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Monday, December 20, 2010

Vistavision and White Christmas --- Part One

There was this thing called Vistavision that used to fire me up on Saturday nights even though our television never expanded when Paramount's fanfare began. Enough thrill came of seeing and hearing the mountain trumpet biggies NBC premiered in primetime, a first place I'd see 50's wonder shows like The Desperate Hours, You're Never Too Young, and brightest bauble on holiday viewing trees, White Christmas. That last was a network perennial through much of the sixties and seventies (when did NBC finally let it go?). I'd grow up wondering what Vistavision was like in theatres. Motion Picture High Fidelity --- was this to look at, listen to, or both? Movies glistened on networks thanks to 35mm prints for broadcast, with Vistavision even better because, unlike Cinemascope, televisors didn't have to crop images by near half to squeeze it all in. White Christmas was tradition before It's a Wonderful Life revved back up to supplant Crosby and Company on NBC schedules. Based on ratings always high, you'd assume families watched each year, making WC a sort of yuletide Wizard Of Oz. Revisionism wasn't long coming, though. Heretics wondered aloud what was so good about White Christmas (as did not a few critics in 1954). A recently released Blu-Ray supplied needed rehab. If a thing approaching impact of Vistavision can be modernly had, this am it. Till you've seen this White Christmas, you've not seen White Christmas (unless there's horizontal VV projection in your basement --- in which case, invite me over!).

Paramount had balls rolling on what would become Vistavision and White Christmas in early 1953. There was no label on their process yet, but word was it rivaled Cinemascope for visual sock. Variety mistakenly referred to 70mm passing through experimental cameras, and the Technicolor Corporation was known to have spent several years developing saturation to augment Paramount's new look. Director Michael Curtiz had been shooting beach scenes in various ratios to figure a one best suited for this format to dwarf others. White Christmas was indeed developed over several years. Mid-1952 saw a deal with Irving Berlin for songs and Bing Crosby and Fred Astaire to star, with Ginger Rogers for femme lead. What happened between that and filming's start in September 1953 was Rogers out, also Astaire, then a try for Dan Dailey to replace, aborted as well, followed by Donald O'Connor almost to start date, himself sidelined in hospital. Profits were to be split three-ways between Paramount, Berlin, and Crosby, this adjusted when Danny Kaye replaced O'Connor and took his percentage in addition to a flat fee. As the picture was still in production during December 1953, a Christmas release was out, but there would be advantage of a following year to heat up anticipation for WC and Vistavision.

Ever dream of trekking to Hollywood circa 1954 for a guided peek at big and bigger screen marvels? Independent Film Journal editor Morton Sunshine did in early March, and came back giddy over what he saw. There's valuable context in the report Sunshine filed. Metro hosts took him to Brigadoon's set, previewed A Bride For Seven Brothers (later titled guess what), and demonstrated Perspecta sound. RKO was set on applying a new twist called Superscope that did everything but sing and dance, to Susan Slept Here. Jack Warner sneaked most of A Star Is Born and blew his guest away with Cinemascope'd majesty. Fox afforded glimpse of The Egyptian's stage, which the trade editor predicted would outgross The Robe (not the eventual case). Last stop was Paramount and Vistavision central, where a March 2 conclave for reporters and film execs saw Para's phenomenon for a first time. Company honcho and master of understatement Y. Frank Freeman foresaw the biggest pictures ever screened in any theatre anywhere at any time in history, which as much as anything, looked to put Fox's Cinemascope in the shade. Vistavision wasn't a wider picture, for as Paramount's Barney Balaban averred, height was equally important with width. Vistavision would be a compatible and flexible system, eliminating grain and fuzziness thanks to a negative two and a half times larger than standard 35mm (TIME observed that no matter where the moviegoer sits in the theatre, the picture is always in focus). Said clarity was achieved by passing film horizontally through cameras as opposed to vertically as had been earlier policy, this translating to said jumbo negative that would generate sharper prints for exhibition.

