This blog post deals only with the subject of the original aspect ratio (OAR) of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN in the context of aspect ratios across Hammer films of the 1950s. There will be a separate post following soon after on the subject of restoration source materials and Blu-ray & DVD transfers. Please only comment on this post regarding aspect ratio/s. Thank you!
1.37:1 aka “Academy” ratio – an aspect ratio based on composition that uses almost the entire 4-perf 35mm frame, with minimal matting for camera gate edges. Has slightly less picture left-and-right than 1.66:1. (Uncontentious Hammer OAR e.g. THE MAN IN BLACK).
1.66:1 – a predominantly UK and European widescreen aspect ratio designed to be centre matted from a 4-perf 35mm frame. Has slightly more picture left-and-right than 1.37:1. (Uncontentious Hammer OAR e.g. THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES ).
1.85:1 – a predominantly US widescreen aspect ratio that is usually centre matted from a 4-perf 35mm frame (though can be shot 3-perf to save film). Has slightly more picture left-and-right than 1.37:1. (Uncontentious Hammer OAR e.g. NONE. Although the 35mm spherical Hammer/Universal films were at the least shot to be exhibited at 1.66:1 in the UK and 1.85:1 in the US, THE CURSE OF THE WEREWOLF, THE KISS OF THE VAMPIRE, CAPTAIN CLEGG aka NIGHT CREATURES and THE EVIL OF FRANKENSTEIN all look tight at 1.85:1; even TO THE DEVIL A DAUGHTER  was shot at 1.66:1, and NB: THE LADY VANISHES  was shot in Panavision)
2.35:1 Techniscope – a spherical widescreen ratio that uses almost an entire 2-perf 35mm frame, with minimal matting for camera gate edges. (Uncontentious Hammer OAR e.g. DRACULA PRINCE OF DARKNESS).
2.35:1 Cinemascope – an anamorphic widescreen ratio that uses almost the entire 4-perf 35mm frame, with minimal matting top-and-bottom for camera gate edges, but varying degrees of matting left-and-right depending on the lenses used. (Uncontentious Hammer OAR e.g. RASPUTIN THE MAD MONK).
2.35:1 Hammerscope – a “budget” anamorphic widescreen ratio that, like Cinemascope, uses almost the entire 4-perf 35mm frame, with minimal matting top-and-bottom for camera gate edges, but varying degrees of matting left-and-right depending on the lenses used. (Uncontentious Hammer OAR e.g. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN).
In order to be as clear as possible in this post, we have deliberately not delved into the issue of where and how sound is added to celluloid.
THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was filmed between 19th November 1956 and 3rd January 1957 using 35mm film shot 4-perf spherical. Before we get into the aspect ratio of this film, some context:
Hammer’s standard aspect ratio across all of its films up until 1954 was 1.37:1. In that year, the Hammer/Lippert films, which were UK/US co-productions, switched from 1.37:1 (see examples below) to 1.66:1, though still protected for 1.37:1 (see THE UNHOLY FOUR below), in reaction to the fast-growing increase in US cinemas which could screen widescreen films.
BAD BLONDE aka THE FLANAGAN BOY (1953) 1.37:1
HEAT WAVE aka THE HOUSE ACROSS THE LAKE (1954) 1.37:1
NB: The Kit Parker Films release of THE UNHOLY FOUR is zoomed to ~1.77:1 from 1.66:1 (NB: when a 1.66:1 ratio is re-framed at 1.77:1 16×9, it loses detail top-and-bottom; when a 1.85:1 ratio is re-framed at 1.77:1 16×9, it loses detail left-and-right).
THE UNHOLY FOUR aka THE STRANGER CAME HOME (1954) 1.66:1
Hammer’s first colour film, THE MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1954), was composed and exhibited in 1.37:1:
THE MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1954) BBFC card 1.37:1
THE MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1954) main company card 1.37:1
The presence of American money in a Hammer production, or the promise of US distribution through one of the major Hollywood studios, didn’t necessarily mean that the film in question was composed for either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1, even if by the mid 50s many US cinemas were equipped to exhibit widescreen. X THE UNKNOWN (1956) for example (which though intended for Sol Lesser/RKO, was eventually distributed in the US by Warner Bros.) was composed and exhibited in the Academy ratio.
