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I happened to catch THE BIG TRAIL on AMC last night and was amazed. I had
no idea that it had been shot in a wide screen format. This is a movie made
in 1930! Yes, yes, I know that there were wide-screen and even multi-screen
films (NAPOLEAN, et al.) made during the silent era, and that the patent
for the anamorphic lens later used by Cinemascope was from a French man in
1928.
 
Yet, according to Maltin, THE BIG TRAIL was shot, not in anamorphic 35mm,
but rather in 70mm. True? Was it the first, perhaps the only, wide screen
sound film prior to the 1950s? Whose idea was it? Who was able to screen
it? Why did it not begin a trend toward wide-screen films?
 
Actually, I suppose I can answer that myself: without the competition of
television, there was no economic challenge, so why bother.
 
Still, I checked a couple of references I have around the house and saw no
mention at all of the film's wide-screen process. Can anyone provide some
more background on this film and its legacy, or lack thereof? Any
recommended reference material for a curious person to dig deeper? Perhaps
it's not as startlingly revolutionary as I thought.
 
Another curious thing. Although John Wayne (what a handsome young fella he
was!) was the lead in what had to be a major Hollywood film, it didn't seem
to have made him an instant star. Odd that after that, he should have
churned out B-grade shoot 'em ups for the balance of the 1930s.
 
Incidentally, although it was typically stagey and had numerous painful
plot contrivances, it was a GORGEOUS looking film, with some very
impressive trail drive sequences, rain and snow storms, river crossings,
etc. Must have been seen as quite an achievement. Even a spare musical
score, putting the lie to the myth that early sound films didn't use
non-digetic music because the audience supposedly wouldn't know where it
was coming from.
 
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        A L A N  B E L L
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