Saturday 27 April 2019

On Blu-ray - David Hare uncovers the first 3-strip Technicolor movie, BECKY SHARP, and the last, FOX FIRE

The US Blu-ray label Kino Lorber has been running all over the competition in the last couple of years for sheer volume and quality. It must surely claim some prize for sheer output of great missing chasms of "interesting" to great American cinema from the 30s to 50s with literally dozens, if not hundreds of titles which the majors (who, own them) have not bothered to release. 
Sometimes K-L involves itself with new 4K scans of partially restored titles which they finish off to some low cost spec, like Hitchcock's Under Capricorn, an invaluable exercise in film rescue, whatever you think of the movie (I personally love it.) 
Amongst several dozen K-L releases over the last two months are the very first and the very last feature length films made in the three strip Technicolor process in the USA. First, in 1935. Becky Sharp shot by Ray Rennahan and directed with some vigor, if not much individual inspiration by journeyman Rouben Mamoulian. 
The film really is a tribute to Selznick as producer to be the first cab off the rank, like Disney for his short animations from 1932, when the process first became available. And for Selznick to then sign a long term contract with Herbert Kalmus' Technicolor company which had just invented and perfected the technology, the cameras and the complicated matrice based dye submersion printing lines to make those incomparable saturated, lush prints. We owe Selznick for this and many other things, if not for his control freakery as a sometimes meddling producer.
Kino Lorber had also released some weeks earlier the very last film to be photographed in the USA in the three strip camera process, Fox Fire, in 1955 for Universal, directed by a spirited Joe Pevney and shot by Bill Daniels, starring Universal's alternative to Rock as 50s hunk du jour, Jeff Chandler. Plus Jane Russell, in a budget busting wardrobe with as many as three costume changes per scene, playing a suitably fiery white woman who impulsively marries Jeff's highly Egyptian- dusk yellowface "apache half-breed". Jeff’s culturally estranged mother, “Princess Saba” is a native Apache and is played in a small part by Celia Lovsky, a very white Czech born actress who's given an even heavier layer of Max Factor Dusk. 
The latter movie is a king hitter for Pevney fans, if not quite at the celestial level of his Joanie “woman in danger" Noir masterpiece, Female on the Beach. That one again has menacing rough trade gigolo and potential assassin, Chandler, from 1954,  and was also released by Kino Lorber in a superb B&W transfer in February. Fox Fire can I think be forgiven for the yellowface of the two actors for the simple fact that it openly treats the commercialization of the tourist trap reductionism of the Apache camps as ethnographic geekery, and the trivialization of Native American culture, with the surrounding prejudice as a live subject. I really like Russell in this a lot, and she seems to be giving over a lot of the scenery and the cues to Chandler, a far weaker technical actor whose woodenness is legendary. Just as Joanie seems to need Chandler to bounce off her range of neurasthenics in Female on the Beach, one can enjoy watching Russell taking the back seat to leave Chandler space and air in the widescreen frame to move and feel his way into a very difficult and moving part. 
The transfers are interesting. Becky Sharp was taken from an absolutely sterling restoration which was only finally completed in 2017 after an iniital UCLA exercise by Archivist Bob Gitt in 1994. While the last reel is clearly salvaged from a murky dupe positive element, the first 80 minutes of the film is absolutely spectacular, and reflects the high grain quality of the original 35mm nitrate neg filming and the earliest registration process from YCM matrices that was required to make these literally artisanal prints. It is a complete joy to watch for anyone who has previously luxuriated in viewings of other IB Tech original run prints at Bologna, and elsewhere as a matter of infrequent but delirious pleasure.  
Universal's source for Fox Fire supplied to K-L is, I would guess, a good quality Eastman recomb and it rarely falls foul of registration issues. The color saturation and balance is gorgeous. But as is so often the case with slightly older Universal HD scans someone there has hit a preset button on the fucking de-graining panel, and you end up with both slight waxiness in faces, and a kind of bee swarm flurry of grain in less tightly encoded shots. The worst example of this bad tech by Universal is its total and complete fuckup of Marnie for the Hitchcock Masterpiece boxset. As far as I know they have never revisited this abomination to correct the problem.
The screens from Becky Sharp have Frances Dee (top), as the "nice girl", and with Miriam Hopkins (second picture) as Thackeray's "bad girl", in a blue and a yellow outfit. The two screens from Fox Fire  are first of Jane Russell with Jeff Chandler and competing love interest Dan Duryea!! And Jane again in another costume change while she smashes into Jeff's Pandora's box of Ancestral memories.

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