A New Film Festival Showing Very Old (and Explosive) Prints

When you consider how flammable film stock was in the first half of the 20th century, and how popular smoking was at the same time, it’s amazing that any movies survived at all. Or any movie theaters.

By the time you read this, I will presumably be in Rochester, NY, where I will be attending The Nitrate Picture Show, a young film festival (only their fourth year) dedicated to very old prints.

Nitrate prints have a reputation for exceptional beauty. Their clear transparency, black blacks, and shimmering grey tones helped give birth to the phrase the silver screen.

But nitrate prints had their problems, and they still do. They shrink over time. They get brittle. They melt away.

Worse than all that, a reel of nitrate film is basically a thousand-foot roll of transparent, flexible gunpowder. Set it off in an out-of-control situation, and you’re likely to lose more than a few reels of film. If you’ve seen Cinema Paradiso or Inglorious Basterds, you know what I’m talking about.

Not surprisingly, very few theaters are equipped to project nitrate film. Currently, only the Stanford can do it in the Bay Area, and they haven’t done it in years.

The Dryden Theatre in Rochester’s George Eastman Museum can also screen nitrate, and that’s why I flew all the way to Upstate New York for this festival. In nearly 50 years watching old movies, I have seen only five films projected from nitrate prints. Perhaps coincidentally, three of them are on my A+ list. The last one I saw, a Technicolor IB print of the 1940 Thief of Bagdad, was in or around 1985.

I plan to more than double that amount in a few days.

The Thief of Bagdad
I have no idea what films I’ll be seeing at the Picture Show, but I do know that they were all made before the changeover to acetate film in 1952. The festival starts Friday with an announcement of the movies to be screened.

I do know that on Thursday night, before the Picture Show officially starts, the Museum will screen a nitrate print of Laurence Olivier’s 1948 version of Hamlet. I saw it, at the UC Theatre, in the spring of 1981. I hated the movie. So did the attractive woman sitting in the row in front of me. We exchanged phone numbers after the screening. She eventually became my first wife. My son exists because of that lousy movie.

I haven’t decided if I’m going to see it again.

Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet
Despite a readership that’s mostly 3,000 miles away, I’ll be reporting on the Nitrate Picture Show as regularly as I can.

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