Classic Movies · Movies · Stuff You Should Know

I’m going to sit right down and write myself a letterbox

lady2

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis (as opposed to those who just look at the pictures) are no doubt aware that last July some fast-talking CSR at CharredHer Cable convinced me I could save a little bit of money on my monthly cable bill by adding Showtime /The Movie Channel, etc. to the lineup of stations I get here on the TV set at Rancho Yesteryear.  To my delight, I also learned that the Encore channels (Regular Encore, Diet Encore, Encore Mystery, Encore Action, etc.) were included, and for those of you who think that the only reason why I haven’t jettisoned Showtime is because I’m addicted to Encore Westerns…well, I compliment you on your keen powers of observation.

hurtlockerStill, in the interest of full disclosure, I should also point out that I do watch a movie on Showtime (or The Movie Channel…or Flix, which is a little like Encore) every now and then—particularly if it’s a film of recent vintage that I’ve heard good things about and would like to get a gander at myself.  A very good example of this is the 2009 Academy Award winner for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker (2008)—recommended to me by noted film critic and e-mail spam authority Scott “World O’Crap” Clevenger.  I also, thanks to the Showtime acquisition, saw Best Picture nominee Inglourious Basterds (2009)…’cause had I viewed this film at my local googolplex I might have gotten a bit cranky and asked for my money back.

But the major detail that I’m leaving out with these two honored films is that I watched them (drum roll please) LETTERBOXED!  To quote noted TCM host Ben Mankiewicz: “How cool is that?”

letterboxpillarboxI am one of the most passionate advocates of letterboxing films for television, to the point that when I watch a movie on TV and it’s not presented in that format…well, I get downright pouty about it and I’m unpleasant to be around.  For years I patiently tried to explain to my BFF the Duchess that watching a letterboxed film was not a bad experience—she, like so many other individuals who have failed to see the light, was convinced she was being robbed of picture and content.  I told her that if she’d only keep an eye out for that TCM segment where people like Sydney Pollack and Martin Scorsese present their case for letterboxed films all would become clear to her…but even though she and I have been friends for over thirty-five years I for some odd reason have convinced myself that she will take my advice on something.  (I know, I know—what the heck was I thinking?)  Now, in her defense, I believe she’s slowly coming around to my way of thinking because the last time I mentioned seeing a movie in letterbox she didn’t derisively mock me as is her usual fashion.  (Progress is a wonderful thing.)

lady
Lee Remick in No Way to Treat a Lady (1968)

Ironically, it was while talking with her on the phone one Friday morning that I learned of Showtime’s progressive commitment to showing films in letterbox format; as we were holding forth on some subject (the details of which have since left me) I was nonchalantly channel surfing through the area cordoned off for the Showtime channels and discovered to my delight that Showtime Extreme had unspooled one of my favorites, the 1968 cult black comedy No Way to Treat a Lady starring Rod Steiger, George Segal and pretend girlfriend Lee Remick.  I think I let out a slight yelp upon seeing this.

“What’s wrong?”  Duchess wanted to know.

“Holy (major expletives deleted)—this (still more expletives deleted) is letterboxed!”  It was all I could do to resist getting up off the couch and dancing a jig of joy.  Instead, I danced over to my computer (after I finished my conversation, of course) and announced on Facebook that Showtime was featuring a letterboxed version of Lady because…well, that’s the sort of thing you’re required to do on Facebook.  (Seriously.  If you wake up one morning and have looked high and low for your pants with no luck, this information needs to be imparted to “the social network” tuit suite.)

west
How the West Was Won (1962)

Noted non-People magazine reader and proud new papa Rick “Cultureshark” Brooks posited the opinion that Showtime may be the only one of the cable movie networks to do this—I’ve yet to see such a phenomenon on HBO, and when I had Starz during my exile in Morgantown they would occasionally show a film in widescreen format (they set aside a special time for doing so).  Even Encore, a channel notorious for saying hell-to-the-no when it comes to letterbox is running the widescreen version of How the West Was Won (1962) on the Westerns channel (but seriously—how did people ever watch that in pan-and-scan in the first place?  “Oh, look!  There’s Carroll Baker’s ear!”), something I wish they’d follow suit with oaters like Rio Conchos (1964) and Hombre (1967).  But maybe—not in my lifetime, but when my niece Rachel and nephew Davis are fully grown—there’ll come a day when people of all races and religions and creeds can sit down on a couch with some nachos and watch movies on TV in the fashion to which I’ve become accustomed.

Until that day arrives, I guess I’ll be satisfied with acquisitions of movies like The Messenger (2009) and The Killer Inside Me (2010) and art house classics like F for Fake (1974), Heartland (1979), and El Norte (1983).  They’ve even shown Cabin Boy (1994) in widescreen, something that made me do a double take.

Turner Classic Movies has long been the go-to channel for letterboxing movies, which is why I don’t get too worked up when they show a fairly recent flick that’s outside of the classic film purview—it gives me an opportunity to grab it for my collection because unlike many of you who invested wisely and put away money for a rainy day I went through a great deal of cash via a life of wretched excess.  So if I happen to see The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or Thelma and Louise (1991) scheduled, I do that off-the-couch-joy-jig again.

summer
Bruce Davison, Cathy Burns, Richard Thomas, and Barbara Hershey from Last Summer (1969)

But sometimes TCM can be a fickle mistress.  Their presentation of Who’s Minding the Mint? (1967) Sunday night wasn’t letterboxed—of course, I had a feeling it wasn’t going to be; it’s a great movie though a friend of mine astutely pointed out it does play a little like a made-for-TV film, which may be why there’s no widescreen version available.  But when I checked the other morning to see if I got all of Last Summer (1969), I noticed that it, too, wasn’t letterboxed.  I started getting mopey again and wasn’t really feeling like my regular self until I had some peanut butter toast and a juice box.  I’ve since coped with this because I came across Paris, Texas (1984) on Showtime Showcase the other day…in all its widescreen glory.

Showtime…you’re my new best friend.  Call me!

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