New DVDs 5-13-2008

Out this week and reviewed in the New York Times, a most welcome double-disc edition of Raoul Walsh’s ever-astounding “The Big Trail,” the 70-millimeter Western from 1930 in which Walsh effectively invents the widescreen aesthetic, all at once and all by himself. Had “The Big Trail” been a success, it would have changed the course of film history; flop that it was, it changed only the course of Walsh’s career, who from this point forward incorporates all the discoveries he made on this movie into the grain of his mise-en-scene — in particular, the constant background motion that suggests a world that not only extends beyond the edges of the frame but seems independent of and indifferent to the fiction in the foreground. This very nice transfer from Fox is taken from the Museum of Modern Art’s 35-millimeter restoration of 1985, and while the DVD obviously can’t compare to the experience of seeing “The Big Trail” on a big screen, it at least hints at the extraordinary qualities of this exceptional film.

And Universal has released a couple of Mitchell Leisen’s carefully polished comedies: “Easy Living” (1937), from a script by Preston Sturges, and “Midnight,” from a script by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett. The transfers in both cases will strike the discerning souls who visit this space as excessively grainy, but it’s always a cause for celebration when NBC-Universal chooses to release any of the 700 vintage Paramount titles under its corporate control.

47 comments to New DVDs 5-13-2008

  • Glad to hear of all these reissues: don’t know the Walsh but love the Leisen. I’d hoped when I opened up the page, though, that they would have seen fit to rerelease Remember the Night too, another remarkable Sturges/Leisen film…. it hurts every time Xmas comes around & I can’t get hold of a DVD of this one.

  • david hare

    dave, I was interested to see you pick up on the tricky element of “prostitution” and sexual commerce that dogs some of Wilder’s more caustic screenplays (esp Kiss me Stupid.) I think this simply demonstrates even more remarkably how much Leisen made the picture his own. He doesn’t merely “soften” the tartness of the dialogue, but I think his gives the performers enormous attention and affection to nurture the readings and delivery, thus he’s able to meticulously play with tone – from light to dark, agitated to dreamy, etc – flawlessly, and in this respect he’s a companion to Lubitsch, although I am coming to think Leisen delivers far more consistently on tonal inflections and modulations than Lube. The other point, getting back to the sexual commerce aspect is that quite apart from Wilder, the whole business of the “working girl” getting the hell out of the lowlife arises in film after film of Leisen’s, from the terrific, beautifully handled Hands Across the Table with Lombard’s manicurist, and her damning speech about the degradation of poverty, through Easy Living to Midnight. His own take on this is far more accomodating to empathy than Wilders, as he is with his characters generally, I feel.

    And of course he adds the signature dreaminess to Sturges’ wonderful screenplay for Easy Living with the two stars inhabiting a universe of suspended time and Paramount luxury (with assistance from Charles Lang and Travis Banton) at the Hotel Louis.

  • Mike G

    What I think is one of the most interesting things about Easy Living is that, for all Sturges apparently hated Leisen, he seems to have a learned a lot about directing from him– Easy Living has the FEEL of Sturges’ own comedies far more than any other Sturges screenplay directed by someone else I’ve seen. It’s hard to really pinpoint examples, although that reverie as Arthur moves through the endless apartment, rooms opening up one after the other, has an obvious parallel in the scene in The Palm Beach Story where the Wienie King is unknowingly chasing Colbert through the apartment she’s been evicted from. But Leisen seems to time gags, to add a note of sadness to the end of bright lines, and so on in ways very similar to the way Sturges would come to direct his own screenplays. Maybe one of the things Sturges didn’t like about Leisen was that he showed him how much a director really brought to what was on the page…

    Switching to widescreen– I agree with the point about Walsh’s staging in The Big Trail, long takes of shots full of interacting people, strangely anticipating later widescreen films; you mention Playtime, I would throw out M*A*S*H or Popeye as well. I wonder if there’s any parallel in that time? The only other widescreen film from that brief period I’ve seen (not counting Napoleon) is The Bat Whispers, and it’s more a matter of a few brief shots of bravura camera movement (anticipating Wavelength and The Shining more than Altman, perhaps). Otherwise West didn’t really seem to use the widescreen very artfully in that film’s painfully static dialogue sequences. Has anyone seen any others? I know there’s Cooper and Schoedsack’s Rango (but I think that was just blowups of 35mm footage anyway), the 1930 Kismet is lost (and coming from the stage, it too might be inclined to go for long takes of a full “stage” of characters)– what else is there?

  • Herman Scobie

    Always amused/depressed when the popular press brings up the glory year of 1939 without mentioning Midnight, easily the best of that year’s films for me, with Ninotchka second. Changed my negative view (pre-comeback) of Ameche. Leisen is indeed much underrated. In addition to the Leisen titles mentioned here and there following the release of these DVDs, Take a Letter, Darling deserves some attention, though its DVD release would lead to the inevitable “Sexual Politics in the Films of Mitchell Leisen”–not that there’s anything wrong with that.

