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Cinerama Comes Home

Cinerama Comes Home

I was too young to see This is Cinerama when it debuted in 1952 and became one of the box-office sensations of the year. Decades later I traveled to Dayton, Ohio to see it in its original three-screen presentation, but now, to my astonishment, anyone can experience the film at home on Blu-ray and DVD! Naturally, this is not the same thing as being enveloped in the picture in a huge auditorium, but it provides access to a meticulously restored print of this unique and rarely-screened feature film, along with one of its follow-ups, Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich (1958), which was presented in a process dubbed Cinemiracle.

These two ambitious new releases from Flicker Alley represent an enormous labor of love by Cinerama aficionado Dave Strohmaier and a handful of technically savvy cohorts. The humble, home-made “making of” documentary about restoring This is Cinerama on the disc bears witness to their Herculean efforts, bringing color, clarity, and uniformity back to the film, often one frame at a time. (A background documentary on the making of Windjammer was produced in Norway and features some of the youthful crew members who made that unforgettable journey more than half a century ago.)

This is Cinerama and Windjammer are offered in the “Smile-Box” format that approximates the curved screen that made Cinerama so distinctive. Each film comes with a gallery of bonus features and behind-the-scenes material.

Just for fun, the producers have included the “breakdown” reels that were ready to be run at a moment’s notice if the cumbersome multi-projector presentation broke down. It’s fun to watch Cinerama host (and co-producer) Lowell Thomas ad lib about the making of the film and cue Mr. Projectionist to restart the feature several different times.

I’m not sure what contemporary audiences would make of these films, which are so much a product of their time. Not only has the travelogue passed out of fashion, along with stentorian narration and overstated orchestral music, but IMAX and other flawless large-format films have become commonplace.

In the 1950s Cinerama offered audiences something startlingly new and different; today these films seem positively quaint, but they appeal to me all the same. It’s like comparing Ray Harryhausen’s frame-by-frame stop-motion animation to the CGI effects of the 21st century: some of us still appreciate the hand-made quality of Ray’s work, in spite of the many advances that have come in the years since he was active.

If you live in Los Angeles and want to see the complete Cinerama canon, don’t hesitate to buy tickets to the festival that starts this weekend. Some of the films will be digitally projected, while others will be shown in their original three-projector format at the historic Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. Click HERE, for more information, 

Here’s the report I filed in 1997 about my first-ever experience with Cinerama fifteen years ago…

LEONARD MALTIN IN FOCUS – This is Cinerama! – 1997

I’ve just made a pilgrimage to Dayton, Ohio to fulfill a lifelong dream.  When I was ten years old I received a copy of a wonderful book called The Movies, which helped to feed my nascent interest in movie history.  Toward the end of this panoramic, pictorial book was a picture of an audience experiencing a roller-coaster ride in a film called This is Cinerama.  Wow!  It looked so incredible, I had to know what it was like…but the film had long since disappeared from theaters.

Cinerama—which promised to “put you in the picture” by using three cameras and three projectors, with a deeply curved screen–was still around when I was a kid, but I never got the opportunity to see it.  My first experience was a bogus one, when I went to Manhattan to see a first-run presentation of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World in 1963“Presented” by Cinerama, it was actually shot with a single camera in UltraPanavision 70, but shown on the famous curved screen.  It looked great, but I didn’t feel any heightened sense of involvement in the picture and was somewhat disappointed.  Then I saw MGM’s  How the West Was Won at my local theater in New Jersey, after the Cinerama print had been shrunk to standard 35mm; I enjoyed the movie, but was distracted by the dark “join lines” between the film’s three panels.

So when Larry Smith told me last year of his plans to revive Cinerama at his New Neon Movies theater in Dayton, using both equipment and prints slavishly preserved over the years by projectionist John Harvey, I knew I’d eventually have to make the trip. It’s been eight months since the Neon started showing Cinerama movies every weekend, and many thousands of people have preceded me—from 36 states and ten foreign countries. The response has been both heartening and astonishing for Smith and Harvey.

Larry does a slide-show lecture before every screening, and this helps put the movie—and the experience—into its proper context.  John isn’t available for questions beforehand, because he’s so busy; when Cinerama built its own theaters around the world, it required five men to project and monitor each presentation.  John does it all by himself, and spends about eight hours cleaning, inspecting, rewinding and setting up every film.  P.S.  He loves it.

The beauty of Cinerama, which I never really understood, is that unlike more modern large-format films, it isn’t meant to overwhelm you.  IMAX is impressive, but your eye can only focus on about 25% of the picture at any given time.  The same is true for the Circlevision 360 shows at Walt Disney World.   Cinerama was designed to correspond to the human eye; the deep curviture of the screen, at 146 degrees, matches the back of your eye exactly, so if you sit in the center of the theater, you get the same feeling of peripheral vision you experience in real life!  Cinerama’s inventor Fred Waller had tried many multiple-camera systems before hitting on this idea.

What knocked me out, as much as the picture, was the sound.  Hazard Reeves, the designer of the Cinerama sound system (which predated the introduction of stereophonic movies by one year), developed a seven-channel soundtrack in which the placement of the microphones during recording would be replicated by the placement of speakers in the theater. The result is a “live,” immediate surround sound that I would match against anything Dolby Digital has to offer.  In fact, the rich orchestral sound in Cinerama movies sounds better than anything I’ve heard in a contemporary movie theater—better, to my ears, because it seems as if the orchestra is there with you. What’s more, there’s true directional sound, because of the microphone placement during recording. Nothing had to be simulated in post-production.  (Incidentally, the film’s  magnetic soundtrack runs on a separate sound reproducer, quite apart from the three projectors.)

