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Widescreen silent 1927 epic 'Napoleon' to be shown in Oakland

March 19, 2012 |  4:48 pm

Albert Dieudonné  in the title role of Abel Gance's "Napoleon"

Like the great man himself, returning in triumph from exile in Elba, the legendary 1927 silent motion picture “Napoleon” is coming back. But it's not returning to New York, the site of its previous success in 1981 — instead, it will make landfall right here in the great state of California.

For four performances only — March 24, 25 and 31 and April 1 — the most complete version of Abel Gance's masterpiece, now clocking in at a staggering 5 1/2 hours, will screen at one of the most venerable American movie palaces, the Paramount in Oakland. (The 1981 showing at Radio City Music Hall ran a considerably shorter four hours.)

The event is being sponsored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, which will celebrate its 17th year this July, but “Napoleon” will not be showing in San Francisco because no theater there is big enough to encompass one of the prime innovations of the Gance film.

That would be a widescreen format known as Polyvision, which involves expanding the screen to three times its normal width. The cost and difficulty involved in this has meant that no other American cities are going to be showing this version of “Napoleon,” and similar obstacles mean no DVD or Blu-ray release is being considered either.

Opened in 1931 and restored to its original Art Deco splendor in 1972, the Paramount not only has 3,000 seats but also the space to accommodate the 46-member Oakland East Bay Symphony that will play the wall-to-wall music written and conducted by Carl Davis.

The man behind all this is film historian Kevin Brownlow, who has been working on finding and assembling all the pieces of “Napoleon” for decades and received an honorary Academy Award in 2011 for his lifetime achievements in preservation and film scholarship.

Performances will start at 1:30 p.m. and include three intermissions, one being a generous dinner break. Tickets are $45 to $120. If you are hungry for the best silent cinema has to offer, this is the place.


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-- Kenneth Turan

Photo: Albert Dieudonné  in the title role of Abel Gance's "Napoleon." The San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present the 1927 legendary silent epic  in its complete restoration by Kevin Brownlow, in four special screenings at Oakland's Paramount Theatre on March 24, 25 and 31 and April 1. Credit: Photoplay Productions

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