The night Cinemascope came to Kerema: Graham Egan

Every Monday I would post my freezer order to Steamships and then rejoice in the arrival of that order, by faithful “K” boat, the following Thursday week. Thus I marked the days of my life in Kerema in the late 1960s.

Tuesday was a good day too, as the TAA Otter brought the film that would be screened at the Kerema Club on Friday night, from George Page in Port Moresby. If it was a good film, the anticipation could be felt all week, through all 70 of the expatriate community. If it was not much chop, never mind, we would be going anyway. If the Otter could not come, because bad weather closed the airstrip, spirits were down. TAA or STOL (small airline of single engined planes) willing, Friday’s plane might bring a film to lighten the gloom. If not…oh well, never mind, we would be going anyway.

The club was the centre of expatriate life in Kerema. The only transport was by a 75 min plane trip from Moresby or a 3 day chug along the coast on one of the “K” boats: so named because their names all began with that letter. The wet season, from April to October, was very wet and often closed the airstrip for days. This meant no mail, as well as no film. I could not say which was the greater calamity. There was radio, on the short wave service from the ABC, in Moresby. Television was, of course, a dream.

I was teaching at Coronation High School, so called because it opened in the coronation year 1953. There were 20 teachers, 18 of whom were expatriates, mainly Australians, all under 40. There were several, like me, unmarried in our early 20s. We lived in each other’s pockets and often found ourselves at the club, after work.

The films from George Page dated, I am sure, from the silent era, but every so often there would be a modern gem. The tropical climate often leached the colour from film, o many technicolour blockbusters were screened in a curious sepia tone. Never mind, we went to the Friday night flicks anyway.

So they could be viewed using a 16mm projector, with an ordinary lens, cinemascope films were reworked into a flat print. This meant that the ends were cropped and only the middle part, where most of the action was, ended up on the screen. Occasionally there would be a “pan and scan”, where the image moved to where the actors were. You sometimes see this today, when wide screen films are shown on older television sets.

One day the club decided to update and invest in a cinemascope lens, so we could watch the very latest films in their wide screen glory. The great day arrived for the first showing of a cinemascope film. There was a working bee to paint the wall of the club white, as our old screen would clearly be inadequate for a wide screen wonder. We put on our best clothes and dress thongs for the great unveiling of our new lens.

We had ordered a cinemascope film for the big opening, but at George Page, someone must have thought we would be requiring the flat print of the film, as the Kerema Club would not have the required wide screen lens. But we did!

On the night, the unsuspecting projectionist, DDC Alan Jefferies, innocently threaded the film through the projector’s intricate series of gates. Confusingly, a flat print would often leave the opening credits in the wide screen mode, so that we could see all the details of the actors and indeed the name of the key grip and best boy, without any cropping. Using a conventional lens, the credits would appear in tall, squeezed letters. As soon as the credits were over, the film would revert to its flat print and the cropped, but properly proportioned image, would appear.

The film began and our fancy lens showed the credits in proper cinemascope. The newly painted wall was entirely filled with details of the stars and producer and director of the epic that was about to envelope us in a world of horizontal ecstasy.

Horror! As soon as the credits ended, the flat, cropped image appeared, but spread all over the wall, courtesy of our new lens. Everyone on screen was short and fat, twice as wide as they were tall. Squat heroes lumbered down stretched streets. Willowy women waddled widely, as if they had been pressed in a giant sandwich toaster. Buildings had no height, but were as wide as the outback.

There was pandemonium. Alan, Alan, we cried, it’s the wrong print, put the old lens back on. But Alan was unmoved. It says cinemascope on the box, he protested. George Page got it wrong, we countered. But it was all in vain. Alan kept the film rolling and we watched as if we were viewing it through a letterbox. The ample beers and other drinks—one teacher was in love with crème de menthe—helped to get us through the evening. George Page was properly chastised and no such errors were made again. It was a disaster, but never mind, we went anyway.

 

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