This is Cinerama opens in black & white, with famed newscaster and globe-trotting author Lowell Thomas as your host; he was also a key investor in the company.  Thomas discusses the history of moving images, with illustrations from ancient times through the development of motion pictures.  Then, after describing the innovative process we’re about to see, he says simply, “This…is Cinerama!”

On cue, the small, nearly square black and white image gives way to a giant, wide, curved three-paneled screen, with a picture almost twice as high as Thomas’ prologue.  The sharpness is incredible, and the color resolution dazzling, as the camera takes us on the roller coaster at Rockaways Playland in New York.  Again, it’s not just the first-person ride that makes for a visual thrill, but the accompanying sound—natural and realistic—that puts this over.  From there, we travel around the world with Cinerama:  to Niagara Falls…the canals of Venice…Vienna, where we hear the famed Boys Choir sing “The Beautiful Blue Danube”…to Scotland, for a rally of the clans…and to Spain, for a bullfight.  Finally, we enter the famous La Scala Opera House in Milan to witness a production of “Aida.”

After intermission, there is a sound demonstration—without picture—before we visit Florida’s Cypress Gardens.  If this sequence, with an everglades tour and an exciting water show, seems a bit extended, that’s because Cinerama inventor Fred Waller was also an investor in Cypress Gardens—and, believe it or not, the inventor of the water ski!  Finally, we travel from sea to shining sea in an airplane journey across our great land.

Corny?  Of course it is, but it’s also tremendous entertainment.  One cannot pretend that This is Cinerama is a 1997 film; it was made in 1952, with all the attendant sensibilities.  I loved every minute.

I saw three Cinerama films altogether during my weekend in Dayton, and with each one I gained new appreciation for the process.  The screen itself is something of a marvel.  Waller discovered that if he used conventional screen material, his deeply curved surface would simply bounce its own light back onto the center of the picture.  So he developed a sort of venetian-blind screen, a series of separate, slightly overlapping slats which reflect the light out toward the audience.  The screen at the New Neon consists of 980 flexible bands, which Larry Smith estimates took 2,000 man hours to install!

The image is incredibly sharp and vivid, and there’s a good reason for that, too.  The larger a negative and print, the more detail it can present to a viewer.  That’s why 35mm is sharper than 16mm, and 70mm is sharper than 35mm, etc.  The Cinerama picture is 25 times sharper than the average 35mm film you see in a movie theater, with an incredible depth of focus—from 18 inches from the lens to infinity.

Little of this impressed the Hollywood actors and technicians who worked on How the West Was Won.  The logistics of adapting their normal working methods to the demands of Cinerama were daunting in every way.  One actor later remarked, “We were not the stars; the camera was.”  The award-winning cinematographers all agreed that this was one of the greatest challenges of their careers.  Lighting, staging, dollying—there wasn’t anything unaffected by the size, scope, and nature of the Cinerama equipment and presentation.

But you know what?  Watching How the West Was Won in this format is great fun.  When trapper Jimmy Stewart paddles upstream to do business with an Indian tribe, early on, not only are he the native Americans in focus, but the details on the majestic mountain peaks behind them are equally razor-sharp.  Reportedly the costumers on the picture came to realize that machine-sewn costumes wouldn’t do—because they’d look phony under the microscopic gaze of Cinerama!  The only thing that doesn’t work is the use of rear-projection; the difference between the characters in the foreground and the less-defined 70mm material behind them is simply too great.

Alfred Newman’s score is magnificently presented in Cinerama sound—and, as this was a road-show presentation (a concept most younger moviegoers have never known) there is an overture, intermission music, and even exit music.

The icing on the cake is that John Harvey’s print—cannibalized from about twenty different copies around the world—is in Technicolor, its original hues intact.

The final feature I got to see was Cinerama Holiday.  This box-office success of 1955 (the highest-grossing film that year, in fact) was the followup to This is Cinerama, and the concept was both simple and effective:  take a young couple from Switzerland and another young couple from Kansas City.  Follow the Europeans as they make their first trip across America, while the Americans see Europe for the first time.  In other words, a travelogue with a human touch.

Watching Cinerama Holiday in Dayton was made especially enjoyable by having both couples in attendance, more than forty years later!

The film is highly enjoyable, even though the only surviving Eastmancolor print has faded to shades of pink.  The highlight is a first-person bobsled ride that rivals (and possibly even exceeds) the excitement of the roller coaster in the first Cinerama film.  Riding that bobsled is even more thrilling than joining Luke Skywalker in his climactic fighter-plane mission—because this hair-raising ride is real.  Not only is the picture genuine, but so is the sound—with every swoosh and scrape recorded as the sled made its way down its precipitous path.

Whew!  What a weekend…and what an experience.  I encourage any of you who love movies to make the Neon Movies a priority destination, while this program continues.

Larry Smith and John Harvey would love to make Cinerama a permanent installation in Dayton, perhaps as a Cinerama Museum.  (There is such a thing in Bradford, England…which Harvey helped to install.)  That will take money, which they don’t have, but if enthusiasm and perseverance count for anything, they’ll make that dream come true.  After all, they’ve come this far.

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