70mm Mitchell Fox Grandeur Camera

Mitchell FC serial number 8Our 70mm Mitchell Fox Grandeur Camera, serial #8, was purchased by the Fox Film Corporation in 1929. It is one of only 8 cameras that the Mitchell sales records list as acquired by Fox. A deluxe model, camera #8 includes all of the bells and whistles of a top-of-the-line production camera, including a built-in iris, right/left and top/bottom adjustable effects mattes, and the behind-the-lens combination filter and effects wheel. The camera also has all of the standard features that made the Mitchell cameras an industry standard, including a rack-over L-base, a 4-position rotating lens turret, and a variable shutter with auto fade. This camera is currently in very clean, A-/B+ condition, with some minor restoration still in progress. The camera is also paired with its original Mitchell matte box, serial #8 (not pictured), a Bausch & Lomb 70mm format lens, a 1000’ magazine, a later Mitchell BFC 70mm side-finder, and a vintage Mitchell heavy duty pan/tilt friction head (not pictured). With the restoration still in progress, we have also been conducting extensive research into the production history of this camera. Thus far we have not been able to find any photographs or documentation to conclusively prove that our camera worked on any film in particular, but based on the number of cameras Fox owned and the number reported used in the filming of "The Big Trail", not to mention that there are eight people credited as Grandeur cameramen on the film, it is extremely likely that camera #8 worked on Raoul Walsh's Oregon Trail epic starring a young John Wayne in his first leading role. This is an on-going project and we would be happy to learn more from any who can help us in our search. Read on for a summary of our current findings, or take a look at the timeline we have created to see the extent of our research.

cameraA Brief History of the Fox Grandeur System

The 1920s were a period of great transition in the motion picture industry. Movies learned to speak after many years of silence and the whole industry had to adapt quickly to take advantage of the popularity of the talkie. Of the Grandeur process itself, one contemporary writer notes, "The screen is literally throwing somersaults in its scientific progress. Hardly had the industry recovered from the revolution of the talkie when the third epoch, wide film, spun out of an inventor's dream into reality."1 The Fox Grandeur widescreen system was born out of William Fox’s desire to control the technology and equipment that made the movies. Fox already owned his Fox Film Corporation, the Fox movie theater chain, studio production facilities on both the west and east costs of the United States, the German Tri-Ergon patents vital in the sound systems of the day, along with the rights to the Movietone sound-on-film process, and the Mitchell Camera Corporation. comparrison of 35mm and 70mm Movietone film Sound had already taken the industry by storm and color was beginning to gain a foothold, but it was in wide film that Fox saw the most potential to expand his own businesses. With wide film came the possibility for larger screens, which in turn made for the opportunity to build larger theaters with a greater number of seats available. More seats of course meant higher ticket sales and more potential profit for theater owners. Fox intended to use his ownership interest in the Mitchell Camera Corporation to produce the cameras that everyone in the business would then use to shoot on wide film. The 35mm film frame had lost some of its picture area with the advent of sound on film technology, sacrificing its familiar rectangular proportions to make space for the optical soundtrack. Movie theaters had grown in size to accommodate larger audiences, while movie screens could not be made much larger without sacrificing image quality on screen. Wide film was the perfect solution to both of these problems, as a larger image on a larger piece of film would reduce the graininess of the projected image and allow for even larger theater screens. two lens Widescope camera designed by John D. Elms

