Black Maria Essay Series

NAPOLEON THE ROAD SHOW... in the beginning...

A reminiscence by C. Chapin Cutler, Jr. with assistance from Christopher Reyna

Principal and Co-Founder Boston Light and Sound Brighton, MA


This is part of the tale of my adventure and that of our company, Boston Light & Sound that continues even as you read this article. This is the back story on how the epic film Napoleon with the Carmine Coppola score was produced in the US... in the beginning.

As most of you know, the film Napoleon, was directed by the French filmmaker, Abel Gance. It premiered in France at the Paris Opera in one version in 1927, with another premiere a week later at the Apollo, again in Paris. Although they were the same subject matter, and covered the same time period, the versions were different. What we have today is a compendium of both versions. As part of the continuing true life adventure, Georges Maurier from the French Cinematheque is restoring the Apollo version with newly discovered materials. But, that is a tale for the future!!

When first presented, the French audience loved the movie. But due to its length, it was not a commercial success. However, not only was the length an issue, the film contained three, three panel triptych sequences. This required a rather elaborate and somewhat cumbersome projection set up that was far beyond the capabilities of all but a few cinemas. These sequences were abandoned, with Gance himself, bereft for the films failure, burning the original negative of the first two of these very unique sequences. The third, which is the only one that survives, comprises the final 17 minutes of the film.

From a conversation between Christopher Reyna and Abel Gance in 1973, we learned that in the original showings, the three projectors that needed to be tied together for the presentations were mechanically hooked together with bicycle chain. And incidentally, the three cameras used to shoot these sequences were actually stacked, one atop the other and tied together, again by bicycle chain. In later years, Fred Waller credited the triptych sequences from Napoleon as his inspiration for the development of the Cinerama process in the early 1950s, though there is no evidence that I know of that he ever saw them on screen.

Distribution of Napoleon in the US was acquired by Paramount pictures. The picture was released in a 95 minute version, having been heavily chopped for time.

Having his epic masterpiece literally destroyed before his eyes, Gance tried no less than 5 times to resurrect the picture in various versions. None ever reached an audience of any size. Gance died on November 10, 1981 at the age of 92. Ironically, our Roadshow presentation Napoleon opened in Boston that very night at the 5000 seat Music Hall Theatre (formerly the Metropolitan, now the Citi Wang Center) to an enthusiastic sold out house.

Fortunately, Gance knew of the success of the movie which opened its Roadshow tour at Radio City Music Hall on January 23, 1981. I was not there, but my partner in Boston Light & Sound, Larry Shaw, was. He reported to us that following the performance during the standing ovation for the show, Gance was raised by telephone. During the reported five minute standing ovation, the receiver at Radio City was held up in the air on the stage where he was told, Monsieur Gance, this is what the American audience thinks of your picture. Due to the overwhelming response to the first weekends performances, the show was held for an additional week, and the decision to try a Roadshow was born.

Thus began our adventure with this historic undertaking.

According to Christopher Reyna, Napoleon began its early Kevin Brownlow/ BFI restored presentations at the Avenue Theatre in San Francisco in April, 1973. The show was produced by the Pacific Film Archive as part of a silent film program begun by PFA Founding Director Sheldon Renan. Tom Luddy, then Program Director for PFA was instrumental in this show, and has been and continues to be a moving force in the life of Napoleon ever since. There was an encore presentation, again at the Avenue Theatre for PFA in June, 1975. Later, it was presented at the Telluride Film Festival on September 1, 1979, outdoors, with a hardy audience that sat in the cold for 5 hours to watch this masterpiece unfold. Abel Gance was in attendance and was awarded a Tribute by the Festival for his body of work. There is a picture of him, leaning out of the window of his hotel as the grand finale of his work was unfurled on a 60 ft. screen across Main Street in Elks Park. The technical direction for the PFA and TFF shows had Christopher Reyna as the technical director and chief projectionist for all of those shows. For the Telluride presentation, Chief Technician, Ross Krantz produced the projection system; he remains our leading tech guru, having been with TFF for over 40 years!! Without Ross and Chris work, Gance might never have seen his masterpiece on screen prior to his death. Chris continues his association with Napoleon as one of the co-technical directors of the Brownlow restoration to this day.

Subsequently, the picture was shown in Minneapolis at the Walker Art Center in March of 1980. Francis Coppola, asked his father, Academy Award winning composer, Carmine Coppola, to attend the screenings and write a score for a future performance. No stranger to taking risks and providing spectacle, Francis booked Radio City Music Hall for three showings of the film, with his fathers score and with Carmine conducting the orchestra. Francis company Zoetrope Studios partnered with Robert Harris, whos Images Film Archive owned the rights for distribution. Together, they produced, and continue to produce showings of Napoleon together with Carmine Coppolas score.

