Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People

I get really upset about people showing movies or running video with the wrong screen shape.  I’ve been warned that this forum should stay a “math-free” zone, so I won’t mention ASPECT RATIOS and use numbers, but we shouldn’t need them.  While I rant about this–and expect me to go on about it–let me interrupt with an aside that’s particularly telling.

I went to a screening of The Quiet Man (1952) a few years ago.  Maureen O’Hara was in attendance before and after the film, but she went out to dinner during the showing itself.  She said she’d seen the movie enough and didn’t need to see it one more time.  I was dismayed to see the picture start with the grand Republic Pictures logo, an eagle over a globe… this time only to say A Republic… (without the Picture.)

You see, the projectionist had decided not to do his homework on this film, and he ran it in widescreen format.  If he’d bothered to check, he would have known that in 1954 the industry switched from conventional “Academy-sized” format (almost square, like most tube-TVs), to widescreen (much like your newer flat-screen TVs).  The problem is that if you run an older film in widescreen format, you cut off the top and bottom of the image, which is what was done with The Quiet Man


I found this highly annoying, since it ruined much of the movie’s great photographic composition.  I plotted my revenge against this idiot projectionist until it dawned on me that I might have a much more powerful ally.  Ms. O’Hara did a nice Q&A session with the audience, and I saw that this is a woman who takes no guff.  From anyone.  Ever.  She’s very nice about it, but whenever someone said something stupid or wrong, she corrected the error.

I wanted the projectionist to be in big trouble for screwing this up (after all, they’d taken my money for the show), so I figured the best thing I could do was to tell Maureen O’Hara about it.  I waited until the Q&A was over and went to the reception.  Gingerly, I approached her and introduced myself.  (Forgive the numbers here… but I am reproducing what I told her…)

“Are you aware that they ran that entire picture at 1.85?” I asked.

Her eyes flashed.  “What?  That’s not a widescreen picture!”

I was happy that she knew exactly what I meant without explanation.  She went on…

“What about the scene when Duke is dragging me across the glen?” she asked.

“You were off the bottom of the screen during the entire shot,” I answered.

“I ruptured a disc on that scene!  I’m going to speak to them about this!”

I reported this story to a friend of mine who’s in “the industry,” and he was amazed.  This fellow had met O’Hara as well.  He had only one question:  “What did she do with the bodies?”

The projectionist had decided that they had a wide screen, and he had to fill it.  I’ve heard the quote from people before: “I paid for a wide screen, and I’m going to fill it up.”

And you can do that, but you’ll have to stretch, crop, and malign the image so much that any artistic intent of the original filmmakers is completely lost.  In this case, the projectionist cropped the image.  This annoys me in the extreme.

The problem is that there are several different screen sizes, and they literally do not fit with each other.  The rectangles are different shapes.  That’s why they call the newer formats “widescreen.”

These are the notable ones:

1) Movies 1894-1954 are generally in what’s called “Academy format,” which is a narrow rectangle slightly wider than it is high.  (Yes, film geeks, I’m aware that silent aperture is different, and I project them properly, but that gets a little technical, so don’t bug me.)

2) Movies 1954- adopted a widescreen format that is wider.  In America, this is a bit wider than in Europe, so there a European widescreen and an American one.

3) Cinemascope/Panavision (1953-) uses a special photographic process to squeeze a widescreen image into the older Academy format and that yields an even wider screen. (Yes, I know that’s not quite accurate, film geeks… lay off!).

4) Finally in the 2000s, TV got into the act, adopting another screen size that is between the size of American widescreen and European widescreen.

The upshot of this is that we have to mix and match screen sizes all the time.  If you run a widescreen movie on a narrow Academy screen (like old TVs), then it doesn’t fit, so you either have to crop off the sides (ick) or “letterbox” it, where we see black bars at the top and bottom of the screen.

These black bars aren’t there because we’re masking off part of your narrow screen, but rather because the narrow screen isn’t wide enough to accommodate the picture.  See what I mean here:

The opposite problem is now occurring because we have widescreen TVs that are showing older Academy programs.  That, properly shown, would leave black bars at the sides of the image, like this:
Instead, the vast majority of TV owners opt to stretch out the narrow image to fill the black bars, like this:


I HATE THIS!  When the picture is stretched out this way, thin people look fat and fat people look enormous.  I call it “the egg people,” because everyone has an oblong, egg-shaped head.

