Technical innovations are often the barometer by which the state of any art is judged. The introduction of sound, as example, liberated movies from what was then considered their zenith in self-expression. But it also led to a mass exodus of those who suffered an even crueler fate – watching their stardom implode, simply because their vocal capabilities lagged behind their presence in the silent medium. Then there was color – hand tinted frames at first giving way to the unpolished novelty of 2-strip Technicolor with its palette favoring pasty pinks and a swamp frog green/beige patina; then, 3-strip Technicolor, the Eastman monopack, color by DeLuxe and so on and so forth. Motion picture modernizations have continued ever since: widescreen, home video, CGI and, most recently, improvements made to the 1950s rudimentary understanding of 3D coming full circle.
In retrospect, Cinerama – a forerunner in the widescreen war – and undeniably the biggest with its cumbersome three-camera set up and projection – doesn’t seem so much an revolution today as the preamble that forever changed the shape of our movie screens from their relatively square Academy OAR of 1:33.1 to varying rectangular apertures still in existence today. Fred Waller often gets the nod for this evolution. Arguably, he deserves most of it; his fifteen years of research instituted as the Waller Gunnery Trainer – a realistic flight simulator for U.S. combat pilots later tweaked, refined and rechristened as Cinerama.
But lest we forget that French director Abel Gance beat Waller’s invention by nearly 20 year with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its final sequence breathtakingly expanding the square-ish movie frame into a three camera projection for the Battle of Waterloo. There was also William Fox’s superior Grandeur process in 1930’s early talkie, The Big Trail - a 70mm precursor some thirty years ahead of its mid-1960s competitors. No, in hindsight Cinerama wasn’t a gigantic evolutionary step ahead so much as it proved a costly and very unwieldy promotion that kicked off the mad dash for newer/better widescreen technologies yet to follow: Cinemascope, Todd A-O, VistaVision, Technirama, Dimension-150 and, Panavision among them.
Waller’s first time out, Vitarama, was little more than a novelty showcased at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Yet, in viewing Cinerama’s debut today, with 1952’s This Is Cinerama, one is left rather dumbstruck not only by its overwhelming success (the film had a five year continuous run on Broadway) but also by how little the technology had progressed between the aforementioned touchstones and this re-introduction at the start of the 1950s. Arguably, without the Great Depression and WWII – both severely impacting budgets spent on innovations and movies in general, Hollywood would have streamlined and main stapled ‘widescreen’ as the industry standard by the mid-1930s.
Nevertheless, Cinerama caught the whirlwind of the postwar generation. The ripples from its box office sensation and television’s own introduction (another technology debuted at 1939’s World’s Fair, but one that brought mass entertainment into the living room and convinced approximately fifty percent of the paying public to stay home instead of going to the movies) combined, forced studios to enter a race for competing widescreen formats. To be fair, This Is Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly made it unique among its early rivals; Cinerama’s louvered screen, as example, comprised of horizontal chords meticulously angled, greatly improved the overall luminosity and clarity of the image being projected onto them. So too did Cinerama give us our first real taste of eight-track directionalized stereophonic sound. Disney had toyed with his own concept ‘Fanta-sound’ for 1940’s Fantasia, but Cinerama delivered an orchestral richness unheard in the movies before its own time and arguably, ever since. Unlike any other widescreen technology, only Cinerama filled the entire periphery of human vision with its all-encompassing vistas.
There are others who deserve their share of Cinerama’s success story, beginning with maverick film maker Merian C. Cooper, who backed Waller’s grand experiment this second time around; Hazard E. Reeves – the pioneer of modern day sound recording; and finally, flyer extraordinaire, Paul Mantz, whose harrowing passes over such natural wonders as the orangey mesas of the Grand Canyon, and craggy spiked rock formations at Zion National Park made for some truly spectacular scenery. This Is Cinerama’s grise éminence is Lowell Thomas; writer/world traveller/broadcaster/spokesman – a true renaissance man of such diverse experiences, including being among the few to interview the real T.E. Lawrence of Arabia, and, who later became the voice of Fox’s Movietones Newsreels.