    Speaking of the popular press, EW gave Big Trail a C+ and called it hokey. Alas, this world we live in.

  • Griif

    King Vidor shot his 1930 BILLY THE KID (with Johnny Mack Brown) in both 70mm and 35mm. I’ve seen the 35mm version. I wonder whether the widescreen version still exists.

  • wwolfe

    I was very lucky to take a class from the great William K. Everson on the films of Raoul Walsh. One week, the featured film was “The Big Trail,” a copy of which was one of the many rarities rescued from the dumpster by Professor Everson back in his days of working for the studios. What a wonderful movie it was – one of those rare movies that made me feel as though someone had transported a movie camera back to the 1800s to film what I was watching. I’m very happy to be able to add this to my collection.

  • Even in the 35-millimeter version of “Billy the Kid” there are some stunningly composed long shots — tiny figures isolated on the plain — that suggest Vidor may have been energized by the new format as well as Walsh. That would be something to see, wouldn’t it?

  • Professor Echo

    Speaking of westerns (he says as he segues off topic)….

    From the boulevards of Walsh to the back alleys of Edward L. Cahn, Dave I was wondering if you managed to catch the Cahn/James Brown western trilogy from 1960-61 that has been airing on The Westerns Channel?

    Cahn may be the poor man’s Allan Dwan or, if you will, the destitute man’s John Huston, but I always find something to like in his films, at least on some level. It’s amazing to think that he made 11 independent theatrical films in 1961, most released through United Artists, but never ones that will play during any UA retrospective. That’s kind of a shame because the studio thrived on such indies in the 50’s-early 60’s. I admit that his films from that period were not much more than big screen tv movies or episodes, but still they must have played somewhere on the back end of a drive-in double feature.

  • Blake Lucas

    Although it was not in 70mm, Cahn’s LAW AND ORDER (1932), his first film, was a dramatically riveting and visually inventive film, comparing well to the early 30s Walsh and Vidor films already discussed. I’m not suggesting Cahn compares to them even remotely in the larger picture, but if anyone gets the opportunity they should really see this (written, btw, by the sometimes destitute all-on-his-own John Huston and starring his father Walter Huston).

    I watched one of the Cahn films you mentioned several months ago, GUN STREET, and honestly for me it was quite a comedown thirty yeas later. In theory, I support the threadbare aesthetics, tendency to more reflection than action (and unusually subdued climax), hoped for thoughtful character study with the most minimal means. But the mise-en-scene just seemed too slow and tired, and James Brown, though a capable actor, seemed strained by the dialogue-heavy role as the hero he had to play. That said, I do mean to catch up with the other two.

  • nicolas saada

    I saw the MOMA print of the Big Trail in 1995, at the Cinémathèque: it was the opening of a huge Fox series that lasted nearly three months. I wonder if Mr Mike G’s feeling regarding the similarities between Big Trail and the Altman films comes from the use of very long lenses by Walsh, which strengthens the documentary approach of the film.

    For mr Hare: I’m glad to read your text on Leisen. I am myself more of a Preston Sturges/Mitchell Leisen than a Wilder fan. I love Wilder films, especially the darker ones, but nothing can really match Lady Eve or Arise my love.
    I’ve always been fascinated by the dry edge of the thirties, and there is a series of films made in Hollywood during the period that still need to be matches: Dodsworth (Wyler, thanks to Kent Jones for showing me this masterpiece), Man’s Castle (Borzage), Beast of the City (Brabin), Only yesterday (Stahl), The Last Flight (Dieterle), Love Affair (Mc Carey), Midnight, The Bowery (Walsh), You Only live once, Trouble in Paradise,The Bitter tea of General Yen (Capra), Come and get it (Wyler/hawks), Steamboat round the bend (Ford)…
    Regarding westerns, I watched “Canyon Passage” this morning and it’s certainly one of Tourneur’s most impressive work.

  • Herman Scobie

    As a geezer, I was able to see several of Cahn’s films when they were new. Though too young to grasp mise-en-scene, I remember being impressed by the visual style of Dragstrip Girl and Motorcycle Gang. On another level entirely, Shake, Rattle & Rock (available on DVD as part of the Arkoff Film Library) is worth seeing for the scenes in which rock and roll is essentially placed on trial, with the prosecutor showing scenes of Afrian tribesmen dancing to suggest the primitive nature of rock and Sterling Holloway, for the defense, bewildering the judge with an example of jive talk. All that and Fats Domino and Big Joe Turner in their prime.

  • Speaking of films that influenced other films, there is Cahn’s “It! The Terror from Beyond Space,” which is not only the best of the Cahn film that I’ve seen (even better than “Invasion of the Saucer Men”) but an obvious source for “Alien.” What a strange career he had, beginning as Paul Fejos’s editor at Universal (“The Last Performance,” “Broadway”), then a couple of A pictures (including “Law and Order”), then a mysterious banishment to Poverty Row, before creeping back to the majors via shorts for MGM and ending up at AIP after the war. I know the horror films better than the westerns (“The She-Creature,” “Voodoo Woman”) and haven’t been knocked out by them, but I’ll keep an eye out for his stuff on Encore Westerns — still the happiest hunting ground in cable for me.

