Mitchell Camera Corp. Articles

The Mitchell FC FOX Grandeur Camera

By: Richard Bennett and Erin Bennett

Here at CinemaGear we specialize in the repair, restoration, and maintenance of Mitchell cameras of all types. Over the years we have had some unique and historical cameras come into our collection. One piece we found most interesting is Mitchell FC #8. After bringing the camera back to good working to condition, we started to look into its history and we were fascinated by the development of the Grandeur wide screen sound on film system. I thought we might share some of the things we have found here.

The Fox Grandeur process was one of the early attempts at a widescreen cinema format developed in the late 1920's. One film critic from the Daily Boston Globe noted about the Grandeur process itself, "The screen is literally throwing somersaults in its scientific progress". Hardly had the industry recovered from the revolution of the talkie when the third epoch, wide film, spun out of an inventor's dream into reality. [1] The Fox Grandeur widescreen system was born out of William Fox's desire to control the technology and equipment that movies were made with. Fox already owned his Fox Film Corporation, the Fox movie theater chain, studio production facilities on both the west and east coasts of the United States, he had acquired the U.S. rights to the German Tri-Ergon patents which were vital to the sound-on-film systems of the day, along with the rights to the Movietone sound-on-film process, and the he purchased the Mitchell Camera Corporation. Sound had already taken the industry by storm and color was beginning to gain a foothold, but it was in wide screen film format that Fox saw the most potential to expand his businesses. With wide film came the possibility for larger screens, which in turn made for the opportunity to build larger theaters with a greater number of seats available. More seats of course meant higher ticket sales and more potential profit flowing from his theaters. Fox intended to use his ownership interest in the Mitchell Camera Corporation to produce the cameras that he envisioned everyone in the business would then use to shoot wide screen movies.

Thomas Edison's 35mm film format had become the default industry standard but as sound became a reality the familiar rectangular format had lost some of its picture area to the sound-on-film technology, sacrificing some of its space for the optical soundtrack. At the same time movie theaters had grown in size to accommodate larger audiences, but the limitations of the 35mm film frame made it impossible to project a larger image without sacrificing image quality. Wide film seemed to be the perfect solution to both of these problems, as a larger image on a larger piece of film would reduce the graininess of the projected image and allow for even larger theater screens.

Our research indicates that William Fox's initial interest in developing a wide film system of his own was sparked by the demonstration of John D. Elms' Widescope camera. First developed in 1922, Elms' early Widescope camera shot two pieces of 35mm film simultaneously with two separate lenses, one above the other. The two resulting images were projected synchronously onto a single screen for a final view twice the width of a standard 35mm image. [2] By 1927, the Widescope camera had evolved to shoot on a single piece of film using a rotating lens to capture a wide image. [3] Fox purchased the rights to Elms' system and set his engineering division at the Fox Case Corporation the task of creating a viable camera system for widescreen sound-on-film feature production. [4] At the helm of this project was Earl I. Sponable, half of the team responsible for the creation of the Movietone sound-on-film process. Sponable and his team quickly deemed the Elms camera design to be impractical "due to the loss of light in panoramming the lens and the inertia of the moving parts" and abandoned it. [5] A new camera based on the tried and true 35mm Movietone News camera was developed in the shop of the J.M. Wall Company and modified to shoot 70mm film, but this too was deemed unsatisfactory in the end.

In February of 1928, the Mitchell Camera Corporation was commissioned to build a camera based on their popular 35mm Mitchell Standard camera. The resulting camera shot 70mm Grandeur format film, giving the images twice the picture area of a standard 35mm movie and a larger area to record the optical soundtrack. [6] It was this design that Sponable and the Fox Case team settled on for their Fox Grandeur camera, dubbed the Mitchell FC (or Mitchell Fox Camera). [7] William Fox was so convinced of the potential of the Grandeur widescreen system that he paid for all of the research and development himself rather than using studio funds. By the end of 1928, Sponable had a working camera from Mitchell and was ready to film tests before any feature production was begun. Three Grandeur cameras were ordered from Mitchell in late 1928 to begin initial production. [8] Ten more cameras were ordered in June 1929. [9] The Mitchell Camera Corporation records show that the Fox Film Corporation received at least 9 of these proposed 13 cameras before Grandeur production was abandoned in 1931. [10]

In all, our research shows that four feature films and three short subject films were shot with the Grandeur System by the Fox Film Corporation between 1929 and 1931. Most significant of these was Raoul Walsh's 1930 classic film "The Big Trail" which features a young John Wayne in his first starring role. There is strong evidence in our continuing research which indicates that our camera, serial #8, was one of the cameras that shot "The Big Trail." The 70mm Grandeur format was used by other companies in their attempts at wide screen systems as well. Our camera, Mitchell FC #8, was carefully disassembled, all of the parts cleaned and lubricated, and reassembled to make it once again into a working camera. All of the internal working parts of the camera itself have matching serial numbers. However, the L base is marked from camera #1. We were fortunate enough to find the matching matte box with serial #8 in the collection of Martin Hill, and after a long search, a vintage Mitchell FC 75mm Baltar lens was added to the camera. Currently the camera is fitted with a sidefinder from a Mitchell BFC as we have yet to find an original FC sidefinder. The hunt and research into this camera's history continue.


[1] Mayme Ober Park. "Wide Film Makes its Debut Auspiciously at Movie Capital," Daily Boston Globe, March 13, 1930, 29. Accessed December 4, 2012. (ProQuest Historical Newspapers.
[2] John D. Elms. "Demonstration and Description of the Widescope Camera," Transaction of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 14 (1922): 124-129.
[3] John Belton. "Grandeur: A History, 1927-1930," (paper, Rutgers University, 1990), 4.
[4] Earl I. Sponable. "Grandeur Cameras" memo from Sponable to W.C. Michel. June 24, 1932. Earl Sponable Collection, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York City, NY.
[5] Sponable memo to Mitchell.
[6] Grandeur format 70mm film was a 4-pert pulldown process with a frame size of 48mm wide by 22.5mm high. [7] Sponable memo to Mitchell.
[8] Sponable memo to Mitchell.
[9] Purchase Order # A. 4175 from Fox Case Corporation. June 17, 1929. Earl Sponable Collection, Columbia University Rare Book and Manuscript Library, New York City, NY.
[10] Mitchell Camera Corporation shipping ledger. February 24, 1964. Mitchell Camera Corporation.


"The Camera That Filmed Hollywood"