How fitting that the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood celebrates its 75th anniversary this month with a series of films that debuted at the legendary movie palace, beginning with a screening tonight and Friday night of “Citizen Kane.”
After all, it was 60 years ago next week (on May 9, to be exact) that the once-infamous, now-revered Orson Welles film made its world premiere at the El Capitan. The RKO film had been unable to secure a movie house because of its controversial allusions to the powerful newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, and it became the first movie to screen at what was then Hollywood’s leading playhouse.
Built in 1926 by Los Angeles developer Charles E. Toberman (who also developed the nearby Egyptian and Chinese theaters), the El Capitan opened on May 3 of that year with “Charlot’s Review,” a song-and-dance variety show starring Gertrude Lawrence. After showcasing more than 120 live stage productions (featuring the likes of Buster Keaton, Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth), the theater, with its unique East Indian-style interior design, struggled throughout the Depression.
However, the successful “Kane” engagement in 1941 brought new life to the theater, which was remodeled as a sleek Art Moderne movie house. It reopened in 1942 as the Hollywood Paramount with the premiere of Cecil B. DeMille’s “Reap the Wild Wind.” The El Capitan was reborn in 1991 after a meticulous restoration by the Walt Disney Co., which organized this series of films that debuted at the theater, and Pacific Theaters.
While the new print of “Kane” being screened at the El Capitan is perfectly fine (struck from the same dupe negative used for the 50th reissue in 1991), it is not exactly the latest and greatest. For that we’ll have to wait until the fall, when Warner Bros., which acquired the RKO film as a result of the merger with Turner Entertainment, unveils an even better print and special edition DVD of “Kane,” mastered from a recently discovered original fine-grain master positive stored at the Cinematheque Royale in Brussels. It turns out that this 1941 nitrate fine grain (most likely sold overseas by RKO in the 1950s with the film’s international television rights) is the oldest and best pre-printing source available, yielding greater sharpness than believed possible. The original negative was destroyed in a fire in 1970.
No matter that “Kane” is the most written about and discussed film of all time--topping the American Film Institute’s list of the 100 best films of the 20th century--viewing this dazzling new print from Warner Bros. will be a revelation.
We can see nuances we’ve never noticed before, such as the journalists sitting at their desks way off in the background when we first glimpse Charles Foster Kane (played by Welles) as an adult. Or a shot of Raymond, the slick butler (played by Paul Stewart), standing ominously in the back of the warehouse during the film’s fiery finale. Or those luminous close-ups of Emily (played by Ruth Warrick), Kane’s first wife, during their marvelous marital montage. More than anything, the restored print is further testament to the genius of cinematographer Gregg Toland, who gave new meaning to the expression “depth of field.”
The El Capitan showing of “Kane” will feature a panel discussion before the screening, moderated by Los Angeles Times film critic Kenneth Turan. Among the members will be distinguished filmmaker Robert Wise, who edited “Kane” and supervised the timing of the 50th reissue print.
“There was very little sharing of inventory information in the past among the independent archives around the world,” explains Ned Price, Warner Bros. vice president of technical operations. “They have been fearful of studios reclaiming their material. But the archives are starting to come together and share information and what we’ve all been doing in the field of preservation, thanks to the cooperation of members belonging to the Assn. of Moving Image Archivists. It is through these contacts that we found out about the ’41 fine grain and were able to have it shipped to the studio.”
As for the rest of the El Capitan series, Disney has managed to schedule an impressive list of films that premiered at the theater: the recently restored “Rear Window” (Saturday); “Doctor Zhivago” (Sunday); the restored “Vertigo” (Monday); “Sunset Blvd.” (Tuesday); “Uptown Saturday Night” (Wednesday); the remake of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” (May 10); “Gigi” (May 11); “The Music Man” (May 12); and “Sabrina” (May 13).
* “75 Years of Premieres,” El Capitan Theatre, 6838 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood, tonight through May 13. $6 to $9. For information, call (323) 467-7674.