"I’m appreciative as it’s a great help in solving the mysteries in our vault."
Ned Price/Warner Bros. - Vice President of Mastering - June 6, 2013
"What Theakston and Furmanek have done is separate truth from legend,
giving us facts rather than assumption as to who/what came first
in developing expanded projection."
John McElwee/Greenbriar Picture Shows - May 4, 2013
"This is amazingly exhaustive!"
Joe Dante - April 28, 2013
Leonard Maltin - April 23, 2013
"Unprecedented research about Hollywood’s transition to widescreen
in the 1950s. Essential reading."
"A very substantial effort on your part."George Stevens Jr. - April 12, 2013
"A very informative article, one that companies would do well to consult
before remastering vintage films to home video."
Glenn Erickson/DVD Savant - April 12, 2013
"The change is on us and even the smallest theatre must go along with the changes or be left at the wayside."
Showmen's Trade Review: May 2, 1953
The widescreen, three-dimensional and stereophonic sound revolution that spread like wildfire in the spring and summer of 1953 is one of the most turbulent periods of technological development in motion picture history. It is also one of the most misunderstood and poorly documented. Inaccurate information has been repeated so often and for so many years, that myth has now become fact.
For the past 23 years, we have searched with a fine-tooth comb through studio correspondence and production files, as well as industry trade journals from the period of 1951 - 1955. Utilizing primary source materials such as Daily Variety, Boxoffice, Hollywood Reporter, American Cinematographer, Exhibitor, Motion Picture Herald, Film Daily, Showman’s Trade Review, Film Bulletin, Motion Picture Daily, Harrison's Reports, International Sound Technician, Kinematograph Weekly and other industry trade journals, we are able to document this period of technological development, which was evolving nearly every day.
The information shared on this page is taken from those original materials and will accurately present the facts.
Click on the images to expand.
NOTE - I am happy to share these images, but please ask permission and please credit your source.
The concept of widescreen motion pictures was nothing new. In fact, there had been experiments and test screenings dating back to the early 1920's. Magnascope was a process developed in 1924 by Glen Allvine and Lorenza Del Riccio of Famous Players-Lasky Corporation. According to the SMPE Journal of April 1928: "A special screen, four times the normal size of the regular theatre screen, is needed for Magnascope projection. Most of the screen is masked by curtains during the regular part of the film. When the Magnascope portion of the film appears, these curtains are raised and pulled aside to reveal the larger screen. This gives the illusion of the picture gradually becoming larger."
Introduced at New York's Rivoli Theatre on December 6, 1926 for OLD IRONSIDES, the image was enlarged from 12 x 18 to 30 x 40 for the battle sequences. The response was overwhelming. The New York Times broke precedent the next morning by running its review on the front page. They wrote: Following the intermission most of the scenes of "Old Ironsides," were depicted by this apparatus. This wide angle screen was tremendously effective in the scenes of fighting aboard the old frigate off the coast of Tripoli, and also in those pictures of the imposing productions of the forts, with old-fashioned guns booming and the missiles splashing in the sea."
By January 1930, Magnascope screens were installed in many deluxe presentation theatres throughout the country, including the entire Loew's, RKO, Publix and Fox chains.
Screens were very small at the time, even in the grand downtown movie palaces. Here is a list of recommended sizes for architects from the 1929 architectural guide, American Theaters of Today by Sexton & Betts:
*14’-by-10’ 6”; 16’-by-12’; 17’-by-12’ 8” for theaters seating under 2,000
*18’-by-13’ 6” for 2,500 seats
*19’-by-14’ 4” for 3,000 seats
*20’-by-15’ for 3,500 seats and up.
Magnascope gets deluxe ballyhoo treatment at the 2,200-seat Strand Theatre in Shreveport, Louisiana.
