‘Watch it Without Glasses!’
This all began when Twilight Time released the film’s sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators [M] (1954) on BR recently, which mandated reviews of related titles in film and on CD, so the fruits of labour are sort of what you’d find in a magazine, with the feature story being Fox’ first CinemaScope production.
Lastly, I’ve added a sort of lost review – Hell and High Water [M] – because at present its companion film, The Racers (1955), has yet to appear on DVD, and I never see it on TCM. Both films were to be part of a second look at Bella Darvi, the newbie actress Fox chief Darryl F. Zanuck cast in three big CinemaScope productions before she was declared a starring flop, and left Hollywood for France, but since I see no way of getting my hands on The Racers, I offer up its companion because like Darvi’s The Egyptian [M], it too is one of the early ‘scope productions. In this Sam Fuller-directed nonsense, Fox sold us action, adventure, and a busty red sweater girl trapped on a submarine with sweaty men!
Full admission: I’ve a set of simple biases in favour of CinemaScope because I love the way it was unrolled like a prestige product. Its logo and music theme flowed from the Fox fanfare, and I love the fact the studio thought the process was so regal, the second CinemaScope film, How to Marry a Millionaire, was released with the film’s composer conducting the studio orchestra in a musical interlude before the movie even started.
CinemaScope was technically about 23 years old when the studio bought it from inventor Henri Chretien, because it was never put into use due to the high cost theatres had already spent, sprucing up cinemas for sound in 1929. The last thing they wanted was a new film format, which is why Fox’ other new film process of 1930 – the 65mm Grandeur film format – died.
The history of The Big Trail (1930) illustrates the dilemma when technology jumps ahead of what cinemas can handle. The film is superb, yet the cost of shooting in 65mm with a new sound system, plus an alternate ‘flat’ 1.33:1 standard film version + alternate language versions for the European market is frankly ludicrous.
23 years later, when CinemaScope emerged, the only safety feature allotted was filming The Robe in both widescreen and ‘flat’ version, just in case the process flopped, but the upgrade to cinemas was less severe than Grandeur. Screens still had to be widened for the bigger ratio of 2.55:1 (which eventually shrunk to the now-standard 2.35:1 / 2.40:1) and there was the installation of the surround sound speakers for the Perspecta system, but exhibition still made use of 35mm film in place of the wider, pricier Grandeur format.
With the emergence of optical and magnetic sound on film, there was no need to film alternate language versions, and the studio could technically dub as many alternate language tracks as needed, shooting just new title cards and inserts of written or printed text (signs, newspaper headlines, written letters) for specific foreign markets.
CinemaScope did have its share of new technical challenges – cameramen had to focus both the camera and ‘scope lens to ensure shots were clear – but the thing worked, and the studio’s gamble that cinemas would embrace the format long enough to get patrons hooked was a success.
Not unlike the emergence of Grandeur soon after sound film in the 1920s, cinemas in the fifties had to contend with widescreen film + stereophonic sound and the new snot on the block, 3D, and as startling as the latter process was, it never took off because you not only had the goofy glasses, but the headaches from the process (not to mention having each eyeball tinted red or blue for a few minutes after leaving the cinema).
The same issues exist for the home theatre patron who has to decide whether it’s worth upgrading their widescreen TV with a 3D set mandating a new player, cables, and amplifier (plus proprietary glasses) because technology’s gone from being exclusive to theatrical venues and studio control to your home. It’s on a prosumer level compared to the full movie theatre gear, but it’s a marked contrast to the seventies when film fans had to stay up late to catch panned & scanned versions of movies on local stations which could only be taped if you could afford a pricey VCR. (As late as 1983, a VCR still cost about $1700 Canadian, and each 2 hour tape between $37-$29).
Before other studios adopted their own widescreen formats, several licensed CinemaScope from rival Fox, and for a short while the latter had the monopoly on widescreen films. Because rival studios were paying a mint for the use of Fox’ lenses and the privilege of exhibiting the film in ‘scope licensed cinemas, whatever MGM, Warner Bros., Disney, RKO, and Columbia produced had to be filled with top talent, so the process left the gates with quality material.
Some of the films have aged badly, but the best still hold up well – which can’t be said for the first cluster of 3D films that re-emerged in both the eighties revival period via B-movies, and the current spate which consists of true and re-rendered 3D. Whatever wave Avatar may have started, there wasn’t a concerted effort by producers and studios to find quality properties and develop them with care.
The first roster of CinemaScope are a perhaps few leagues better – How to Marry a Millionaire is dramatically ponderous and moves at a snail’s pace – but the chief point here is that current Hollywood should’ve known that to ensure a format’s acceptance and standardization among cinemas and audiences, you can’t crank out crap and price-gouge, expecting the process to be on the same star level as the cast.
When ‘scope emerged, it was prestigious, whereas 3D never had that aura of superiority; it’s always going to be regarded as a gimmicky thing because of its roots in carny-type action and horror fodder, whereas Fox deliberately sold its process with a simple, piquant tagline: “The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses!”
Miracle? Heck no, but it’s a lot easier on the eyes than 3D. I know of friends that actively avoid current 3D films or can’t tolerate the headaches of the process, but I’ve yet to hear anyone complaining about their frustration with a widescreen film format.
Actually, I do: a former client who refused to buy anything wide and sought out panned & scanned films of movies he saw in cinemas during his youth in their original ‘scope ratio. But he’s a moron.
For a rich visual history of CinemaScope, I strongly suggest a visit to Martin Hart’s frankly awesome Widescreen Museum.