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Yellow Layer Failure, Vinegar Syndrome and Miscellaneous Musings by Robert A. Harris

Robert A. Harris - Main Page

Both last month and this, Warner Home Video has released a veritable treasure trove of classic films of the 1930s and '40s. This is an unusual move in a market in which studios will generally offer an "A" title along with an "A-" and a few "Bs" - Warner has not dropped below an "A." The films are of further interest in that they not only exhibit different technologies as far as color and black & white are concerned, but point up the differences between duping technologies as seen during that period.

While we're giving some space to older film elements, it would be proper to spend some words on precisely what these older productions can and should look like on DVD. I don't believe that one can find a more perfect representation of films for our purposes than this group.

In two fell swoops came Mutiny on the Bounty*, Grand Hotel*, Goodbye, Mr. Chips*, Mrs. Miniver* and The Great Ziegfeld* followed this month by Ziegfeld Girl*, For Me and My Gal*, Love Finds Andy Hardy*, In the Good Old Summertime* (a musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner*, and the inspiration for You've Got Mail), and finally the crème de la crème of the collection, Meet Me in St. Louis* RAH.

I noted a discussion on Home Theater Forum that concerned what were considered bad dupes, grainy and contrasty footage with imbedded dirt and scratches, and even worse optical sections - noted as "problems" in the DVD of the 1935 Best Picture, Mutiny on the Bounty*.

I believe that this deserves a proper explanation as a guide to what expectations should be when one purchases a DVD of a classic film today.

It should first be noted that the look of a film on DVD is based upon a number of things: The age of the production, the inventory of surviving film elements representing both image and sound, how those film elements have been handled by those responsible for their preservation and / or restoration (if necessary), the final selection of film elements to be used for video transfer, and finally the quality of the work and the interest of the individual responsible for transferring, compressing and authoring the image and audio to the DVD.

While each and every one of these titles has not been restored, the DVDs are a superb record of the current condition of these titles. It can be assumed that aside from calamities such as fires, floods and losses at sea, the quality of a motion picture can generally be assumed by the period in which a film was produced, the studio that produced it, and probably most important, the success of the film in terms of the number of prints and other materials struck over the years, and who did the laboratory work.

M-G-M took exceptionally good care of their film elements over the years, in part because they owned their own laboratory and created their own controls and systems. That Mutiny on the Bounty* looks as it does - in a word, shopworn - has very little to do with the care given it by M-G-M. Shot and released before the advent of quality duplicating materials, the original negative would have been used to strike whatever prints were created during at least the initial ten or fifteen years of its life. Duping materials were simply not good, and the quality of the projected image was of highest importance.

What one sees today when viewing this new DVD is decades of damage, the resultant dupe shots or sections and original dupes which had been built in for dissolves and fades. It should be understood that if a shot of original negative is damaged, it must be copied from some type of positive (either full contrast print or fine grain) to create a new printing negative. This would leave (at best), a third generation dupe. If an effects section is damaged (already generation three), the resultant shot would then be fifth generation - not a pretty picture. Although a nominal "duplicating" stock was available in the mid-1920s, its coarse grain structure and enormous gains in contrast made it all but unusable for the production of final release prints. It was not until 1937 that Kodak created and released its first real emulsions designed for film duplication.

Eastman 1365 was designed for the production of fine grain masters, which would be derived from original negatives, and 1203 for the creating of duplicate printing negatives, which could be used for both foreign distribution as well as for effects sections, such as fades or dissolves.

Although specifically purposed, these elements were far from nirvana, and duping materials that could add a veil of invisibility to fine grain masters, color interpositives and both color and black & white duplicate negatives did not make their appearance for decades. It was not until about 1958 for black and white 5234 duplicating negative and 1966 for a corresponding fine grain duplicating positive stock that would allow quality results.

Color duplicating materials did not have any sort of "transparency" until 1986, when Eastman 5253 was replaced by 5243, yielding an image on a dupe virtually unidentifiable as such. Until that time Eastman color productions were either printed from their original negatives, or via the Technicolor dye transfer process. Those which went the direct positive route, such as Hitchcock's Rear Window* were heavily worn and damaged by the end of their initial runs. Those that went the dye transfer route can be found today as pristine, but generally faded beyond use.

