In an email sent yesterday, George Stevens, Jr. — producer, director, AFI founder and son of legendary director George Stevens — shared information about the forthcoming Bluray of Shane, which he’s worked on with Technicolor under Paramount Home Video. He said that Warner Home Video, which bought Shane last fall along with other Paramount catalogue titles, will distribute the Bluray later this year. And yet, Stevens said, this digitally remastered Shane will be presented in 1.66, an aspect ratio that his father had never heard of and certainly didn’t compose for when he and dp Loyal Griggs shot Shane between July and October 1951.
Stevens edited Shane all during 1952, and the now-classic western opened in April 1953. As it happened this was the exact month when the big studios began to declare that all Academy-ratio films had to be projected with a simulated widescreen aspect ratio in order to make movies look wider and grander than TV. And so Shane was projected at 1.66 at the Radio City Music Hall and other venues. But cooler heads have prevailed in the decades since, the result being that for the last half-century or so Shane has been seen at 1.37 on broadcast TV, VHS, laser disc and DVD.
But now the Bluray, according to Stevens, is essentially going back to the old fake standard, lopping off the tops and bottoms in order to decrease the width of the black bars when people watch the Shane Bluray on 16 x 9 high-def screens. With only slender, barely noticable black bars on either side of the image, the 1.66 version will fill most of the screen.
Stevens also told me yesterday afternoon that a 1.37 version (which he called “an Academy aspect ratio version matching the original”) had been prepared for high-def/Bluray viewing. But he said that he was very satisfied with the look of the 1.66 version. and that “given the choice of having a 1:37 version placed in the center of a horizontal television screen with bars on each side, or a carefully configured 1:66 to 1 version that filled the screen, I am confident George Stevens would subscribe to the latter.” I replied that this decision was probably causing his father to turn in his grave.
Clearly the most sensible and respectable way to go is to issue the Shane Bluray in both aspect ratios — 1.37 and 1.66 — in the tradition of Criterion’s triple-aspect-ration Bluray of On the Waterfront and Masters of Cinema’s dual aspect ratio Bluray of Touch of Evil. I wrote a letter back to Stevens suggesting this, and cc’ed a couple of Warner Home Video bigwigs in the process. Stevens didn’t reply and probably won’t as he said he’s not interested in corresponding all that much and is looking to put a lid on it. One of the Warner Home Video execs I cc’ed said I wasn’t worth hearing from and asked me to stop cc’ing him. Off to a good start!
Here’s how I put my case to Stevens earlier today:
“Last night you expressed a hope that our correspondence would be concluded with your reply. The suggestion is that you find corresponding with me about the Shane Bluray unworthy of any more of your time. I will therefore be brief and to the point.
“But understand I will not be retreating to my little journalist corner on this issue. I am going to write a piece about this situation in my column today, and I am going to reach out to everyone I know in the film-loving community to try and persuade you and particularly Warner Home Video to issue a double-format Shane Bluray — a 1.66 plus a 1.37 version — instead of just a 1.66 version.
“Due respect, George, but you are wrong in advocating or going along with only a 1.66 to 1 version. I spoke with Robert Harris about this matter this morning, and he says you’re a very exacting and scrupulous fellow in matters of film preservation and restoration. So I’m sure that the 1.66 version you’ve created is very handsome and satisfying in a certain sense. But it is not what was composed by your father, who was also very exacting and who poured all of his heart into his work, which I know from having watched George Stevens: A Filmmaker’s Journey.
“It is absolutely imperative and essential that the 1.37 version be included along with the 1.66 version in the Shane Bluray.
“Your father called the shots and not Loyal Griggs — I get that. (Griggs had not been a full-fledged dp before Shane.) But the bottom line is that your father didn’t frame the film for 1.66. He and Griggs didn’t even know what 1.66 was between July and October of 1951. 1.66 hadn’t even been conceptualized, much less invented, at that point.
“So you were there on the Shane set and you know whereof you speak. And yet because Warner Home Video or Paramount Home Video execs have presumably told you to fill out the 16 x 9 screen, you’ve essentially dismissed your father and Loyal Griggs’ vision of Shane because (a) high-def TVs have 16 x 9 aspect ratios, (b) the black bars on the sides of a 1.37 Shane will displease some of the philistines out there who don’t understand that 1.37 is how it was shot and meant to be seen, period, and (c) said philistines will be therefore be less interested in renting or purchasing the Bluray Shane.
“I have also spoken to respected archivist Bob Furmanek on this matter, and he agrees with me 100%. Although Shane was projected at the RCMH and other venues at 1.66, he said, ‘the filmmakers’ artistic intent MUST be respected and this film should only be seen in 1.37:1.’
“I told Furmanek that I intend to start an online petition right away with all of the major respected archivists and preservationists in the U.S. and elsewhere. The petition would state the facts and strongly urge that the original aspect ratio of this American classic be respected by Warner Home Video when it releases the Shane Bluray later this year. The petition would specifically urge that 1.37 be respected above all, but that a dual aspect ratio release would also work.
“Obviously I will want to enlist the support of Mr. Harris (who told me this morning that while he supports your 1.66 version he also supports the idea of a dual-aspect ratio approach), film preservation and restoration godfather Martin Scorsese, all the major journalists and editors who’ve written on this subject over the years, the heads of AMPAS and MOMA and LACMA and the American Cinematheque and the AFI, the people behind the French Cinematheque, Woody Allen (who participated a big NY Times piece about Shane a few years ago), several major American cinematographers and so on.
“The petition will be principally addressed to Jeff Baker, Ned Price and George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video.”