  • Brian Dauth

    Leisen said that people were neither all good nor all bad. Part of the beauty of his films is the aesthetic ease and sophistication with which he explores this understanding of the world. Even the anguish of his noir masterpiece NO MAN OF HER OWN or the melodrama of TO EACH HIS OWN (a woman’s picture to end all women’s pictures) is limned with an unforced richness more usually associated with high comedy (just as his high comedies have clouds of darkness that are never completely dispelled, but exist as harbingers of storms to come).

    His lighting is always expressive (star flattering, of course, but not in the homogenizing way of so many directors). Dave alerted me to another vital ingredient of Leisen’s mise en scene when he noted the “spatial coherence and conviction” of his spaces.

    The resulting matrix of well-articulated spaces and nuanced lighting/set design creates an environment where Leisen’s performers can bring forth the performances and gestures (both physical and vocal) that help define the Leisen touch. That he would re-write and alter scripts is no surprise. Leisen wanted a film’s words and actions to be a seemless part of the whole he was creating. The breakfast scene in MIDNIGHT immediately comes to mind as a perfect example of Leisen at his sublime best. Like all great auteurs, he presents viewers with a world both fully understood and fully felt — as distinctive as that of Hitchcock or Hawks.

    As for Leisen vis a vis Lubitsch: it is a matter of Menominee, Michigan versus Berlin, Germany.

  • Professor Echo

    Blake, I agree with you about LAW AND ORDER, a superb film in all respects, beautifully executed with a flowering confidence that would eventually prove more and more elusive as Cahn’s career fell from grace. Still though, as Dave points out with IT, he was often capable of interesting touches above and beyond the financial and generic limitations of the productions.

    I rather liked GUN STREET, if only because of the hard edge James Brown’s sheriff harbored as he pursued the escaped con. He barely, reluctantly protects a weak man who was a key witness in putting the con behind bars simply because of his obvious disdain for the man having collected the reward on the outlaw. He stands by and even stops his deputy from interfering while a man beats his wife, hoping the violent measure will yield a clue to the escaped con’s whereabouts. And unlike Gary Cooper in HIGH NOON who bemoans the community indifference to his plight, this Sheriff wants no help and seems to have nothing but contempt for the townspeople. He has a bitter, cynical outlook on the law itself that would do Dirty Harry proud. Such shades of gray in characterization were rare in what were essentially programmers.

    Herman, I can understand the Rock ‘n Roll pictures playing in some neighborhood and suburban shows, but do you have any memory of where these westerns might have played? It’s always hard for me to reconcile films of this modest caliber being exhibited at the same time as something like PSYCHO or THE APARTMENT, seeming so anachronistic by comparison. Even more curious to me are the mid to late 60’s American westerns like the ones starring Audie Murphy or Stewart Granger. Were any of these released in major metropolitan theaters or were they mainly double/triple feature rural drive-in fare? We get so inundated with all the pivotal titles from that era that it’s easy to overlook some of the good old genre pictures that were still being done.

  • “Herman, I can understand the Rock ‘n Roll pictures playing in some neighborhood and suburban shows, but do you have any memory of where these westerns might have played?… Were any of these released in major metropolitan theaters or were they mainly double/triple feature rural drive-in fare?”

    Greenbriar Picture Shows has posted about this a lot, and Everson talked about it too– even when westerns were very out of fashion in the big cities, there was always demand from rural areas, especially theaters that showed westerns week after week (and probably had patrons who showed up without even bothering to look at what the actual titles were). It took TV to finally kill them off.

  • Bruce Lawton

    A maddening aspect regarding the preservation and viewability of the widescreen version of THE BIG TRAIL is that the man responsible for actually saving this film has, for the most part, not been acknowledged – a sin which appears to have been carried over to the extras on the DVD.

    About 25 or more years ago – The Museum of Modern Art – which housed the 65mm nitrate camera negative for THE BIG TRAIL – wanted to preserve the film, but found that the negative was way too shrunken and fragile to be copied and that no film lab would touch it. So they went to Karl Malkames – an accomplished cinematographer – and at that time a leading specialist and pioneer in actual film reproduction, restortation and preservation. Malkames was known to be a “problem solver” when it came to early odd gauge format films in desperate need of attention and tender loving care. He immediately set about designing and building a special printer to handle the careful frame by frame reproduction of the negative to a 35mm anamorphic fine grain master (the printer itself copied at a speed of one frame a second!) This was a painstaking undertaking which Malkames oversaw himself from start to finish. The entire project took him a year to complete. It is solely because of him that this film survives in this version. Malkames – who just turned a spry 82 – still resides in Scarsdale, New York (where he accomplished this and the saving of countless other films). It is a shame (and a truly a missed opportunity) that Fox did not interview the man responsible for saving their landmark production for posterity – which would have made quite a valuable and fascinating DVD extra.

