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The African Queen

Our guest blogger today is film historian Eric Grayson, who writes about the restoration of tonight's Winter Nights film.

The African Queen (1951). United Artists/Photofest ©United Artists.

The African Queen (1951) is an interesting anomaly in film history.  An American director, with American stars, in a British film.  Director John Huston was under suspicion from the House Un-American Activities committee in the early 1950s, and as a result he moved to Ireland.  He set up a British film company and made several features before he returned to the US in the early 1960s.

This caused The African Queen to be in precarious position for many years.  The original negatives, in the old Technicolor three-strip format, were in storage in England.  It is quite expensive to reprint three-strip negatives on modern film, and that expense is compounded by the location of the materials.  There are only a few labs in the world that can reprint three-strip negatives today, and they are all located in the U.S.  The British owners usually would license the film to a particular distributor only for a limited time, which made it even less likely that new prints could be made.  Studio executives are hesitant to spend $100,000 reprinting a film that they are only leasing.

The last film prints of The African Queen were made in the United States for a reissue in 1967.  These prints were literally beaten to death through multiple screenings in drive-ins and grindhouses.  Projectionists routinely broke the film and spliced it back together carelessly, sometimes losing many frames in the process.  By the 1990s, there were only a few projectable prints left.  By 2000, the rights shifted to another studio, and those old prints were abandoned.

At this point, I have to step out of character.  Normally, I can report as an impartial observer, but as a film historian and collector, I personally became part of this story.  Since I have a reputation for being able to find difficult-to-obtain prints, I would frequently receive calls from repertory theaters asking for a copy of  The African Queen.  I didn’t have one–no one did–but I kept looking.

In 2003, a collector called me, telling me that he’d acquired the last three prints of the film from the previous distributor.  They were in the legendary Technicolor dye transfer process, but they were so tattered that no one wanted them.  Knowing that the original materials were out of reach, I thought it might be worthwhile to try to combine the three prints into one.

Fortunately for me, Technicolor was a forward-thinking laboratory, and they marked every print with uniform edge codes.  Every foot was marked with a code like 1A006, which in this case means Reel 1A, 6 feet from the start. With sixteen frames in a foot, it becomes only an exercise in counting to restore the print.

I carefully screened each reel and made notes about which was the best one.  Using the best for the reference, I cranked through it by hand until I felt the first splice.  I located the footage markers, counting how many frames were missing.  I then went to one of the other prints, found the corresponding frames, cut them out, and spliced them into the “good” reel.  Each one of these took 20 minutes or so to do, and had to be very carefully checked so that only the correct frames were restored.

The African Queen is on five and a half reels.  There were 150 splices in the first reel alone!  It took two weeks for me to get through the whole feature.

Normally, I would have preferred to use whole scenes and reels that were better in one print than in another.  I didn’t have that luxury.  There were several occasions in which two of the three prints were missing the footage I needed, so there was no room for being picky.

The resulting restored print runs very nicely, even though it sounds like a machine gun going through the projector, which, fortunately, is a sound that only the projectionist hears.  The new distributor was more than happy to issue theaters a license to show the restored print, because they didn’t have one of their own.  This print of The African Queen has been screened in Europe and all over the United States.

In the intervening years, the negatives have been reprinted and The African Queen is now available in new prints.  However, this print is still in demand by museums and repertory theaters, because it is the only print in general circulation that is in the original Technicolor dye transfer process.

Dye transfer Technicolor gives a beautiful, rich range of color that modern processes only approximate.  This print shows that off beautifully, with lovely photography by the legendary Jack Cardiff.  It also shows one of the limitations of the old process: color balance between prints was often a problem.  Some were a little more blue, others a little more yellow.  There are a few points at which alert viewers will notice a sudden color shift as the restored print changes its source.

The African Queen is undeniably a classic, with extensive footage of real African locations, some shot for the first time in color.  The screening on January 27th will be one of the rare times it can be seen as it was originally photographed.  Bring a friend, a drink and a couple of good, strong mosquito nets!

Filed under: Film, The Toby

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