The rationale behind the Nitrate Picture Show is that film projection is the goal of film preservation. It is only in a theatre that film curators deliver their ultimate message, as other curators do when artworks are installed in museum galleries. No matter how much we know about the film, no matter how carefully it has been preserved and how beautiful the print is, cinema comes to life when the film object is brought into contact with the world. A large screen, projection equipment, one or more projectionists, other live performers (as required for silent films), a room designed for film exhibition, an audience – taken individually, none of these components makes cinema exist. Together, they are so much more than the sum of all parts.

– Paulo Cherchi Usai, Director, The Nitrate Picture Show1

While I am still buzzing from the experience of going to the 4th Nitrate Picture Show in Rochester, New York, at the George Eastman Museum (GEM, formerly George Eastman House, GEH), I thought it would be good to write about my own experiences over the years of watching 35mm films printed on cellulose nitrate stock. In short, the annual screenings in the Dryden Theatre at GEM over the first weekend in May have become my “silver screen” cinephile paradise.

The Drysdale Theatre

While I was a graduate student at New York University in the late 1970s, I became William K. Everson’s research assistant. This meant that I was responsible for transporting his own film prints to and from his apartment, and for projecting them to his classes. I count my times with “Bill” Everson, especially viewing film prints, and learning from his introductions to them at NYU and the New School for Social Research, as the most valuable times that I spent in the city. Occasionally, a nitrate print would be shown as part of the regular screenings at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and although knowledge of this would be withheld from the public, Bill would reveal the news to a few of us. No doubt, when I was a child and attending Saturday Morning Pictures in Croydon, England, ca. 1950, I watched projections of silver nitrate prints, but my first experience of being conscious of witnessing “nitrate,” was on October 19, 1979, when I was overawed by D.W. Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) at MoMA. By 2005, when the ninth volume of The Griffith Project was published by the British Film Institute (BFI), only a single nitrate positive print of Intolerance survived in the world, at MoMA, of 10,900ft in length (ca. 1926), and acquired by the museum from D.W. Griffith in 1938.2 I assume this was the tinted print that I saw, although at that time MoMA supposedly owned two nitrate tinted prints. According to Eileen Bowser, writing in 1966, original prints of Intolerance, made in 1916 ran from 13,500 to 13,700 feet in length, while their “preservation master print, compiled from a variety of materials,” measured “only 11,811 feet.”3 Although there is at least one extant, tinted and toned, acetate positive copy from a 1989 MoMA restoration completed in 1989 (12,549 ft.), I suspect that this may not actually be “tinted” and/or “toned,” but possibly printed on colour stock.4 I am questioning what has actually survived because my strongest memory of this first, and only nitrate screening of Intolerance is how interesting and how subtle the colours were. I dare say that there was some colour fading in 1979 (53 years on from the print’s production) but what has stayed with me ever since is my predilection for questioning how the effects of silent film tinting and toning is achieved, especially through digital restoration.

In her introduction to the first session of the 1995 Amsterdam Workshop on “Colours in Silent Film,” Giovanna Fossati stated that “When an NFM [Nederlands Filmmuseum] print is sent to the laboratory, a Kodak colour internegative print is produced from which a positive print is made on colour stock. The aim is to reproduce as closely as possible the colours on the nitrate. But the colours on the safety copy never exactly reproduce those on the nitrate, owing to the technical limitations of the processing currently available.”5 The best method, which is still used at the Jan Ledecký laboratory in the Czech Republic, is to go back to the original nitrate material and make a duplicate black-and-white negative.6 As Paul Read noted at the same workshop: “You can then make a print which you can tint or tone using the same technology that was used to colour the original material, but the chance of doing that properly is very remote, because you’re using modern materials. Yet this is something we should all attempt, if only to better understand the archival material and the old techniques.”7

In 2000, the International Federation of Film Archives (FIAF) mounted a special programme at the BFI in London, entitled “The Last Nitrate Picture Show,” which became the inspiration for the Rochester series. A large “nitrate” book was eventually published, edited by Roger Smither and Catherine A. Surowiec in 2002. Unfortunately its main title, This Film is Dangerous tends to promote the overwhelming legacy of the material, but in its 690 pages there are numerous pieces that exemplify its secondary title, A Celebration of Nitrate Film, including Harold Brown’s discussion of colour:

