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Monday, April 06, 2009

At Last In Command of The Command

Here’s another reason I’m high on the Warner Archive Collection. They’re putting out early Scope features that haven’t been available as such since many were first-run, including several (so far) that I’ve avoided on television in hopes they’d someday be viewable in proper ratio. Now they are, and from what I’ve seen and heard, these WB wide DVD’s are delivering the goods. Wichita, The Adventures Of Quentin Durward, and today’s subject The Command, were among my initial Archives order, and all looked fine. Friends tell me The Big Circus is terrific as well, and the good word is out about sixties titles The Money Trap, My Blood Runs Cold, and A Distant Trumpet, among others. I’m assuming much of this Scope material was more recently remastered and that’s why they’re uniformly better. Either way, it’s great having them available at last. These are strong arguments in favor of forward projection and a wide screen at home. Merits of the features themselves is never the point with early Cinemascope. I watch them for a residual rush of something that was innovative and exciting during the fifties when showmanship had perhaps its last great roar. The Zen state has its cinematic equivalent when watching vintage scope. Mine was achieved with The Command by way of contemplating this premiere night photo taken at NYC’s Paramount Theatre in January 1954, along with trade ads also shown here. From there, it was just a matter of transporting myself via Warner’s just arrived DVD. It didn’t actually relocate me to that historic night, but sure came closer than conventional viewing could have over these past fifty-five years. The fact I was born a month after The Command's premiere helped. A Warner-phonic soundtrack provided further enhancement to my hyper-screening, as directional stereo effects at one point had me pausing action in the belief that someone was coming in off the porch outside. Moments like these are where you connect with sensations 1954 crowds felt, and provide at last a vivid explanation of why audiences surged upon theatres running a western we’d considered ordinary for not having been among The Command's initial throngs.

The Command was Warner’s first Cinemascope release. Actually, that’s an error, and not the first I’d make in any detailed exploration of widescreen history. There are experts who lay in wait on various forums as those of us less informed posit reckless guessing as to intended ratios for features circa 1953-54, years convulsed by amended screen shapes rendering an earlier transition to sound pallid by comparison. I’ll go a safer route by not asserting any fact as absolute, merely possibilities for further discussion, and likelier, correction by more knowledgeable readers. What I said about The Command being WB’s first in Cinemascope was wrong to the extent of their lens being something other than ones used by Fox to shoot their trademarked wide programs. Jack Warner preferred a system of his own and deplored licensing fees payable to Zanuck for use of the quickly accepted brand name Cinemascope. Steps toward that avoidance included purchase of competing anamorphic lens from the Zeiss Optical Company in Germany. Seems the Europeans were leagues ahead of us in developing wide technology, as it was a French inventor that developed Fox’s Cinemascope. Tardy delivery of the Zeiss system resulted in The Command (initially titled Rear Guard) being shot using a process called Vistarama. WB yielded cash to Fox for lens they’d not use on The Command, but what else to do when your public’s drunk on Cinemascope and disinclined to embrace untried copycat systems? That swooping trademark was more vital to a showman than names on his marquee, particularly as these included lusterless Guy Madison, lately of second-tier westerns, and Joan Weldon, a WB contractee of uncertain prospects. You could put The Command on widened screens in January 1954 and be assured of patrons lured by a novelty while it was still that. A mere four months had passed since The Robe’s premiere, and many smaller houses were waiting yet for installation of Cinemascope (our Liberty and Allen Theatres would see March before getting theirs, and a neighboring town was into August 1954 when River Of No Return finally debuted the system there).

It’s no good pretending that The Command is an outstanding western, but it was the first outdoor actioner shot for a wide canvas (excepting 1930’s The Big Trail, of course). They could have staged most of The Command flat for all the advantage that’s taken of scope. There was a climactic indian chase and battle that excited patrons for being a first glimpse of what running inserts could look like on an expanded screen. Locations and sets otherwise had an undernourished look typical of barely-A westerns WB was wont to do. We made it very, very cheaply, recalled director David Butler, the picture reflecting that and rushed efforts to get a finished show into theatres while screen novelties were still hot (the negative cost was $1.331 million). I use a plural there because Warners actually filmed The Command in 3-D as well as Vistarama, but released it minus Naturalvision effects (there was also a standard ratio version available). Using scope and 3-D meant every scene had to be staged differently, according to Butler. We would wind up with two pictures. The astonisher here lies in the fact that WB still has The Command’s 3-D elements in usable condition. Will we ever see them? Maybe when technology allows for viable 3-D on home video, which would enable any number of Warner properties to come to us in depth. Guy Madison was never a big screen name of consequence, but there was major advantage for attaching him to a western likely to attract kids who’d watched their small screen favorite on The Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok since its TV debut in 1951 (Madison’s role modeling was emphasized in safety tie-ups such as one shown here). Music scoring enthusiasts might profitably regard The Command as a Dimitri Tiomkin concert with pictures, for his is the dominant sound lending epic stature upon a venture otherwise devoid of same. Tiomkin was one of my main reasons for wanting to see the picture, and he doesn’t disappoint. Warners saw profits of $1.528 million from domestic rentals of $2.158 and foreign rentals of $2.054, a more than respectable payday, but far below what Fox and Metro recovered from their introductions to Cinemascope. Pictures like The Command please today for expectations we don’t bring to them, with discovery and surprise often the happy result. I’m looking forward to the Warner Archive’s further scope mining, with Green Fire, The Cobweb, I Died A Thousand Times, The Warriors, The Burning Hills, The Last Hunt, The Opposite Sex, Tea and Sympathy, and Tribute To A Bad Man being ones high on my want list.
The David Butler quotes came from an outstanding book length interview conducted by Irene Kahn Atkins for the DGA. It's a Scarecrow edition long out of print, but some used copies are available from Amazon.


Blogger J. Theakston said...

Hi John,

Regarding the 3D version of THE COMMAND, the status may be different right now, but the last time I checked, the 3D version was not completely edited (one eye was, while the other one did not have the opticals yet).

However, WB did recently finish the opticals to another "lost" 3Der, the Randolph Scott western, THE BOUNTY HUNTER, so there's still hope!

The camera they used for the film was not Natural Vision, but the Warner All-Media rig, which also shot HONDO and PHANTOM OF THE RUE MORGUE. The 3D version was also flat (1.85) widescreen.

J. Theakston

12:42 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Jack, for the update on "The Command" and the info on "The Bounty Hunter." I wasn't aware they were working on that title for 3-D, but am glad to hear it's being done.

7:42 AM  
Blogger Kevin Deany said...

I forgot Tiomkin scored "The Command." And you say its like a Tiomkin concert? Now I have to buy it. Thanks for the recommendation.

10:20 AM  
Blogger Christopher said...

OT....Love that Hope-Crosby "Road" banner...Ms.Lamour never looked so "Warmly" inviting..

12:51 AM  

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