X THE UNKNOWN (1956) main title optical 1.37:1
X THE UNKNOWN (1956) end titles company card 1.37:1
X THE UNKNOWN (1956) WB end card 1.37:1
There has been some debate about the composition ratio of QUATERMASS 2 (1957). It is quite possible, even probable, that the film was exhibited in the US, and maybe even in the UK, at 1.66:1, but even cursory analysis of the composition as shot shows that the film was shot for a 1.37:1 aspect ratio.
QUATERMASS 2 (1957) first shot post main titles 1.37:1
QUATERMASS 2 (1957) end titles company card 1.37:1
QUATERMASS 2 was shot between 28th May and 13th July 1956. THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN was filmed between 19th November 1956 and 3rd January 1957. Peter Cushing barely had time to rest before he began shooting THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN between 28th January and 5ht March of the same year. THE ABOMINABLE SNOWMAN was shot in “HAMMERSCOPE”, a budget 4-perf 2.35:1 widescreen ratio. THE STEEL BAYONET was shot around the same time, also in “HAMMERSCOPE”.
So now we come to the subject of THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN and its original aspect ratio. Even though Hammer had partnered with Lippert in the early 1950s and produced films intended for exhibition at 1.66:1 toward the end of that partnership, between 1955 and 1957, the Hammer “house style” was still very much 1.37:1. As we have discussed on the blog previously, after watching the films from this period many times over and carefully considering the context in which the films were made and composed, we came to the conclusion that THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (TCOF) was composed at the Academy ratio, even though those who made it were fully aware that it would also be exhibited at 1.66:1 in the US and in UK cinemas which had already been converted to widescreen.
As we have hopefully shown above, one of the best ways to gauge the intended original aspect ratio of a film is carefully to analyse the main and end titles, as their design and positioning will very often give a very clear indication of a film’s aspect ratio. When it comes to TCOF, there is a main titles card which is particularly interesting:
TCOF (1957) main titles HOD card 1.37:1
TCOF (1957) main titles HOD card 1.66:1
TCOF (1957) main titles HOD card 1.77:1 windowboxed
Above can be seen the same main titles HOD (Heads Of Department) card at 1.37:1, 1.66:1 (both taken from our new Double Play release) and at 1.77:1 (taken from the WB DVD release). In the WB release, the entirety of the main titles is windowboxed. This is because at any ratio tighter than 1.66:1 the main titles would be cropped-off at the top-and-bottom of the screen. This is a very strong argument for TCOF not being composed for 1.85:1 (if any evidence were needed at all). Indeed, till we are shown cast-iron evidence to the contrary, we are sceptical that any Hammer film from the company’s entire history was ever composed at 1.85:1 (of course this is not to say that none of the company’s films were ever exhibited at this ratio, indeed we have talked at length about this in relation to THE REPTILE and THE PLAGUE OF THE ZOMBIES elsewhere on this blog; also worth mentioning here that THE DEVIL RIDES OUT original cut negative as scanned for our recent restoration came with a line-up chart that clearly shows 1.66:1 as the correct original aspect ratio).
Before we look at the film proper, there is the issue of the BBFC card. The card below has guide marks so that it can be photographed by a 35mm camera correctly centred (at a ratio of 1.37:1). However, this doesn’t prove what aspect ratio the card was intended to precede. It clearly doesn’t have the elaborate border style seen above in the BBFC card for THE MEN OF SHERWOOD FOREST (1954) which is incontrovertibly intended for an Academy ratio film, but neither does it have anything that conclusively proves it is intended only for a 1.66:1 ratio film, indeed when photographed at a 1.37:1 ratio, the card could be used for an Academy ratio film, or matted for a 1.66:1 ratio film.
