Monday, September 6, 2010

Charles Koechlin (1867-1950) Star struck classical composer

This summer I have been away on paternal leave for almost three months. Most of the time was spent in the south of France. Most French cities have a public médiateque, a library not only for books but for movies and records as well. This allows the curious person to get a fuller picture of whatever interest one may have. It's simply brilliant to be able to get several dimensions of a subject going at the same time. I guess some would call it synergy effects. You can for instance read a biography, then complete it with a movie or a soundtrack, take everything with you for further studies at home, all for free. In my case I wanted to know more about the obscure classical composer Charles Koechlin who lived alongside giants like Claude Debussy (born 1862) and Maurice Ravel (born 1875). Koechlin's teacher was Gabriel Fauré so I wanted to investigate why Koechlin, who had a very big output was so little known. Koechlin wrote in almost any style. Ranging from very strict almost Bach-like counterpoint to outbursts of very spaced-out modernism. One could easily describe him as somewhat of a musical chameleon and as such very hard to put in a certain genre. Koechlin was no salesman and not very good at promoting himself. He was a respected teacher, wrote several important books on musicology and also the first biography on Gabriel Fauré. Koechlin was a modest man, almost a recluse, who lived uniquely for his music. Some would say he was obsessed with music and tonality. in today's vocabulary, a music nerd. I'm not going to write his biography, it can be found here. So what has this to do with classic movies and early talkies in particular? In the early 1930's when Koechlin was in his mid 60's he decided to visit one of the Paris cinemas to see what talking pictures were like. Probably by coincidence he ended up watching a movie featuring the British born German actress Lilian Harvey. He became obsessed with her screen persona. The old man was completely star struck. He went to see her movies over and over again. Almost immediately he started to write music in her honor.
One of the movies Koechlin saw in 1934
The Lilian obsession led to many many nights in different Paris cinemas. While seated in the flickering darkness of the cinema admiring Lilian Harvey, Koechlin found that many of the musical scores were ill fitting. He started to take notes and in some cases even composing music he found better suited for particular scenes. This odd behavior led to several imaginary film scores. He sent several pieces of his music to Lilian Harvey who of course was flattered at first but soon realized the old Frenchman was obsessed with her. Koechlin was very timid and kept a low profile but when it came to Lilian Harvey nothing could stop him. At one point he even showed up at her summer residence in the south of France with hopes of proposing to her. After a while (and some serious stalking) I guess he soon realized marriage or even an affair with Harvey was out of the question. To my knowledge they never met in person. However, all the movie going produced some very fine music. In most cases Koechlin's movie related music is a beautiful cross breeding of high and low culture. The finest piece is probably The Seven Stars Symphony which isn't a symphony in classical sense but a collection of tone-poems representing seven movie stars of the day. Douglas Fairbanks, Lilian Harvey, Greta Garbo, Clara Bow, Marlene Dietrich, Emil Jannings and Charlie Chaplin. Plese listen to some excerpts of it: The Seven Stars Symphony (1933) 3. Greta Garbo The Seven Stars Symphony (1933) 5. Marlene Dietrich Koechlin wrote music in homage to other movie stars as well, usually chamber music and often incorporating unusual instruments in classical music like the Saxophone, Celesta or even Ondes Martenot. When Jean Harlow passed away in 1937 he wrote this absolutely beautiful epitaph. Epitaph For Jean Harlow (1937) My favorites among Koechlin's music are the Danses Pour Ginger op 163 (1937-39) for two pianos, which in some cases have almost Satie-esque qualities. At the time movie-stars were often seen as pop-stars with questionable lifestyles by the cultural elite and almost as royalty by us others. To Koechlin the talking pictures and the movie stars served as a main inspiration for over ten years. Did he care he was a well respected composer and teacher in the high brow cultural community of Paris? Was he at any time afraid to fall from grace? Probably not. He just did what he had to do. What do you think? Thanks to Wellesz for the fine You Tube clips

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Color in the movies - Part 2 - Chronochrome

