Film is a living art form. Even though we may think a movie is a photograph frame permanently set on film and will exist as such forever, that isn’t actually true. The film frames and sound may stay exactly the same but how they survive is always an issue.
Beyond technical deterioration, there are other factors that influence how we view or comprehend a film from another era. How we perceive a film changes as much as society, morality, and language change for us day to day. A film from the 1930s is viewed quite differently by contemporary audiences than it was by an audience watching it in 1935. Of course, some films transcend time while others become dated, confusing, and sometimes even incomprehensible.
But there is another kind of aging, beyond physical decay and changing times, that might alter a film, decade to decade. What did the movie actually look like to the first audiences that viewed it? How did the creators intend it to look? What was the original (intended) length? Now that technology has progressed so much with digital photography and editing, many film distributors, creators, and owners have come up with various ways to “restore” a film. But that is a very broad term. What is being restored? A director’s vision? The color? The sound? The length? If so, is a preview print of a film as valid as the version shown when the film was released?
With the arrival of home video, and the potential for an older film to be financially lucrative, there has been a trend to restore classic films. Often this is done out of love of the art form, but sometimes financial issues play too big a role in the process. To be sure, most older films are beautifully presented for home video, but there are more than several classic films where the restoration effort may have gone wrong.
Fritz Lang’s incredible German Expressionist science-fiction film was trimmed substantially after its opening. It’s this shorter version that has been admired for decades. A damaged full-length print was found in a museum in Argentina in 2008. A long restoration was begun, and additional footage was found in New Zealand. The film now runs 148 minutes (still shy of the original 153-minute version). Length aside, the restored material is so damaged and scratchy, you are taken right out of the story and plunked down in a photo-lab class. Certainly, the power and horror of this masterpiece is diluted, not improved. This super-long version should be an extra on any video release of the film, not the feature presentation.
Lost Horizon (1937)
This classic Frank Capra film of James Hilton’s classic novel was a critical if not financial success in 1937. For years, many film lovers enjoyed the 118-minute version. Then, perhaps in an effort to mine more cash out of the film, a new video version was released with 14 extra minutes from, presumably, the original, extended “road show” version or possibly from a preview print. But not all the footage still existed, so some scenes consist of only audio tracks playing while production stills are shown. The footage that did exist was not from the exciting Tibetan or Shangri-La sections, but conversations on a small airplane. In both
cases, the additions very much slow the action of the film. The shorter, more concise version should be made available. While it’s fun to see what’s missing, that material should only be included in the extras.
The Wizard Of Oz (1939)
This is certainly one of the greatest movies of all time, and it’s a Technicolor triumph. However, in order to return it to its true splendor, so many “restorations” have been done that we are further from the truth than ever. Since the Technicolor company
of 1939 isn’t doing the restoring, what we have now is only a Technicolor simulation. As with The Band Wagon (see below) and other MGM musicals, the imaging is often too bright with low contrast, and more pleasing to the high-def generation’s eye than representative of what was originally there. In fact, the film is so clear and sharp now that all the sets look ridiculously phony.
That look isn’t so far off the mark for a film fantasy, so it is tolerable—except when
Judy Garland turns into Rita Hayworth. Judy’s hair is now unabashedly red, but if you look at any color still of the film (shot on Kodachrome, etc.), she is clearly a brunette.
Another issue is the new “sepia-tone” wash on the film, which doesn’t come close to sepia. Just go find a photo of your grandparents from 1940 to see what sepia really looks like. In the current Wizard of Oz restoration, the front part of the picture simply has an orange-brown wash over everything. There are no true blacks or soft flesh tones.
In the color segments, the colors are bright, vibrant, and fun, but where are the subtle pastels? The last time I viewed an original color nitrate print of the film (made in the film’s premiere era), it was notable how the process could capture pastel colors side-by-side with the more vivid primary colors. The newer version is simply more saturated, so the pastels are no longer soft.
The Red Shoes (1948)
The great Pressburger/Powell film from 1948 certainly deserves to be transferred to home video with great care. But this magnificent and important movie has been so cleaned up, it looks like a vibrant video today. A lot of the scenes (for example, on the balcony with the train smoke blowing by) look positively phony. It seems reasonable to surmise this is not what the creators were going for. Also, the watery softness of the original British Technicolor is now bright, harsh, and cartoonish. I would much prefer to see a dusty (or even scratchy) old, true Technicolor print of this masterpiece.
The Band Wagon (1953)
This is one of the great MGM musicals, produced by Arthur Freed and directed by Vincente Minelli. It famously stars Fred Astaire and Cyd Charisse in their peak years in glorious Technicolor. The film has always been treated with great care by MGM (and by WB, the company that currently owns it). However, the art of restoring Technicolor can be a very tricky and
subjective job. Since the process used to create Technicolor prints no longer exists, a restoration isn’t really a restoration but a simulation of “the Technicolor look.”
Most of the color looks fine today, except for one key scene: The “Dancing in the Dark” number is too brightly lit and with low contrast. The great dancing couple, who are dressed in white, are now upstaged by a very phony-looking backdrop. Originally, as it was processed by
Technicolor, the company was able to add deeper black tones and more contrast to the background so the New York City skyline viewed from Central Park actually looked quite true to life.
The original designers, D.P., and colorist knew what they were doing. I saw one of the last new prints made by Technicolor in the mid ‘70s in a screening hosted by Vincente Minelli, who explained how he requested Technicolor to make the soundstage set look like an actual location shoot. The version we see today is so bright and digitally cleaned up that Fred and Cyd look like they are “Dancing on a Community Theater Stage.”
If one wants proof of the restoration mishap, one need only look at the original trailer for The Band Wagon. If you find a print of this from 1953, you’ll see the difference in color contrast. By the way, if you look at most of the trailers of color musicals of the 1950s, you can see what the original Technicolor looked like.
Gerard Alessandrini is a Tony Award-winning writer/director of musicals, best known for the long-
running musical satire Forbidden Broadway and the Hamilton spoof Spamilton, both of which
have been performed in theaters around the world. He has been the lyricist (and sometimes
composer) for over a dozen musicals, including Madame X, The Nutcracker & I, Scaramouche,
and the Paul Mazursky musical of Moon Over Parador, and has won numerous accolades,
including two Lucille Lortel awards and seven Drama Desk awards. His voice can be heard in
Disney’s Aladdin (1992) and Pocahontas. He’s also written special-material songs for many
stars, including Angela Lansbury, Carol Burnett, Bob Hope, and Barbra Streisand.