Wouldn’t it be fun to travel back in time and visit Asheville, and better yet, to bring a camera? Grail Moviehouse, downtown’s newest theater, will offer the next best thing on Jan.22.
Grail, Asheville’s alternative cinema, will present a screening of the 1921 silent picture Conquest of Canaan, filmed on location in Asheville. The show will feature a live piano accompaniment by Andrew J. Fletcher.
The delicate nitrate print of the Paramount production had spent decades in the Moscow Film Archive and was all but forgotten until Asheville radio and television pioneer Bill Banner was instrumental in the Historic Resources Commission of Asheville and Buncombe County’s acquisition of a copy in September 1988. Two years later, WLOS aired an edited version of the film narrated by Warner Brothers screen actress Dorothy Hart.
Hart said the story takes place during the prohibition era.
“It’s about a small American town dominated by one man, Judge Martin Pike. The judge has great power over the people. He secretly operates a gambling house at the edge of town where illegal alcohol is sold. Only one man in Canaan dares confront the judge. That man is Joe Louden, a citizen who has nothing to lose because he has nothing,” she said.
Hundreds of locals were in the picture as extras.
Film historian Frank Thompson has reconstructed the film with English subtitles to replace Russian ones from a Russian copy of the original. This reconstructed version is the copy that will be screened at the Grail.
“The quality is very good. It comes from the digital master scan,” Thompson said. The only known surviving original nitrate print went on loan from Russia to the Library of Congress last month, where it will undergo a complete restoration.
Steve White and Davida Horwitz opened Grail Moviehouse late last May. The theater has one auditorium to show mainline studio features, and two for screening independent art house films — a format anticipated to successfully continue in the future. Both White and Horwitz have a longstanding appreciation for the cinema.
“I was very much into film in high school, even as a kid I used to watch great old movies on TV every Sunday afternoon,” said White. Movies became his passion while studying film as a freshman in college while working at the Carolina Theater on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Horwitz came to Asheville after her family decided to relocate to Western North Carolina.
White and Horwitz proudly work with other local businesses and community organizations. In addition to the usual variety of candy, popcorn and drinks, the Grail Moviehouse sells local beer and healthy snacks made by several local vendors.
“We met today with Building Bridges, a group that offers education and programing designed to dismantle racism by fostering relationships that respect diversity,” he said. “We have a powerful documentary coming up in February called ‘I’m Not Your Negro’ featuring the writings of James Baldwin about how Blacks in America were treated in the 1960s, narrated by Samuel Jackson. We’ll show it to raise awareness and raise funds for Building Bridges.”
The idea to open a theater was inspired by a scene in It’s A Wonderful Life when George Bailey, played by Jimmy Stewart.
“He yells out ‘Merry Christmas moviehouse’ when he runs past the theater in Bedford Falls,” said White. Both he and Horwitz are fans of Monty Python, and the name Grail was borrowed from a song in the show Spamalot that encourages the audience to follow their bliss in “Find Your Grail.”
Brad Hoover and Bill Pivetta with the Asheville School of Film lease studio space next door to Grail Moviehouse.
“We teach film production, screenwriting, and other aspects of the process such as subgenres of filmmaking, location sound recording, production design, and documentary production. We have weekend seminars and workshops, and individual classes that meet weekly for between four and eight weeks. Our core curriculum includes introduction, intermediate and advanced classes in filmmaking and screenwriting,” said Hoover.
Each of the film classes produces one or two film projects as a group. At the end of the eight week semester there is a weekend screening at the Grail where friends and relatives can see their work on the silver screen.
Information about class schedules, and instructors can be found on their website at www.AshevilleSchoolOfFilm.com. For more information on the Grail Moviehouse visit www.GrailMoviehouse.com.
By Mark-Ellis Bennett