The additive color processes were many and all fairly alike. The basic principle of an additive color system consisted of black and white film stock that was treated with some sort of filters or sequence of filters when shot and up on projection the same filters were applied. Most of the problems with the different processes boiled down to getting the colored filters in perfect sync with the running film. While Kinemacolor had some success it wasn't the best looking additive color system. From a technical point of view it had quite a few shortcomings, most notably the irritating flicker and the limited color spectrum it offered. The best looking and probably most advanced additive color process was French inventor Léon Gaumont's Chronochrome, patented February 11, 1911. Chronochrome was a three-color system where the three different color images were shot simultaneously rather than in sequence. The camera was equipped with three lenses and three filters, blue, red, green. The resulting positive was then projected by a machine also equipped with three lenses and filters.
Léon Gaumont
Léon Gaumont was born in Paris 1864. He grew up in a family of humble origins. His mother was a maid and his dad a Paris cab driver. In 1876 young Léon had the oppportunity to enter the Collège Sainte-Barbe, probably with the financial assistance of his mother’s employer, the countess of Beaumont. He was forced to leave school at the age of 16 when his parents separated. Gaumont continued educating himself by attending classes at different public Paris institutions. In 1888 Gaumont married Camille Maillard, who brought as her dowry a piece of land on the rue des Alouettes, near the Buttes Chaumont, the eventual site of the Gaumont studios and of the 'cité Elgé'. When Gaumont was offered a job at the Comptoir géneral de photographie in 1893, he jumped at the opportunity. His decision proved fortunate when two years later he was given the chance to acquire the business. In August 1895, he partnered with Gustave Eiffel (the creator of the tower), the astronomer Joseph Vallot and the financier Alfred Besnier to make the purchase. Their business entity, called L. Gaumont et Cie, has survived in one form or another to become the world's oldest surviving film company extant. The company sold camera equipment and film, but in 1897 inaugurated a motion picture production business. Initially, Gaumont made films for the picture arcade business such as those operated by the Lumière brothers, but it was under the direction of Alice Guy, originally Gaumont's secretary made head of production that they began making short films based on narrative scripts.
Alice Guy
Alice Guy is considered to be the first filmmaker to systematically develop narrative filmmaking. She was also one of the pioneers in the use of sound recordings in conjunction with the images on screen in Gaumont's Chronophone system, which used a vertical-cut disc synchronized to the film. An innovator, she employed special effects, using double exposure masking techniques and even running a film backwards. Alice Guy pretty much set the standards for what could be done technically at the time. More about the Chronophone system and an example of Alice Guy's phonoscenes can be found here . She left Gaumont in 1906, before most of the experiments in color film took place. In papers found after his death Leon Gaumont described the Chronochrome process like this:
“Each image appearing on the screen in natural colors was formed by superimposition of three images, violet, green and orange. The combined radiation of these three colors results in the reproduction of natural colors. The image was photographed on the film by three objectives placed one above the other, each provided with a glass color filter. These three images were were projected in superimposition through carefully aligned objectives and filters. In this process the single image of ordinary motion pictures is replaced by three images simultaneously projected and superimposed. If these three images had the same dimensions as used in ordinary motion pictures, 18 by 24 mm each, each scene would require three times the length of film ordinarily used, and would necessitate very rapid movement of the film. Therefore, it was decided to reduce the height of the film by one quarter. By this method, the film length was approximately two and one-half times that of ordinary film.” Three images in different colors would thus overlap on the screen. A servo engine installed on the projector would correct parallax problems. The chronochrome frame measured only 12 mm in height (the standard was 18 mm), which resulted in a panoramic format on the screen. The purpose of the truncaded height of the image was purely economical as less film were used because of this. Three frames were shot on the same space as two with normal height. One could argue that the dimensions of the Chronochrome image was a forerunner to wide screen film of later years. The most fascinating thing about the Chronochrome process is that it still looks so good. Let's take a look at some of the Chronochrome films which was included in the first public presentations of the system. Ten short films were showed before an amazed audience in Paris, November 15 1912. It was a great success. In June 1913 the system was ready for export and thus presented in New York. The New York show contained slightly different snippets than the Paris showing and contained 16 scenes. To really show off the possibilities of the system both showings started with studio shots of flower and fruit arrangements. The next segment showed what 1912 French beach life was like. In this clip there's also some footage used in the New York presentation. The Carnival in Nice, early spring 1913, some shots of Venice and a military parade in Berlin celebrating the wedding of Princess Victoria Louise of Preussia and Ernest Augustus Duke of Cumberland in May 1913. At the outbreak of the first world war the Chronochrome and many other techincal innovations were either completely forgotten or put on hold. This snippet was shot at the Victory parade in Paris July 14,1919 and is one of the last scenes filmed in the process before it was finally abandoned in the early 1920's.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Color in the movies - Part 1 - Kinemacolor

Since my second child, my beautiful daughter Juni was born January 22 there has been little time left for writing. Now things are slowly finding their tracks and new routines are being created. Uninterrupted sleep really does wonders for the creativity!

