It's always a pleasure when Winter Nights comes around again. It's the one time out of the year when the IMA, which has the resources to project classic 35mm films in optimum conditions, goes all out to present a themed series of films — and usually, on film, not video formats.
This year's Winter Nights series, which runs on consecutive Friday nights from Jan. 6 to Feb. 24, is dedicated to movies either filmed or printed, or both filmed and printed, in Technicolor. (We'll explain the difference in the interview below, but essentially, Technicolor movies made before the mid-'50s were filmed using Technicolor's proprietary camera; and after that time, they were printed by Technicolor but filmed on different cameras and stock. It can be a negligible difference, in terms of what goes on the screen, but there you have it.)
Anthony L'Abbatte, preservation officer at George Eastman House, is the guest speaker for Friday's opening salvo in the series, which features two films lensed in an early Technicolor process that rendered the world in only reds and greens: the Douglas Fairbanks swashbuckler The Black Pirate (a silent, with piano accompaniment by Roger Lippincott), and the Fay Wray horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum.
The remainder of the series will feature films either filmed or printed in the more familiar three-color Technicolor process, including a British effort (the fantasy A Matter of Life and Death, filmed partly in black and white), one of the few classic films noir shot in color (Leave Her to Heaven), the Marilyn Monroe vehicle Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and the John Ford-directed The Quiet Man. Two guest speakers will close out the series: Sandy McLendon, editor in chief of jetsetmodern.com, will comment on Givenchy fashion seen in Charade and Indianapolis Opera maestro James Caraher will talk about the role of opera in The Godfather, Part II.
Eric Grayson, the IMA's go-to film projectionist, will provide some of the prints for Winter Nights, including a restored Technicolor print of The African Queen. He'll also put on a free, 90-minute class on the history of color in film at the IMA on Feb. 10, featuring clips from several experimental color processes.
Grayson isn't just the local expert on all things classic film: He was recently called upon by Kino Lorber to bring back to life a faded Technicolor sequence from the 1925 Buster Keaton film Seven Chances for the company's high-definition re-release of the film. On a tight deadline and using a fast home-brew computer, Grayson was able to restore color to the opening minutes of the film, using an older print of the film for reference because color had almost entirely faded from the original negative.
I talked with Grayson about both Winter Nights and his ongoing Garfield Park classic film series.
NUVO: It's said that silent movies were never really silent because they were often accompanied by music. We might also say that the black and white era wasn't really in black and white, not only because films were tinted and hand-colored, but also because there were attempts to reproduce films in natural color from the beginning.
Eric Grayson: Technicolor goes back to 1917, but — and I'll be showing this in my History of Color show — you have Kinemacolor going back to 1908. Even more interesting than that, they had a really amazing stencil process. It wasn't actual color, but it involved hiring people to paint color onto actual films. That could look really good — Pathe did that — and that goes back to 1894. I've seen some that are almost good enough to fool you into thinking it's color — a real color photograph. The History of Color show will show all kinds of color processes — Technicolor, Kodachrome, Cinecolor, Kinemacolor — and all the transfers I'll show will be on films, so you'll get to see what they're supposed to look like.
NUVO: The first two films shown in the process are in an early Technicolor process that represented only the red and green parts of spectrum [as opposed to the later, “three-strip” process that used red, green and blue filters to represent the entire color spectrum].
Grayson: Technicolor had a way of shooting a red and a green image together on one piece of film. Then they would print it on two piece of film and glue them together. It was in a really nasty way that the glue was acidic and would swell. It would get really rancid after a while, to the point that you could hardly focus it and it would make the print brittle. So there's very little two-color material from the 1920s that survives because of that. The two that you're going to find at the IMA show will be interesting because it's material we had negatives for, so you can go back and reprint it and make a good print on modern film, which doesn't look the same but doesn't suffer from the problems of deterioration that the early Technicolor prints had.
NUVO: As far as the end result of the early Technicolor process goes, flesh tones look surprisingly good.
Grayson: Yeah, flesh tones look good, but sometimes the sky will be green; it wasn't exactly accurate. In fact, Douglas Fairbanks, who made The Black Pirate, was very careful to do all kinds of tests with The Black Pirate, so that he got it so it was distorting colors as little as possible. He always wanted to make a pirate movie, but he said, “I can't imagine pirates without color.” So this was one of the earliest features in Technicolor.
NUVO: Much of the series is comprised of movies from the glory years of Technicolor, when the films had a color range that people still love to see.
Grayson: And they should; there's nothing like Technicolor. They have a whole range of color that is unique to that process. I can't describe it any other way; that's why I'm encouraging people to show up for these.
NUVO: Once we get into the '60s and '70s, films are still printed in the dye-process format but they're not filmed in the three-strip camera [Technicolor's proprietary camera, used exclusively to film feature films in color until the mid-'50s].
Grayson: Yeah, Technicolor was two different things. You had the three-strip stuff until about 1955, and at that point you could shoot in Eastmancolor negative, which was much easier to process. The studios loved it. They hated shooting in Technicolor because the old studio cameras were 600 pounds each. They were very slow, and it required a lot of light to photograph. Most studios would process black and white on site, but for Technicolor, you had to send it off to the lab. You couldn't get rushes back in the same day. When Eastmancolor showed up, you could shoot in a regular camera; it was much lighter and more versatile. But they were discovering that the prints didn't look as good, even then. So Technicolor adapted its dye-transfer process that it had used for three-strip so they could make prints.
NUVO: And you're doing another season of classic films at Garfield Park.
Grayson: We're doing “Fallen Stars” for that, about people who got in trouble with the Hollywood mainstream. We're starting with Fatty Arbuckle, and telling, for each, about why they got in trouble and what their problems were.
NUVO: I've never heard of Anna Sten.
Grayson: Anna Sten was brought over in the early 1930s by Sam Goldwyn, and she was called the Russian Garbo. She had a really great reputation as an actress, but she had a really thick accent, and her movies completely tanked at the box office so badly that within a year she was known as Anna Stench, instead of Anna Sten. What we're going to show, Exile Express, was one of her last films. It was made by her husband, an M.D. from Russian, who, in a desperate attempt to revive her career, became a producer and ended up working with John Huston. You can see whether you think she's a terrible actress or not; I actually think she's pretty good.
NUVO: Is the movie any good?
Grayson: Yeah, the movie's pretty good. I'm not above putting in a turkey every once in a while, just because it's fun. Last year, we ran this really terrible version of Alice in Wonderland. It was one of the few prints of it that had survived, so I knew no one had seen it, but it was terrible! I don't normally run those just because they're bad; I do try and program things that are good and interesting.