Tinting was initially achieved by passing the finished prints through a bath of dye which was absorbed by the gelatin of the film’s emulsion coating. Toning was produced by a chemical action which converted the silver of the black and white image to an inherently coloured salt, or into a compound which would absorb certain dyes which the gelatin of the emulsion did not. It was possible first to ‘tone’ the film with one colour, and then ‘tint’ it with another. Thus one could typically have a romantic scene which was toned blue and tinted pink. … Many films of the nitrate era have been copied onto safety base only in black-and-white form, and the tinting/toning lost. It has been the practice in the NFA [National Film Archive] to keep a written record of the tinting scheme in those films which have it, so that it is possible to reproduce the colouring scheme in any new prints. This is easy to say; but when it comes to the technical task of actually re-creating the tinting and toning, the results which have sometimes been achieved do not look like the original colouring. The method which has often been used is to make a duplicate negative on colour stock and make a colour print from that. This does produce a ‘tinted’/‘toned’ effect, but the colours are usually not convincingly correct when compared with the original film. I believe that the most nearly accurate reproductions have been those which took a black-and-white copy and then toned and tinted in the traditional manner. We have treated one or two films in this way, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger [1927], and Maurice Elvey’s At the Villa Rose [1920], and the results have been spectacular, but it is a slow, laborious, and messy job.8, 2002), pp. 101-102.]

This Film Is Dangerous

In Intolerance, the golden-yellow tinting of the feast of Belshazzar scenes was really beautiful, and I was struck by how the colours that we expect – especially blue for night – were not necessarily followed – with the night siege of Bablyon being coloured mostly red, for fire – and colours were sometimes used to demarcate the four different stories being intercut, one from another. Indeed, at the Amsterdam workshop, there was continual discussion on the irregularity of colour signification, even how different countries could have different colour schemes. For example, Nicola Manzzanti said: “We [Cineteca del Commune di Bologna/Il Cinema Ritrovato] have several examples of very precise colour plans, not just mentioning green, say, but ‘green number five’, or colouring the intertitles to match the preceding or succeeding scene. Colours were sometimes changed for distribution in other countries – some Italian and French films were given a different set of colours for exhibition in England. So there must have been someone whose job it was to choose the right colours for England.”9

The impressions I had of both subtle colouring and colour usage that went beyond the expected were continued when I attended a second nitrate screening at MoMA just one week later, on October 26, 1979, of Griffith’s Broken Blossoms (made in 1918 but not released until October 1919). I assume the print that was screened was MoMA’s 5974ft nitrate positive (received in 1938 from Griffith), although the UK’s National Film and Television Archive also held at least two nitrate prints at that time.10 I was struck by the opening scenes of China, and flashbacks to a Buddhist gong being tinted red – appropriately so, since this is the colour associated with celebration in that country, e.g., weddings and Chinese New Year – the amber tinting of Limehouse, London interiors, and the golden nature of Cheng Huan’s (Richard Barthelmas’) quarters. Also, according to the notes that I made at the time, some daytime exterior shots, as well as nighttime ones, were tinted blue. When MoMA mounted a second major retrospective of D.W. Griffith’s work in 1965 – the first was in 1940 – the Museum’s curator, Eileen Bowser wrote, “The chief contribution that Broken Blossoms made to the art of film was its poetic atmosphere – the rendition of London fogs, the lights and shadows, the tinted stock in soft blues, oranges and golds, the grays and browns, the lovely soft-focus photography.”11), p. 60.] I now consider myself to have been extremely fortunate in attending that screening, because I will surely never have another chance to see the full beauty of Broken Blossoms, which was rendered in that extraordinary nitrate print.

