Looney Buyer Beware

I read on TVShowsondvd.com that some of the cartoons on the new Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck DVDs — the first non-recycled discs of classic cartoons that Warner Brothers has released since ending the Golden Collection sets — are cropped for widescreen TVs. I traced the news to this post, that explains that all the cartoons on these discs are in widescreen format except the ones that were made before 1954. The news is not quite a deal-breaker, but it does mean I’m not going to buy these discs unless I can get them cheap.

To explain what’s going on here: starting in 1954, most movie theatres switched to the modern 1.85:1 aspect ratio for films that weren’t in anamorphic widescreen. Many films, including all of Warner Brothers’ cartoons, continued to be made in the traditional 1.33:1 format, but they had to be prepared in such a way that they could be “matted” to a wider format: in other words, theatres could mask the top and bottom and project them in 1.85:1. There were few major changes in the way the cartoons looked, but the directors had to make sure not to put anything important at the top and bottom (in 1953’s “Bully For Bugs,” Bugs’ rabbit hole is right at the very bottom of the screen; if the film had been made a year later, it would have been higher). And the Looney Tunes logo and credits font were changed so they could be bunched together in the middle of the screen. Here’s an example of a 1954 cartoon (in an early ’60s reissue print) where you could cut off the top and bottom and not lose the credits. You’ll notice, though, that there are a couple of signs that would be cut off if the film were matted, suggesting that the filmmakers weren’t completely accustomed to leaving the top and bottom “blank.”


Because these films can be shown in either aspect ratio, it’s not possible to say that one or the other is the “authentic” aspect ratio. (Similarly, a movie like Psycho, which was shot in 1.33 and matted to 1.85, is arguably as authentic in either format — and many movie fans argue that Touch of Evil looks much better in 1.33.) Which is why I say it’s not an absolute deal-breaker. But it’s still annoying, because it’s so obvious that this was done not out of authenticity, still less out of a concern for how these films look best — for the record, I think most of them look better in the 1.33 ratio — but due to a desire to show off widescreen TVs. We’re getting closer every day to a future where older films and TV shows will be panned n’ scanned for widescreen televisions, just as widescreen films used to be panned n’ scanned for the old sets.

I’m still getting the discs, but mostly for the smattering of pre-1954 cartoons. These may be the last we get on DVD, considering that Warners doesn’t seem to want to release much non-widescreen material. I suppose we were lucky we got as many volumes of the Golden Collection as we did.

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