For Classic Film Fans, Death is a Way of Life

Chris“This is really the closest thing you get to news in your world,” my girlfriend’s brother said to me the day Christopher Lee’s death was announced.

The passing of a 93-year-old is never a surprise; still, Thursday was a somber day for anyone who loves movies, particularly scary ones. I had cancelled my evening plans in order to participate in a memorial tweet-along of two of the horror legends best-loved films: HORROR OF DRACULA (1958) and THE WICKER MAN (1973). But John had another programming suggestion: the NBA playoffs.

“No Cleveland sports team has won a championship since the Browns in ’64!” he said, appalled by my apathy. “This is historic. People are in the streets!”

“Not as historic as the death of Dracula,” I replied, pointing to the posters from four Christopher Lee movies adorning the walls of the apartment I share with his sister.

Of course, anyone who’s seen the classics from Britain’s Hammer Films knows that Dracula dies frequently, sometimes multiple times in the same picture. But you get my meaning, and so did John. Still, he had a very good – and very depressing – point: death is a way of life for old movie buffs.

Last year was the biggest gut punch in recent memory, with Lauren Bacall, Shirley Temple, and Mickey Rooney all retiring to the great backlot in the sky. Even those of a subsequent generation (James Garner, Bob Hoskins, Polly Bergen) are dying off, and if your retro love extends to classic TV, the bad news comes even more frequently (worst of all if you’re a Golden Girls fan.)

I’m reminded that the health status of aging icons is a very touchy subject every time I mention a still-burning star on social media.

“You scared me!” somebody will scold. “I thought they died!”

“Sometimes I write about people who are still alive,” I reply, frustrated with the limitations of my chosen “beat.”

But I should be used to this by now.

When Zeppo Marx died on November 30, 1979 numerous members of my sixth grade class expressed their condolences to me as if a beloved family member had passed away. I hadn’t even heard about it, but somehow they all knew – and, more importantly, they knew how I’d feel about it. I remember that Friday morning 35 years ago like it were yesterday, but most memorable was the hug my teacher gave me as she handed me a present: a book called The Marx Bros: Their World of Comedy. 

“To help you remember him,” said Miss Kruzoff (upon whom I had a huge crush, which only got bigger that day).

Zeppo was 79 when he died, and hadn’t made a movie in 46 years. But there I was, the only 11-year-old kid in America leading his Catholic school class in a memorial prayer for a dead Jewish actor who hadn’t made a movie since 1933.

Back in the present, John’s entreaties fell on deaf ears and the double feature live tweet proceeded as planned. He and his sister watched the Warriors defeat the Cavs at a local sports bar (tying up the series at 2-2), and when Maggie got home we continued the memorial with Freddie Francis’ THE SKULL (1965), in which Lee teams up with frequent partner-in-fright Peter Cushing. (Who is also dead. Of course.)

Within hours of Lee’s death, Turner Classic Movies began broadcasting their memorial montage (pre-cut, apparently, which makes sense). And they’re giving all of us an opportunity to grieve together on June 22 with an eight-film marathon, including five of the Hammer horrors that used to scare the Hell out of me during a period when I was not actually allowed to say “Hell” (because it’s not in the Bible).

Old Movie Weirdos of all ages are accustomed to going it alone; many of us have been doing it all our lives. But sometimes it’s nice to have a community to lead in prayer, even when you’re praying for the Prince of Darkness.

June 22, 2015 – TCM Remembers Christopher Lee 

6:15 AM – THE MUMMY (1959)
8:00 AM – THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1957)
9:30 AM – HORROR OF DRACULA (1958)
11:00 AM – DRACULA, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (1966)
12:45 PM – DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE (1969)
2:30 PM – HORROR EXPRESS (1972)
4:00 PM – THE THREE MUSKETEERS (1972)
6:00 PM – THE FOUR MUSKETEERS (1975)

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Posted in Classic Film, Contemporary Film | Tagged , , | 24 Comments

Shining a Light on TCM’s Summer of Darkness

Jane-Greer-in-Out-of-the-Past-1947-4Summer is the time when Hollywood studios roll out bright and shiny CGI action flicks designed to appeal to every member of the family – here, and around the globe. But for classic film fans, this summer is all about darkness.

