Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Friday, June 15, 2007

Getting Back Those Wide Screens

Who’d have thought Goldfinger would duplicate so identically the post-credits opening of Lucky Me? Both feature dazzling aerial views of Miami, then resort immediately to studio artifice. James Bond retreats to Pinewood soundstages, Doris Day to Warner’s backlot substitute for Miami sidewalks. Her Superstition Song, recalling Bobby Van’s downtown hop in Small Town Girl and anticipating Gene Kelly’s studio street tour (but at night and on skates) in It’s Always Fair Weather, suffers in comparison to numbers expertly staged at MGM and recipients of money and expertise forever denied Doris Day at economy-minded WB. Worth noting here is both Lucky Me and A Star Is Born being in production at the same time. Star was classified an independent production, though Warners poured resources into Judy Garland’s comeback unheard of since wartime expenditures for musicals far bigger than those they’d made lately. The still shown here is of Doris visiting Judy’s set. She couldn’t have been unmindful of the extended schedule (and budget) accorded A Star Is Born, nor the presence of famed director George Cukor, a technician the star no doubt coveted over Jack Donohue (Lucky Me), David Butler, and other journeymen assigned to her pictures. Day had what she described as a nervous breakdown just prior to Lucky Me. Her slow recovery was rewarded with a script she considered lousy in the extreme. I can’t remember much about the picture, she said in her memoirs, then goes on to detail desperate efforts to avoid being in it. What I didn’t want ... was to get involved in a project for which I had no enthusiasm. Apparently Doris Day did Lucky Me in a kind of stupor. Would that performers today deliver half so well at full strength. Amazing the energy she brings to a project completed in such circumstances. Whereas I was always able to get into a part with effortless vitality, now it was all I could do to get myself up to a performing level. Talk about professional discipline. Instead of whining themselves into rehab, troupers like Day just went and did it. All the more reason to admire a long gone generation of truly committed entertainers. Day’s self-proscribed therapy called for rests between takes in the dressing room and avoidance of interviews. Watching her belt out the numbers in Lucky Me, you’d never guess what an ordeal this was.

Roving vaudevillians were staples of many a thirties and (nostalgia flavored) forties musical, but how long were such archaic figures  among us? Lucky Me proposes they could, as late as 1954, tandem perform with movie shows in theatres like the one supposedly operating on a downtown Miami street. I had a hard time buying that conceit, and was driven to reference shelves for possible dates of vaude’s final fade as support for screen presentations. This New York Times ad is what I found. RKO’s Cool Palace, B’Way’s Only Vaudeville and Screen Show --- dated 1955. With One Desire plus eight big acts, it must have been quite the entertainment bargain for seventy cents, and imagine kicking things off at 10:45 AM. If indeed the Palace was Broadway’s last holdout for live spots between movies, you wonder how much stage action there was in metro theatres otherwise situated. Too many cloistered hours in the Warner writer’s building no doubt led to misconception among scribes far removed from changed reality of exhibition. The Parisian Revue staged by Doris Day and Company smacks of big-time vaudeville from summit years in the teens and twenties. The notion that shows like this were being staged between newsreels among starving urban houses in 1954 places Lucky Me square within a parallel universe.

Cinemascope was the screen novelty that really caught on. Other things thrown up against television wilted quickly. Installation of Cinerama was too expensive to gain wide acceptance, despite smash business in those few venues equipped to play it, and 3-D seemed to define a flash in the pan. You could install Cinemascope in your house without having to hock the place. Our own Allen Theatre was cursed with a building no wider than the old standard screen they’d been using (twenty-seven feet --- I measured it years after the 1962 fire). Owing to a product split, they played all Fox and Warner product. The Robe made the Allen in March of 1954. They resolved the width issue by simply clamping on an anamorphic lens and letting chips fall where they may, resulting in a picture shown as much upon side walls as the screen itself. WB men in the field likely shunned the Allen with its chump change seating capacity, so who's to care if backwoods patrons emerged from that benighted auditorium needing chiropractic attention? Besides, Warners was busy figuring ways to best Fox at widescreen Olympics by ordering up a competing system they could call their own. Time was of essence as 1953 gave way to a new (and for Fox, immensely profitable) year. Lucky Me was rushed out for a late March 1954 opening in Miami, setting for the film, but site of limited second unit lensing, as most of the feature was shot on Burbank home ground (WB having caved to the necessity of licensing Fox's Cinemascope trademark). Stars Robert Cummings, Phil Silvers, and Nancy Walker were guests of the Tri-Florida State Theatres chain, as shown here. Reviews were middling. Warners was relying less on inferior stuff they had in circulation than grandiose projects held in abeyance for future release. Jack Warner hosted a Cinemascope preview reel trumpeting ten forthcoming features (a trade ad for that shown here), almost all utilizing the wide process. A Star Is Born was the crown jewel of these and rough cuts were being sneaked to trade editors by the beginning of March, although the picture wouldn’t see release until September of 1954. By virtue of its March opening, Lucky Me managed to be among those first musicals exhibited in Cinemascope (it beat MGM’s Rose Marie into theatres by days, but was preceded by Fox’s New Faces, which got out a few weeks earlier).

I don’t take for granted that Lucky Me and other Cinemascopes are finally available again after being pretty much lost for the entirety of my lifetime. Warners played it off to surprisingly modest numbers for the remainder of that year. You’d have expected their second Cinemascope release to do better than a final $79,000 in profit. Calamity Jane had scored much higher without the wide process, but it had Secret Love, the kind of smash song hit Lucky Me strived toward, but couldn’t achieve. This was a picture for the moment, and no one anticipated a shelf life beyond tickets sold on strength of a new screen format, and little else. Unlike westerns and actioners, there was little demand for reissues. Newer Doris Days meant newer songs, so why revisit movies with tunes recalled only for having failed to crack the top charts? Lucky Me wound up in the Warner’s syndication dump of 1960 with 122 other post-48 features, many of which would be panned, scanned, and mutilated with commercials --- defying argument that some at least had enduring value. Between general release in 1954 and a largely botched laser disc that sold a few hundred copies in the late eighties, you couldn’t see Lucky Me in scope, let alone with decent color (and inferior Warnercolor used in 1954 remains problematic, even on newly restored disc). Rental prints were "adapted", itself a compromised precursor to letterboxing on TV, except here they cropped substantial information from both sides, with characters spilling off proscribed edges. Films Inc. distributed these in 16mm, and while they did have Cinemascope (and IB Technicolor) prints of many 20th Fox releases (requiring special projection lenses), their 1955-56 catalogue (the relevant page shown here) withheld anamorphic prints of all Warner releases except Mister Roberts and The Silver Chalice. The only way you could rent Lucky Me (at $32.50 per day) and other scope Warner titles was by way of  ersatz "no special lens or screen required" prints. Unwrapping the new DVD, with its stereo tracks restored as well as the frame’s original width, is a revelation and, at long last, a square deal for this modest musical that needs all the help an expanded canvas gives it. I’d like to think the critical reputation of Lucky Me, as well as others like Track Of The Cat, Ring Of Fear, and Land Of The Pharaohs, will be enhanced by proper presentations so long withheld. Early Cinemascope titles have been disadvantaged for too many years. Those of us raised on the husks of these once proud shows can be happy to enjoy them as audiences did when the process was itself the modern miracle of the screen.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I’d like to think the critical reputation of Lucky Me, as well as others like Track Of The Cat, Ring Of Fear, and Land Of The Pharaohs, will be enhanced by proper presentations so long withheld."

Well, I can see the Day (I actually own that LD of LUCKY ME), the Wellman and the Hawks gaining a certain critical respect now that they can be seen in a form close to their original conception... but I'd be quite interested to see the Greenbriar pay a bit of attention to the bizarre, one-of-a-kind RING OF FEAR, a film I saw for the first time last year and can't seem to shake.

Any background and/or insights on this strange, dark, nightmare of a circus picture would be most welcome, Sir.

