Great Annie Hall Gag Dumbed-Down to Near Extinction

Back in 1979, Woody Allen inadvertently helped invent the Home Theatre Experience when he insisted that his film Manhattan be transferred to VHS only in the letterboxed format.



So, instead of this aesthetically compromising pan-and-scan version…





                        …we got this:


And since there were no “rules” in place yet, Allen and cinematographer Gordon Willis settled on a neutral gray matte for the letterboxing.

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Ever since then, however, Woody Allen has been less concerned with how his body of work is preserved for the home market, which is sad since that’s where it will be seen most from now on.


The first thing I noticed is that when Manhattan went to DVD in 2000, the gray bars were gone:

This is hardly cause for alarm. Certainly, Woody’s allowed to change his mind, and I know some people thought the gray was a little twee. As for me, I’ve seen Manhattan with the gray bars dozens of times, so it’s disconcerting to see it otherwise. The sad truth is that I don’t think MGM (who released the DVD) asked Woody Allen for his opinion, and I don’t think he cared one way or another.

Still, that’s small potatoes compared to this…

Twenty-five minutes into Woody Allen’s 1977 Annie Hall, his character Alvy Singer and Annie have their first meeting. This extended sequence of memorable lines (“That’s OK. We can walk to the curb from here”) and 70s urban mating ritual culminates with the Balcony Scene, which plays more like a year of therapy than a scene in a comedy. In it, while Alvy and Annie try to impress each other with intellectual observations, we see their insecure thoughts as subtitles. For those who need a refresher, here’s the scene. For the rest, here’s a sample of how it once looked on film, TV and VHS:

And yet, now, when you watch the only version on DVD available in the US, here’s an idea of what you see…

HuhI? Someone at MGM really thinks I need to be told that the words on the screen aren’t the ones coming from Annie and Alvy’s mouths? If they think I’m that dumb, then why not do these subtitles as well…

Or…

Sadly, I can easily imagine a first time viewer of the film (and my generation has to accept the fact that not everybody has seen Annie Hall) being confused by the inclusion of “[thinking]” in the subtitles, assuming that that’s what Woody Allen had intended. (God, what a dreadful thought.)

I can accept and respect the fact that Woody doesn’t do commentaries or ‘making of’ docs (more in a later post on my feelings about that), but I hope he’d at least protect one of his most brilliant and enduring gags. (And I mean that, too; it might not be the funniest joke in Annie Hall, but, my God, does it stick with you.)

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And just for the Hell of it, what if Woody Allen and co-writer Marshall Brickman decided to limit their insights to just Woody’s character (perhaps calling the film Alvy Singer). Then maybe the Balcony Scene would look a little something like this…

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25 Comments

Filed under Film, Gripes

25 responses to “Great Annie Hall Gag Dumbed-Down to Near Extinction

  1. Nick

    Thanks for pointing this all out. It’s crazy.

    However, I would say that Woody Allen would NOT be indifferent to this, if he knew about it. He was one of the leaders of the anti-colorizing crusade of the 1980s when his use of the word ‘venal’ in testifying before Congress seared itself into my memory.

    I’m guessing he doesn’t know.

    Who wants to tell him?

  2. “Woody Allen would NOT be indifferent to this”

    You’re probably right; I was a little harsh in my assumption that he doesn’t care. But so often he’s had characters that understand where the joke is (especially Alvy Singer) and you know he would/should find it annoying that his audience’s intelligence is being shortchanged.

    Can your kids do something about this?

  3. Elizabeth

    Oh, my. That’s going to have me furrowing my brow for a long time.

  4. Just a thought: Isn’t it a possibility that the addition of “Thinking” is meant to be helpful to the folks watching the movie with subtitles already on — the impaired-hearing and deaf folks? For them, that subtitle might be competing with a second one; it also might be confusing for them to see lines of “dialogue” presented when no one’s lips are moving.

    Just a thought. . .

    • Good point, Robert. And I actually had a whole passage about that particular problem–and let’s face it, the people who had to subtitle the film in other countries back in the 70s had this problem, too!–but what I wrote was so boring, I cut it. Perhaps I’ll put that up later today, as an addendum.

      The ability to control the subtitles opens up a whole rat’s nest of problems and conundrums, that’s for sure.

      One thing that’s really problematic with the DVD: it’s actually possible to watch the scene without ANY subtitles, so if the disc or DVD player is defective AND you’ve never seen the film before, well, then you’re really confused/screwed.

      • Wait, so have the subtitles in that scene been relegated to the subtitle track of the DVD? In other words, is it possible to watch the film without subtitles and still have the subtitles in this scene appear?

      • Yeah, Ken, I went into this in a lot more detail in my first draft, but it was so wordy I ended up cutting it to ribbons. I think I lost some clarity in the process. OK, so here’s the deal:
        -The DEFAULT setting for the DVD is a subtitle track called “Subtitle 4 – English,” and if you just pop the DVD in and hit play, it will be set to this track. The ONLY thing on that track are the six Thought Subtitles for that scene. And the first line of Annie’s and the first line of Alvy’s begin with “[Thinking].” And they are at the bottom of the screen.
        -If you manually set it to “Subtitle 1 – English,” then the entire film is subtitled, and when the Balcony Scene happens, it looks like this:
        Both the dialog subtitle and the Thought Subtitle, on the MGM DVD
        There’s a couple of things about this that’s even more jarring that the normal setting:
        -They do NOT include the word “[Thinking]” the way they do when you don’t have the full subtitles on.
        -Since they have limited control over the timing of subtitles, both the subtitle for the dialog AND the Thought Subtitle come up at the same time, which, as you can imagine, ruins the timing for the Thought Subtitle. (With the proper timing, the Thought Subtitle always comes up a beat AFTER they begin talking.)