Since this time it has become increasingly difficult to see silent films on nitrate prints. From 1986, I attended Cinefest in Syracuse, NY – a long weekend gathering of cinephiles and collectors – almost every year. With the bulk of screenings being conducted on 16mm prints, the “Boys and Girls from Syracuse” would always mount 35mm screenings at a local movie theatre on Saturday mornings, and on a really special Sunday, March 8, 1992, as a bonus for Cinefest 12, some of us travelled on buses to Rochester for an all-day (and early evening) program of 35mm “Treasures from the George Eastman Collection” at the Dryden Theatre, including a screening of Cecil B. de Mille’s own nitrate print of The Heart of Nora Flynn (Jesse L. Lasky feature Play Co., 1916), which he had directed. To this day, that has probably been the most beautiful tinted print I have ever seen, with yellow ochre exteriors, and a light pink exterior sequence suggesting a late afternoon affair, with sepia tints for both interior and exterior illuminated shots and with an especially radiant blue tint being used for an unlit children’s bedroom scene. Much of the credit for the beauty of the images should go to the cinematographer, Alwyn Wykoff, who was already a great lighting cameraman, and whose superimpositions at the beginning of Nora Flynn are masterly, with their dark backgrounds invoking the look of old Daguerreotypes. The print was struck in 1925, and I suspect that it is no longer projectable. In the summer of 2012, there was a screening of a black-and-white acetate print of Nora Flynn in the Dryden Theatre, which was almost certainly the copy listed in the FIAF Treasures from the Film Archives database (Accession number 16490).12 It was not an especially memorable screening.

Century Model C Projector

When the Nitrate Picture Show began in 2015, we were informed that the Dryden Theatre is one of only a handful of venues where nitrate film could be legally shown, in part because of their projection equipment: Century Model C Projectors, with “closed heads”, where the entire film path from feed magazine to take-up magazine is enclosed. In 2016, the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood was equipped to legally show nitrate film bringing the total number of venues to five, three of which are in California (including the James Bridges Theater at UCLA, and The Stanford Theater in Palo Alto) and the other in London, England (BFI’s National Film Theatre), although there was a series of, presumably illegal, nitrate screenings in Mexico City at the Filmoteca de la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México in September 2015, inspired by the Nitrate Picture Show. While the Dryden Theatre projectors could safely project nitrate prints that have shrunk, the Picture Show team – Cherchi Usai, Jared Case, Deborah Stoiber, Jurij Meden and Ed Stratmann – made the decision not to show any feature films that had shrunk by more than 1%, ruling out almost all of the surviving prints of silent features from being exhibited. Magically though, for the “blind date” of the second Nitrate Picture Show – the unannounced final screening – a print had arrived from Russia’s Gosfilmofond just days before the festival of Ramona (United Artists, 1928), directed by Edwin Carewe (a member of the indigenous Chickasaw nation), that had been virtually untouched since it had been brought from Germany in 1945 as a “war trophy” by Georgii Avenarius, a cofounder of Gosfilmofond. And it had shrunk by only 0.9%! Naturally, the print was in colour, and watching its lightly faded, subtle shadings was very reminiscent of my Intolerance experience. Robert B. Kurrle’s exterior cinematography was especially beautiful when rendered pink or violet, with gloriously shining natural sunlight. For many of us the experience of seeing Ramona, and its female star Dolores Del Rio, in nitrate was especially memorable because we had seen a Library of Congress, black-and-white acetate 35mm print of the long-lost film, that had been restored in 2014 (via a nitrate copy discovered in Prague at the Národni filmový archive in 2010), only a few months before in Pordenone, Italy (the 34th Gironate del Cinema Muto). For example, Amran Vance wrote: “Watching the film again on nitrate was an intoxicating experience. The superior depth and tone of nitrate emphasised Del Rio’s alabaster skin and deep dark eyes. For me, the special qualities of nitrate are most evident when light sources come into play, either natural or artificial.”13 Keith Withall also noted, “I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see.”14

Left to right: Jared Case, Jurij Meden and Deborah Stoiber.

