Cinerama Adventure (2002)

Director: David Strohmaier

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

If ever I had any doubts that I am a true film geek, my own Cinerama adventure has dispelled them. A week or so ago, I posted my 25 essential documentaries of the 2000s, and listed Cinerama Adventure, a film I saw only once nearly eight years ago, among them. I’m a bit of a science and technology geek, and I have a passion for widescreen formats that rarely gets sated these days. This documentary was made, I’ve convinced myself, specifically for me.

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Well, as luck would have it, the director’s RSS feed picked up on my brief description of the film, and his wife and the executive producer of the film, Carin-Anne Strohmaier, wrote in the comments section that the doc was now available on DVD as an extra for How the West Was Won (1962). Indeed, this feature film and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) are the only two feature films to have been shot in true Cinerama, that is, with three cameras. Strohmaier informed me that HTWWW was available in the Smilebox format developed for the documentary to simulate the look of Cinerama, but only for the Blu-ray format. Such is my hunger for a Cinerama experience, which I have never had, and more importantly, for a chance to see the documentary again, that I went out and purchased a Blu-ray player along with the two-disc HTWWW set. Yesterday was the happy day when I got to revisit this very enjoyable and informative documentary.

Necessity is the mother of invention, and with Cinerama, the necessity arose from another invention that was supplanting the motion picture industry. In 1948, 1 million televisions sets were sold in the United States; by 1951, that number had grown to 12 million. Moviegoing audiences had dropped by about 40 million. Film exhibitors, no longer tied to Hollywood studios, had the need and the necessary freedom to try something new to attract audiences away from their home entertainment.

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Inventor Fred Waller had developed a multi-camera projection technology called Vitarama that created a form of virtual reality by expanding the images to take in what one would see with one’s peripheral vision to give the whole field of vision and projecting them onto a curved screen. Adapting Vitarama for military purposes, the Vitarama Corporation won a lucrative government contract to produce 75 Waller Flexible Gunnery Training Simulators to train gunnery aircraft personnel. With the coming of peace and television, the timing was perfect for developing a commercial use for Vitarama. (Strohmaier interviews two men who trained on the Waller Trainer; one of them, Frank Foulkes, said that when he and other gunnery airmen saw Cinerama, they realized it was a civilian version of the trainer they used.)

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Strohmaier introduces the dramatis personae who gave Cinerama life. Aside from Waller, they included adventurer and commentator Lowell Thomas, who conceived the travelogue films that put Cinerama on the map; Michael Todd, the entrepreneurial movie mogul who handled the business end; Harry Squire, Cinerama cinematographer; and Hazard Reeves, the sound engineer who developed Cinerama’s unique seven-microphone recording system that created such discrete and rich sound (mixed by hand at each performance to customize it to the size and wearing apparel—winter or summer clothing—of the audience) that people who have heard it say it is far superior to today’s advanced Dolby digital sound.

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Arthur Manson, who handled the marketing and publicity for Cinerama, said he and his team had a crusading spirit about format, making showings events at which no concessions were sold, people dressed up as though they were going to the opera, programs were sold, and seats were assigned. The New York Times review by Bosley Crowther of the premiere of This Is Cinerama heralded the new technology that “puts you in the picture” and is, at seems, the only film review that ever made the front page of the paper. Cinerama mania was off and running, with “rama” this and “rama” that popping up in every product and service you can imagine and spurring competitors to develop other widescreen formats.

