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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

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 wanted 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 close 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 had 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 (note 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 mystifying apex of Brendel-mania, him front and center with full résumé of rib-ticklers that presumably convulsed Depression audiences. Who’s to account for tastes indulged so many 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). William K. Everson saw 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 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 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 lost $210,000. 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.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

Nice post.

Still I would love to watch LA GRAN JORNADA and the silent version of THE BIG TRAIL

6:27 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I saw the Magnifilm version of "The Bat Whispers" at the Museum of Modern Art in the '80s. I actually had a little trouble trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a widescreen movie from 1930.

7:50 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

While Wide Screen Movies is an interesting read, it is chock full of errors and inconsistencies, as documented here (PDF):

3:13 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi Mr. Pat --- Thanks for that link to errors in the "Widescreen Movies" book. I read their chapter on early wide films, but did not rely on any of it as it was obvious a lot of their facts were questionable.

I did confirm that the "Niagara Falls" short ran first as part of the Grandeur showing of "Fox Movietone Follies" at that Sept. 17, 1929 showing.

As to "Billy The Kid" surviving in large format, I addressed the subject in Part Two and the info came from a reliable source at Warners. Wouldn't it be great to see that wide!

Again, that is fascinating info you sent, and much appreciated.

4:36 PM  
Blogger Bob Westal said...

I hadn't heard of "The Big Trial" -- or pre-Cinemarama widescreen -- until I stumbled over a bit of "The Big Trail" on TCM one night years ago. I'm sure I cocked my head like a mystified dog..."widescreen -- but picture & sound quality definitely early thirties???" "young John Wayne????" Like East Side said, hard to wrap you head around.

1:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey, John: While I fully realize that this is really more about the technical/exhibition-end of the picture, I think some mention, in passing, should also be made of Ty Power,Sr. I believe this is the only sound-record we have of that great, legendary "barnstormer" of the 20's, who supported John Barrymore in "Hamlet" and of course, was the father of the son. As I recall, he plays a grizzled, gravel-voiced "sourdough"-type, but considering that he must have had considerable "theatrical" influence on Ty,Jr.(who was light-years away in type -- at least one can draw a pretty-fair line of continuity between Lon Chaneys, Sr.& Jr., and of course, Liza Minn- elli & her mom), still it does add considerable "historical" interest to a film which already has considerable "historical interest". I'm glad you mentioned "The Bat Whispers", which I find far more watchable on a whole lot of levels. Some of the visuals West acheived early in the film are truly breathtaking! P.S.: I hope you realize that I meant to say "defer", instead of "differ", in my recent-note on the other posting. However, until I was actually in the middle of writing that, I had honestly forgotten that story about Spencer Tracy's brother Carroll (They really did look that much alike, and Spencer had really passed, only like mere days before that incident. I swear to god, for a minute there we all really thought we had stepped into "The Twilight Zone"! Best as always. R.J.

7:37 AM  
Blogger onlyanirishboy said...

A study of El Brendel's popularity -- and he must have been popular, or Fox wouldn't have kept giving him such prominent roles -- is long overdue. He's somewhat appealing in "Delicious," especially during his rendition of "Blah, Blah, Blah," but that's about it. Perhaps there is some earlier film in which he was funny, and audiences went to his subsequent films hoping to see that El Brendel. (It's not hard to think of other comedians who've kept the customers coming to their turkeys because they did some genuinely funny work early on.) Or maybe he's just the 1930 counterpart to 50's comedians like George Gobel -- someone whose humor escapes anyone who wasn't there at the time.

4:35 PM  

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