  • Thanks, Bruce, for the information regarding Mr. Malkames. His is an amazing accomplishment and should have been acknowledged as such. Did he work on the MOMA “Bat Whispers” as well?

  • The Best Cahn films seen here are:
    Emergency Call (1933)
    Bad Guy (1937)
    Destination Murder (1950)
    Experiment Alcatraz (1950)
    You Need to Run Fast (1961)
    These are all crime thrillers, often about ordinary people trying to cope with evil gangsters. Cahn’s films seem unusually personal, for such low budget material.
    He likes displays of technology, such as the Bad Guy scenes of electrical arcs shooting from one terminal to another.
    Cahn often shot frontally, with geometric regions in the walls behind.

  • jbryant

    Seems like any time I tune into Encore Westerns for a widescreen film, they’re showing it pan-and-scan. Am I mistaken?

  • Alex Hicks

    Pretty good 50% off sale at amazon.com (e.g. , GRAPES OF WRATH or DAISEY KEYNON FOR $7.49).

  • Professor Echo

    Mike G, thank you for the time capsule answer to my question about where these Cahn westerns and the like would have played back in the day. Fascinating to think about that old world still hanging on as “going to the show” while the art of “cinema” was beginning to ivy. And I can’t think of any other genre that would inspire that kind of blind faith and loyalty like the western. It’s sad to think of its eventual fade throughout the 60’s up to the present and one must wonder if perhaps is related in some respects to the emergence of urban cinephiling?

    Yes, jbryant, sadly the Encore Westerns Channel believes its key demographic to be older men who can’t or won’t accept this newfangled idea of letterboxing. Fortunately most of their collection is old enough to predate both the aspect ratios of 2:35 and 1:85, but not all and it is a shame to see them so doggedly resisting the inevitable acceptance of widescreen television.

  • seanflynn

    JBryant

    Encore Westerns does show nearly everyting full screen. I’ve noticed a couple of exceptions – the restoration of Major Dundee was one – but they have definitely been a lagging outlet to adapt to proper framing.

    Their demographic is older (I would assume possibly averaging over 60), and that audience hasn’t had as much of the DVD/video corrected aspect ratio education a younger one has.

    BTW – why does no one ever notice the reverse bad framing going on? Nearly everyone with a convertible TV aspect ratio watches everything elongated, and even worse, whenever you see a clip of an Academy ratio film on TV or even in a theatre from before 1953, it is also wider than it should be.

  • Yeah, that’s why I dumped Encore Westerns once I’d recorded all the worthwhile TV shows they were cycling through — my cable company was charging a fortune to add it, and the films I was most interested in seeing were ’50s titles that should’ve been 1.85:1 instead of open-matte or pan & scan. An exasperating near miss.

    Along those lines, a minor slap on the wrist for the TCM/Sony deal … the whole thing has been a godsend and the majority of the Columbia titles they licensed have been in the right aspect ratio, but why is it that any time one comes along that I REALLY care about (like Tourneur’s “Nightfall”), all they got was an open-matte master?

  • seanflynn

    Steven –

    Are you sure Nightfall wasn’t released as an Academy ratio film?

    1) It was not common, but many studio films continued this though the late 1950s;
    2) IMDb (correct more often than not, although there are numerous mistakes) lists it as 1.37×1;
    3) I just scanned it, and although it is borderline, it looks possible that is the correct ratio;
    4) TCM for the most part, particularly for more important (for us) titles has managed to get proper ratios for most of the Columbia titles (although there has been a higher percentage of full screen ones than their MGM titles).

    I certainly bow to someone with more definitive information, but it seems initially that Nightfall may never have been intended for widescreen (as 1.85×1 then was called) presentation.

  • I wouldn’t recommend Encore Westerns for anything after 1953, but at the moment, they seem to be the only licensee of the Republic library (now under Paramount’s administration, and completely neglected) and the early 50s Universal — so if you’re interested in Allan Dwan, George Sherman, Lew Landers, Phil Ford, Joe Kane, William Witney, Budd Boetticher, Phil Karlson, etc., you’ll find quite a lot to see.

  • Interesting that in the “Big Trail” extra features the experts go to such pains to make the case that Walsh belongs in the same league with John Ford. The evidence is there on the film, in any case.

  • Professor Echo

    I saw NIGHTFALL in a new 35mm print at the L.A. County Museum Of Art during their Burnett Guffey tribute last year. They know their aspect ratios and I could swear it was screened it 1:85, but don’t bet essential car parts on my ever disintegrating memory.

  • Professor Echo

    Oh and Stephen Bowie, if you’re interested in vintage TV western series, Encore Westerns is on tap to begin showing MAVERICK, LAWMAN, CHEYENNE and HOW THE WEST WAS WON within the next year or so. MAVERICK starts on July 4.