What one does not see are just how good our modern duplicating stocks have become and the transparency of those newer preservation stocks. So while forty or fifty years of wear and damage are quite apparent, there are also beautiful reels and sequences taken from original materials to the latest stocks which also give a superb idea of what those sections of the film looked like in 1935.

To place this in a better concept as far as time, going back an equal number of years from the date of production (1935) as from that date to today, takes one directly into the period of the Civil War. That is how old these elements are. And the fact that they have survived at all is a testament to those who oversaw their use and preservation.

At the other end of the problematic preservation spectrum one will find a film like Meet Me in St. Louis*.

Produced in 1944, sixty years ago, and with high quality surviving elements, Warner Bros. has taken the three-strip Technicolor records and created what (to my eye) is the most perfect representation of the three-strip process yet to hit DVD.

To give this DVD anything less than a rating of ten on a scale of ten would be understatement. It should probably rank an eleven for perfection.

The DVD of Meet Me in St. Louis* is nothing short of amazing, and kudos should go out to the entire team that took these elements through the digital process, as well as those who gathered the additional material found on the disc and worked to make them available. The huge list of extras is inclusive of the pilot episode for a TV series and a Vitaphone short entitled Bubbles, the earliest surviving material on the Gumm sisters, apparently originally produced in two color Technicolor, but surviving only in black & white.

This two-disc set has the fingerprints of Warner's exec George Feltenstein all over it.

And for those who love classic cinema, that's a good thing.


To place this in an even more interesting light, and while I prefer not to dwell on the negatives, one need only compare MMiSL* to the two latest three-strip releases from Fox, Cheaper by the Dozen and Belles on Their Toes, to see precisely how bad three-strip Technicolor can look if handled improperly. These are films that should not have been released to DVD in their current state of decay.

On the positive side for Fox, and fitting in very much with the discussion of duplicating materials, is Fox's latest release (April 6) in their series of Studio Classics, a series of DVDs in which the word "classic" is used for films which actually should be considered as such.

The Grapes of Wrath* has been looking gray and tired for decades, and it's nice to see the result of the studio's work which has gone into creating new film elements which both preserve and restore this landmark film to very close to its former glory.

Both the audio and visual elements of Grapes* are so far removed from what they looked like only as far back as their laserdisc release, that Fox's new addition to their Classics lineup is a cause for celebration.

The Grapes of Wrath* has been restored from a partial duplicate negative and a fine grain master positive, with the resultant new dupe elements passed through video cleanup for a beautiful presentation.

Based upon the novel by John Steinbeck, translated to the screen with a superb screenplay by Nunnally Johnson and directed by John Ford, this 1940 production is worthy of your attention. I have never seen Gregg Toland's cinematography look better.


Ken Annakin's Magnificent Men* is one of my favorite films of the mid-1960s.

Photographed in 65mm Todd-AO, lovingly directed and acted by a sizeable cast inclusive of some of the era's best, this film (which shares one of the longest titles along with Marat / Sade) has made its way to DVD in a workmanlike manner, but beneath the quality of Fox's Hello, Dolly!, a film of the same era, photographed on the same stock and in the same format.

Let me be perfectly clear. This is in no way a problematic disc. Like the minimal shortcomings of the recent re-issue of My Fair Lady, anyone with a monitor diagonally sized at less than about 60 inches will be more than pleased.

My problem is that we now know, even understanding the shortcomings of our domestic NTSC format, precisely how good a well-produced DVD from a high end source can look projected on a large screen. And we've been given Hello, Dolly!

A quick check of transfer speed compares a lower overall bit rate. With running times of approximate length, the loss of quality, and its associated more pixilated look of Men has probably been caused by the additional materials offered on the single dual layered disc.

The pity is that Mr. Annakin's work, which should have been discovered by many for the first time, will be seen via less than perfect means. With its many long shots and aerial views, my vote would have been to give MM a second disc for the extras and allow the feature itself to shine as it did in its 70mm road show performances.

That said, I must recommend Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines, or How I Flew From London to Paris in 25 Hours 11 Minutes* to anyone with the desire to simply sit back, relax and enjoy Mr. Annakin's beautiful film.


