Blogger’s Note: Be sure to read Part One of this article if you haven’t already. Please and thank you!
As the golden age of VHS was kind enough to rewind for the final hurrah, pre-recorded videotapes were as ubiquitous as grains of sand on a Florida beach. Local video rental shops were plentiful, although fewer in number with the advent of corporate monoliths such as Blockbuster Video, an establishment where if you wanted to take a film home for the night, literal walls lined with multiple copies of the latest releases awaited your selection.
Better still – where once, a trip to a specialty store to buy a videotape of a film for your personal home viewing library was required, you could now purchase a movie at a price point of under five dollars. Many of them were not exactly top-shelf material, and recorded at a higher speed for faster manufacturing (and poorer playback quality), but if you wanted to own and watch a flick, a visit to the neighborhood grocery store, pharmacy, K-Mart, or even the corner gas station was all you needed. Pick up a pack of gum, fill your tank, buy some aspirin and walk away with a copy of the then “public domain” classic of It’s a Wonderful Life for $2.99.
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) was, as Leonard Maltin so cheerfully uses the terminology in his motion picture guides, a BOMB upon release. Yes, it did okay, but for a film starring Jimmy Stewart as directed by the legendary Frank Capra, it was seen as a financial disappointment. In fact, it didn’t even break even.
Today, we celebrate it as a true Christmas holiday classic, but the film had fallen into a black hole; unloved to the point where someone somewhere forgot to file a renewal copyright application in 1974, causing the film to fall into the public domain. It’s A Wonderful Life promptly could be shown for free without paying a royalty (or in the case of home video, copies sold by any company that could find a print to dupe and make copies on VHS).
For over 20 years, It’s a Wonderful Life was an orphan film. The upside is thanks to being screened nonstop by channels thirsty for free content (I saw it myself for the first time on a local cable channel late one night in the 1980s), it truly did become a holiday favorite.
In 1993, a Supreme Court ruling helped the owners of the film once again claim a clean copyright and remove it from the public domain, which is why you can now purchase a beautifully restored version on Blu-ray from a single source with the original film elements, or watch it once again for free… this time during primetime on NBC.
At the height of the VHS boom, just about anything and everything was available on VHS for viewing in the home, from popular films to cult classics to “lost” television pilots, exercise videos, how-to videos, restaurant training videos, educational videos, movies shot on videotape and released directly to the home video market with no plans of a theatrical release, animation, short subject, documentary, and the specialty niche markets were fully and proudly represented.
Indeed it was a golden age in terms of availability and collectability. Now granted, today’s educated movie fan sneers at VHS for many reasons, primarily at the poor visual and sound quality that videotape offers. Even during the deluge of material during the heyday of home video via VHS, the format was not without detractors. In terms of the general populace, most were unaware that almost any of the films made from the early 1950s forward being watched on videotape were incomplete and often missing a third to one half of the image, or more.
Longtime film fans might remember this disclaimer at the start of videocassettes:
“This film has been modified from its original version. It has been formatted to fit this screen.”
Essentially, if you were watching a video cassette version of Blade Runner, Lawrence of Arabia or The Wild Bunch, the widescreen image as designed by the director and screened in theaters was butchered.
Amazingly enough, films shot in the widescreen format date back to 1897, but it wasn’t used widely until the late 1920s. In 1927, the film Napoleon included a final sequence filmed in “Polyvision.” Later versions of widescreen film making used processes such as NaturalVision, Fox Grandeur, Realife, and Vitascope. However, due to the Great Depression impacting the entire country, widescreen was abandoned until the fifties, where the technology returned to help lure television viewers into theaters with a grandiose image impossible to replicate at home.
Once the VHS revolution began, however, television viewers used to watching films on the idiot box didn’t know any better. VHS images provided the same familiar 4:3 aspect ratio viewing window of the standard television screen. How this was accomplished when widescreen aspect ratios generally worked with what we know today as 16:9 dimensions was crudely simple.
I offer you a three-word term that still strikes horror in the hearts of any cinephile:
Pan and Scan
While the term sounds like a dish washing accessory, “pan and scan” is essentially the adjustment of the widescreen movie image to fit within the square shape of the standard definition 4:3 television screen. How this was accomplished was having the film edited to try and capture the “main” image or action while tossing away the other parts of the picture. As you might imagine, directors who took full advantage of the landscape of what they were filming were ill-served by this technique, with musicals such as West Side Story losing several dancers when screened on television or via home video, and the carefully composed imagery seen in the films of the legendary Italian Western director Sergio Leone utterly castrated. Try watching a pan and scan version of Once Upon a Time in the West, and you’ll see what I mean.
Better yet, take time to watch this short five-minute video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5m1-pP1-5K8) produced by Turner Classic Movies in which directors such as Martin Scorsese and David Fincher use visual examples from classic films to demonstrate just how awful pan and scan is in terms of damaging a motion picture shot in widescreen. I remember at an early age raging at films that had the opening credits letter-boxed to include all of the written information about the actors and creators, only to slam into a “zoomed up” pan and scan image the moment the movie started.
Now, some companies such as Anchor Bay were releasing video cassettes with the correct aspect ratios. There were identified as widescreen with the collector in mind. Widescreen for home viewing was also available via the laser disc format, which again, was the best way to watch and enjoy films at home with better picture and sound quality for many years.