Indeed, Cinerama’s pedigree is nothing short of impressive. Yet the film is somehow less than spectacular, except in fits and sparks. This Is Cinerama begins with a rather excruciatingly tedious prologue in B&W and mono, featuring Lowell Thomas attempting to breach the chasm between the ‘dawn of time’ and, then, present day 1952. We move from ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics to Eadweard Muybridge’s experimental still photography of a running horse to settle a bet, then onto Thomas Edison’s famed ‘the kiss’ actuality and a detailed abridgement of Edwin Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903) with Thomas’ monologue at times strained and overly-simplified. This prologue serves a trifecta purpose; first – it is a glorified, if truncated, history lesson; second – it artificially lengthens This Is Cinerama’s runtime by twelve minutes, despite the fact that this footage is not in Cinerama or even in color. Finally, it sets up a distinct comparison, as in ‘this is where we’ve been. Now this is where we’re going to take you’.
And so, immediately following Thomas’ declaration of “Ladies and gentlemen…this, is Cinerama!” the screen opens to its full aperture inside the dugout of Rockaway Playland’s Atom Smasher roller coaster; the audience placed in a front row seat as the car pulls from the station and plunges through a series of steep inclines and hairpin turns. Even on home video – arguably the least effective way to view true Cinerama – there’s absolutely nothing to touch this moment for its sheer exhilaration; and such a shame too that in the remaining 118 minutes of This Is Cinerama we are infrequently treated to little more or better than snippets of coming attractions for a feature film that arguably never comes along. Instead, This Is Cinerama runs on like a glorified test reel for the format and not the comprehensive ‘you are there’ world-class experience its road show engagement program and movie posters advertised and promised.
There are some truly curious oddities along the way. A brief aerial shot of Niagara Falls in blazing Technicolor is followed by the turgidity of a static sequence photographed in sepia as the Mormon Tabernacle Choir enter the frame with their backs to the camera while raising their voices in Handel’s Hallelujah. The staging of this sequence just seems off if not entirely bizarre; drawing one’s attention to the immobility of the camera rather than the size of the image, and to those atrocious seams that separate the three panels. The setting itself, curtained with a makeshift altar taking center stage, is as unimpressive and uninspired a thing as any ever photographed since the early days of silent cinema.
The opera inserts of Verdi’s Aida are salvaged only by the staggering opulence of La Scala, the sumptuousness of the production once again marred by the camera’s inability to get closer to the action, but maintaining the proscenium of the stage experience. From these rather stuffy moments, presumably meant to elevate the stature of Cinerama to highbrow, the production kicks into a truncated cook’s tour of Europe – Spain, with its flamenco dancers and castanets clicking, and then, Italy’s St. Mark’s Square and a gondola ride down the Venetian canals that unfortunately shows off the awful and exaggerated warping of the image derived from Cinerama’s three lens process; the overhead bridges unnaturally stretched and becoming cavernous, lopsided and tunnel-like; the seams between panels two and three never quite matching up.
After a brief intermission – inserted to satisfy the constraints of having to mount another massive reel of film onto the projector, This Is Cinerama takes off to Florida’s Cypress Garden for a water ski showcase, and, a grand Floridian display of southern-styled belles parading through some very lush tropical vegetation. This is the movie’s most lurid and eye-popping moment. It is rumored that cameraman Harry Squire’s eyebrows were singed clean off when his boat sailed through a ring of fire in pursuit of the speedboats and water skiers. Lowell Thomas’ commentary is threadbare, allowing the flourish of Max Steiner orchestral underscoring its full opportunity to carry the visuals on a groundswell of 8-track stereophonic sound.
The finale to This Is Cinerama is a mesmerizing trek across America – from its fruited plain to pinnacled mountainous natural wonders, with breathtaking aerial views of Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Frisco’s Golden Gate bridge feathered in for good measure – all of them serenaded by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’s haunting refrains of America, The Beautiful. The moment when Harry Squire’s low-lying camera, strapped to the nose of Paul Mantz’s P-51 Mustang goes sailing over the edge of the Grand Canyon still retains its ability to take our breath away; ditto for Mantz’s hair-raising and equilibrium-testing swoops down into the jagged caverns of Zion National Park. Mantz’s plane was so close to the rocks, the experience of capturing it all on film convinced Squires to never again agree to fly with him. As a tragic postscript, Mantz would die while performing aerial maneuvers for Robert Aldrich’s Flight of the Phoenix in 1965.
Vintage reviews of This Is Cinerama ranged from moderately glowing to downright gushing, but frequently referenced the film’s ‘travelogue’ atmosphere – something Lowell Thomas vehemently detested because in the truest definition of that word This Is Cinerama is not a ‘travelogue’ per say, but a compendium of spectacular shots incongruously assembled to suggest something of a world tour or journey, shot mostly from overhead. Despite the success of This Is Cinerama and its several highly publicized sequels ‘The Windjammer’ and Cinerama’s Seven Wonders of the World among the highlights, in hindsight it’s easy to see why the format never went beyond this initial fascination.
To say the least, Cinerama’s laborious three camera set up and projection process was not cost-effect. Worse, at least for conventional storytelling, was its complete inability to favor the conventional Hollywood close-up. Even in MGM’s all-star blockbuster How The West Was Won(1962) - one of only two traditional narrative movies to use the process and arguably the only one to show off Cinerama to its very best advantage - the actors and action remained at a distance from the camera, the audience even further removed from the story by the proportionate space between their theater seats and that massive curved screen.
This is Cinerama can be fun. I must admit, positioning myself just so in front of an 80 inch flat screen gave me a fairly accurate ‘you are there’ effect for the roller coaster and water skiing sequences. But on the whole, the movie plays far more like a grand experiment with slight imperfections than an enveloping and comprehensive movie-going experience. The effect is exacerbated during the penultimate flying sequences with rock formations, trees, bridges and buildings infrequently appearing as though they are crashing against one another where the Cinerama panels meet.
Despite some formidable video remastering efforts put forth by David Strohmaier and Greg Kimble the seams between these various panels are ever-present and distracting throughout. It should be noted that Strohmaier and Kimble’s restoration efforts were hampered by the fact that their work was being performed not from three camera Cinerama original negatives, but from a reassembled print master composite made of all three panels spliced together and printed onto one strip of 70mm Panavision film stock back in 1971. Kimble developed innovative ways of handling the various damage and instability inherent in this Panavision master. He has, in fact, resurrected much – if not all – of This Is Cinerama’s former glory for this Blu-ray debut.
Colors are, for the most part, a revelation; yielding a richness of reds, greens, blues and yellows that generally recapture the vintage look of Technicolor. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive nonetheless. Kimble has also managed to reduce a goodly amount of age-related damage, camera jitter and other anomalies inherent in the flawed film elements. Does it improve our overall viewing experience? Absolutely! No question or doubt about it. But Cinerama’s inherent shortcomings – even the smaller ones - look far more obvious in HD than they probably did in a theater, where one is quite simply overcome and overwhelmed by the sheer size of Cinerama’s projection and presentation. The audio is presented in either 5.1 or 4.0 DTS and is a revelation as well; robust and bellowing with all the drama of Cinerama’s opening night sonic splendor.
Extras include a rather comprehensive explanation of how the movie was restored and remastered for Blu-ray. It’s only 19min. long but crams in a ton of information. We also get tributes to the Neon Theater’s 1996 Cinerama revival and the Cooper Theater – a million dollar venue built expressly for Cinerama presentations in the 1960s, but torn down in 2000. Fred Waller provides a rather rambling radio interview. There are also trailers, TV spots, a slide show and stills to whet the appetite.
Yet, in the end This Is Cinerama comes across as a quaint relic from the past rather than a newly resurrected classic for all time. Although I am exceedingly grateful to the aforementioned men for their time and efforts put forth, and to Flicker Alley for its faith in releasing this vintage catalogue title to HD home video – a very important part of cinema history indeed, to say the very least – This Is Cinerama is not a movie that most outside of the collector, film buff and/or historian will find compelling. It has its moments, but they don’t add up to that overall ‘wow’ in wonderment and participation that movie audiences undoubtedly experienced in 1952. That’s a shame. But it’s also the truth. This Is Cinerama is an intriguing artifact from the past, not a cinematic masterpiece.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)