David Bordwell's website on cinema   click for CV




Perplexing Plots: Popular Storytelling and the Poetics of Murder

On the History of Film Style pdf online

Reinventing Hollywood: How 1940s Filmmakers Changed Movie Storytelling

Film Art: An Introduction

Christopher Nolan: A Labyrinth of Linkages pdf online

Pandora’s Digital Box: Films, Files, and the Future of Movies pdf online

Planet Hong Kong, second edition pdf online

The Way Hollywood Tells It pdf online

Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Figures Traced In Light

Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema pdf online

Exporting Entertainment: America in the World Film Market 1907–1934 pdf online


Hou Hsiao-hsien: A new video lecture!

CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See Without Glasses

How Motion Pictures Became the Movies

Constructive editing in Pickpocket: A video essay


Rex Stout: Logomachizing

Lessons with Bazin: Six Paths to a Poetics

A Celestial Cinémathèque? or, Film Archives and Me: A Semi-Personal History

Shklovsky and His “Monument to a Scientific Error”

Murder Culture: Adventures in 1940s Suspense

The Viewer’s Share: Models of Mind in Explaining Film

Common Sense + Film Theory = Common-Sense Film Theory?

Mad Detective: Doubling Down

The Classical Hollywood Cinema Twenty-Five Years Along

Nordisk and the Tableau Aesthetic

William Cameron Menzies: One Forceful, Impressive Idea

Another Shaw Production: Anamorphic Adventures in Hong Kong

Paolo Gioli’s Vertical Cinema

(Re)Discovering Charles Dekeukeleire

Doing Film History

The Hook: Scene Transitions in Classical Cinema

Anatomy of the Action Picture

Hearing Voices

Preface, Croatian edition, On the History of Film Style

Slavoj Žižek: Say Anything

Film and the Historical Return

Studying Cinema


Book Reports

Observations on film art

Trade secrets

Sunday | November 28, 2010   open printable version open printable version

DB here:

Over the last couple of months, some strange things have been happening to America’s most venerable show-business trade papers. In the case of Variety, the strange thing is very important and yields almost unalloyed good news. In the case of The Hollywood Reporter, the strange thing is, at least for the moment, a step backward.

Kristin and I have subscribed to weekly editions of both newspapers since the mid-1990s. With the advent of Web 2.0, each paper created an online archive, more or less searchable, stretching back into the 1990s. Not everything you would wish for, since Variety started publishing in 1905 and The Hollywood Reporter began in 1930. But film historians are grateful for anything. I found both papers’ archives very helpful in reworking Planet Hong Kong over the last year. Now, however, some of the recent happenings affect our ability to do research.

Issues about issues

First the bad strange new thing. In a collapsing advertising market, The Hollywood Reporter has done a makeover. From being a daily and weekly trade paper it turned into an upscale lifestyle weekly, sort of an industry-slanted version of Vanity Fair‘s movie issue, with a soupçon of airline magazine. Among the recycled press releases, superficial interviews, soft-focus profiles, and awards-season handicapping, you find fashion tips like “Into the Blue: Punch up your executive look—top to toe—with the season’s blockbuster hue.” There’s also the sort of feature that movers and shakers can use to promote themselves: “Hollywood’s Young Guns ….Where they work, why they matter, how they’re changing the game.”

True, Variety sometimes resorted to such frippery in these desperate years. V-Life was in some ways a forerunner of the new HR, but V-Life was a supplement. In the main paper you could still find reportage, analysis, overviews, and opinion. There’s relatively few of these ingredients in the new Hollywood Reporter.

If this is the strategy for fighting Movie City News and Deadline Hollywood and IFC, I’m betting on the webroots.

Anyhow, forget the daily THR ephemera. I want to go into the past, as I did until October, scrambling through elusive coverage of Hong Kong stuff. Problem is: I can’t do that any more.

THR not only remade its magazine; it remade its website, radically. So radically that when I go there via Safari or Chrome I get this welcome.

Well, you say, skip your bookmarks and go through Google. But then:

Only Firefox does the trick.

Anyhow, at last I’m on. Breaking News today starts with “Jennifer Grey Wins ‘Dancing with the Stars’; Bristol Palin Comes in Third.” Skip that. As a subscriber, I ought to be able to log in to the proprietary content, right?

Here is the routine. Using my old password, I have no luck. When I call the 800 number, an ominous recording tells me that they are aware of the “issues” (what we used to call “problems”) with the website and subscriber logins. After half an hour, a hard-working person answers and with a few magic passes of her mouse she gets me into the subscriber areas.

