Bright Lights Film Journal

Cinerama Adventure

“See it without glasses!”

The gears are grinding with strain, eking out a few more clicks, and then just as the roller-coaster car edges over the hump, they let go and send the car hurtling down the track, as a thousand stomachs in the audience lurch from the onscreen impact. This was the visceral surge that introduced audiences to the wonders of the widescreen revolution, in the opening sequence of This Is Cinerama.

From the movie’s opening night on September 30, 1952, the three-camera process hit the country like a pop phenomenon. The premiere marked the first and only time a Bosley Crowther film review hit page one in The New York Times. Impresario Mike Todd dubbed it “the greatest thing since penicillin,” and even the president dropped in to see the fun. In fact, patriotism was built into the very name of the new process, an anagram of “American,” and soon a national craze inspired trendy variations like “Foodarama” and “Motorama.” The film’s unprecedented success blew Hollywood’s fuses, kicking off a wave of visual imitators like VistaVision, Todd-AO, and Cinemascope (“the poor man’s Cinerama”), as well as the 3-D fad of the early 1950s.

In the brand-new Cinerama Adventure (which premiered in final form at the Chicago International Film Festival), aficionado David Strohmaier assembles six years of research to chart the history of this grandaddy of today’s blockbusters, but with the same seat-of-the-pants spirit that informed the creation of the process itself. Using support from the American Society of Cinematographers and Eastman Kodak to produce this labor of love project, Strohmaier and producer Randy Gitsch developed a redimensioned visual format they call “Smilebox”. This simulates the Cinerama experience (complete with seams), but in conventionally-equipped theaters, and persuasively demonstrates its chops by sending tummies into freefall when replaying the famed roller coaster opening.

Approaching the innovation as pop culture Americana, and a major chapter in the history of movie showmanship, the director tracks down and records invaluable interviews with the surviving members of the Cinerama team, as well as colleagues and relatives of the many colorful personalities responsible for its sensational success. In addition, film scholars (including Rudy Behlmer, Kevin Brownlow, and John Belton) and filmmakers (like composer David Raksin and director Joe Dante) weigh in at various points, as well as veteran actors who had to grapple with the process (including Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, and Russ Tamblyn).

Intended to exist outside the Hollywood system from the outset, Cinerama was first exclusively presented in a Broadway theater the producers rented on their own. Although eventually seen in 74 major cities, Cinerama became such a hit in New York that entire trains were chartered to import tourists for film showings and deals were worked out for schools to grant academic credit for students who attended, according to Strohmaier’s data.

Wherever presented, the Cinerama product was treated as event-marketing, with reserved seats, staff outfitted in tuxedos, and no popcorn or concession stands. The formality of curtains unfolding at the films’ opening continued the theme, and every performance was individually customized by a technician in the theater who would remix the sound to adjust for different conditions and different-sized audiences.

Among many fascinating tales here, none involves more multitasking than the central one of Fred Waller, the inventor of the process. As chief of Paramount’s east coast special effects department in the 1930s, Waller had already directed a number of imaginative musical shorts (this film samples some with Duke Ellington and Billie Holiday), and had already invented water skis, which he attempted to market as “Dolphin Akwa-Skees.”

Waller’s brainstorm was to maximize the realism of the film experience by approximating as closely as possible on the screen the natural qualities of human eyesight and hearing. Consequently, he designed a camera lens following the model of the lens of the eye, and then projected the images onto a giant louvered screen (like a row of a thousand vertical venetian blinds) that was curved at the same angle as the retina. Three projectors were crucial to cover sufficient screen width to evoke the peripheral vision effect unique to Cinerama. (One highlight of this film is a rare glimpse at a “breakdown” reel that was shown whenever the synchronization was thrown out of whack, with Lowell Thomas amusing the audience while the techies worked on the problem.)

At an indoor tennis court in Long Island, Waller cobbled together a prototype version in 1938 that connected and synchronized 11 16mm cameras and 11 panels of screen. When World War 2 intervened, this complex system was repurposed for the Air Force to simulate aerial combat for training purposes (amazingly, Strohmaier has found some of this material and presents it here).

