Wednesday, August 15, 2007

DUKE ELLINGTON MEETS CINERAMA?

cineramadome

Below I've posted an extraordinary piece of filmmaking from 1935. It runs just under ten minutes but is well worth your time.

"Symphony In Black" is a short film featuring Duke Ellington and his band, with guest appeareances by Billie Holiday and Scatman Crothers, believe it or not. (Holiday sounds like herself but is otherwise unrecognizable from her later self--here she's young, plump and healthy looking. Crothers, later to become famous for his recurring role on "Chico And The Man" is twenty-five years old here and quite the dude. He's not credited, but he plays Billie's two-timing boyfriend.) There is no dialogue--it is a purely visual representation of an early extended work by Ellington which is in five short parts. If you run out of patience (which I hope wont be the case) or have to abort due to a previously scheduled event, skip to the last two minutes, the section called "Harlem Rhythm." The specialty dancer in this sequence is the great Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker.
The elaborate super-impositions are still quite a thrill to watch--I wonder if there's a really proper, cleaned-up print of this film around? Being a Paramount release, one might suspect that the original negative might have been preserved.

What has this to do with Cinerama? Well: the film was directed (and I mean DIRECTED) by somebody named Fred Waller. IMDB research shows Mr. Waller to have been something of tech geek--in the twenties he was a cinematographer and designed miniatures and title sequences. In the thirties, he directed a series of musical short films for Paramount (of which this was one) all of which feature his trademark, high-style art moderne visual treatment. (I've seen two others--don't know about the rest but I'm catching up on them thanks to youtube). His real work, though, was in the development of a wide-screen projection process which led to his eleven-projector system "VITARAMA" which debuted at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair. Developed with Merian C. Cooper (another film scientist and co-creator of "King Kong"), this was the direct precursor of Cinerama, which finally premiered in 1953 at the above pictured theater on Sunset Blvd. in Hollywood, California. Fred Waller died one year later in 1954, aged sixty-eight. A fascinating and, as far as I can tell, largely forgotten figure.

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