“Less than a month after premiering for an ‘indefinite time’ at the Selwyn, the Teleview was pulled.”
In the past few years, American moviegoers have seen a surge in the number of 3D films. The unprecedented success of Avatar, James Cameron’s science fiction blockbuster, makes it likely more 3D films are to come. Though Avatar is groundbreaking in terms of its digitalized, visceral world and pseudo-organic alien creatures, the three-dimensional effect that immerses the audience into this world has been seen in movies on-and-off for the better part of the last century. Yet the third dimension has not yet become an established part of the moviegoing experience, as have other 20th-century innovations: namely, sound and color.
One of the most fascinating, and now largely forgotten, early manifestations of 3D was the case of the Teleview, an experiment in three-dimensional viewing that occurred for one month at a single New York City theater in 1922. The failure of the Teleview to ignite the 3D novelty was caused by its exhibition of Roy William Neill’s second-rate film The Man from M.A.R.S. (aka M.A.R.S.) combined with audience resistance to changing their viewing experience. This was not the first commercially released 3D feature; the now lost Power of Love, played briefly in Los Angeles in September 1922. But M.A.R.S. is considered the first “true” 3D feature in taking advantage of the viewer’s persistence of vision with alternate frame sequencing.
The Teleview 3D system, named by its inventor, Laurens Hammond (creator of the Hammond organ), creates the 3D image in the same way that the human eyes create depth. Two reels of film separated by 2-5/8 inches — the distance between the human eyes — are projected onto a screen. In addition, the two reels themselves were created by filming each scene using two cameras, also separated by 2-5/8 inches. Once these two images are projected onto the screen simultaneously, a viewer can simply look through the Teleview, an optical device attached to his seat, and see a 3D moving image. The Teleview filters the two images via a rotating shutter that is sync with the images on screen: when looked through, the shutter alternately blocks the right and left eyes and, by the persistence of vision, a single, three-dimensional moving image is seen.1
This device was first exhibited to movie insiders in New York City on October 13, 1922. At the advance screening, the audience was shown the stereoscopic feature then known as Mars Calling,2 later renamed M.A.R.S. A little over a week later, on October 22, 1922, in the “Screen” column of the newspaper, a New York Times writer who attended the screening announced the advent of 3D pictures via the Teleview system, which was to arrive on Broadway that December. However, in the article, he does not mention any details about the film itself. His excitement is directed exclusively toward the possibilities that 3D could bring to other movies: he mentions how the “effectiveness” of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or The Golem could be “heightened” by the third dimension.3 Yet he has concerns about its effects on the art of film: “Isn’t there danger . . . that the screen will become merely a literal reflection of the stage?”4 He does note, however, that if stereoscopic films were rejected by the public, the films themselves could be shown in two dimensions by projecting only one of the reels. Furthermore, he wonders what directors like D. W. Griffith would do with the technology.5
Along with this article mentioning D.W. Griffith, the Times sent an inquiry to the director to assess his views on stereoscopic films. On Nov. 5, they published his response. Griffith believed films need to be stereoscopic before they will be fully realized as an art, but he noted the complications that the new technology will create: “In every art where there is an industrial feature to it, the industrial part develops more rapidly than the artistic.” He said the 3D effect “will add a mighty force to motion pictures” but also observed the difficulty “to reduce from a novelty to popularity.”6 The audience would need a “period of preparation . . . which will take many months, if not years.”7
Griffith’s concerns were immediately realized. His support of the technology seemed to legitimize the novelty too quickly for audiences. Without “a period of preparation,” people were unable to fathom or accept a possible new form of movie watching. Though still weeks away from the Teleview premiere, so many people had written to the Times expressing confusion and suspicion — indeed, irrationality — about the new technology that another article was printed discussing the Teleview. Readers felt the technology could not exist and that such a device would “cut off too much light.” The author of the piece, frustrated that “correspondents did not see the article on stereoscopic pictures printed in this column on Oct.22, which occasioned Mr. Griffith’s interview,”8 rewrote almost the entire Oct. 22 article, showing that it was the Teleview that would create this effect. After again explaining how it creates a 3D moving picture, the author urged patience from his readers.9 It seems there was already a growing resentment about changing the way people watch movies, yet these people had yet to see the Teleview — or, in some cases, even the article describing it.
