Archive for the 'Motion Pictures' Category

Happy Birthday, Mary Pickford

Posted by on Apr 08 2014 | History, Motion Pictures

In honor of Mary Pickford’s birthday today, we look beyond her famous golden curls at her close association with George Eastman House and her early film preservation efforts.

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On November 9, 1949, Mary Pickford was on hand to cut the ribbon at the ceremony for the opening of George Eastman House as a museum for photography and film. She was the sole celebrity representing motion pictures at the opening, but was joined by other noteworthy guests such as photographer Edward Steichen and poet Carl Sandberg.

Eastman House director Oscar Solbert, Mary Pickford, and Kodak president Thomas J. Hargrave

Eastman House director Oscar Solbert, Mary Pickford, and Kodak president Thomas J. Hargrave

In November 1955, George Eastman House held the first Festival of Film Artists (later called the George Awards). Conceived by the museum’s first director Oscar Solbert and organized by James Card, the first curator of motion pictures, the awards honored twenty living film artists of the silent era — five in each category of actor, actress, director, and cinematographer — “for distinguished artistic contribution to the universal medium of motion pictures” for the period 1915 to 1925. Ballots were sent out to people in the industry from that era, asking them to select their top five choices of film artists in each category. Pickford received the most votes by far of all the actresses on the ballot — 383 votes, the next highest being Lillian Gish with 236 votes.

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Someone at the museum had the forethought (or curiosity) to note the name of the person who returned each ballot, so we can actually see how some of these luminaries voted. It’s good to see that Pickford had the class not to vote for herself. (There were many others on the ballot who did vote for themselves!)

Lillian Gish, Oscar Solbert, and Mary Pickford

Lillian Gish, Oscar Solbert, and Mary Pickford

Pickford flanked by emcee Jesse L. Lasky (far left) and two of her directors and fellow 1955 George Award winners: Frank Borzage (left) and Marshall Neilan (right)

Pickford flanked by emcee Jesse L. Lasky (far left) and two of her directors and fellow 1955 George Award winners: Frank Borzage (left) and Marshall Neilan (right)

The awards were repeated two years later in October 1957, this time honoring film artists for the period 1926-1930. Pickford was a second-time winner and returned to Rochester for the awards ceremony, which was again held at the Eastman Theatre.

Pickford and husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers are greeted at the Rochester airport by Oscar Solbert and James Card

Pickford and husband Charles “Buddy” Rogers are greeted at the Rochester airport by Oscar Solbert and James Card

Pickford with fellow 1957 award winners Harold Lloyd, Janet Gaynor, and Lillian Gish

Pickford with fellow 1957 award winners Harold Lloyd, Janet Gaynor, and Lillian Gish

Pickford receiving her award from emcee Rouben Mamoulian at the Eastman Theatre

Pickford receiving her award from emcee Rouben Mamoulian at the Eastman Theatre

As a result of the connections made during the first and second Festivals of Film Artists, George Pratt, assistant curator of motion pictures, embarked on an oral history project in 1958 whereby he interviewed 27 pioneers of the silent film era, including many of the winners of the George Awards. Mary Pickford was one of them and the interview was conducted at Pickfair, her legendary home in Beverly Hills.

During the interview, Pickford recounts her early days on stage with David Belasco and on film with the Biograph Company, her less than favorable experiences with director Ernst Lubitsch (whom she brought to the U.S. from Germany to direct her in Rosita), acting with alligators in Sparrows, and cutting off her hair in 1928 (at the age of 36):

I wanted to be free of the shackles of curls and playing little girls. And I thought that was one step toward it. Of course I had the most indignant letters, insulting letters. And I thought, if that’s all, after all these years, a lifetime in the theatre and motion pictures, if it’s a bunch of eighteen curls that’s keeping me on screen, it’s about time I retired.

Perhaps one of the nicest moments, caught on tape during the testing of the tape recorder, is Pickford telling Pratt that she thought “Mama, Lottie, and Jack ought to be with us” during the interview as well, referring to a photograph she had with her of her mother, sister, and brother, all long ago deceased.

In 1959, James Card wrote an article for Eastman House’s Image magazine, assessing Pickford’s career. He felt compelled to counter the prevailing remembrance of Pickford’s performances as “the epitome of saccharine banality, sweetness and light and all permeated with the philosophy of Pollyanna,” due in large part, he believed, to the unavailability of her films at that time for screenings at film societies and festivals. He firmly defended her as:

. . . a battling hellcat, morally and physically committed to all-out attack against the forces of evil, bigotry or malicious snobbery that sought to frustrate the proper denouement of a triumphant, lovely girl appropriately presented in stunning close-up, her incomparable curls backlighted and the Botticelli smile shimmering through the last glittering remnants of any left-over teardrops.

