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Friday, April 04, 2014

Counting Blessings For What We've Got ...

Priscilla Lane and James Cagney Listen In On A Future When Their Films
Would Look As Rich As Stills They Posed For

It's Never Been Better Than Right Now

A friend who collected 16mm had got himself an "original" print of The Roaring Twenties which he said was so good "it looked like a still." That was thirty years back when fuzzy images were eternal bane of old pic watching, an era forgot since we've settled into luxury of Blu-Ray and HD streaming. How bad was it? Think back, be honest, then wish if you can for so-called glory days when we looked at favorites for a first time. Truth is, I'm seeing mine for a new first time on each occasion one debuts as High-Def disc or download. Happens almost daily now. This week it was Bombshell, Invisible Stripes, The Set-Up, all of which I'd known before and collected in some instances on 16mm. Each had been compromised by the smaller gauge or TV transmission. Since early-or-so 80's, most could be had on VHS, then viewed on analog sets at 25-inch max. Who'd now watch them in such degraded circumstance? Seems we're spoiled to expect crystal clarity for everything we see, based on nit-picky reception got by discs that a couple decades ago would have awed us.

Here's an instance of how time and technology have spoiled us. Back in the early 90's (that now seems way back), someone turned up a 70mm roadshow print of The Alamo with all of footage missing from the hacked version we'd known for forty years. Fans bought the MGM/UA laser disc and called it a revelation. Quality seemed a best you could imagine, LD's representing "perfect vision" among serious cine-collectors. As far as home enthusiasts were concerned, the Alamo book was closed and a battle won. Within a few years, however, would come DVD and extinction for lasers. Even the best of those were mere smears beside progress the smaller discs represented. Blu-Ray and streaming would then arrive to put DVD in the shade. Home projection meanwhile soared to levels undreamt of in headiest digital days. Sony even made 4K available to homes. If The Alamo was to be liberated now, it would cost, and dearly. The 70mm print used as source for the LD had unfortunately gone vinegar and totally red, and no additional print turned up in a two decades' interim. Our standards and expectation have increased so as to make The (roadshow) Alamo once again a lost film.

I admit to sometimes counting threads on coats off Blu-Ray rack rather than see/listen to stories unfold, that result of ongoing disbelief that these things can look so good. If black-and-white had registered as well before as now, would general viewership have turned from it as they eventually did? What was once cloudy and gray registers sharp as woodcuts. Look at anything out on Blu-Ray. I played The Wolf Man to friends who'd seen it lots on tiny tube and owl terms, enough for know of dialogue by heart, but they went slack-jaw over a show reborn to point where for a first time after ten times (in my case, no telling) there was depth/detail unimaginable for home, or maybe even 1941 theatre, watching. Any download of HD is occasion for renewal --- yes, you've never really seen most classics until this.

The recent loss of several Classic era stars was, I think, more keenly felt than would have been case if they'd left say, ten years ago. Now, as opposed to then, we have High-Definition access to films Joan Fontaine did seventy years ago that no longer seem so old, thus remote, as they had for ... well, seventy years. To watch Rebecca, Jane Eyre, or Letter From An Unknown Woman on Blu-ray is to feel closer to each than was possible before, Joan Fontaine far less a distant figure than was case for lifetimes we saw her through Coke bottling that was analog TV and primitive cassette. Old star images have become so pin sharp as to make theirs seem like new faces, such detail long having been something we saw only in photos reproduced for coffee table books. Now that clarity is up on screens again, we can glean (sometimes surpass) what folks did when 35mm enjoyed silver nitrate edge. Assist toward that is home theatres like one vividly described by Stuart Galbraith IV at fascinating site that is World Cinema Paradise, "An Oasis Of Cinema Scholarship and Reviewing" that Greenbriar highly recommends. Galbraith and others have made dens into exhibition sites in many cases better than what we spent years paying admission to. The Golden Era of classic movie viewing is no longer a matter of Was, but happy reality of Right Now.


Blogger Kevin K. said...

