Decorative Letterboxing, Squeezeplay, and Pan-and-Scan

A note on "decorative letterboxing" and early border-boxing in old studio film transfers, from a salty, seasoned analog format hound:

There were many ways of coping with anamorphic (panoramic widescreen) screen-size in the VHS and pre-VHS era. Paramount was quite gone of "decorative letterboxing" (see the upper left-hand screen capture from an old broadcast of Sid Furie's Sheila Levine is Dead and Living in New York; in this example, they clearly didn't measure top and bottom frame evenly).  I have an old VHS of Chinatown back in Pittsburgh that uses a similar Paramount decorative letterboxing, except green with "Oriental" design.

It was rare for a video presentation to be fully letterboxed in those days -- Woody Allen's Manhattan was the first, I believe (the letterbox bars were a shade of light gray vs. the usual black). It was, however, often only deployed during opening and closing credits sequences that used the entire screen width.

Universal seemed to prefer colored, gently bordered letterboxing, as seen in the upper center screen capture from Ron Winston's soapy golf-club epic Banning (1967), starring Robert Wagner, Anjanette Comer, Jill St. John, and a pre-fame Gene Hackman. Some foreign-language titles, like Claude Fournier's Deux femmes en or (1970), bottom left, used something similar.

MGM didn't much care for letterboxing then. As seen in the old transfer of Jerry Schatzberg's Sweet Revenge (1976), bottom center, they seem to have no compunction about cropping to cut off names in the credits. In this particular bizarre example, they pan across the width of the text. MGM's pan-and-scanning was often the weirdest; their scanning moves feel nervous and very odd. I remember two old MGM VHS transfers of Soylent Green, Westworld, and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (all 1973) where this holds true.

Both Fox (then Magnetic Video, CBS/Fox, Key Video, or Playhouse) and Disney preferred the "squeeze method," as seen in the upper right screen capture of The Swiss Family Robinson (1960). My old tapes of The Robe (1953) and The Big Fisherman (1959), both big CinemaScope Biblical epics, feature some fantastic "squeezeplay," but Swiss Family Robinson is the only one I had handy. My Robe is a two-tape set (for a 135-minute picture -- anything over two hours was put on two cassettes in those early days).
I remember some Columbia/Tristar transfers in the 90's in which the scanning moves were in serious need of "Video Dramamine"; they would blur the motion with impunity, giving the feeling of motion sickness. Ghostbusters (1984) and Multiplicity (1996) leap to mind in this case.

Then, there is border-boxing for non-anamorphic titles, as seen in the screen capture from Ivan Nagy's Deadly Hero (1975), distributed on Embassy Home Video. Who knows why they opted for this? Did they just think it looked cool?

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