The “novelty” that concerned Griffith and disturbed much of the movie-going public was in line with the movement away from what Tom Gunning calls the “Cinema of Attractions” and toward cinema’s narrative form as established by Griffith. Gunning notes, “[I]n the earliest years of exhibition the cinema itself was an attraction. Early audiences went to exhibitions to see machines demonstrated . . . It was the Cinematographe, the Biograph, or the Vitascope that were advertised on the variety bills.”10 The Teleview could just as easily be added to this list. Before the release of the film, the Teleview was advertised in the Times as “The Greatest Invention Since Motion Pictures.”11 It was also announced thus: “First the Telescope, Then the Telegraph, Then the Telephone, and now Teleview,”12 without naming M.A.R.S. as the film to be shown. Even during its stint at the Selwyn, advertisements did not name the movie being played. Rather, the Teleview was characterized as the attraction, showcasing an “Entirely New Form of Entertainment” that “Recreates Natural Sight, Just as the Telephone Recreates the Human Voice.”13 Film Daily called the opening night of M.A.R.S. the “world premiere” of the “Teleview.”14 The public would not even be given the title of the film until a mere ten days before its premiere.15
The movie premiered at the Selwyn Theater on Dec. 27, 1922. The next day, the Times reported that M.A.R.S. — a film that “unfortunately did not prove very impressive as a dramatic composition,” being “drawn out to a tedious length and burdened with much dreary humor” — will be showing at the Selwyn for an “indefinite time.”16 The article noted that the film’s “first impression was mixed,” but M.A.R.S. “illustrated the use of the third dimension” that “permitted a number of bizarre effects” in the Martian sequences.17 However, the film’s reportedly effective use of the third dimension was not a sentiment shared by all. The editor of Film Daily, known only as Danny, found the novelty interesting — even comparing its “futuristic effects” to those of Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.18 But the two films are far from cinematic equals. Danny found the experience of viewing a film through the Teleview to be quite painful: “Trifling eye strain results, and one is inclined to become a bit stiff through remaining in one position.”19 As far as the movie itself, he said it was “too long and should be cut.”20
On January 20th, less than a month after premiering for an “indefinite time” at the Selwyn, the Teleview was pulled from Broadway. On its final day, the theater held an event called “Thirty Years of Motion Pictures,” which began with a showing of The Great Train Robbery and ended “with an exhibition of the Teleview pictures.”21 This event, though marking the end of its run on Broadway, continues to compare M.A.R.S.with movie classics that history has remembered, even after the hype had faded. But, as advertised, M.A.R.S. was essentially reduced to a Teleview picture.
The “futuristic” technology of the Teleview was followed at the Selwyn by a form of entertainment that required little, if any, technological innovation: a play, The Dagmar.22 The audience would also follow this sentiment as The Dagmar would go on to enjoy a longer stint on Broadway than the Teleview.23
But was it the technology or the film that moviegoers were rejecting? Fortunately, there is a way to separate the film from its technology. Six months later, M.A.R.S. would be rereleased in normal 2D, a strategy that the makers of the Teleview had noted as a possibility if the system proved unsuccessful. The film was also renamed Radio-Mania, a title that reflected the surge in radio broadcasting that swept across the country in the early 1920s. Susan Douglas, in her book Listening In, claims that, by 1922, “radio phoning [had] become the most popular amusement in America.”24 Radio, like 3D films, was a novelty in that decade. Many people would tinker with their ham radios as a hobby. Furthermore, some would even try to use radio to contact “The Ethereal World,” — or as Douglas notes, “otherworldly contact;”25 magazines even sponsored “How Far Have You Heard”26 contests. The plot of M.A.R.S., or Radio-Mania, incorporates these fads: it is about a “Radio nut”27 who makes contact with “otherworldly” Martians via radio waves — only to wake up and find it was all a dream.28 Advertisements of the film, aimed at exhibitors, stated, “Every day thousands of dollars of publicity space is being given in this country on Radio, the most widely advertised subject of today,” thus giving the movie “selling possibilities that place it at once in the class of sure money-makers.”29 Just as it had exploited the 3D effect to enhance its Martian terrain, so was M.A.R.S. resold to the public as a timely exploitation of the radio craze. Though the film’s release was briefly noted in the Times,30 30 it did not generate the buzz that its 3D counterpart created. The film would never again appear on Broadway and would be relegated to obscurity — just like the Teleview.
The mediocrity of M.A.R.S. and the disagreeable viewing experience of the Teleview failed to establish 3D as an integral part of moviegoing, and only time will tell if, in the wake of new technologies and, particularly, the “perfected” naturalistic 3D of Avatar,31 the third dimension will join sound and color as a standard feature of the cinema experience.
- New York Times. “Screen: The Third Dimension.” October 22, 1922, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- Film Daily. “Stereoscopic.” October 14, 1922: 1. [↩]
- “Screen: The Third Dimension,” Sec. Amusements. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- New York Times. “Stereoscopic Films.” November 5, 1922, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- New York Times. “Screen: In the Film Forum.” November 19, 1922, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Tom Gunning, “The Cinema of Attraction: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde,” Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, BFI (1990): 58. [↩]
- New York Times. “The Greatest Invention Since Motion Pictures.” December 24, 1922, sec. Advertisements. [↩]
- New York Times. “The Greatest Invention Since Motion Pictures.” December 20, 1922, sec. Advertisement [↩]
- New York Times. “Teleview.” January 18, 1923, sec. Advertisements. [↩]
- Film Daily. “‘Teleview’ Premiere.” December 28, 1922: 1. [↩]
- New York Times. “Picture Plays and People.” December 17, 1922, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- New York Times. “The Screen.” December 28, 1922, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Film Daily. “The Teleview.” December 29, 1922: 1. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- New York Times. “Motion Picture Notes.” January 19, 1923, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- New York Times. “The New Plays.” January 21, 1922, sec. Amusements. [↩]
- “Dagmar,” IBDB: The Official Source for Broadway Information, The Broadway League, http://www.ibdb.com/production.php?id=9191. [↩]
- Susan J. Douglas, Listening In. (New York: Times Books, 1999): 52. [↩]
- Ibid. [↩]
- Ibid., 74. [↩]
- Film Daily Yearbook 1923. “Grant Mitchell in Radio-Mania.” December 22, 1923. sec. Advertisement. [↩]
- “Radio-Mania: Synopses,” BFI: Film & TV Database, BFI National Library,
- Film Daily Yearbook. “Grant Mitchell in Radio-Mania.” December 22, 1923. sec. Advertisement. [↩]
- New York Times. “Picture Plays and People.” July 29, 1923 sec. Amusements. [↩]
- The Washington Post. “Cameron Thinks in Another Dimension.” July 25 2009, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/07/24/AR2009072403265.html [↩]