Where do I begin. Let's get back history out of the way. We know that the Fox archive in the mid-1970s was run by a confederacy of dunces. They junked the entire back library up to 1951. Fires, floods and famine weren't any further help to the library.
So what the current archival staff has to work with is daunting at best, and horrific at worst. There work is exemplary.
There are certain things that are knowns. Back during the Calvin Coolidge administration, there was a huge hue and cry from film fans...
something about asper, or possibly aspirin ratios, or something like that. Whatever it was people either wanted them, or possibly they didn't. It was confusing to at least some people.
It's 2013, and Fox decides to copy Warner Home Video's very successful Archive program, which itself had a few problems in the early days. Their current product not only includes Blu-ray, with many re-mastered projects. They will not release anything today that is sub-par. But we learn, and they changed quickly.
Now to Fox...
I've sampled about a dozen different new Fox Cinema Archive releases, and have come away...
Let's just say that I've come away.
Let's begin at the bottom, and get that out of the way. Two good films, Edward Dmytryk's CinemaScope Warnlock, with Richard Widmark, Henry Fonda, Anthony Quinn, et al, and Henry Hathaway's 23 Paces to Baker Street, another CinemaScope production with Van Johnson and Vera Miles...
Sorry, let me go back.
Did I say CinemaScope?
I want to make certain that the point has been made.
I'd prefer that scope films weren't presented inside of a 480i box, non-anamorphic. But if I have to take them that way...
But give me CinemaScope productions, inside of a 480i box that begin with a boa constrictor-like main title sequence, and then move on to take up the entire frame...
in pan & scan, with cropping on all four sides?
As I said, let's get this point out of the way up front and fast. If you care about such things, and I do, I suggest that you not order any films produced post 1953, and known to be scope without reading all of the information offered. Yes, the brand, spanking new, Fox Cinema Archives is releases old TV masters to home video in pan & scan format.
But we're now past that. Done. Over.
Let's look at the remains of the Fox Technicolor productions. Older masters, which are fine. Not digitally repaired in any way, which is also fine. At least we have them. And it is acknowledged that doing digital fixes on these films, surviving only as bad dupes on faded elements is both expensive and daunting.
Here's a sampling of product:
A huge 1944 Technicolor production, directed by Henry King. Alexander Knox is Wilson. It looks about as I would presume. Quite dupey, limited shadow detail. Problematic production dupes. Wilson has good audio, and while it in no way represents the actual film, allows one to see what it once would have looked like, while squinting.
It's really quite acceptable.
A pleasant musical in Technicolor from Henry Koster, with Betty Grable and Victor Mature.
Quite dupey, with very little shadow detail and too much color and distorted audio.
More Technicolor, this time from director George Seaton. This was once a glorious Technicolor production. Today it is what it is, but it's actually a bit of a step up from the others. And an original Fox logo to boot.
A very decent looking DVD.
Clive of India
This was a huge 1935 production, presented here in wiggle-cam. The image seldom stops moving. The DVD has a decent scale between black and white, and is generally impressive for what it is.
A terrific film from Preston Sturges, with Rex Harrison and Linda Darnell. Black & white and actually looking quite pleasant. Audio is fine. I like this one.
The Shocking Miss Pilgrim
This 1946 film directed by George Seaton, and in Technicolor, is probably the best looking of the first bunch from Fox as far as Technicolor goes. More than acceptable, especially knowing the film's limitations.
Apartment for Peggy
1948 Technicolor, once again from director George Seaton, who would not be happy.
Sampling this DVD, I began realizing, or at least getting the handle on how the Fox Cinema Archives project may work. For all appearances, (more on this concept later), someone is going through the list of Fox productions -- possibly they have a copy of that big Fox book for reference, along with a copy of Leonard Maltin...
"Okay we want the one's with more stars..."
And they make up a list.
And that list gets handed to someone else.
Who gives the list to someone in the vaults, who pulls a video master off the shelf, and gets the dust off it, before sending it on...
And then it goes to DVD mastering, without anyone looking at anything.
And we end up with...
Apartment for Peggy. A very sweet film, with Jeanne Crain, one of Fox's Technicolor sweethearts, and William Holden...
and the film has huge scanning lines running through the image.
But apparently no one noticed.
I'd kind of call this one unacceptable.
1960. CinemaScope, and slightly faded Eastman Color, but never really problematic. Directed by Walter Lang, with Susan Hayward and James Mason. Nice film, and a very decent DVD. 16:9 letter-boxed. All's well.
Except for odd scanning lines at the very top of the image, that could have been cropped.
Oh, Men! Oh, Women!
Directed by Nunnally Johnson, with Dan Dailey, Ginger Rogers, David Niven et al... A very decent looking DVD, letter-boxed and 16:9. I couldn't ask for more. They should all be this good.
A Message to Garcia
A very good film, directed by George Marshall, with Wallace Beery, Barbara Stanwyck and John Boles.
This actually looks quite good for what appears to be a public domain 16mm dupe. I probably wouldn't have brought it to DVD in my new Cinema Archives collection. But the mind returns to the question, "Did anyone look at these masters, at any time, before pulling the trigger to move forward."
Sorry, but this is incredibly horrific!
I'm hopeful that I'm dealing with rational folks at the Fox Cinema Archives, who don't believe in shooting the messenger, but some of these should never have seen the light of day. They're a mess.
If any entity is going to try something like this, every element, and master must be judged on it's own merits, and problematic transfers culled from those which should get distribution. Warner Archive takes this very seriously. If my opinion was asked here, and it has not been, I'd suggest that no further releases hit the streets. Based upon what I'm seeing, this project is best put on hold, even if just for a few weeks.
Time enough to really take a hard look at the masters, and see what's truly ready for prime time. There's a huge amount of competition in the marketplace. Pricing, at $16 street, is more than fair.
Non-original aspect ratio releases are not.
Huge scanning lines in the image are not.
16mm dupes are not.
Don't shoot the messenger.
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