Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Grandeur Of It All --- Part One

What a kick it must have been to walk into theatres during those wildly experimental days of the late twenties! Revolution was afoot among studio alchemists mixing newly arrived sound, color, and screen shapes. Anything was possible beyond theatre fronts promising the newest glimpse of filmmaking things to come. Upturned convention was for this briefest moment the norm. Had not the stock market crashed, and a timid industry retrenched, we might have had most, if not all, of our classic favorites shot, and maybe released, on 70mm film. As it was, that highest of high definitions would wait another quarter century to again make landfall. The technology folks sampled in 1930 beat the pants off Cinemascope and Vistavision we’d later settle for. Good as it looks on the new DVD, imagine seeing The Big Trail in full 70mm on the New York Roxy’s forty-two foot wide by twenty foot high screen, and this was seventy-eight years ago! I’d have been no more surprised riding home that night on the Space Shuttle. We’d understand better such seismic events had viewership exceeded the comparative thimble-full present when these doomed leviathans roared to but fleeting life. For so little as survives of them, such experiments are as retrievable to us now as Broadway and vaudeville turns played live and consigned since to the ether. Most of what was shot widescreen between 1926 and 1930 is lost. Those bold initial strokes at color are largely gone as well. Who cares to save experiments once scuttled and written off? Names their inventors dreamed up are enticing still --- Grandeur, Realife, Magnifilm, Vitascope --- were these puffed up gimmicks or harbingers of greatness derailed by chance and worse timing? Good as movies have looked since the thirties, think of King Kong, Gone With The Wind, and Citizen Kane on 70mm negative. It could have happened. The technology was available to make it happen. Had William Fox’s Grandeur vision succeeded, I wonder how long we’d have waited for broad use of three-color Technicolor and implementation of stereophonic sound. Both could have been utilized by the late thirties, if not before. See how easy it is to be carried away with a dream? Somebody pinch me if I’ve overshot what potential came (and went) with Grandeur. For my money (but not, as it turned out, Fox’s), this was Hollywood’s most audacious leap toward a future we’ve still not met (2008 and we’re exhibiting yet on 35mm!). In an industry so tumultuous as it was in 1929-30, how could Grandeur, Realife and the rest end in anything but glorious failure?

Paramount toyed with expanded screens from 1926 in flagship runs of Old Ironsides, Wings, and other big vista shows. Their Magnascope was simply blowing up 35mm, grain and all, to fill prosceniums where space for such expansion was available. These were essentially cheaters, but arresting ones. Some exhibitors even Magnascope'd trailers to put over bally for otherwise conventional features like The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (an account of one such memorable push here). William Fox gambled and had won with sound on film. His Movietone was out the gate well ahead of everyone's talkies save Warners. Emboldened perhaps by that, plus theatres he was buying up like no tomorrow (and things would turn out something like that), Fox put his own cash into developing a for-real expanded screen process with clarity the equal of its size. Grandeur would shun the use of standard 35mm for both shooting and exhibition. It was a plan sufficiently grandiose (why not just call it that?) as to oblige users just upended by sound conversion to reinvent their wheel all over again, using a 70mm format patented and to be licensed by Fox. Here was a mogul drunk on prospects of eventually controlling all Hollywood. For a few months, he owned even Loew’s, parent company of MGM. A car crash precipitated the tailspin dooming Grandeur and its architect’s extravagant dream before a first public demonstration on September 17, 1929. The picture, Fox Movietone Follies, was familiar to Roxy patrons over previous weeks, having been shown there in standard 35mm and headed comfortably toward final profits of $380,000. The wide version would bow at the Gaiety Theatre, recently re-equipped for 70mm projection and a new screen thirty-five feet wide. The capacity audience of 811 enjoyed a show destined to find its way into motion picture history, according to The Exhibitors Herald-World. Wide film was little short of a sensation. Awestruck ovation greeted the program of shorts designed to arouse just that. There was footage of Niagara Falls (stunningly effective) and remarkably clear shots of Babe Ruth batting homers. A wider soundtrack seemed to have licked problems Fox was experiencing with its Movietone sound-on-film format (greater tonal range, according to them), and the picture, as illustrated here with 35-70mm frame comparisons, was said to be about twice as wide as high. Publicity gilded an already impressive product by implying the effect of third dimension upon Grandeur, and announced the company’s intention of equipping Fox theatres with 70mm projectors and wide screens, foreseeing a time, not far distant, when all Fox productions will be made in the new dimensions. For a trade press and audience that night, it seemed Grandeur was poised to put motion pictures of today into the peep-show class (according to the Herald-World). Conventional 35mm would thus seem hopelessly inadequate as of September 17, 1929.