Yet the next time I try, I’m refused again. So I write to the email service they announce, and immediately get a form reply saying that my problem will be addressed in 1-2 business days. The next communiqué, from some days later, begins: “We apologize for the delayed response.” They give me a password which is suspiciously generic.

This has been going on for nearly three weeks. But I can live with it because I’m not so concerned with Jennifer Grey or Bristol Palin. I’m there for the archive.

Problem is, the Archive isn’t there for me. Once I’m inside as a subscriber, I find no way to get into the two decades of stories and stats I could reach under the earlier incarnation of the website.

Another call, another recording apologizing for the “issues,” another half-hour of wait, and now a very puzzled answerperson. Where’s the Archive? Nobody ever asked him that before. He’s no better than I am at finding a button for it. He consults his supervisor. The supervisor doesn’t know where the Archive went either.

You can search the site, he points out. True, but the search takes me only to items posted since the makeover began.

Hmmm. The best they can do is suggest I call the Editorial Offices. When I do, the recording instructs me to leave my story tip and someone will get back to me. I might say, “Psst, I have it on good authority that the next big color will be vermillion,” but instead I hang up.

Trying tonight, I find that the search function now turns up articles published throughout calendar 2010, but no earlier. So maybe THR will gradually expand its backfile. It would be too bad if the dolled-up version of the print mag drained resources from maintaining a stable and deep website. I worry that THR intends to dump the old (already very partial) online archive altogether, resetting the clock at the year of the makeover. If so, they send a signal that the past—theirs, that of the industry they cover—doesn’t matter. They wouldn’t even agree with Jack Valenti, who supposedly did say, “It’s only history,” and then opened the MPPDA papers for research.

Infinite Variety

13 September 2010 was the date of the good thing that happened to the trade papers. At that point, Variety went the opposite direction of The Hollywood ReporterIt opened up its vault completely.

For many years film historians have relied on Variety for detailed information about how Hollywood and other national industries have worked. Most of these historians have scanned the paper on microfilm, cranking through reel after reel, getting dizzy from the whizzing lines your eyes try to fasten on. But these scholars managed to do real research. You couldn’t believe everything you read in the paper, of course; you had to be skeptical. Still, getting something was always better than getting nothing.

More recently, Variety has kept an online archive of its materials since the early 1990s. These stories were in html-friendly format, not in the form of published pages, and some stories that appeared in the paper never made it online or were revised for the net. Older stories, mostly film reviews, were summarized and undated. So as records, they were only partly reliable. Still, even this iceberg-tip was well worth surveying.

In September, though, Variety put online its back file from 1906 to the present. Every page of the weekly and daily paper has been digitized. You can access it for a year for a $600 subscription fee, probably what many people pay for designer coffee over the same period. If you want shorter-term access, $60 gets you into up to 50 issues per month.

Reader, I signed up.

There were teething pains for a few weeks. Some pages failed to load, and often you had to scroll through an entire issue to find the page you wanted. But those “issues” are mostly in the past. Now you can plunge into an ocean of well-mapped movie coverage.

As usual with people of my generation, I’m shaken by the abrupt transition from a research economy of scarcity to one of overabundance. Had this bounty existed when Kristin and Janet Staiger and I wrote The Classical Hollywood Cinema, we might still be writing it. Type in “John Ford” or “Meet Me in St. Louis” and you’re led into the labyrinth, with one item teasing you to search others, forever.

Some things, for instance, seem never to change. “CINEMAS TO SURVIVE HI-TECH ERA,” wrote A. D. Murphy in the 4 August 1982 issue’s top story. People were claiming that the theatre experience would soon vanish (presumably because of home video, although that’s barely mentioned). No way, says Murphy, citing several reasons, including the plausible assumption that “Nothing yet has managed to keep young people confined to their homes.” He adds that going out to the movies is the most robust form of “pay per view….free of all that bother of billing, dunning, disconnects and such.”

Yet a stroll through the vault can also remind you of how strange things were back then. How’d you like to sit through a live opening act before Citizen KaneVariety tells us that in San Francisco’s Golden Gate theatre in early September 1941, Kane did brisk business at popular prices. It was accompanied by the vaudeville act of one Prof. Lamberti. The local Hearst newspapers, while refusing to advertise Kane for the unsurprising reason that Hearst thought the movie was about him, did advertise Prof. Lamberti’s act at the house. He was worth paying attention to. He never made snide fun of Marion Davies.

But who was Prof. Lamberti? A magician, a musician, a real prof? We check Variety for 22 March 1950 and learn from his obituary that “Professor” Lamberti was a comedian who played on stage and in nightclubs. According to the obit:

Lamberti’s best known act was playing the xylophone, while shapely gal did a striptease back of him and he was apparently unaware of the goings on. This provided the delusion that successive encores on the semi-classic tunes such as “Listen to the Mocking Bird” were prompted by the audience’s music appreciation, rather than the bumps and grinds of the peeler. Howl finish had the comic get hep and seltzer squirt the gal off stage.

