'It's a Wonderful Life' arrives as FilmScene's first 35 mm film
"It's a Wonderful Life" wasn't particularly beloved when it first came out, which is how the movie became synonymous with Christmas today.
“When it was released it wasn’t really the critical piece of cinema history that it is now," said Rebecca Fons, FilmScene's programming director. "It fell into the public domain (and then) people sort of fell in love with it as this thing watched on T.V. all the time."
The 1946 film follows George Bailey, a businessman who glimpses a world in which he doesn’t exist with the help of an angel in order to glean a deeper appreciation of his own existence. Fons herself recalls growing up in the 1980s seeing the film running endlessly on T.V. because, at the time, channels could show it for free.
Though screening rights have since been reacquired by Paramount Pictures, FilmScene has since made something of a tradition of screening the now seminal film annually: and this year they're playing it old school on 35 mm film.
Though the inaugural Dec. 18 screening — which includes eggnog and an appearance from Donna Reed's daughter (Donna Reed was born in Denison, Iowa before playing Mary Hatch in the film) — is already sold out, FilmScene founder Andrew Sherburne said the plan is to make every subsequent screening at the Chauncey be in 35 mm as well.
The cinema will also show "Little Women" the new film from Greta Gerwig (the writer and director of 2017's "Lady Bird") adapted from Louisa May Alcott's classic novel. FilmScene will screen the film in tandem with the rest of the country for its Christmas Day release date, but unlike the majority of theaters, Sherburne and crew will be showing it on physical film.
“The directors who have had the opportunity to get their films released on 35 mm film have – up until now – been mostly old white men,” said Ross Meyer, the theater’s head projectionist, alluding to the likes of Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino. “It’s a pretty small crew of people who have had enough swing to say ‘I want my movie released on film.’ So, for Greta Gerwig to jump to the front of that list is very exciting.”
Unlike digital footage, 35 mm film requires a human being in the projection booth. To hear Fons talk about it, this projector operation is something like an art form.
To hear Meyer talk about it, it sounds like an athletic event.
“You load up reel-one on this one and reel-two on this one," said Meyer, indicating two bulky machines in FilmScene's projection booth. Both are need to make one 35 mm film happen.
"You hit play on this one (and) when that hits its end it jumps over to this one," Meyer continued. "Then, while this one’s playing, you take the reel off of that one and load up reel-three in the dark in all of this chaos… you do that back and forth until you get through all seven reels, and you’re rewinding as well in the middle of the chaos."
Like a magic trick, when done correctly, the audience won’t notice the effort. They'll be completely unaware that people were shuffling through half a dozen reels in a cold booth to make the movie happen.
By the estimate of Meyer and Sherburn, the last time a 35 mm film would have been screened in Iowa City would likely have been by Bijou Film (which is where Meyer cut his teeth as a projectionist) in 2010 or so.
“This is the way film presentation was from the 1890s up until the 1980s when multiplexes took off and switched over to fewer union projectionists," Meyer said. "Instead of two projectors switching back and forth, they had these huge (automated) mechanisms.”
Now, mechanics are almost removed from the process altogether as movies are shown digitally..
“The DCP format does what it can to look like film, it’s a very vibrant 24 frames per second process,” Meyer said. “But there’s something kind of vital about film… it looks cool, it sounds cool and the audience doesn’t necessarily notice it.
“It’s a living breathing thing. It is. You put it in an airtight container (and) it degrades in a different way if it’s exposed to air (but) it can last nearly forever if it’s done right.”
Watching even just the test footage the theater used, it looks good even with grains and static marks. One almost has to refocus their eyes to notice those blemishes and when ignored they give the film an almost imperceptible sense of texture.
“With film, there are imperfections, sometimes on the actual celluloid, a bit of dust, a scratch," said Fons. "You can sort of ‘feel’ fabrics in a different way. If someone’s wearing a nubby sweater, you feel like you could almost reach out and touch it.”
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet