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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas, Garbo, and Como At Williamsburg

Of many and interminable learning tools applied to us in elementary school, there was but one I'd remember. Williamsburg --- The Story Of A Patriot differed from likes of Bacteria and You for being lavish and Hollywood-produced. How many classroom subjects on 16mm carried a Paramount/VistaVision credit (with sound by Todd-Ao)? The VV startled sixth grade me for overlap with NBC Saturday Night Movies then displaying weekly Para wares and a same "Motion Picture High Fidelity" process. So how did VistaVision make its way onto schoolday schedule? The best we'd done to this point was Jiminy Cricket lecturing on how not to catch a cold (bacteria again!). Williamsburg was 38 minutes of pro filmmaking in rich color, probably 16mm IB Tech on that 1966 occasion, with familiar name George Seaton as director and a music score by Hitchcock's own Bernard Herrmann. For this event at least, it seemed worthwhile coming to school.

Williamsburg --- The Story Of A Patriot was produced in 1956 and premiered at the historic site in 3/57. They customized a pair of theatres for horizontal projection per ideal view of VistaVision. Subsequent to this came smaller-gauge prints to fan out among seats of learning, these supplied by the state (ours from Raleigh's film library). Patriot, to my knowledge, was never shown in theatres, nor on television (please correct me if I'm wrong). It played to visitors at Williamsburg, said numbering thirty million since 1957, making it the longest running movie ever (the historic town's claim --- is it accurate?). We've been to Williamsburg twice this 2012 and my forty-six year wait to re-see Williamsburg --- The Story Of A Patriot came to fruition in a theatre setting unlike any I've been in before. New prints, restored by master hand Robert Harris, unspool all day of every day and there is a DVD available that includes documentary data on Patriot's recovery from faded elements.

Our last Williamsburg visit was this past week. The place till early 30's was a small town like any other with historic underpinnings, colonial buildings being lived in yet by locals. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. transformed the "sleepy Southern town" into a Revolutionary-era duplicate by salvaging the old and reconstructing what time and neglect had let disappear. Phone poles and power lines came down, gas stations were bought, then leveled. One thriving business made dark was the Imperial Theatre. It's a playhouse still, but mostly for stage work, the front having been made congenial to three-cornered hat patronage, not uncommon to present day Williamsburg where even visitors don period headgear to get into 18th century spirit.

The Imperial thrived during a late silent and early talkie period, the site surrendered to restoration crews in March 1934 as the project took over what local businesses were still in operation. The Imperial had served town folk and students at the College Of William and Mary, which was just up Duke Of Gloucester Street where the venue stood. An Imperial photo I found (above) dates from 1928 and on microscopic inspect shows its current attraction to be The Divine Woman, a now lost (or should I say "currently missing") Greta Garbo silent, the only one of her features unaccounted for. Seems somehow appropriate that a town in search of vanished past should host an attraction which would itself evaporate in fumes of nitrate. My imagination leaps toward hope that Laurel and Hardy's single AWOL comedy, Hats Off, may have played a same engagement in support of The Divine Woman. I can sure think of unlikelier scenarios.

Finally, there was pre-trip appetizer of a Perry Como special from 1978, Early American Christmas, got from a dealer in televised rarities. Besides being shot in toto at Williamsburg, Early American Christmas has one of the last appearances by John Wayne, who walks/talks among citizenry and sings with Perry. There are patriotic asides by the venerable star: he seems truly taken by history relived at Williamsburg and I wondered if this was JW's first and only trip there. Wayne makes a point to be gentle and self-effacing among townfolk to whom he cedes spotlight as they exhibit crafts and period ware. He and Como join tavern carolers to evoke not just colonial merry-making, but a gone era when entertainers like Perry Como were as reliable holiday TV fixtures as Christmas itself. I did ask around Williamsburg for recollection, if any, of the Como crew and John Wayne visiting there, but no luck. Even old-timers drew a blank. Was 1978 really so long ago?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

The idea of a post-Vietnam "Duke" Wayne loping down the streets of a Disneyfied colonial Williamsburg, cheerily caroling beside that old smoothie Perry Como, is a bizarre construct worthy of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr... How weirdly American can you get?

