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.