The films featured on Turner Classic Movies’ Tribute to George Eastman House (December 14) span nearly fifty years, from the Teens to the Sixties, illustrating just how diverse the motion picture collections are at the museum. Our preservation efforts have been ongoing nearly since we opened, starting with BEN-HUR in 1950 and continuing today. We’re very pleased that TCM has recognized our legacy of hard work and is assisting us in our ultimate goal of making these films available to our audience. In the upcoming days, I’d like to take some time to tell you a little about each of the titles airing on TCM and let you look behind-the-scenes at a working motion picture archive.
The first film playing in the salute to George Eastman House is the 1989 restoration of the 1918 version of THE BLUE BIRD. The film was based on the play L’Oiseau Bleu by Maurice Maeterlinck and produced by Famous Players-Lasky, which later became the modern Paramount Pictures. It was one of the American films of French director Maurice Tourneur, whose career shifted back to France at the end of the silent period. Tourneur is likely best known as the director of the Mary Pickford films POOR LITTLE RICH GIRL (1917) and PRIDE OF THE CLAN (1917), the first feature-length adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS (1920), as well as producing Jacques Tourneur, the director of OUT OF THE PAST (1947) and CAT PEOPLE (1942). The preservation began with a 35mm nitrate positive loaded with beautiful color tints that add to the fantastical feel of the film. We printed new negatives and made sure that the color remained in the new prints that were reconstructed from multiple sources. The results are gorgeous, and the score by Mont Alto Orchestra complements the images. This will be a TCM premiere, but if you like it, you can buy this version on DVD from Kino. Airs at 6:15 a.m.
HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920)
William Desmond Taylor’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN (1920) was the first adaptation of Mark Twain’s seminal American classic, and the last in a loose trilogy of Twain films directed by Taylor. Taylor may be best-known now for his notorious murder and the careers it ruined, but he was quite a prolific director in his own right. Much was made of the 2009 premiere of this film at GEH, and it has shown in San Francisco, Chicago and Pittsburgh since then. Again, we worked from a tinted nitrate positive, but this print had Danish intertitles (the words on the screen in between the action), which made it difficult to understand. We asked one of our Selznick graduates, Ulrich Ruedel, to do a rough translation of the intertitles, then Anthony L’Abbate, our Preservation Officer, took these translations and adjusted the language to that of the Twenties, and used Twain’s original text for much of the dialogue. In order to re-construct the titles, Anthony used the 1920 version of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE as a template for typeface, background and spacing. One of the best uses of tinting in the film is the scene in which Huck, attempting to steal some butter, hides it under his hat. Seated near a fireplace, Huck and the butter both heat up, the butter dripping through his hair and down his face. All of these shots of Huck are tinted red, visually supporting the heat and nerves that he is experiencing. A brand-new score by Mont Alto Orchestra was commissioned for this screening. Airs at 9:15 p.m.
ROARING RAILS (1924) is another recent restoration similar to HUCKLEBERRY FINN. A tinted nitrate was the basis of the preservation, but it had Dutch subtitles. We asked another Selznick graduate, Elisa Mutsaers, to do a rough Dutch-to-English translation, and Anthony worked his magic again, utilizing resources from our Paper, Poster and Stills Collection to re-create the PDC (Producers Distributing Corporation) logo for the new intertitles. ROARING RAILS is what Variety would call a “meller,” industry for “melodrama.” In a very large nutshell, “Big Bill” Benson is a World War I veteran who adopts a French war orphan and struggles through poverty upon losing his job as a train engineer. Moving West, he finds another job, but his son is blinded in a sabotage attempt. Not having any money, he takes the blame for a murder he didn’t commit to save a rich man’s son who has promised to pay for the operation his son needs. “Big Bill” is played by Harry Carey, a veteran of over 200 films, many of them Westerns, 29 with John Ford. He is also the father of Harry Carey, Jr., himself a veteran of 150 films. World-renowned accompanist Dr. Philip Carli, a Rochester resident and frequent Dryden Theatre collaborator, recorded an all-new score for this film on the Moller organ at the Capitol Theatre in Rome, NY. Airs at 1:15 a.m.
A PAGE OF MADNESS (KURUTTA IPPEIJI, 1926) is the only foreign film in the tribute. The story of a man who takes a job at an insane asylum to be near his wife, who is a patient, and how their daughter’s engagement affects the family, is told with no dialogue, only images and a percussive score that drives the action as well as underlines the cacophony of confusion that threatens to tear the woman apart. The film’s director Teinosuke Kinugasa is not as well-known in this country as his contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, but directed over 100 features in his native Japan, including JUJIRO (CROSSROADS, 1928), JOYU (THE ACTRESS, 1947) and JIGOKUMON (GATE OF HELL, 1954), which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. This film was originally preserved in the 1970s from an acetate 35mm positive, and then revisited in 2001 with a re-recorded score. Airs at 3 p.m.
These are just some of the films that will be broadcast during the tribute, and, hopefully, some you’ll be looking out for. I’ll tackle the changeover period between silent and sound films in my next piece. But as a special behind-the-scenes bonus, I’ll leave you with this: all the films mentioned in this article are held by George Eastman House!
Jared Case is the Head of Collection Information and Access for the Motion Picture Department and one of the most popular instructors at the L. Jeffrey Selznick School of Film Preservation. He graduated from the school himself in 2002 and has been with George Eastman House ever since. He is a film noir aficionado and can be found at film festivals, mystery conventions and noir conferences around the country.