Here is a brief animation showing how the image is stretched in your TV to create egg people:

I’ve had people tell me that “you get used to it,” and that they like the screen filled up.  Well, I don’t get used to it, it’s wrong, and don’t expect me to get used to something that is wrong.  I hate watching movies and sports this way.

I’m telling you all that if you don’t reset your TVs to eliminate the egg people, I’m going to send Maureen O’Hara out to your house.  She’ll do it for you.

And she’s not as forgiving as I am.

19 thoughts on “Maureen O’Hara Vs. the Egg People”

  1. Most of my family is incredibly annoyed at me because I won’t stand still for misadjusted tv sets. I preach about the “egg” shaped people till I’m blue in the face. There is a problem though, and that is that some of the older widescreen tvs can get “burn-in”. If you were to watch a large percentage of shows in 4×3 with black bars on the side, the bars could burn-in. It leaves the image of the black bars permenantly on the screen, so if you are watching a 16×9 show, there would be shadows where the black bars were. I think most of the newer sets do not have this problem.
    With film projection, there’s no excuse. Keep up the good work!

    1. I’ve heard the the burn-in is only temporary and will fade over the course of a few minutes. I await the word of other folks who have studied this…

  2. Oh God. My parents (who are in their 80’s) have the TV permanently set on the stretch mode. When I visit I just have to grit my teeth.

  3. I was a guest in someone’s home the other day and the widescreen movie was stretched out. How do you do that? Crop it first and then stretch the remaining image to fill the screen? It was an Adam Sandler movie so no one gave a crap, but still…

  4. I was over at my nephew’s and they had Ice Age on the TV for his kids as we sat there during some holiday. The Letterboxed image was stretched vertically or something. It was highly annoying for me, so after dinner I asked if I could try fixing it, but I didn’t have enough time and he couldn’t find the manual and I couldn’t fix it. What got me though was he was totally unaware. It looked OK to him.

    I think my Theatre also showed Quiet Man in 1.85. That was one of the reasons I quit back in April. Nobody cared or paid any attention to proper aspect ratios and when I complained, I got scolded for bothering every one! It seems to me though that copy of Quiet Man had a leader marked Flat and to our projectionist/house manager, that always means 1.85. I remember we got a restoration print from LOC once and that was marked 1.33 and that’s the way it was shown. These boobs go by the leader, not film history, Or what they even see on the damn screen!

    1. I’ve been told that a lot of people don’t see this. It must be a form of dyslexia or something. I’m highly sensitive to it.

  5. Thank you, Dr. Film, for bringing up this awful problem. It must be true that many people don’t see it, for it seems everywhere I go where a TV is on, it’s the Invasion of the Egg People–yuck!
    I was at that showing of “The Quiet Man” and witnessed your conversation with the fiery Ms. O’Hara (still very beautiful at 80-something). I suspect the projectionist got a good drubbing! (as well he should have!)

  6. You’ve really hit a nerve with this one! I remember the days before ‘widescreen’ tvs – when my main peeve was ‘scope’ films being ‘pan-and-scanned’ on home video – and you had to search out such films on expensive ‘letterboxed’ laserdiscs if you wanted to see them properly in the home video domain. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we’d be having to fight the good fight to make sure that ‘flat’ (pre-1954) films not be shown distorted ala scope or stretched (or improperly cropped). What amazes me even more is that while nobody but film nuts ever “got it’ with the ‘pan-and-scan’ problem – they also don’t get it with watching images very visibly and obviously distorted or cropped. One of the reasons that showmanship is dead and technology manufacturers haven’t standardized the latest equipment so different ratios are displayed correctly is that today, the majority DOESN’T SEEM TO KNOW OR CARE!!!!

    Here is an invaluable guide to all of this – authored by my learned friend, Ranjit Sandhu (a reformed projectionist.) Read it and be prepared to tear your hair out:

    1. And here is the brilliant 5 minute TCM essay on this problem (pre-widescreen TVs, mind you.)

      None other than film maestros Scorsese, Pollack and others explain and demonstrate (with scenes from BEN-HUR and LAWRENCE OF ARABIA) why letterboxing is SO crucial to experiencing these films. Now we need them to do another one (can we get Maureen O’Hara?) to explain the current problem.

