Quickly now, what do these films have in common: "Lawrence of Arabia," "Fantasia," "A Star Is Born," "Napoleon" and "Lost Horizon."
If you said they are classic movies that have been painstakingly restored to their original glory, you deserve a prize.And your prize is the 1960 epic "Spartacus," the latest epic film to benefit from this restoration renaissance. As of Friday, you can see the film as star/co-producer Kirk Douglas and director Stanley Kubrick intended it to be seen, during an exclusive run at Cineplex Odeon's Trolley Corners Theater in Salt Lake City. (Well, nearly as they intended; it's a 35mm rather than 70mm presentation.)
"Spartacus" is based on the true story of the Roman slave who led a revolt in 73 B.C. known as "The Gladiators War," with Douglas in the title role. His co-stars include Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Peter Ustinov (who won an Oscar as best supporting actor) and Tony Curtis.It's the latest restoration project from Robert A. Harris, the Hollywood producer ("The Grifters") who cleaned up and put back together "Lawrence of Arabia" a few years ago, affording modern audiences the rare opportunity of seeing one of the greatest movies of all time as its director, David Lean, created it - after years of its having been sliced and diced by the studio.
Despite the frantic pace at which Harris and his team were working to finish "Spartacus" in time for its April 26 Los Angeles premiere, Harris took a few minutes for a telephone interview last month. He began by bemoaning the lack of care Hollywood studios have taken with their greatest assets - and how hard it is to get them to back restoration projects.
"It's difficult to talk them into doing it," Harris said. "Fortunately, here (for `Spartacus') we have Tom Pollack, chairman of the Motion Picture Group at MCA (Universal Pictures). The studios are run by agents and attorneys. But he's not only an attorney and a good businessman - he knows film."
You might think movie studios would just naturally keep the classics in their libraries in mint condition, but such is not the case. Often the original negatives are in a deteriorated state with scenes or soundtracks missing. And in some cases, as with "Spartacus," the entire negative has been misplaced - or worse, thrown away.
"Ten years ago I worked on `Napoleon' (the 1927 French silent film Harris restored with film historian Kevin Brownlow) and the original material was nitrate (a rapidly deteriorating and flammable film stock). At that time we talked about saving nitrate prints and said that 50 percent of films made before 1953 are gone. Now 50 percent of color films made from 1955 to 1970 are gone.
"Even films from the '70s - `Close Encounters' is missing protection material. `Tom Jones' has no black-and-white protection material and the colors are faded. There are scenes that are gone. Camera negatives on lots of films from the '50s and '60s are no longer usable."
That doesn't mean that there is no material for video transfers or television prints, of course, but it does mean that pristine 35mm or 70mm prints for theatrical showcasing are hard, if not impossible to find. (For example, a print of "Call Me Madam," the 1953 musical starring Ethel Merman, shown at the Avalon Theater last week, was in such poor condition, with colors faded so dramatically, that in some scenes the film appeared to be black and white.)
"The studios have people of their own that (restore films)," Harris said, "and some know what they are doing - but some don't. Universal is pretty good; they have great vaults."
Restoring movies is an exhaustive, expensive process and each one is a full-time job for a team of specialists, especially in the final months as the studio gears up for a theatrical re-release. And while "Lawrence of Arabia" was a puzzle, with pieces missing and juxtaposed, at least there was a negative for most of it. "For `Lawrence' we had 95 percent of the camera negative, with 5 percent coming from black-and-white protection materials."
But "Spartacus" proved to be even more challenging. "The materials were at a stage where they were basically gone. There was no negative. We had to work with black-and-white protection materials, which, with colored filters, yield positive records on black-and-white film. But the separations were made incorrectly. They were out of registration and every shot had to be registered and aligned.
"It's an almost impossible thing to do, but it looks great."
Harris said his team started researching "Spartacus" in October 1989. "We started working with materials last June and found there was no printer or lens to convert it to 65mm (the film size on which `Spartacus' was originally shot)." So they literally invented the lenses they used.
Still, Harris does seem to be perfecting the process. Where "Spartacus" took some 18 or 19 months to restore, "Lawrence of Arabia" took 26 months. And he said Kevin Brownlow worked on "Napoleon" from 1968 to 1979.
Where did Harris find the pieces to put "Spartacus" back together? "In Universal's vaults around the world, except for one section that came from a collector. When the prints were cut 30 years ago, sections were removed and they were just tossed out."
Those sections were battle scenes deemed too violent, with blood and gore that seems quite tame by today's standards (the current re-release is rated PG-13), a bit more of Jean Simmons in her nude swimming scene and one sequence that had Laurence Olivier's character making a veiled homosexual advance toward a slave, played by Tony Curtis. The latter scene came from a collector, but there was no soundtrack. "We had no shooting script and we had to figure out what they were saying. We called in people to lip read." Then the lines had to be re-dubbed.
Curtis agreed to do his lines but Olivier, of course, died a few years ago. "We got Tony Hopkins to do it," Harris said, referring to Anthony Hopkins, the actor who plays serial killer Hannibal "the Cannibal" Lecter in "The Silence of the Lambs." Harris had asked Olivier's widow if she knew of someone who could imitate Olivier's voice and she suggested Hopkins, remembering he had mimicked the great actor at a party years ago.
"He (Hopkins) recorded his lines in London - and Stanley Kubrick faxed instructions to him as he was doing it."
Asked the obvious question - are the studios taking any better care of the new films that enter their vaults today - Harris says, "We'll see in about 20 years."
As for Harris' wish list of films he'd like to restore, it's headed by "The Lion in Winter," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Lord Jim," "The Big Country" and "The Searchers."
They'll have to wait, however, as Harris' next project is to produce a new thriller-horror yarn called "Summer of Night."
Let's hope they don't have to wait too long.