At the 3rd Nitrate Picture Show, in the shorts program, on Friday, May 5, 2017, the oldest nitrate print of a film I have ever seen was projected, of In A Roman Garden (1913), directed by Donald MacDonald (shrinkage only 0.95%). It contained 39 shots in its 12-minute running time, all of which had been spliced together, individually, and some of which were tinted. At this year’s Picture Show, we were graced with a beautiful, 100-year-old, tinted and toned nitrate print of a propaganda short, Our Navy (1918, 11 minutes at 20 frames per second). Once again, one could admire a silent film’s subtle colour shadings, if not the dogmatic celebration of naval power, especially in the film’s very last shot, of a sunset, with blue toning and pink tinting. It is, of course, possible to represent this double process through printing on colour film stock and through digital restoration, but invariably, the colours are rendered too strongly, such that a lot of detail is lost. A case in point is the Photoplay Productions restoration of Raoul Walsh/Douglas Fairbanks’ The Thief of Bagdad (1924) that was shown on a DCP as the closing film of the 35th Giornate del Cinema Muto (October 2016). Although it was great that they had been able to transfer different parts of the 35mm film at different speeds (from 16 to 22 frames per second) and represent the original music score, I was dismayed to find that at times one couldn’t even make out the details on characters’ faces because of the overly strong rendition of (admittedly beautiful) colours.

I can remember when every silent film we watched was projected in a black-and-white 16mm or 35mm print. In the past, everyone thought that silent films should be black-and-white. On television, even after a complete shift to colour in the 1970s, silent films were still shown in black-and-white, until the British television series, Cinema Europe: The Other Hollywood, produced and directed by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, was launched on October 1, 1995, with its first episode, “Where It All Began.” Even some of the very first films were shown in sepia tones, and hand colouring introduced the concept of how important colour was to early filmmakers. I have yet to see a hand-coloured nitrate print, unfortunately, although a 1934 two-strip, Technicolor release print of the 9 minute, animated short, Jolly Little Elves (shrinkage 0.9%), from the Academy Film Archive was shown in the shorts program of the 2nd Nitrate Picture Show (April 29, 2016). On the next day, we saw two Oscar Fischinger shorts, Alegretto (1936-43, Germany-U.S.A., Paramount), shot in Gasparcolor, and An Optical Poem (1937, MGM),  shot in three-strip Technicolor. Both prints were supplied by the Library of Congress. Gasparcolor was also a three-colour process where the film stock was double coated: cyan on one side and magenta & yellow on the other. Alegretto showed a remarkable range of colours – but two 3-minute, Norwegian, Gasparcolor advertising films, made in Czechsolovakia, which had been shown in 2015, Es Mesterstykke av Tiedemann (A Masterpiece by Tiedemann, 1937), and Blue Master en Harmoni (Blue Master: a Harmony, 1938), tended towards red and blue.

This year was especially good for colour nitrate, with many different processes on view, including an example of subtractive two-colour, Cinecolor, Father Hubbard’s Movietone Adventures: Lost Lake (1944, 20th Century Fox), and most spectacularly, a beautiful Technicolor print, from MoMA’s collection, of Len Lye’s principally hand-coloured commercial for the UK General Post Office, Trade Tattoo (1937, shrinkage 1.15%). Thankfully, GEM slackened their shrinkage requirements for this short, 3-minute film, allowing us all to enjoy the incredibly imaginative, experimental colour graphics in the best way possible. At the beginning of the Show, Cherchi Usai had noted that his two favourite films this year were this one and the yet unknown “blind date.” Perhaps the most surprising colour treat was served up by the screening of a sepia-toned nitrate print of George Cukor’s Holiday (Columbia, 1938) from the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Apparently, very few prints had been made like this at the time, and when I commented on how white Cary Grant’s shirt appeared to be, Richard Koszarski, who thought that we might be watching a film printed on sepia stock rather than a chemically toned print, confirmed that it was indeed “toned”. It would not have been pure white on sepia stock, but a very faint sepia-white. Watching Holiday like this was like watching it for the first time: beautiful!

