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Four years ago today, the CRIMSON printed a small item on page on headlined "Brattle to Show Foreign Films." The story said, tersely, "Cambridge's foreign language film theatre opens on Brattle St. tonight. The new Brattle Movie House replaces the Brattle Theatre, which closed six weeks ago. Bryant N. Haliday '49, General Manager, added, however, that he still hopes to bring summer stock to the Brattle."
Two days later the CRIMSON ran its first review of a Brattle movie--it was Captain from Koepenick--and began a four-year history of weekly praising and blaming, encouraging and maligning, which indicates that the Brattle Theatre is regarded almost as the special property of the Harvard community and can expect to be encouraged, or excoriated according to the way the current film happens to strike the reviewer.
Tomorrow the Brattle officially celebrates its fourth anniversary with a film which in many ways exemplifies the attitude of the Brattle management: "The Childhood of Maxim Gorky," a Russian film made in the late '30's and never shown in New England before, and furthermore a film the Brattle considers one of the three or four greatest movies ever made, but which they dolefully expect will do very poor business.
In its four years as an art movie theatre playing films on a repertory basis the Brattle has played foreign films from almost every country which has a film industry of any size--German, French, Swedish, Italian, Russian, Mexican, British, Polish--and a great many American re-issues which have some status as film classics or which happen to please the management or which fill gaps in a program which becomes increasingly difficult to schedule with the current "product shortage" yawning emptily before art theatres throughout the country.
Brattle anniversaries have been marked by "Miss Julie," the film version of Strindberg's play made in Sweden starring Anita Bjork; "Desires," a serious but deceptively titled German film about morphine addiction; and "Citizen Kane," starring Orson Welles, landmark in anybody's history of motion pictures. Two of the films, "Miss Julie" and "Desires," were barred from Sunday exhibition by the censors because of their controversial and/or questionable material, and it was on the basis of the ban of "Miss Julie" that the Brattle and its lawyers fought down the Massachusetts Sunday censorship law which was declared unconstitutional on July 6, 1955. (Brattle Films v. Otis M. Whitney et al.)
The Brattle building itself has a long history in the Commonwealth. It was originally a Lutheran church about a hundred years ago, and was rebuilt in 1890 by the Cambridge Social Union to provide "innocent amusements and means of social and intellectual improvements." The downstairs section--now the Gropper Art Galleries--had at one time been used as a police gymnasium. Several theatre groups have had their ups and downs in the building, of which probably the best-remembered was the late and occasionally lamented (except by the handful of Cambridge citizens who were badly "bitten" in frequent drives for money) Brattle Theatre Company, which staged 58 plays in the period 1948-52. Bryant Halliday '49 was general manager of the Brattle Theatre Company's last legitimate season in the summer of 1952, and his part- ner, Cyrus I. Harvey Jr. '47, had also been connected with the group when it was the Harvard Theatre Workshop.
Since Febuary 1953 the old building has also become an art center of sorts, since in addition to the motion picture auditorium it houses a ballet school, an art gallery, and a bar--indeed some claim it will soon be possible to live inside the building for an indefinite period, with all one's needs satisfied, although this assumes an almost entirely liquid diet.
The Good and Bad
For those who spend this much time at 40 Brattle Street, the content and quality of the films shown assumes an overwhelming importance, and no one more jealously guards the Brattle standards than does the CRIMSON itself. Its reviews run from encomia to bitter harangues, such as the one which appeared in January, 1956, when the reviewer objected to what seemed to him a run of extraordinarily bad films:
"It might do well to note that once again the dauntless Mr. Magoo was the bright spot of the evening. Indeed, were it not for our nearsighted saviour, Brattle patrons might think that the motion picture distributors were giving the Brattle little but second rate material. Those of us whose interests extend beyond UPA cartoons, travelogues, and re-releases of originally poor films are becoming discouraged."
A month later, however, this same reviewer called "Citizen Kane" a "masterpiece of directing, acting and content," and the Brattle was back in Harvard's good graces.
The Brattle has some preferences, however, which seem strange to its audience--notably an affection for German pictures, for old Cary Grant films, for the early Eisenstein movies, and for period pieces like "Earrings of Madame De" which appeal to a rather specalized taste for the baroque and the leisurely in movie-making.
On the other hand, the Brattle labors under tremendous handicaps, of which its size, the lack of public spirit among the motion picture companies, and nitrate film are perhaps the biggest. Because it seats only about 350 people, the Brattle cannot afford to pay the prices asked by distributors of some of the major foreign films, which these days are almost as costly as the first-run Hollywood products. Most such distributors would rather hold the film for years in the hope that it will be bought by one of the big Boston art theatres, which can offer a hundred times the rental the Brattle can scrape up, rather than sell it immediately to the Brattle. The problem of Hollywood re-issues is equally galling. There is no law which compels a distributor to release his product, and many of the major companies simply do not want to be bothered with re-releasing old films and setting up the concomitant bookkeeping unless they can be assured of a $100,000 gross, which the Brattle can never guarantee. The third problem, nitrate vs. safety film, is one which affects some of the older American pictures, lke W. C. Fields movies, as well as a great many foreign films, like "The Blue Angel." According to Massachusetts law, only "safety" film, which does not burn, may be played in commercial theatres, and most of the old movies are on nitrate stock, with few producers who are willing to meet the cost of transferring them to safety stock.
But with all its problems, the Brattle has no intention of closing its doors, and is now busily booking its spring season. They will celebrate their fourth birthday quietly tomorrow with a private showing of "The Childhood of Maxim Gorky" for a few friends of the theatre, and hope that the mysterious force "The Public" may surprise them and like the film
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