It just goes to show that you can’t trust history books. Most texts insist that Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953) was the first film produced in CinemaScope. In fact, it was Jean Negulesco’s How to Marry a Millionaire, which was rushed into production alongside Robert D. Webb’s Beneath the 12-mile Reef to give 20th Century-Fox a head start in the widescreen race to lure Americans away from their new television sets.
Negulesco finished his picture first, but the Fox front office felt that a Roman epic with religious undertones would make a grander statement about “the miracle you see without glasses” than a musical about three single girls (Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall and Betty Grable) searching for rich husbands. Consequently, an imposing, sincere, but undeniably pedestrian saga about the garment worn by Christ en route to Calvary became the first of the 654 features that were made in colour and black-and-white CinemaScope over the next 14 years.
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A further 38 features were produced by Fox between 1956 and 1959 in a monochrome variation dubbed RegalScope. But each relied on a process that first allowed wide-field images to be squeezed laterally onto 35mm stock by a cylindrical lens with a 2:1 compression ratio and then to be viewed in their elongated form courtesy of a compensating lens in the projector. Initially, the aspect ratio was 2.55:1, but the format worked best at 2.35:1, with accompanying four-track stereo.
There were teething troubles, as Fox was so eager to move into widescreen production that it bought the primitive Hypergonar lenses that French inventor Henri Chrétien had originally developed for wide-angle tank sights during the Great War. These anamorphic lenses had been used by Claude Autant-Lara to shoot the silent short, Origins of Fire, in 1928. But the patents had lapsed by the time Fox chief Spyros P. Skouras tracked Chrétien down and he took the decision to start work on the launch pictures while the optical company Bausch & Lomb refined the technology (and earned itself an Oscar in the process). As a consequence, the earliest CinemaScope releases suffered from diminished brightness and resolution, while close-ups often seemed disproportionate and lateral and tracking movements across the screen sometimes appeared distorted.
But ’Scope was cheaper to use than Cinerama and appealed to audiences more than 3-D. As Fox shared its discovery with its rivals, much of Hollywood adopted the format and alternative forms began emerging around the world, including Franscope and Tohoscope.
The principal exception was Paramount, which plumped for the VistaVision system, although a number of MGM releases between 1958 and 1962 employed Panavision, despite being billed as CinemaScope. Ultimately, Panavision would become the industry norm, as it was more affordable and reliable and eradicated the distorting ‘mumping’ effect that tainted many a glamorous close-up.
But, for a while, Hollywood danced to the tune that Cole Porter had composed for Rouben Mamoulian’s Silk Stockings (1957), with its mantra: “You gotta have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound.”
Here are 10 of the era’s most stunning productions.
Violent Saturday (1955)
Director: Richard Fleischer
Everyone has something to hide in Richard Fleischer’s simmering study of smalltown America, which was adapted by Sydney Boehm from a William L. Heath story that originally appeared in Cosmopolitan. Similar in tone to John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), this widescreen masterclass puts a noirishly melodramatic spin on the classic western scenario of the outlaws riding into a remote outpost to rob the bank. But ‘travelling salesmen’ Stephen McNally, J. Carroll Naish and Lee Marvin are not the only shady characters in Bradenville, Arizona.
Fleischer exposes the soap operatic lusts, deceptions, anxieties and betrayals in a series of measured long takes that not only establishes the pace of life, but also the layout of the town and the copper mine and Amish farm beyond its limits. He also uses Charles G. Clarke’s meticulous DeLuxe imagery to emphasise the isolation the characters endure in an outwardly close-knit community. But the shot length shortens during the heist, getaway and climactic shootout, as hostaged mine supervisor Victor Mature proves to his doubting 10-year-old son that not every hero has a chestful of war medals.
