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The Bootleg Files: Chagall

BOOTLEG FILES 805: “Chagall” (1963 Oscar-winning documentary short narrated by Vincent Price).

LAST SEEN:
On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS:
It fell through the cracks.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE:
Probably not.

If you’re the type of a movie fan who feels the need to see every film that won an Academy Award, you probably experienced a frustrated pursuit of “Chagall,” which won the 1963 Best Documentary Short Subject. For many years, the film was very difficult to locate – there has never been a home entertainment release and it was absent from YouTube until last August when an unauthorized posting based on a McGraw-Hill Films educational market video popped up.

Sadly, winning an Academy Award is not always synonymous with having a work of great quality. In the case of “Chagall,” it is rare to recall another documentary short subject that takes a vibrant subject matter and reduces it to a quotidian experience.

“Chagall” opens at the artist Marc Chagall’s estate in southern France with Vincent Price’s narration declaring, “Born in the shadows, he charted his course through a magic universe among his own imagination.” Some contemporary viewers might be surprised to hear the voice of Price as narrator – today, he is primarily known from his horror films, but in the early 1960s the actor was also widely known as an expert on art, and having him narrate the production gave it a seal of authority.

Price’s narration acknowledges that Chagall’s birthplace was “the dark confines of a Russian ghetto,” but strangely at no point in this film is Chagall clearly identified as being Jewish. Indeed, the words “Jewish” and “Jew” never turn up, although “his people” – including “the rabbis” – are briefly mentioned. Perhaps the viewers in 1963 did not need to be reminded of this fact, but Chagall’s faith is such a heavy influence in his work that its omission is peculiar.

The narration tries to explain the artist’s approach to his work, with Price describing an early painting by noting Chagall’s “unmistakable stamp of his quicksilver personality, blending the somber shades of melancholy with colors whose brilliance reflects his glowing love of life.” Yes, the verbiage is mature, but the problem here is that the film never bothers to build a foundation to give the viewer an understanding of how and why the artist approached this creative path. Where did this “quicksilver personality” come from and how did maintain a “glowing love of life” in an environment defined by poverty and anti-Semitic oppression?

“Chagall” might be the most maddeningly incomplete documentary on an artist ever created. The artist’s biography is skimmed over with such an astonishing lack of depth that the viewer has only a rudimentary understanding of the emotional and physical forces that shaped his creative powers.

Even more baffling is the fact that few of Chagall’s paintings are identified by name or date. The camera pans over the vast canvases while Price emotes his narration with the gusto that he brought to Roger Corman’s cinematic riffs on Edgar Allan Poe – the clueless viewer who is left wondering how Chagall came up with his phantasmagoric imagery and how he was able to achieve a level of fame for his work.

Chagall himself turns up on screen for a few minutes, but is never allowed to speak for himself. He is seen painting (but we don’t see what he is making), walking around his villa with his second wife Valentina (we learn that his first wife Bella died in New York in 1944 when the couple were in wartime exile in New York City) and judging the products of a local farmer’s market. Towards the end of the film, there is a very brief segment of on a series of Chagall-designed stained-glass windows that were installed in Jerusalem – but we never get to see him actually working on this project.

By the end of “Chagall,” we know less about Chagall as a person and a creative force of energy than we did when the film started.

Even more mysterious than “Chagall” is the film’s director, Italian director Lauro Venturi. His only other credited work within the International Movie Database is input as a co-director on “Pictura,” a 1952 production on the lives of several prominent painters. Venturi was a Harvard graduate who became famous as an art and cinema scholar and the editor of a publishing company. He made no further films after “Chagall,” despite snagging the Oscar.

Following its victory at the Academy Awards, “Chagall” turned up in theatrical release in 1964 via United Artists on a double bill with the adventure film “Topkapi.” As mentioned earlier, McGraw-Hill made the film available for non-theatrical release to the educational market. The Academy Film Archive restored the film in 2008, but to date it remains absent from the home entertainment market.

And as for that unauthorized YouTube posting, the initial section of the film is wobbly but the picture eventually becomes acceptable. Still, this is not the best introduction to Chagall’s art – and even those who know something about the master painter will be disappointed in its offering.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, every Sunday. Phil Hall’s new book “Jesus Christ Movie Star” is now available from BearManor Media.