  • The credits of “Nightfall” were clearly composed for 1.85:1 and the compositions look remarkably inelegant in Academy ratio; it’s obsessive but I may actually have to mask off the TV before I sit down to savor that one. I wish I could convince myself the 1.33:1 was right but unlike, say, Alfred L. Werker’s “The Young Don’t Cry” (another 1.33 Columbia xfer I watched last night), when you’re watching Tourneur it’s pretty easy to tell when something doesn’t look right.

  • Richard von Busack

    Mr. Kehr, I’m so glad to read that you were knocked out by The Big Trail, too. I wanted to link to my review of The Big Trail, especially since I disagree that Wayne couldn’t command the big screen in 1930. It’s just a vastly different movie in 35mm than it is in 70, and I suspect that the reason why it flopped was that few outside of the biggest cities got to see it in widescreen.
    Anyway:
    http://www.metroactive.com/metro/05.14.08/dvd-johnwayne-0820.html

  • Blake Lucas

    Re NIGHTFALL and several people who have weighed in, Professor Echo saw a new print in 1.85 at LACMA in Guffey series. In 1984, I saw an older print (original?) at the same place, also shown in 1.85, and I agree that is correct. It seemed to look most ideal this way, and I had seen it full frame before on TV and in 16 more than once.

    But that does not settle this issue with regard to this mid-to-late 50s period, because the question is complicated, and though IMDb tries to be conscientious, they can only rely on sources which might themselves be wrong.

    Once the wider ratio came into play, Academy ratio was still the ratio in which most films were composed (if not in ‘Scope, but with directors and cinematographers allowing they would likely be shown in 1.85 aspect ratio and probably mostly composing the shots with this in mind. But not always maybe, and I’ve seen three
    Douglas Sirk films debated along these lines (All That Heaven Allows, There’s Always Tomorrow, and
    Written on the Wind) before, with other attentive film critics taking the side of full frame. I’m certain this is right in this cases, even though the films do “play” in 1.85. I also have some memory of first-run in this period, and sometimes an initial engagement would be very conscientious if Academy ratio was desired, while the same film would be in a wider ratio when it went to a neighborhood theatre. I remember this with both Written on the Wind and Touch of Evil, for example, which I went back to–it was confusing to a young person not at all conversant with the subtleties of aspect ratios to see these different presentations of the same film. It’s well-known that Orson Welles said Touch of Evil was composed for 1.33; this is something I didn’t actually read myself so am passing it along second-hand and not as something definitive, but my experience of the film confirms at least that he felt this was ideal. The 1.85 ratio crowds the images too oppressively, not allowing us the distance to appreciate the ways that they really are oppressive, while 1.33 fills exteriors a total blackness in the night sky looming over the characters but without in any way depriving their interaction of the dynamic staging that Welles as director provided. Not enjoying the 1998 recut (in 1.85 as everyone knows), I recently wanted to get back to this film and threw on my old VHS of the 70s cut–full frame and harkned back to my earliest memories of the film.

    Nothing I’ve said above is absolutely definitive, even about NIGHTFALL, though I’m speaking with the same moral certainty as a few others here about that title. But this just can’t be considered a settled issue, without a lot more research that may not even be possible to do. But I note that some people lean to generally arguing for full frame 1.33 and others for 1.85. Definitive for any film would be the word of the director and/or cinematographer, as we had with SEVEN MEN FROM NOW restoration, when Budd Boetticher insisted to both me and Bob Gitt that 1.85 was definitely correct.

  • Blake Lucas

    I meant to add this above:

    The period we are talking about is essentially something like 5-6 years, maybe a little more, before non-anamorphic films were hard-matted for
    the wider ratio (which applies to Imitation of Life, for example, as opposed to the three Sirk films named above, all made by the same studio).

    Does that not sound so serious? On the contrary, when one considers all the really strong and in many cases great films involved, that were made
    in these years (say 1954-1960), this is really no small question. And it deserves more attention.

    Looking over above, I saw a few unintended typos but hope everything was clear–if not, I will be glad to clarify. Sorry for the haste.

  • Blake Lucas

    Just like to add another word of defense for the Western Channel:

    It is indeed disappointing that they show most movies full frame—and no one here is going to watch anamorphic films like RIDE LONESOME or THE MAN FROM LARAMIE (which they have shown) on this channel until they (hopefully someday) change that policy. But for me, that’s really about the only thing I can say against it.

    So let me add a few things FOR it in addition to what’s been said.

    1) They don’t arbitrarily limit their definition of Westerns, and even given my own preferences, I think it’s for the good that mature Westerns of classical cinema, both A and B movies, share the station with later revisionist works–even very recent, outré ones–Italian and other foreign Westerns, contemporary stories set in the West, series Westerns ranging from 30s to 50s, and the many, many TV shows, a good many well-worth watching and with major directors involved. I do wish they’d show silents too—I believe they have shown a few if I’m not mistaken.