Each Friday in June and July, Turner Classic Movies is presenting 24-hour marathons of some of the most pessimistic stories ever told on film, with unhappy endings the rule rather than the exception. TCM’s nine-week, 121-movie series Summer of Darkness is already in its second week, with an expertly curated collection of proto-noir (1930s), noir (1940s-50s), and neo-noir (through present day) unspooling unedited, commercial free, and almost always in beautiful black-and-white.

Whatever their era, these films have one key component in common: most are infrequently broadcast, unavailable to stream on Netflix, and hard to find on DVD or Blu-ray. My advice: develop a persistent, summertime flu that strikes only on Fridays. Or better yet, quit your job, take up a life of crime, and steal one of the jumbo-sized TiVos with 3,000 hours of recording capacity, and then you and your significant hardboiled dude/duplicitous dame will have these films for evermore. (You can also watch most of them for seven days after broadcast on the Watch TCM streaming app on your computer, tablet, or phone, with hosted intros from Czar of Noir Eddie Muller.)

In addition, TCM is offering Into Darkness: Investigating Film Noira on-line course presented in conjunction with Indiana’s Ball State University. The nine-week eLearning class is taught by Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D., co-author of The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism, and is open to film fans around the world (including non-TCM subscribers, which is pretty cool).

NPR’s All Things Considered aired a piece today about the series, featuring correspondent Beth Accomando and yours truly. You can listen to that here. And Miguel Rodriguez and I discussed the on-line class with Dr. Rich Edwards and TCM staffer Shannon Clute on the Horrible Imaginings podcast, which is available here. (Rich and Shannon discuss all aspects of the class and how to get a certificate of completion, and I offer some commentary on how the course fits into TCM’s overall strategy.)

And finally, you can join your fellow classic film fans on Twitter by using the #NoirSummer hashtag and tweeting along to the films as they air with #TCMParty. And if you want to do your own at-home Noir cosplay, TCM has a full complement of fedoras, cigarette lighters, and cocktail accessories for sale on their website.  There’s even a 1941 Lincoln Continental for sale so you can drive to and from your TV set (or heist) in classic style.

What more could you ask for?

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TCM Makes Summer School Cool w/ Free Film Noir Course

Lizabeth-Scott-and-Dick-Powell-in-PitfallFor a generation of fans old and new, Turner Classic Movies has been like film school without the student loans. Now, more than two decades after the channel’s launch, you can remove like from that sentence.

On June 1, TCM will become an actual educational institution (of sorts) when it launches Into Darkness: Investigating Film Noir, a on-line course presented in conjunction with Indiana’s Ball State University. The nine-week eLearning class will explore “the means, motives, and opportunities that led Hollywood studios to make these hard-boiled crime dramas” and will be taught by Richard L. Edwards, Ph.D., co-author of The Maltese Touch of Evil: Film Noir and Potential Criticism and co-host of the Out of the Past: Investigating Film Noir podcast (with TCM staffer Shannon Clute).

And best of all, the course is entirely free – and it’s open to non-TCM subscribers. (TCM promises “free links to online public domain films noir, so anyone can participate fully.”)

tumblr_msdnkx9iKK1qd48zdo1_500TCM isn’t fooling around with this thing, either. All those who complete the course requirements – which the network says will take 2-4 hours per week (plus some movie viewing, obvs) – will receive a certificate of completion and a carton of Lucky Strikes (I made that last part up, but they should consider it.) Participants will also have access to exclusive “video lessons” and Google Hangouts (live or archived for later viewing) where they can interact with the instructor and other students. There will be a social media component as well, using the #Noirsummer hashtag. (Thankfully, Twitter’s 140-character limit will prevent a lotta backtalk from lippy broads.)

