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Studios Offer More Restored Letterbox Movies!

Being a wide screen movie lover and physically challenged I depend upon tapes to view letterbox films. As such, I was very excited when I heard that two major studios, Columbia and Fox, were going to present a line of letterboxed tapes. I rushed to my favorite video store to check out the selection. Much to my wife’s ire, I came home with enough tapes to demand a new shelf in my tape storage area! Not only were the tapes long sought after additions to my collection, one studio is using the sales to assist in film preservation.

The Widescreen Collection by Fox features mostly modern movies with a few older films added for balance. Sci-Fi classics, Independence Day and Strange Days are included in the collection. There is also the Die Hard trilogy and the disaster classics, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno. On the soon to be released list are True Lies, Speed, Broken Arrow (1996), the Abyss, My Fair Lady, Sound of Music and Last of the Mohicans. These offerings boast complete remixing including THX sound.

The Columbia series is devoted more to film preservation than just presenting letterboxed movies. In fact, several of the new releases are in pan and scan mode. The two from this series that I have previewed are Bridge Over the River Kwai and the Guns of Naverone. Both old favorites and a welcomed addition to any serious collector’s stash!

First, let’s consider the offerings from Fox. By far, the Fox series is the more action oriented, geared towards the movie going public. Independence Day, the hit of just a year ago, Speed and True Lies, all high profile box office hits. The action lover will not be disappointed in these tapes. Most of the offering is in 1:221 or better aspect ratio. I personally find it disappointing to purchase a tape that is marginal on my movie wish list that is in 1:185 ration. The additional material over the 1:133 TV release is minimal. When I watch a letterbox movie I want W-I-D-E-S-C-R-E-E-N! Independence Day and Speed were astounding in THX sound and 2:35 ratio.

All of the Fox Widescreen series comes with a little ad in the beginning telling the viewer of the advantages of letterboxed movies. This is a bit of a waste of time since the majority of the buyers of these tapes are letterbox lovers such as the readers of this magazine. Still, the points brought out are clearly presented and similar to what we have presented on web pages and this magazine. More of the screen seen is more information to the viewer. They show letterbox movies presents the view that the director originally intended the viewing public to see.

The Fox tapes were crisp and clear. The THX sound was magnificent. I viewed the movies on a large screen home theater TV with surround sound and I was impressed at the rear channel sounds. During Independence Day I felt I was in an aircraft dodging spacecraft! I was equally impressed with the renderings of the Sound of Music and My Fair Lady. The Sound of Music was a shorter version than released last year by AMC but still worth the price. The tape of My Fair Lady was far superior to the offering by the Disney Channel last year. In all, the Fox tapes represent an excellent investment for the serious collector and a must have for letterbox lovers like myself, unable to view movies at most movie theaters. Fox promises to greatly expand the scope (no pun intended) of this collection.

Now, the Columbia releases represent a different approach. Rather than just releasing films in their original scope, Columbia has taken on the admiral task of film preservation and restoration. The best representation of this commitment is found in the little feature that precedes the movie, the Guns of Naverone. The name of the feature is ‘The Art of Film Preservation’. It is presented by the writer/director John Singleton. In about five minutes it presents the case often championed by this magazine, the preservation if our film heritage. Over half of the 21,000 films made since 1951 are no longer in existence. Ninety per cent of the silent films are gone, forever. This, as the feature tells us, is a great loss to our heritage and culture. The commentary then is given to Robert Gitt, U.C.L.A’s Film and Television Archive Preservation Office. Mr. Gitt details the efforts required to restore a film to it’s original form. Often the technician ends a day filthy from the dust and acetate goo that many films have been reduced. Mr. Gitt uses the Guns of Naverone as an example. Many films have to be restored scene by scene, frame by frame. In Guns, most of the prevailing copies were made by a lab that altered the lighting in the night scenes making them appear to be daylight. One thing that tipped off the restorers to this was the presence of headlights on a truck in the opening scene. Another obstacle in the restoration of Guns was the soundtrack. In 1961 when the movie was released, it was uncensored in large cities but played censored in smaller towns. The most notable case of this in Guns is the speech given by a young Richard Harris in the beginning of the movie. The world ‘bloody’ was found objectionable by some communities and was changed to ‘ruddy’. The only existing stereo sound track the restoration technicians could locate was the censored version. Fortunately, a mint stereo copy was located in the hands of a private collector that thankful realized the importance of the project and permitted the use of his copy for the restoration.

Other films restored and released in this series include Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Holiday, Here Comes Mr. Jordan, the More the Merrier and On the Waterfront. I for one look forward to even the non-scope releases from this series.

I all the attention that major studios are paying to scope movies is increasing. Finding a wide variety of movies on tape presented in scope is becoming much easier. Even relatively small video stores offer such tapes for sale. I have found that asking the storeowners or managers works. They will often stock the scope versions of tapes along side the pan and scan. Even some Blockbusters have a letterbox section. Also, write or email the studios and cable stations. They are often responsive to such requests.

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