Vistavision should not make it mandatory for the exhibitor to invest large sums of money in new equipment, said Balaban. This was music to ears of showmen still trying to pay off retrofitting for wide screens and stereo. Paramount offered innovation free of added overhead, and unlike Fox, would not impose High-Fidelity sound (a major added expense in addition to new screens and anamorphic lens attachments). Included among a forty minute Vistavision sampling were highlights from several months completed White Christmas, a travelogue on Norway, and portions from The Big Top, a Martin and Lewis feature (later titled Three Ring Circus) then in production. Cecil B. DeMille was in attendance to declare this is it for The Ten Commandments, then in pre-production: I decided on Vistavision as the best medium in which this story should be told. DeMille's endorsement amounted to papal blessing. Industry trade and press hopped aboard with praise, save always against-the-grain Pete Harrison, whose Harrison's Reports had been for over thirty years a relentless truth teller in the face of studio hyper-bowling. Harrison was at the demonstration and smelled rats. He assailed Balaban for having taken digs at Fox, calling the Paramount chief's remarks reprehensible (to disparage a competitor ... certainly does him no honor). Harrison had been a vocal booster of 20th's Cinemascope, which he felt had it all over Vistavision (nothing more than a photographic technique). A sharply defined picture was what Paramount offered, and little more, according to Harrison. To confuse that with anamorphic widescreen was misleading, and in a long run, wouldn't even make that much difference to patrons, who according to Harrison, would scarcely notice the improvement.

So how big a deal was Vistavision? Paramount swore it would deliver the best quality image on the biggest screens, even if not wide ones. The company recommended 1.85 as ideal ratio for projecting Vistavision, adding that it would adjust to screens of conventional size (1.33) as well. Claimed advantage was Vistavision's capacity to accommodate all theatres, something Cinemascope could not do. But this had been pretty much the case with non-anamorphic product for months into 1954, as most distributors were offering films that played adequately from standard 1.33 to the wider 1.85. Film Bulletin found little in Vistavision to compete with Fox's wide screen, for it lacked the exciting panoramic scope of the 20th Century Fox process. They were with Harrison's Reports in suspecting that audiences wouldn't spot differences between VV projection and ordinary 35mm enlarged to 1.85, and likelier less to care. Paramount invited four thousand to an April 24 east coast demonstration at Radio City Music Hall, George Jessel acting as m.c. for a program made up of scenes from White Christmas, a rechristened Three Ring Circus, and Strategic Air Command, along with footage from conventionally photographed 35mm for comparison with Vistavision. Studio reps again hammered Fox by implication with assurance to showmen that they'd not be saddled with big-$ stereo installations when using VV. Theatres could opt for standard optical sound or equipment to play back Perspecta-encoded tracks on Vistavision prints, unlike Fox with its mandatory magnetic tracks (Paramount head Adolph Zukor maintained small theatres didn't need stereophonic sound in any event, except maybe for large musical numbers). Perspecta was a sort of ersatz stereo Fox competitors utilized to open up sound without opening up (to excess) exhibitor wallets. Paramount for its part would spend remaining months of 1954 thumping Vistavision's public debut in October and securing a place for White Christmas on every patron's holiday wish list.


Anonymous Bob said...

I'm an unrepentant Crosby fan -- you could find no greater supporter of Crosby as singer and actor than myself.

That said -- I've always found White Xmas (the film) fairly indigestible. Holiday Inn is such a superior film on almost every level that I never saw the point of WC.

However -- I will check out this new, enhanced version. I'm down for almost anything Crosby.

3:17 PM  
Blogger The Great Bolo said...

It was a WHITE CHRISTMAS at my hometown theatres:

December 24-31, 1954 - CAPITOL Theatre

March 27-31, 1955 - ROCKWELL Theatre

August 21-22, 1955 - SALISBURY DRIVE-IN Theatre

December 18-19, 1955 - CAPITOL Theatre

and the re-release:

December 12-15, 1962 - CAPITOL Theatre

4:04 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I always enjoyed White Christmas on TV, but I never really understood what the big deal about it was, or why it was such a massive hit in 1954 -- until about twelve years ago, when I finally saw a newly-struck VistaVision print (vertically printed and projected) on the huge screen of Sacramento's Crest Theatre. The Technicolor was breathtaking, and the image was amazingly detailed. Maybe a little too detailed: in the "Count Your Blessings" scene you can clearly see the facelift scars behind Bing's ears.

