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Enjoying It While We Can: The Egyptian Theatre's Nitrate Film Festival

February 26, 2024

Classic film festival season is upon us in Los Angeles! Within the next two months, we have Noir City Hollywood, the UCLA Festival of Preservation, and the TCM Classic Film Festival. Oh, and add another one to that list that just ended: the American Cinematheque’s Nitrate Film Festival.

 

The four-film nitrate fest took place from February 16-24 at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Rebecca (1940), Spellbound (1945), Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Winchester ’73 (1950) all screened twice during the popular event. Only a handful of theaters in the country possess the capability to project nitrate film, and the Egyptian is one of three theaters in Los Angeles that can do so. (The other two are the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Billy Wilder Theater and the Academy Museum’s David Geffen Theater.)

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The Egyptian's restored neon sign. (All photos by Kim Luperi)

This was my first time back at the Egyptian since Netflix purchased the theater in 2020 and it underwent an extensive restoration to bring the venue back to its original look from its 1922 opulent opening. (With some necessary upgrades, of course.) A lot remains the same, and a lot has changed. The hall the theater sits in appears similar in ways, especially the sunburst on the ceiling, even if the seats are new and my beloved balcony, which was not part of the original design, is gone. I’d say you see the biggest visual difference in the lobby, which is larger and wider due to the demolition of the smaller Spielberg theater. A few nicely designed, informative displays also deck the walls sharing information on the Egyptian’s’ history.

I attended three of the fest’s four screenings, Winchester ’73 being the odd one out. (Both weekends I had 3-5 movies on my calendar, and choices needed to be made!) Kirk McDowell from the George Eastman Museum was on hand to introduce Rebecca and Bicycle Thieves and give some context to nitrate screenings. In a nutshell, nitrate was the main base for professional film prints through 1951 because it’s strong and durable—but it’s also highly flammable. So, by default, all nitrate prints shown have to be at least 73 years old this year. McDowell said this festival wasn’t just about celebrating the movies; it’s also about honoring the physical films and those who work so diligently and carefully to conserve them, protect them as much as possible against further deterioration (because all films shrink, even in the best storage conditions), and keep the reels projectable after all these decades. The Cinematheque’s Artistic Director, Grant Moninger, who introduced Spellbound, reminded the audience that once a nitrate film shrinks too much, it can no longer run through the projector safely. With that, every year the number of projectable nitrate prints dwindles “because time said no.”

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The forecourt and front of the theater.

Storing, shipping, and screening nitrate comes with a laundry list of safety requirements. At the George Eastman House, McDowell said they can only store two cans to a shelf, and their vaults contain blowout doors (in case of an explosion) and precisely angled sprinklers (in case of fire). Shipping nitrate is no small feat, either. As it’s considered a dangerous good, transport comes with loads of paperwork, precautions, and warning labels. Furthermore, very few booths are capable of projecting nitrate, because they require serious safeguards, such as steel doors, fire chambers around the reels, and extinguishers built into the projector itself.

 

Due to the age of these prints, it’s more likely they were struck close to the time the original negative was made. That’s one reason they usually look so pristine. As reels get duplicated, they lose definition and the level of contrast increases. This is just another reason, McDowell reminded us, that these screenings are such rare, special treats.

 

As for the films I saw, I have different experiences with each of them. Bicycle Thieves was a first-time watch, I saw Rebecca on the big screen recently but not on nitrate, and I have seen Spellbound on nitrate in 2018—in this very same theater and perhaps the very same print.

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Before the start of Bicycle Thieves, with the Egyptian's sunburst ceiling.

Bicycle Thieves

Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves is one of those classics I’ve long meant to watch but never got around to. This provided the perfect opportunity for my first viewing—in a theater, packed with people, on a beautiful 70+ year print. The film is a stunning example of Italian neorealism, utilizing non-professional actors in a story so simple, authentic, and heartbreaking: After a long, unsuccessful stretch trying to find a job, a man finally lands one that requires a bike, but it’s stolen on his first day, prompting him and his son to track down the thief to retrieve the bike. At first, I thought the child who plays Bruno, Enzo Staiola, was the only non-actor of the group; while it was mentioned that none of the cast had experience, I somehow didn’t register that fact! Knowing that Lamberto Maggiorani, who plays Bruno's father, was not a professional would have made me appreciate his ardent, gut wrenching performance even more. The cast members' brillant turns and De Sica's ability to elicit such touching, natural reactions from them elevates this modest, intensely human story to classic territory.

 

There was one more thing I noticed about Bicycle Thieves. Early on, they show the family’s apartment and their last name, Ricci, is on a plaque on the door. My family is Italian, and that instantly reminded me of visiting the home where my great-grandfather was born in Italy and seeing our last name on a plaque on the door. I’ve never witnessed that in a movie before, and it was a neat moment for me.

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Another view of the theater, this time before Rebecca.

Rebecca

There’s not much more to say about Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca that hasn’t been expressed before. The moody, Gothic masterpiece, Hitchcock’s only Best Picture-winning film, stuns on the big screen. The theatrical experience seems to heighten the evolution of the characters—from the escalating confidence of the second Mrs. de Winter (Joan Fontaine), to Maxim (Laurence Olivier)’s loosening restraint, to Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson)'s deeper descent into madness. McDowell informed us that we were seeing a pre-release print from 85 years ago; as it had only screened rarely and was struck close to the original negative, it was in pristine condition and looked fantastic. It’s one of three Rebecca prints in the George Eastman collection, each one bearing the title in a different font. The version we saw represented the final chosen typeface.

 

I watched Rebecca in a theater within the last year, and normally I wouldn’t attend another screening so soon, but I’m glad I did. The audience laughed at the outrageous Edythe Van Hopper (Florence Bates), applauded when Fontaine proclaims, “I am Mrs. de Winter now,” and gasped at some of Anderson’s quietly maniacal actions. It was an exhilarating experience seeing such a rare, stunning print with an enthusiastic, appreciative crowd.

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A little closer to the screen for Spellbound.

Spellbound

I had seen Spellbound on nitrate at the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival, yet somehow I forgot basically everything about the movie! The story—psychoanalyst Dr. Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) falls in love with her hospital’s incoming director Dr. Anderson (Gregory Peck), who turns out to be an imposter who may or may not have killed the real Dr. Anderson—doesn’t hold up as well today as Rebecca does. Part of this is due to the general psychology theme, as the science has progressed in almost 80 years. Additionally, some of the scenes, including the climax on a ski slope, are so incredibly unnatural that they elicited laughter. The film’s Salvador Dalí dream sequences still astound, though, as does one of the final scenes where the culprit turns the gun on himself. (Both sequences, it should be mentioned, are also completely unrealistic for different reasons.) The print, courtesy of the Library of Congress, had its faults, but again, it’s simply a privilege to be able to see a movie this old on the big screen with a lively crowd. As Moninger said in his introduction that evening, “Most people that go to film festivals, they want to be the first person to see that film, but at a nitrate film festival, you might be the last person to see this film.”

thanks for stopping by!

I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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