Lady and the Tramp (1955)
Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Walt Disney was among the first to licence CinemaScope from Fox and he experimented with it on the Oscar-winning cartoon Toot, Whistle, Plunk and Boom (1953) before hiring Richard Fleischer to use the format in adapting Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1954) as the studio’s fifth live-action adventure. Despite the success of these outings, however, Disney decided to produce Lady and the Tramp in both Academy and ’Scope ratios, in case the public failed to respond to the latter version. Having been developing the tale of a pampered cocker spaniel who meets a roving mongrel since 1942, Disney was understandably nervous about producing his first original storyline in widescreen. But, after four years in which 150 animators produced over two million drawings, the $4m picture proved a critical and commercial triumph.
In truth, directors Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske spent more time solving problems than concocting spectacular set-pieces. The additional space enhanced the realism of the vistas and made the 1910s world that Lady discovers on first leaving her comfortable home seem both exciting and daunting. But the layout artists had to rethink their entire approach to the relationship between the characters and their backdrops and it was soon realised that groups filled the long-take frames better than isolated figures. Yet, while the full parameters were used for the chase sequences with the Siamese cats, the dog-catchers and the rat, a poignant intimacy is also palpable during the celebrated moment in the courtyard of Tony’s restaurant with the strand of spaghetti and the last meatball.
It’s Always Fair Weather (1955)
Directors: Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen
Having danced ‘dream ballets’ in Vincente Minnelli’s An American in Paris (1951) and Singin’ in the Rain (1952), which he co-directed with Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly decided to showcase his contention that dancing was a man’s game in his sole excursion in CinemaScope. Donen had utilised the format to thrilling effect to capture the 19th-century backwoods in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), but the pair returned to the New York of On the Town (1949) for this reunion of three wartime buddies. Contemporary audiences proved resistant to the noirish cynicism, but the satirical snipes at television and advertising retain their edge.
Donen and Kelly make the best use of widescreen during the musical numbers, notably sharing Kelly, Dan Dailey and Michael Kidd’s demob exuberance as they hoof with bin lids on their feet in ‘The Binge’ before dividing the rectangle into a triptych as the trio lament ‘I Shouldn’t Have Come’ on realising how far they have grown apart in the subsequent decade. The co-directors also make evocative use of the enclosed spaces of a nightclub stage and a boxing gymnasium, as Dolores Gray and Cyd Charisse respectively put the menfolk in their places in ‘Thanks a Lot but No Thanks’ and ‘Baby, You Knock Me Out’. But for sheer ’Scope exuberance, nothing tops Kelly rollerskating through Manhattan while crooning ‘I Like Myself’.
Lola Montès (1955)
Director: Max Ophüls
Very loosely based on a novel by Cécil Saint-Laurent, Max Ophüls’ swan song was his only picture in Eastmancolor and CinemaScope. Slated by uncomprehending critics, it was drastically re-edited by Gamma Films, in spite of a letter to Le Figaro from the likes of Jean Cocteau, Roberto Rossellini and Jacques Tati proclaiming it a cinematic landmark. The existing version is 30 minutes shorter than the premiere cut, but its denunciation of lurid publicity remains potent, as does the dazzling manner in which Ophüls uses technique to demystify the spectacle of scandal and subvert the audience’s voyeuristic gaze.
As the master of the mise-en-scène style, Ophüls keeps Christian Matras’s camera gliding elegantly through Jean d’Eaubonne’s sublime sets. He also borrows the method Josef von Sternberg used in his Marlene Dietrich vehicles to fill dead space in the New Orleans circus sequences with ropes, ladders, chandeliers and cheap crowns descending from the ceiling of the big top, while curtains, shadows, arches and walls were employed in the various carriages, inns, theatres and palaces that Lola (Martine Carol) frequents. The effect of isolating detachment reinforces Ophüls’s themes and gives this work of cine-aesthetic genius a deceptive emotional power.
The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957)
Director: David Lean
David Lean had no experience of epic cinema when he signed up to direct this adaptation of a fact-based Pierre Boulle novel that had been scripted by blacklistees Michael Wilson and Carl Foreman. Yet he won one of the seven Academy Awards presented to this harrowing account of the construction of a railroad through the Burmese jungle by Allied prisoners of the Japanese. The climactic action around the sabotage mission is thrilling, but the dramatic potency lies in the contrasting codes of honour and duty motivating sadistic camp commander Sessue Hayakawa and Alec Guinness’s senior British officer, whose twisted patriotic pride prompts him into an act of collaboration whose folly only dawns on him in a terrifying moment of expiring clarity.
