Vitaphone View: Early Talkies in Widescreen? Yup!
In previous blogs, I’ve discussed just how massive and fast the transition to sound films was. It was also very expensive. Consider for example the cost of wiring over 12,000 theatres for sound. While some opted to go the disk-only route using cheap knock-off brand turntables, the average cost to properly wire one theatre for sound with Western Electric equipment was about $25,000. That’s $370,000 in 2018 money – Per theatre! Most theatres had to add a second projectionist to handle the hectic process of switching film and disks from one projector to the other. And as the sound came in, studios began extracting payment on every ticket sold, in addition to the daily rental costs.
On the studio side, every stage had to be soundproofed and fully equipped to make talkies. Now sound engineers had to be hired and paid, new cameras, microphones and sound editing equipment purchased. And the loss of foreign market, at least at the transition to talkies, meant less revenue coming in. Filming in Technicolor, whether for individual musical sequences or, like Warner Bros On with the Show and Gold Diggers of Broadway (both 1929) meant drastically higher raw footage and processing costs.
So it is easy to see why William Fox met vigorous resistance when he rolled out the studio’s new 70mm widescreen process – dubbed Grandeur – amid these skyrocketing costs and industry upheaval.
Widescreen motion pictures can trace their roots back to 1897 when a 63mm (vs standard 35mm width) George Eastman stock was used to film the entire 100-minute Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight. In 1926 and 1927 pioneer filmmakers J. Stuart Blackton (a founder of silent studio Vitagraph) teamed with inventors George K. Spoor and John Berggren to produce two films in their Naturalvision process which used 63.5 mm film in a 2 to 1 frame ratio. These failed to spur interest in the industry for widescreen pictures.
A comparison of standard 35mm film vs 70mm Grandeur widescreen film.
Vanda Krefft ’s superb and comprehensive recent biography on Fox, The Man who Made the Movies (Harper, 2017) details the mogul’s efforts to promote his Grandeur system to the entire industry. But like many inventions, initially, his timing was just horrible. Coming on the heels of massive expenditures by the studios on converting to sound and wiring thousands of theatres, any momentum the system may have had was then killed by the stock market crash in October of 1929.
Ad for Happy Days (’30).
The previous month, Fox premiered Grandeur with his The William Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 at New York’s Gaiety Theatre. As Krefft notes:
“The only Grandeur projectors in existence  installed at a total cost of $150,000 plus $5000 for the special screen, were prototypes… Adolph Zukor [Paramount] and RCA’s David Sarnoff visited Fox to urge him to call off the event. It was too soon for another industry upheaval, they argued.”
Inside the Carthay Circle Theatre program wee taped sample of both standard 35mm film and the wider 70mm Fox Grandeur film.
Fox plowed ahead with the other studios either ignoring wide screen entirely or attempting token efforts, mainly in shorts as a novelty. After using Grandeur in an edition of his Fox Movietone Newsreel (“It Speaks For Itself”), the studio used the process in his musical Happy Days (’30), the John McCormack feature Song O’ My Heart (’30) (never screened publicly in widescreen) and his all-in western feature The Big Trail (’30), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring John Wayne at the beginning of his long career.
This is the Grandeur widescreen opening title for Fox Film’s The Big Trail (1930), starring John Wayne.
The Big Trail was shot simultaneously in standard 35 mm and in 70 mm Grandeur. Costing $1.8 million, it was the most expensive feature Fox Film had ever made up to that time. But theatres were financially unable to install the equipment needed to show the feature to best advantage in Grandeur. Ultimately, 99 % of patrons saw it in standard 35mm, and the picture lost over $1 million. And while costs were a clear stumbling block to Grandeur’s success, Krefft points out that “resistance to Grandeur arose mainly from concern over a lack of standardization — other companies had been developing rival widescreen technologies and different aspect ratios.”
One of the few Grandeur features to survive completely in that format (The Bat Whispers (UA/’30) and the final reel of Happy Days (Fox/’30) are the others), The Big Trail has since been recognized as a major achievement in filmmaking and in 2006, The Library of Congress added it to its National Film Registry.
