Lee Pfeiffer reports on the Bradford International Film Festival -Day 3
Today's events began at 10:00 AM with a crowd gathering in the Pictureville Cinema for Cinerama Ventures, a festival of documentaries hosted by Dave Strohmaier and Randy Gitsch, producers of the acclaimed documentary Cinerama Adventure. The presentation included new featurettes about the making of How the West Was Won that were frustratingly dropped from the recent deluxe DVD release. One documentary looked at the film's return engagement in the 1990s at the Arclight Hollywood Cinerama Theatre and featured moving interviews with attendees who spoke about how much the film meant to them. Another fascinating documentary centered on the film's legendary run at the small Neon Theatre in Dayton, Ohio. The theater was specially fixed to conform with Cinerama projection standards and How the West Was Won was intended to run for a matter of weeks...instead it ran for years, as fans descended on the theater from all over the world. The documentary centered on the efforts of projectionist John Harvey who personally ran every performance of the movie at the theater during its run. In doing so, Harvey - who had also reconstructed a Cinerama print from diverse reels from various sources - managed to perform duties that originally required five men to handle the complex Cinerama projection system. The documentary was funny, informal and, in the end, very touching as it examined how one man's dream of keeping Cinerama alive has paid dividends in the ensuing years. There was also a terrific documentary in which Cinerama fan Tom March visited the main locations of How the West Was Won and photographed them as they are today. The images were brilliantly overlayed on film clips from the original movie. Sadly, Warner Home Video did not include this featurette on the recent DVD release.
Acclaimed documentary filmmaker Dave Strohmaier introduces various short films pertaining to Cinerama. (Photo: www.in70mm.com)
A true highlight of the morning's presentations was the surprise unveiling by Dave and Randy of a reel of film from the long-missing feature Russian Adventure. The film was a bizarre attempt by the Soviets to emulate the American 3-strip Cinerama process. It was ultimately released in the USA in 1966 with narration by Bing Crosby! Perhaps due to Cold War tensions at the time, not even Der Bingle could persuade audiences to attend the showings and the film ultimately lost more than $15 million. It was thought to be missing for decades but, acting on a tip, Dave Strohmaier found the complete feature stored in a trailer in Los Angeles. As he prepared to remove it, a local artist challenged him, saying he had permission to spray paint the reels and dangle them from the ceiling of his art exhibition. Using innovative Sherlockian thinking, Dave said that the film represented a "Hazmat" situation because the stock was highly flammable and that the artist was risking interfering with public safety. Humiliated and chastized, the artist stood silently as Dave loaded the last known print of this film into a pickup truck, thus ensuring it's preserved for future generations. Seeing the sample reel was a treat for all in the audience. Forget the fact that the travelogue was little more than a ludicrous Soviet propaganda film that implied the average Russian was living it up by taking drives in the country in their sports cars. (Both sports cars in the country were probably requisitioned for this film.) It offered a fascinating time capsule of a bygone era - and left the audience hungry for more. Dave and Randy are looking into what the next steps will be in terms of preserving and exhibiting the print, which has suffered from the dreaded "vinegar syndrome" that ultimately destroys film.
The curtains draw closed on the magnificent digital presentation of How the West Was Won on the giant Cinerama screen. (Photo: www.in70mm.com)
Following this presentation, came the main event: the big screen premiere of Warner Brothers' new digitally remastered version of How the West Was Won. This was the same master that was used for the recent DVD release. The film had to be especially formatted on the Cinerama screen because the dimensions didn't exactly conform. However, miracle worker projectionist Duncan McGregor managed this feat with a bare minimal amount of cropping. As the famed overture of Alfred Newman's magnificent score resonated through the audience, the anticipation built steadily. When the curtains parted, the MGM lion roared as the famous main title theme thundered through the theater. The digital version was stunning - and benefited from the fact that the "join lines" had been painstakingly eliminated. I found this was a welcome development, though Cinerama purists might argue that anything other than the original presentation is a bastardization. However, if there were complaints from the audience, they were not obvious. Everyone was thrilled to see the film looking better than ever. Kudos to Warner Home Video for making the substantial investment in preserving an American classic. From an artistic standpoint, this is brilliant filmmaking - taking a sweeping, epic tale and personalizing it through the eyes of the members of one family. I was also reminded of how diminished today's star system is. With 24 Hollywood legends in How the West Was Won, one can only ponder how a remake of the film could feature even a fraction of such personalities. Adam Sandler would probably be cast as General Grant.
The fishbowl effect on the projection booth of the Pictureville Theatre allows attendees to see the crew at work. (Photo: Lee Pfeiffer/Cinema Retro)
The next main event was an afternoon presentation of Fox's 1966 epic The Bible...In the Beginning. I have only seen bits and pieces of the film over the years and was eagerly awaiting the opportunity to view the recently restored print. However, it was explained that - unbelievably- Fox made a poor print from the restored elements and oversaturated the Adam and Eve opening sequence, which was considered quite erotic in its day. It was hoped that a corrected print had been sent, but after a few minutes, it became obvious that Fox had sent the problematic print. Indeed, the magnificent cinematography in this opening reel made it look like you were glimpsing images in an inkwell, with every nighttime sequence virtually indistinguishable. There were other problems, as well - namely, the quality of the movie itself. Although both Dave Worrall and I find the holy books that the major religions are based on to be as believable and inspiring as Dr. Seuss books, we were prepared to view the film objectively. After all, we have admiration for such religious-based films as Ben-Hur and The Greatest Story Ever Told. However, The Bible shapes up as a massive ego trip by John Huston, who directs, narrates (as the voice of God, no less) and stars as Noah. The film quickly lapses into ham-handed acting, laughable narration (with God talking to Adam like a schoolmaster chastising an unruly pupil) and cornball dialogue that would have been the envy of Ed Wood. I confess that I became very amused by the fact that there are people in this world who literally believe the cause of our woes is the fact that a guy and his girlfriend ate a golden apple offered to them by a serpent -and these are some of the same people who still complain that the old Batman TV series was too "over-the-top"! However, even the unintentional laughs generated by The Bible couldn't convince us to sit through more than the first half hour. Life itself is just too precious to have given another two hours to reviewing the film. As I wrote of The Silver Chalice, "You may not have been an atheist going into the theater, but you probably emerged as one."
The evening offered a well-received presentation of West Side Story, but by this point, our weary arses needed a break so it was off to dinner, the pub (for another late night) and looking forward to Sunday's highly-anticipated big screen showing of Khartoum.
(Click here to visit Dave Strohmaier's definitive Cinerama history web site)