This is thus part one of a series I have planned for a long time. Many people seems to believe the first color feature was Gone With the Wind in 1939 which of course is untrue. In the series I will try to explain and show examples of some of the early color systems, all of them predecessors to 3 strip Technicolor (the system that was used in GWTW). I will try to leave out most of the technical details and concentrate on the basic principles in each system. Enjoy!

”3D films will be the next big thing”. It sounds familiar, doesn’t it? I wonder if this modern day tagline was used in September 1922 when the first known 3D film opened. The film was called The Power of Love and was shot with a modified Prizma color camera. Prizma color was a primitive color system that was invented in 1913, but color movies were of course yesterdays news even in 1913.

The first successful color motion picture process was Kinemacolor. From the start it was a three color system. The roots of the system dated back to the work of Edward R. Turner, a British inventor who had received a patent for a three color motion picture system in 1889. This is really interesting since a working three color system for motion pictures didn't hit the public until 1932. Turner's early three color method was based on a mid-19th century discovery that virtually all colors could be produced by a combination of the three primary colors red, green and blue. This additive principle (bringing together the separate color parts to create a composite full color result) would be the inspiration for Kinemacolor.

In 1901, Turner went to Charles Urban, an American businessman residing in London, to request assistance in developing the patent, in return for exploitation rights. Urban was instantly enthusiastic, and got his engineer Alfred Darling to design a camera and projector. Research to produce a workable three color system went on for a year until early 1903 when Turner suddenly died of a heart attack in his laboratory. A few individual frames and one short strip of film show that the camera could take pictures, but in projection the images were almost impossible to enjoy because of the heavy flickering.

This short fragment shows the earlier three color experiments of Edward Turner. Note the distinct presence of the blue color in the footage.

To obtain a normal projection speed of 16 frames per second Kinemacolor had a speed of 48 frames per second, one frame for every color that was projected in sequence red, green and blue.
Charles Urban and George Albert Smith
Charles Urban quickly bought up the patent rights and set his associate George Albert Smith to work on the project. Several more years of trying to put three colors on the screen failed to yield acceptable results. Ultimately a simpler system using two colors was developed in 1906 and the results were deemed workable. The Kinemacolor system was born.
One impediment to producing natural color motion pictures had been the fact that existing film stocks were orthochromatic which means they were basically insensitive to red light. This was probably the major reason color film wasn't invented earlier. Until the commercial availability of true panchromatic black and white film that was equally sensitive to light of all wavelengths in the mid 1920s, color pioneers had to chemically sensitize their film so that it would record more or less of the entire visible color spectrum. Thus Smith and Urban had to make their own panchromatic film stock.
The Kinemacolor camera and projector
The Kinemacolor camera exposed black and white film through alternating red and green filters so that alternate frames were exposed through either the red or the green, but resulting in a black and white positive. The camera speed was 32 frames per second. The blue element in the earlier version was left out which also as a bonus meant less flicker. In projection the movie was shown through a filter wheel, similar to that in the camera. The filters added the red and green tints to the successive frames. The results were remarkably good, but like all sequential color processes, Kinemacolor suffered from color fringing when objects moved, since the two color records were not recorded at the same time. Many color processes used this approach and all suffered from fringing on moving objects. The images demanded a stronger light in the projector but were often still seen as rather dark and muddy. Sometimes the film was not loaded in the projector in appropriate sync with the color wheel. This gave a undesired almost psychedelic effect. None of the two-color processes could reproduce blue or pure white, but various tricks were used to fool the eye into thinking it was seeing a neutral white.
Here is a 1906 demonstration of the two color Kinemacolor. The first motion picture exhibited in Kinemacolor was an eight-minute short filmed in Brighton titled A Visit to the Seaside, which was trade shown in September 1908. On 26 February 1909, the general public first saw Kinemacolor in a programme of twenty-one short films shown at the Palace Theater in London. The process was first seen in the United States on 11 December 1909, at an exhibition staged by Smith and Urban at Madison Square Garden in New York. Kinemacolor projectors were eventually installed in some 300 cinemas in Britain, and 54 dramatic films were produced. Four dramatic short films were also produced by Kinemacolor in the United States in 1912–1913, and one in Japan, Yoshitsune Senbon Zakura (1914). However, the company was never a success, partly due to the expense of installing special Kinemacolor projectors in cinemas. Kinemacolor in the U.S. became most notable for its Hollywood studio being taken over by D. W. Griffith, who also took over Kinemacolor's failed plans to film Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, originally intended as a color feature. The project eventually became The Birth of a Nation (1915) but the color was left out. Urban's greatest triumph was the Kinemacolor film of the Delhi Durbar. This spectacular ceremony, held in Delhi in December 1911 to celebrate the coronation, was filmed by several film companies, and their black-and-white records had already been seen in Britain by the time Urban returned from India with his team of eight and many thousands of feet of colour film of the ceremonies. The film opened at the Scala on 2 February 1912, and many felt that the filmgoing public would now be tired of the Durbar. Urban proved them very wrong. Offering the public an unprecedented two and and a half hours of film (16,000 feet)was unheard of at the time when a feature film rarely had a duration of more than 50-60 minutes. Urban presented the film with a stage setting that represented the Taj Mahal, and accompanied it with a 48 piece orchestra, a chorus of 24, a fife and drum corps of 20, and three bagpipes. Its success was phenomenal. Patriotic London flocked to see it, and the proceeds from the Scala run and five road shows made Urban a wealthy man.
A Kinemacolor fragment of Lillian Russell from 1913.
Kinemacolor was quite successful in Europe and promised to grow and improve. However two events ultimately killed the company. First, another excentric British inventor, William Friese-Greene sued for patent violation. Friese-Greene claimed to have invented virtually everything relating to motion pictures but he lost his suit through all the lower courts in England. He finally did win when he appealed the lower court decisions to the House of Lords. Friese-Greene had discovered a technicality that made the original patents "incomplete" according to British law. This didn't get Friese-Greene anything but it did open up the Kinemacolor technology so that anyone could take advantage of it. The second event was World War I, which nearly destroyed all the European film companies. By the time Europe started to make a comeback Kinemacolor was nearly defunct and Technicolor in Boston, Massachusetts had taken the lead in producing a workable color process. Other additive color processes were also waiting in the wings. More on those in part 2 so stay tuned. Most of the information here is to be found on Luke McKernans brilliant site about Charles Urban. Please visit it for the full story about Urban and Kinemacolor.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Metropolis 2010

