On his long-running TV show with Roger Ebert, the late Gene Siskel said something that's become one of my mantras of movie-watching. "You can only see a film for the first time once." Think about it. Watching Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm on a 60-foot screen in a restored 1920s movie palace is going to effect you in ways that are different from experiencing it for the first time on YouTube, or on an iPhone on a bus to Pittsburgh. Issues of, as film theorists call it, "spectatorship," from watching movies interrupted by commercials every ten minutes to rude moviegoers taking cellphone calls unavoidably influences one's perception about films and, in the broader sense, its reputation among film historians and audiences.
For this reason Fräulein (1958), a manufactured-on-demand DVD from Fox, is not recommended. I often complain about poor video transfers, but of the 1,560 reviews I've written for DVD Talk so far, only twice before did I actually give up trying to watch something, and in both of those cases it was because the discs were defectively authored or pressed, effectively rendering them unwatchable, while the distributor refused to correct or even acknowledge the problem. (The titles in question were Classic Game Shows & More and Alfred Hitchcock Presents - Season 1.)
Fräulein is not a defective disc, but its presentation is completely unacceptable. A romantic melodrama about the relationship between an American officer and a German woman during and after the war, the film was a first-class production by 20th Century-Fox, photographed in color and filmed in Fox's anamorphic widescreen process, CinemaScope.
Incredibly, the transfer utilized here is not 16:9 enhanced widescreen or even 4:3 letterboxed, but rather panned-and-scanned. It was probably done in the 1990s, but could conceivably date back to the 1960s. Given the extremely poor Telecine work, it certainly resembles the uncaring butchering of 'scope films that was common 40 and 50 years ago.
The results are ruinous, as panning-and-scanning of 'scope films always is. Carefully balanced mise-en-scene goes out the window. Characters disappear off the edge of the frame or get sliced down the middle. Sudden, mechanical, and artificial panning is created where none existed, motivated solely by the desire, however impossible, to fit a rectangle peg into a square hole. At times it's even hard to tell exactly what's happening onscreen, because roughly half the image is missing.
I managed to sit through about 25 minutes of Fräulein before I could take no more. In addition to the optically-squeezed opening credits, some shots in the film likewise appear squished and distorted, though much less so, because director Henry Koster's and cinematographer Leo Tover's compositions were beyond the skills of even the best pan-and-scanners, apparently. The image is further muddied by edge-enhancement and weird artifacting that take the form of vertical distortions, like ghostly shadows, to the image.
Why Fox ever thought a panned-and-scanned transfer of a 'scope movie would be accepted by the classic film fan community, surely the only audience for a movie like this, demonstrates great ignorance of the market. It's the movie-watching equivalent of global warming. It was conclusively decided at least 20 years ago. Classic film fans reject it outright, and refuse to watch such transfers. I don't think I've sat through a panned-and-scanned movie since the early-1990s.
All this is all the more disappointing in light of Fox's gorgeous high-def transfers of Henry Koster's CinemaScope films of The Robe (1953) and Désirée (1954), both on Blu-ray, which only make trying to watch Fräulein's wretched picture like trying to eat a day-old corndog from 7-11 after filet mignon the night before.
In Fox's defense I point to two other "Fox Cinema Archives" releases I've been reviewing more or less concurrently. Frontier Marshal (1939) and Dangerous Years (1947), while admittedly black-and-white, 1.37:1 full frame movies, both look great, suggesting Fräulein may just be an anomaly that Fox might even eventually go back and remaster. (I can't imagine any informed consumers would want it otherwise.) Should they go back and fix it, I would be more than delighted to give Fräulein another look. Until then, I urge you to Skip It.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. Visit Stuart's Cine Blogarama here.