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Pickford struggled with the idea of preserving her legacy on film. In 1931, and with what turned out to be only one more role on screen in her future, she told an interviewer for Photoplay magazine, “[W]hen I go, my films go with me. They are to be destroyed. I am buying all my old films for this purpose. I would rather be a beautiful illusion in the minds of people than a horrible example on celluloid. I pleased my own generation. That is all that matters.” Fearing that she and her films would be misjudged according to modern tastes — sound films had recently supplanted silent films as the industry standard — she reacted in this extreme manner. Fortunately, she had a change of heart and by the mid-1940’s was negotiating with the Library of Congress for the donation of her nitrate films for preservation. Much bureaucratic wrangling with funding and reorganization within the institution, however, made the preservation copying of her films from nitrate to safety film stock a decades-long endeavor.

George Eastman House played a significant role in the preservation of some of Pickford’s films during this muddled period. In 1951, Pickford allowed Eastman House to assist in the stalled copying of her films at the Library of Congress, and in five years eight of her feature films were copied by Eastman House onto acetate film. To further speed up the process, Pickford donated funds to Eastman House for the preservation of 26 additional feature films and 25 Biograph shorts. Card concludes his article by assuring us that:

Mary Pickford’s pictures are shown repeatedly to the public in the Dryden Theatre of Eastman House. In these continuing encounters, Mary’s art stays wonderfully alive . . . . For Mary still charms and always will. The poet [Vachel Lindsay], too, was right – there is something heavenly about Mary Pickford. It is a quality, we must admit, most uncommon in motion pictures.

And so today, we celebrate Mary Pickford’s legacy in motion pictures, and her foresight in preserving her films for future generations to study and enjoy.

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All images are from the George Eastman House Collection, Moving Image Department.

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A Magic Carpet Ride with Douglas Fairbanks

Posted by on Mar 29 2014 | History, Motion Pictures

90 years ago this month, Douglas Fairbanks released his fantasy spectacle The Thief of Bagdad. This was Fairbanks’ biggest and most prestigious film produced to date and was one of the most expensive films of the 1920s with a budget of over $1,000,000. Fairbanks wrote, produced, and starred in the film, and was able to bring his artistic vision to the screen with the exceptional assistance of director Raoul Walsh, production designer William Cameron Menzies, and cinematographer Arthur Edeson. The special effects and immense sets were the film’s biggest selling points – in addition to the star power of Fairbanks in the lead, of course.

The Stills, Posters and Paper Collection in the Moving Image Department has many wonderful artifacts for this film that have safely survived the 90 years since the film’s release. This souvenir program was sold at theatres during The Thief of Bagdad‘s exclusive roadshow engagements in larger cities such as New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Inside is the cast and personnel list, a retelling of the film in story form, quotes from the critics, and information about the art design, all beautifully illustrated with scenes from the film. Note the cover price of 25¢ (roughly equivalent to $3.50 today).

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For those who didn’t want to spend 25¢ for the souvenir program, there was also a free program available to pick up inside the lobby of the theatre. This one is from the Liberty Theatre in New York City, where the film premiered on March 18, 1924, and includes the basic information about the film — cast, production personnel, and a brief synopsis of the story — less elaborately presented than in the souvenir program.

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A common form of advertising movies during the 1920s was the movie herald. These small flyers were handed out at local theatres to advertise films coming soon to that theatre. They were, in effect, heralding the coming attractions. This tri-fold herald for The Thief of Bagdad was handed out at the Lyceum Theatre in Rochester, NY. It manages to pack in a synopsis, praise from the critics, and blurbs about the fantastic sequences in the film, all amidst a striking graphic display of images.

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A music cue sheet for The Thief of Bagdad was provided to theatres to help their accompanists prepare the music to play with the film, whether a lone accompanist on piano or organ, or a multiple piece ensemble or orchestra. It gives suggestions for music pieces to be played for each scene in the film, cued to either an intertitle or an action that the accompanist would see on screen.