Our involvement with this production began in late 1980. My partner at Boston Light & Sound, Inc., Larry Shaw got a call from Robert Endres, then chief projectionist at Radio City Music Hall. At the time, as I recall the conversation, Bob advised Larry that there are some nuts that want to run this four hour silent film at the Hall with an orchestra. He advised that the show needs to have three projectors hooked together for part of it. He wanted to know if we could do the interlock part. We knew a bit about how to do this, so, never being a company that has avoided challenges, we agreed.

Radio City had five film projectors in their booth. There were three almost prototype Simplex XL 35/ 70 machines along with two vintage Simplex XL 35 mm only units. We knew a bit about how electronic projector interlock worked as we were using revitalized 3D interlock technology with our work doing film dailies for on location movie shoots around the country. We knew that hooking up three projectors would work; early 3D film shows, like House of Wax used such a system as those required two film projectors and a sound playback device. For our part, we had never done such a hook up. We pulled three projectors out of our inventory and set them up in our shop. Larry set about to put together the mechanical and electrical system as a complete working "kit" in preparation for this show.

Unlike the bicycle chain method used by Gance, our system used three selsyn motors to keep the projectors in frame to frame step. Selsyn stands for self- synchronous; the technology had been around for many years as a replacement for other mechanical methods. The term selsyn was devised by General Electric for their particular motor systems. Although we did not know it at the time, this was the same technology used previously by Chris Reyna for the PFA shows, and Krantz' Telluride Film Festival lash up.

Larry also wired up a multi-conductor switch box arrangement that would allow all three projectors to start simultaneously. He went to New York, assembled the system, worked out the bugs and made everything show ready. This included installing different lenses, with Bob filing new aperture plates for the silent frames of the triple images. Together, they realigned the projectors and fitted the pictures seamlessly on screen in spite of the extreme 26 degree downward keystone angle from the projection booth. He and Bob set up the left, right and center projectors for the triptych, and used the two in- between projectors for the bulk of the single image film. For the continuing Roadshow presentations BL&S always uses five projectors.

The picture was basically Kevin Brownlows reconstruction of the film as of 1981. The film was originally 13 reels long, with the last reel, reel 13, being three images across. In some ways, I may be a bit superstitious; the fact that the last reel, the one sequence that everyone was waiting for, having that as number 13 was troublesome. So, we spliced the original reels 1 and 2 together, so the triptych was reel 12. Whether or not that was necessary, in about the 150 shows we have done, the final reel always ran perfectly. We ran the show at 24 frames per second, more to keep orchestra costs to an affordable level than any other reason. As it was, with the intermission and an encore at the end, the entire running time was 3 hours and 55 minutes. As this show required three, four hour orchestra rehearsals, it was already a mighty expensive undertaking. So, even though we have sometimes been criticized for not running at a lower speed, the practical reality was that could not be done in an affordable manner.

Our original print was full frame silent, black and white. The original film made by Gance was tinted and/ or toned. Harris and Zoetrope introduced the color version in Syracuse, New York, replicating the original 1927 color palette. The triptych as we have shown it to date is black and white. And, as a slight piece of trivia, this last reel from the first show at RCMH has been the ONLY copy ever used by BL&S up to today. It sits in my office ready for the next invasion.

But, I digress.

For the Radio City Music Hall shows, along with subsequent performances in Columbus, OH and Chicago, IL, we replicated the ending of the picture as it was done in Paris. The final shot was to be projected as the French tri-color, blue, white and red. This was done by quickly putting gels in front of the projector lens for that one, final shot!! They then had to be removed very quickly as The End or Fin had been replaced by Abel Gances signature across the full screen image; it would have looked bad if the colors were still there. Larry notes that at the first Radio City show, as the final shot was approaching, he spots one of the projectionists madly running between machines, going one way with the red gel, the other with the blue. Larry, realizing what was happening reversed the gels to where they should be as this particular operator thought the colors were to be red, white and blue, not blue, white and red".

I must admit some confusion on that myself early on, but fixed it as the now common practice of right on red at stop lights was becoming popular. Thanks to that memory jogger, we never got it wrong.

My personal involvement began with the next set of shows in Columbus, OH in March of 1981. For this one, we had been advised that the Ohio Theatre was already set up for a three projector selsyn interlock system from the 3D days. I was assured that it worked!! And as skeptical as I was, that was indeed correct!! The booth was a standard Loews Incorporated booth with three projectors. Two of them were wonderful original Simplex XL projectors; the third a Simplex E- 7. The lamps were Peerless, Hall and Connolly Hi Candescent carbon arcs powered by a generator in the basement. The original 1950s tube sound system was still in place, including an original Perspecta sound set up. There I met Carlos Parker, one of the saviors of the Ohio, an avid silent film organist and protector of the venue. He reported that from what they could tell, the Perspecta sound still worked. Apparently they had recently played a reissue of Gone with the Wind; the picture had a previous re-release with a Perspecta optical track. They didnt play GWTW that way, but the relays clacked indicating that it still worked.