Other large format systems such as Grandeur, Realife and Natural Vision were used on a handful of 65mm and 70mm features to present a finer-grain image on a large screen. These systems were very costly and by the end of 1931, widescreen was abandoned in favor of standard 35mm presentation. By March 1932, the aspect ratio was standardized to the Academy Ratio of 1.37:1. The Great Depression and World War II effectively put an end to any further widescreen developments.
The new Cycloramic screen was introduced in July of 1949 and Magnascope was once again utilized to great effect for sequences in PORTRAIT OF JENNIE, SAMSON AND DELILAH, PLYMOUTH ADVENTURE, MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID and KING SOLOMON'S MINES. However, these were rare occasions and would only be seen in certain big cities and key theatres, such as the Carthay Circle in Los Angeles and Radio City Music Hall in New York.
In 1951, the Music Hall screen measured 36 x 60 and they normally projected the newsreels with an image of 32 feet, 5 inches by 44 feet, 7 inches. Features were shown with an image size of 22 feet, 8 inches x 31 feet, 3 inches. When the image was magnified for these big dramatic scenes, the effect was impressive, to say the least.
Moviegoing habits reached a peak in 1946 with post-war attendance hitting record levels; 57% of Americans went to the movies every week. The average movie ticket cost 35 cents and the total admissions that year were $1.5 billion. But things began to change quickly. The post-war baby boom was in full swing and the Supreme Court Consent Degree of 1948 had forced the studios to begin divesting of their movie theater chains. However, there was one lucky break for theater owners; on September 30, 1948, the FCC froze any further distribution of operating television licenses and the total number of stations stopped at 108.
All of these factors, and the growing popularity of television - from 3,880,000 households in 1950 to 20,400,000 in 1953 - had forced the movie business into a downward spiral. In addition, the FCC freeze on licenses was lifted on April 14, 1952 and the number of operating stations escalated quickly.
Something needed to be done to excite the public and get them away from the free entertainment they were now accustomed to seeing at home on their new 21-inch console television.
EVERYTHING OLD IS NEW AGAIN
THIS IS CINERAMA, with its massive curved screen and seven channels of stereophonic sound, had opened to great success and critical acclaim in New York City on September 30, 1952. In addition, Arch Oboler’s independently produced BWANA DEVIL had its 3-D world premiere in Hollywood on November 26, 1952 and set the box office on fire. Following the phenomenal success of these two openings, every major studio begin experimenting with some form of widescreen and 3-D presentation. The race was on and RCA demonstrated a new widescreen to exhibitors on March 24, 1953. The new era of screen dimensions had begun.
On February 4, 20th Century Fox announced that all future studio productions would be in CinemaScope. Paramount was the next to announce their 100% widescreen policy on March 24 with Paravision 1.66:1 as their house ratio. Universal-International went with Wide-Vision 1.85:1 on March 28 and then 2.1 on June 3; MGM with 1.75:1 on April 3; Columbia announced 1.85:1 Vitascope on April 6 and Warner Bros. went 1.85:1 on May 7. The last holdout, Republic, had been filming for widescreen since May 15 and finally announced their new policy on August 15. By that time, every studio had abandoned 1.37:1 and widescreen composition, ranging from 1.66:1 to 2:1, had become the new industry standard. However, to insure a steady flow of product for all exhibitors worldwide, the films were still protected for 1.37:1.
SHANE became the first feature in 1953 shown in wide screen when it premiered at Radio City Music Hall on April 23. Initially composed by George Stevens for 1.37:1, it was presented with a 30 x 50 image in the ratio of 1.66:1.
Variety wrote: Radio City Music Hall preemed
on its flat 30 x 50 screen last week and came up with what's regarded
as a definitely improved pic, particularly in the scenic shots in which the
George Stevens production abounds. Screen's 1.66 to 1 aspect ratio occasionally
clipped images top and bottom and a certain amount of light loss was
noticeable, particularly in low-key scenes, but these are figured minor
blemishes. Size of the Hall makes the larger surface so acceptable that it’s
difficult to imagine a smaller screen ever having been in use there.