And if you’re one of those people who thinks “school” and “summer” should never occupy the same phrase, TCM says the course work will be flexible and that you can “choose to do as much or as little as you have time for.” (You won’t get the certificate if you half-ass it, though, and you’ll probably have to buy your own smokes.)

Annex - Bogart, Humphrey (Maltese Falcon, The)_02Investigating Film Noir will run concurrently with the Summer of Darkness programming event in June and July, during which TCM will air 120 noir films in 24-hour marathons every Friday beginning at 6 a.m. (ET). And, for cable subscribers, most of the films will be available on the Watch TCM app and website for seven days after broadcast (though not for customers of Time Warner Cable, which still doesn’t support the app). TCM says this series will offer “the deepest catalog of film noir ever presented by the network (and perhaps any network)” which I think is an understatement. From Fritz Lang’s M (1931) through Curtis Hanson’s L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), the series will cover nearly 70 years of noir, and all primetime screenings (35 in total) will be hosted by the Film Noir Foundation’s Eddie Muller, who recently signed a contract with TCM and is already becoming a familiar face on the channel and at live events like the TCM Film Fest.

To cap it all off, TCM will present Billy Wilder’s DOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) in hundreds of theaters nationwide on July 19 and 20 in conjunction with Fathom Events, with specially produced wrap-arounds featuring beloved host Robert Osborne.

Any college course that requires you to go to the movies is okay in my book, even during the summer. And if you’re lucky you’ll end up with a nice tan from your TV screen.

Registration for Into Darkness: Investigating Film Noir is open now. Fedoras are not required for students, but are strongly recommended. 

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UPDATE: CBS is Colorizing “I Love Lucy.” Here’s Why I’m Okay with That.

TedUpdated 5/20/15 -New info in italics.

“The last time I checked, I owned the films that we’re in the process of colorizing,” a television executive said in 1986. “I can do whatever I want with them, and if they’re going to be shown on television, they’re going to be in color.”

That TV executive was Ted Turner, who had just paid $1.6 billion for the decaying Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio – for the express purpose of acquiring a library of more than 3,000 movies, including all pre-1986 MGM and pre-1948 Warner Bros films, most RKO releases, and some United Artists titles. After enduring widespread condemnation, investigation and even lawsuits over his colorization efforts, Turner went on to use that library to launch Turner Classic Movies in 1994. For that alone, he’ll be remembered as the single most important figure in keeping classic film alive.

Yes, Ted Turner colorized CASABLANCA. But despite his boast that “once people start watching the colored version, they won’t bother with the original,” a gorgeous, black and white restoration of the film aired again today on the channel that bears his name. The color version has long since been forgotten.

LucyI was reminded of this reading about tonight’s broadcast of two colorized episodes of I Love Lucy in primetime on CBS. At 8 p.m. CBS will air The ‘I Love Lucy’ Superstar Special which includes Hollywood at Last, a 1955 episode featuring guest star William Holden, and Lucy and Superman, a 1957 installment in which George Reeves (then starring in the The Adventures of Superman) appears in costume as Supes at Little Ricky’s birthday party.

As expected, purists are outraged over this bastardization of an iconic classic, much like they were in 2013 when CBS aired a colorized version of a lost Lucy Christmas special that had been re-discovered in 1989.

But, like Ted Turner in 1986, CBS owns the rights to I Love Lucy and can do what it wants with them. They could colorize every episode and make more money in syndication than they already have from the beloved series (which still airs regularly on numerous channels).

But they haven’t. In fact, CBS is about to release the second season of I Love Lucy on Blu-ray in black and white and, if the excellent Season 1 Blu is any indication, much time and expense has been invested in restoring the episodes to their original broadcast form. (The series has been syndicated for generations with non-original opening and closing titles that were actually created for reruns in 1959).

