Pulling Down Those Wide Screens --- Part Two
Wide screens would soon enough become the 30’s equivalent of electric cars. To allow them to flourish was to invite chaos and untold expense. Would it matter so much to the public either way? They’d demanded talking pictures, for that was progress whose time had come. Stretched out movies was something else. Harrison’s Reports said it was like trying to watch a three-ring circus. That annoyance is caused to one by the shifting of his head to direct his eyesight to other parts of the screen. Our field of vision had its limits, after all, and besides, said Harrison, a third of the seats in any auditorium would discomfit patrons on extreme sides or those sitting too close to the front. Let the producers give you good pictures on standard size film, and they can keep their wide film. The Motion Picture Academy’s technical branch met in September 1930 with hopes of setting policy for studio members. Sound pioneer Lee de Forest and MGM’s Douglas Shearer suggested 70mm wide negative, with high quality 35mm prints reduced from these. That would save exhibitors the cost of new projectors. It would also enhance film clarity and enable a wider image. Sounds a lot like Vistavision we’d encounter in 1954, only this was full 70mm pre-print and thus superior to Paramount’s later horizontal negative. New screens would be required to get the full effect, but exhibitors disinclined to spend for that could always cheat with alternate lenses and a letterbox effect. Attempts to rebuild existing projectors so as to accommodate both gauges were dismissed as unworkable, despite assurances from some manufacturers that such a thing could be delivered. The determining factor, of course, would be a public’s interest, if any, in wider screens, with all eyes upon Fox and The Big Trail. It was hardly a fair litmus, with only two theatres equipped for Grandeur. Exhibitors playing it in 35mm figured The Big Trail for more of the same old beans, only these were being sold on percentage way out of line with the picture’s modest drawing capacity. By December 17, barely two months into release, Variety was sounding the death knell. Wide Film Is Ruled Out, said the headline, with The Big Trail stamped a failure in both Grandeur and standard release. A troubled Fox Films was bailing out of the revolution. They’d closed shop on wide screen photography within the newsreel division, once thought a sure thing for capturing our collective imaginations. Babe Ruth and marching bands would henceforth do without Grandeur. The Academy clamped further down on wide projection. Companies would be limited to twelve playdates for any feature unspooled in large gauge. Wide play beyond said limits was adjudged too disruptive for an industry frankly doubtful of its prospects. The Big Trail finished with $945,000 in domestic rentals against the 1.7 million spent. There was $242,000 in foreign rentals. This sort of money wasn’t bad in itself, but so much more was expected … and needed … to break even. One million dollars would be lost, the company’s worst drubbing thus far in its history and one that wouldn’t be surpassed until the 1945 post-merger debacle of 20th Century Fox’s Wilson.
Accounts of both Raoul Walsh and John Wayne falling upon swords for the failure of The Big Trail are borne out by the wilderness both traveled through much of what was left of the thirties. Wayne took the bruising hardest. They’d made him dress up like Buffalo Bill for publicity junkets and walk through hotel lobbies as folks pointed and laughed. Second guessers chided Fox for failing to use real stars in The Big Trail. Why not Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor as pioneering lovebirds? Casting had been a long shot, for Wayne and leading lady Marguerite Churchill (shown here in a pleasing precode alternative to severe frontier costumes she wore in The Big Trail) were at best unknowns and clearly learning on the job. Some critics recognized El Brendel as singular highlight in an otherwise dreary pageant (and look at his favored billing on the marquee below!). Were 1930 sensibilities so perverse as to delegate this mincing oddity as leading apostle of all things comedic? Evidently so, for he enjoyed a vogue brief but incandescent. The ad shown here dates from that mystifying apex of Brendel-mania, and do note he’s front and center with full résumé of rib-ticklers that presumably convulsed Depression audiences. Well, who’s to account for tastes indulged seventy-eight years ago? Raoul Walsh should have got bushels of recognition for heroic efforts he made getting The Big Trail completed. Proper credit might have come, if belatedly, had not the film disappeared so utterly. There was never a reissue. Stock footage of the indian attack and other highlights were sold to Republic for serials and westerns. Historian Conrad Lane told me he saw portions turn up in Fox’s Brigham Young (1940). Bill Everson recalled a revival in Germany of their foreign language version shortly after World War Two. When Fox made its library available for non-theatrical rental through Films Inc. in 1948, The Big Trail wasn’t included, nor was it made available through lessor National Telefilm when that distributor began packaging old Fox titles for syndicated television in 1956. It was archivist/producer Alex Gordon who rescued the 35mm version of The Big Trail in the early seventies. Much of vintage Fox would not survive but for Alex. His accumulated work made up the Golden Century package that was syndicated in September 1971. The Big Trail finally had its television debut (albeit on a very few stations that bought the group) along with fifty other titles, forty-two designated as "first run" by virtue of having been essentially lost for the last forty years. By remarkable chance, the 70mm negative of The Big Trail had survived and was donated by Fox to The Museum Of Modern Art. MOMA made a 35mm anamorphic print from that negative and played it before an audience in November 1985. Ronald Haver wrote about this in the May 1986 issue of American Film magazine. The 35mm print, and the DVD made from it, are a revelation for modern viewers, but they are not Grandeur as 1930 patrons experienced it. Possibilities of true 70mm projection of The Big Trail are probably lost to us now, as there’s no information available with regards the condition of that large format negative. Has it deteriorated beyond hopes of generating one more true Grandeur print?
