short history of the Northwest Chicago Film Society, we’ve faced some formidable challenges. In our first season, a 16mm print of Silver Lode was lost in transit. In our second season, one of the Portage Theater’s 35mm projectors fell off its pedestal right before a show of Comanche Station. And of course, back in May we found ourselves locked out of the Portage with no advance notice, collateral damage in the new landlord’s curious scorched earth campaign against his own theater. These kinds of obstacles are familiar enough for any film exhibitor or small business owner: logistics problems, equipment malfunctions, property disputes.
But there’s another looming problem that’s definitely out of the ordinary: the ongoing shutdown of the federal government. Continue reading
Our new season begins on Wednesday with One Hour with You. If you’ve never seen it, you have a wonderful, adult, emotionally resonant musical to look forward to. If you have seen it before—say, on Criterion’s budget-line Eclipse DVD or in a 16mm print at the old LaSalle Bank Cinema—you haven’t really seen it either.
That’s because Universal’s 35mm print is tinted. Derived from a restored negative from UCLA Film and Television Archives, this version doesn’t include any new scenes, but around half of the footage is tinted sepia or lavender. (The remainder of the film is black-and-white.) That makes the print unusual in 2013, but hardly so in 1932. Continue reading
Early on in my career as a film exhibitor, I fielded a straightforward and slightly irate question from an audience member. The night before, my college had screened a rare Maurice Tourneur film in a soft, middling 16mm print, which we had advertised, correctly, as an ‘archival print.’ Shouldn’t an archival print look better than that, he wondered? Shouldn’t it look, if not wonderful, at least good?
The answer I fear I gave this man, tautological but also correct, was that an archival print simply meant a print obtained from an archive.
Archival prints are special, but if programmers hope to train audiences to salivate at the mere words, they have another thing coming. The fact that a print can be described as archival doesn’t necessarily translate into a more luminous or detailed image, a scratch-free print, or, for that matter, a better movie. In truth, the real distinction comes down to the fact that the programmer probably had to negotiate for the right to screen the print, document the venue’s film handling workflow, attest to a sterling record with borrowing similar artifacts for peer institutions, and sign an intimidating loan agreement. This compared to the relatively simple process of booking a film from a studio or an indie distributor, which can often be accomplished with a simple phone call. It’s an inside-baseball commendation, a process-oriented triumph whispered about by fellow connoisseurs. Continue reading
Much has been written of the enormous strides made by genuinely independent cinema in recent years. In 2004, nearly every review of Jonathan Caouette’s Tarnation cited its “budget” of $218 and touted its desktop iMovie roots as a harbinger of things to come. Theatrical distribution for no-budget personal documentaries didn’t last long. YouTube would launch within six months.
Nevertheless, digital moviemaking has been embraced as a uniquely democratic avenue, the kind of game-changer that fundamentally alters who makes and consumes media. The ease of digital production and dissemination cannot be denied, but neither should we assume that the film era presented insurmountable barriers to entry. If anything, the disappearance of analog workflows makes the achievements of the past all the more impressive. How did aspiring filmmakers ever master exposure, A/B roll cutting, synchronization, and magnetic sound recording? These technical hurdles were real, but they hardly stopped a flood of alternative media, dissident art, regional filmmaking, and genuine oddities from reaching the screen.
Efraín Gutiérrez is one of the least likely, most bewildering figures of the celluloid era. With minimal capital and technical experience, Gutiérrez managed to produce and distribute three features and one short film in the latter half of the 1970s—the first films to depict the Chicano community from the inside. The details of Gutiérrez’s career became the stuff of legend, particularly after the filmmaker’s 1980 disappearance. Some speculated that he’d been a drug runner or a hit man and financed his films through illicit means. The sympathetic critic Gregg Barrios made a case for Gutiérrez as a pioneering Chicano filmmaker while acknowledging the consensus view that his films were “sexist and racist diatribes that should be ignored and forgotten.” Continue reading
When Portrait of Jason opened in 1967, there were no LGBT film festivals. Major newspapers and respectable citizens referred to gays and lesbians in appallingly derogatory language. Civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin had been shunted to the sidelines by Adam Clayton Powell, for fear that this homosexuality would undermine the movement. To be black and gay meant a life on the margin of the margins.
And here was Jason Holliday talking for nearly two hours about his brave, bawdy life before the camera.
There was some precedent for Portrait of Jason in Andy Warhol’s flurry of talkies, particularly the Ron Tavel-scripted Fire Island gabfest My Hustler. Warhol also made film portraits of uncomfortable intensity—Edie Sedgwick going about her daily business in The Poor Little Rich Girl, for example.
The debt to Warhol is economic and logistical, not just aesthetic. The unprecedented mainstream interest in Warhol’s The Chelsea Girls strained the passive distribution capacity of the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, which booked mostly college showings and underground establishments. To break into first-run theaters coast-to-coast, Jonas Mekas, Shirley Clarke, and Louis Brigante created the more commercially-minded Film-Makers Distribution Center. Portrait of Jason would be handled by the new FMDC, a potential cross-over hit in an era when Hollywood had largely missed recent upheavals in American taste. Holliday even cut a comedy LP. Continue reading