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American Cinematographer (1986) - Of Clouds and Linings




Many of us who love movies have mixed feelings about the so-called "videotape revolution." Even as we sadly note the shutting down of theaters for "remodeling" that never happens, we exult over the unprecedented opportunity to have a home library of favorite pictures at a reasonable cost. But then, many pleasures carry some burden of guilt.

One of the interesting aspects of videotapes is the fact that some of the older movies can now be seen in more complete versions than were shown in the theaters. In a recent issue we mentioned Gunga Din. now available from RKO Video as well as VidAmerica in a longer version than the original release print. RKO's new tape of the original King Kong, with the later censor cuts restored, is the best looking Kong since the 1933 theatrical release, filled with sharp details that should be a revelation to anyone who has only seen the dark, mushy prints shown in recent years.

Admirers of the Alfred Hitchcock melodramas can be grateful that a number of his early productions, which were made in England prior to his emigration to the U.S. in 1939, are available on tape in longer versions than were previously shown in this country. This is because some were taped from the original English prints rather than the shortened editions offered by American distributors.

Blackmail (1929), Hitchcock's first part-talking picture, survived the crossing virtually intact, with sound available to theaters on both film and disc. There was also a silent version, with variant scenes and some cast changes, which didn't arrive in the U.S. until its one-shot showing at Filmex some 50 years later. Rich and Strange (1931), released as East of Shanghai in the States; the first version of The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), and Sabotage (1937) (A Woman Alone in the U.S.) also were shown complete in this country. The Secret Agent (1936) lost only 31 1/2 minutes here.

By 1937, double feature programs had become established in most metropolitan areas. British pictures, being generally unpopular with American audiences (who, in those less international days, had difficulty understanding the dialogue) were usually scissored considerably by American distributors so they would fit into the lower slots on dual bills. Hitchcock's Young and Innocent (1937) was shorn of 14 minutes in the U.S. edition and retitled The Girl Was Young. The present tapes, available from several companies in the original version, show that what was thought (over here) to be a minor picture is actually one of his best. The Lady Vanishes (1938), highly praised in its 78 minute theatrical version, is even better in the original 96 version, which is also available on several labels. Jamaica Inn, released here by Paramount at 99 minutes as a bill topper, is 106 minutes long in the English edition.

Even one of Hitchcock's most delightful American films, Saboteur, (1942) is somewhat longer on MCA's excellent tape than it was when released theatrically by Universal. At that time the management of Radio City Music Hall objected to their showplace being used as the site of a fatal shoot-out. Universal, anticipating a Radio City premiere, obligingly expunged all scenes in which the theater was identified or identifiable. Also, the U.S. government demanded removal of a scene in which an actual U.S. warship which had capsized at a shipyard was made to appear a victim of saboteurs. What Uncle wants, Uncle gets, but now all is forgiven and it's on tape.

United Artists dropped 23 minutes from Things To Come, London Film Productions' spectacular 1937 filming of H. G. Wells' screenplay, when it was released here. A fully complete British version has not turned up on the numerous videotapes now in release (the film is in the public domain, like several of the Hitchcock titles). However, a number of the cut scenes are back in the Hal Roach cassette, which is longer than the U. A. edition by six minutes.

The British picture to suffer the most drastic trimming is the Ealing classic, Dead of Night, in which six stories were directed by four different directors. Universal's 77 minute edition cut out two complete stories, one in which Sally Ann Howes meets the ghost of a long dead little boy at a house party and a comical ghost yarn about two golfers — played by the great comedy team of Basil Radford and Naunton Wayne — who fall in love with the same girl. Some chunks were taken out of the framing story as well, adding up to a total of 25 missing minutes. Happily, this material survives in the 102 minute tape version from Thorn-EMI.

As they say, every cloud has a silver lining — or is it the other way around?