paulmantz.jpgThe most astonishing of the many stories about Cinerama, naturally, came from the movie shoots themselves. The crew spanned out across the globe, often going into unexplored regions of the world and taking very serious risks just to give audiences a vicarious experience. The pilot who took the camera crews over the world’s great vistas, under its bridges, and into the very bowels of such places as the Grand Canyon was Paul Mantz. Mantz, a legend among flyers who, sadly, is as forgotten as his colleague Amelia Earhart is famous, flew a WWII bomber like it was a Spitfire. Camera crewman Jim Morrison tells of a visit to a Belgian restaurant in Africa at which the crew got drunk as a resident of the area talked about several active volcanoes nearby. An enthusiastic Mantz said, “We have to shoot that!” Early the next morning, the hungover crew boarded the bomber and set off for the volcano. The glowing, smoke-belching cone appeared in the distance, and Mantz started to descend, finally entering the crater. The plane heated up, the toxic fumes started to choke the crew and the plane engines, until one and then both engines quit. Fortunately, Mantz had enough air speed to just pull the plane out of the crater, and the engines restarted. The images from inside the crater are utterly spectacular; ironically, Mantz died in what was his last scheduled film stunt, crash-landing the plane in 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix (a depressing and gory film I hated when I saw it on its release; now I have another reason to loathe it).

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Sadly, Cinerama’s days were numbered. It was expensive to convert theatres to accommodate the wide, curved screen of beveled horizontal strips and the three projectors needed to create the panoramic scenes. Shooting, too, was expensive, and when studios tried to expand into feature films, they hit up against the limitations of the technology. Close-ups were not possible, and actors had to look at a certain point at the camera, not each other, to appear as though they were interacting. Putting something interesting into the other two screens challenged directors; John Ford, one of several directors on HTWWW, couldn’t stand next to the camera to check the framing, as was his habit, because he would be caught in the lens of one of the other cameras. Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, and Russ Tamblyn, all of whom appeared in HTWWW, said it was very difficult to create their characters without directly relating to the other actors. Eventually, the studios devised a way to get widescreen shots with a single camera using 70mm film. While this and other widescreen formats were advertised as being in Cinerama, they did not achieve the depth made possible by the peripheral shots of true Cinerama.

Strohmaier chooses knowledgeable individuals to relate this history of Cinerama, giving us as close to a “you are there” experience as Cinerama did for its many patrons. He is judicious about illustrating the film with more than talking heads, using archival photos and footage, examples of the wonderful films adapted for flat screen with Smilebox, and providing so many interesting facts and anecdotes that I have barely scratched the surface of them in this review.

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At a time when the film world is all abuzz about Avatar, with its CGI and 3-D, and declaring James Cameron a visual genius, it is important to temper the enthusiasm with the knowledge that 3-D originally arose as an answer to Cinerama and is far inferior to it. Nothing really new here, folks. Catch up with Cinerama Adventure, and learn about these and other explorers and technological giants like Merien C. Cooper (above, with Lowell Thomas), Abel Gance of the triple-screen finale of Napoleon (1927) and his collaborator Henri Chrétien, who invented the anamorphic lens, and be truly dazzled! l

  • Moviezzz spoke:
    8th/01/2010 to 6:07 pm

    Thanks for mentioning this!
    I read about it when the HOW THE WEST WAS WON Blu-Ray was released, yet didn’t have Blu-Ray at the time. Now that I have it, I will have to pick it up.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    8th/01/2010 to 6:20 pm

    FYI, the doc comes with both the regular DVD and Blu-ray editions of the film.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    8th/01/2010 to 10:18 pm

    I was lucky enough to see HTWWW and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm at a real Cinerama theater, the wonderful old Kachina in Scottsdale – I was a little awestruck watching the films, it was pretty intimidating for a kid – my Dad wanted us to see them just because it was novel, I think, and he made sure we were center set in the right row. Later saw a number of 70mm Cinerama fims, like 2001 a Space Odyssey, at the Cine Capri in Phoenix, AZ, with a monstrously huge, curved screen that went out to the fifth row or so. The title curtain opened horizontally, and that was a pretty nifty show all by itself. It had continental seating with no aisles, so we got there extra early to make sure we got a center seat. I saw a number of widescreen films there, but no other 3-strip Cinerama ones, sadly. I was at the opening day of Star Wars there when lines ran around the building and down the street, brought by word-of-mouth alone. Years later, just before they closed it and it was demolished for a high rise, I brought my two sons there for a revival of Star Wars and was sadly amazed how much screen was left covered by the curtains on each side. Sic transit gloria mundi.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    8th/01/2010 to 11:13 pm