Enter John D. Elms and his Widescope camera. First developed in 1922, Elms’ early Widescope camera shot on two pieces of 35mm film simultaneously with two separate lenses, one above the other. The two resulting images were projected synchronously onto a single screen for a final view twice the width of a standard 35mm image2. By 1927, the Widescope camera had evolved to shoot on a single piece of film using a rotating lens to capture a wide image3. Fox purchased the rights to Elms’ system and set his engineering division at the Fox Case Corporation the task of creating a viable wide film camera system for widescreen sound-on-film feature production4. At the helm of this project was Earl I. Sponable, half of the team responsible for the creation of the Movietone sound-on-film process. Sponable and his team quickly deemed the Elms camera design to be impractical “due to the loss of light in panoramming the lens and the inertia of the moving parts” and abandoned it5. A new camera based on the tried and true 35mm Movietone News camera was developed in the shop of the J.M. Wall Company and modified to shoot 70mm film, but this too was deemed unsatisfactory in the end. In February of 1928, the Mitchell Camera Corporation was commissioned to build a camera based on their popular 35mm Mitchell Standard, but modified to take 70mm wide film. The resulting camera shot 70mm Grandeur format film, giving the images twice the picture area of a standard 35mm movie and a larger area to record the soundtrack. It was this design that Sponable and the Fox Case team settled on for their Fox Grandeur camera, dubbed the Mitchell FC (or Mitchell Fox Camera)6. William Fox was so convinced of the potential of the Grandeur widescreen system that he paid for all of the research and development himself rather than using studio funds. By the end of 1928, Sponable had a working camera from Mitchell and was ready to film tests before any feature production was begun. Three Grandeur cameras were ordered from Mitchell in late 1928 to begin initial production7. Ten more cameras were ordered in June 19298. The Mitchell Camera Corporation records show that the Fox Film Corporation received at least 8 of these proposed 13 cameras before Grandeur production was abandoned in 19319.

magazineGrandeur Makes Its Debut

lobby card advertising the 1929 Fox Film Corporation feature Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 On September 17, 1929, Grandeur made its public debut at the Gaiety Theater in New York City with a showing of the feature Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 and a Grandeur Movietone newsreel. newspaper advertisement for the 1929 premier of Fox Movietone Follies of 1929The presentation was received with much fanfare by its audience who were treated to wide views of the Niagara Falls, a baseball game, a parade of West Point cadets, and other news footage10. A piece in the New York times following premier night raved about the massive screen that filled the full proscenium, the realistic quality of the sound, and the subtle illusion of depth created by the wider images on screen11. The New York audience was given the exclusive opportunity to see the Grandeur version of David Butler’s early backstage musical Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 in all of its widescreen glory. A 35mm version of Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 was widely released and popular with audiences of the time12. Considered a lost film at present, Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 was released during a time when musical reviews were all the rage and it was popular enough to spawn a sequel of sorts, Fox Movietone Follies of 1930.

poster for the 1930 Fox Film Corporation feature Happy DaysA second Grandeur musical, the Benjamin Stoloff directed Happy Days, introduced a West Coast audience to the Grandeur system with its February 28, 1930 premier at the Fox Carthay Circle Theater in Los Angeles. Photographed in Grandeur by King Kong cinematographer J.O. Taylor, it told the story of a troubled show boat company in New Orleans. Critics and audiences alike were impressed with the wide views provided by the Grandeur process, Los Angeles Times critic Edwin Schallert noting, "I do not know of anything that has afforded a more spectacular thrill in a long time than the glimpse of a train running along a winding stretch of river... which gives the first full inkling of the marvelous possibilities of a new and much heralded development"13. Another musical review of sorts, “Happy Days” featured such Fox favorites as Janet Gaynor, Charles Farrell, and Victor McLagen, and marked the film debut of Betty Grable. Following premier night in Los Angeles, noted showman Sid Grauman was quoted as saying, "It is an overwhelming success. . . At the end of the intermission at the Carthay Circle I noticed that half a dozen famous producers left the theater and did not come back. I saw them a few minutes later in Beverly Hills sending telegrams to all parts of the United States regarding Grandeur film. Grandeur will revolutionize studio and exhibition methods from the ground up."14