11:36 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hope you're right, John, that "proper presentations" -- meaning not only first-rate DVD transfers, but home-theater screens and sound systems -- may bring some of those '50s films more respect, if not adulation.

I yield to no one in my admiration for film noir, both as art and as sociology. But I've long suspected that movies like Out of the Past, The Big Heat and Kiss Me Deadly have seen their reputations thrive over the years in large part because they lost so little on 19-inch black-and-white TV sets. Whereas The Robe, say, or even Demetrius and the Gladiators...well, need I elaborate?

Myself, I've always had a compassionate spot for 1956's Around the World in 80 Days. Granted, it didn't deserve the best picture Oscar over Friendly Persuasion, The King and I, Giant or The Ten Commandments. But it's not the inert relic it seemed for so long; we didn't even get a decent letterboxed version of it until two years ago.

9:43 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, your comparison of film noir with Cinemascope was right on the money. Wish I'd thought to make that point in my post!

Griff, I came close to doing a "Ring Of Fear" piece some months back (even to the point of pulling images), so I may yet get around to that very interesting Cinemascope title (... and talk about being lost for years!)

8:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, Great blog! "..whatever they were asking"? Well, "70 cents till noon", anyway (it's there in the poster!), and the curtain probably went up at 11 AM (that was the hour I saw and heard Sarah Vaughan in evening dress at the Chicago Theater in '54 or '55--don't remember the movie).

"Lucky Me" was Angie Dickinson's first movie, and she did a bit with Doris on Doris Day's Best Friends, TV of about 30 years later.

Seeing Julie Adams name in the poster reminds me she was seen in last year's "World Trade Center", but not if you blinked and not if you didn't know beforehand..

2:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I wish that one day you could elaborate more on Warner's / The Movie Industry's treatment of "A Star is Born". I know there have been books written about this film and it has been covered extensively in various Judy bio's but probably not from the industry/exhibitor perspective. You always seem to come up with viewpoints that are based on what was actually happening at the time; in other words -- the actual realities.

I hope I'm making sense. I find it terribly interesting that the mistreated "Lucky Me" actually turned a (small) profit while ASIB tanked despite all of the resources and talent devoted to it. Anyway, thanks again for yet another insightful, informative, interesting blog entry.

10:09 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Films Inc. ad with diagram promoting 16mm "adapted" prints of WB CinemaScope films -- presumably pan-and-scan versions -- made me recall something I'd long forgotten. In the early '70s, Warner Bros. Film Gallery, the studio's 16mm non-theatrical distrib, actually struck some slightly letterboxed non-anamorphic prints of certain WB 'Scope pix.

I remember handling and projecting prints of KLUTE, McCABE & MRS. MILLER and other Warner films that were matted with black bars to some degree -- perhaps 1.9:1 or 2:1. [Definitely wider than 1.85:1, anyhow.] The sides of the 'Scope images were cut off to a degree, of course, and this wasn't completely satisfactory by any reckoning. But as we lacked the capability to run anamorphic prints, I would definitely say these prints seemed far superior to the usual pan-and-scan 16mm prints of 'Scope pix in terms of trying to preserve the look and style of a widescreen picture.

Ever run across any of these?

I would add my agreement to Jim Lane's point about how effectively noirs play on television. It's amazing how well the likes of ACE IN THE HOLE/THE BIG CARNIVAL, SUNSET BOULEVARD and SECONDS work on TV -- and how poorly most big screen extravaganzas play on the box. This is still true to a degree, even with large monitors and improved film transfers. These films were larger than life, and that was always part of their conception -- in my living room, they're still cut down to size. I also share Jim's appreciation of AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS -- sometimes I wonder whether anyone who hasn't seen this in a good-sized theatre can really grasp this one.

7:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correcting my own previous comment here, referring twice to the "poster" for One Desire--which you'd very plainly said was a "NY Times ad".

It even had that information-packed look of a small movie ad from more than 50 years ago.

5:17 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024
  • June 2024
  • July 2024