This was the world until 1997 when the first DVD (Digital Versatile Disc) players were introduced. Jaw-droppingly expensive, with some models as high as a thousand dollars in 1990s currency, they were hard to find and came with a limited number of equally-pricey films available. As usual with new technology, it took several years for the prices to fall and the offerings to increase to begin the death knell for the VCR and the video cassette. Many at the time believed the DVD would never gain in popularity beyond the niche of the laser disc, but I wasn’t one of these.
My friend (and comic book artist) Al Bigley tells of how we were inside a Media Play store in Charlotte, N.C. one day and wandering the aisles. Media Play’s tagline was “Music Books Movies,” and they offered all of it in droves within the four walls of their massive big-box retail locations. They also had toys, posters, t-shirts, and other pop culture merchandise and for the budget-included, even used items. For a quick glimpse of the inside of a typical Media Play, enjoy this 30 second commercial from the collection of the TelevisionArchives: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7tLbt8IMkC4
As the norm was in the 1990s, VHS still dominated the walls of the movie section, but some DVDs were being offered as well. “You wait,” I told Al, “In a few years, DVDs will be the norm. Better picture, great sound, director’s commentaries. Videotapes won’t last.” Al wasn’t entirely convinced, but he still vividly remembers that conversation and brings it up from time to time.
I still have my first player – a Sony CD/DVD Player DVP-360 with Digital Cinema Sound. Today, it’s used for playback in my grandchildren’s room along with a Zenith VCR (say what you will about early technology, but it keeps chugging along for the next generation). The same day I purchased the Sony, I also bought three DVDs: The Hidden, Tremors and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure. Acquiring classic films such as The Maltese Falcon came later – I had most of those on VHS, and DVD prices were still high enough to give a person pause. Plus, the noir films I loved were shot in an aspect ratio of 1:37:1, so no pan and scan was necessary.
In a few years, rental outlets had DVD cases in place of their discarded VHS boxes, and along with DVDs came a more enlightened movie-watching public. For many years, DVDs came with both the widescreen AND the pan and scan versions of a film, but eventually, pan and scan disappeared from television screens. I’d like to credit the DVD entirely for this, but the introduction of widescreen televisions soon enlightened viewers that unlike my late father (who insisted letter-boxed images were cheating him of part of the image that full-screen viewing presented), widescreen was the only way to go.
Time passed, and soon VHS was relegated to the front lawns of local yard sales and shelves of your neighborhood thrift store; replaced in the home by the DVD. In addition to the previously mentioned, DVD improved picture and sound quality, required no rewinding, ease of access to chapter stops to jump to your favorite parts of the film, took up less storage space in your entertainment center, and never unspooled or shredded in the player.
Of course, time moves forward, and the high-definition television became a household regular. Suddenly, the DVD image wasn’t as impressive as before, and the upgrade of Blu-ray players and discs arrived to take full advantage of 1080p clarity. Making the Blu-ray player even more popular was the ability to playback your DVDs. Currently, new large screen televisions are known as 4K Ultra HD, which is four times the pixels as seen via 1080p. 4K players will still play your DVD and Blu-ray collections, but to really see the clarity available, you will need to purchase 4K mastered discs.
Full disclosure: I’m perfectly happy with Blu-ray technology. The discs are surprisingly affordable, with most catalog titles found between five and ten dollars, and recently released films under twenty (which always drop in price within a year’s time, so be patient). Many film fans are content with the DVD, which is still an attractive image and most discs are loaded with bonuses. Most collectors I know have collections that are a mix of DVD and Blu-ray discs. Sometimes you upgrade older titles, but remember that there is a slew of films that haven’t made the leap from DVD to Blu-ray.
Same goes for those of us holding onto VHS … because there are thousands of titles that remain available only in that format. In 2018, the American Genre Film Archive (AGFA) and theater chain Alamo Drafthouse launched an initiative to preserve films that only exist on VHS. There are the movies that no longer have any of the original celluloid film elements, and only exist today on the home videotape release. If the VHS copy isn’t sourced and digitized, there is no other way to keep the movie from being lost.
So, we live in a world where a film collector is offered a bounty of delights. Preservation efforts abound. Remastered images that are often superior to how the film looked during its original theatrical release are ours for the viewing. Obscure films from the major studios can be purchased on DVD or Blu-ray directly from studio sponsored online outlets, crafted in limited numbers for the fan such as myself who loves a cult film like The Hidden, who owned it on VHS, DVD, and now, thanks to the Warner Archive Collection (https://www.wbshop.com/collections/warner-archive), I can enjoy it on Blu-ray.
And yet, when I read about this cornucopia of film goodness on the Internet, I still hear proclamations that “Physical Media is Dead.” Streaming is the new way of watching films, where movies can be seen in high-definition without the hassle of having to buy a tangible object. Wait for it on Amazon Prime some say. Rent it on YouTube others cry. Many are buying into this nonsense. For some, DVDs are going the way of the VHS cassette, being sold by the box-full for less than $1.00 a copy via flea markets and online via Facebook Marketplace.
Don’t you believe it!
Physical media is alive and thriving. The numbers might have lessened from the heyday of home video, but every week brings new and obscure, cult and mainstream, remastered and preserved films on disc for the collector. In so many ways, this is THE time to be a fan of movies. And for those unenlightened ones who are selling their celluloid dreams for pennies on the dollar?
Well, as I said earlier, this is indeed a wonderful time for us film collectors … and our wallets.