One benefit of VistaVision that I've never seen mentioned is that the process seems to have allowed for the production of truly superior 16mm prints; my prints of Beau James, The Seven Little Foys and The Vagabond King (the latter, while no classic, far from the fiasco its reputation would suggest) are all stunning.

7:29 PM  
Blogger Christopher said...

Vista Vision really does offer the best of both worlds..

1:48 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Is that Cecil B. DeMille in the background at the table in aaaac15?

Neat piece. Thanks.

7:16 AM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

To Jim Lane---

How amazing to have seen Vistavision projected in its original format. I know these screenings are rare. Could you give us more details? I know even in the early 50's only a few big cities had the real Vistavision projectors. The only place I ever saw it was the orientation film at Colonial Williamsburg, STORY OF A PATRIOT, which showed in two purpose-built theatres in the format for about two decades. Recently Robert Harris restored the film and it was re-worked for 70mm. They no longer use the true VistaVision projectors.

8:16 AM  
Blogger Tom Ruegger said...

For me, "White Christmas" was always missing one key ingredient.

Bob Hope.

If he were in it, cracking wise, tossing in jokes that pay off, I suspect this would be the holiday classic we all want it to be.

But Danny Kaye, despite his singing chops, is no Bob Hope.

1:57 PM  
Blogger J. Theakston said...

I guess it should be noted that the early batch of VistaVision printings were fairly soft—Technicolor was still working out their dye mordants and Paramount was using converted Stein two-color cameras from the late '20s to shoot 8-perf.

By comparison, the VV titles printed the next year (around SEVEN LITTLE FOYS on) were at that point where Technicolor had "got it." Sadly, the black and white work was farmed out to a more inferior lab, and those titles never quite looked good on their first printings (compared to say... HELL DRIVERS, which was processed at Rank, and looked great). New re-strikes do look better.

3:18 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm still wondering why Paramount's Late-40s-50s films were on network TV so much longer than other studios'(Prime-Time showings of 50s Martin and Lewis films in 1970, for example).

6:36 PM  
Anonymous Marc said...

I have been trying for years to fully understand what the heck "VistaVision" meant. This has been a good "VV for Dummies" course. I'll say this...VistaVision certainly looks gorgeous my flatscreen HD TV.

I used to grill my great aunts about movies of the 40s and 50s. They knew about every movie star, but damned if they ever knew what VistaVision was, and they had no idea what Cinemascope was either.

For the average American attending their neighborhood movie house every week, I wonder if most people had no idea what it meant either.

And I'm with you Bob...never a fan of WHITE CHRISTMAS. It doesnt even feel like a holiday movie to me, just a middling 50s musical with 10 seconds of snow at the end.

7:32 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

To Jim Cobb: Sorry, I guess I wasn't clear. What I saw was a new print struck (I was told) from the original VistaVision negative, but printed in the standard vertical orientation for projection. The image was razor-sharp, almost three-dimensional in places, and the color saturation was intoxicating (especially the reds, which showed to stunning advantage in the closing musical number). To my knowledge, I've never seen a movie projected in "true VistaVision" (i.e., horizontally) -- although a friend who has remembers that it was very odd to see the occasional line or scratch moving from left to right rather than top to bottom.

11:39 AM  
Anonymous Jim Cobb said...

Thanks Jim Lane---
As someone who is fascinated by the old widescreen processes (and the hype that surrounds them) these posts have been a lot of fun. I guess my other question would be... has anyone ever seen a movie with Perspecta sound? From its description it would seem to be rather lame, but contemporary reports indicate it was more effective than one would imagine.

1:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a kid,I remember just how sharp and clear VistaVision was in my local theatre! I especially remember ARTISTS AND MODELS, HOLLYWOOD OR BUST, and ROCK-A-BYE BABY on that big screen in super-sharp saturated Technicolor!

The new Blu-Ray release is said to be the most gorgeous classic film transfer to date.--I believe it, since my film society ran it in a 1940s-era theatre in my area in December--the image on that huge theatre screen was amazing to behold projected by my commercial grade high-output DLP projector.

Incidentally, Paramount is STILL making lots of money on WHITE CHRISTMAS--most revival houses in my part of the country ran it and the rental is higher than most classics.


7:51 AM  

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