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The Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection at George Eastman House is a treasure chest full of images from The Thief of Bagdad, which boasts the largest number of still negatives for any of Fairbanks’ films in this collection – over 1,700. In addition to the typical stills shot of scenes in the film, there are amazing behind-the-scenes and production shots that show the cast and crew at work, construction of sets, and costume and makeup tests.

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Douglas Fairbanks on set with director Raoul Walsh:
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These rare stills show Fairbanks posing before the camera to test how effectively the makeup work depicted scars his character suffered after receiving a flogging when he is discovered to be a thief:

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Most fascinating of all these are the production stills showing how some of the magic of the film was created, such as the construction of the fanciful sets, the underwater sequence, and the flying magic carpet.

The staircase in the Princess’s bedroom, during construction and once completed:
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The underwater sequence, where Fairbanks is tempted by the beckoning sirens:

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And the spectacular magic carpet ride:

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Finally, discoveries in internal correspondence and in one of the Technicolor collections at George Eastman House raise the question of whether Fairbanks was considering filming The Thief of Bagdad in what was then Technicolor’s two-color process. After completing Robin Hood in 1922, Fairbanks began planning his next film, which he wanted to be a pirate story. He felt that a pirate story would best be filmed in color as he “could not imagine piracy without color.” However, he was not at all satisfied with the technical aspects and limitations of filming in color. At about the same time that he was exploring his pirate film, he received as a gift a book of tales of the Arabian Nights, and he then shifted his attention to The Thief of Bagdad.

Although he had put off the pirate film for the time being, color was no doubt on Fairbanks’ mind in 1923 and 1924 while The Thief of Bagdad was in production. Anna May Wong, who played the Princess’s duplicitous slave in the film, talked about working on the film in a 1957 letter to George Pratt, assistant curator of motion pictures at George Eastman House. Wong stated that starring in The Toll of the Sea, the first full length Technicolor film (produced in 1922), established her in the public’s mind and also attracted producers’ attentions to her dramatic efforts. One of the producers was Douglas Fairbanks, “who at that time was very interested and studying different color processes with the intention of making his forthcoming film in color.” Fairbanks signed Wong to a contract, but “decided at the eleventh hour to continue using black and white film for making The Thief of Bagdad.”

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It’s not too far of a leap to venture that Fairbanks was likely testing the waters with Technicolor to see what they could do for him and his desire to produce a film in color. A test frame in Technicolor’s research files for its two-color process shows actress Etta Lee posing in an exotic costume much like those seen in The Thief of Bagdad:

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Lee was in the cast of The Thief of Bagdad, playing the Slave Girl of the Sand Board. Although none of Lee’s costumes in the film is the one seen here in the test frame, the top of a musical instrument can be seen in the background. Compare this with a still from the film, showing the Slave of the Lute, played by Winter Blossom:

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Whether Fairbanks was considering filming The Thief of Bagdad in Technicolor, or if he just made use of his current production to have color tests made for his anticipated pirate film, is mere speculation. Perhaps Technicolor, knowing of Fairbanks’ interest in making a film in color — as well as his dissatisfaction with the limitations of the color process — was trying to court him and keep him interested. After all, a Fairbanks feature film in Technicolor would undoubtedly have been a major achievement for the company in advancing its color process. Perhaps Technicolor initiated and offered further testing at Fairbanks’ studio, using actors, costumes, and props that may have been on hand for his current production. Whatever the case, these artifacts certainly give valuable clues to further study of the film, Fairbanks, and the technical achievements of the time.

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All images are from the George Eastman House Collection, Moving Image Department.

 

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’12 Years a Slave’: Solomon Northup’s Descendants Gather for Photo Shoot at Eastman House

Posted by on Mar 01 2014 | Behind The Scenes, Motion Pictures, Other

The Hollywood Reporter recently brought together five generations from the family tree of the real-life Solomon Northup portrayed in the film 12 Years a Slave (Steve McQueen, US/UK 2013). Eastman House had the great honor of hosting the photo shoot for Northrup’s 26 upstate New York descendants. Similar gatherings were held for Northrup’s other family members in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
 
Nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave tells the story of Northup, a New York State–born free black man who was kidnapped in Washington, D.C., in 1841 and sold into slavery. He worked on plantations in the state of Louisiana, suffering extreme cruelty and brutal torture for twelve years before his release. The film is based on a book of the same name written by Northup in 1853.
 
The Hollywood Reporter wrote:

It’s one of the most visceral depictions of American slavery ever committed to the screen. But it’s the fact that 12 Years a Slave is based on the real-life events of Solomon Northup’s kidnapping and eventual escape that makes the film truly powerful — especially for his descendants.