    2) There is an interrelationship between these various kinds of Westerns that the constant shifting between them makes one more deeply care about and appreciate. Something I’ve come to appreciate more and more over the years is that the great Westerns owe something to all the traditions that spawned them—series Westerns can seem pretty humble (and I probably haven’t spent nearly the time I should with them), but they can be given real artistry in realization, brought in iconography and dramatic motifs which can enjoy play in more sophisticated Westerns, and even what can seem a simplicity with regard to stories and characters has an important place in the genre in providing something to contrast or react to, as for example complicating one’s impression of “good guys” and “bad guys” or doubling these figures, as in BEND OF THE RIVER (just for one obvious example)—you have to have something to start with to do these things. Also, series Westerns go back to the genre’s earliest days and play a part in the careers of a number of major directors—even John Ford started this way, with Harry Carey films of which too few survive (and those few are precious).

    3) I thought Dave was a little stringent with his “to 1953” endorsement, though agree with the gist of what he said and share his interest in all those directors and others too. Later 50s Westerns that perhaps should be 1.85 (see my previous post in this thread) but are shown full frame are passable here, as opposed to ‘Scope films. These include the Edward L. Cahn Westerns that have been discussed from early 1960s, and many other interesting films as well that will “play” full frame. If you haven’t seen Gerd Oswald’s THE BRASS LEGEND and FURY AT SHOWDOWN, for example, the Western Channel has shown both of these, and I don’t know where else they are available right now—the second of these especially is a stylistic tour-de-force that no genre aficionado will want to miss.

    4) Finally, for the Western Channel I’d like to offer this word—“therapy.” In the month that the appalling 3:10 TO YUMA remake came out last year, the Western Channel, god bless ‘em, showed the original constantly, so it was easy to get back to it (and getting back to it, believe me, was the only cure). I didn’t watch it there-and 1.85 is ideal I acknowledge, though I’ve enjoyed it full frame on TV more than a few times in the past—as I had my own DVD I intended to throw on some night, and then it turned up at a revival theatre so we wound up seeing it there. But it was great to know they were showing it—to flip on the channel and see even a few frames of it there.

    So, for all these reasons and more, and just on principle, I for one am glad there is a Western Channel, and would never dream of giving it up.

    (hoping this formats OK)

  • david hare

    Blake, your comments about the Universal titles in particular the Sirks and Touch of Evil have been often debated in the pages of a_f_b and elsewhere and as a generalization it seems to me the Welles and definitely the first of the Sirk Ross Hunter melos, Magnificent Obsession are very clearly intended for 1.37. Metty seems to me to light his headroom in great detail, a good example the scene of Wyman. now blind in the hotel room stumbling around on her own which ends with her knocking over the flowerpot. The short sequence in about a dozen shots of varying lengths and begins by lighting the headroom with substantial shadow, then introducing pinshafts of color, until the final shot on the balcony when the entire headroom is illuminated. Obviously the lighting is a key part of the mise en scene and it carries substantial expressive meaning for the sequence. Yet Ive just received and been watching There’s Always Tomorrow (which is copyright 55 but released Feb 56) and Metty and Sirk definitely appear to have designed the compositions for 1.85 (which is the DVD masking) – every aspect of the image, especially the pronounced use of toys and inanimate objects in the corners and head room of the frame look right in 1.85 as do the medium two shots with MacMurray and Stanwyck in the toy showroom – these scenes are all desigend with characteristically Sirkian diagonal horizontal planes of furniture extending beyond the frame, with the action laid out in planar spaces and they all invite the eye to horizontal amplitude rather than vertical. .

    Anyway the long and short of WS vs Acadamy from 53 to 1959 (to take an arbitrary point) is that different studios seem to take different approaches, and at least a film by film analysis is necessary. With respect to Columbia I also recenlty came into some copies of mid fities movies masked to 1.85 (which I had only previosuly seen in 1.37) including Pushover, and Human Desire. While the Lang looks a little cropped in two or three shots it looks generally “right” in that ratio, and Pushover especially seems specifically desisgned for maksing, from the credits to wqhat woiuld have been the inordinately high headroom for 1.37 in two and three shots (in the car for instance.) I get the impression Columbia, as a studio took a fairly singular approach to 1.85 masking for the period, whereas Universal (and Warner) were far less “didactic” and possibly more sensitive to the presumably large number of cinemas which were still not equipped for WS masking until at least 1959.

  • jbryant

    The last time TCM showed Columbia’s Strangers When We Meet, it was widescreen. The previous airing was pan-and-scan. So there’s hope.

    On the other hand, last night they showed Paramount’s The Joker is Wild in pan-and-scan, when the opening credits trumpeted VistaVision.

  • Blake Lucas

    David H.-of course, I’m aware this debate came back several times in a_f_b and you’ll probably recall I participated then too.

