The Grandeur Of It All --- Part One
What a kick it must have been to walk into theatres during those wildly experimental days of the late twenties! Revolution was afoot among studio alchemists mixing newly arrived sound, color, and screen shapes. Anything was possible beyond theatre fronts promising the newest glimpse of filmmaking things to come. Upturned convention was for this briefest moment the norm. Had not the stock market crashed, and a timid industry retrenched, we might have had most, if not all, of our classic favorites shot, and maybe released, on 70mm film. As it was, that highest of high definitions would wait another quarter century to again make landfall. The technology folks sampled in 1930 beat the pants off Cinemascope and Vistavision we’d later settle for. Good as it looks on the new DVD, imagine seeing The Big Trail in full 70mm on the New York Roxy’s forty-two foot wide by twenty foot high screen, and this was seventy-eight years ago! I’d have been no more surprised riding home that night on the Space Shuttle. We’d understand better such seismic events had viewership exceeded the comparative thimble-full present when these doomed leviathans roared to but fleeting life. For so little as survives of them, such experiments are as retrievable to us now as Broadway and vaudeville turns played live and consigned since to the ether. Most of what was shot widescreen between 1926 and 1930 is lost. Those bold initial strokes at color are largely gone as well. Who cares to save experiments once scuttled and written off? Names their inventors dreamed up are enticing still --- Grandeur, Realife, Magnifilm, Vitascope --- were these puffed up gimmicks or harbingers of greatness derailed by chance and worse timing? Good as movies have looked since the thirties, think of King Kong, Gone With The Wind, and Citizen Kane on 70mm negative. It could have happened. The technology was available to make it happen. Had William Fox’s Grandeur vision succeeded, I wonder how long we’d have waited for broad use of three-color Technicolor and implementation of stereophonic sound. Both could have been utilized by the late thirties, if not before. See how easy it is to be carried away with a dream? Somebody pinch me if I’ve overshot what potential came (and went) with Grandeur. For my money (but not, as it turned out, Fox’s), this was Hollywood’s most audacious leap toward a future we’ve still not met (2008 and we’re exhibiting yet on 35mm!). In an industry so tumultuous as it was in 1929-30, how could Grandeur, Realife and the rest end in anything but glorious failure?
Paramount toyed with expanded screens from 1926 in flagship runs of Old Ironsides, Wings, and other big vista shows. Their Magnascope was simply blowing up 35mm, grain and all, to fill prosceniums where space for such expansion was available. These were essentially cheaters, but arresting ones. Some exhibitors even Magnascope'd trailers to put over bally for otherwise conventional features like The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu (an account of one such memorable push here). William Fox gambled and had won with sound on film. His Movietone was out the gate well ahead of everyone's talkies save Warners. Emboldened perhaps by that, plus theatres he was buying up like no tomorrow (and things would turn out something like that), Fox put his own cash into developing a for-real expanded screen process with clarity the equal of its size. Grandeur would shun the use of standard 35mm for both shooting and exhibition. It was a plan sufficiently grandiose (why not just call it that?) as to oblige users just upended by sound conversion to reinvent their wheel all over again, using a 70mm format patented and to be licensed by Fox. Here was a mogul drunk on prospects of eventually controlling all Hollywood. For a few months, he owned even Loew’s, parent company of MGM. A car crash precipitated the tailspin dooming Grandeur and its architect’s extravagant dream before a first public demonstration on September 17, 1929. The picture, Fox Movietone Follies, was familiar to Roxy patrons over previous weeks, having been shown there in standard 35mm and headed comfortably toward final profits of $380,000. The wide version would bow at the Gaiety Theatre, recently re-equipped for 70mm projection and a new screen thirty-five feet wide. The capacity audience of 811 enjoyed a show destined to find its way into motion picture history, according to The Exhibitors Herald-World. Wide film was little short of a sensation. Awestruck ovation greeted the program of shorts designed to arouse just that. There was footage of Niagara Falls (stunningly effective) and remarkably clear shots of Babe Ruth batting homers. A wider soundtrack seemed to have licked problems Fox was experiencing with its Movietone sound-on-film format (greater tonal range, according to them), and the picture, as illustrated here with 35-70mm frame comparisons, was said to be about twice as wide as high. Publicity gilded an already impressive product by implying the effect of third dimension upon Grandeur, and announced the company’s intention of equipping Fox theatres with 70mm projectors and wide screens, foreseeing a time, not far distant, when all Fox productions will be made in the new dimensions. For a trade press and audience that night, it seemed Grandeur was poised to put motion pictures of today into the peep-show class (according to the Herald-World). Conventional 35mm would thus seem hopelessly inadequate as of September 17, 1929.
Grandeur ran a three-legged race from its opening bell. The promise of Fox Theatres conversion to 70mm would not be fulfilled. The market crash of October 24, 1929 put paid to expansions prophesied but weeks earlier (although the Depression wouldn’t generally hit the film industry until 1931). William Fox was forced out by April 1930. The second Grandeur feature, Happy Days, had opened two months previous at the Roxy. Audiences elsewhere saw it in 35mm and as nationwide ad and poster art didn’t mention Grandeur, few realized what they were missing (the film took $132,000 in profits). Logistics of retrofitting several thousand theatres so soon after having done so for talkies was a frightful enough proposition in boom times. Now Fox was barely able to make mortgage payments on real estate they’d overbought. The Big Trail had been on drawing boards since better times suggested viable possibilities of epic filmmaking with sound. Enough money was already spent as to make cancellation inadvisable, and besides, such a frontier saga might still work (hadn't The Iron Horse clicked?). Universal announced The Oregon Trail (trade ad shown here) for its 1930-31 season in June, but dropped the project in deference to Fox’s already in progress The Big Trail. Raoul Walsh would direct newcomer John Wayne and Fox boasted of two million earmarked for the production. Walsh was a sensible choice. He’d painted on large canvases before (The Thief Of Bagdad, What Price Glory?) and more recently made talking westerns pay with In Old Arizona, a picture he’d not complete due to a freakish auto mishap that cost him the starring role plus his right eye. Walsh recovered sufficiently to direct two more major profit pictures for Fox release. He was by far the company’s leading money director. In Old Arizona had realized a $566,000 gain, The Cock-Eyed World was a certified smash with a million in profit, and Hot For Paris finished with $375,000 in black ink. The six-month odyssey that was The Big Trail seemed less a gamble with Walsh at its head. From March to August of 1930, he’d ramrod the biggest overland trek Hollywood had ever attempted. There would be a staggering six versions of The Big Trail filmed. One would be 70mm Grandeur, another was standard 35mm. Walsh directed both. Four more Big Trails were prepared for foreign territories. Shooting on these began in November 1930, over a month after the domestic version opened in theatres. The French edition was La Piste des géants, directed by Pierre Courdere. A German version, Die Grossen Fahrt, was filmed during December 1930 and directed by Lewis Seiler. Variety panned it following a Berlin showing in April of 1931, citing clumsy German dialogue and haphazard scenes. The latter was grafted onto action and outdoor footage Walsh had supervised. Such was the case with all four foreign versions. La Gran Jornada, for instance, generated its own negative costs of $200,000 for an alternate cast and dialogue segments in Spanish. There was $7000 in domestic rentals for La Gran Jornada, as it played, like most foreign-language derivations, in metropolitan areas with large ethnic populations, plus an additional $344,000 from territories outside the US, yielding La Gran Jornada higher foreign rentals than the $242,000 collected by The Big Trail’s English-speaking version (Wayne is shown above with four actors essaying his role in the foreign versions).
Fox actually had $1.7 million in the US negative of The Big Trail. That was more money than was spent on any of their previous output, and indeed no picture Fox made during the 1930’s, before or after the merger with Twentieth-Century Pictures, would cost so much. October 1930 opening dates for The Big Trail saw only two theatres hosting Grandeur prints. Hollywood’s Grauman Chinese was the October 2 premiere site (President Hoover enjoyed a private White House screening just prior to this). October 24 would be opening day at New York’s Roxy. Every other engagement of The Big Trail was in 35mm. Fox’s goodwill outreach to exhibitors promised it for immediate general release bookings (see trade ad here). The Big Trail would not be roadshown outside of the exclusive to Grauman’s Los Angeles territory. Initial receipts from the two Grandeur runs were encouraging. Mordaunt Hall’s New York Times review was rhapsodic. The views on the wide screen are so compelling that when one goes to see an ordinary sized screen … it looks absurdly small. Variety was less generous. You had to wonder if someone there had it in for Fox. Referring to The Big Trail as a noisy "Covered Wagon", the reviewer took even Grandeur to task, referring to photography dimmed by the widened screen and ensemble scenes indistinct. Were technical problems hobbling Grandeur and The Big Trail? Focus issues were mentioned in the trade press. 70mm nitrate film was said to occasionally cup and buckle during projection. Such complications seemed fairly minor after breakdowns endured with early sound systems. Fox spokesman Harley Clarke was nevertheless confident of a four million dollar gross. October 1930 would represent a summit of industry optimism for Grandeur. Wide Screens For The Future (as shown in the ad here) were promoted during the heady week preceding New York’s opening of The Big Trail. Showmen were encouraged to update and get in on ground floors of wall-to-wall projection. Warners was preparing Vitascope to answer perceived demands for 70mm. The last week of October saw that company’s announcement of wide screens for every Warner theatre (in fact, as with Fox, only a handful would be equipped). MGM had its Billy The Kid opening that month as well. It was filmed in 70mm Realife. Were movies so recently given to speech on the verge of another revolution? Was a wide new era about to unfold? The answer to both questions wouldn’t be long in coming …