Eastman House was honored to be chosen as the venue for these Rochester-area family members to gather and reflect on Northrup’s powerful legacy. Here are the resulting photos and video testimonials captured in the Dryden Theatre:
 



Northrup_family

More photos and stories from the other cities can be found here.

 

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Remembering Philip Seymour Hoffman

Posted by on Feb 06 2014 | Guest Blog, Motion Pictures, Other

Magnolia (1999)

Magnolia (1999)

I remember discovering Philip Seymour Hoffman for the first time at the movies. It was in Scent of a Woman. He looked like no one else you’d ever seen on screen before, and yet he was someone you immediately recognized as real. He played a bully in Scent and was more or less the villain of the movie, but something in his performance suggested an inner torment and that made him all the more recognizably human. His work in this movie was hard to forget. Maybe it was because we had never seen him before. Maybe it was because, as they’ve been saying, he was on his way to being the greatest actor of our generation.

He was a familiar face in Hollywood movies over the next couple of years. Because he was so indelible in Scent, it was hard not to feel that tingle of excitement every time he appeared on screen, even in forgettable movies. I really liked him as another bully, the cop who gets punched out by Paul Newman in Nobody’s Fool. Then came the unforgettable sequence where he played a degenerate gambler taunting Philip Baker Hall in Hard Eight (aka Sidney). That started a series of films with Paul Thomas Anderson. It was in their next collaboration, Boogie Nights, where, in one scene, the camera uncomfortably gazes on his character, the hapless boom operator Scotty, after he’s been rebuffed by Mark Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler. Barely choking back the tears, Scotty performs a unique brand of self-flagellation, repeating, mantra-like, “I’m a fuggin’ idiot!” Was this the first time we shared a “private” moment with one of Hoffman’s characters on screen? I think it was the first of many times that he broke my heart.

This ability to play self-loathing characters who put up a false front while falling apart inside would turn out to be his specialty: Happiness, Almost Famous, Love Liza, Owning Mahowny, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, Synecdoche, New York, and The Master. The Oscars like to reward actors for historical impersonations, but his Truman Capote was so much more than just mimicry in a standard biopic. It was a vivid and moving portrait of an artist who was ultimately crippled by his own self-doubts.

I lived in Rochester for a little more than nine years while I worked at George Eastman House, and I became very close with Phil’s mother, Marilyn O’Connor. Through her influence, and the influence of Phil’s brother Gordy, we were able to bring Phil in for a screening of Love Liza at the Dryden. After the screening, I hosted a Q&A with Phil and Gordy (who wrote the film), but I don’t remember what we talked about. I do remember, just after the movie began, talking excitedly just outside the theater doors with Gordy and my brother Pat (he had become friendly with Phil after they both appeared in Magnolia). We must have been loud, because Phil, who was inside watching the opening of the movie, came out and shushed and scowled at us. He was right, of course.

About a year later, Phil and Gordy were home for the holidays and Gordy invited me to join his family in seeing the third Lord of the Rings movie. We went to a multiplex in Henrietta and Phil was very relaxed. I only noticed him being recognized once or twice and he was very sweet with anyone who approached him. Phil sat one row behind me and Gordy. The ubiquitous pre-feature trailers seemed to go on forever. One of the trailers seemed determined to overwhelm us with bombast and swagger: “Now,” read the on-screen text accompanied by thundering music, “the epic action-adventure the world has been waiting for…” Phil leaned forward between me and his brother and, before we could find out what this “must-see” entertainment was titled, he whispered, “The Gin Game!” Before we stopped laughing, he leaned forward again and murmured, “Mornings at Seven!”

The next month, Phil came back to Eastman House to present a documentary he appeared in called The Party’s Over. We talked afterward and he answered audience questions. I don’t remember much else about the evening, but my pal Bruce Bennett was there, and he reminded me that a teenage kid stood up and tried to explain how much Phil’s performances meant to him. He struggled in finding the right words and he finally just asked Phil if he could have a hug. Bruce remembers Phil as being “totally moved and disarmed and surprised by all the emotion clumsily and honestly pouring out of this young guy who clearly didn’t get to express his feelings too often” Phil quickly replied and said “yeah, sure, of course” and the two embraced. Bruce says, “People forget how much personal impact actors can have. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked to hug [Paul Thomas Anderson] because of a camera move he blocked or a line of dialogue he typed.”