Not every critic was enamored with the widescreen treatment. Harrison's Reports wrote:
The moviegoing public, anxious for something new and exciting, spoke with their wallets. Only three westerns had ever played the Music Hall prior to SHANE, and they lasted for two weeks apiece. Business was so brisk for SHANE, it was held over for an unprecedented four weeks. Noting the tremendous success of this engagement and the public's unanimous acceptance of widescreen, exhibitors all over the country began the race to install the largest possible panoramic screen in their theatres.
This SMPTE test loop is similar to what was used originally by projectionists setting up for different presentation ratios. The primary difference in this 1995 loop is the omission of 2.1 and the inclusion of 1.78:1 as opposed to the 1953 ratio of 1.75:1.
To illustrate the difference in the aspect ratio between standard and widescreen, here are two versions of an identical SHANE trailer. This is the original 1953 preview but the end title card has been replaced for reissue purposes. The second version is cropped to 1.85:1 which is how SHANE was presented theatrically in 1959 and 1966. The 1953 cropping of 1.66:1 would have added a little more height to the widescreen image.
Unfortunately, the second trailer from Paramount can only be viewed in the United States.
After the enthusiastic reception to stereophonic sound on THIS IS CINERAMA, many films were dubbed into stereo as well. Separate full-coat 35mm magnetic tracks were interlocked with the picture to reproduce full high fidelity stereophonic three-channel sound. This was before anybody had stereo sound in their homes and the response was overwhelming.
On March 16, 1953, production began at Paramount on THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE; the first feature composed for widescreen in the aspect ratio of 1.66:1. It was also filmed in 3-D and Technicolor. Before the world premiere took place in Seattle on September 23, 1953, the separate mono dialogue, mono effects and multi-channel music tracks were mixed into three-channel stereo.
Less than two weeks later, on March 28, filming began at Universal-International on the first feature composed for 1.85:1; WINGS OF THE HAWK, also in 3-D, Technicolor and stereophonic sound. Unlike many other early stereo releases in 1953 that had been mixed in post-production from mono dialogue and effect tracks, WINGS was actually recorded on the set in three-channel stereo.
Sadly, with the exception of two reels of WINGS OF THE HAWK, these early stereo tracks are now lost.
HOUSE OF WAX had its world premiere on April 10, 1953 at New York's Paramount Theatre. It was the first feature to be heard in WarnerPhonic Stereo sound, a new four-channel process that utilized a full-coat 35mm magnetic track for the left, center and right speakers behind the screen and a mono optical track for the effects (surround) channel. The 35mm full-coat audio was on a separate roll that was interlocked with the two projectors that ran the left/right 3-D images, and the effects track was on the right print of the feature. The left print contained a mono optical composite track of the entire four channels and served as an emergency audio back-up in case the dubber went out of sync with the picture.
Sadly, this pioneering WarnerPhonic audio is lost today. The only surviving element of the original stereo mix is the mono effects channel. (The stereo that you are hearing on the film today is newly created by Chace Audio, it is not the original WarnerPhonic sound.) The tragedy of this stereo not surviving is the fact that it was an important element in the original presentation of the 3-D film. With fully directional sound, and sound effects that emanated from the sides and rear of the auditorium (during the fire in the wax museum, for instance) it helped to immerse the viewer in the action, adding an important element to the superb realism of the three-dimensional photography. The Hollywood Reporter noted: "The result has a kind of spellbinding effect on the audience, giving a feeling of realism to a completely unreal story as well as a sense of participation." As an example of the important role of sound in this presentation, the New York Paramount installed 25 speakers throughout the huge auditorium.
Variety recognized the potential and Abel wrote: "Technologically, perhaps the biggest plus is the stereophonic sound as projected from all sides into the now multi-horned Paramount Theatre.
Tonight's invitation press preview, including practically every showman in town, was impressed by the switching of the sound as off-screen action called for directional screams and kindred sound effects.