Hot off the press! Here's a four minute snippet from the newly restored original version of Metropolis which will premiere friday night at the Berlin Film Festival. For those of you who have access to the French/German TV channel ARTE, stay tuned tomorrow night 8:45 pm CET for a Metropolis evening with two documentaries on the subject.

Here's a link to the ARTE special Metropolis site. It's in French but still worth a visit. I think there is a German version of it too but my German is sadly nonexistent.

I've had some busy times lately becoming a father for the second time but I expect to back with some regular posts shortly.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Metropolis restored

The restoration of Fritz Lang's Metropolis is well under way. Please read some info and see a short example of the work at the Algosoft website.

Fritz Lang’s original cut of Metropolis from 1927 will return to the screen at the 60th Berlin International Festival in 2010. At a gala presentation in the Friedrichstadtpalast on February 12, 2010, the classic silent film - reconstructed and restored by the Friedrich-Wilhelm-Murnau Foundation – will celebrate its premiere 83 years after the original version had its world premiere. Based on the original score by Gottfried Huppertz, the screening will be accompanied by the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin under the direction of conductor Frank Strobel.

After the opening ceremony on February 12, the world premiere of the restored original version of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis will be transmitted live to the public from the Friedrichstadtpalast to a screen at the Brandenburg Gate. The public is invited to enjoy this significant moment in the history of film – free of charge – at this very special setting.

While I'm at it, please take a look at this:

The Movie Preservation Blogathon is hosted by:
Marilyn & Roderick at Ferdy On Films, etc
Farran - The Self Styled Siren
Greg from Cinema Styles also participates.

Visit the National Film Preservation Foundation here.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Paramount On Parade 1930 - A lost Swedish version

80 years ago, in January 1930 a huge movie revue was in mid production at the Paramount lot. Paramount on Parade was their contribution to the revue craze that was going on at the time. The movie was made in several different languages, a quite common procedure, except this time they decided to make a Swedish version (!). This fact is not very well known here in Sweden since the Swedish version of the film is considered lost since the early 30's. The Swedish film institute has no idea where the film took off, there's no trace of it here apart from a box of stills. In some Swedish filmographies it's even stated that the film was never made. I know for sure it was made, shown and reviewed in the Swedish papers. The US version opened in April '30 and the Swedish version somewhat later. Below is a publicity for it dating from May'30, saying it "will certainly be the attraction the coming fall".