      1. Maureen O’Hara will only appear on screen when she is not lit like the Bride of Dracula. But I agree she should appear on this one. By the way, for anyone reading this besides Bruce and that wacko Dr. Film, I heartily recommend these two links that Bruce posted. The one on apertures is a little technical for some folks out there, but it’s completely correct. And the YouTube piece Bruce posted from TCM is priceless.

        Get it right or don’t do it. NO MORE EGG PEOPLE.

  7. I hate stretched, fat people on TV.

    Another thing that I hate about incorrect aspect ratios (and masking) in a theater is when a film was shot at 1:1.37, and intended to to be masked at 1:1.85 or something, but they show the film full frame, and you can see the boom mike in a lot of the shots. This used to happen when local stations would show film on TV too!

  8. I’m a huge fan of A nightmare on elms street (1984). and it is in a format that I think is in a eurpean style widescreen.. The problem is if you put it in a widescreen tv you still crop the bottom and the top off a little bit, but enought to be changed the feel of the movie.. I’v been bugged by this one for a long time in the back of my mind.. so Thank you for telling us this pain in the ass problem. I’v heard a lot of people complaining for years on this one.. It also made me not buy certain tipes of cool movies I loved because of this pain with formats, that are not right at all.

  9. One of the most frustrating things I ever experienced was buying the Charley Varrick DVD only to find out they had released it in pan and scan. It was shown on Starz and TCM in the proper aspect ratio, so why release the DVD in pan and scan? Unbelievable.

    Speaking Starz, most of their movies are from 1990 or earlier yet they show them pan and scan. Even TCM does this sometimes; I found out too late that the copy of Plan 9 From Outer Space I got off TCM was not properly cropped, so some “mistakes” weren’t really mistakes but rather technical things seen where a black bar generally would be. (Wikipedia, for all its faults, has a good example of this on their page for Plan 9.)

    Decades ago when TVs were small, perhaps pan and scan made sense, but it doesn’t anymore.

  10. The whole reason for stretch mode on a widescreen TV, is so that it can properly display anamorphic video.  My 4:3 TV has this mode too, only it vertically compresses the scanlines together in order to create the letterbox.
    At any rate, I’ve seen this set up improperly, too.
    The person will play a “widescreen enhanced” (anamorphic) DVD with the TV in stretch mode, but not bother to set the DVD player to output anamorphic.  The result is wasted scanlines, unnecessary excessive letterboxing, AND a horizontally stretched image.

    It also doesn’t help that on a lot of widescreen TVs, there is a second stretch mode created exclusively for the “my screen must always be full” crowd.  This is the one that leaves the center of the image alone, but stretches the sides.  I guess the idea is that the stretching is supposed to be less noticeable, since it is only the sides that are stretched, but it looks quite odd when the talent is sitting back in a chair, and his head suddenly morphs into a cone as he leans towards the side of the frame.
    For the ultimate in image distortion, I’ve seen people happily watch anamorphic widescreen DVDs with the player correctly set to output anamorphic to their widescreen TV, but with their TV set to this side stretch mode.  

      1. They might not know. Some broadcasters post-stretch the image to make it fit 16X9. To make things worse: I know of a major film fest that ran an entire 4:3 documentary stretched to 16:9 and there was not a single complaint.

  11. I just posted this as a ‘review’ on IMdb for the HBO documentary, ‘SING YOUR SONG’.

    I’ve just viewed this superb documentary – it brings forth the remarkable life and man that is Harry Belafonte in a vivid and compelling manner. Sadly, however the entire widescreen (16×9) framed production presents it’s archival clips and sequences (from early TV, movies, and news footage) in a hodgepodge of correctly re-adapted but otherwise visually distorted ways with no rhyme or reason. Much of the production is from archival sources – and so it’s horribly distracting to see much of the footage in a vertically challenged way – stretched to fit the 16×9 frame. There is actually a shot of the sun that appears oval !!!! This is the sort of thing that is maddeningly now prevalent in so much of what is produced today — but I didn’t expect to see so much of it in a fine professionally produced and prestigious documentary such as this one.

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