The Big Trail -- not quite so big on DVD?

Discussion in 'DVD' started by Bill Burns, May 13, 2003.

  1. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    I just ran across something surprising, and after sending Bill Hunt a heads up over at the Digital Bits, it occurred to me that the forum here might be the best place to make mention of it.

    As fans of early sound films may know, 1930’s The Big Trail (much like another 1930 production, The Bat Whispers) was filmed in both 70mm and 35mm versions, the former representing an early attempt both at large format filmmaking and widescreen photography (while the correct aspect ratio of its 35mm incarnation is and was 1.37:1, the 70mm version of The Big Trail measures in around 2:1 or 2.1:1 ... the IMDB, for reference, lists it at 2.1:1, and another thread here determined it to be 2.13:1 ... quite wide, in other words). I’ve run across showings of The Big Trail on cable, but always at 1.33:1, and was very much looking forward to its June 3rd release on DVD, where I hoped I’d at last see this early widescreen effort in its expansive glory.

    While I’ve never shopped there, I often refer to DVDEmpire for quality scans of both front and back cover art of upcoming DVDs, and a back cover scan of The Big Trail recently went up at their site. You can find it here:

    http://www.dvdempire.com/Exec/v4_ite...7&tab=5&back=1

    And while some of us with smaller monitors may need our magnifying glasses handy, it does, to my dismay, list only a 1.33:1 aspect ratio for the film. Now, the box goes on to say that this is "the aspect ratio of its original theatrical exhibition," but to my understanding that’s only half right: while the film has not been panned and scanned and was, indeed, released to theaters in its 35mm version at 1.37:1, its 70mm version is inextricable from (and invaluable to) its place in film history, and may well be a high priority for those interested in the picture.

    On another thread, found here ...

    http://www.hometheaterforum.com/htfo...=the+big+trail

    ... a member of the forum mentioned seeing the film in its widescreen version on a cable channel not long ago, so I’m assuming (and it’s strictly an assumption, as I do not have access to any version of the film) the 70mm manifestation of The Big Trail remains extant, and useable elements remain in someone's (Fox’s?) possession. If this is the case, I’m dismayed (might be that I’m just a fan of the Duke) that the film is being presented solely in a video transfer derived from its 35mm version – if it were an either/or decision, I’d have preferred the 70mm version emerge the winner. There may be arguments in favor of a 35mm presentation, and I certainly welcome them ... but to see the film in anamorphic widescreen would have been an undeniable treat, and the widescreen photography certainly seduced the heart of the man who served as cinematographer on the 70mm version of the film, Arthur Edeson, an article by whom (on this subject) may be found here:

    http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/wide...ur-sep1930.htm.

    It’s worth noting that the IMDB lists the running time of the two versions as substantially divergent from one another: the 70mm version clocks in around 158 minutes, it seems, and the 35mm version at 125 minutes. Now, Image (on behalf of Milestone Films) issued a DVD of The Bat Whispers in which both the 35mm and 70mm versions were offered (the 70mm version in 2:1, though I believe non-anamorphic; I cannot confirm this as I do not own the disc); while the running times of The Big Trail would have made this more difficult, much like Universal’s recent release of the Bing Crosby Double Feature disc A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court / The Emperor Waltz, in which the Technicolor photography of the first film needed its own dual-layered side, a DVD-14 could have served the needs of The Big Trail nicely, given that the back of the box, linked above, also states that this 1.33:1 DVD version of the film occupies a single layer (I highly recommend all three of the Bing discs, by the way, in particular Rhythm on the Range / Rhythm on the River, but Connecticut Yankee is the best looking of the bunch, and the other discs are DVD-9s; I haven’t yet watched The Emperor Waltz on the flipside of Connecticut Yankee’s DVD-14).

    Does anyone have insight into why a decision was made to present The Big Trail in its 35mm version only? If its 70mm version lies in DVD’s future, then this is largely a non-issue and both discs will prove welcome additions to the world of DVD, but if no edition of The Big Trail from 70mm widescreen elements is planned, this release would seem incomplete. I have the utmost respect for what Fox has done with their Studio Classics line in 2003, and their many classic releases before the line (including The Robe, The Fly / Return of the Fly, their magnificent release of Cleopatra, and others), so remain puzzled by this unfortunate decision for The Big Trail, a landmark film in both the career of its star (still quite young here, of course, but occupying a true feature epic -- at least by virtue of length, and also format -- for the first time in his career) and the history of large format film photography. Any info would be most welcome, and, sincerely, I’d like to once again mention that this issue in no way diminishes the stellar work Fox is doing in its Studio Classics line, a series of DVDs which represent some of the most value-conscious, and some of the best, presentations of classic films on the market.

