There is a lot to say about Olive Films’ Betty Boop: The Essential Collection Vol. 1. From just a cursory glance, the selection of films is something you’d expect to see at a volume four or five rather than the initial release, whereas the selection announced for the second volume actually is more or less “essential”.
Scanned from the original negatives, all of the cartoons have their U.M.&M. titles (the original Paramount credits were spliced off for television). That’s to be expected, and probably for the best. Unlike with the Popeye cartoons sold to A.A.P., the copyright notices were actually removed from the U.M.&M./NTA versions, so recreations wouldn’t have come easy and a worldwide scavenger hunt for original prints would’ve been time-consuming and costly. It might have made for better sales in the long run, but better TV titles than no cartoons at all.
Jerry Beck covered the quality of the scans themselves well – those are fine, if not perfect. The bigger concern here, though, is Olive’s handling of the cartoons’ aspect ratio. I’ve been hearing for a while that the Fleischers shot their cartoons in the Movietone ratio (about eight percent taller than Academy standard) prior to 1934, and the transfers Olive did prove that. But, were the cartoons intended to be shown that way?
The January 1930 edition of the Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers writes at length about the dilemma projectionists faced in the early sound era. For most of 1929, each of the studios had their own aperture practice. Paramount was shooting at a 0.825” x 0.623” aperture; MGM was shooting at 0.835” x 0.723”; United Artists at 0.920” x 0.700”. Etc.
By September 1929, at the insistence of SMPE and three other societies, ten of the major studios agreed to an SMPE sound specification standard of 0.800” x .600” (the Academy ratio, 0.825” x 0.600”, was introduced in 1932), taking effect by the end of November of that year. Paramount was one of them.
Now the conundrum is made even more confusing, because none of these figures are the dimensions of Movietone ratio, which can be anywhere from 0.800 to 0.825″ wide by about .6796″. There is zero documentation that supports the idea that Movietone was being widely used by any of the major theater chains deep into the sound era (the time these Fleischer shorts were made) – not even by Fox who introduced it. Theaters may have screened in Movietone ratio earlier, but a survey conducted in mid-1929 before the SMPE standard was implemented indicates the major theater chains were not even using it at that point.
Suffice to say, it’s extremely unlikely it was intended these cartoons be projected in Movietone. Even if they fill up that ratio, theaters never ran the films in that ratio in their original releases.
I was asked to make comparison frame grabs, but it’s a bit trickier than that. As Jerry has implied, the previous releases of the Fleischer cartoons can’t really count for much of anything. DVNR aside, those 20-30 year-old transfers use no sort of alignment standard whatsoever.
The Olive Films release handles the aspect ratio issue oddly, and all I can gather is that someone in post goofed. They did a Movietone transfer of the cartoons, but someone gave the order, for the rendering and pressing, to squash the picture vertically by around eight percent to fit Academy ratio, rather than “pillar-box” the films to preserve Movietone ratio. Below are my ‘fixes’, done quickly in Photoshop. Left is what’s on the Olive collection; right isn’t exactly what it should be, but close enough.
(click thumbnails to enlarge)
The squashing is likely to go unnoticed by most viewers. Jerry said he didn’t. For films that depend so much on movement and energy, I thought the squashing made these copies mildly irritating to watch and it’s a serious problem.
This really wasn’t necessary for Olive to do in the first place, given that all of this jazz about Movietone began mostly as conjecture, but presenting them as pillar-boxed probably would be the best solution. These are cartoons that injected life into every inch of the frame, whether it was intended to be seen or not. The presentation on Vol. 1 is simply a technical error, not a case of a history crime as with the “widescreen” Looney Tunes (or hell, even the Republic DVNR’ed copies of the Boops).
For a release many (including myself) initially decried for not having historian or consultant involvement, Olive did well enough. This isn’t the way I’d program or design a Betty Boop collection, but at this point, it’s the cartoons alone that matter. And the squashing issue indicates what happens when you don’t have someone who knows the films in quality control. I realize it’s probably too late to do anything about the second volume, but I’d urge Olive to get a Fleischer expert involved to nudge them towards perfection. Maybe the third time’s a charm?
(Thanks to David Gerstein and especially Jack Theakston for their assistance and research.)
August 30th Update: For those who still aren’t seeing anything wrong, be sure to read the relevant post on Uncle John’s Crazy Town, specifically the following comparison between an original drawing from Betty Boop’s May Party and the Olive Films disc.
Suffice to say, Uncle John explains the difference well: “An inker (or clean-up artist) would never mess with the volume like that (unless they wanted their scene thrown back).”