Overture Every year about 200 people - mostly men, many of them bald with beards and beer bellies - make the pilgrimage to Bradford in Yorkshire to attend the Widescreen Weekend at the Pictureville Cinema in the National Media Museum. Here they meet like-minded folk and wallow in three days of three-panel Cinerama. Some of them bring along their treasured souvenir brochures, bought in the 1950s and 1960s, and some of them bring their children to show them what it was like, back in the golden days of the roadshow, the overture and the intermission. “What did you see?” says one. ‘I don’t remember,” says another. “I just came for the intermission.” The event is held within the National Media Museum in the centre of Bradford, one of Britain’s most important cities of the industrial revolution, its fortune and civic pride founded on its cotton mills. Now it’s the epicentre of Britain’s Asian population and like so many places is visibly hit by the economic downturn, ripped apart by town planners, boarded up and broken down. A recent election here was national news in the UK for days because the winner was George Galloway, the man who called the members of the US Senate “lickspittles.” Apart from its controversial MP, Bradford also has a controversial water feature. Intended to create a new civic space, it has created anger owing to the vast expense in an age of austerity. The NMM is bang in the middle of all this. It’s a handsome glass and concrete monument to popular culture. It opened in 1983 and housed what was then the UK’s only IMAX theatre. In the early 1990s Bill Lawrence, who ran the film programmes, decided to convert the centre’s regular movie auditorium into a venue for three-strip Cinerama. A louvred, curved screen was installed with classical red curtains, plus the extra two projection booths. A flat screen can be rolled down in front of the permanent curved screen for 35mm and 70mm presentations. More recently, state-of-the-art digital systems have been installed and the projection team, headed by Duncan McGregor, can now project digitally on to the full curve. Technically, Pictureville may be the most advanced and flexible facility in the world. It is an exceptionally pleasant place in which to see a motion picture. This year marked the 60th anniversary of Cinerama so Bill Lawrence and his team pretty much had to put on something special. They did. This is my take on what we saw. This Is Cinerama (3-panel/1952) I’d never seen this before, though some of the footage is very familiar - I once saw The Best of Cinerama, the compilation movie released in 1964, and I’d seen David Strohmaier’s brilliant documentary Cinerama Adventure which has a lot of stuff from the original film. There are also a few shots from This is Cinerama in the final section of How The West Was Won, projected backwards. But to see the original in full was quite a treat I can tell you. What surprised me was the length of Lowell Thomas’s introduction and the sharpness of the creases in his trousers. On a wall in his study, I noticed a framed photograph, possibly taken by Thomas himself, of his old buddy TE Lawrence. Thomas blithely took us through an old story. It is an old story, dating back to cave paintings. Then there was Mike Angelo in the Rennaysance, something called Persistence of Vision, a pretty girl called Zoe Trope and then, suddenly, it was The Great Train Robbery and Valentino. No mention of Melies, of course, because Thomas’s story was an all-American thing and Cinerama is of course an anagram of American. By now it must have been 20 minutes and then came the moment, the rollercoaster moment. Something about the combination of red curtains parting so slowly, the unexpected sound of scrunching metal, the pounding of hearts beating in that auditorium in Bradford . . . This is Cinerama is a very strange movie. From that opening rollercoaster to Aida, from the Viennese Boys’ Choir to bagpipes in Edinburgh to gondolas in Venice, the huge frame allows the eye and the mind to wander and wonder - for instance, did those tourists in Venice who looked at the passing camera ever see themselves in the cinema? Was Elizabeth Taylor’s entry into Rome in Cleopatra based on Aida? Certainly the cast at La Scala seemed much bigger than the Mankiewicz picture. And what happened to those Aryan boys in the choir - how many are alive, how many have committed adultery or murder, did any of them change sex, how did they launder their leiderhosen, did they realise they could have flown to Bradford and seen themselves spread across the Able, Baker and Charlie panels? They sang Strauss’s The Blue Danube - is this where Stanley K foresaw his own Cinerama movie? Whereas Part One was all cross-cultural, Part Two was all-American and the camera suddenly took flight and took to the water in an interminable water skiing sequence filmed in Cypress Gardens in Florida. Then came the Ansel Adams tour, a bit of a jumble geographically and a pantheist’s dream. The soundtrack was mostly 'America The Beautiful' - the simple, stark patriotism reminded me of my visit to Mount Rushmore where at the son et