    Oh, and yes, I do, of course, hold out some hope that the box for The Big Trail is misprinted, but ... well, it’s a small hope. [​IMG]
     
  2. RolandL

    RolandL Producer

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    I have seen The Big Trail letterboxed on AMC. But, since they show commercials now and not many if any letterboxed movies, you might have to wait for the DVD.
     
  3. Greg_S_H

    Greg_S_H Executive Producer

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    Excellent first post, Bill. Welcome to the HTF! I wish I had an answer for you, but I am just as concerned as you are about this release. Yes, it will technically be OAR, but the version I recorded off the air a few years back was OAR also and it was letterboxed. If I had to choose, I'd go with the wider aspect ratio.

    Unfortunately, Amazon also has it listed as full frame, so it appears unlikely it's a misprint.
     
  4. Mark Zimmer

    Mark Zimmer Producer

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    I'm pretty sure The Bat Whispers is nonanamorphic; it's been a long time since I watched it (before I got a 16:9 set, in fact), but it was a rather early disc. I did appreciate that it offered both versions, though, and The Big Trail is a no sale to me without both versions.
     
  5. Jo_C

    Jo_C Second Unit

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    According to the AMC cable network, the original 70MM elements deteriorated around the 1960s. Fortunately a 35MM Cinemascope transfer was made of the 70MM version before that time, and a fine-grain print of the 'scope transfer was discovered around 1974, and it is from this print that Fox' current restoration of the 70MM version is derived.

    It aired around 10 years ago on AMC, and has been recently shown on the Fox Movie Channel. Thanks to forward-thinking people at the Museum Of Modern Art (which funded the restoration), we today can still see "The Big Trail" the way Grandeur audiences first saw in 1930, at its original 2:1 ratio.

    It will probably take another miracle to further preserve the 70MM version digitally, but it is possible. Until then, keep your eyes out on the Fox Movie Channel network schedule to see when this version will air again.
     
  6. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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  7. Jo_C

    Jo_C Second Unit

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    For the record, folk, the Cinemascope reduction print of the 70MM version is at the original Grandeur aspect ratio of 2:1, so it is obvious that some side-windowboxing was done to conform to the 2.35:1/2.55:1 picture area. The AMC/FMC broadcast is letterboxed in its proper 2:1 Grandeur ratio with no windowboxing necessary for television.

    I do have a tape of the 2:1 ratio broadcast, so I too hope Fox will somehow use it for a letterbox release.
     
  8. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    Oh, my mistake -- windowboxing would, of course, be the solution in reconciling the ratios. I'm certainly glad to hear the Cinemascope transfer didn't crop anything -- and this, of course, makes its availability that much more desirable.

    Thanks again.
     
  9. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist
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    While the trade term CinemaScope certainly brings connotations of anamorphic widescreen with optical aberrations to mind, any reduction preservation element of a Grandeur film would have been produced with "generic" anamorphic optics.

    The new DVD of The Big Trail is, indeed, of the flat version, something that I've questioned in a new piece going up this week on The Bits.
     
  10. Roger Rollins

    Roger Rollins Supporting Actor

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    My theory here:

    That no one at Fox Video knew about the fact that THE BIG TRAIL was supposed to be widescreen. This is the same studio that released a B&W DVD of TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI last year, a film which earned an Oscar nomination for its Technicolor cinematography!

    Yes, they later realized their error (after the street date) and corrected the problem, using the COLOR film elements.

    Releasing THE BIG TRAIL on DVD and not using their oft-seen anamorphic film elements reeks of this same kind of lack of product history knowledge on Fox's part.

    I think that, as with TO THE SHORES OF TRIPOLI they'll realize their error and issue a corrected version.