After the war, Waller rounded up a true wild bunch of collaborators to figure out how to exploit his system commercially. Strohmaier nimbly looks at all of them, including the sonorous-toned Lowell Thomas, a newsman who had trekked with Lawrence of Arabia; the visionary producer Merian Cooper, himself an adventurer and immortal as a key creator of King Kong; the legendary stunt pilot Paul Mantz, who flew Cinerama’s bomber-sized aircraft right into the crater of an erupting African volcano (the edge-of-your-seat footage is another highlight here); and newsreel veteran Harry Squire, fearless director of photography for Frank Buck’s popular adventure movies.

Providing clips from all of Cinerama’s nonfiction films, the director resurrects a spectacular whitewater rafting incident on the Indus River (that resulted in death) and a perilous proto-bungee jumping ceremony in the South Seas, but also intelligently addresses the problems that thwarted Cinerama’s use in narrative films. Among other headaches, the ultra-wide angle lenses meant that cinematographers could not prevent light-flaring distortions, while the close-ups that would create intimacy and emotional involvement were impossible on the mammoth panorama of the screen.

Nevertheless, the system’s first narrative film, produced in a long-term partnership with MGM, seemed to promise a new generation of spectacle. With an all-star cast and high- profile directors John Ford, George Marshall, and Henry Hathaway at the helm, How the West Was Won turned into the top-grossing film of 1962. Some of Strohmaier’s best material shows rare production shots of how Cinerama’s wizards managed the effect of a pioneer’s covered wagon crashing and tumbling down a hill (with three cameras inside). One story here recounts how John Ford’s habit of sitting next to the camera kept getting him into the shot thanks to the system’s wide coverage, until ace cinematographer Joseph LaShelle pushed a ladder behind the camera as a perch for the old master.

However, Strohmaier also chronicles what went wrong in the ghastly accident that arguably remains the film’s most-remembered achievement. During the log-train sequence, stuntman Bob Morgan was doubling George Peppard when a sudden shift crushed his body under the wheels (we see not only the final film sequence, but also a brief new interview with Morgan four decades later).

Only two authentic Cinerama films came from the MGM deal (the other was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, but its negative was so seriously damaged that apparently a restoration would now be formidably expensive). Then, when ownership of the parent company changed, a number of “bogus” Cinerama films appeared, using single-camera systems in 70-mm, beginning with It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and later including Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

On the international market, distribution was hampered by the system’s special projection requirements until, inspired by Abel Gance’s widescreen experiments in Napoleon, Nicholas Reisini organized truck caravans to tour the French countryside, riding into town like the circus train, and setting up an inflatable theater that seated 3,000 spectators. Again, the director has done yeoman work by locating Reisini’s son and recording his vivid memories of the perils of the European circuit.

Appearing smack in the midst of the Cold War, it’s small wonder that the new process was recruited for duty. Among other political episodes, this film recounts how the U.S.I.S. sponsored a Cinerama movie to foil the Soviet Union’s attempts to trumpet its technological advances at an expo in Damascus. Eventually and well over a decade too late, the Russians developed their own system, called Kinopanorama, which they unveiled at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 to little effect.

Merely as a monumental title, This Is Cinerama continues life echoed in This Is Spinal Tap, but Strohmaier wittily links the original’s roller-coaster to Indiana Jones’s bumpy thrill-ride through the underground mine (although the process itself cannot be blamed for the excesses of later junk action films).

This new Cinerama Adventure will start the engines of anyone who loves the drama of Hollywood outsiders thinking really big and then succeeding with an extreme long shot. Since it also involves a collection of great yarns, told vividly by participants and witnesses, plus million-dollar sequences that have long remained unseen, resistance to such first-rate fun is pointless, especially if it shows on the big screen. As the original ads commanded, “See it without glasses!” (unless you need glasses, of course).