LucyDesiCBS’s 2013 broadcast of the I Love Lucy Christmas special drew 8.7 million viewers and was the highest-rated TV program of the night and the 16th most-watched show of the week. A few months later CBS released the Season 1 Blu-ray set. Perhaps the timing was coincidental, but more likely, CBS used the promotional platform of a heavily promoted, primetime network special to attract fans old and new to a definitive home video release. And the same thing is likely happening tonight, with the Season 2 Blu release set for July 17 (and already available on pre-order from Amazon).

Do I wish 8.7 million viewers would tune in to a primetime broadcast in black and white? Of course. But they won’t, due to unfortunate prejudices I cannot control. If CBS chooses to colorize a handful of episodes to serve the longterm viability of this iconic franchise, they have my complete support. And if, like me, you’d rather watch the show in its original form, Lucy and Superman is streaming at Hulu in glorious black and white (and high definition) and Hollywood at Last is available on CBS’s subscription VOD service CBS All Access. These shows are also available on DVD and eventually will be on Blu-ray. And, like the original version of CASABLANCA, they’re not going away.

Finally, if you really want to be indignant, direct that vitriol at TV Land and the Hallmark Channel, which routinely air I Love Lucy edited and/or time-compressed in order to squeeze in more commercials. As far as I can tell, only the classic TV digi-net MeTV offers Lucy unedited, every morning at 7:30 a.m. (ET). Because, in my book, editing Lucy is a sin far more unforgivable than colorizing her.

Update 5/20/15 – “The ‘I Love Lucy’ Superstar Special” was the highest rated scripted program of the night on broadcast TV with 6.4 million total viewers. The special had almost twice the number of live viewers as the highly promoted finale of “Mad Men” on AMC. 

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The Sexy GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 “Sequel” You Haven’t Seen

BlondellEven if you don’t like old movies you’ve probably heard of GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933.

The Warner Bros. musical about sassy showgirls and their in-the-money beaus has become iconic, thanks in part to lampoons in Preston Sturges’ SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (where it’s verbally parodied as ANTS IN YOUR PLANTS OF 1939) and The Groucho Letters, a 1967 collection of correspondences wherein Groucho Marx cracks wise about the film to the Warner Bros. legal department. Imagery from GOLD DIGGERS was also trotted out frequently during the financial crisis of 2008, the closest thing America has seen to the Great Depression since, well, the Great Depression.

But beyond its jokey title and evocation of an era that still resonates, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 is just a damn good movie. It has everything I love in a ‘30s film: gorgeous black and white cinematography; delightful Pre-Code cheekiness; idiosyncratic Warner Bros. contract players; hummable pop tunes by Harry Warren and Al Dubin; and Busby Berkeley dance numbers that make me wish I still did ‘shrooms.

The next time someone tells you old movies are boring or culturally irrelevant, show them GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 with it’s peppy pace and pragmatic portrayal of gender politics. And crank up the audio when one of the chorus girls yells “shit” – a word you still can’t say on primetime network television.

The great sorrow of my life (other than a male pattern baldness diagnosis at the age of 18) is that Warner Bros. never brought back the characters from GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 for a follow-up film. They made other movies in the GOLD DIGGERS series, of course, but they feature different characters and situations. And none are as good.

2113Life is too short to keep living without a sequel, so I have decided that GOODBYE AGAIN (1933) was actually produced under the working title RETURN OF THE GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. (It’s not true, but go with me on this.)

The similarities between the two films are striking: GOODBYE AGAIN was also made by Warner Bros/First National and released while GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 was still in theaters; it reunites co-stars Warren William and Joan Blondell in another rich/poor romance; and it prominently features Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song” – an opening song in GDof33 and the closing song in GOODBYE AGAIN.

Plus: there’s lots and lots of sex. I mean, like more than you would think possible in 66 minutes, even in a Pre-Code film. And, as an added bonus, it’s directed by Michael Curtiz, the Warner Bros stalwart who would go on to win an Oscar a decade later for CASABLANCA.