poster for the 1930 Fox Film Corporation feature Song O' My HeartThe third Grandeur feature was also to be a musical, taking advantage of the superior sound reproduction possible with the expanded soundtrack area of Grandeur film. After being courted by Fox for more than a year, famed Irish tenor John McCormack was given the unheard of sum of $500,000 to star in Song O’ My Heart under the direction of Frank Borzage15. A young Maureen O'Sullivan makes her film debut here as well. The expanded sound area of the Grandeur film was seen as ideal to record McCormack’s live singing performances. Sadly though, there is no evidence that the Grandeur version of Song O’ My Heart was ever in limited or wide public release, and it is believed that all of the 70mm film material was destroyed in a vault fire in the late 30's. The 35mm version of the film, discovered in the Fox vaults in the 1970's by Miles Kreuger, survives in two versions and is even available on DVD.

cameraOn the Trail of The Big Trail

poster for the 1930 Fox Film Corporation feature The Big Trail

October 2, 1930 marked the premier of the final Fox Grandeur feature, Raoul Walsh’s pioneer epic The Big Trail. Grandeur photography was expertly and beautifully done by famed cinematographer Arthur Edeson, who had worked with Walsh previously on such films as The Thief of Bagdad and The Cock-Eyed World and would later go on to film Casablanca and Mutiny on the Bounty. Famed Fox Studio still photographer Frank Powolny, best known for his 1943 pin-up shot of Betty Grable and his many photographs of Marilyn Monroe, was the official still cameraman. The Big Trail tells an epic tale of pioneers journeying west along the Oregon Trail in the 1830s. This was the largest Grandeur production of them all, shot entirely on location across 7 states. The production traveled more than 4,300 miles and featured a fleet of 200 covered wagons, 1,800 head of cattle, 1,400 horses, 80 oxen, 110 mules, 200 chickens, 20 pigs and 14 dogs, along with a traveling cast of some 347 players16. Five Native American tribes appeared in the film, and a total of 1,300,000 feet of film were reportedly shot, 700,000 feet of Grandeur film and 500,000 feet of 35mm film17. There are 14 cameramen listed in the credits, eight Grandeur cameramen and six 35mm cameramen. Contemporary articles and still photo captions claim that as many as 46 cameras were used on the whole production, in both 35mm and 70mm formats. One such photograph indicates that Walsh "had a battery of cameras located at eight different points shooting the fording of the river scene."18 The cast and crew traveled far and wide during the 5 months of principle photography, beginning in the desserts of Yuma, Arizona where they filmed the initial scenes of the wagon train as they first set out on their journey. A massive set was also constructed in the Yuma dessert, the largest outdoor set ever built at that time, to recreate the river town where the wagon train begins its journey19. Production traveled through the Grand Canyon in Arizona, through the town of St. George, Utah and on into Zion National Park. Cabins had to be built to house cast and crew during their six week long stay in Moran, Wyoming, a small town just outside of Grand Teton National Park. They filmed a buffalo hunt scene in northern Montana near the town of Moiese at the National Buffalo Range. Additional scenes were filmed in Oregon, Idaho, and California, including a river fording sequence in Sacramento, California, and the film’s finale among the massive trees of Sequoia National Park. Special trains carried the cast and crew to most of their locations, utilizing eight different train lines, and with more than 100 baggage cars to carry their equipment20.

still from the 1930 Fox Film Corporation feature The Big Trail in which the pioneers lower their wagons and livestock over a high cliff
"Yesterday, after almost a year in which it has been in the making throughout the mountain and desert country of the still majestically picturesque bad lands, [The Big Trail] was thrown upon the broad Grandeur canvas at the Roxy. A robustly vivid spectacle which moves upon its way in episodes piercing and impressive in the baldness of their reality, it proves, at last, to be a motion picture redeeming and confirming all those feverish reports of its superiority which have come out of the Fox company's promotion department in the last six months... Here, in vast, sweeping landscapes, whose breadth and depth are accommodated by the employment of wide film and a correspondingly wide screen, [Walsh] has woven a story of hardship and deprivation, of intrigue and personal loyalty, which keeps his drama alive and his audience alert.21
~ Quinn Martin ~ from The World, October 25, 1930

