B I G (and small) Westerns

Before I blather forthwith, warm wishes to our American readers for a Happy 4th of July. We just finished flag waving and consuming beer and BBQ'd goodies on July 1st, and now it's your turn!

For most film fans, this is perhaps a lesser-known fact: from 1929-1931, the major Hollywood studios had their eyes on developing their own proprietary wide film format as they next evolutionary step in big screen entertainment, but by 1931, just a scant handful of films had been shot, of which very few enjoyed much exhibition, if any at all. It took about 21 years before widescreen films came back (via Cinerama and CinemaScope), mostly thanks to the threat of TV and its free delivery of content, and its own emerging star system.

Studio bigwig William Fox was behind his studio’s Grandeur format, which delivered a ratio of 2.13:1 (just a smidge smaller than our current 2.35:1 standard), and after testing the widescreen waters with Movietone newsreels and the variety film Fox Movietone Follies of 1929, the studio turned to fiction and shot Happy Days, Song o’ My Heart, and The Big Trail in 1930. A year later, Grandeur, like UA’s Magnifilm, Warner Bros.’ Vitascope, and MGM’s Realife, was dead.

Why?

The cost of having just switched over to sound film exhibition was one reason theatre owners weren’t happy with the new technology (just imagine the utterly improbable situation in being snookered into having bought hardware and software for a new format that dies in less than 2 years); the came the stock market crash, and Fox’ debts killed the company's fortunes. (The Fox Film Corporation, as a studio, merged in 1935 with Twentieth Century Pictures, becoming Twentieth Century-Fox.)

The few widescreen films produced during that short run were filmed in both 70mm and 35mm versions (practically tripling the film stock costs for a single movie), and they were exhibited in very, very few major city centers due to so few converted movie palaces. Even stranger, some 70mm films were only released in 35mm, like Fox’ Song o’ My Heart, and Warner Bros.’ A Soldier’s Plaything (both 1930).

What’s amazing is that any vestiges of this wave actually survived through corporate mergers, corporate apathy, and the perils of decaying nitrate stock from bad storage, and with The Big Trail’s release as a 2-disc special edition from Fox, the total films from that blip of Hollywood’s first flirtation with commercial widescreen filmmaking now on home video amount to 2 – which may seem like nothing to jump up and down about, but if you read our review of The Big Trail, you’ll get a better idea as to why this film matters so much today, and is far more impressive than The Bat Whispers (1930), UA’s only Magnifilm production that applied 65mm film stock for a creaky, stage-bound mystery with very primal sound recording techniques.

The Big Trail was a big budget pioneer western shot on location in several desert locations in 70mm, and in 35mm for separate English, German, Italian, and Spanish versions.

It also marked the starring debut of John Wayne as John Wayne, after the actor had done the rounds in uncredited bit parts during the twenties in silent and primal sound films.

To contrast the scope, characters, clich├ęs, racial stereotypes, and melodramatic conventions at the decade’s beginning, we’ve added a review of MGM’s pioneer epic Cimarron (1931) from Warner Home Video, as well The Painted Desert (1931) from Westlake Entertainment - another primitive sound film that marked the speaking debut of future icon Clark Gable.

Next DVD reviews: MVD Visual’s Gil Scott-Heron concert DVD, plus a rare documentary.

And imminent: Legend, Philippe Labro’s documentary on Serge Gainsbourg, Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin in Slogan (1969) from Cult Epics, and Jane Birkin, Alain Delon and Romy Schneider in La Piscine / The Swimming Pool (1969) from Lionsgate / Maple, PLUS more soundtrack reviews.

- MRH

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