    (I've re-edited this post, as Thomas T. pointed out I had
    mentioned the wrong title that Fox erred with last year.
    Thanks to Thomas for pointing out my error. I shouldn't post so early in the morning before I'm fully awake[​IMG]
     
  11. Gordon McMurphy

    Gordon McMurphy Producer

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  12. Thomas T

    Thomas T Producer

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    Re: "This is the same stuido that released a B&W DVD of Ten Gentlemen From West Point last year ....."

    Actually, Roger, the film in question is To The Shores Of Tripoli, not Ten Gentlemen which has yet to see a DVD release.
     
  13. oscar_merkx

    oscar_merkx Lead Actor

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    let's hope that as Gordon suggests a 2 disc version will be released sometime in the future

    [​IMG]
     
  14. Doug Bull

    Doug Bull Advanced Member

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    Bill Burns mentions the Bing Crosby doubles.

    I certainly hope that Conneticut and Emperor Waltz are better than the Blue Skies disc, as the new Blue Skies transfer is just plain awful.
    If you like your blacks to be black/black and more black and your Technicolor washed out and your picture nice and soft, then you will be happy with it.

    The Blue Skies Laserdisc has come from a far superior source and has a much, much better greyscale and also a true reproduction of glorious old Technicolor.
    Actually the "Blue Skies" Laserdisc is one of best quality Technicolor transfers in my large Laserdisc collection.

    My advice is, if you like Blue Skies and you find a copy of the Laserdisc, grab it.

    Anybody want to buy a DVD?
     
  15. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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  16. Peter Kline

    Peter Kline Cinematographer

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    Wasn't the restoration of the Big Trail From 70mm Fox Grandeur to Cinemascope done by the Museum Of Modern Art in New York? I seem to remember this. There doesn't seem to be any way that 20th Fox would not know of two versions of the film. The widescreen one has popped up on TV many times.
     
  17. Doug Bull

    Doug Bull Advanced Member

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    Phew Bill, that was some review, I think it deserves a thread of its own.
    Well Done.

    I did a side by side comparison of the 2 Blue Skies and if you think Olga San Juan's song "You'd be suprised" looks good on the DVD, well I'm telling you that the Laserdisc kills it in every respect. The stunning Technicolor image just leaps off the screen on the Laser.

    The Burns and Allen triple movie disc you mentioned is very sharp with an excellent grey scale and is highly recommended.(and you get W.C.Fields as a bonus)
     
  18. Bill Burns

    Bill Burns Supporting Actor

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    Thanks, Doug -- and also thanks for the recommendation of the George Burns Triple Feature; I've been looking forward to viewing it, but haven't picked it up yet. Sounds like a winner. I've only seen one of the Bob Hope Tribute series discs (Louisiana Purchase / Never Say Die), and while both films on the disc are watchable and, as I recall, stable, neither represents a great film element (it's been a number of months since I last watched either picture, but as they've stuck in my mind, Louisiana Purchase's transfer felt a bit too reddish, and was lacking in the vivid color reproduction one would like to see from Technicolor elements; Never Say Die, in B&W, faired better to my eyes, but seemed to have weak contrast and only fair fine detail -- never blurry or so poor as a public domain element, and certainly looking what I might consider "typical" for an unrestored film print of this era, and therefore acceptable, but notably inferior to an element such as that used for WB's recent, and very pleasing, edition of Alice Adams, which better represents its nitrate origins). Neither are, for my money, great films, but Universal has lowered the price on all of their Bob Hope Tribute discs, so it remains a fair deal. I'll try to watch my copy again here soon and see if my memory's up to snuff on their quality, but this is essentially how they struck me when last I viewed them. Martha Raye fans should note that she co-stars in Never Say Die and has a fine role in Rhythm on the Range as well, making for a series within these series'. [​IMG]

    At any rate, thanks again, and I look forward to picking up a copy of the George Burns triple. I continue to congratulate Universal on their double feature (and triple feature!) releases: while I've only seen a few now, overall I've found them very pleasing, and it's a pleasure to see a major studio putting out classic product in such quantity (ditto to WB, MGM, and Fox). I understand that the money isn't there to restore every film that needs it, and many of these, though not stellar, are still a pleasure to own in "good" transfers from decent original film elements (though using the best elements available to the studio is, it goes without saying, a necessary effort if the release is to warrant praise, and it would seem Universal dropped the ball in this regard for Blue Skies; an honest mistake, I'm sure, but as these double features continue, I trust every effort will be made to ensure the best existing elements are utilized).
     

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