Warren_William_and_Joan_Blondell_in_Goodbye_Again_trailerBased on a popular Broadway play by George Haight and Allan Scott that closed just weeks before the film opened, GOODBYE AGAIN is a screwball farce featuring William as a wealthy, raffish rogue (as usual) and Blondell as a tough, working-class girl (again). But unlike J. Lawrence Bradford and Carol from GDof33, William and Blondell are already (sort of) together at the start of GOODBYE AGAIN – sharing the same hotel room. William is romance novelist Kenneth Bixby, who’s hyped on billboards as “the man who understands all women!” but is actually a sexist jerk. Blondell is his plucky secretary Anne, who (at least in the past) has does more than just take his dictation. While in Indianapolis on a book tour, Bixby is visited by his sex-starved former college girlfriend Julie (Genevieve Tobin), who is under the mistaken impression that Bixby’s bestsellers have been all about her. He barely remembers her, of course, but his interest is piqued when she sits on his lap and reminds him of the things they used to do. To each other.

“You’re married,” Bixby protests, halfheartedly.

“That doesn’t affect us,” Julie reassures, fingering his cowlick.

JBIt takes only a few hours for Bixby and Julie to end up horizontal, as her clueless husband Harvey (Hugh Herbert, remarkably restrained) waits in Bixby’s hotel room to meet the man his wife won’t stop talking about. Complicating matters further are Julie’s sister Elizabeth (Helen Chandler) and her attorney (Wallace Ford, in dorky glasses), who try in vain to prevent a “situation” with the former lovers. Harvey seems more interested in Anne, however, who spends the evening drinking and dancing with him as cover for Bixby’s canoodling.

Joan Blondell: the ultimate wingman.

In Act 2 – and this film most definitely feels like a filmed play, with wall-to-wall dialogue, wide shots, and the constant slamming doors of bedroom farce –the action moves to a train, where Bixby is once again jumped by Julie, while her family searches for her. Not one to waste an opportunity, Bixby hooks up with Julie again while her husband, sister, and lawyer cool their heels in the adjoining stateroom.

“Did you sleep well,” the cuckold husband asks Bixby the next morning, after Julie sneaks off the train.

“On and off,” Bixby replies with a smirk.

Everything reaches a climax (sorry) in Bixby’s hotel room in Albany, ending happily with Warren William and Joan Blondell falling into bed together, wrapped in each other’s arms. Dictation ensues.

WWGOODBYE AGAIN can’t hold a candle to GDof33, but they definitely feel like they could take place in the same reality – let’s call it The GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 Cinematic Universe. Prototypical Pre-Code cad William, surprisingly silly here, is once again reformed by Blondell, who gives him a few slaps across the kisser that look like they really hurt. And while their romance takes a back seat to Bixby’s trip down memory lane with his ex, the dynamic is almost as much fun as their “cheap and vulgar” courtship in GDof33.

With rampant, unapologetic adultery played entirely for laughs, GOODBYE AGAIN is filled with the frank sexuality I’ve come to love in films of the era. But apparently the film was too much for even the promiscuous Pre-Code era. In the original trailer, Bixby tells Anne of the moment he “became a man” with Julie back in college. In the version of the film that airs on TCM, that line had been unceremoniously snipped by the censors, resulting in an oddly incomplete sentence and a jarring jump cut. But such was the case in the days before the enforcement of the Motion Picture Production Code, when the whims of local censorship boards could result in dozens of different versions of a film playing around the country.

GOODBYE AGAIN is not yet on DVD, but one hopes that when it does arrive (likely from Warner Archive, where it has streamed on their subscription VOD service) it will be restored to all its cheap and vulgar glory. Gold Diggers deserve nothing less.

You can read more about GOODBYE AGAIN at Pre-Code.com 

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TV is Dead, Long Live TV!

seinfeld-jerry“That people will only watch television like this in the future is so obvious,” Jerry Seinfeld said this week at the Hulu upfront event for advertisers in New York City.

Seinfeld was talking about streaming of course, and his message was clear: subscription VOD services like Hulu will render traditional, live, linear channels obsolete, much as TV did to network radio in the 1950s. Like Jack Benny and Burns and Allen – who moved from radio to TV more than half a century ago  today’s shows will transition from broadcast and cable origination to on-demand, and the viewers will follow.

