With the widescreen craze in full swing, smaller studios like Howard Hughes and his RKO weren’t happy with the licensing fees that came with shooting in CinemaScope. Many were quick to adopt SuperScope, a flexible, budget-friendly, though often grainy widescreen process.
SuperScope offered a number of benefits: it could be shot with regular (better) lenses — requiring less light than anamorphic photography — and maybe more important, it came without a CinemaScope invoice from 20th Century-Fox.
Here’s how it worked. You’d shoot your picture full-frame — as you’d been doing for decades — but allow enough room at the top and bottom for cropping. (This was already happening with the shift from standard 1.33 to 1.85 for non-anamorphic films.) From the full-frame negative, a 2:1 anamorphic image was extracted in the Technicolor laboratory for SuperScope prints — making this more of a printing process than a photographic one.
That may be over-simplified, but you get the idea.
The first SuperScope feature was to be Howard Hughes’ Underwater (1955), starring Jane Russell and Gilbert Roland. But the honor went to Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster in Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954). Underwater snagged a different footnote in Hollywood history — the first film to have its world premiere held underwater!
Some say Vera Cruz didn’t go into production as a SuperScope picture, and that its 2:1 cropping was applied later. Watching the film, I’d say that was the case. Shot by the great Ernest Laszlo on location in Mexico, Vera Cruz should look like a million bucks. And while the DVD we see today does an admirable job of presenting the film, the image is slightly off-center, grain is considerable and night scenes are pretty yucky-looking — all common problems with SuperScope transfers.
SuperScope provided an extra benefit, one that nobody probably cared about at the time. For eventual TV showings, the original full-frame negative could be used to avoid pan-and-scan transfers. VHS copies of Vera Cruz were indeed full-frame — free of all that grain, but the dead space at the top and bottom of the screen gives the film a clunky look.
I’d love to see Vera Cruz given a pie-in-the-sky Blu-Ray release, with proper attention given to its framing and night scenes. It’s certainly a film that deserves it.
To wallow in more information on SuperScope and all those other great processes, I highly recommend The WideScreen Museum. (It’s where I got that image of the Vera Cruz anamorphic print.)