In 1929 Paramount had approached Ernst Rolf, the Swedish king of entertainment since almost 20 years. In many ways he was the equivalent to Florenz Ziegfeld with the distinction he also was a performer. Rolf signed a lucrative contract with Paramount running for two years. In January 1930 he and his soon to be wife Tutta Berntzen boarded the liner Annie Johnson heading for Hollywood. They were to stay about ten days in Hollywood shooting some six to ten numbers for the production. Rolf was given Skeets Gallaghers's role as Master of Ceremonies in the Swedish verson. According to the reports Rolf raised hell on the sets, running around blowing in some sort of navy whistle in a very demanding manner. This behavior so impressed the Paramount executives that he was soon allowed to shoot stuff for his own use while he had the technology at hand. For this task Paramount appointed no other than George Cukor as Rolf's personal director.

Rolf and Tutta in Hollywood 1930

Paramount on Parade was a giant production, it was Rolf's third movie and it had been five years since his last. He was by no means an actor. I will even extend that to say he couldn't act at all. He was mainly a singer, made around 900 recordings and was gifted with a photographic memory for lyrics. He had a fantastic sense for finding hits and spotting talent. He discovered many of Sweden's top entertainers for years to come. Rolf always kept a notebook where he jotted down text lines and ideas for others to materialize for him. British band leader Jack Hylton once said he had only met one true entertainment genius in his life, that genius was Ernst Rolf.

Rolf and Clara Bow on the Paramount lot.

Unfortunately Paramount On Parade was the only movie Paramount made with Rolf due to the depression and the studio halting or cancelling all planned musicals during the summer 1930. Since Rolf was a song and dance man who couldn't act he stayed on the roster as long as he could as he got a steady income from it anyway and without being forced to be available in Hollywood.

Rolf, Mitzi Green, Clive Brook and Tutta.

Another thing which is intersting is that Paramount really loved Rolf's wife Tutta and apparently offered her an even better contract which would make her the new Nancy Carroll. Rolf however, didn't allow her to accept it. I guess he couldn't stand the idea of his wife becoming a bigger star than himself.

Rolf and Tutta fraternizing with the Paramount stars.

My main interest is to locate all the "Swedish" footage. Some of it have survived but about two thirds is missing and has been missing since the thirties. Was something shot in color? Since Rolf had a total craze for anything modern and any possible trends, I'm absolutely sure he at least tried to persuade Paramount to shoot a scene or two in color, but maybe he didn't manage, I don't know. I know he bought some novelty shorts in 3D to show in his 1930 summer revue though.

Anyway, The Swedish version of Paramount On Parade was definitely made and shown here but flopped hard. Whatever happened to the film after this is completely in the dark.
Let's take a look at a snippet of the survivning footage from the Swedish version of Paramount on Parade directed by George Cukor. Ernst Rolf singing "Jag Är Törstig Efter Kyssar (I'm thirsty for kisses)" written by Rolf and Fritz-Gustaf.

Unfortunately Rolf died from a suicide attempt that ended up successful on Christmas day 1932. Tutta Rolf later married choreographer Jack Donohue whom she had met in Hollywood. Her son with Ernst Rolf, Tom was about four when he followed his mother to Hollywood in 1935. Tom Rolf later became an award winning film editor and is still living in Hollywood. I'm sure Tutta would have made it in Hollywood but she didn't get a second chance.

Stills from one of the lost Swedish numbers -
Gör Någonting

Until 1996, the only available prints of the American version of Paramount on Parade were missing all the color sequences, each of which was a major musical number: "Sweeping the Clouds Away" with Chevalier; "Isidore the Toreador" with Harry Green; "Nichavo" with Dennis King," "Come Drink to the Girl of My Dreams" with an all-star cast; and "Torna a Sorrento" with Nino Martini. (Fortunately, "Sweeping the Clouds Away" survived in a black and white version.) The running time of this cut version is about 77 min. This version is the one doing the rounds among collectors today.

Rolf presenting "Dancing To Save Your Soul"

In 2007 the UCLA reconstructed a nearly complete print, using new-found sound track recordings and most of the missing color footage. (One scene has soundtrack only plus still photos, another has image only without sound.) Please read Jeff Cohen's walk-thru of Paramount on Parade here. Until we get it on DVD it's the best description available of it.

What happened to the Swedish version is a complete mystery. Here's a song that Rolf and his wife recorded for the movie but where the footage is lost.
The song is "Gör Någonting! (Do something!)" written by Karl Wehle and Tor Bergström.

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