Utilizing its own WarnerPhonic, the studio has made canny use of sound, which is a big credit to Charles Lang, although it is apparent where and how stereophonic sound in the future will play tremendous importance in major studios productions."
On April 10, Jack Harrison of the Hollywood Reporter wrote: "The sound moved right across the screen with a walking player and definitely came from whichever side of the screen the actor was talking from. Sound effects heard from off-screen, heightened the dramatic effect. However, speech coming from persons off-screen addressing those on screen seemed a little strange in this instance. In any event, stereophonic sound, whether called WarnerPhonic or by some other name, is definitely here to stay regardless of the processes it is used with."
Bosley Crowther of the New York Times was not impressed. On April 11, he wrote: "The major causes for anxiety presented by this film are in the savagery of its conception and the intolerable artlessness of its sound. It is thrown and howled at the audience as though the only purpose was to overwhelm the naturally curious patron with an excess of brutal stimuli. And this is betrayed not only in the morbidity of many scenes but in the violence of the noises that are brayed from the theatre's screen and walls.
WarnerPhonic installations were not limited to the major cities. On April 20, Motion Picture Daily reported new installations at the Rialto in Joliet, Madison in Peoria and Midway in Rockford, IL; the Palace in South Bend, IN; the California in Stockton and Buena in Ventura, CA; the Kenosha, Bay in Green Bay, Rauli in Oshkosh and Majestic in Beloit, WI.
On April 26, Motion Picture Daily wrote: "More than 500 theatres have contracted for installation of WarnerPhonic sound. Altec-Lansing Corp. has orders for equipment for 300 theatres, RCA has 150 and International Projector has orders from 232 theatres."
There had been earlier films heard in stereo in a few selected roadshow engagements, such as FANTASIA in 1940 and THIS IS CINERAMA in 1952. However, when HOUSE OF WAX opened in major cities throughout the world in 1953, it was the first time that most people had ever heard true stereophonic reproduction.
Subsequent WarnerPhonic releases were THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER, ISLAND IN THE SKY and BLOWING WILD. By the end of 1953, the interlock system was abandoned in favor of the new composite four channel magnetic stereo prints.
SHANE had premiered in mono because the Music Hall did not have stereo capability. Paramount created a stereo track for the Midwest premiere at the State Lake Theatre in Chicago on May 27, 1953. From that point forward, most major cities played the film in widescreen and stereophonic sound.
During this period of transition and throughout the summer, many 1.37:1 films were released to great success in widescreen, including Universal-International's THUNDER BAY in 1.85:1; MGM's YOUNG BESS in 1.75:1; Paramount's THE WAR OF THE WORLDS in 1.66:1; Columbia's THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T in 1.85:1 and so on. Even though studio production had begun to shift over to widescreen cinematography starting in mid-March, these completed films had to fill the gap for theaters installing new screens. The films that were actually composed for the wide screen would not be ready until the fall.
Great care was taken to insure the optimum presentation of these 1.37:1 movies. When the decision was made to premiere MGM's YOUNG BESS on the panoramic screen at Radio City Music Hall, Variety reported on April 24, "Inasmuch as pic was shot conventionally, studio has completely re-cut and re-framed the footage." Many studios test-screened their un-released standard ratio films in multiple ratios to determine which would be the most effective with minimal damage to the original compositions. Once that determination was made, those recommendations were passed along to the exhibitors.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS had completed filming in early May of 1952 and the release was scheduled for the following May. On April 8, Variety reported that SHANE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS "have been withdrawn from the releasing sked, Par's idea to groove them for wide screen showings at a later date." It premiered in London in mid-April in 1.37 and the U.S. premiere was on July 29 at the Warner Theatre in Atlantic City. It opened at New York's Mayfair Theatre on August 13, 1953 and finally went into wide release in October when more theatres could play it in widescreen and stereo.