Fox will also soon be releasing the final set of what has been dubbed the Marilyn Monroe Collection. While we have been treated to the later films of her Fox productions, the newest group offers her earlier films, inclusive of As Young as you Feel, Let's Make it Legal, Love Nest (all three 1951) and We're Not Married (1952).

In some ways to call these Marilyn Monroe films is a bit of a misnomer, as Ms. Monroe did not have star billing. Her billing in the earliest at fifth.

And this in some ways is a pity, as the set may go overlooked by many seeking her starring productions.

The fact is that these are delightful little films that don't depend upon Ms. Monroe to make them viable. As Young as You Feel was written by Paddy Chayefsky and has a superb cast, and We're Not Married is a Ginger Rogers, Fred Allen vehicle written by Nunnally Johnson, who also wrote the screenplay for John Ford's Grapes of Wrath*

All four of these films are nicely transferred and in beautiful black & white.

With the release of these final four, Fox has lowered the price of the first two box sets, for those who don't already own them, from $80 to $50, which means that they should soon be streeting at under $37 for five films, making it the buy of the season.

At the same time, Fox will release the 1954 Irving Berlin musical, Call Me Madam, starring Ethel Merman and Donald O'Connor. Unlike Fox's other recent three-strip films, this one is representative of the look of the original. Also on April 20, comes a film which I found extremely interesting in light of last year's Chicago*.

Roxie Hart*, a 1942 production starring Ginger Rogers was partially the basis for Chicago*. The 1942 production itself was a remake of a 1927 silent named (appropriately) Chicago produced by DeMille Pictures. Roxie Hart* is a fast-paced little gem...

produced and written by...

Nunnally Johnson.


While most people, if they've even heard of it, will relate to Zoetrope Studios as a place, it is more than that. In many ways, it's a state of mind.

When Francis Coppola bought the old Hollywood General Studio, the intent was to re-create on a smaller level, something akin to the studio system that existed before those Hollywood entities were taken over by big business and multi-national conglomerates.

Zoetrope was a tiny lot which brought together many of the best talents in the business - both old and young. If the intent is to create a unique musical entertainment, and your last production had you living in jungles for months upon end and you want to be in a controlled environment...

What better model might one find that a film like Black Narcissus* directed by the legendary Michael Powell nearly sixty years ago.

But the Zoetrope ethic didn't stop there.

Rather than do what any other Hollywood filmmaker might, which would be to request a copy and screen it, Francis did one better.

He brought Michael Powell to Zoetrope as an advisor.

Since what Zoetrope intended to create was a musically based entertainment, mixed with a certain amount of legit stage background, they brought in yet another retiree, one Gene Kelly.

All of this was the basis for One From the Heart*, a film which began as a moderately budgeted feature, but which took on a life of its own and blossomed to over twenty million dollars.

One From the Heart* was not precisely what the studios, which might have distributed it, expected. More free form than strictly scripted; more a mixture of theatrical and film devices than pure cinema; more a tone poem about relationships than a typical Hollywood drama about the sexes.

Screening by Zoetrope in early 1982 not for the studio (Paramount), but for the public at an intimate venue called Radio City Music Hall only added to an unfortunate turn of events, with Zoetrope executives and Mr. Coppola taking heat from a press already sniping at their heels.

One From the Heart* was eventually distributed on a limited basis by Columbia, and quickly disappeared from the scene with not a bang, but a whimper.

After availability on VHS and laserdisc, OFTH has finally made its way to DVD via the Fantoma label. Although in a slightly different cut than has been seen previously, the Zoetrope-approved transfer is exemplary and the two disc set fully packed with thoughtful extras which not only give background to the pre-production, production, post-production and aftermath, but in many ways are a self-contained course in film production.

Not to all tastes, but a brilliant piece of filmmaking and Hollywood history, One From the Heart* comes highly recommended.


Back in 1948 there was a purge at Universal. Not like the Soviet purges, but rather a cinematic purge.

An order went out from management that any negative, which did not have a corresponding optical soundtrack, was to be junked. So up in smoke or down to the depths of the Pacific went the history of one of the major Hollywood studios.