Whereas all of the experiences I have been relating have seemed both unique and remarkable in the ways in which I could have known I was watching nitrate prints without being told, I am not at all sure I could tell the difference during most of the Technicolor nitrate screenings that I have witnessed. Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger are favourite directors of the Nitrate Picture Show.15 In the first year (2015) we saw the magnificently designed (Alfred Junge) and photographed (Jack Cardiff) Black Narcissus (1947). I had seen this film many times before and vividly remember projecting Bill Everson’s print for his Art Direction course, after he and special guest Powell had discussed how this IB-Tech, 16mm print was the best way to see the film because the cream-ish, eggshell colour of the nun’s habits was more accurate than any videotape versions that could be found (November 18, 1980). Indeed, until the 2008 ITV digital restoration of the film, achieved with Cardiff’s involvement not long before he died in the following year, the off-whiteness of the nuns’ habits veered towards blue/grey, far from the filmmakers’ intentions. The nitrate print of Black Narcissus, thought to have been the personal property of the British film mogul, J. Arthur Rank, who produced the film, came from Academy Film Archive. It exhibited so much fine detail that one could occasionally see the join lines of live action and matt paintings or photographs within a shot. Nevertheless, I still consider this film to represent the finest use of three-strip Technicolor – rich and varied, but subtle, at times pastel-like – and also a magnificent example of studio art direction and the use of state-of-the-art special effects, to intimate that the film had indeed been shot in the foothills of the Himalaya mountains. It wasn’t. I am sure that I will never again be able to see such a vision of Black Narcissus.

In the 2nd Show, we were treated to a rare screening of Powell and Pressburger’s Tales of Hoffmann (UK, 1951), from Jacques Offenbach’s opera, in its American release version (113 min.). Since the film was produced during the changeover to safety stock, the print, supplied by the Library of Congress, having been deposited by the British Lion Film Corporation, contained a mixture of cellulose nitrate and acetate reels. This was my first experience of seeing Tales of Hoffman, and it was certainly good to see the film in the best way possible. Powell and Pressburger’s most highly acclaimed theatre and film trans-media work is The Red Shoes (UK, 1948), and a nitrate screening combining two prints from the George Eastman Museum – with the last two reels of Martin Scorsese’s personal print being employed for reasons of sound – took pride of place at the 4th Show (2018), on Saturday night. I have friends who love The Red Shoes and friends who hate it, while I am somewhere in-between. I can state though, that after this screening, I liked it more than I ever have. What is interesting about my response is that the prints were a little disappointing; the images were inconsistent in quality and colour throughout, not just from reel to reel but from sequence to sequence and sometimes from shot-to-shot. But, being in a packed audience, and getting caught up in the emotions of the work, especially through the power of the soundtrack, surprised me. Indeed, something that I learned at this year’s Show, is that nitrate sound is often superior to acetate sound, and this was definitely my impression of The Red Shoes. All of the sound films that we have seen on nitrate prints have optical soundtracks, and it makes sense that, before the advent of stereo, silver nitrate soundtracks, which are black-and-white after all, should be of the highest quality.

Before the advent of the Nitrate Picture Show, the Toronto Film Society (TFS) had begun to show nitrate film prints from the GEH collection during their annual August Bank Holiday event in Rochester. Graham Petrie had become the group’s programmer and he managed to persuade the powers-that-be to include two such screenings in 2011. One of these was of an early IB Technicolor print of Nothing Sacred (Selznick International Pictures/United Artists, 1937), directed by William Wellman. One of the first ten or so full-length features to have been shot in the new three-strip format, Nothing Sacred was also a screwball comedy, surely not an obvious choice of genre for the expensive, cumbersome format. Part of David O. Selznick’s personal collection of films, which had been donated to Eastman House in 1999, I saw the same print again during the first Nitrate Picture Show. Interestingly, they included extracts of negative reviews in the program book: “Oh, yes, it’s in Technicolor, which helps. But that isn’t the dominant factor. Like Selznick’s other modern color film, A Star is Born, the reds and blues are merely incidental. Come to think of it, there’s not even a sunset.” And, “In one respect, the show is experimental, for it lavishes Technicolor [sic] on an outright comedy. In the few placid sequences, or when Manhattan is seen from the air, the color is effective, but I found it rather trying in the helter-skelter action, and it certainly doesn’t become Miss Lombard.”16 Presumably, the first reviewer commented on “reds and blues,” because these colours could not be represented fully in the older, two-strip Technicolor process, but I found with both screenings that there was an excellent range of pastels on view, suggesting that an attempt was being made to deliver a natural, somewhat “realist” representation of colours. Unpainted, brown wood was often clearly on display, flesh tones looked accurate and contrary to the second review, I think that Carole Lombard looked magnificent. Indeed, the opening scene of a rich patron’s dinner gathering both introduced a motif of flowers as highlights, here contrasting with the black tie, male attire, and allowed for nitrate to shine through light reflecting on crystal and silver.