        And, Ken, as I pointed out, it’s possible to watch this scene withOUT any subtitles, accidentally or otherwise, which is so wrong. (That’s how I was able to make the “Alvy only” version.)

      • That is so weird! I assumed that they lazily pilfered the “[thinking]” line from the English subtitle track. But it’s quite the opposite. They seem to have put a lot of thought into getting it so, so wrong.

  5. Damon Salerno

    A big thanks for pointing this out. I especially love your take on the animated scene and Alvy’s sneeze.

    Slightly off the subject, but it does relate to your Silkwood piece on cutting: perhaps my favorite comic cut of all time is in Annie Hall. It’s the scene in which a young, deranged Chris Walken is describing his urge to drive his speeding car into an oncoming vehicle. Cut to: chris walken driving at what appears to be a very dangerous speed on a rainy night. We see a terribly frightened Alvy sitting in the car. I may not have the scene exactly laid out (in fact there may be a moment or two between), but from memory I see the cut and on every viewing it’s right on the money. Try putting a canned subtitle under Alvy in that car….

    • Not to quibble over film semantics, Damon, but I think the sequence in Annie Hall you’re talking about has a one-two punch thanks to the combination of a cut and a pan. After he talks to Christopher Walken, we see Annie getting ready to leave. Someone suggests that Duane will drive them to airport. CUT to a medium of Walken in the car, driving, and then PAN over to Woody. I think the first big laugh is on the CUT, but the mounting laughter is during the pan.

      Again: not to quibble, but I think it’s a combination.

      And that shit is still funny.

  6. Adam L

    We just watched ANNIE HALL again on DVD about two months ago, and I just assumed that my memory had failed me; that this is how it looked in theaters way back when (when audiences were unaccustomed to seeing thoughts represented as subtitles). Thanks for illuminating the misdeeds of MGM. I suppose you’re gambling on there not being a RAGING BULL/LAST WALTZ/etc. special edition re-RE-remastered/re-release with NEW and IMPROVED special features. Bite that hand, Stephen. Bite it!

    • “suppose you’re gambling on there not being a RAGING BULL/LAST WALTZ/etc. special edition re-RE-remastered/re-release”

      Considering MGM as a breathing entity is long gone, I’m not terribly worried about biting any hands. The hands that I worked with–and the ones that made these subtitling decisions are all elsewhere. (I believe Fox has this catalog now, and, who knows, maybe they’re doing something special as I type this.

    • “I just assumed that my memory had failed me; that this is how it looked in theaters way back when”
      You’re getting me paranoid, Adam. Looks like I’ll be hitting up ebay for a VHS version!

      • OK, so I got my hands on a VHS tape and, nope, there’s no “[Thinking]” on that. But more importantly, it enabled me to amend the clip that I posted (of the scene with all the subtitles). Now what’s up here, approximates the font (what was used in the film is very similar to Futura), the punctuation, and the spelling (even the funky spelling of “shmuch”).

  7. Mitch

    Man, that totally sucks…it’s bad enough that they gave that DVD a non-anamorphic transfer, but messing with the original content is NOT cool.

  8. enormous cock & balls

    Somewhat ironic that a by-product of DVD-era film ‘restoration’ is an altogether separate casualty for many movies… OPTICALS.

    Ironic if only because I do not recall any LD-era film transfers that so badly botched an important aspect of a film that fans love to fetish just as much as any other aspect.
    (Why did Criterion Collection never seemed to have a problem knowing which film canisters to pull…?)

    For some reason the DVD-era’s haste to always retrieve the earliest print or negative that they can find (simply to run it thru telecine and then a single, unattended pass thru shitty restoration software) has left behind or made re-imagined mincemeat of some of our fondest collective movie moments.

    Please feel free – if you haven’t already – to add below your favorite (aka most-infuriated-over) movie title that has had it’s original theatrical edition subjected to this post-DVD era optical butchering.

    Okay… my submission?

    THE RUTLES: All You Need Is Cash

    Speaking of… Eric Idle never seems to have a problem counting those Python ₤ pounds:
    Why was he asleep at the wheel for the reissue of this classic of Beatle camp?

    Uh… because he’s a dick.

    (But that, friends, is the follow-up to another blog post…)

    • Missing opticals, eh? Let me see if I can think of any other chestnuts (besides the one I wrote about).

      Oh, off the top of my head, rumor has it that the first versions of The Last Waltz DVDs do NOT have the infamous “booger matte” on Neil Young’s nose. But that’s only a rumor.

    • Actually, enormous, can you provide some examples of the Great Rutles Massacre? I remember them being particularly scathing. (Also, if you and I can gather together the necessary elements to create a Before and After, we could do that as well.)

      • enormous cock & balls

        Just noticed this…

        The original movie’s simple font style was also replaced on the DVD edition with The Happy Days font:
        Check it out: If you just picture little neon lights over-laid on the letters…

      • Are you talking about The Rutles or Annie Hall?

  9. Adam L

    As the youtube clip of ANNIE HALL’s Balcony Scene ticked down i noticed that this cataclysmic film altering moment occurred in only sixty seconds time, nothing more. I put it on parr with all three hours of AVATAR. Seriously.

    • Yeah, Note to James Cameron: Sometimes it possible to do so much with very little.

      The older I get, the more I realize Annie Hall and Manhattan are actually timeless documentaries about dating in NYC. The last couple of years I was dating were like months-long re-stagings of those films.

  10. iris cahn

    curious, who is ‘enormous’ and why do you think eric is “a dick”. seems you have a bit of uh, something envy going on?

  11. Pingback: J Edgar Linker | Movies Reviewz

  12. Pingback: Play It Again, Woody…Wait. Is That Woody? « Peel Slowly

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