Against all odds, a Camera Survival and Restoration story 70mm GRANDEUR Camera
By Ed Johnson
April 10, 1930, Yuma, Arizona. A massive all location filmed $2 Million major motion picture epic produced by Fox Film Studios, The Big Trail, directed by Raoul Walsh starts. Under the supervision of Arthur Edeson A.S.C. the cameras roll for the first take. The most expensive film produced at the time, it is a huge undertaking with over 800 people and train loads of equipment including 347 players, 200 period correct Conestoga wagons drawn by oxen, over 3,000 costumes, involving 5 tribes of Indians, a herd of 500 Bison, 1800 cattle, 1400 horses and much more.The production moves through 7 states by the time it is finished. The other notable piece of film history of The Big Trail was the fact that this was 22-year-old John Wayne's first film job as John Wayne. The Big Trail is now considered a classic.
Among the 20 cameras filming The Big Trail are the first ever 70mm Fox GRANDEUR film cameras built by the Mitchell Camera Company exclusively for William Fox and his motion picture kingdom. Because no technology existed at that time to make 35mm prints from a 70mm film original, almost the entire inventory of the studios 35mm cameras shot side by side with the wide screen cameras in order to be able to release the picture in the many 35mm theaters that could not run the still experimental format.
Mitchell Camera records detail the delivery of 8 or 9 GRANDEUR cameras and accessories to Fox Film Studios between May of 1929 and in January of 1930 (FC1 through 8 or 9.) MGM also bought at least the next 4 cameras built. With the statements of the contemporary story from Photoplay of October 1930 as a guide, it appears that all of the new GRANDEUR cameras owned by Fox were included in the making of this film.
This was the big bet of what William Fox hoped to be a new era in film production. Unfortunately, it was also the last 70mm GRANDEUR wide screen picture made due to the depression, studio politics and lack of facilities to show it. By 1930, only a third of the motion picture theaters in the US had managed to install sound equipment for talking pictures, and were not in a financial position to afford installation of new wide projection screens and 70mm projectors.
Fast forward. 1995, San Diego, California.
Intent on making an independent motion picture with a few friends, but lacking funds, Michael Geiger looks high and low to find a motion picture camera capable of being used to make a low budget feature film. Scouring camera stores, auctions, swap meets, and thrift stores there is nothing usable for producing a feature film. Then he finds a large old studio type motion picture camera in a Last Chance Before The Dump Goodwill auction sale near the border with Tijuana. No parts beyond the camera body itself and a magazine, but for $25, maybe the start to his dream.
The camera is evaluated as a possibility and rejected as it needs a motor and a lot of parts. The film is shot with a Canon GL1 digital camera and the old Mitchell camera with the curious designation FC2 goes into a storage closet.
Some years pass, and curious about the old camera, Michael takes another look and opens the camera door. Gee, this is not for 35mm film! Everything in here is way too wide. What is this camera with its strange Model/Serial number tag of Mitchell Camera Corp FC2. It is painted white. Was it a special military camera? It looks just like a Mitchell Standard studio camera, but larger.
Research soon places the Mitchell FC camera as a 70mm wide-screen camera from the late 1920's. This camera is a historic piece of motion picture history in need of salvation, restoration, and preservation. But, how?
Nearly 90 years have passed and only a handful of these cameras ever existed. With nothing but a hope and a prayer, appeals are placed on line and through film industry people in an attempt to find, if humanly possible, any of the items needed to bring FC2 anywhere close to complete and hopefully, original condition.
Among those appeals is one posted to MitchellCamera.com. A member, Mediaed, looks through some Mitchell camera items that he has collected through the years and recollects an odd large early dated Mitchell motor and a vintage side finder with the correct 1929 Los Angeles address on the label shield. The transaction agreed, Mediaed's curiosity leads him to joining the quest for more information.
Another source provides a rare original 50mm FC Camera lens mount. FC2 should really have at least 3 lenses in the 4-lens turret. Like everything else on the Grandeur camera, the lens mounts are bigger than standard 35mm Mitchell camera mounts. Research soon shows that the lens sizes for 70mm filming are double the standard 35mm sizes with the shortest workable focal length to be 50mm.
An early 35mm Mitchell standard matte box with its mount and rails is the next internet purchase. Upon checking to see if it can somehow be adapted to fit FC2, the matte box itself is too narrow, and the mounting bracket is too small and too short. It would never be centered to the larger FC camera's lens.