THUNDER BAY premiered at Loew's State on May 19, 1953. IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE was the first 3-D film shown in 1.85:1 widescreen on May 27, 1953 in Los Angeles and SCARED STIFF had a "Spook Premiere" in New York on July 2, 1953. The Martin and Lewis feature had been sitting on the shelf since mid-July of 1952 and the decision to adapt it to widescreen and stereophonic sound was made in early May.
Obviously, framing was an important issue. In order to insure that heads weren't getting cropped, opening credits were placed higher in the frame than usual. Projectionists were instructed to utilize the credit placement as a guide for the various widescreen showings of the standard ratio films.
Paramount technicians explain why 1.66:1 is the optimum ratio for the enormous backlog of 1.37:1 product and Universal-International demonstrated their new curved Wide-Vision screen on April 1. Warner Brothers shut down the studio during April, May and June to concentrate on developing their new All-Media camera system and to convert all departments to widescreen production. As this May 29 memo illustrates, they were keeping a close eye on the widescreen systems implemented by the other studios.
In May, American Cinematographer devoted its entire issue to widescreen and 3-D production. The following images were used to demonstrate how to compose wide while protecting for the standard ratio. Standard view-finders on cameras were modified to include colored plastic as an aid for cinematographers learning the new photographic techniques.
There was no going back-and-forth between standard and widescreen production. Once a studio had totally committed to widescreen cinematography, all departments needed to adapt. The Camera Department had to set new standards and regrind or re-mark the ground-glass camera finders, re-jigger the matte box and set new aperture plates; the Art Department had to change how it built the sets, both for height and width; the Electrical Department had to modify how low the "greens" would be set on the sound stages and determine how much ground cable was needed on the stage floor; the Title Department had to create new markings for its safe-title areas, etc. To insure that everybody was on the same page, memos would be circulated to all departments at the start of each production specifying the intended presentation ratio.
Universal-International screened their dailies in 1.85:1 for the production crew and 2:1 for studio executives to insure proper coverage.
When promoting the 3-D release of KISS ME KATE on November 8, director George Sidney told the Los Angeles Times that KATE could be presented in three different aspect ratios: 1.66, 1.75 or 1.85 to 1. He said "My cameraman, Charlie Rosher, and I had to compose every shot three different ways at the same time. What would be good for one width would not be good for another. It was tricky, but we got around it by building more tops on sets, more floor and more sets in forced perspective to enhance the depth." MGM officially recommended 1.75:1.
Multiple aspect ratios were listed to insure nervous exhibitors that all films could be presented in every theatre, regardless of their screen and projection capability. The "preferred" or "optimum" ratio would always specify the films intended look. Paramount would stress the same flexibility when they announced VistaVision the following year.
Many of these original reel bands were discarded after the initial theatrical bookings and are very rare today. Here are two from Universal-International; a 1.85:1 black and white feature and a 2.1 Technicolor release.
Lippert's trade advertisement is a little misleading: it may have been the inaugural widescreen film from Lippert, but it was not the first.
It was certainly a time of excitement but also great stress and turbulence for exhibitors throughout the country. On July 11, the vice-president of American Broadcasting-Paramount Theatres issued a plea for standards within the industry. Showmen were put in the difficult position of either changing with the times, or being left in the dark as their customers sought out bigger and better presentations at the competition. As this Ballantyne advertisement from July 18, 1953 illustrates, financially-strapped exhibitors had to reach deep into their pockets in order to upgrade their projection and sound systems.
Exhibitors were greatly concerned with a product shortage during this time. For that reason, 20th Century Fox reversed their 100% CinemaScope policy on July 15 and signed a deal with independent producer Leonard Goldstein for a series of 1.66:1 features. Panoramic Productions began filming on August 20 with THREE YOUNG TEXANS as their inaugural feature.
On July 29, 1953, THE STRANGER WORE A GUN - filmed in Technicolor, 3-D, 1.85:1 and 3 channel stereophonic sound - premiered at Loew's State Theatre in New York City. This marked the first release of a film actually composed for widescreen.