Grandeur ran a three-legged race from its opening bell. The promise of Fox Theatres conversion to 70mm would not be fulfilled. The market crash of October 24, 1929 put paid to expansions prophesied but weeks earlier (although the Depression wouldn’t generally hit the film industry until 1931). William Fox was forced out by April 1930. The second Grandeur feature, Happy Days, had opened two months previous at the Roxy. Audiences elsewhere saw it in 35mm and as nationwide ad and poster art didn’t mention Grandeur, few realized what they were missing (the film took $132,000 in profits). Logistics of retrofitting several thousand theatres so soon after having done so for talkies was a frightful enough proposition in boom times. Now Fox was barely able to make mortgage payments on real estate they’d overbought. The Big Trail had been on drawing boards since better times suggested viable possibilities of epic filmmaking with sound. Enough money was already spent as to make cancellation inadvisable, and besides, such a frontier saga might still work (hadn't The Iron Horse clicked?). Universal announced The Oregon Trail (trade ad shown here) for its 1930-31 season in June, but dropped the project in deference to Fox’s already in progress The Big Trail. Raoul Walsh would direct newcomer John Wayne and Fox boasted of two million earmarked for the production. Walsh was a sensible choice. He’d painted on large canvases before (The Thief Of Bagdad, What Price Glory?) and more recently made talking westerns pay with In Old Arizona, a picture he’d not complete due to a freakish auto mishap that cost him the starring role plus his right eye. Walsh recovered sufficiently to direct two more major profit pictures for Fox release. He was by far the company’s leading money director. In Old Arizona had realized a $566,000 gain, The Cock-Eyed World was a certified smash with a million in profit, and Hot For Paris finished with $375,000 in black ink. The six-month odyssey that was The Big Trail seemed less a gamble with Walsh at its head. From March to August of 1930, he’d ramrod the biggest overland trek Hollywood had ever attempted. There would be a staggering six versions of The Big Trail filmed. One would be 70mm Grandeur, another was standard 35mm. Walsh directed both. Four more Big Trails were prepared for foreign territories. Shooting on these began in November 1930, over a month after the domestic version opened in theatres. The French edition was La Piste des géants, directed by Pierre Courdere. A German version, Die Grossen Fahrt, was filmed during December 1930 and directed by Lewis Seiler. Variety panned it following a Berlin showing in April of 1931, citing clumsy German dialogue and haphazard scenes. The latter was grafted onto action and outdoor footage Walsh had supervised. Such was the case with all four foreign versions. La Gran Jornada, for instance, generated its own negative costs of $200,000 for an alternate cast and dialogue segments in Spanish. There was $7000 in domestic rentals for La Gran Jornada, as it played, like most foreign-language derivations, in metropolitan areas with large ethnic populations, plus an additional $344,000 from territories outside the US, yielding La Gran Jornada higher foreign rentals than the $242,000 collected by The Big Trail’s English-speaking version (Wayne is shown above with four actors essaying his role in the foreign versions).

Fox actually had $1.7 million in the US negative of The Big Trail. That was more money than was spent on any of their previous output, and indeed no picture Fox made during the 1930’s, before or after the merger with Twentieth-Century Pictures, would cost so much. October 1930 opening dates for The Big Trail saw only two theatres hosting Grandeur prints. Hollywood’s Grauman Chinese was the October 2 premiere site (President Hoover enjoyed a private White House screening just prior to this). October 24 would be opening day at New York’s Roxy. Every other engagement of The Big Trail was in 35mm. Fox’s goodwill outreach to exhibitors promised it for immediate general release bookings (see trade ad here). The Big Trail would not be roadshown outside of the exclusive to Grauman’s Los Angeles territory. Initial receipts from the two Grandeur runs were encouraging. Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review was rhapsodic. The views on the wide screen are so compelling that when one goes to see an ordinary sized screen … it looks absurdly small. Variety was less generous. You had to wonder if someone there had it in for Fox. Referring to The Big Trail as a noisy "Covered Wagon", the reviewer took even Grandeur to task, referring to photography dimmed by the widened screen and ensemble scenes indistinct. Were technical problems hobbling Grandeur and The Big Trail? Focus issues were mentioned in the trade press. 70mm nitrate film was said to occasionally cup and buckle during projection. Such complications seemed fairly minor after breakdowns endured with early sound systems. Fox spokesman Harley Clarke was nevertheless confident of a four million dollar gross. October 1930 would represent a summit of industry optimism for Grandeur. Wide Screens For The Future (as shown in the ad here) were promoted during the heady week preceding New York’s opening of The Big Trail. Showmen were encouraged to update and get in on ground floors of wall-to-wall projection. Warners was preparing Vitascope to answer perceived demands for 70mm. The last week of October saw that company’s announcement of wide screens for every Warner theatre (in fact, as with Fox, only a handful would be equipped). MGM had its Billy The Kid opening that month as well. It was filmed in 70mm Realife. Were movies so recently given to speech on the verge of another revolution? Was a wide new era about to unfold? The answer to both questions wouldn’t be long in coming …

