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"STAR!" the new 70mm Print

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Rick Mitchell, © 2008, Universe rights reserved. Date: 29.03.2008
On Friday, Sept. 5, 2008, the American Cinematheque ran Schawn Belston and company's beautifully restored new 70mm print, by Fotokem, of Robert Wise's "STAR!" (20th Century-Fox; 1968). I'd only seen the film once before, 23 years ago, in a then new 35mm print at the Vagabond Theater, not exactly the best place to experience any wide screen film. It's really not a bad film, but an unfortunate victim of the time it was released. And it's another example of how a knowledgeable creative team can beautifully present an essentially "intimate" subject on the BIG WIDE SCREEN.

Robert Wise liked deep focus cinematography, the most extreme example being "THE CAPTIVE CITY" (United Artists; 1952), shot with a great deal of difficulty entirely on location. This was a 1:37.1 film and also shot with special lenses designed by Ralph Hoge for deep focus photography. But anamorphic lenses and the shallower depth-of-field that results from the necessity of shooting with longer focal length lenses on the larger 65mm negative made achieving deep focus in these formats difficult. However, the cinematographers Bob worked with on his 65mm films, Daniel L. Fapp, ASC on "WEST SIDE STORY", Ted McCord, ASC on "THE SOUND OF MUSIC", and Ernest Laszlo on "STAR!", all succeeded admirably, particularly in capturing, production designer on all three, Boris Leven's uniquely vertical sets for the horizontal frame. With the additional aid of legendary production illustrator Maurice Zuberano, on all three films they achieved the Grandeur that not only Mike Todd but William Fox saw in Wide Film.

"STAR!" takes a realistic but stylized view of old and New England in the first third of the 20th Century. The conceit has Gertrude Lawrence in a screening room in 1940 watching a documentary on her life and reflecting on what really happened. The documentary is in black-and-white 1.37:1 mixing archival and recreated footage (with some surprising anachronistic hand-held and zoom lens work!) while the "reality" is in wide screen and color. Perhaps because this "reality" is Miss Lawrence's memory, Leven often stretches it in ways that in at least one scene goes way over the top, and this is not a scene on a stage! Donald Brooks did the same in his costumes. And in this 70mm print, these scenes are really eye-popping.

The film's stereo sound track is also interesting, reflecting how much we've lost in today's overblown glorified mono except for the music. The track is in DTS' special format and accurately reflects the original 5 track dub (Bob Wise didn't like surrounds, so I doubt there was anything in that channel). It is not an effects heavy film, but dialog, both production and loops (pre-ADR) and on-screen effects are positioned with their on-screen sources and it all sounds very natural on the big wide screen in a way that today's primarily centered dialog and effects don't. Though granted the contemporary overuse of wide screen filling closeups renders this discussion moot. (The mixers were Todd-AO legends Murray Spivak and Douglas O. Williams, along with Fox veteran Bernard Freericks.)

The rarely shown "STAR!", of course, is now best known as one of the four films most often used to attack what was left of the "Old Hollywood" studio thinking of the Sixties, the others being Fox's "DOCTOR DOOLITTLE" (1967) and Paramount's "PAINT YOUR WAGON" (1969) and "DARLING LILI" (1970), all big budget spectacular boxoffice failures. We are once again seeing reevaluations of those events of 40 years ago, especially from the alternative press, all of which are conceptually flawed because they view them from the perspective of what was going on with moviegoing when they were released, when the perspective needs to be from when they were green-lit! Thus, to properly evaluate the wisdom of making "STAR!", we need to look at the state of the industry in late Spring to mid summer 1966, when it was likely greenlit.

It's hard to believe at a time when "THE DARK KNIGHT" can take in half a billion dollars internationally in two months of release that 40 years ago the industry was banking on a release pattern which saw a usually expensive film playing exclusively in one theater in maybe 75-100 cities internationally for six months or more. But this had proven to be one of the more successful attempts to counter the decline in the over 25 audience that began in 1947. The architect of this formula was Michael Todd, who introduced it with "This is inerama" (1952) and made it a key to the development of his own 65-70mm process, Todd-AO, making a visit to a special film the equivalent of a theatrical event. This idea actually was not new; according to Arthur Knight in The Liveliest Art, it was first introduced in Paris, France in 1908, came to the United States in 1912 with the presentation of the french film "QUEEN ELIZABETH", and became associated with long epic films with Griffith's "THE BIRTH OF A NATION" (1914). The technique was successfully used in the Twenties to reverse an audience decline at that time, notably with in 1925 with "BEN-HUR", "THE BIG PARADE", and even "THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA". It's widespread use declined during and after the Depression, its most notable use being for GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) and the few Fantasound engagements of FANTASIA (1940). That was technically the first association of roadshowing with technology, though some of the initial sound engagements in 1926-28 could be considered roadshows, but it was "This is Cinerama" and "Oklahoma!" (1955) that kicked off what's considered the Roadshow Era, which lasted until 1970.