On December 5, 1953, a survey of 16,753 operating indoor domestic theaters showed that 80% of downtown theaters and 69% of neighborhood theaters had installed widescreens. In total, 58% of all U.S. theaters had gone wide by the end of 1953. The conversion was slow in the Southern and Northcentral parts of the country and that’s why the films were still protected during photography for the standard Academy ratio.
Exhibitors wanted to fill the entire opening of their proscenium. For example, a January 9, 1954 article shows how a typical 600 seat neighborhood theater installed their new screen, and the 500 seat Orpheum Theatre in Neosho, MO gets a new screen in early 1954.
Clips were shown from several films including VERA CRUZ which had begun shooting in widescreen on location in Mexico on March 1. When it premiered at New York's Capitol Theatre on December 25, 1954, the Hecht-Lancaster production was the first Superscope release. As an extra incentive to exhibitors, the price for the lens had been reduced to $395 a pair.
After three and a half years of various ratios, the dust had finally settled. By September of 1956, 1.85:1 had become the accepted non-anamorphic industry standard for widescreen presentation in the U.S.
SHORTS, CARTOONS AND NEWSREELS
Just as feature film production had converted to widescreen in mid-1953, so did other departments at each of the studios.
COLUMBIA - Began filming for 1.85:1 on March 31, 1953. The first confirmed 1.85:1 short is SPOOKS which started filming on May 11, 1953. The first widescreen serial is GUNFIGHTERS OF THE NORTHWEST which went before the cameras on June 8, 1953.
MGM - Began filming for 1.75:1 on April 8, 1953. NEWS OF THE DAY goes 1.85:1 in mid-November 1953.
PARAMOUNT - Began filming for 1.66:1 on March 16, 1953. Announced all shorts and cartoons will be widescreen on May 29, 1953. PARAMOUNT NEWS goes 1.66:1 on January 2, 1954.
REPUBLIC - Began filming for 1.66:1 on May 15, 1953. Their first widescreen serial, TRADER TOM OF THE CHINA SEAS, started filming on September 8, 1953.
RKO - Began filming for 1.66:1 and 1.75:1 on June 9, 1953. No information is available on the shorts.
20th CENTURY FOX - Began filming for 2.66:1 CinemaScope on February 24, 1953. The ratio changes to 2.55:1 on May 27, 1953. Announced the first Terrytoons for widescreen on May 28, 1953. The first CinemaScope short is CORONATION PARADE, released November 10, 1953.
Despite other newsreels going widescreen in 1953, FOX MOVIETONEWS does not produce a CinemaScope newsreel until June 1957.
UNIVERSAL-INTERNATIONAL - Began filming for 1.85:1 on March 28, 1953. Changes ratio to 2:1 on June 3. All shorts, cartoons and newsreels are widescreen starting June 1953.
WARNER BROS. - Began filming for 1.85:1 on June 8, 1953. Shuts down the animation department on June 19 with a backlog of forty completed 1.37:1 cartoons. Resumes animation work on January 4, 1954 with cartoons now designed for 1.75:1. WARNER PATHE NEWS goes 1.66:1 in mid-November 1953.
WIDESCREEN IN THE UNITED KINGDOM
In the UK, adoption of widescreen happened very quickly as well, just a few weeks after the ongoing developments in the U.S.
April 3, 1953: MGM announced 1.75:1 as their ratio for overseas presentations. It is first seen at the MGM Forum Theater in Liege, Belgium on April 3, 1953. The new panoramic screen measures 18 x 32 and will be installed in all MGM theaters abroad.
May 14, 1953: The J. Arthur Rank Organization previewed TONIGHT WE SING at the Odeon, Leicester Square. Composed for 1.37:1, it is secretly premiered on the 25 x 45 foot screen in 1.66:1.
May 22, 1953: YOUNG BESS opened at the Empire, Leicester Square in 1.75:1.
June 2, 1953: Weekly Variety reports on the inaugural West End presentations.
June 16, 1953: Variety reports that STAR OF INDIA will be the first British widescreen feature.
However, the start of principal photography is delayed until late July. Shooting is completed in early September and it opens at the Leicester Square Theatre on February 18, 1954. It is eventually released in the United States by United Artists in June, 1956.
On June 29, the first widescreen filming in Great Britain rolls at Bray Studios with Terence Fisher directing and Walter J. Harvey behind the camera. Kinematograph Weekly reported on July 2:
"All future Exclusive productions will be shot on the 1 to 1.8 ratio for wide-screen purposes. The first will be 'Trumpet Story,' Exclusive's first musical subject, which went into Bray on June 29."
EXCLUSIVE STARTS ITS FIRST WIDE-SCREEN PRODUCTION
Exclusive/Hammer’s first widescreen
production opened in the UK as FACE THE MUSIC on February 22, 1954 and is released by Lippert Pictures in the U.S. as THE BLACK GLOVE on January 29, 1954.
In mid-July, Ealing Studios began their first widescreen production with principal photography on WEST OF ZANZIBAR, shot on location for twelve weeks in Africa. Composed for 1.66:1, it premiered on March 24, 1954 at the Odeon Marble Arch and was released in the U.S. by Universal-International in January 1955.
By the end of 1953, all UK producers were composing for some form of widescreen, with ratios including 1.65, 1.66, 1.75 and 1.8. On January 21, 1954, the Kinematograph Weekly writes: "The interim report of the BKS shows that the optimum ratio is 1.65:1. This can be accommodated by 94 per cent of the kinemas in the United Kingdom within the proscenium opening and without structural alterations or reducing the present picture height. Recent inquiries show that many exhibitors have already adopted this ratio."
In March 1954, the Cinematograph Exhibitors Association sent out an elaborate questionnaire to the six principal UK production companies. They confirm that 1.65:1 will remain their intended production ratio, as previously recommended by the C.E.A.'s General Council.
However, 1.66:1 as a production ratio in the U.S. is more or less abandoned by this time. Paramount had been the prime advocate for that ratio but starting on February 13, 1954, they announced their new house ratio of 1.85:1 as the optimum presentation format. It will be recommended for all new VistaVision productions. However, they still stress flexibility to the exhibitor and state that ratios from 1.66:1 up to 2:1 are acceptable with VistaVision prints.
As a result of the expanding popularity among producers of 1.85:1, Kinematograph Weekly reported on July 8, 1954 that some British productions could be shown in 1.85:1 "without spoiling the composition of the picture."
By February 10, 1955, in an effort to "stabilize shooting methods in British studios," the Camera Technical Committee of the British Film Producers Association was now recommending 1.75:1 as the optimum ratio for British productions. Cinematographers will be instructed to compose shots loosely in order to work from 1.66:1 up to 1.85:1, with 1.75:1 being considered ideal.
On June 23, 1955, Kinematograph Weekly reported on the ratio of anamorphic films to standard widescreen. Exhibitors that had not yet invested in the CinemaScope lens were concerned over the increasing amount of anamorphic films in release at that time.
It's worth noting that for the same period in 1954, there was a clear breakdown in their report between the number of anamorphic, widescreen and “normal” (aka Academy ratio) prints. A year later, there was only anamorphic and “standard wide screen” listed. In the UK, by the summer of 1955, the Academy-only print as a presentation format was pretty much dead in the water.
On July 14 1955, there was an update of the British Standard that the BFPA, BKS, CEA and others had been working towards. It specified a common-top approach to image composition, and again recommends 1.75:1 to producers, with both 1.65 and 1.85 permissible.
On October 6, 1955, the Ideal Kinema reported: "Every projectionist will welcome the decision (reported in KINE last week) that the British Film Producers' Association has approved its technical committee's proposals for standardization on aspect ratios.