Seinfeld can be forgiven for hyperbole, considering that he was likely giddy over the bags of money Hulu is dropping on his doorstep in return for exclusive streaming of all 180 episodes of his 1989-98 NBC sitcom. But I think he’s wrong.

There’s no doubt that the TV paradigm is shifting, in a way that fundamentally benefits the viewer. But I think there will always be a place for smartly curated linear channels, and a program airing tonight on the MeTV classic TV network demonstrates why.

Screen Shot 2015-05-03 at 3.57.35 PMTonight, retro-centric MeTV is airing the finale of M*A*S*H, a 150-minute film that attracted more than 125 million viewers in its initial broadcast on CBS in 1983. While Netflix, the Goliath to Hulu’s David, streams M*A*S*H, they don’t have the rights to the bittersweet final episode (in which the 3-year-long Korean War finally ended after 11 TV seasons). Unless you want to buy a DVD (or view a pirated version), MeTV’s airing is the only legitimate way to watch the finale on your TV, just like 77% of Americans with TVs did the night it was first broadcast.

In addition, MeTV has reunited cast members Alan Alda (Hawkeye), Loretta Swit (Margaret Houlihan), Jamie Farr (Klinger), Gary Burghoff (Radar), Wayne Rogers (Trapper, who left the series in 1975) and members of the creative team to reflect on the series, and the record-breaking finale.

MeTV, a broadcast network available in more than 90% of the U.S. (usually as a digital sub-channel of an over-the-air local station) offers more than just a linear feed of TV shows you could watch on various streaming services. They also provide creative curation and inventive programming blocks (like classic superhero shows on Saturday nights) that appeal to both the Boomers and Gen X’ers who watched these shows in their initial broadcast, and their kids and grandkids who are enjoying them for the first time.

I love the convenience of streaming. It’s thrilling to have easy access to every episode of shows (and movies) I love, and have loved for my entire life. But, in a landscape where there’s so much choice, having everything can almost feel like having nothing. There’s no call-to-action, no immediacy, no reason why I should watch one thing over another right now. But perhaps more importantly, there’s no shared experience.

Linear networks like MeTV and Turner Classic Movies offer not just the curation of smart programmers, they provide an opportunity for lovers of niche programming to feel less alone. Twitter users have latched on to this, by tweeting along with live airings of TV shows and movies and creating their own communities. But even if you’re not tweeting, there’s something fundamentally validating in the knowledge that you’re not the only person watching an episode of Lost in Space at midnight on a Saturday. (No cracks please. I love that show).

Live broadcasts are also an opportunity to encourage sampling by channel-surfing new viewers, in a way that streaming will never offer.

But perhaps most importantly, a linear network means that someone else is doing the work for you. Because sometimes you just want to plop down on the couch and watch, not assemble your own custom lineup from across multiple streaming platforms (and I speak from experience, because I subscribe to pretty much all of them).

Will on-demand streaming be a dominant force in TV? No doubt. In a sense, it already is. But creatively curated linear programming will always be an important option. They call TV viewers couch potatoes, not couch amateur TV executives for a very good reason. Never underestimate the laziness of the American public.

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UPDATE #2: The Widescreen is Out There: Why Netflix May Be Covering Up “The X-Files” in HD

Screen Shot 2015-04-26 at 10.03.33 PMUpdated 4/29/15 -New info in italics.

There may be a conspiracy afoot at Netflix worthy of the Cigarette Smoking Man himself.

One month after I reported that Netflix was streaming The X-Files in fuzzy, standard definition video transfers, the world’s most popular subscription VOD service has added sparkling new HD versions of the first 13 episodes of the series for viewers in the United States. Oddly, Netflix has said nothing about this, with no official announcement regarding the upgrades or the rollout of additional HD episodes  surprising, considering that they are apparently now the exclusive U.S. home for The X-Files in high def.