TCOF (1957) BBFC card
The famous opening matte painting of TCOF, which shows the priest traversing a mountain pass on horseback, has already been used to support an examination of the film’s aspect ratio, so we’ll start by looking at the same scene:
TCOF (1957) opening matte painting 1.37:1
TCOF (1957) opening matte painting 1.66:1
TCOF (1957) opening matte painting 1.77:1
The 1.37:1 version looks perfectly composed to us. Even at 1.66:1 the priest gets somewhat lost in the composition. The mountains peaks in the background are only visible in the Academy version. More pertinently, the prison – which is the priest’s destination – is only fully visible in the 1.37:1 version. Now obviously one wouldn’t use a single shot to determine aspect ratio, but static shots, especially those containing matte paintings, are surely better indicators of what the cinematographer and director intended than shots with actors moving through the scene and multiple camera moves. To us, especially as it’s the very first shot of the film, this is already very strong evidence for a 1.37:1 composition.
The three examples above also highlight another key issue regarding the transfer of films to home entertainment mediums. When a film was “soft” matted from 35mm to the intended exhibition aspect ratio at the cinema (as most films were at the time, though a small number were “hard” matted at the lab), the projectionist would follow a set of notes that instructed him or her how to mask the film. This mask was almost always equal top-and-bottom, so that the matte is, in effect, centred. Once a 35mm frame is matted to either 1.66:1 or 1.85:1, the projectionist cannot then re-mask the film on a scene-by-scene or shot-by-shot basis in order to ensure that detail at the top or bottom of the screen isn’t chopped-off. The matte is set and the film runs all the way through at the same matte. The same applies to hard matting, which can occur anywhere between the camera and the printing process. Once a matte has been applied, it cannot then be moved in order to re-frame picture information that would otherwise be lost. Only an optical process could have enabled certain scenes or shots to be “re-centred” so that the subsequent application of a centre matte would show the best possible picture throughout a projected print of the film.
Home entertainment and telecine (and now digital) pan-and-scan & tilt-and-scan techniques enable a film to be re-matted on a scene-by-scene or even a shot-by-shot basis and this (specifically tilt-and-scan) is what was used to create the WB DVD of TCOF. Although the overriding 1.77:1 (not actually 1.85:1) matte is centred, at several points the picture is tilt-and-scanned so as to re-frame the picture and stop information being lost from the (usually) top of the picture. The 1.77:1 transfer of the opening matte painting has been tilted up, so the top looks almost identical to the top of the 1.66:1 version; however the bottom of the 1.66:1 version has additional picture information because it’s framed at a looser aspect ratio.
Below are three examples across all three versions that show the overriding centre matting of all three aspect ratios. First, the “Charnel House” sign:
TCOF (1957) Charnel House 1.37:1
TCOF (1957) Charnel House 1.66:1
TCOF (1957) Charnel House 1.77:1
As one would expect with a centre matt, the frame gradually “zooms” in, losing picture information from the top-and-bottom as the aspect ratio becomes tighter.
Here are two more examples (“magnifying glass” and “chapel”):
TCOF (1957) magnifying glass 1.37:1
TCOF (1957) magnifying glass 1.66:1
TCOF (1957) magnifying glass 1.77:1
TCOF (1957) chapel 1.37:1
As with the opening matte painting of the priest on horseback, this matte painting definitely looks its best at 1.37:1.
TCOF (1957) chapel 1.66:1
TCOF (1957) chapel 1.77:1
Here below are three more screen grabs from the funeral of the luckless Professor. The first looks perfect at 1.37:1; the second shows one of the few times that the centre matt looks a little tight at 1.66:1. Again, the 1.77:1 version has tilted up to allow extra headroom, a technique that only became possible with the advent of telecine and then with digital workflow, neither of which were available at the time of the film’s original release:
TCOF (1957) outside funeral 1.37:1
TCOF (1957) outside funeral 1.66:1
TCOF (1957) outside funeral 1.77:1
Next we’ll look at some examples where there is detail at the top AND the bottom of the screen. First the infamous “eyeball”, restored to its rightful place in today’s release:
TCOF (1957) eyeball 1.37:1
This looks perfectly framed in the Academy ratio.
TCOF (1957) 1.66:1
Even at 1.66:1 this looks tight. There is no 1.77:1 version as the eyeball is not in the 1.77:1 WB release.