This is a matter in which the British industry, most commendably, has given a lead to the world, including the United States. The decision to standardise at a ratio of 1.75 to 1, tolerable for both 1.65 to 1 and 1.85 to 1, means that, very soon, the man in the box should be able to relax from the tiresome necessity of re-racking to prevent either topping or tailing his picture.The new standard, of course, does not apply to processes such as CinemaScope and VistaVision."
Just as UK producers were standardizing to 1.75:1, U.S. producers were settling on 1.85:1 as the non-anamorphic widescreen standard. By September of 1956, the vast majority of U.S. features were composed for either 1.85:1 or 2.55:1.
By 1958, less than 10% of British productions were intended for 1.66:1. The dominant aspect ratio at British Studios between 1955-1970 was 1.75:1. Based on research going through trade listings of hundreds of British films, as well as studio archives and other primary sources, 1.85:1 was the second most listed aspect ratio, with 1.65/1.66:1 a distant third.
In conclusion, many people do not realize that movies of all budgets, both big and small, changed to widescreen cinematography in 1953/54. Even poverty row filmmakers like Edward D. Wood Jr. adopted to the new filming technique.
When production commenced on PLAN NINE FROM OUTER SPACE in the fall of 1956, veteran cinematographer William C. Thompson was composing for 1.85:1. As these comparison frames illustrate, the intended theatrical framing not only improves his compositions, they hide some of the "mistakes" (microphone shadows, etc.) that have enhanced Wood's reputation over the years. For those who saw this film in a theatre, the errors would not have been evident. They were only seen later in 1.37:1 theatrical revivals and full-frame home video editions. Even the "restored" DVD release is in the wrong ratio. Wood and Thompson deserve better.
When mastering one of these early widescreen films today, it's crucial that both the studio photographic policy and date of principal photography are thoroughly researched utilizing documented, primary source materials. Far too many titles are still being released on DVD and Blu-ray in the wrong ratio. A little bit of research goes a long way.
We are happy to help in any way that we can with sharing our documentation.
Documented here, for the first time, are the inaugural features composed for widescreen by the twelve main U.S. distributors in 1953. They are presented chronologically in the order of production.
20th Century Fox
Starts February 24, 1953 - 2.66:1
Premieres September 16, 1953 in 2.55:1
Four track stereophonic sound
THOSE REDHEADS FROM SEATTLE
Starts March 16, 1953 - 1.66:1
Premieres September 23, 1953
Paravision 3-D - Three track stereophonic sound
WINGS OF THE HAWK
Starts March 28, 1953 - 1.85:1
Premieres August 26, 1953
3-D, Three track stereophonic sound
MISS SADIE THOMPSON
Starts March 31, 1953 - 1.85:1
Premieres December 23, 1953
Vitascope 3-D, Three track stereophonic sound
ESCAPE FROM FORT BRAVO
Starts April 8, 1953 - 1.75:1
Released December 4, 1953
Three track stereophonic sound
Starts April 15, 1953 -1.66:1
Released November 13, 1953
THE ROYAL AFRICAN RIFLES
Starts May 7, 1953 - 1.66:1
Released September 27, 1953
SINS OF JEZEBEL
Starts May 13, 1953 - 2:1
Premieres November 6, 1953
Starts May 15, 1953 - 1.66:1
Premieres November 4, 1953
APPOINTMENT IN HONDURAS
Starts May 18, 1953 - Scenic-Scope 1.66:1HONDO
Starts June 8, 1953 - 1.85:1
Premieres November 24, 1953
20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA
Buena Vista Film Distribution Co.
Starts January 11, 1954 - 2.55:1
Premieres December 23, 1954
Four track stereophonic sound
This article would not have been possible without the generous input and support from the following individuals: Greg Kintz, Doug Raynes,
Tom Crossplot, John McElwee and John Hazelton.
Thank you very much for your help.