Nitrate. Dangerous, volatile, endangered, nitrate.
Its allure drew film curators, historians and cinephiles from around the world to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, last weekend, for the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show.
Nitrate, as a film base, was first developed in Rochester, by Eastman Kodak in 1889. It is a high-quality, but highly flammable, film stock which produces its own oxygen supply as it burns. A single spark from a torn frame during projection can set off a raging fire. Audience deaths from projection booth fires were not uncommon during the first few decades of cinema and nitrate’s ability to self-combust has caused several studio vault fires, including the tragic 1937 fire in which almost all of the Fox Film Corporation’s silent film holdings were lost.
Nitrate was discontinued in 1951 and strict regulations now govern its storage,transportation and projection. Only a few venues in the world are equipped to project it, including our venue, the Dryden Theatre.
The majority of nitrate films held in archives around the world have deteriorated to such an extent that they can only be preserved and, hopefully, duplicated before they are lost forever. We were lucky enough to view several of those still capable of projection over the course of the weekend.
Apart from the preview film (the 1937 version of A Star is Born) the programme was kept a closely guarded secret until the first screening. The festival organisers wanted the audience to attend to enjoy the nitrate experience rather than coming to see specific films. This gamble paid off. Although I had seen many of the films before, seeing them on nitrate was a very different cinematic experience.
Casablanca was a revelation in nitrate, sparkling in a crystal-clear and luminous print. The superiority of nitrate was less evident in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and Les Maudits (1947) but still enabled greater detail to be visible even at low contrast and brightness levels. This was particularly beneficial in Les Maudits, which is set within the gloomy confines of a U-Boat carrying fleeing Nazis bound for South America towards the end of WWII. It’s a tense and well-executed thriller that deserves to be seen more widely.
A highlight was Portrait of Jennie (1948) which, unusually for a sound film, used tinting, toning and three-strip Technicolor during the final storm sequence, all to exhilarating dramatic effect. The green shafts of lightning punctuating the screen looked magnificent in nitrate.
I had seen Nothing Sacred (1937) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945), within the past year, so was able to compare those viewings with the nitrate prints on display. Although not as bright as the restored prints, the nitrate film stock combined with the Technicolor palette gave the films a superior tonal range. Blacks were velvety and as dark as ink, creating shadows so deep that they resulted in a near 3-D effect. Light sources glowed with warmth and depth. The neon lighting in the street scenes in Nothing Sacred dazzled and the sunset in Black Narcissus (1948) was ravishing. The high silver content in nitrate film lent radiance to Gene Tierney’s costumes in Leave Her to Heaven and Kathleen Byron’s vibrant red dress in Black Narcissus.
Also screened on nitrate were Carol Reed’s magnificent The Fallen Idol (1948) and the entertaining Samson and Delilah (1949). Sadly, no silent films were shown, probably due to shrinkage issues, but hopefully there are still some nitrate silents capable of projection. Kevin Brownlow was on hand to fight the silent corner though, and captivated us with stories of his early nitrate film viewing experiences and forays into studio vaults.
William Wellman Jr signed copies of his new biography of his father, who directed both A Star is Born and Nothing Sacred. Buy a copy to get the lowdown on the making of Beggars of Life and Wings.
The festival director, Paolo Cherchi Usai, the brave projectionists and the staff and volunteers at the George Eastman House put on a memorable festival. To see these vintage 35mm nitrate prints in the presence of an enthusiastic audience was a delight. Next year’s dates for the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show have already been announced, April 29 to May 1. Fingers crossed for a silent film.
By Amran Vance
- You can visit the Nitrate Picture Show website here.