Those Academy limits on large gauge runs foreclosed possibilities of selling 70mm to a nationwide audience. Outside of newspaper ads for cities running wide features, there was little press or publicity for the new processes. Companies shooting wide had no guarantee of an audience beyond insiders and those rounded up for test previews. Exhibiting in big format became an unwelcome afterthought for producers once confident of new eras they’d usher in. Most features shot in 70mm would end up shown in 35mm. MGM launched Realife with Billy The Kid, opening the same month (October 1930) as rival The Big Trail. King Vidor directed the western with John Mack Brown in the title role. Like all wide features, it was also shot in a standard 35mm version. Metro’s Detroit premiere trumpeted Realife as vanguard for The Most Amazing Invention Since Talking Pictures (see ad here). Who better than the father of film, Thomas A. Edison, to endorse their achievement? No famous personality is too great to be tied in with a local campaign, said management at the Paramount Theatre, adding that Edison was the logical choice to dignify such an important event. Knowing he rarely slept, they dispatched an invite to Edison by midnight telegram so as to avoid secretarial intervention. To everyone’s astonishment, he played ball. Hosannas went up when the inventor tapped the key in his West Orange, New Jersey laboratory, closing the circuit that started projection rolling on Billy The Kid --- Realife via remote control by the man who’d given us movies. There is question as to whether Billy The Kid was ever shown in 70mm. Modern sources say wide prints on 35mm were reduced from the larger negative, in accordance with those recommendations made by MGM’s Douglas Shearer when the matter was before the Academy. Billy The Kid had a negative cost of $605,000, far less than The Big Trail, but domestic rentals were less as well, stalling at $709,000. With foreign rentals at just $131,000, the picture ended up losing $119,000. A 1988 book, Widescreen Movies, claimed 70mm prints of Billy The Kid were still extant (the 35mm version is shown from time to time on TCM). I checked with a Warners source and was told of a glimmer of hope for the film’s survival in 70mm, and that the situation was being explored. Let’s hope those efforts bear fruit!
Paramount and Universal experimented with wide photography, but never committed to features in the format. There would be more wide openings during the remaining months of 1930. United Artists’ The Bat Whispers was a spooky thriller shot mostly indoors by director Roland West. Elements from this survived best of all the wide shows, with the 65mm negative yielding 35mm anamorphic prints via UCLA’s preservation facility. A Milestone DVD containing both the wide and standard frame versions (that disc needs anamorphic remastering for maximum effect) is also available. The Bat Whispers was shot in the Magnifilm process, and had a negative cost of $467,000. It earned domestic rentals of $561,000. Chicago’s State-Lake Theatre hosted the premiere of RKO’s Danger Lights, which was shown in Natural Vision on a forty-six by twenty-six foot screen (ad shown here). As with some of the previous wide shows, there were promises of stereo effect. The World Sees For The First Time Pictures That Show Not Alone Height and Width, But Also Depth. Patron skepticism obliged State-Lake management to modify its definition of Natural Vision --- Danger Lights would merely be quasi-stereoscopic. The November 15 program began with a short comedy on standard 35mm, followed by the opening of curtains to reveal the full expanse for 65mm projection. Another scenic of Niagara Falls (this one green-tinted) got the requisite applause, but an air pressure system had to be added to projectors when heat caused buckling of the wide film. Like The Big Trail, Danger Lights would play but one other large gauge venue before finishing up on standard 35mm. Warner’s Vitascope run of The Lash in late December 1930 would lower the curtain on wide screens. Again there were two bookings in 65mm with the rest standard. The Lash would lose $210,000 (notice how most of these things took a financial beating?). Industry edict handed down that month forbade continued exploration of large screen formats. They had amounted to more headache, expense, and upheaval than an already stressed industry could manage. Best to shut it down and move on. Wide screens would return in the fifties, and even some of the original equipment was put back to use, albeit in support of newly named systems. This time, exhibitors (desperate) and public (fascinated) were ready. You’d not need new projectors to run Cinemascope and Vistavision. 70mm found a congenial home in roadshow palaces with size and seats to justify installation of new equipment. The promise of Grandeur and the rest had seemingly been fulfilled at last, even if most of what had been shot wide in 1929-30 was now lost. Of the little we still have, The Big Trail is most accessible, thanks to Fox’s outstanding DVD, still a startling and impressive show even on our modest home approximations of Grandeur.