If it weren’t for a recent aspect ratio brouhaha, “Shane” probably would sneak into the TCM Classic Film Festival on Saturday at the Chinese without much fanfare. Which would’ve been a shame considering that Technicolor has digitally revived its naturalistic sheen in honor of the 60th anniversary and an upcoming Warner Home Video Blu-ray on August 13.
But there’s definitely more buzz now, thanks to Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells kicking up some dirt about a slightly cropped version of George Stevens’ beloved Western superseding its original aspect ratio. Although “Shane” was shot in Technicolor in 1951 at 1.37, it premiered at Radio City Music Hall two years later at 1.66, ushering in the widescreen craze to combat the TV boom. Wells protested, but all’s well that ends well. “Shane” will be presented at 1.37 except for 1.66 on cable.
I asked the director’s filmmaker son, George Stevens Jr., to clear up the confusion: “There’s no controversy about aspect ratio,” he replied by email. “We made a 1.37 transfer, color corrected and cleaned up. I also supervised a 1.66 in which we took care with every shot for optimum framing. I want that for the cable stations who ‘spread’ ‘Shane’ or crop it top and bottom. I have TiVos of ‘Shane’ from Direct TV in which it’s been manipulated to fit the 1.66 screen and it looks terrible. The 1.66 will be a great improvement in those instances. We were going to put both on the Blu-ray but compression allows for only one version. It will be the 1.37.”
Coming after “A Place in the Sun,” “Shane” was Stevens’ first color movie and shot in three-strip Technicolor by cinematographer Loyal Griggs (who won the Oscar) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, with the heavenly Grand Tetons in the background. With its muted look and deep shadows, it continues a more somber post-World War II journey for Stevens. Alan Ladd plays the lonely gunfighter trying to escape his secret past yet drawn into the Jackson County land war notoriously revisited by Michael Cimino’s more epic “Heaven’s Gate.” The noble yet melancholy “Shane” is like Galahad with a gun in its embrace of family and community. It’s best known for its legendary barroom fight, Jack Palance’s scene-stealing baddie, Brandon De Wilde’s idol worship of the hero, and the explosive gunfire (achieved by shooting howitzers into trashcans). “Shane” has influenced everything from “Bonnie and Clyde” to “Unforgiven,” and even Woody Allen has sung its praises and wrote a letter in support of Wells’ aspect ratio crusade.
“I was with my father when he scouted locations in the area beneath the Tetons near Jackson Hole, Wyoming,” Stevens Jr. continues. “I recall him driving in a jeep across the area, and walking and walking looking for the right spot. He chose a place under the Tetons to build the town with the one-sided street, with a hill in the distance for the graveyard where Torrey is buried. On another hill he asked the production designer [Hal Pereira] to plant three Aspens. That is the hill looking down toward the town — the entryway past the trees where the homesteaders approach the town, and where Shane passes for the climactic showdown with Wilson. It is a geographical signature that keeps the audience oriented.
“He worked with Loyal Griggs to mute the color, something other than ‘Glorious Technicolor.’ The more muted look is now more common. He also worked with the production designer and costume designer [Edith Head] to keep away from bright colors…. The clothes were well worn and very real looking.”
Naturally, Stevens Jr. supervised the mastering of “Shane” with Technicolor after the three-strip negatives were scanned at 4K and digitally cleaned and registered correctly. He suggests the distinctive look is well represented but was particularly concerned about getting the day for night scenes to look just right. But, he adds, “Nothing will surpass the original 35 mm print of ‘Shane’ projected properly in a theater. That is the true experience.”
Unfortunately, Stevens Jr. won’t be able to attend the TCM screenings of “Shane” or “Giant” (digitally restored by Warner Bros. and coming to Blu-ray later this year) preceding it. He’ll be at the Tribeca premiere of son Michael’s doc, “Herblock — The Black & White,” a tribute to the Pulitzer Prize-winning political cartoonist, Herbert Block, whom Stevens Jr. first met while working on “Giant.” His father would’ve wanted it that way.
Speaking of movie families, the festival will also premiere on Sunday the TCM doc, “Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking: The Story of Richard D. Zanuck,” a celebration of the Oscar-winning producer who passed away last year, directed by Laurent Bouzereau, and featuring interviews with a who’s who of Hollywood luminaries (including Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg, Johnny Depp).
Passing down the craft and appreciation of movies from generation to generation is what the TCM Fest is all about.
View the complete TCM Classic Film Festival schedule here.