I ask you: How could a red-blooded American male viewer concentrate on the ambiguities of Thompson’s quest after an opening act like that? And as a mood-setter for the opening sequence at Xanadu, the World’s Daffiest Xylophonist might not be ideal. Even more striking, we learn from the same obit that Prof. Lamberti did his signature bit in the film Tonight and Every Night (1945) with Rita Hayworth “as the strip-gal”—the same Rita Hayworth who was then married to Citizen Kane’s director.

Aha, you say, but Wikipedia has an article on Prof. Lamberti too, and with more details than the Variety obit. (Please visit this orphan entry; it needs hits.) I would never badmouth Wikipedia, that wonder of our young century, but it’s not yet the poor man’s Variety vault. For one thing, it doesn’t use the phrase “bumps and grinds of the peeler.” Further, I can find no help on Wikipedia on a looming question that has vexed some of our best minds: At what aspect ratio should Lang’s While the City Sleeps (1956) be shown?

A lack of ‘Scope

There is a full-frame version occasionally broadcast on Turner Classic Movies and now available on Region 2 DVD. There’s also a 1.66 crop that was released on laserdisc many years ago. Some older cinephiles recall seeing a widescreen anamorphic version circulating on 16mm. Yet Lang apparently claimed he did not shoot the film in anamorphic widescreen.

When While the City Sleeps was made, the releasing studio RKO was supporting a widescreen system called SuperScope. That’s what Variety called it, anyhow, though sometimes you’ll see the name with a small middle s, or with “Super” italicized.

Invented by the brothers Joseph and Irving Tushinsky, SuperScope was a progenitor of the Super-35mm system of today. A film shot in standard full-frame 35mm would be turned into an anamorphic one. A portion of the frame was extracted, optically squeezed, and printed as an anamorphic image, which would then be unsqueezed in projection. The aspect ratio was 2.0:1. The reasoning was that it was easier to shoot a movie in the standard way and then “SuperScope” it than it was to shoot a CinemaScope film. Some projectionists called this process BogusScope, not just because it was fake but because Benedict Bogeaus was then a producer feeding projects to RKO, and some of his titles used the format.

Slightly Scarlet and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, both released in 1956, were designed to be given the SuperScope treatment. The films carry the logo in their credits, and contemporary Variety reviews mention the process by name (15 February 1956 and 29 February 1956). The accompanying Italian poster for While the City Sleeps also makes reference to the SuperScope process. But there is no mention of SuperScope on the release print, or in the Variety review (2 May 1956), or in the US release poster, or in the pressbook kindly posted online by TCM.

Lang is on record, in Peter Bogdanovich’s Who the Devil Made It, as saying that he disliked CinemaScope. He told Bogdanovich that he agreed with his famous claim in Godard’s Contempt that “CinemaScope is only good for snakes and funerals” (p. 224). But SuperScope is not CinemaScope (which is 2.35:1 or sometimes even wider), and moreover Lang made one of the better CinemaScope films in Moonfleet (1955). So the question can’t immediately be resolved on auteur grounds.

Moreover, SuperScope prints of While the City Sleeps do exist. I found one in a European archive some years ago. It was pretty fuzzy (a chronic problem with SuperScope prints, because of the rephotography involved), but I took some frames from it. Here are some comparisons with the 1.37 DVD.

For my purposes here, I could have simply cropped and blown up the full-aperture frame grabs, but I’d rather preserve the slightly bulgier quality that seems to have come with the anamorphic optics. Also, because the wider versions are from 35mm frames, they include a little more area on the sides, which is lost in video versions like my DVD grabs on the left.

Actually, the widescreen version isn’t terribly offensive to me. For one thing, it slices off that slab running across the top of the bar set in the first image above. But in some cases the change in shot scale and internal relations make for mild differences in emphasis. The SuperScope version brings characters quite a bit nearer to us. Do they also seem seem closer together? There’s also the matter of taste. Some will dislike the headroom in the left shot below, while noting that the right one looks like a classic early ‘Scope composition.

So which one is the original? You can sample the online cinephile discussions from 2003 onward here and here and here. The ever-diligent folks at DVD Beaver have much to add as well.

Fortunately, about five minutes of snooping in the Variety vault reveals the answer.

Joseph and Irving Tushinsky yesterday concluded a contract with RKO for conversion of “While the City Sleeps” into the SuperScope process for foreign release (“SuperScoping ‘City,’” Variety, 12 April 1956, p. 3).

