“Big things have small beginnings,” Claude Rains intones in Lawrence of Arabia, David Lean’s four-hour Super Panavision saga. Bellowed in 6-Track stereo sound before a packed house at the Somerville Theatre, as Rains’ likeness dominates the century-old screen, the statement couldn’t seem any more absurd.
And yet, according Ian Judge, who programmed the 70mm & Widescreen Festival—which runs at the theater through September 25th—it took seven years to amass the tools necessary to screen classics like Lawrence in their original format. Much of the equipment had to be custom-made because it isn’t manufactured anymore, and the few remaining technicians with knowledge of the process were busy outfitting multiplexes with digital projectors. But from this small beginning came a big payoff: The Somerville Theatre is now the only local theater equipped to play 70mm films on a regular basis.
“Somerville is really a small town next to Boston,” Judge says. “And here, we have this very rare thing that Boston doesn’t even have, and I think most people aren’t cognizant of it.”
He hopes to change that perception by making the festival an annual event.
“There’s nothing like it,” he says, referring to the widescreen process adopted by Hollywood in the 1950s, to stave off television’s erosion of the movie audience. One critic who came to a test screening of West Side Story told Judge that the picture was so vivid he could see the fillings in Natalie Wood’s teeth.
Acquiring the prints was a challenge. With the advent of digital, old movies have never been more accessible—and yet, their original negatives are often poorly maintained. The Somerville’s Theatre’s head projectionist, David Kornfeld, describes the first copy they obtained of Lawrence bluntly: “It sucked.”
Despite the rigor that went into curating the festival, though, Judge insists that the theater is in the entertainment business. “We are not a museum,” he says. “One thing I treasure as someone who grew up in Somerville is that we’re not pretentious.”
Thus, the lineup mixes rarities like The Vikings—starring a flaxen-haired Kirk Douglas—with crowd-pleasing spectacles like Spartacus and The Ten Commandments; sci-fi epics like Interstellar, Tron, and 2001: A Space Odyssey; and the only existing 70mm print of Disney’s Sleeping Beauty.
“There’s something for everybody,” he says, echoing an era when big things were made for big screens.