    Um, er, that was John Ford, not John Huston, who was one of the three credited directors on How the West was Won, along with Henry Hathaway and George Marshall.
    Denver had a wonderful movie theater that was specifically designed for Cinerama, though by the time I moved there, in 1965, the format had been replaced by 70mm. I did see both How the West was Won at the Riviera Theater in Chicago, and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm at the Valencia in Evanston in the three projector format.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 8:10 am

    Right you are, Peter. Correction made – thanks!
    I really envy both you and Vanwall for your Cinerama experiences. Vanwall, those memories sound priceless to me; the doc talks about how Lowell Thomas would introduce the film with a conventionally sized screen and then the curtains would open all the way to reveal the huge screen. Very dramatic.
    Peter – I had no idea the Riviera and Valencia did Cinerama. Of course, the Valencia is no more, but the Riviera still stands. Perhaps we could get them to forgo concerts for one evening for a showing of a Cinerama film?!

  • Ferdy on Films, etc. spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 8:20 am

    Twenty-Five Essential Documentaries of the 2000s

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  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 3:47 pm

    I must say a most fascinating essay here Marilyn. I frankly couldn’t stop reading this, and I do well remeber this process as a young kid as I’m approaching my mid 50’s now. Of course it was eventually doomed for the reasons you spell out here so eloquently, must like the old Eastman Color was impossible to maintain, and Techicolor was too expensive a process, as beautiful as it was. You mention the tritych of NAPOLEON too, which is one of cinema’s most magnificent secrets.

  • Hokahey spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 4:43 pm

    Marilyn – This is a tremendous piece of nostalgia. Well done!
    I saw How the West Was Won in Cinerama at the Orpheum in San Francisco in the 60s. Being young, I was really impressed by the film and the experience. Now, I’m not so impressed with the film but even watching it on DVD evokes some of the excitement I felt when I was young.
    But I’m so glad I bought the DVD because of the documentary. What a great story of invention and devotion to the cinematic image. And there were so many fascinating documentaries they made in Cinerama! I wish I could have seen some of those.

  • Samuel Wilson spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 7:04 pm

    While theaters may have been reluctant to convert, new theaters were often designed for Cinerama. In my home town, the Hellman theater opened as a Cinerama showcase in 1960. The place had a short life despite adapting to conventional films and ultimately converting to a two-screen theater. It closed and was demolished in the 1990s.
    Thanks for this fascinating post and for giving me an opportunity to inform you that I’ve selected your blog as One Lovely Blog. Congratulations!

  • Rod spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 7:44 pm

    Wow, I love Flight of the Phoenix. Booooo.

  • Patrick spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 8:33 pm

    Rod – that comment on Flight of the Phoenix also jumped out at me. Don’t remember anything being gory in it, perhaps a brief glimpse of a slashed throat. (Well, said like that it sounds gruesome, but like I said, it was very brief.) I also found it uplifting, not depressing.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 9:22 pm

    Thanks, everyone, for your kind words about this post. I WILL make a pilgrimage to one of the extant Cinerama houses at some point (we have relations in Seattle, so that might be the place).
    As for Flight of the Phoenix, I might have a different opinion of it today, but I was 10 years old when I saw it, and the dripping blood from the suicide and the two men pinned to the sand with their throats slashed are still vividly in my mind. They gave me nightmares at the time. So, I’m really not inclined to see the film again and admit that my loathing is that of a traumatized child.

  • martymankins spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 9:40 pm

    Great post.
    I don’t remember the films I saw, but there was a Cinerama house in Orange, CA that I used to go to a lot, right off the I-5 and 22 freeways. They closed it down back in the early 90’s, but I remember going to see these movies that filled the screen. It was amazing.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    9th/01/2010 to 9:56 pm

    Hi, Marty. Nice to see you in this corner of the Internet. Very cool you went to a Cinerama theater. It seems everyone has Cinerama memories but me.

