Paramount Pictures DVD, Paramount Pictures DVD, Criterion Collection Blu-Ray, Paramount Pictures 4K + WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE Blu-Ray
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS 4K + WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE BLU-RAY set is available at retailers everywhere
It’s all about the wires, really.
Producer George Pal created The Puppetoons in Europe and brought the concept with him
when he arrived from Hungary, dodging the Nazis like so many other gifted European artists.
Sponsored by Cecil B. De Mille, Paramount Pictures offered to set him up with a short form
animation division, provided he could create a lovable character like Mickey Mouse or Bugs
Bunny – something new yet similar, which he did, based on his observation of African America
from afar and, once he arrived in the US, of black workers around the studio lot, as well as his
love of Jazz, which he rightly believed was a defining element in America culture. Shot in 3-strip technicolor, the all-black Puppetoon characters were not the greatest role models for the race, though Pal didn’t see the ultimate downside of having an innocent rural black boy named Jasper being continually duped by a sly black scarecrow, presided over by a fast-talking blackbird who sort of represented a corrupt Puppetoon version of Disney’s Jiminy Cricket.
Racial stereotypes aside for a moment, some of the Puppetoons are just wonderful – among
them JASPER AND THE BEAN STALK (1945) (with a singing harp based on Lena Horne and voiced by Peggy Lee) and JASPER GOES FISHING (1943). Others like JASPER AND THE WATERMELONS. (1942), wherein the monstrous fruits launch into a Busby Berkely number, are hackle-raisers, barely redeemed by the filmmaker’s naivete. I knew Pal, and he meant no harm. Being a foreigner got him halfway off the hook. But that’s ammo for a longer piece. What worked about his Puppetoons, and later his terrific narrative feature – THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – was that he was brilliant with miniatures, which was how he was able to stay on a tight budget while featuring a host of lethal Martian war machines.
Those machines – pictured on the disc covers reproduced herein - were literally marionettes,
and if they were filmed properly, one could absolutely believe that they were full-sized
creations, with their cobra/manta ray bodies, their pulsating death rays, and the leveling of Los
Angeles, also a brilliant use of miniature cityscapes.
But if, while mastering the film off the negatives, or off a newly-struck theatrical print, one was
unaware of the brightness and color balance that was needed, then the illusion would be
utterly blown…because the fifteen wires controlling the machines’ movements were not
supposed to be seen. And that’s the major way of judging these four disc releases: did the
home video staff understand that the wires had to be rendered invisible?
Well, they did and they didn’t, depending on which disc you watch. The one with the wires on
display is entirely worthless. Any willing suspension of disbelief is obliterated, haunting
everything that comes after. I’ve encountered this kind of negligence before. A few years back I called The Criterion Collection after they licensed the Chaplin films and explained to the person in charge of supervising the film-to-digital transfer that during the boxing match
sequence in CITY LIGHTS, when Chaplin leaps off the mat and head butts his opponent in the
stomach several times, the wires were not supposed to be visible. The fellow I was speaking
with had the temerity to ask me if Chaplin had personally told me that. As if it wasn’t self-
apparent. For the digital transfer the fine grain negative was used, which was appropriate since. it was available, but for the boxing match, the fine grain would lend the transfer more
sharpness, and the wires would show. Which they did, damaging the scene. And as if that
weren’t bad enough, on the Criterion’s accompanying commentary track the issue of the wires is actually addressed, and the commentators attempt to justify the company’s decision not to CGI the wires out – which was clearly a financial decision rather than an aesthetic one. Very disappointing.
There are three different releases of CITY LIGHTS, and you should choose the first one, which
comes closest to hiding the wire. In the case of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, there have been
four releases, and here are the reviews, focusing mainly on the degree to which they blew it
regarding the wires.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – Paramount DVD issued in 1999, with no supplementals to speak of, but with a faithful transfer that camouflages the wires sufficiently so that you will have to consciously look for them to see them, and at that you will only see a few of them. Bravo. The cover art emphasizes the color red, appropriately, and depicts two of the Martian war machines, looming large. On the back cover, whoever wrote the description compares the machines to swans. Hmmm. Cobras, yes. Manta rays, yes. Swans? That’s a stretch. Elsa
Lanchester explained that she was imitating a swan in her hissing cameo in/as THE BRIDE OF
FRANKENSTEIN. Maybe the Paramount employee just got the wrong film…
The theatrical trailer is included and, as is always fun to stumble across, there’s a shot in it that
doesn’t appear in the film. Not an important shot, just fun in the finding.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – A second Paramount release, this time in 2005, and still DVD only (Blu-ray technology came into use in 2006). To make it stand out from their previous release six years earlier, the cover colors are dark blue and black. It’s an elegant piece of art, again highlighting, though much smaller, two of the gorgeous Albert Nozaki designed death
machines, but the earlier cover art was more appropriate. This release is chock full of extras.
There are two commentary tracks, one with the stars of the 1953 film – Ann Robinson and
Gene Barry, and the other with Joe Dante, Bob Burns, and Bill Warren. Robinson has clearly
boned up for her session, and she spews out both technical details and emotional memories
(eg. they thought her chest was too flat and made her wear ‘falsies’). She gets a few of the tech details wrong, but I guess that’s forgivable. And she also props up Barry, who rarely pipes in with a comment. Near the end of the commentary session he admits that it is clearly a great film – this DVD coming over 50 years after its original release - and that it is as powerful as ever. But some years earlier I got to chat with Barry when he was appearing at the Rainbow Room in NYC with a song-and-banter routine. I asked him then how he enjoyed working with George Pal (who Robinson doesn’t stop raving about, as if she’s still pitching for a job, or at least getting. paid for doing the commentary), and he looked at me ruefully and said “I thought he treated me like a Puppetoon!”