Richard Bennett, the motion picture camera technician of Cinemagear soon joins in the quest, as Richard has also been in the process of restoring and researching Mitchell FC8. Not only does Richard's research and information add greatly to the knowledge pool, but against all odds, he somehow turns up an original GRANDEUR matte box.
Having an original FC matte box but no rails nor mount, but the slightly incompatible Mitchell standard 35mm mount in hand, a plan is born. A local high-end custom machine shop is contacted and presented with the problem. Using the cast aluminum 35mm mount as a guide, along with measurements from the front of FC2 and its newly added matte box, a computer pattern is made. The automated milling machine is even able to mimic the cast aluminum surface of the original Mitchell mount. The result is a perfect fit. The machine shop is also presented the single original FC; lens mount as a sample in order to create two additional mounts for standard Baltar 3" and 4" lenses. FC2 once again has a properly equipped front end with lens mounts, three lenses, matte box with rails and mount.
A picture builds of some history on this camera. With the unperfected invention of television in 1925 looming as a future threat to theater attendance, William Fox of Fox Film Studios believed the future of motion pictures to be a grand format that will project an image closer to that of the natural wide view of human eyesight. In 1928 he directs Theodore Case and his engineer Earl Sponable at the Fox-Case Corporation to develop a workable wide screen format camera.Theodore Case was the inventor of the MovieTone sound-on-film process to be used in conjunction with the new camera format. After some trial and error, the design was assigned to be produced by the Mitchell Camera Company based on the design of Mitchell's Standard 35mm studio camera. The cameras branded as either Fox Case Camera or more simply as the Fox Camera, bearing the model designation of FC.
After the 1930 failure of the GRANDEUR widescreen process to be adopted, FC 2 and the other GRANDEUR cameras sat for a number of years on back storage shelves until a call came out for large format cameras needed for military research during World War II. FC2 was shipped to the Mitchell factory where it is repurposed, repainted and sent off to a military career. In reflecting on its current excellent condition, it had seen little if any military use, and eventually was sold by the government after being separated from or stripped of its usable parts like lenses, and motors.
Included in the purchase is a vintage Mitchell Tripod with Friction Head. Yet, the lure is the camera and its fittings, as they are a wonderful guide to the restoration of FC2. But an astounding and totally unexpected surprise is in store. Upon delivery, curiously there is something hand painted on the front of the Mitchell tripod friction head. The lettering, in large green and silver paint capital letters is old and hard to read as two of the 8 letters in the word are nearly rubbed out. GRA_ _EUR. A picture is sent out to co-researcher Mediaed, and in a late night phone call, it is agreed that it could only read as GRANDEUR.
As impossible as it sounds, somehow this very tripod head served as the support for a display of a then brand new Mitchell FC Fox 70mm GRANDEUR camera. That may have been in May of 1929, when the very first 3 of the FC 70mm cameras (numbers 1, 2 and 3) were received from Mitchell and presented to William Fox. The age is right and #151 did ship just a few months before FC2 was also shipped to Fox-Case and forwarded to the Fox Studio camera department. A tripod and head that Fox GRANDEUR Camera FC2 may very well have sat upon 90 years ago has found home.
After much debate, it is decided that FC2
be returned to the original 1929 look. It is painstakingly dismantled and
repainted in as close as possible to the original textured finish common to the
times as dictated by the finish of #151. In that process, another interesting
discovery is that all of the parts of FC2 are marked and stamped FC2 and are
all completely original to the camera.
This is very rare for a camera of this age.
William Wyler with two of MGM's 1929 GRANDEUR 70mm cameras, converted to 65mm, renamed as MGM 65 Cameras and used during the 1953 shoot for Ben Hur in Rome.
Soon, the Mitchell Camera Company would be engaged again to produce a new generation of widescreen 65mm cameras based closely on the 1929 70mm FC Fox GRANDEUR cameras and maybe from original camera dies and blueprints. Those 1950's 65mm widescreen cameras are again badged by Mitchell as FC, and BFC or Blimped FC cameras. Alas, the original meaning of FC has been lost as some people call these cameras Blimped Field Cameras for no apparent reason.
Of the original 14 GRANDEUR 70mm FC cameras ever produced, for all that is known, only two cameras have survived in unmodified original condition: FC2 and FC8. They are grand survivors of the nearly forgotten first attempts at Wide Screen motion pictures. And that is the story of the nearly impossible journey of FC2 as it sits once again, side by side with a Fox 35mm camera that 90 years ago may well have worked beside it shooting The Big Trail. Hopes and prayers answered in full as newly restored FC2 becomes a part of our history of the Golden years of Hollywood.
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