11:26 AM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

I recall seeing the Williamsburg movie at Williamsburg when I was very young -- maybe around 1963. The fact that the star of the movie was TV's Stoney Burke (Jack Lord) made it a highlight of the trip. I bought postcards not of the town but of images from the movie.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Do remember John Wayne's own bizarre TV special, with Rowan & Martin doing a smirky bit as the Wright Brothers; Tom Smothers as a printer's assistant reading a broadside about the responsibilities of a free press (about the time of his battles with CBS); silky-smooth Bing Crosby as the irascible Mark Twain; Phyllis Diller as Susan B. Anthony; and an Up-With-People type chorus SINGING the preamble to the Constitution while sort of acting it out. It was often hard to sort out what was meant as comedy and what wasn't.

Best moment: A seemingly pointless scene of President Washington (Lorne Green) chatting with admirers (including William Shatner) that paid off with Jack Benny, in period finery, wanting to know about the dollar Washington threw across the river. After a suitably underplayed Benny punchline, George Burns strides through in modern dress, pausing only to say "Hi, Jack! Working today?"

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Steve Martin said...

Great lead photo of Grace Bradley Boyd- William Boyd's widow- I met her several times at Hoppy fest in Cambridge Ohio-She truly was beatiful lady inside and out!

12:47 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Richmond, VA and Norfolk branches of our family would meet at the tourist information center prior to a meal at the King's Arms Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg … it was a very nice and very close to Christmas treat. I saw the movie A LOT! One of my last jobs in film was working at Hollywood Cinesite on the restoration of WILLIAMSBURG: THE STORY OF A PATRIOT. We were doing the 1956 THE TEN COMMANDMENTS at the same time. The DeMille film was pristine. Apart from making the elements for IB Tech, 4-perf prints (and interpositives) the the negative was stored very carefully. The negative for WILLIAMSBURG: THE STORY OF A PATRIOT was in bad shape. They would do a couple of prints every year and the constant handling plus exposure to air had lead to the blue layer to practically oxidize away. Happily they had a black and white dupe struck from the original negative way back when for some reason or other.

It was on the black and white dupe stock 5366 which I knew from experience is sensitive only to blue light.
The fact that the standard B/W stock for B/W IPs is a essentially a high-contrast blue separation makes it no good for printing off color negatives for inclusion in B/W films. That's why the color footage in LOST IN SPACE (in the first, B/W season most notably the jet pack shots) is so grainy. I had problems when they automatically printed B/W shots for inclusion in color films and used the same stock since it is WAY to contrasty.

I suggested that they treat the 5366 of WILLIAMSBURG: THE STORY OF A PATRIOT as if it were a release print and scan it at the release print setting and convert the scan to a blue layer. By golly it worked.

Spencer Gill (

11:22 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

Saw the Williamsburg movie in school in So. CA, and also on a visit to Williamsburg. Thanks for posting about it! I've bookmarked the Amazon DVD.

The movie that I saw the most in school -- and loved -- was Frank Capra's HEMO THE MAGNIFICENT, with Richard Carlson, Dr. Frank Baxter of USC, and Sterling Holloway. I've seen it countless times and love it still. There are other films in the Capra Bell Science series but that one's the best IMHO.

Best wishes,

9:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

We unfortunately never had the Capra Bell Science series in school. To this day, I've never seen any of these, though I'm told they're very good.

6:58 AM  
Blogger Laura said...

The Capra films are now out on DVD in "two-fer" sets at reasonable prices. HEMO is on a disc with UNCHAINED GODDESS -- Richard Carlson took over the directing from Capra for that one. I got the Capra films on VHS many years ago and my kids all grew up watching them in that fomat.

I recently discovered there are other "non-Capra" science films on DVD with Dr. Baxter which I never saw myself -- I've bookmarked them to check out in the future. Baxter is so enthused and engaging you can't help but be interested.

Fun to walk down memory lane in terms of school movies -- today's kids miss out on the excitement of having the projector wheeled in with those huge cans of film (grin).

Best wishes,

1:02 PM  

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