The earliest dramatic roadshows were either historical epics, often adapted from famous books, or adaptations of fairly well known stage musicals and because they were sold as "high class attractions" they brought out the older middle class which no longer went to movies regularly, even on general release in small towns after their road show engagements. And because they could sell advance tickets as early as three months before their opening, the studios could get back money on them while they were still in post-production! (Tickets went on sale for Otto Preminger's "EXODUS" (1960) the day it went into production, six months before its scheduled release.)
More in 70mm reading:

A Brief Interlude - "STAR!" in Liverpool

Internet link:

Publicity picture from "STAR!", 1968. Promotion picture taken during the "STAR!" roll out in 70mm by 20th Century Fox. Robert Weisgerber, 2018

Though there were as many unsuccessful roadshows as hits, the biggest hits were successive record breakers: "THE TEN COMMANDMENTS" and "Around the World in 80 Days" (1956), "South Pacific" (1958), BEN-HUR (1959). The period of December, 1959 to December, 1963 would see only one roadshow bomb, "CAN-CAN" (1960) and though "The Alamo" (1960) bombed in most of its roadshow engagements, it made it for it in general release in the summer of 1961. All the others roadshown in the United States did well, with December, 1962 to December, 1963 being considered to roadshow peak with the following opening in or around the period: "THE LONGEST DAY", "Lawrence of Arabia", "MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY", "How The West Was Won", "Cleopatra", and "IT'S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD". Their success led to every studio, including American International, to announce plans for roadshows, and of course, led to the biggest of them all, "THE SOUND OF MUSIC" (1965). This led to a glut that ultimately killed roadshows and also some attempts to vary the formula. MGM went to the most extreme in this regard with the first contemporary dramatic roadshow "GRAND PRIX" (1966) and the first futuristic one, "2001: A Space Odyssey" Other companies stuck with variations on the historical epics and musicals, generally successfully, so in mid-1966, studio executives had no reason to not consider gambling on these admittedly expensive films.

"STAR!" probably looked like such a viable gamble, a reteaming of the star and director of "THE SOUND OF MUSIC", then on its way to being the most successful film to date. Its biggest negative was that it was an original musical about an actress who was not that well known outside upper class intelligensia. Indeed, by that time, probably her best known role in the stage version of The King And I had been way overshadowed by better known film actress Deborah Kerr in the film version, which happened to be re-released in 1966. But "STAR!"'s surprisingly light approach to the material was perfect for the middle aged audience that in recent years has kept Broadway revivals alive, and had the film been Fox's Christmas release, it might have done better despite the negative reviews and opposition from the higher profile "FUNNY GIRL".

However, no one could have forseen the radical audience demographic change that occurred over the next two years encompassing "STAR!"'s production. While a competent professional creative team, the kind that can't get work these days, can take a project shot on film from prep to release prints in about three months, it actually takes longer when you factor in the writing the script and all the other b.s. that goes on in pre and post production. It's usually nine months to a year for an average film that doesn't require extensive visual effects work (though both "THE RAINS OF RANCHIPUR" (Fox; 1955) and "JOURNEY TO THE CENTER OF THE EARTH" (Fox; 1959) reportedly went from the start of photography to release in five months, despite the extensive traditional effects work on both films!) and for the popular roadshow films of the Sixties, the entire production process could take anywhere from a year and a half to two years. And though MGM notoriously canceled an expensive would be roadshow production of "MAN'S FATE" the weekend before it was to start shooting in 1968, normally once the production spigot is opened, there's usually no Roto-Rooter that can close it, especially on a film with the kid of high profile of most intended roadshows.

Also, "DOCTOR DOOLITTLE"'s failure at Christmastime 1967 was really the first inkling that there might be a problem with these films. "THOROUGHLY MODERN MILLIE" had done very well in roadshow earlier that year and "CAMELOT" had also opened well. And ironically, MGM was worried about "2001" because it wasn't getting the advance sales "GRAND PRIX" had enjoyed. In the last month in particular, we have been reminded of the events of the Spring and Summer of 1968 and they quite obviously affected the target audience for "STAR!" Its failure would be another nail in the coffin of roadshowing, which was associated with Old Hollywood. Over the next two years, such policies as reserved seats, advanced ticket sales, and limited showings were abandoned, though there was a brief increase in special engagements using 70mm prints blown up from both 35mm anamorphic and spherical, accompanied by a decrease in original 65mm production. (The last Technirama film was also released in 1968.)

At a time when the studios are trying to force digital projection down exhibitors throats and Barnuming the public into not noticing that digital in the theater is not that much different than digital in the home, they are typically ignoring technology that actually goes back 78 years which, when properly used, can deliver the kind of unique entertainment experience worth going outside the home and paying for, though not $35. And both the production and exhibition exist fairly widely around the world, or in the latter case can easily and economically be fixed up and installed for a fraction of the cost of a digital projector. That a film like "STAR!", whose only spectacle is in its musical numbers, can have the impact it does suggests the possibilities being filtered out by the digital blinders on today's production and exhibition executives. Not that they'd be impressed by seeing "STAR!", but if it could inspire someone to do a good new film with contemporary stocks (and without today's narrow minded excesses)...
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Updated 21-01-24