    I agree with most of what you say. Of the Sirks, I didn’t include MAGNIFICENT OBSESSION because I know this was definitely shot to 1.37 and shown that way too originally; somebody has gone way off on that one on DVD or something apparently–it’s not an ambiguous case.

    Some ’54 films (and even ’53) were shot Academy ratio but in the wake of ‘Scope, they were sometimes put out in “wide screen” which simply means they were shown that way, not composed that way–a famous example was SHANE. You could see it was composed for 1.37 and its compositions were hurt. No responsible venue shows it wide in the present day. In the case of these films, the answer is usually obvious in this way.

    The ambiguous cases are those that followed, of course, and your description of approaches of the studios addresses this but does not fully answer, as I think you acknowledge. I may not have been as clear before as I might have, but I think you allude to what I consider the main point, which is this: Directors and cinematographers knew that these films might be shown in either of two ways, standard 1.37 or wide 1.85, depending on the theatre. And to some extent, at least in some cases (and often it seems in the cases of the most artistically conscientious filmmakers) the compositions allow for this, even if they might have a preference (I think this is true with the Welles too in fact, which explains why knowledgeable people could make the mistake they did in 1998). Compare a film definitely composed for Academy ratio that is shown “wrong”–I once saw Bunuel’s EL shown in 1.85, and all the heads were chopped off (no, I don’t think this is an extra surreal touch that Bunuel anticipated!)–there’s just no question that it is wrong. But with these ’55-’60 films, you can never say definitively that it’s wrong, because contrary to that presentation of EL, the film will “play”–a word I used before. This was the case with two of the three Sirks I mentioned, that I have seen both ways and they do play both ways, but I believe the aesthetic of the films in question plays best in 1.37, and I base that on seeing them both ways more than once. The one I have only seen in 1.85 is THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW, but I included it with the other two because it was done with the same director and cinematographer and filmed in between ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and WRITTEN ON THE WIND. I saw THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW again just last year, when this issue was on much my mind, and agree it seemed well-composed for 1.85, but before I absolutely agree with you, I’d like to see it the other way.

    To give an example of just how ambiguous this can be even with venues that strive to be conscientious, I saw THE CRIMSON KIMONO (’59, Samuel Fuller) at LACMA seven or eight years ago, shown 1.37. I went back to it at American Cinematheque about a year ago and it was 1.85. The Academy ratio seemed surprisingly comfortable for it (I hadn’t expected it), though I was always used to seeing it the other way.

    I would add that there are a fair number of ’55-’60 films that don’t seem comfortable either way–usually because the characters always too low in the frame with way too much headspace. I don’t assume professional directors and cinematographers didn’t know what they were doing in these cases, but more likely just had it in mind that 1.85 would be the norm and official ratio and acted accordingly.

    I know the studios involved in this discussion and too many different films they made to believe that one answer consistently covers it. It does seem prudent to me to acknowledge this is more complicated than we would like it to be. I’d be curious if you feel otherwise.

  • david hare

    Blake, time is always a problem for ageing memory and it is around 20 years since I last saw There’s Always Tomorrow – then on TV in 1.33. I was impressed with it, but I have to say looking at the new German DVD (and a forthcoming Australian port of this in July) the widescreen masking actually seems strikingly integral to Sirks and Metty’s composition and the whole thrust of their mise en scene. In shot after shot, a great many low angles to ceiling (is this Metty trademark?) with MacMurray constantly confined by the spaces of rooms, just as toys surround the edges of the frame and in points of depth of field like a sort of silent commentary to the drama of constrained domestic and work obligation. (THe ohter fascinating thread in this movie is how much emphasis Sirk places on the professiopal careers of both Stanwycka and MacMurray.) The widescreen here is so striking (especially after all the angst over the three early Hunter/Hudson pictures,) it looks to me like one of your entirely unambiguous cases for WS.

    More generally I wish everyone releasing DVDs would go back to Warner’s early practice of doing dual sided “alternate ” versions of things from 53 to 59 as they did for Pajama Game for instance. This also “plays” well in both formats but the WS comes into its own in the glorious outdoors “This is a Once a Year Day” scene.

  • IA

    Sturges may have also disliked Leisen because he occasionally made unneccesary cuts in his screenplays. Easy Living in particular is minus a minor scene that never-the-less shouldn’t have been cut, and Remember the Night’s climax is damaged by an unnecessary deletion (though Leisen did do right in cutting out several racist jokes). Both of these screenplays have been published in “Three More Screenplays by Preston Sturges.” If there are major differences between Sturges and Leisen, it’s that Sturges’ work has a higher level of vitality, as opposed to Leisen’s polish, though I have to admit that the automat scene in Easy Living is an excellent piece of slapstick direction. If you read “Remember the Night” it comes off as the most achingly, nakedly emotional work of Sturges’s career. Leisen’s movie is excellent, yet it can’t help seeming less intense.