Now the scene in the woods just after Krempe has shot The Creature in the eye:
TCOF (1957) creature shot in eye 1.37:1
At 1.37:1, we see The Creature’s bloody eye and outstretched left arm at the bottom of the frame and enough of Krempe’s head (including his whole face) at the top.
TCOF (1957) creature shot in eye 1.66:1
At 1.66:1, the detail at the bottom of the frame is just retained, but Krempe’s head is now arguably a little tight.
TCOF (1957) creature shot in eye 1.77:1
Again, the 1.77:1 version has tilted up to allow maximum picture at the top of the frame, though at the expense of detail at the bottom of the frame (though at least The Creature’s bloody hand is still visible).
Now here’s our favourite: three versions of the mausoleum at night. We’re particularly proud of the grade in this scene also! First the 1.37:1, showing the stone vulture (the Frankenstein family crest, the vulture also being an animal interested in the viscera of deceased animals) at the top of the frame and the carved skull on the headstone at the bottom left:
TCOF (1957) mausoleum 1.37:1
Now the 1.66:1 version with a centre matte, which crops both the vulture and the skull:
TCOF (1957) mausoleum 1.66:1
And finally the 1.77:1 version, which yet again tilts up to retain the vulture at the top, but in so doing completely crops the skull at the bottom.
TCOF (1957) mausoleum 1.77:1
It is also telling that an illustration of the vulture was reproduced on the back of the tickets to the TCOF premiere. This would seem to point to both the importance of the vulture, and an original composition of 1.37:1.
Back of TCOF (1957) premiere ticket
The end titles are also revealing (all three versions ending on the overriding centre matte, so each ratio looks “zoomed in” from the looser ratio before it):
TCOF (1957) end titles company card 1.37:1
At 1.37:1 (above) the card looks perfectly composed. At 1.66:1 (below) the card already looks a bit tight, especially at the bottom:
TCOF (1957) end titles company card 1.66:1
At 1.77:1, the card definitely looks tight:
TCOF (1957) end titles company card 1.77:1
Finally, here are some screen grabs from the 1.37:1 TCOF theatrical trailer, which, in this version at least (and it’s the only version we have) the Academy ratio looks unambiguously spot-on:
TCOF Theatrical Trailer (1957) key title style 1.37:1
TCOF Theatrical Trailer (1957) key strapline 1.37:1
TCOF Theatrical Trailer (1957) end title-credit card 1.37:1
Borrowing a couple of terms used regarding aspect ratios in comments on this blog, matting an open gate 35mm film is something between an art and a science, depending on one’s intention. The WB 1.77:1 version of TCOF, which most of us have lived with for several years now, is a very good balance between science and art, combining the technique of tilt-and-scan with an excellent eye for the film’s composition, maintaining an overriding centre matte for most of the film, but sometimes tilting up when picture information would be lost to the centre matte.
With our new restored versions, the 1.37:1 could be called the “art” version. We lived with the film for many months and gradually came to the conclusion that the film was composed at 1.37:1. We didn’t jump to this decision, and we thought long and hard before committing to it, but once we saw how the restored film looked at the Academy ratio, we became convinced, and so have others since seeing it. There is also significant anecdotal evidence: Michael Carreras’ own collection of 16mm prints were always screened at full frame 1.37:1; we talked to people who vividly remember seeing the films projected at 1.37:1 on their first release.
You could also say that the 1.66:1 version is the “science” version. It uses a consistent centre matte for the entire film, providing a record of how the film would have looked when exhibited at 1.66:1 (using consistent soft matting) in cinemas in the UK and the US which had already been converted to widescreen projection.
Postscript: In 1958, Hammer filmed and released THE REVENGE OF FRANKENSTEIN, a direct sequel to THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN. The following four cards would appear to show that the film was shot at 1.66:1:
TROF (1958) main title style card 1.66:1
TROF (1958) main titles company card 1.66:1
TROF (1958) end titles company card 1.66:1
TROF (1958) end titles studio card 1.66:1
And finally, as a reward to anyone who got to the end, here is a screeching owl from the Japanese reels of DRACULA (1958) composed at 1.37:1:
DRACULA (1958) damaged Japanese print screeching owl 1.37:1
Got ya! ^..^