What has survived today comes from elements either overlooked by the studio junkers, archives or collectors who meticulously ferreted away rolls of unwanted history.

And among the thousands of rolls of film junked during the episode were the original nitrate 35mm negatives to two versions of the original Phantom of the Opera*. Junked were black and white nitrate negatives, two-color Technicolor negatives and other rolls in varying formats that had been used to create the original prints of what had been one of the most heralded films of the silent era.

The fate of Phantom of the Opera* was both hindered and helped by the fact that it fell into the public domain in 1953, after the studio neglected to renew for copyright the film which they had destroyed.

For decades Phantom could be seen in either one of two versions, or a combination of both, haphazardly cut together by varying vendors in an approximation of the filmmaker's original intent.

Finally, with Milestone's two disc release of their new Phantom* DVD, we can be treated to two versions of the film, which at least approximate those intentions.

The first disc contains the reconstruction and restoration done several years ago by Kevin Brownlow's Photoplay Productions, and with the exception of some PAL to NTSC or speed-conversion ghosting, will most assuredly be the best that this film will look unless the future holds some major new discovery of heretofore unseen film elements. The ghosting seen here is quite obvious and apparently delivered as part of the package from England and not added by Milestone.

The restoration has several tracks inclusive of a new musical score by Carl Davis, parts of the synchronized tracks surviving from the 1930 re-issue, and a commentary track by Scott MacQueen.

For those unaware, Mr. MacQueen is one of the best providers of commentaries on the classic cinema. If you listen carefully, you'll learn more about Phantom*, the cast, crew, restoration, surviving elements, versions and politics than one would believe possible via this format. For some this may seem overkill, as it is extremely well researched and presented, and is virtually never-ending.

For those with an interest in the classic silent cinema, and I count myself among that group, this is nirvana.

In addition, on disc two (also with extras) is the original 1925 version derived from not untypical 16mm elements. Presented for historical purposes only, one can begin to imagine, having previously viewed the re-issue version, the look and editing of this version of the film, which has just barely survived.


As I was putting this column together, it was suggested that I view Tipping the Velvet*. I had never heard of it, but as a very recent release of a 2002 BBC offering, decided to give it a try. What I discovered was a superb entertainment. One of the benefits of doing a column of this sort is that it gives one the ability to make recommendations toward the viewing of works that many have never heard of. Once in a while you discover a diamond in the rough.

Filmmaker Geoff Sax, who heretofore has used his talents in the British television arena, and is finally making a move to the theatrical format with White Noise has created a superb entertainment which has been published by Acorn Media.

I've always been a sucker for cyclical tales that build upon themselves, especially if fate becomes one of the participants. Mr. Sax's Tipping the Velvet*, based upon the novel by Sarah Waters, and with a screenplay penned by Andrew Davies, who gave us Bridget Jones's Diary and the recent Doctor Zhivago, is a beautifully acted and produced three part production (178 minutes) with haunting textures of Dickens (albeit half a century later), Fielding (albeit over a century later) and Victor / Victoria. Viewing it reminded me how much I'd welcome a DVD of Little Dorrit, available only as a boxed laserdisc.

Tipping the Velvet* is more than that. Beautifully hewn, facetted and polished, this is a film of gem quality and is highly recommended, with the caveat that it is not for children. It is also the first work that I've noted of British cinematographer Cinders Forshaw, BSC - another name that I'll look forward to seeing again in credits. She has done double duty - not only beautifully photographing the two leads, Keeley Hawes and Rachael Stirling, but also in reproducing the look and feel of some of the grimier back streets and alleys of London at the turn of the century. Ms. Forshaw's work is presented on DVD as an anamorphically enhanced image in 1.85:1.

Director Sax, who was responsible for Dr. Who, the recent TV version of Othello and a string of other work for British television is a filmmaker to be watched.


Also recently released by Warner are two Luchino Visconti productions, The Damned* and Death in Venice*, both lovingly transferred to the DVD format. These two films will shortly be joined by Criterion's release of the 1963 Technirama production of The Leopard*, with a cast led by Burt Lancaster. Several months ago, I was able to see a test pressing of a few scenes and can report that the quality will be extraordinary, as the transfer is based upon the original 8 perf negative.


