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.

 

Nancy Kauffman is the Archivist for the Stills, Posters and Paper Collections in the Moving Image Department.

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Making Fiber Based Photographic Paper Again in Rochester!

Posted by on Mar 07 2014 | Other, Photography

We’re getting ready for a fantastic Handmade Gelatin Photographic Paper workshop and it’s simply too fascinating to let slip by without mention.



In the early 1890s a new type of gelatin emulsion paper was introduced that was contact printed like the albumen print, but unlike albumen printing the image was made visible by a developer. The photographs were black and white, not shades of brown. This product was originally called “gaslight paper” because you could use your household gas light turned low as a darkroom safe light and use the same light turned up brighter to do the actual exposures with the paper in contact with a negative. One of the Kodak versions of this photographic paper was called “Azo” and it was manufactured until several years ago. In the past few years we have worked with Ron Mowrey, a retired Kodak emulsion engineer, to learn how to make and coat this type of emulsion. Not only is it one of the easiest emulsions we have made, but the results are extraordinary.

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Working in the darkroom is often described as a magical experience. For almost every lover of analog photography the decisive moment of that magical experience can be pin pointed to that instant the latent image explodes to life from a seemingly blank piece of paper. Sadly for many people bitten by the photo bug in our digital world this is an experience might never have the pleasure of enjoying, however its never to late to start!

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Actually making and using Azo emulsion to coat your own photographic papers and create stunning black and white contact prints is an experience that will take even the most seasoned photographer back to that first time they ever experienced the magic. If having that feeling again isn’t enough also take into account that you have created your prints entirely by hand. Taking raw materials and turning them into something beautiful is one of the more rewarding experiences one can have.

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The workshop is from March 17-20 and we still have a few spots available for this great class. For more information and on-line registration please go to: http://bit.ly/GEHWorkshops

 

Nick Brandreth is the Historic Process Specialist at George Eastman House.

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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:
 



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

 

Rachel Pikus is the Manager of Online Engagement at George Eastman House International Museum of Photography and Film.

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Eastman House celebrates 20 years of Dutch Connection

Posted by on Feb 21 2014 | Exhibitions, History, House & Gardens, Other

For the last 20 years, in February, George Eastman House has organized the Dutch Connection to show the kind of flowers George Eastman enjoyed in his home from late fall to early spring. Although there is no record of his bulb order for 1913/1914, historic records indicate that Mr. Eastman typically ordered varieties of each plant included in this exhibition—tulip, daffodil, hyacinth, and amaryllis bulbs; freesia corms; and clivia, begonia, campanula, hellebore, primrose, and azalea. Because this two-week exhibition includes the total number of plants that Mr. Eastman would order for display over a five-month period, you are enjoying approximately ten times the number of blooms that Mr. Eastman would have displayed at one time.

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In July, 2013, nearly 6,000 bulbs were ordered. The bulbs were shipped in late September and volunteers and staff potted the tulips, daffodils and hyacinth. These pots were then placed in a dark, cool root cellar in Highland Park. Tulips, daffodils and hyacinth require a 12 to 15 week 40 to 45 °F cool, dark period, much like they get when planted in the garden. The potted bulbs that were in the root cellar were moved into the greenhouse in January. In the greenhouse, the bulbs require 2 to 7 weeks, depending on variety, at 55 to 65 °F. with full sunlight to flower. The bulbs were forced into bloom at Lucas Greenhouses, Fairport, NY. The freesias and amaryllis were grown in the Palm House until they could be moved to the greenhouse in January. The azaleas, hellebores, clivia, primrose, campanula, and begonias are grown on site or purchased from a wholesaler.

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The exhibition opened on Valentine’s Day and will close on Sunday, March 2. At any one time there are over 3,000 blooms in the exhibition. The tulip, daffodil, and hyacinth blooms last only a week in the relatively warm, dry, Conservatory environment, and are replaced once during the exhibition. The azaleas, hellebores, freesias, amaryllis, clivia, begonias, campanula, and primrose bloom two weeks or longer.

Amy Kinsey, the Nancy R. Turner Landscape Curator at George Eastman House, has studied horticulture (Univ. of Maryland), plant genetics (Univ. of Birmingham, UK), and landscape architecture with a concentration in historic cultural landscape preservation (SUNY-ESF). She has worked for National Capitol Parks in Washington, DC, and the Agricultural Research Station in Beltsville, MD.

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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.

Jim Healy was the Assistant Curator, Exhibitions in the Moving Image Department at George Eastman House from 2001-2010. He is currently the Director of Programming for the University of Wisconsin - Madison Cinematheque.

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