Bookending the action with bird’s eye views of the forbidding terrain, Lean and cinematographer Jack Hildyard consistently emphasise the vast impenetrability of the locale and the sheer difficulty of constructing a railway line in such challenging conditions. Scale is key, yet Lean closes down screen space during Guinness’s stint in ‘the oven’ and periodically during the commando trek to confirm the sweltering conditions and the density of the forest. As the bridge takes shape, however, Lean returns to wide angles to extol the magnitude of the achievement and to make the edifice’s final destruction all the more heroic and spectacular.
Ride Lonesome (1959)
Director: Budd Boetticher
Although he eventually used it on The Long Gray Line (1955), John Ford resisted CinemaScope because he claimed painters never used canvases shaped like tennis courts. However, he must surely have been impressed by the manner in which Budd Boetticher and Charles Lawton Jr photographed the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California in this elegiac and surprisingly witty and optimistic paean to the passing of the old west. Marking Boetticher’s sixth collaboration with Randolph Scott, this revisits themes explored in Seven Men from Now (1956) and Decision at Sundown (1957), as a bounty hunter encounters a pair of maverick outlaws and a glamorous widow while seeking to lure an old foe into the open before delivering his prisoner in Santa Cruz. Many rank it among the finest Hollywood westerns and few can rival its visual majesty.
It goes without saying that Boetticher filled the screen with the rugged beauty of the frontier wilderness. The towering rocks and forbidding expanses of desert stress the isolation and insignificance of the characters and the dangers they face from the native dwellers and interlopers who disregard the law that Scott used to uphold. But it’s the expressionist use of shadow during the nocturnal sequences that most compels, as Boetticher cannily employs campfires and moonlight to illuminate the quintet’s faces as they gauge how best to exploit their fellow travellers. Yet the image that lingers centres on the blazing hanging tree, as Scott finally fulfils his destiny.
The Diary of Anne Frank (1959)
Director: George Stevens
While serving with the US Army Signal Corps, George Stevens filmed the D-Day landings, the liberation of Paris and the meeting of American and Soviet forces on the River Elbe. He also witnessed harrowing scenes at the Duben labour and Dachau concentration camps and helped prepare visual evidence for use at the Nuremberg trials. Thus, he seemed the natural choice for 20th Century-Fox’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Frances Goodrich and Albert Hackett play that had distilled the essence of the diary that Anne Frank’s father, Otto, had been determined to share with the world after his family of four had spent 25 months hiding with four fellow Jews in a secret annex above an Amsterdam spice factory. But Fox insisted on shooting the picture in the CinemaScope process that Stevens complained was “fine if you want a system that shows a boa constrictor to better advantage to a man”.
Aware that the wider screen could undermine his efforts to convey the cramped conditions in which the Franks, Van Daans and Fritz Pfeffer lived, Stevens had production designers Lyle R. Wheeler and George W. Davis add vertical pillars to the sets based on the actual rooms at 263-267 Prinsengracht. Consequently, he was able to confine the action to limited spaces during moments of intimacy and dramatic tension, while still being able, through judicious use of angles, to show the claustrophobic proximity of all eight characters in sequences like the Hanukkah supper. Stevens and cinematographer William Mellor also used shadows to reinforce the sense of constraint and heighten the oppressive mood. But audiences never got to see the scenes Stevens shot of Anne (Millie Perkins) in Bergen-Belsen, as they were cut after scoring badly in test screenings.