  • Blake Lucas

    The specific things you say about THERE’S ALWAYS TOMORROW, as regards positioning of the toys and the space, are supported by own fairly recent viewing in 1.85, and I recall only one shot right now where a close shot took out a little bit of the top of a head and not ineffectively. The climactic shot of MacMurray looking out the window while Rex walks down the table was VERY effective in WS. But for the reasons I said, I just can’t go with “unambiguous.” Also, on this last occasion–a Stanwyck double feature–it was preceded by “unambiguous” 1.37 ALL I DESIRE from 1953. Though I love both films (TOMORROW even more so), ALL I DESIRE seemed to have even more perfect compositions, in terms of containing tight spatial relationships between characters, especially in interiors, characteristic diagonals, and such things. At the least, I attribute this to Sirk and Metty not having to think in terms of two ratios. One reason they might have been extra sensitive on the realities of presentation was from having to shoot Sirk’s first ‘Scope film SIGN OF THE PAGAN both for two formats, as he talks about in Halliday.

    But I agree strongly with you that the ideal would be the dual sided DVD, and as a matter of fact watched THE PAJAMA GAME only a few months ago, and based on good memories of its 1957 presentation, opted for the letterboxed side which definitely seems right for it.

  • davidhare

    Blake I agree entirely about All I Desire (and also my preference for Tomorrow, although this is in the giddy context of Sirk at his peak. I think the “true” climax of the scene with Fred and Rex is devastatingly beautiful, following as it does several shots of both actors by the rain splattered glass with rivulets of “tears” cast by light and shadow – absolutely sublime images.)

    Germane to this is the German Boxset which is comprised of Desire in Academy, Tomorrow in 1.85 and the Scope Interlude. Sirk in all three formats. All of them flawlessly deployed. And Interlude looks more interesting than I remember it.

  • Tim Bodzioney

    There have been a lot of discussions regarding aspect ratios over on the Classic Horror Film Board. I was stunned to learn how early 1.85 became the norm in the U.S. I remember seeing Pushover projected in 1.85 at The New Beverly in the mid 90’s. At first I was pissed that they were showing the film incorrectly, but it looked great in 1.85. I was stunned when the restoration of Rear Window was shown in 1.85 because the release of 1983 was shown in 1.33. But I was wrong. Bob Furmanek produced at least one studio document from 1954 -55 that lists the intended ratios of films released during that period. Universal was releasing the majority of their movies in widescreen. This is 3 or 4 years before Touch of Evil! Given the fact that Heston had to beg for Welles as director of Touch of Evil, I can’t imagine the studio making an exception for Welles (with regards to aspect ratio) and letting him shoot the movie in 1.37.

  • seanflynn

    Another example of a film shot in the Academy ratio, but then initially exhibited in 1.85×1 is Anthony Mann’s Thunder Bay – apparently Universal decided (because of its color/action scenes/location work) to present it as its first wide-screen film, totally against any relationship to its creators’ visual design. There is actually a post on IMBd’s listing for the film demanding that Universal release the “wide screen” version.

    The most famous case of theatrical revisionism of course is the horrible mid-60s MGM 70mm reissue of Gone With the Wind – which was my initial exposure to that film – which totally obliterated the original, remasking it at the expense of about half the original image.

  • Alex Hicks

    Slumming at imdb I find indications that “To Catch a Thief,” “The Trouble with Harry,” “The Man Who Knew too Much” and “Vertigo” were all shot with 1:50 aspect ratios (or had 1.50 negatives, which might be quite different) but all received at least some release (when not all release) in versions with 1:85 aspect ratios. However -Ben, Blake, seanflynn, etc.– my, rechnical savvy is not remotely up to truly deciphering the evidence.

  • david hare

    Sean they were all Vistavision titles which means they were shot on film horizontally (rather than normal vertically) with a 1.5 anamorphic squeeze. When they were unsqueezed the projected ratio was generally 1.85 (but because very few theatres were equipped with the special projectors to screen the horizontal film, most Vistavision titles were transferred to 35mm reduction prints which were then masked to the studio’s favored ratio – generally 1.85 although the titles could be shown in any masking from 1.66 to 2.00.

  • Alex Hicks

    “Crime Wave”/”Decoy” DVD is a an economical windfall and that “Pitfall” is, indeed, worth a look. De Toth’s Westerns sound like major new DK.com revelations. Thanks.

  • James Layton

    VistaVision did not record images with a 1.5 anamorphic squeeze. The 8-perf horizontal negative image (which was uncompressed) had an aspect ratio of 1.5:1. It was then masked off at different ratios on 35mm release prints.

  • davidhare

    James thanx for the correction. I was cribbing from very faulty memory of Richard Haines book Technicolor Movies which I remembered as quoting the 1.5 squeeze. Given so very few theatres were ever equipped with true Vistvision projectors, and as far as I know there were none in Sydney or Melbourne during the system’s heyday, I’ve never even seem a true Vistvision screening. Only the 35mm reduction prints, like most everyone else.