lumiere (pardon my French) everyone stood and placed their hands on their hearts. In the UK no one would risk such a thing and if you fly the flag, especially in Bradford, you are likely to get arrested or waterboarded. The print was surprisingly good with material from several sources, including a freshly printed Venetian section. You can see this picture in Bradford once a month. How The West Was Won (3-panel/1962) This was the fourth time I have seen this film in Bradford and the excitement of the occasion never diminishes, though it must be said that the last time, in 2007, the print had become so battered that it was at times unwatchable. This time it was a different print, from the same Australian source as The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. Things got off to a rather ropey start with the lines between the panels wobbling and tearing in a seriously distracting fashion. To everyone’s relief things simmered down after 10 minutes and the first half of the picture was excellent and at times startling. Every time you see this picture you notice different things. My eyes kept wandering around the frame in a sequence such as the introduction to Robert Preston’s wagon master and the depth of the set and the background action is quite remarkable, an incredible achievement for the army of ADs. I don’t know how many times I have seen this movie but I have never, ever, figured out the geography of that river pirates episode. It just doesn’t make any sense at all because James Stewart makes a point of telling Carroll Baker that he’s going one way on the river and she’s going the other. So why and how and what and maybe who cares? I was also intrigued by something else: in John Ford’s sequence Andy Devine shows up at the Rawlins homestead and basically recruits George Peppard into the Union army. Now, here’s a line of thought: Orson Welles liked to pay tribute to John Ford’s Stagecoach for showing him how to make a movie. So when Andy Devine shows up in HTWWW he just happens to call his horse Rosebud. And then Carroll Baker makes this little speech in front of her log cabin about getting her son’s bag all packed and his clothes all washed exactly in the manner of Agnes Moorehead near the start of Citizen Kane and in her own log cabin. And in HTWWW Carroll Baker’s mother just happens to be played by Agnes Moorehead. I could go on . . . but it strikes me that Mr Ford used this little scene in HTWWW to sort of raise his stetson to Mr Welles. The print quality of Part Two wasn’t quite as good as Part One and the film even broke down. And that was a good thing because we were treated to Lowell Thomas’s legendary pep talk which had been filmed to cover technical glitches such as this. Thomas rambled on about his amazing experiences with Cinerama and after 10 minutes or so he said he hoped the boys in the box had now fixed the problem. They hadn’t. So Thomas came back armed with another ten minutes of anecdotes. Bradford gave him a rousing round of applause. And another nice thing happened. The screening was attended by the main stuntman on the picture, Loren Janes. He showed us his homemade movie about his stuntwork and we learned that Mr Janes was told that during the Paris premiere in 1963 the entire audience had stood and applauded his stunt when he fell off the train and fell straight on to a saguaro cactus. Mr Janes wasn’t at the Paris screening and sorely wished he had been to savour that moment. So when that scene came up in Bradford we all stood and applauded him. That’s the sort of thing that happens here. A magical moment. South Seas Adventure (2k digital/1958) This was the main reason for my trip to Bradford. I’d never seen it before and because I have spent a lot of time in the South Pacific I wanted to see what Tahiti and Fiji looked like way back then. For instance, in 1958, when this movie was first shown, you couldn’t fly direct to Tahiti. Instead, you landed on the long airstrip in Bora Bora, built during WWII by US marines, and then caught a seaplane to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. The airport on Tahiti only opened in 1962, after MGM had made its remake of Mutiny on the Bounty in the islands. To get a Cinerama unit out there in those days was a major logistical operation. Anyway, this travelogue, South Seas Adventure. It was a digital world premiere, remastered by Cinerama maestro David Strohmaier and destined for release on DVD and Blu-ray if sales on the first releases, This is Cinerama and Windjammer, are successful. Projected at 2k on the curved screen, it didn’t look especially impressive - the joins between the panels had been digitally removed, the picture lacked texture and it looked a bit bleached. The movie starts with a wholly dispensable section in Hawaii - which isn’t even in the South Seas - with a trumped up romance between a tourist gal and an all-American boy who lives in Honolulu. They canoodle, they sail and they go to a tacky Polynesian restaurant like Trader Vic’s. You had to endure this pair in Hawaii for 20 minutes and only then does the movie get into gear by sailing to Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji and Vanuatu with another set of ‘characters’ - the Scandinavian skipper and a French artist pretending to be Rosanno Brazzi. Some of the footage here is fascinating, especially the round-island road on Tahiti which was just a narrow lane. There was also a lovely tracking shot along a street in Suva which is full of British cars. Part One ends with the bunjee jumping spectacle on Pentecost island, though to avoid offending civilised people Cinerama insisted that these savages wear proper clothing rather than the traditional penis sheaths. To be honest, I couldn’t face Part Two though I did pop back for the last 10 minutes which was about sheep shearing, kangaroos and the flying doctor service in outback Australia. This was a dismal experience with Orson Welles delivering some of the most banal commentary I’ve ever heard and you woud never believe the syrupy music is by Alex North. For me, South Seas Adventure was a massive disappointment and I actually wasn’t expecting that much to begin with. The screening was attended by Ramine, a native of Bora Bora who plays the leading Tahitian girl and whose image was on all the posters of the film. She never had a movie career, apart from a bit-part in Dino de Laurentiis's flop Hurricane, though she might be the only actress in history to attend the original world premiere and the digital world premiere of the same film. She had been wanting to see the picture again for years and the irony was that she has a house in Sydney, Australia, and never heard of John H Mitchell’s occasional screenings in his backyard. Ramine’s stage appearance in Bradford created what we might call hoopla. Ryan’s Daughter (70mm/1970) Between South Seas Adventure and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, Bradford unfurled its flat screen and ran Ryan’s Daughter. The original 70mm print was in remarkable condition, a bit scratchy and jumpy in places, but the colour was deep and rich, maybe a little brownish in parts, but a fine tribute to the painterly work of Freddie Young. This print had Swedish subtitles which gave Lean’s movie a touch of the Ingmar Bergmans. I kept thinking Robert Mitchum was actually Max Von Sydow. Intermission The Widescreen Weekend is a great place to catch up with people you haven’t seen for years, such as Kevin Brownlow, Christopher Frayling and the legendary Tony Sloman. Bradford’s new local Member of Parliament, George Galloway, once said to Saddam Hussein “Sir, I admire your indefatigability” and I’d say the same to Tony - he is a true champion of the cinema, he lectures to pensioners on cruise ships and was runner-up in a BBC quiz, Film Buff of the Year. Tony asked me if I would be going to Bradford next year. I said it would have to be something very special to get me back so quickly, such as a fully restored It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or The Alamo, neither of which will ever happen. “The Alamo is being restored right now,” said Tony. I told him it wasn’t and that he should read the long and sad thread on the HTF. Tony said he never read the HTF. In fact he never read anything on the internet and he didn’t own a computer. So I summarised what had happened to The Alamo and why all efforts had come to nothing. “I’ll fix it,” said Tony. He asked me to give him the name of the guy at MGM and Tony would make him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Tony also said he would get the Obamas involved. I didn’t say this to Tony but I did think that the Obamas might not be fans of John Wayne. Anyway, an hour or so later Tony told me he had already found a British rock star willing to put up the money for a full restoration of The Alamo and that he would fix it all next week. So that’s all right then. In 2013 we’ll all see The Alamo in Todd-AO. I expect a complimentary ticket as I was the one who told Tony all about it. As I said, in two words . . . indefatigable. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (3 panel/1962) This is the picture most people came to see. A hot ticket event. I saw this only once before, in 1963 at the Coliseum Cinerama in London. I remember disliking it - I was a teenager in the Swinging Sixties, right? - and I don’t remember anything else about it. This screening in Bradford was the first three-strip presentation for 40 years and we all wondered what the print would look like. The movie broke down before it got started and we waited an age for the guys in the boxes to get the thing synched up. But suddenly it was there, the music played, the curtains opened and all three panels were up and running. The left and centre panels, Able and Baker, were like identical twins but, dismayingly, right panel Charlie was a right pain, a wayward child who showed signs of autism. Charlie was probably adopted from another home, and the colour was faded, so it looked like a completely separate movie happening on the right side of the screen. Charlie wasn’t only off colour, he bumped around a lot as well; his behaviour was appalling. But after the Intermission Charlie suddenly became a team player and the