Here’s a tip. Get on your bike and pedal like blazes – get to Oakland, California this weekend or next for one of only four screenings in the United States of a fully restored version of Abel Gance’s 1927 epic masterpiece, Napoléon.
The presentations, the highlight of the 2012 San Francisco Silent Film Festival, are showing at the spectacular, cathedral-like Oakland Paramount cinema, a jewel of a movie palace.
If you do make it to one of the four screenings – one each day on March 24, 25, and 31, and the final one on April 1 2012 – get plenty of sleep beforehand, because each screening involves 5.5 hours of film, shown in four segments during the course of each of those days. There’s even a dinner break, because an army marches on its stomach.
The screenings are with full symphony orchestra, on three-screen “Polyvision.”
The presentations are the U.S. premiere of the fully restored version of the legendary silent film. Kevin Brownlow, a renowned, Academy Award-winning documentarian, historian, and archivist, has spent countless hours over almost 50 years working on finding scattered portions of the film, and then painstakingly restoring them to their full glory.
Composer Carl Davis has been hard at it, too. His original score for the film may well be the longest film score in history.
Here Davis gets his first tour of the magnificent Paramount Theatre in downtown Oakland, California.
Napoléon has not shown in the U.S. with full orchestra and its Polyvision finale since the early 1980s, when Francis Ford Coppola sponsored a triumphant road show of a shorter version, with a score by his father Carmine. That version ran just under four hours; the current, Brownlow reconstruction incorporates about 50 minutes of additional footage located in the intervening years and by the film being run at the proper speed.
Brownlow produced the restoration with his Photoplay Productions partner Patrick Stanbury in association with the British Film Institute. It is the most complete version of Gance’s masterpiece since its 1927 premiere at the Paris Opéra.
Due to the expense and technical challenges of properly presenting the film, Brownlow and company have spent three decades mounting American screenings with the Davis score, which has been performed only in Europe and not since 2004.
If the film, score, and theater are not reasons enough to get to the San Francisco Bay Area during the next two weeks, consider that Brownlow and Co. have no plans to repeat the event in any other city, nor to release it on DVD, BluRay, or television.
Starting with a few minutes of the film in a home-movie format, Brownlow set about five decades of work putting Gance’s film back together. Until now, particularly in the United States, inadequate screenings have plagued the film’s history. For example, in the late 1920s, MGM released a U.S. version, but it ran at a miserly 90 minutes. The first major Brownlow/BFI restoration culminated in a screening at Telluride Film Festival in 1979, with 89-year-old Gance watching from a nearby hotel window.
Thanks to Francis Ford Coppola and Robert A. Harris, a version of that restoration ran at Radio City Music Hall and other venues inthe U.S. and around the world in the early 1980s.
Brownlow did additional restoration work in 1983. And now the current version restores additional footage culled from archives around the world. It also has visually upgraded much of the film.
The 35mm print that is being shown in Oakland is the only copy in existence, and uses the original dye-bath techniques, accurately recreating the color tints and tones of the initial release prints and upping the vividness to original levels.
Each screening will begin in the afternoon and will be shown in four parts with three intermissions, including a dinner break. Tickets are now available online through the SFSFF website. Go there, too, for the full program of events surrounding the screenings, including a presentation by Kevin Brownlow of the saga of his five-decade quest to fully recover Napoleon.