A Star Is Reborn: Nitrate Film On The Big Screen

As I write this, I wish I could say I was hopping on a plane to Rochester, New York for The Nitrate Picture Show at George Eastman House—but my schedule wouldn’t allow it. This inaugural three-day festival is a unique celebration of 35mm nitrate prints, which are highly combustible and subject to decomposition. Thousands of films have been lost due to fire, the ravages of time, and carelessness…yet thousands survive, some more than one hundred years old. I learned this years ago when I visited the Library of Congress’ storage vaults at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio—since relocated to Culpepper, Virginia—and held the camera negative of Thomas Edison’s The Great Train Robbery in my hands. Although it was made in 1903, it remained in pristine condition, while many more recent titles had crumbled to dust.

The attendant problem is that, because of fire safety regulations, very few theaters or museums can still show these prints (Remember the projection booth fire in Cinema Paradiso? That wasn’t the product of a writer’s imagination.)

Fortunately, the 500-seat Dryden Theatre at George Eastman House is one exception. “At a time when the future of film is confronted with the reality of digital as a dominant form of visual expression, there is an emerging need to celebrate the achievements of cinema as a photochemical medium,” said Paolo Cherchi Usai, Eastman House’s Senior Curator of Moving Image. “There is an inherent beauty—a true ‘aura’—in moving images made on nitrate stock.”

So what’s the big deal about watching a nitrate print as opposed to one reprinted on safety film? If the picture was made in Technicolor during the 1930s and ’40s, nothing can compare to an original print made in the dye-transfer process. It’s best described as eye-popping; a safety print may look great, but not quite as vivid. That’s one reason the opening night attraction in Rochester is A Star is Born (1937) with the director’s son, William Wellman, Jr., in person.

Roger Corman Serge Bromberg-Nitrate Film

Roger Corman reacts as Serge Bromberg lights a piece of nitrate film on fire at the Telluride Film Festival in 2012. (photo by Jessie Maltin)

Black & white films look just as stunning. I remember the first time I became aware of nitrate: in the early 1970s, the legendary Henri Langlois brought some treasures from the Cinémathèque Française to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. When I saw The Big Trail (1930) I couldn’t get over the razor-sharpness of the images or the “true” black in that black & white print. I’d never seen anything like it before. (One can only imagine what such a print would look like projected on an old-fashioned reflective silver screen.)

In any case, I envy my many friends and colleagues who will revel in the screening of rare and one-of-a-kind prints this weekend and get to meet film historians Kevin Brownlow, David Bordwell and Roger Smither. I’m sure the Eastman House’s key curators and preservationists will be on hand, as well. Bravo to all of them for putting on this ambitious show. I hope it’s successful enough to warrant a second gathering, and that I’ll be able to attend.

If you still want to get in on the fun, check for ticket availability HERE.

Leonard Maltin is one of the world’s most respected film critics and historians. He is best known for his widely-used reference work Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide and its companion volume Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, now in its third edition, as well as his thirty-year run on television’s Entertainment Tonight. He teaches at the USC School of Cinematic Arts and appears regularly on Reelz Channel and Turner Classic Movies. His books include The 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, The Great Movie Comedians, The Disney Films, The Art of the Cinematographer, Movie Comedy Teams, The Great American Broadcast, and Leonard Maltin’s Movie Encyclopedia. He served two terms as President of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association, is a voting member of the National Film Registry, and was appointed by the Librarian of Congress to sit on the Board of Directors of the National Film Preservation Foundation. He hosted and co-produced the popular Walt Disney Treasures DVD series and has appeared on innumerable television programs and documentaries. He has been the recipient of awards from the American Society of Cinematographers, the Telluride Film Festival, Anthology Film Archives, and San Diego’s Comic-Con International. Perhaps the pinnacle of his career was his appearance in a now-classic episode of South Park. (Or was it Carmela consulting his Movie Guide on an episode of The Sopranos?) He holds court at Follow him on Twitter and Facebook; you can also listen to him on his weekly podcast: Maltin on Movies. — [Artwork by Drew Friedman]

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May 2024