whole thing worked fairly seamlessly, apart from a few occasions when Baker popped out of focus. The colour was simply fabulous and the newly duped soundtrack worked a treat, despite the fact that the music score is both dull and irritating. Oh and there is a choir in there as well. Cinerama couldn’t resist choir boys. I was constantly struck by the commitment of Laurence Harvey who really put everything into it and created a wonderful character. His brother, Karl Boehm, had a less showy part and then there were the pop-ups like Jim Backus, Terry-Thomas and Buddy Hackett, as if this was It’s a Grimm, Grimm, Grimm, Grimm World. I felt short-changed that Mickey Rooney didn’t pop-up as an elf. And in a sequence such as the animated puppetoons or the fire-breathing dragon you gasped at the massive effort involved. To my surprise and delight, I liked the picture. To begin with, it was very well made, better made in some respects than HTWWW. Henry Levin and George Pal as well as their production designers (the daughter of Edward Carfagno attended the screening and spoke afterwards) arrived at a visual style that seems perfectly attuned to the theme. HTWWW is essentially all about big stars, big locations and big action scenes but the rest is really a series of rather sclerotic tableaux. Grimm somehow seems more fluid in both the interior dialogue scenes and the beautiful German locations. The design of the sets, the placement of the actors and props works so well that you are never quite as conscious of the process as you are in HTWWW. And some scenes in this print were jaw-droppingly luxuriant in their colour and texture, a real Technicolor overload. Overall, a wonderful experience and a huge relief, too, for I think most people were a bit anxious about the whole thing. Cineramacana This regular early morning fixture, renamed Cinerama! Cinerama! this year, is a pot-pourri that sometimes comes up with the unexpected treat. It’s also an incredible challenge for the projection team who must switch from 35mm to digital to 70mm to three-strip in the blink of a shutter-blade. The problem with this feature is always the same - a lack of discernment and editorial judgment. The programme was over-running so why did we have to sit through a terrible 35mm trailer for Oliver! or a 70mm blow-up segment from the abysmal Hoffa or a digital trailer for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? Come on Bill, get a grip, no one wants to see that sort of stuff. On the other hand, there were some wonderful things - Don Cole’s witty canter through the life and career of John H Mitchell, the Australian collector who lives in Sydney surrounded by Cinerama projectors and other gear. Mitchell has somehow collected the complete inventory of three-panel Cinerama productions and used to hold regular screenings for his mates on a slightly curved screen in his backyard. His prints of HTWWW and Grimm have now been donated to Bradford and should be screened on a fairly regular basis. His material has enabled David Strohmaier and Randy Gitsch to restore the Cinerama features for DVD and theatrical showings. Mitchell also has the equipment to re-record complete soundtracks, as he did for this presentation of Grimm. Mitchell is a true hero and although he wasn’t in Bradford in person the miracle of Skype technology enabled him to be seen live from Sydney on the Cinerama screen. A really touching moment. Tony Sloman’s son, Jonathan, had discovered fascinatingly fuzzy footage of a 1962 premiere of Grimm attended by George Pal and a young boy in a wheelchair who had recently suffered terrible burns. His name just happened to be Grimm. Canadian philanthrope and Cinerama addict Tom March pays for a lot of stuff, including a brand-new print of the legendary three-panel advertisement for the Renault Dauphin automobile. That might have been the highlight of the entire weekend! I Wish I Went to Ecuador was a charming little animated film made by 630 schoolchildren in nearby Hull about deforestation in Ecuador. The kids had been taken to see This Is Cinerama and were so awed by the widescreen that their little video was made for the Cinerama screen, courtesy of Head Projectionist, Duncan McGregor. This is the sort of thing that makes the NMM very much part of the local community. We also saw a badly faded, French-made Super Panavision 70 promo for Grand Prix; a 10-minute French documentary from the 1960s about Itinerama with lots of footage of the construction of the huge tent; a brilliantly funny 60-second remake of The Ladykillers and one of those heart-stopping Chuck Workman compilations for the DGA. Playout Bradford this year was a remarkable event and it’s all down to a group of true aficionados: Bill Lawrence and Thomas Hauerslav who curate the programme; Duncan McGregor and his heroic team of projectionists; Jennifer Hall at NMM. David Strohmaier and Randy Gitsch have been rescuing and reclaiming the Cinerama library and assigning new copyrights as well as making the first three-strip Cinerama film in 50 years. Thanks to them and many others, I had a great time in Bradford this year.