I saw Phil a few more times over the years; once at his mother’s birthday celebration, another time at a party after the Toronto premiere of Capote. I last saw him introduce a movie he directed and appeared in, Jack Goes Boating, at Sundance in 2010. It was a nice little movie, based on a play in which he had also appeared. I regret never being able to see him perform live on stage.

These few, brief personal encounters were pleasant and memorable for me. They gave me little insight into what drove him as an artist. I only know that he consistently surprised me and moved me with his honesty and his understanding of human beings.

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A Chaplin Centennial

Posted by on Feb 02 2014 | Motion Pictures, Other

February 2, 2014 is a significant date in the history of cinema. One hundred years ago on this date, a face that was to become one of the most recognized faces in the world was first illuminated on movie screens. That face was Charlie Chaplin’s, and on February 2, 1914, his first film was released in the United States.

Chaplin’s character of “the Little Tramp” didn’t spring forth on that day fully formed in baggy pants and bowler hat.  Almost, but not quite! The film was Making a Living and Chaplin donned a long frock coat, top hat, and sinister mustache.

Making a Living frame

A mere five days later, though, on February 7, 1914, Chaplin’s second film was released, and in Kid Auto Races at Venice, audiences first saw the character of the Tramp. Filmed at Venice Beach, the Keystone Film Company made use of a local event happening there – kiddy car races – and set up their cameras as if to film the races. The comedy resulted when Chaplin, in character, became a camera hog, wandering into the frame at every opportunity, and angering the director at every turn of the camera crank.

Kid Auto Races frame

Although Kid Auto Races at Venice was the first film in which audiences saw Chaplin in what would become his trademark tramp costume, it was actually for Mabel’s Strange Predicament that he assembled and wore the costume in front of the camera. Mabel’s Strange Predicament was filmed before Kid Auto Races at Venice, but not released until February 9, 1914. Legend has it that Chaplin improvised the costume by selecting various pieces worn by other Keystone contract players, attempting to achieve a costume of contrasts – large pants and small jacket, large shoes and small hat.

Mabel's Strange Predicament

Chaplin worked for the Keystone Film Company for one year, from December 1913 to December 1914. His short films for Keystone were released at a slapstick speed of 3-4 per month, so audiences never had to wait long to see the tramp appear in a new film. (Although it should be noted that Chaplin’s costume still varied from time to time from the tramp costume, depending on his role, whether working in a bakery in Dough and Dynamite or appearing as a woman in A Busy Day.) Chaplin’s popularity gained momentum while at Keystone, and he skyrocketed to cultural phenomenon the following year after he left Keystone to work for the Essanay Film Manufacturing Company.

The Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department include some rare and unique items of note related to Charlie Chaplin. The Theodore Huff Collection, which consists of thousands of stills, posters, lobby cards, and music scores and cue sheets for silent films, includes a wealth of Chaplin material. Huff was the author of one of the earliest biographies of Chaplin (Charlie Chaplin, published in 1951) and his collection offers insight into his research and study of Chaplin, such as the research notes and papers he used in writing his book. Pictured here are pages from a small notebook of photo reproductions of frames from Chaplin’s Keystone films that Huff created as a reference in writing about Chaplin’s films. The three frames above were reproduced from this notebook.

Huff notebook

Also in the Moving Image Department is the Douglas Fairbanks Nitrate Still Negatives Collection. This collection includes the original negatives produced by Fairbanks’ production company for his major feature films in the 1920’s such as Robin Hood (1922), The Thief of Bagdad (1924), and The Black Pirate (1926). In addition to the stills shot for specific films, the collection include publicity stills taken around Fairbanks’ studio, showing him posed with notable visitors such as his good friend Chaplin. Their high-spirited friendship is especially evident here as they demonstrate for the camera just how much fun they had together:

Fairbanks-Chaplin 1

Fairbanks-Chaplin 2

Fairbanks-Chaplin 3

Finally, the Moving Image Department has in its collection a rather rare self-caricature, drawn and signed by Chaplin himself:

Autographed caricature

For further study of Chaplin and his films, I highly recommend:

Chaplin at Keystone (dvd set of all of Chaplin’s surviving Keystone films, released by Flicker Alley)
My Life in Pictures by Charles Chaplin
Chaplin by David Robinson
Chaplin: Genius of the Cinema by Jeffrey Vance

Click here to view rare autochromes by Charles C. Zoller on Eastman House’s Tumblr blog Dodge & Burn.

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