21 December 2006

Of Magnascope and Vocalite

Those attending the 1930 grand opening of the Strand Theater in Shreveport, Louisiana (transformed from stage to cinema house) would be treated to a film presentation that surely impressed many of those in the audience as being the absolute height of sophisticated cinema technology.

If that statement doesn't impress you, then pause to consider that the average forty year old member of that audience would have already experienced, first hand, the rise of cinema from virtually it's inception onwards --- a thirty year span that carried with it such incredibly vast changes and advances in technology, method, style and presentation that it's difficult (if not impossible) to even seek comparisons to the emergence and advance of any entertainment medium (aside from the Internet, of course!) in our own recent past.

"The Cuckoos" (RKO-1930) offered audiences sound and Technicolor sequences, but the management of the Strand theater (now on the Register of Historic Places, and fully restored) went one step better with the installation a Mangascope screen and projection apparatus that, basically, enlarged the image from a viewing area of roughly 18x24' to anywhere from 18x34' all the way up to 22x38' --- filling the entire proscenium area with a motion picture image.

While the end result would likely be short of perfect, and would probably be deemed very poor indeed today (where so much as a stray hair in the projection gate is cause for alarm that warrants a multi-thousand dollar restoration project), the original effect and experience was probably more memorable than technically superb for the theater patrons of 1929 and 1930. Then too, without knowledge of what the future would bring, the present often seems just fine. Black and White television, circa 1965 comes to mind here. Before venturing on, it should be pointed out that Magnascope is not to be confused with the Fox Grandeur process, which involved a wide 70mm film stock and was quite superior --- but that's a topic for another post, certainly!

As cited in many books, the Magnascope process was utilized for exhibition of well known Paramount silent films like "Old Ironsides" (1926) and "Wings" (1927), but it came as a surprise to learn that Magnascope was very much in evidence throughout the early sound era and, remarkably, lasted into the 1940's where it was being used in some Paramount theaters. Truly, cause to reassess what we know --- or think we know --- about the film-going experience of 1929 and 1930 when we learn that otherwise familiar titles (both Paramount product and not) such as "Glorifying the American Girl," "Sally," "The Gold Diggers of Broadway," "Whoopee!," and "Paramount On Parade" were exhibited on these enlarged screens in theaters around and quite distant from major cities. For the film buff or historian, it's actually quite an exciting notion to ponder, especially given the content and pictorial beauty of these films.

Even as the first cycle of film musicals began to wind down, Maganscope was still being touted and installed in new theaters, such at The Baywood ("San Mateo's Theatre Moderne") where in 1931, "Reaching For the Moon" was projected in the process for audiences fast growing weary of musical films. Indeed, surviving as sad testament to this shift in public acceptance of the musical film format, "Reaching For the Moon" would arrive on screens --- enlarged or not --- greatly altered from the film first envisioned, with all but one of it's Irving Berlin melodies either cut completely or relegated to background music scoring. (And this, if press accounts are to be believed, down from the twenty tunes Berlin originally composed for the film!)

But, in the end, neither Magnascope nor "Vocalite Screens" (a screen coated with glass beading to improve brilliance while also allowing sound to better permeate it from loudspeaker horns placed behind it) nor the combination of the two (which was fairly common) could stem the tide from turning against the musical film nor lure audiences into theaters a year or so later when their primary concern was putting food on the table. Still, for a while at least --- it seemed that there was no limit to the heights the still new talking, singing and dancing picture would soar --- not unlike the Icarus of myth, flying blindly into the pastel rays of an early Technicolor sun.

To accompany this post, a few audio items of related interest to films mentioned in this post (much as I'd like to make available free fabric swatches of Vocalite screens, I cannot!)

An orchestra and vocal medley from "Paramount on Parade," for which I can find no information other than that it was a 78rpm commercial recording released in the US and UK alike.

Medley - "Paramount on Parade" (1930)

An extract from a Vitaphone (type) sound disc that was originally thought to be an overture disc for "Whoopee," but which is probably actually sound accompaniment to an unidentified period cartoon that simply made free use of a few melodies from the film. Whatever it is, it's a terrific orchestration!

Medley - "Whoopee!" (1930)

Lastly, originating from sound disc source material, the one surviving tune from "Reaching For the Moon," (the lovely title tune can only be heard during the titles and as incidental scoring) in which the voices of Bebe Daniels, Douglas Fairbanks, Bing Crosby, June MacCloy and Claude Allister (as the magnificently named Sir Horace Partington Chelmsford) can all be heard in a shipboard jazz party/musical sequence entitled "Low Down," a rousing, sparkling delight that hints at what other similar melodic moments the film might have contained had things been a bit different in late 1930.

"Low Down" (1930)



Anonymous said...

Jeff, the links for the audio are not working--keep getting "access denied" when I click on them.

Jeff Cohen said...

Problems with the audio entries for this post have been corrected and you should now be able to listen and/or download as you always have.

Please advise if you encounter any additional difficulties.


Enrique Sanchez said...

The audio selections were WONDERFUL! I really enjoy the music from this era so much! Thanks for posting!