Hailed as "the most important picture ever produced" on studio advertisements, there were high hopes for this film that starred a very young John Wayne in his first leading role. More than two million dollars were spent on production, all for a feature that was to be carried by a young, unknown, and untried star. The Big Trail was shot in six different versions, including the Grandeur and 35mm versions in English. The ability to dub sound had not yet been perfected, so four additional 35mm versions were shot in foreign languages, Spanish, French, German, and Italian, each featuring a different cast. still from the 1930 Fox Film Corporation feature The Big Trail with young star John Wayne This was the first, and unfortunately the only time, that the Grandeur format was really used to its full advantage. Sweeping landscapes fill the screen, a wagon train nearly 200 strong begins its journey west, enemy Indians circle an encampment in the wilds, the caravan fords a river, all with views that stretch far beyond what was possible in a standard 35mm film. So impressive were the results, that The Big Trail was screened at the White House for President Herbert Hoover as part of his centennial celebration of the Oregon Trail22. The 70mm version of The Big Trail was painstakingly restored by the New York Museum of Modern Art in the 1980's by master restorers Karl Malkames and Peter Williamson from a badly shrunken original negative, and the results are very impressive23. Fox ultimately did not achieve the financial success they had hoped for with The Big Trail, due in part to the limited number of locations a Grandeur picture was able to be shown. More than two million dollars had been spent making the film, and had Grandeur projectors and screens been installed in more cities, the reaction of moviegoers would likely have been far different. However, the film remains important today for its introduction of John Wayne to the movie watching public, its strikingly modern cinematography and sweeping panoramas of the west, and its pioneering use of sound and widescreen technologies in combination.

magazineA Good Idea Before Its Time

still from the 1930 Fox Film Corporation feature The Big Trail in which Indians attack the resting wagon trainThere are a number of reasons that the Grandeur system failed to catch on in the 1930’s. Money was a huge factor, as theaters would need to be outfitted with new screens and projectors in order to show a Grandeur film. Cash-strapped theater owners had just spent considerable money installing the equipment to screen sound pictures, and further converting a theater for Grandeur exhibition was expensive. Costs were high for the studios as well. While the method of capturing and reproducing sound would remain the same as before, a production would require new cameras, new printers that could accommodate the wide film, and new processing equipment to complete a movie. The 70mm film itself was more difficult to work with than standard 35mm film, as it was brittle and prone to buckling and curling. Cinematographer Edeson noted, "[a] buckle in a 70 millimeter camera is a terrible thing, for it not only ruins a large quantity of valuable film, and often damages the camera, but it invariably makes the motor a total loss."24 Industry pressures also acted to stop all wide film production in its tracks. All of the major studios signed an agreement in 1930 through the Hays Office that would curb all current and future wide film development unless a single industry standard could be agreed upon25. At the same time that the Hays Pact was being negotiated, William Fox was forced to resign from his own studio and to sign over his voting interests to his opponents. Harley Clarke, Fox’s successor as studio head, agreed to stop development and production of Grandeur films, and absorb the more than two million dollar production cost already expended, closing the book on Grandeur26. While William Fox was still the owner of the Grandeur process as well as the cameras, he no longer had the capitol or infrastructure to produce motion pictures. It wasn’t until the 1950s that wide film and wide screen movies would make their triumphant return. Notably, it was 20th Century Fox that led the next major foray into widescreen with their licensing of the Cinemascope process for such films as The Robe, The Diary of Anne Frank, Oklahoma, and Forbidden Planet.

cameraOur Search and Our Thanks

We must extend our gratitude to the many people that have helped us so far in our research: the Margaret Herrick Library at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the USC Cinematic Arts Library, Marilyn Ann Moss, 20th Century Fox, Tom McCutchon and the Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, the California State Railroad Museum, Joan Miller and the Wesleyan Cinema Archives, the Arizona Historical Society, the Montana Historical Society, the Research Center of the Utah State Archives and Utah State History, the Wyoming State Archives, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the Los Angeles Public Library, Michael Madden, Ralph Sargent, John Hora, Carol Grey, and Corbis Images. We are still trying to find conclusive proof that Mitchell FC #8 was one of the cameras that worked on The Big Trail, so if you have any further information, photographs, suggestions, or corrections to our above research, we would be glad to hear from you.