According to other stories in Variety, several films were given the SuperScope treatment ex post facto, including a re-release of Olivier’s Henry V (1945).

So we can confirm the hunch expressed by some of the cinephiles above that the SuperScoped copies were destined for overseas screenings. The Variety vault proves useful for things both great and small. Okay, mostly small, but you get my point.

Scoping things out: An epilogue for ratio fetishists

SuperScope logo for Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

There’s still all that headroom in the full-frame images. That roominess is fairly uncharacteristic of Lang. In his pre-widescreen films, he used the whole frame, even the corners. Try SuperScoping this tightly-packed shot from Kriemhilde’s Revenge.

In Cloak and Dagger, Cooper’s character uses the apple on the workbench to explain the power locked up in the atom, and apples will become thematically significant in a later Adam-and-Eve scene.

Moonfleet also takes advantage of the lower right corner (see the image at the very end of today’s entry). But Lang’s last two American films, While the City Sleeps and Beyond a Reasonable Doubt (1956), seem to me to have more open and less compact compositions. There’s quite a bit of unused furniture in City‘s mise-en-scene, even though it adds a Vidor-Fountainhead air of vastness.

At this point we should recall that by 1956, most U. S. theatrical releases were shown in something wider than 1.33. There was a lot of variability, but films were commonly cropped in printing or projection to 1.66 or 1.75 or 1.85. Even if Lang did not shoot City with an anamorphic ratio in mind, he might well have assumed there would be cropping to some wide ratio. The approximately 1.75 ratio seen on the laserdisc version looks like a reasonable compromise between the extremes.

I’m inclined to say that Lang expected the film to be cropped somewhat in projection, but probably not to the full 2.0 proportions. He could no longer count on projectionists’ framing a single ratio, so he doesn’t tuck details along the edges or into the corners.

Unfortunately, I can’t find confirmation of Lang’s wide-frame choices in the fabled Variety vault. But I’m still looking, there and elsewhere. And maybe some researcher reading this entry can clarify things further. In any case, Variety has given a magnificent gift to those of us interested in film history–who ought to be everybody.

The standard source on widescreen systems of the postwar era is Robert E. Carr and R. M. Hayes, Wide Screen Movies: A History and Filmography of Wide Gauge Filmmaking (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1988). Carr and Hayes discuss SuperScope, or as they call it SuperScope (the credit logo is actually in caps, as in SUPERSCOPE) on pp. 67-72 and list the films in that format on p. 104. They don’t include While the City Sleeps. See also Daniel Sherlock’s comments on the book at Film-Tech.

Writing this has led me to wonder whether the admiration of European, especially French, critics for While the City Sleeps is based on their seeing the anamorphic version. In their writings I haven’t found specific reference to SuperScope. Raymond Bellour’s probing 1966 essay “On Fritz Lang” is one of the few I know from that period to scrutinize the patterns of composition and framing in While the City Sleeps, but I can’t tell whether he’s referring to the widescreen version. An English translation is in Fritz Lang: The Image and the Look, ed. Stephen Jenkins; see pp. 31-35.

Although Turner Classic Movies has run While the City Sleeps in 1.37, the TCM website recommends that it play at 1.66. Interestingly, the illustrations in Tom Gunning’s  Films of Fritz Lang are in about 1.75:1 ratio. Another SuperScope production, Jacques Tourneur’s Great Day in the Morning (1956), runs on TCM in this ratio. Since projectionists of the period, and still today, are fairly flexible about ratios, it’s possible that even anamorphic 2.0 SuperScope was projected with a little trimmed from the sides.

DVD release of Invasion of the Body Snatchers includes both a SuperScope 2.0 version and a 1.37 one. But the 1.37 one is a pan-and-scan version of the SuperScope one, not the integral frame that SuperScope worked from. The DVD version of Slightly Scarlet from VCI International is framed at 1.78, and the transfer (of poor optical quality) has been bungled so that everything is slightly stretched left to right. Both Arlene Dahl and Rhonda Fleming are more zaftig than they should be.

For more on aspect ratios, you can go here and here on this site. I experiment with extracting ‘Scope proportions from a 1930s movie in a general essay on widescreen aesthetics, “CinemaScope: The Modern Miracle You See without Glasses,” in Poetics of Cinema, p. 323.

Correction (28 November 2010): The original version of the piece claimed that the Search function of the Hollywood Reporter website found only pieces published since the recent makeover. That was the case when I used it two weeks ago. A more recent search I conducted this evening turned up articles from throughout 2010. I have recast the entry to reflect this change.

PS (17 December 2010): More developments on the Hollywood Reporter backfile, and more on the uses of the Variety Vault are discussed in this later entry.


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