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Bored With 70mm? Try Magnascope!

Lens Turret-1-680        Now that
Quentin Tarantino has revived UltraPanavision 70 and released a major film in
70mm, and the American Cinemathèque has screened a handful of vintage
large-format features, the Northwest Chicago Film Society is giving its
audience an experience almost no one today has witnessed: Magnascope. As we now
know, film pioneers experimented with every technique imaginable in the
earliest days of motion pictures, including sound, color, and 3-D. In his revelatory
volume Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema,
historian Dan Streible reveals that some of the earliest boxing movie “events”
were photographed and projected in 65mm and other widescreen formats—including The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight in 1897.

Old Ironsides-News Release Ad

         Then, in the
1920s, came Magnascope. Scott Eyman writes in The Speed of Sound, “Magnascope was essentially a zoom lens; at a
prearranged signal, the operator would switch over to a projector equipped with
the Magnascope lens, while the black masking of the square silent movie screen
would pull back to a ratio remarkably similar to the modern, rectangular screen
area of 1:85:1. The operator turned the lens and the picture grew gradually
larger. The total enlargement was about four times the size of a normal picture.”

         Magnascope
made its official debut in the epic Paramount historical adventure Old Ironsides (1926). This rousing film,
directed by James Cruze, stars Charles Farrell, Wallace Beery, and Esther
Ralston and is well worth seeing in any format. But the Northwest Chicago Film
Society
is going the extra mile on Wednesday night, February 3.

Old Ironside Clipping-300        To quote their
press release, “Unlike IMAX, where the shifting aspect ratios are built into
the print, Magnascope requires an attentive projectionist adjusting lenses on the
fly, in real time. Luckily, the Northwest Chicago Film Society has in its
employ one Julian Antos, a projection "wizard" (Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune) who will recreate the
Magnascope experience using a retrofitted, multiplex-era lens turret. Seen in
its original Magnascope dimensions, with live organ accompaniment from Jay
Warren, Old Ironsides will live again
in all its salty splendor. Never issued on DVD or Blu-ray, in any aspect ratio,
Old Ironsides will be screening in an
archival 35mm print from the Library of Congress. Used exclusively, in this
instance, during the film’s battle sequences, the shift to a larger image gives
Old Ironsides’s already remarkable
action set-pieces an extra jolt, providing an experience that is the essence of
cinematic spectacle.”

         Some theaters
continued to use Magnascope as a gimmick attraction into the early-talkie era,
but I don’t know of any modern-day efforts to revive it.

Magnascope Illo-680

         The last time
I saw Old Ironsides was decades ago
at the Washington, D.C. Cinecon run by Elaine and Howard Kolodny. Leading lady
Esther Ralston was there in person, and the score was performed with gusto by
theater organist Bob Vaughn. It’s a screening I will never forget, even though
we didn’t have the benefit of the widescreen format.

         Then, in 1987,
Paramount Home Video released a handful of silent films —including Old Ironsides—from its library with
newly-recorded scores by master organist Gaylord Carter. It’s a shame that the
company never saw fit to reissue these titles on DVD or Blu-ray. Perhaps they
will consider posting them on their YouTube channel.

Magnascope MP-news article-244

         You can learn
more about Wednesday’s Chicago screening by clicking HERE.

        Regarding the photo at the top of this article, projectionist Julian Antos says, "Here’s a picture of the lens turret we’re using. The interesting thing is that these turrets were designed for multiplex venues so the projectionists could quickly switch between flat (1.85) and scope without having to pull lenses out. If you went to enough movies in the ’90s and early 2000s you probably would have seen a movie start in the wrong aspect ratio and suddenly change. The way we have it set up is that one lens will be normal and the other will be a lens of a shorter focal length to give the magnascope effect. We’ll also have a specially cut aperture plate to mask the enlarged image a bit. Quite simple, but very effective!"

3 comments

  1. Steven Kelly says:

    Speaking of widescreen and masking—-Mr. Maltin, I wish you would address the fact that several theater chains (such as Cinemark) no longer see fit to mask 2.35:1 films. I for one am taken out of the immersive quality of a widescreen film when it looks like a glorified letterboxed picture projected on a 1.85:1 screen.

  2. mike schlesinger says:

    WINGS was another picture that used the format. When I took a friend to a screening of the recent restoration, he asked me at intermission why the intertitles were so small during the big aerial battle. I explained that the source material must have been a print designed for Magnascope, and that the titles were deliberately made smaller so they’d look "normal" when projected at the larger size. It’s fun to look like you’re a genius!

  3. Michael says:

    I totally agree with Steven, going to Cinemark to see a widescreen movie, you might as well wait for the DVD. Speaking of Cinemark, I did see a showing of Wings on their big XD screen, it was an amazing film, and being the only patron to show up for the movie, I got a "private screening" too!

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