Part Two of The Big Trail at Greenbriar Archive HERE.


Blogger Michael said...

I think it's entirely possible people didn't know how to watch The Big Trail. When we see it we've seen that kind of big ensemble on screen with no one zeroed in on in closeup, Altman movies and the like, so we know how to decipher and pick out what we are supposed to pay attention to. But to people back then it must have felt like going back to films of the 00's, when the camera just captured everybody in longshot and didn't focus on anything in particular.

8:47 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

That's an interesting theory. A wide screen in 1930 would have been at the least disorienting. Critical reaction I've read from the period was surely divided. 70mm might well have had an impact even greater than sound on those few who saw the real thing. What a leap after years of watching a virtually square image!

9:00 PM  
Blogger Vanwall said...

Oooh, a cliff-hanger!

I've always had minor issues because of somewhat poor vision when it comes to theater viewings, regardless of aspect ratio, and I find myself concentrating on only parts of the screen sometimes, with an occasional loss of some of the other elements of the film, then I wonder what the heck happened when that part becomes vital to understanding the film. I have to see two or three films in theaters in a reasonably close time frame before my vision catches up with my brain, and I see the whole screen. I don't do this when viewing real life outside, and certainly not when seeing large vistas - but when I watch a wide screen film in a theater, damned if I don't revert to the partial viewing again, and it's worse for while, but the good thing is I can usually see the big picture by halfway thru. I'm sure there might be a processing glitch for some people, and it seems to be an acquired trait to see it right for some people like me. If you aren't used to seeing a big screen, much less with hardly any close ups, I bet Michael's correct - your previous frame of reference can't catch up to the constantly wide 'look', perhaps not ever, altho I think it's a learned behavior through experience.

12:58 AM  
Blogger radiotelefonia said...

There is information in your great post that was not considere; but that is because it is only available in Spanish.

LA GRAN JORNADA, is the title for the Spanish language version as it was released in, at least, Argentina. The film was extremely popular (it was in exhibition, for an entire year in main movie theaters) and there was praise for both directors David Howard and Raoul Walsh for their achievement. George Lewis (who is the first one at left in that photo of actors along John Wayne) also received good notices and went to star in a few films that the Fox Film Corporation produced in the Cervantes language in those years. (And Fox continued making spanish language films up to 1935).

For the release in Spain, the film was retitled HORIZONTES NUEVOS.

And following "Cita en Hollywood" by Juan B. Heinink and Bob Dickson, we can also learn that audiences in Spain, not Argentina, were able to see a seventh version... as a silent film!

That silent version (lifted from the original production shot in Enligsh) was presented, in Madrid, as LA GRAN JORNADA on February 29, 1932.

1:37 AM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

Your box office figures on Raoul Walsh's films just before The Big Trail go a long way to explain why John Ford was so furious at John Wayne for doing this film. In contrast to their later reputations, Walsh then clearly stood higher than Ford in the Fox pecking order (Ford was almost certainly lower than Borzage as well), and Ford, who could detect slights where none was intended, surely felt that Wayne was leaving him for someone more successful.
A continuing mystery, though, is why Fox would try to showcase Grandeur with Happy Days, which is essentially one long minstrel show.
Finally, since Charles Farrell was as physically imposing as the John Wayne of 1930, and back then Wayne's voice was not much deeper than Farrell's notoriously light one, the thinking behind using an unknown and obviously unready Wayne, instead of taking advantage of Farrell's position as a top box office star, is worth looking into. And since Janet Gaynor was then rebelling at doing so many musicals for which she was ill-equipped, it would seem that putting her in the Marguerite Churchill role would not only guarantee a much better gross but would make the studio's top box office draw a happier employee.

5:08 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024
  • June 2024