Also included: a short entitled “The Sky Is Falling: Making The War of The Worlds”, another
short entitled “H.G.Wells: The Father of Science fiction.” Then there’s the Mercury Theater
‘War of the Worlds’ radio presentation by Orson Welles, which panicked the populace of NYC,
many of whom fled to New Jersey, including my father.
And where the earlier release was ‘unrated’, this one displays a ‘G’. I think it probably still has
enough punch with young kids to warrant a ‘PG.’
But despite the lavishly produced release, which would certainly have warranted replacing the
earlier version, THE WIRES ARE DISAPPOINTINGLY VISIBLE. You can’t miss them. The eye is
actually drawn to them. I screened the battle scene from both releases to my class at The
School of Visual Arts and a few of the students actually laughed at the dismally unsuccessful
wire illusion in the ’05 version. The earlier release, however, worked fine for them. So do not
pick up the ’05 Paramount version with the dark blue cover.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS – Criterion - 2020 – Well, this is the one I was looking forward to,
despite the fact that they had damaged CITY LIGHTS by making that purely budgetary decision regarding the visibility of the wires, and then asked me if Chaplin had personally told me that the wires shouldn’t show. I was friendly with Jerry Epstein, Chaplin’s producer on LIMELIGHT, A KING IN NEW YORK, A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG, and THE FREAK. I brought him into class when I was doing a History of Film Comedy semester on Chaplin’s work and he had a great time reminiscing. But why, at any juncture back then, should I have, out of nowhere, posed the question “Hey Jerry, did Chaplin want us to see those wires in CITY LIGHTS?” Why would I have done that?
Anyway, I was curious to see how they would treat another set of wires…
…and the answer is: The Paramount restoration department transfer used by the Criterion
collection is fabulous. The wires are even less visible than they were in the first Paramount
release, and a different technical flaw I’d lived with for several decades has also been fixed -
something that I never thought would happen. Toward the end of the battle sequence, we see
one shot in which the red heat ray appears to be emanating just a little below the head of the
weapon. I figured they just never had the time or money to adjust it themselves, or shoot it
over again. But it turned out to be a light balancing problem – by dropping the light level a few points, the heat ray now seems to be coming out of the cobra’s head in that shot, rather than just below it. Amazing. And when I was a teenager, and we collected 16mm prints rather thanVHS’s, I had a 16mm Technicolor print of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS which, while stunning, nonetheless displayed the flaw which is now fixed. Bear in mind, the restoration here was done in 4K by Paramount’s restoration department, under the direction of archivist Andrea Kalas, who explains the process to us in a 20-minute short using before-and-after clips.
The supplements from the second Paramount version are reproduced here, but also, par for the course with Criterion, there are even more of them. An audio-only excerpt from a 1970 lecture with George Pal, delivered in his surprising Hungarian accent which always reminded me of Peter Lorre. Sound Designer Ben Burtt explains how the sound track was enhanced to 5.1, bringing out certain elements that were beyond the skills of the sound designers in 1952 (these efforts work well, not overwhelming the original intents of the filmmakers). Also, there is a 1940 radio presentation which features H. G. Wells and Orson Welles! And there’s an essay by J. Hoberman included as a Blu-ray box inlay. You would think this would be the final word
regarding the film on home media, but no…
2022. THE WAR OF THE WORLDS has been re-released by Paramount yet again, this time in 4K as a George Pal double bill including, on a separate disc, the producer’s second foray into Sci-fi – 1951’s WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (the first being his attempt to make a Sci-fact rather than a purely imaginative narrative – DESTINATION MOON). Pal was dissatisfied with the end results of WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, explaining to me that Paramount took it out of his hands before major effects were completed, and so I look at it in many ways as a dry run for dealing with the powers that be when he made THE WAR OF THE WORLDS two years later. Still, along with the supplements from the second Paramount release (not the Criterion supplements) WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE is a fine and clever inclusion, with a rich inner glow from the Technicolor elements used, and certainly justifies picking up this fourth release of the classic film.
But just for kicks, what about the wires?
And the answer is: There’s not a wire to be seen!!
However … there is a bizarre, if far less disruptive, problem in this most recent release. Artist Chesley Bonestell’s rendering of Mars during the opening tour of our galaxy is no longer red-ish, but blue-ish. How did Paramount ever manage that?! Are they suggesting that, like Dorian Gray’s picture, the Bonestell prologue image of Mars’ surface has continued to die over the decades, reaching this frigid blue pallor by 2022? Or perhaps this was supposed to be Bonestell’s portrait of Venus, conspicuously and inexplicably absent in all previous releases?
Whatever it is, I kinda like it. And here’s yet another alternative: There has always been theorizing to the effect that celluloid has a life of its own. That some alternate life form lurks in those two-dimensional images. That if you’re looking at the creatures on the screen, they’re actually looking back at you.
I used that concept in an unreleased film I co-authored, co-directed, and co-starred in called SHRIEK OUT! back in the early 70s. And Woody Allen used it in THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO. If so, it’s a hell of an in-joke to suggest that Mars has changed color on its own...
And as a final tantalizing after thought, a film historian named Ed Summer told me that many
years ago he was allowed into the projection booth where a 35mm print of THE WAR OF THE
WORLDS was being screened, and on one of the reels he clearly read the words “left eye.”
There’s been debate forever about whether there was a test shoot in 3D, or only that one was
contemplated. This little revelation confirms to me, at the very least, that a 3D test shoot may
have occurred. How about digging it up, cinema archeologists?