Again, I digress.

With a three projector interlocked film projector system, we only needed to bring in two machines for the first 11 reels. In Boston, we loaded in our two precious Simplex XL projectors with 4000 watt xenon lamps into a van, and headed off. On the way, I picked up Bob Harris in Brewster, NY, and made the balance of the 10 hour trip together. We had a great ride, with him asking me all kinds of things about film projection. As he has subsequently gone on to do the restorations of Lawrence of Arabia, Spartacus, The Godfather trilogy, Vertigo and others, I often remind him that I taught him everything he knows about film projectors. He humbly allows me my illusions.

The Ohio booth remained like it did from the nitrate days. Access to the booth was from the back of a very steep balcony, up a 12 ft. high ships ladder, and through a door that was about 2 ft. wide by 4 ft. high directly into the booth, a left over from the nitrate days. For us to get our additional projectors into the booth the opening had to be made into a standard size door, otherwise our gear would not fit.

As with about all movie palaces, the stage opening was designed for a standard 4 x 3 or 1.33:1 film aspect ratio. But, our triptych has a 4:1 aspect ratio, wider than the widest cinema film format ever, including Cinerama and Ultra Panavision 70. In the Ohio, the proscenium was only about 40 ft. wide. The distance from the back of the balcony is about 190 ft. If we ran the first 12 reels the same size as the center image of the triptych, the image would have been 10 ft. high by 13.5 ft. wide.

We considered that pretty puny for such a grand epic.

So, we devised a "cheat". This is where in exhibition we needed to find a practical (out of the box) solution as opposed to the academic "you gotta do it this way" approach.

For the first half of the show, we ran the 1.33:1 image at something like 18 x 24 ft. After the intermission, we shrunk the picture to about 12 x 16. At the change to the final reel, we opened the side masking to a full 40 ft., but lowered the header to 10 ft. And, the compromise worked. As the changes were subtle, no one noticed.

The show was a hit in Columbus. We at BL&S went on from there to do Chicago and many other cities. But those have to wait for the extended version of this story.

One other note in this "In the beginning..."

Our producers, Tom Luddy from Zoetrope and Bob Harris with Images booked a show at the Atlanta Fox the week after our first performance in Chicago. That was fine; except the show at the Chicago Theatre was such a success they held Nappy for another week. The wrinkle was... there was only one existing print, and Atlanta was already sold out. So, we skipped a week in the windy city and took it to the marvelous Atlanta Fox for shows the first week of May.

Oh, and another piece of trivia, even though we ran this same print for several engagements, ALL subsequent prints and the later home video release originated from this one, very fragile, acetate print. The transfer was done after we had completed over 50 showings. With proper handling and care, film prints can remain viable even under the varying circumstances of a Roadshow.

My wife, Deborah, came for the Atlanta show; and that is where we met our now long- time friend, Christopher Reyna, who had done the shows at the Pacific Film Archive and at the Telluride Film Festival. After the success at Radio City, Chris was contracted to produce a 70 mm version of the triptych for use in smaller venues and locations were the three projector system was not appropriate. Chris came with the print to see how it played and supervise its set up. The intent was that following Atlanta, we would become co-technical directors for the Roadshow. We were both concerned that we would become competitors as technical directors, so decided between us to divide the world by the Mississippi River. He went on to do the shows at the Shrine Auditorium in LA, the Opera House in San Francisco and the Saenger Theatre in New Orleans and several overseas presentations. The most recent show he did was the 2012 performances at the Oakland Paramount in Oakland, CA, which was staged by BL&S. After our adventures in the early eighties, Chris went on to become a large format film VFX, restoration and mastering producer and was the imaging producer on Samsara, credited as being one of the most breathtaking non- verbal films of the genre. Our company has gone on to do performances in Rome, outdoors outside the Colosseum (twice), Havana, Wolftrap and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC. And, because of the vision of Francis, Tom Luddy, Robert Harris with a tip of the hat to Bill and Stella Pence, founding directors of the Telluride Film Festival, Boston Light & Sound has become preeminent on staging large screen events of both old and current films around the world.

But, for Napoleon, now it is 2016, 35 years after the Radio City Music Hall premiere.

And, like Star Wars, the saga continues. It has already been revealed that Napoleon will return to conquer the US and other international locations with Georges" Maurier"s total, accurate reconstruction of the Apollo version of Napoleon, with a reorchestrated score originated by the late Carmine Coppola. That will be 2017, 90 years after its opening in Paris.

I hope to see you there!!

Copyright 2015 C. Chapin Cutler, Jr.