We are so conditioned to watching old movies on tiny screens it comes as something of a primal shock to see them in all their original glory. Most festivals lean towards the arthouse end of the cinema business so it’s all the more delightful to find an event that without apology concentrates on the mainstream. Widescreen Weekend takes place at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford, England, and mostly in its Pictureville Cinema, the only venue in the country equipped to show Cinerama pictures in the original three-strip version which requires three projectors.
And while most other film festivals attract general movie lovers, this one appears to appeal in large part to those who have had something to do with the movie-making business or its technical side. Speakers might include, for example, Cinerama restoration specialist Dave Strohmaier or Kevin Brownlow, editor turned director, and among the audience you might find people like Keith Stevens from Australia, a former operations executive with Village Roadshow there, but who started out as a projectionist and regaled me with tales of projecting The Sound of Music (1965) in its original roadshow run.
There’s a limited number of movies that were made, mostly in the 1960s, either in Cinerama or 70mm, so the event has expanded to take in the earlier Cinemascope and the other versions of widescreen technology on which Hollywood depended as the marketing hook to bring back audiences from the all-encompassing maw of television in the 1950s. Later films whose directors understood the cinematic impact of 70mm are also added to the mix.
You are transported back to a time when screens were just enormous – this one is 51ft wide – and were curtained, and those curtains would not open (to the sides) until in typical roadshow fashion, a lengthy musical Overture, highlighting aspects of the movie’s music, had run its course. There is something quite sumptuous about sitting in a movie theatre staring at huge red curtains and waiting for the house lights to dim and the music to begin.
Roughly half-way through the movie itself, the curtains would close for an intermission, and before the picture restarted there would be more music, what was termed the Entr’Acte. Some DVDS of roadshows contain both Overture and Entr’Acte but there is a lightyear of difference between hearing them in your lounge and being exposed to them in a picture house built to bring out their best sound.
This is a homage not just to old movies but the old way of seeing a movie.
In previous years the programs have included Ice Station Zebra (1968), West Side Story (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), the David Lean trilogy of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Doctor Zhivago (1965) and Ryan’s Daughter (1970),a pair from William Wyler that could not have been more diverse – Ben-Hur (1959) and Funny Girl (1968) – This Is Cinerama (1952), Carol Reed’s The Agony and the Ecstasy (1965), John Frankenheimer’s split-screen Formula One epic Grand Prix (1966) and of course the mother of all roadshows The Sound of Music (1965). Throw in a healthy helping of 1950s Cinemascope features and more contemporary pictures which embraced 70mm and you have the makings of an always satisfying weekend.
So one of the highlights is to see old favorites. This year we were treated to the three-strip version of How the West Was Won (1962), your feet tapping immediately at the sound of the driving Alfred Newman score, and a restored The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), the first two movies made in the Cinerama process that had dramatic purpose and were not mere travelogs.
But there was also an opportunity to watch old movies that have never been screened in their original version since their initial release, such as Circus World / The Magnificent Showman (1964) shown in Super Technirama 70. Also on the program was Carol Reed’s Oscar-winning Oliver! (1968), Bob Fosse debut Sweet Charity (1969), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968) and Douglas Trumbull’s Brainstorm (1983), Natalie Wood’s last picture and one that experiments with screen size. Extending the program into non-70mm widescreen there was a screening of Dracula, Prince of Darkness (1966) and A Star Is Born (1954). Every screening was introduced by an expert and there were occasional surprise guests like Kevin Brownlow, the editor of The Charge of the Light Brigade.
The event takes place in October every year and I’m already looking forward to the next. Kathryn Penny, who has organized the event these past few years, is moving onto a post in academia, and she will be sorely missed.