Paramount has re-issued Mr. DeMille's own remake of his original silent 10 Commandments*, now with the addition of a detailed commentary and a group of quality extras. Is it worth upgrading for the additional materials? If you like the film and have an interest in film history, the answer is a resounding "yes."


Columbia has added to their growing list of classic titles with The Front*, a superb film which pits Woody Allen against the Senator Joseph McCarthy and his notorious Committee. One of the memories of viewing this film, which was created and acted by many of the persecuted is an end credit sequence that reminds one of the truth of the situation that existed sixty years ago as careers were destroyed by our government and those who "represented" us.

The Front* is a film which comes highly recommended.

Another delight is Jack Lemmon's first Hollywood production, George Cukor's It Should Happen to You* starring Judy Holliday and written by Garson Kanin. Previously, Mr. Lemmon could be seen in a Signal Corps production.


There are a number of additional new releases that should not go unmentioned.

Schindler's List* may be the most important film to be recently released. I don't believe that anyone needs to be told what a superb film this is or to review it for DVD. The film has been nicely brought to DVD by Universal.

High Wind in Jamaica* is a delightful film directed by Alexander Mackendrick, who was responsible for Tight Little Island, The Sweet Smell of Success and The Ladykillers*. High Wind is a family drama with wonderful turns by Anthony Quinn and James Coburn.

The Osterman Weekend* is a well-packaged set which "commemorates" the 20th anniversary of the film's production. Anchor Bay has issued two versions of the film. The final cut as well as the director's cut of the film, ported over from what was probably a beta tape.

For those who collect the work of Sam Peckinpah, this will be a welcome addition of what sadly was his final film. Although short on budget, the film still comes across with the requisite Peckinpah style best seen in his production of The Wild Bunch.

Gothika is an interesting horror film that works, keeping one step ahead of the audience and leaving a reasonable number of chills in its wake. While one might not wish to try to make sense of every twist and turn in this psycho-thriller (and sometimes this is impossible), I recommend it for the ride, which is great fun.

Two interesting titles have come from Columbia. Fire Down Below is one of the final films to make use of the 2.55:1 CinemaScope format. A Walk on the Wild Side, nicely transferred in black & white, boasts a classic main title sequence from Saul Bass and a superb score by Elmer Bernstein.

The Criterion Collection has come up with a new restoration of Renoir's 1939 classic Rules of the Game*, which has never looked better and should be required viewing by anyone who loves film.

Also from Criterion comes Diary of a County Priest*, directed by Robert Bresson and photographed by Leonce Henri-Burel, who was also the cinematographer on Abel Gance's Napoleon.


I was fortunate enough to see Peter Weir's Master and Commander* at the AMPAS theater last year, loved the film as I do Mr. Weir's other work, and as I sat taking in the extraordinary quality of the audio began to wonder how Fox might handle the film when it came time to present it on DVD.

As you've probably been reading elsewhere, Fox has done total justice to the film. Not only from a standpoint of the presentation of the film itself, but from a myriad of extra featurettes, background to the production, and a veritable film production course taking in audio and multiple camera photography.

While I intend to spend more time with this set of discs, I wanted to bring them to the attention of those who have an interest in production, especially students, as the two disc set, which is priced seven dollars higher than the film by itself, will be the one to pre-order and purchase.

As an example of the extra material on disc two is an interactive audio demonstration involving the recording of cannon fire. Your remote will enable you to audition any one, or combinations of the recordings from different mics in different locations - beside, behind, in front of, and at the target. One can go with a single mic location or all six from any perspective, giving the listener a superb idea of what went into the production planning and recording of the effects track for this superb film.

As mentioned, image and audio on this release are both exemplary and state of the art. My intent in mentioning these facts early is to gently push potential purchasers directly in the line of fire of the two-disc set.

Master and Commander* will be one of the major "demo" discs of 2004.

Robert Harris


* Designates a film worthy of purchase on DVD. RAH Designates a film worth of "blind" purchase on DVD.

Don't forget - you can CLICK HERE to discuss this article with Robert and other home theater enthusiasts online right now at The Home Theater Forum. And speaking of that, thanks to the HTF's Ron Epstein for the picture of Robert seen in the column graphic above.

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