Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The limitations of early widescreen

One of the interesting features of the movie I recommended yesterday, Bad Day at Black Rock, is the relative lack of close-up shots. As I understand it, there are a couple of reasons for this. First is that when a new technology came to Hollywood, the movie makers recognized that it would change the way films were made, but they weren't quite certain how it would do so. Consider the experimentation that took place when synchronized sound first came to the movies. In the case of widescreen, one can imagine directors thinking that if they have the technology capable to get wide vistas, why waste it on close-up shots? Also, there was a fear that the new wide-screen lenses would cause more of a deformation on extreme close-ups than the lenses used in the traditional aspect ratio. Consider the deformation caused by the fisheye lens, a more extreme example of wide-angle photography. Also, if you look carefully at some of the prints of an ultra-widescreen movie like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, you can spot what look like "seams" where objects on the side of the image would have been in a different focus than objects in the center.

These limitations can be seen in starker contrast in one of the earliest wide-screen movies: 1930's The Big Trail. The date is not a misprint. Although Cinemascope dates to 1953 and Fox's How to Marry a Millionaire, Cinemascope wasn't the first attempt at making movies with wider images. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Fox used an experimental process called Grandeur to film a few of its movies on 70mm film, with The Big Trail being one of the only survivors. The process was a commercial failure, though, for a couple of reasons. One is that moviegoers, being fascinated with the new technology of putting talking on movies, weren't automatically going to be interested in another experiment in technology. By the same token, Technicolor suffered financially after the introduction of sound. Secondly, and more important, there was a big cost barrier. Movie theaters had just spent a lot of money to convert to being able to show talkies; they didn't want to spend more just to be able to show a movie with a wide image. Also, with the Great Depression having started, the money for such a conversion wasn't really available. So, although Fox made The Big Trail in a 70mm format, the Grandeur print only showed in a few select locations, with most theaters getting a 35mm version.

Grandeur, like early Cinemascope, also had the technical problem that led to a lack of close-ups. That aside, however, The Big Trail more than just a technical curiosity. First, it's noteable in that it's the first starring role for one John Wayne. (Unfortunately for him, the financial failure of the film led to his having to struggle on Poverty Row for the rest of the 1930s, until John Ford rescued him with Stagecoach.) Also, the story is visually very interesting, if a very basic one. Wayne plays Breck Coleman, a man who leads a caravan of covered wagons bringing pioneers out west to settle what would eventually be Californa. There's also a silly love story attached, involving actress Marguerite Churchill, and a feud between Wayne and Tyrone Power, Sr. (That's the father of the Power we remember from movies like Witness for the Prosecution.) For comic relief, there's El Brendel, playing a Swedish immigrant.

However, the movie shouldn't be seen just for the cast; the movie is visually stunning despite its lack of closeups. Although pioneer days are romanticized nowadays, the trek west must have been an arduous task, and The Big Trail does a good job of portraying arduousness. (For a contrast, watch the opening of the 1931 version of Cimarron, with the Oklahoma land rush.) Of special note is a sequence in which the pioneers come to a bluff, and have to get down it. Sure, gravity would work, except that it would kill them all. They have to get down safely, and it's not just the pioneers; it's their wagons and their livestock.

The Big Trail has been released to DVD in at least two editions. There's an older DVD with the 35mm print; earlier this year, the widescreen version was released to DVD. So if you want to see it, be careful to watch for which version of the DVD you get.

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