My Gleanings

Friday, March 09, 2007

Claude Autant-Lara on the beginnings of Cinemascope

In March of 1967 Cahiers du Cinema published an interview with the director Claude Autant-Lara which was conducted by Jean Narboni and Michel Delahaye. One story that Autant-Lara told them concerned the fate of Henri Chretien's Hypergonar process which had employed for the first time in the late 1920s when Autant-Lara filmed Construire un feu (To Build a Fire) from the Jack London short story. The process was eventually bought from Chretien by 20th Century-Fox and rechristened Cinemascope.

"It was a kind of a documentary based on a story by Jack London and it was the first film shot with Professor Chretien's Hypergonar. The film has been completely destroyed, nothing remains of it. Here is how things began: I disagreed tatally with Abel Gance's views on how to extend the screen. At that time, he was in the process of perfecting his triple screen, thanks to three superposed Debrie cameras. I thought that there certainly had to be another way and it was then that I learned of Professor Chretien's Hypergonar which meanwhile had not been invented by him. Chretien, a very modest scholar, told me that he had simply continued from the work of a German physicist of the 1880s named Lubke - and he showed me, very simply. his source: drawings which he took off from (which already defined the principle of anamorphism) and which he had only corrected and improved. This interested me immensely and, with my meager resources, I undertook shooting a film using the process.
I had great difficulty finishing the film - it took me a year and a half - and following this, no exhibitor wanted to listen to any talk of making a special screen to project it. Luckily, I discovered the Studio Parnasse, not yet closed, which did not have a screen and still projected onto the wall. So, Mr Nachbaur, the father, welcomed my film, we only had to free up a little more wall at the bottom and install the vertical Hypergonar and horiaontal Hypergonar and project. . .
All this went on for about two months. Then, the president of the exhibitor's organization sent a certified letter to Mr Nachbaur (the first of numerous certified letters my fillms earned) serving him notice that, by exhibiting a film using a process quite different from those of his brethren, Studio Parnasse was practicing an unfair competition. Thus, under penalty fo being expelled from the exhibitor's organization, he was ordered to end this film's life.
Mr Nachbaur, very annoyed, asked me to come over. He said to me, "The film works well, but what do you want old friend...I can't disassociate myself from all the other exhibitors." I could do
little other than to leave with me unhappy film under my arm.
It's life was over just like that.
The film did all the same interest quite a few people. And something about it had reached the ears of Americans and Laudy Lawrence asked me to come. It was then that they realized that I spoke English fluently and because of this film I was hired. So, I left and at Professor Chretien's request, I brought several Hypergonar lenses to show to Metro-Goldwyn (who had hired me) this revolutionary process. I said to myself, "At least, they will understand." When I arrived in Culver City, I pointed myself straight at the front office and asked to be seen. I met with albert lewin, a Metro executive, who since then has made a few films - and to whom I explained that I was bringing him a truly new and very interesting process. He passed it on casually to his technical department. That department studied the question for about six months. I waited. Then, one day, the answer came: the process "is of no interest and has no future". This occurred in 1931. It was the same process which fox bought for 50 million [francs] in 1963 [obviously a mistake was made somewhere along the way for the year should be 1953] giving it the name Cinemascope."
Autant-Lara, who had left the negative and prints for the film in storage in Paris while he was employed in Hollywood, then went on to tell how the film was lost because he was sent notices by the storage company of non-payment but he had in Southern California submitted to the practice of frequently changing his address and so those notices never reached him.

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