I've had to explain to my daughter that what she takes for granted now -- razor-sharp images in restored movies -- is still a revelation to me. Her take on it is, well, how else is it supposed to look? And she's right.

By the way, in the top photo on this piece, I thought for a second that Priscilla Lane was Jennifer Lawrence.

2:49 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John I was born in 1952; I am now 62 years old. I was raised in L.A. and have been very close to the film industry all my life. I also lived through the age of small B&W TV sets which were (at the most) 17" to 19" wide and had their signals received from a transmission which was "funneled" through a primitive (by 2014 standards)antenna....We were at the mercy of horrible reception, commercial breaks every 10 minutes, ruthless editing of films to fit a certain time slot (generally 90 minutes) and the butchering of widescreen films to fit a 1.33 aspect ratio. Not to mention the sound squeeking through a 4-to-5" mono speaker. Whenever a favorite film showed up on the TV Guide schedule, we thought we'd died and gone to heaven. What has happened as far as technological advances since 1952 is, to me, nothing less than a miracle. If ANYONE had told me when I was in High-School in 1969 that I would be able to see and hear films like "Ben-Hur" or "Journey To The Center Of The Earth" in my own home and they would look and sound better than they ever did even on their initial releases in a professional cinema, I'd have said they were crazy. But it DID happen. The technological strides which have taken place in the past 60 years (and really, just the past 25 or so...)have been, and continue to be, the salvation of these wonderful classic films that we of my generation all grew up on and loved so much.....I just wish that people like Bernard Herrmann, Willis O'Brien, Boris Karloff and others were here to see (and hear) it.

6:52 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

Of course, some people watch these things on their telephones.

3:00 PM  
Blogger Robert Fiore said...

The only thing to miss about the old days is a feeling you had when you were up in the middle of the night watching the Marx Brothers or Humphrey Bogart and you thought about people here and there watching the same old dream at the same time when the rest of the city was asleep. The feeling you don't miss was the feeling that there were hundreds of movies you'd never see in other than a mutilated or periodically interrupted way because they weren't notable enough to be booked into a repertory house.

3:07 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Robert Fiore said...
"The only thing to miss about the old days is a feeling you had when you were up in the middle of the night watching the Marx Brothers or Humphrey Bogart and you thought about people here and there watching the same old dream at the same time when the rest of the city was asleep."

And most of the old movies you watched were relegated to late-late-show time slots. They had once played in prime time in the 1950s, only to be rescheduled as fillers when TV stations expanded and updated their film libraries. First the oldies became matinees, then night-owl fare, then retired.

As late as the 1970s there was a station in Boston that still played arcane Paramounts at one in the morning: Edward Everett Horton in HER MASTER'S VOICE, Jack Oakie and Stuart Erwin in DUDE RANCH, Dorothea Wieck in MISS FANE'S BABY IS STOLEN. These are long gone from public view, as forum members know all too painfully.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I remember that Boston station -- it was how I got to see the Marx Brothers for the first time, along with those Big Broadcast pictures. But a price was paid. For some reason, Groucho's "I'm Against It/I Always Get my Man" number was completely cut from "Horse Feathers." They also cut one of Chico's jokes from "Cocoanuts" -- responding to Groucho's mention of "levys" with "That's the Jewish neighborhood" -- apparently afraid someone might take offense at 1:30 in the morning. No, I don't miss those days at all. Give me TCM, my trusty DVR and Blu-Rays any time.

10:19 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Kevin and I were watching the same broadcast! Both "I'm Against It" and Zeppo's rendition of "Everyone Says I Love You" were cut. It wasn't a rigid time slot; the station didn't care whether the movie ended at 2:21 or 2:26 or 2:38. So I'm guessing the musical numbers were cut from HORSE FEATHERS for a previous matinee broadcast, and someone in the film room forgot to put them back for the 1:00 a.m. "Boston Movietime."

It's ironic that the only Harold Lloyd picture you could see on television then was PROFESSOR BEWARE, a 1938 Paramount. Forty years later, with the Lloyd estate releasing his library to home video, PROFESSOR BEWARE is now the hardest Lloyd feature to come by.

11:53 AM  

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