Comparison of the opening title cards for The Bat Whispers (UA/’30). Left is 35mm and right is Grandeur widescreen version.
Autographed cast photo from William Fox’s Happy Days (’30), filmed in both standard 35mm and 70mm Grandeur versions. The final reel survives in Grandeur.
But after it flopped in late 1930, The Big Trail closed the curtain on widescreen motion pictures for 23 years. By 1953, ironically it was the same studio, Fox, that developed and promoted a new widescreen process dubbed Cinemascope. It used an anamorphic lens that “squeezed” the picture onto 35mm film and then the projector lens “unsqueezed” it to create the 2.4/ 2.55 to 1 screen aspect ratio. Launched to fight the erosion in theatre attendance due to television, this time it was a success.
A visualization of how the wider 70mm Fox Grandeur film could show more on the screen as compared to standard 35mm film.
Widescreen films were not the only technology victims in the early 1930’s. In 1931, RCA Victor launched a new 33 1/3 rpm home phonograph and a line on “long playing” records to be used on them. It flopped, again primarily due to poor timing in the midst of the depression. Television, too, was slowed in its development during the thirties, due not only to the Depression but also because of commercial radio’s tremendous success and the industry not wanting to undermine it.
Both long-playing records and television for the home finally had their turn to succeed in the late 1940’s. But today William Fox’s Grandeur is a long-forgotten footnote in film history.
The following list of widescreen shorts and features was kindly provided by Louie Despres:
Grandeur films made
Fox Grandeur News (Sept 17, 1929) short
Niagara Falls (Sept 17, 1929) short
Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (Sept 17, 1929) – only parts of the film were shown in Grandeur
Happy Days (Feb 13, 1930)
Hudson River Bridge (March 1930) short
Song O’ My Heart (March 1930) – never screened in Grandeur
The Big Trail (Oct 2, 1930)
Grandeur films that exist
MoMA has preserved the following in 35mm anamorphic:
Grandeur Test Shots
Fox Granduer News & outtakes
One reel of Happy Days– the minstrel number, the final reel
Hudson River Bridge
The Big Trail – survives complete
Other Grandeur style films
Magnachrome (35mm 2-perf)
Oui, Oui Marie (Universal, Sept 1930) short – one reel in widescreen found in 2017.
You’re in the Army Now (Paramount, 1929) short
The Bat Whispers (United Artists, 1930) – survives complete
NATURAL VISION (63.5mm)
Campus Sweethearts (RKO, 1929) short – never shown in widescreen. Lost.
Danger Lights (RKO, November 1930) – survives in 35 mm only
Niagara Falls (November 1930) Vitaphone short
REAL-LIFE (70mm neg/35mm print)
Billy the Kid (MGM, Oct 1930)
The Great Meadow (MGM, March 1931) – never shown in widescreen
Larry Ceballos Review (Warner Bros, Vitaphone July 1930 short
A Soldier’s Plaything (Warner Bros, July 1930) – not released in widescreen
Kismet (Warner Bros, Oct 1930) – lost
The Lash (Warner Bros, Dec 1930) – survives in 35 mm only
– Ron Hutchinson, Founder of The Vitaphone Project, for Classic Movie Hub
Ron is widely recognized as one of the country’s foremost film historians, with special emphasis on the period covering the transition to sound (1925-30) and early attempts to add sound to film. As the founder of The Vitaphone Project, he has worked with Warner Brothers, UCLA, LOC and private collectors worldwide to find previously lost soundtrack discs and restore early sound shorts. Ron’s unique knowledge has been sourced in over 25 books as well as documentaries for PBS and TCM, and commentary for “The Jazz Singer” DVD boxed set. He was awarded the National Society of Film Critics “Film Heritage Honor” for his work in film preservation and discoveries, and was the presenter of rare Vitaphone shorts at the 2016 TCM Film Festival. For more information you can visit the Vitaphone Project website or Facebook Group.
And, if you’re interested in exploring some of these newly discovered shorts and rarities, you can pick them up on DVD via amazon: