THIS IS CINERAMA: Deluxe Edition Blu-ray (Merian C. Cooper, 1952) Flicker Alley
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 pantomime and self-expression. Alas, the innovation of ‘sound’ also led to a mass exodus and an even crueler fate – watching the stardom of silent legends implode virtually overnight, simply because their vocal capabilities lagged behind the enigma of their screen presence immortalized in ‘dumb show’. Then there was color – hand-tinted frames at first, giving way to the unpolished novelty of 2-strip Technicolor; its palette favoring pasty pinks and swamp frog green/beige hues. Then, 3-strip Technicolor, the Eastman monopack, color by DeLuxe and so on. The more one considers the history of Hollywood, the more apparent the fledgling flickers were in a constant state of upheaval – only partly attributed to its chronic technological refurbishments. While some of what ailed the industry behind the scenes has dissipated with time, technologically speaking, modernizations continue: widescreen, home video, CGI, a rebirth of 3D, another 1950’s novelty come full circle, only to fall out of favor with TV manufacturers, and most recent of all, 4K/8K digital mastering and projection taking the place of film.
In retrospect, Cinerama – a forerunner in the widescreen war – and undeniably the biggest, with its cumbersome three-camera set up and projection – does not seem so much a revolution as the preamble that forever changed the shape of movie screens from their relatively square 1:33.1 OAR. Inventor, Fred Waller gets the footnote 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 French director, Abel Gance beat Waller by nearly 20 years with the premiere of Napoleon (1927); a silent epic that, in its final sequence, breathtakingly expanded the square-ish movie frame into a 3-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. So, Cinerama did not hold the monopoly as a gigantic evolutionary step as much as it proved costly and very unwieldy: the kick-starter for that mad dash toward newer/better widescreen technologies yet to follow it: 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 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 1950's. Arguably, without the Great Depression and WWII – both severely impacting budgets spent on innovations and movies in general throughout the war years - Hollywood would have likely streamlined and main-stapled ‘widescreen’ as the industry standard by the mid-1930's. Still, there are others who deserve a share of Cinerama’s success, beginning with maverick film maker, Merian C. Cooper, who backed Waller’s grand experiment; Hazard E. Reeves – pioneer of modern day sound recording, and finally, flyer extraordinaire, Paul Mantz, whose harrowing passes over such natural wonders as the earthy red 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 eminence, Lowell Thomas was a world class writer/traveler/broadcaster/reporter – a true renaissance man of diverse experiences; among them, one of the hallowed few to have interviewed the real T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia).
With its promise of untold wonderment from the four corners of the earth (and a few nooks and crannies never even heard of then in the western world), This Is Cinerama caught the whirlwind optimism of the postwar generation. Ironically, the ripples from Cinerama’s box office sensation ran parallel to television’s introduction (another technology premiered at 1939’s World’s Fair, though regrettably then, to throw the whole menagerie into a tizzy by convincing nearly 40% of the paying public to stay home and get their entertainments for free in the comfort of their own living rooms). Overnight, these competing technologies forced studios into a race for competing widescreen formats. To be fair, This Is Cinerama did introduce various innovations to the movie-going experience that truly set it apart from its 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. Walt Disney had earlier toyed with stereo - dubbed ‘Fanta-sound’ for 1940’s Fantasia. But Cinerama delivered a true stereophonic orchestral richness, unheard in any venue outside the classical concert hall before its time and arguably, ever since. More than any other widescreen technology, Cinerama filled the entire periphery of human vision with its all-encompassing vistas.
Indeed, Cinerama’s pedigree was nothing short of impressive. Yet the film is somehow less than spectacular when viewed today, except in fits and sparks. This Is Cinerama opens with a rather 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, gravely overly-simplified. This prologue serves a trifecta purpose; first – it is a glorified history lesson; second – it artificially lengthens This Is Cinerama’s run time by twelve minutes, despite the fact 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 reveals 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 is absolutely nothing to touch this moment for sheer exhilaration, and such a shame too, 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 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 promised. There is, of course, something to be said for the argument that today’s audiences have become jaded in their entertainment expectations. So, what played as ground-breaking then cannot help but fall short, given the vast improvements made in the 70+ years since.
Even so, there are some true oddities in this extended travelogue. 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 with their backs to the camera, raising their voices in Handel’s Hallelujah. The sequence is meant to show off the razor-sharp clarity of Cinerama’s 6-track stereophonic sound. It does. But the staging just seems off if not entirely bizarre; drawing attention to the immobility of the camera rather than the size of the image, and to those atrocious seams separating the three panels. The setting itself, curtained with a makeshift altar taking center stage, is as unimpressive a thing as any ever photographed since the early days of silent cinema.
The opera vignettes from Verdi’s Aida are static, salvaged only by the staggering opulence of La Scala, the sumptuousness marred by the camera’s inability to get closer to the action. Cinerama’s tri-panel maintains the proscenium of the stage experience. From these rather stuffy moments, presumably meant to elevate the stature of Cinerama as justly capable of satisfying the highbrow, the production departs for a truncated tour of Spain with its flamenco dancers, castanets clicking; then, Italy’s St. Mark’s Square and a gondola ride down the Venetian canals. This, regrettably shows off one of the shortcomings rather than the virtues of Cinerama; a severely exaggerated warping of the image, the overhead bridges unnaturally stretched into cavernous, lopsided and tunnel-like spans; the seams between panels two and three slightly overlapping. After a brief intermission – a necessity to reboot the 3-projector setup, This Is Cinerama embellishes the splendors of Florida’s Cypress Garden for an invigorating water ski aquacade, and, an even grander 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 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 mercilessly threadbare here, allowing for a flourish of Max Steiner’s orchestral underscoring in 8-track stereophonic sound.
This Is Cinerama’s finale is a mesmerizing overhead trek across America – from its fruited plains to pinnacled mountains, with breathtaking aerial views of Manhattan, Washington D.C. and Frisco’s Golden Gate bridge feathered in for good measure – 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 into the jagged caverns of Zion National Park. Mantz’s plane was so close to the rocks, the experience as captured on film convinced Squires to never again fly with him. As a tragic postscript, Mantz would die while performing similar 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. Frequently, critics 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 many highlights, in hindsight it is very easy to see why the format never went beyond this initial fascination. To say the least, Cinerama’s laborious 3-camera setup and projection process was not cost-effect. Worse, at least for conventional storytelling, it suffered from a 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 remain at a distance from the camera, the audience even further removed from the story by the proportionate space between their theater seats and the 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 like the grand experiment that it was, but with slight imperfections. For a truly immersive experience, see This is Cinerama on a big canvas to recreate its enveloping and comprehensive movie-going experience. On home video, one cannot help but notice the exacerbated effect of slightly misaligned panels, or the curious anomaly of having rock formations, trees, bridges and buildings infrequently appearing as though they are about to crash against one another where the Cinerama panels meet.
This Deluxe Edition of This Is Cinerama is the second outing put forth by restorationist/Cinerama enthusiasts, David Strohmaier and Greg Kimble with one major difference. The previous release was remastered from a 70mm Panavision recomposite of the original 3-strip panels made back in 1971 for a roadshow reissue. Various critics attending this theatrical experience in 1971 were quick to point out it left much to be desired and in no way recaptured the unique clarity of the original 1952 release in all its true 3-panel glory. For this deluxe reissue on home video, This Is Cinerama has been remastered from newly recovered archival 3-strip original negatives. The results are head and shoulders above the old release. Colors are a revelation, yielding a richness of reds, greens, blues and yellows to almost recapture the vintage look of glorious Technicolor. It’s not perfect, but it is impressive nonetheless. Kimble has also managed to reduce a goodly amount of age-related damage and camera jitter for a fairly smooth presentation. Does this improve our overall viewing experience? Absolutely! But Cinerama’s inherent shortcomings – even the small ones – are quite obvious, perhaps more so than they probably appeared in a theater in 1952 when audiences were simply overwhelmed by the sheer size of Cinerama in projection. ‘Big’ can hide a lot of sins. The DTS audio is presented in either 5.1 or 4.0 DTS and is robust and bellowing with all the drama of Cinerama’s opening night sonic splendor.
Extras this time around are plentiful. We really need to tip our hats to Strohmaier and his team, beginning with a very engrossing audio commentary provided by Cinerama Inc.’s John Sittig (Cinerama Inc.), Strohmaier, historian, Randy Gitsch and original crew member, Jim Morrison. Anyone truly into the mechanics of film in general, Cinerama in particular, and, the business of 'making movies' cannot afford to miss this track. We also get The Best in the Biz, a revamped hour-long documentary, devoted to the composers of Cinerama. There’s also, Restoring This is Cinerama a thorough account of this new restoration, plus carried over extras from the original Blu-ray release, including an alternate European Opening for Act Two; Cinerama Everywhere, a French-produced short, an homage to the New Neon Movies; a brief celebration of Cinerama’s resurgence at the Ohio theater, plus radio interviews with Cinerama’s creator, Fred Waller, and, a refreshed This is Cinerama movie trailer. Last, but not least, we get Cinerama Returns to the Cinerama Dome; a promo for the 50th anniversary of Cinerama, a breakdown reel of footage originally projected during the interruptions of any Cinerama performance (and there were many), and finally, TV spots – originally aired to market This Is Cinerama and Seven Wonders of the World.
Perhaps the best that can be said of This Is Cinerama, removed from all its hype and the luxury of seeing it as only it should be seen – in true 3-panel projection – is that it comes across as a quaint relic instead of a newly resurrected classic for all time. Although exceedingly grateful to Strohmaier and his crew for their renewed efforts, also to Flicker Alley for their faith in reissuing it to Blu-ray – a very important part of cinema history indeed – This Is Cinerama is nevertheless not a movie most outside of the die hard collector's community, film buffs and/or historians will find compelling. For certain, it has its moments. But they do not add up to achieving that participatory spectacle movie audiences undoubtedly experienced in 1952. That’s a shame. It’s also the truth. On home video, This Is Cinerama is likely to remain an intriguing historical anomaly, not a cinematic masterpiece. Judge and buy accordingly.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)