Carol Lombard; more beautifully rendered from a nitrate print on the left.

Endnotes:

  1. In the “Introduction” to the program booklet of The Fourth Nitrate Picture Show: Festival of Film Conservation, George Eastman Museum, Dryden Theatre, May 4-6, 2018.
  2. Paulo Cherchi Usai, general editor, The Griffith Project vol. IX: Films Produced in 1916-18 (London: British Film Institute, 2005), pp. 34-35.
  3. Eileen Bowser, “Foreword,” in Theodore Huff, Intolerance: The Film by David Wark Griffith, Shot-by-Shot Analysis (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1966), p. iii.
  4. Cherchi Usai (ed.), The Griffith Project vol. IX, p. 34. After the screening, Steve Higgins, who was working at MoMA at the time, noted that some of the reels were of “safety stock.”
  5. Cited in Dan Her Togs and Niko de Klerk (eds.), ‘Disorderly Order’: Colours in Silent Film (Amsterdam: Stichting Nederlands Filmmuseum, 1996), pp. 11-12.
  6. See, the lab’s notes on its “Tinting and toning laboratory,” entitled “Page for lovers of silent film: http://www.janledecky.com/
  7. Cited in Her Togs/de Klerk (eds.), Disorderly Order, p. 73. In her conclusion, “Coloured Images Today: How to Live with Simulated Colours (and be happy),” Fossati said, “Paul Read, in a conversation during the Workshop, aptly called contemporary colour preservation methods ‘colour simulation’, and from this perspective we might more generally see the preservation of coloured nitrate prints as ‘colour simulation’: a radical intervention to make a projection print from a coloured nitrate, in which we neither preserve nor restore but ‘simulate’ the colours.” Ibid., p. 84.
  8. “Trying to Save Frames,” in This Film is Dangerous: A Celebration of Nitrate Film, Roger Smither, ed.; Catherine A. Surowiecz, assoc. ed. (Brussels: Fédération Internationale des Archives du Film [FIAF
  9. Cited in Her Togs/de Klerk (eds.), Disorderly Order, p. 24
  10. Cherchi Usai (ed.), The Griffith Project vol. IX, p. 212.
  11. Iris Barry, with an annotated list of films by Eileen Bowser, D. W. Griffith: American Film Master (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1965[1940
  12. fiaf/docview/1745690087/citation/20B7F0C823204DBFPQ/6?accountid=10246 See also the “Progressive Silent film List” on the Silent Era website: http://www.silentera.com/PSFL/data/H/HeartOfNoraFlynn1916.html. The special Cinefest program was made possible by archivist/curator Jan-Christopher Horak.
  13. Amran Vance, “Nitrate Picture Show 2016: Intoxicating Celluloid”, Silent London, Blog/ Festival/Review, May 5, 2016:  https://silentlondon.co.uk/2016/05/05/nitrate-picture-show-2016-review-intoxicating-celluloid/
  14. Keith Withall, “The Nitrate Picture Show 2016,” Early and Silent Film blog, May 26, 2016: https://cinetext.wordpress.com/page/6/
  15. My first experience being conscious of seeing Technicolor nitrate was Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1941) at MoMA, although I am not sure of the date. It was a lovely print, and I remember noticing really strong primary colours, especially yellows, but I don’t think I would have known it was nitrate had I not been told in advance. However, I have since been informed that they stopped showing nitrate prints at MoMA in 1980, when stricter fire regulations were introduced in advance of the major Pablo Picasso exhibit, and the earliest I could have seen Colonel Blimp there was in December 1980, so, I must be mistaken in thinking I have seen it on nitrate!
  16. Frank S. Nugent, The New York Times, November 26, 1937; and, Howard Barnes, The New York Herald Tribune, November 26, 1937, in the notes “About the film” Nothing Sacred. In the program booklet of The Nitrate Picture Show, George Eastman House, Dryden Theatre, May1-3, 2015, p.11. https://www.eastman.org/sites/default/files/NPS-2015.pdf