New transfers of the pilot and the subsequent 12 episodes were quietly added on April 23, allowing Netflix subscribers to enjoy remastered, HD versions of Season One fan favorites, like Squeeze with Doug Hutchison as shape-shifting psychopath Eugene Tooms, Eve with Erika and Sabrina Krievins as murderous clone twins, and Beyond the Sea with Don S. Davis as Scully’s posthumously visiting father. These remastered transfers have aired on the El Rey Network and the German satellite TV channel ProSieben Maxx, but have never been streamed.

Update 4/27/15 – Netflix has added nine additional episodes in HD, so all Season One episodes except #14 and #24 are now available in high def. 

Update 4/29/15 – Episodes 14 and 24 are up in HD, so Season One is complete!

So, as streaming services seek to solidify their subscriber bases with exclusive content, why has Netflix sat on this news like a government-style coverup?

One possible reason: Netflix’s HD transfers have altered the aspect ratio of Season One episodes from the 4:3 (square) format in which they originally aired to 16:9 widescreen. HBO got a ton of negative press when they did this last year with The Wire, apparently (at least initially) against the wishes of series creator David Simon. But  and I say this as a devout format purist who always prefers to see movies and TV shows the way their creator intended  the situation with The X-Files is very different.

“When we began filming the show in 1992, we actually (except for maybe the pilot) considered HD (widescreen) all along,” creator Chris Carter said in a Reddit AMA (Ask Me Anything) chat in 2014. “And so there was image and opportunity to expand and modify the aspect ratio.”

iwanttobelieveWhile Carter apparently had no official role in this process, the remastering has been meticulously done, as I discovered when I binged the first 13 HD episodes this weekend. This is not a crop-and-stretch debacle like 3rd Rock from the Sun, which Netflix added in bogus 16:9 in March, or The Simpsons, which FXX began broadcasting last year in truncated transfers that ruined many of the jokes. This is a respectful, near-flawless remastering, with Fox returning to original, widescreen source materials for the first time since the initial broadcast. (The series aired in 4:3 for seasons 1-4 and moved to native 16:9 in season 5 in 1997, broadcast letter-boxed.) Episodes that have looked soft and washed out in TV reruns for years now look sharp and (appropriately) bright, with a fresh, more-cinematic patina. And if you don’t believe me, or think that I’ve become an aspect-ratio-altering replicant/apologist, check out the drab SD streams on Amazon and Hulu.

While Carter says these early episodes were future-proofed by composing for standard 4:3 screens but “protecting” for widescreen (meaning no light stands, crew members, etc.), there are still a handful of scenes that don’t make the transition perfectly. What appears to be stock footage of a space shuttle launch in episode 9, the Golden Gate bridge in episode 11, and a hotel exterior in vepisode 12 all look fuzzy when cropped, as does a TV news report in episode 9. There are also a few scenes that look softer in 16:9, or are framed too tightly, like a close-up of a medical examiner saying a character is “very dead” in episode 6, Mulder’s conversation with programmer Brad Wilczek in episode 7, and his interrogation in episode 10 (as well as a scene of David Duchovny crawling out from under a truck in the same episode).

But that’s it. Otherwise, this is a welcome restoration of an iconic television show that had fallen into visual disrepair on basic cable and SVOD. I’m just surprised I’m getting these shows for the price of a Netflix subscription, not the hundreds of dollars it would cost to buy nine seasons on Blu-ray. And once the remasters are complete, the HD transfers of The X-Files will give a new generation an impetus to sample the show before its return with new episodes in 2016. That’s exactly what I did this weekend, re-visiting episodes I hadn’t watched in two decades. And the good news is The X-Files in HD looks even better today than it did then.

If only I could say the same about myself.

Here’s a side-by-side visual comparison of the 4:3 and 16:9 versions of the pilot and episode 11. And here’s a fascinating post about the widescreen remaster of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” which was not protected for 16:9 when it was shot and was remastered against the wishes of creator Joss Whedon. 

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