Now that Quentin Tarantino has revived Ultra Panavision 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.
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.
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’salready 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.
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.
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!”