Hover Over an Image to Enlarge

1. Mayme Ober Park. "Wide Film Makes its Debut Auspiciously at Movie Capital," Daily Boston Globe, March 13, 1930, 29. Accessed December 4, 2012. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers).
2. John D. Elms. "Demonstration and Description of the Widescope Camera," Transaction of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 14 (1922): 124-129.
3. John Belton. "Grandeur: A History, 1927-1930," (paper, Rutgers University, 1990), 4.
4. Earl I. Sponable. "Grandeur Cameras" memo from Sponable to W.C. Michel. June 24, 1932. Earl Sponable Collection, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York City, NY.
5. Sponable memo to Michel.
6. Sponable memo to Michel.
7. Sponable memo to Michel.
8. Purchase Order # A. 4175 from Fox Case Corporation. June 17, 1929. Earl Sponable Collection, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York City, NY.
9. Mitchell Camera Corporation shipping ledger. February 24, 1964. Mitchell Camera Corporation.
10. "New Film Projection Provides for Depth," Hamilton Daily News, September 25, 1929. Accessed November 13, 2012. (ProQuest).
11. Mordaunt Hall, "Grandeur Films Thrill Audience: Rush and Roar of Niagara Are Among the Startling Effects at the Gaiety," New York Times, September 18, 1929. Accessed November 13, 2012. (ProQuest).
12. "Theater Record Established by Follies Revue," Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1929, A13. Accessed November 7, 2012. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers).
13. Edwin Schallert, "Grandeur Film Arrival Event: Outdoor Shots are the Thrill in New Medium," Los Angeles Times, March 3, 1930. Accessed September 15, 2012. (ProQuest).
14. "Prediction Made on New Grandeur Film," Los Angeles Times, March 5, 1930. A10. Accessed January 16, 2013. (ProQuest).
15. Muriel Babcock. Los Angeles Times, April 13, 1930. B11. Accessed December 4, 2012. (ProQuest).
16. Marquis Busby, "The End of 'The Big Trail!': One of the Greatest Location Trips in the History of Pictures is Finished," Photoplay, October 1930, 33.
17. Raoul Walsh, "The Log of 'The Big Trail,'" Gem Theater Talking Picture Magazine, c1930, 5 and 7.
18. Frank Powolny, Photographer. "Something Has Gone Wrong". photograph. c1930. From Twentieth Century Fox Archive.
19. The Big Trail, Fox Film Corporation. July 29, 1930. advertisement. The Film Daily, 2. (accessed June 13, 2013).
20. Walsh 7.
21. Quinn Martin, "The New Films," (The World, October 25, 1930), quoted in "World's Biggest City Lauds World's Mightiest Picture in World's Biggest Theater", advertisement, Fox Film Corporation. The Film Daily, vo.54, no.24, October 28, 1930, http://www.archive.org/stream/filmdailyvolume55354newy#page/1158/mode/2up.
22. "'Trail' at White House," The Film Daily, vol.54 no.6 October 7, 1930, 8.
23. Ron Miller, "Early Technology Almost Headed John Wayne's Career Off at the Pass," Chicago Tribune, February 20, 1986, sec.5 pg.9.
24. Arthur Edeson, "Wide Film Cinematography: Some Comments on 70mm Camerawork from a Practical Cinematographer," American Cinematographer, September 1930. Accessed May 16, 2012. (www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/grandeur-sep1930.htm).
25. Belton 7.
26. Belton 8-9.

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