Pillow Talk (1959)
Director: Michael Gordon
In 1913, Lois Weber and Phillips Smalley triangulated the screen during the phone call interludes in their silent melodrama, Suspense. Forty-five years later, Stanley Donen synchronised Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman’s movements across a split screen for their bedtime calls in Indiscreet. But Michael Gordon was not content with chaste pillow talk and had New York party-liners Doris Day and Rock Hudson chat in their baths at opposite ends of a split CinemaScope screen and the Production Code guardians couldn’t do a thing about it. This was the first of the three pictures that Hudson and Day did together and it marked the moment that screwball became what Day’s producer husband Marty Melcher called “clean sex comedy”.
Gordon begins by paying homage to Weber and Smalley, as Day eavesdrops on Hudson’s endless chats with his female paramours. But he resorts to standard split screens for their testy exchanges until Hudson recognises Day’s voice in a nightclub and poses as a naive Texan in order to flirt without her realising his true identity. As he starts to woo her in this guise, Hudson is shown reclining in the upper portion of the screen as he sweet-talks Day lying in her bed in the lower half. This mischievous sight gag is later topped when each stretches out a leg from their tub and their feet meet in a saucy parody of Grant and Bergman’s chaste hand touch. Clean sex comedy, indeed!
Billy Liar (1963)
Director: John Schlesinger
CinemaScope and social realism hardly seem made for each other. But John Schlesinger makes inspired use of widescreen in this reworking of the Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall stage play that had been adapted from the former’s 1959 novel. Schlesinger might have opted for a gimmicky approach and switched to ’Scope from the limiting confines of the Academy frame in order to depict undertaker’s clerk Tom Courtenay’s escapist fantasies in his fictional realm of Ambrosia. But, while Henri-Georges Clouzot had literally created a grander canvas 54 minutes into his groundbreaking art documentary, Le Mystère Picasso (1956), Schlesinger saw beauty and nobility in the grim northern landscape and employed capacious deep-focus perspectives throughout this kitchen sink comedy to show that there was more than one way to broaden one’s horizons.
There’s something mischievous about the way in which Schlesinger contrasts Courtenay’s flights of fancy with his quotidian existence. Although they seem epic in his reveries, the Ambrosian military parades actually lack pomp and spectacle and suggest the limitations of the daydreamer’s imagination. By filming everything from wrecking cranes to conga lines in widescreen, Schlesinger reveals that Courtenay’s narrowness of vision is down to his own detachment from reality. Thus, he uses Julie Christie’s handbag-swinging sashay through the city centre to demonstrate the simple pleasures of true self-awareness and freedom and, with this one sequence – imbued with the spirit of the nouvelle vague – Schlesinger signalled that the 60s had started to swing.
Le Mépris (1963)
Director: Jean-Luc Godard
Cinematographer Raoul Coutard always believed that Jean-Luc Godard’s adaptation of Alberto Moravia’s novel A Ghost at Noon was a love letter to his wife and muse, Anna Karina. The story of a marriage falling apart during the making of a Technicolor version of The Odyssey may not seem the most romantic of gestures. But the fact that Godard dressed Brigitte Bardot in a modish wig to resemble Karina and included a poster for Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954) in the background during one of their conversations seems to bear out the contention. Yet Godard’s sixth feature is also a treatise on art and entertainment, the classical and the commercial and the extent to which cinematic creativity depends on collaboration and compromise. “The eye of the gods has been replaced by cinema,” observes director Fritz Lang at one point. But, by turning the camera’s Cyclops gaze on the audience in the prologue, Godard reminds us that passive spectatorship is no longer an option.
Lang also quips during a discussion with screenwriter Michel Piccoli and producer Jack Palance that CinemaScope “wasn’t meant for human beings. Just for snakes – and funerals.” However, Godard and Coutard revel in the freedom widescreen affords them, whether they are capturing the backlots at Cinecittà, the gardens of Palance’s palazzo or the glorious coastal scenery of Capri. The pair also appreciated how the wider frame could accommodate the mise-en-scène technique. The second act parley between Piccoli and Bardot in their new apartment is particularly striking, as Godard exploits doorways, walls and furnishings to frame a series of intricate dolly shots before using pendulum pans to record a peevish exchange across a table lamp. Moreover, only JLG would consider a book of Roman erotica suitable for ’Scoping.
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