  • Jason Bellamy spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 8:23 am

    Great post, Marilyn. Interesting, by the way, that it includes mention of RSS feeds, because for whatever reason your blog would never comply with my reader, and so I’d read it far less frequently than I wanted to. Anyway, now it’s working, so I’ll be by more often.
    Back to the post …
    making showings events at which no concessions were sold
    My “if I win the lottery” fantasy has always included the idea of opening up a movie snob’s theater. Among its features would be established no-food showtimes. I certainly know I’d pay extra if I could go to a movie and depend on the fact that the guy next to me wouldn’t be scratching through his giant tub of popcorn for the first hour. One can always dream …

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 8:52 am

    Hi, Jason. People actually did pay more to attend a Cinerama show. That may have had something to do with why This Is Cinerama was the highest-grossing film in 1952, playing in only ONE theatre.
    I don’t use an RSS feed myself, though, I probably should. I’m already getting so much e-mail, that it wearies me to think about it. However, I NEVER miss a “Conversation” with you and Ed. Great one on Crash! You guys amaze me.

  • Jason Bellamy spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 1:37 pm

    Thanks, Marilyn. I appreciate the compliment.
    The good thing about RSS, at least the way I do it, is that it means no more email. And it saves a ridiculous amount of time when trying to keep up with blog reading.
    I use Google Reader, and I follow about 75 blogs in the time it used to take me to keep track of maybe 15. I don’t always read everything, of course. But, well, there’s an app for that. That is, there’s a button where you can mark everything as “read” if you’re coming back to the reader for the first time in a few days and just need to clean house.
    Check it out. Won’t take you long to set up.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 1:39 pm

    Maybe I will. Thanks for the primer.

  • Carin-Anne Strohmaier spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 2:40 pm

    Hi Marilyn: 
    Thanks so much for this great write up on “CInerama Adventure.” But we were especially thrilled that your second viewing of the documentary some 8 years later still held up for you.
    And yes, this documentary was made for you and for everyone who loves the movies and the ongoing innovative processes and to show our appreciation for all the craftsmen and technicians as well as the artistic talent who helped make these movies.
    By the way it was Arthur Manson who did the marketing and publicity for Cinerama in it’s heyday (and he’s still active in New York). Larry Smith was interviewed as the manager of the Neon Theatre in Dayton, Ohio, which for a time ran three-projector cinerama films.
    Currently there are only three known three-projector cinerama theatres – the Martin in Seattle, the Dome in Hollywood and the Naitonal Media Museum at Bradford, UK. Unfortunately these theatres only provide cinerama screenings during a film festival or special cinerama events which happen just once a year or less. We are hoping that there’ll be more interest and support so that it can happen more often.
    Wishing you a Happy New Year for 2010.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    10th/01/2010 to 3:16 pm

    Hi Carin-Anne,
    It was indeed another thrilling ride with the documentary, and I’m more determined than ever to see a real Cinerama screening. Perhaps the film blogosphere can help make it more than a blue moon occurrence.
    And thanks for the correction. Larry Smith didn’t look right, but I scoured the list of interviewees, and that’s what I came up with.
    Happy New Year to you, too, and to David.

  • Vanwall spoke:
    11th/01/2010 to 8:18 pm

    I will say that Cinerama was a buzzword back then – like every film would eventually be in 3-strip. I was on the tail end of it, tho, and never saw the promo ones, which may have been more interesting than the movies I saw, altho I vividly remember the fight in the cave in HTWWW, and especially the guy flying off a train into a cactus – the “Propeller Guy” of that era, I guess – and it was almost 3-D feeling. Growing up in AZ, cactus were more common than good films down the block, and I saw more interesting ones on TV than theaters. The Brothers Grimm was more kid oriented, and I wasn’t too impressed with it, I guess, but Lawrence Harvey was a Grimm brother from then on. It wasn’t quite as noticeable where the cameras met onscreen, and since I’ve always had vision issues with a lot of film techniques, the “invisible” separation lines of the 3-strip Cinerama stood out a little too much for me, and was very distracting.

  • Peter Nellhaus spoke:
    12th/01/2010 to 11:32 pm

    Not quite up there with CineramaVistaScopeVision, but here’s a blogger award for you.

  • Daniel spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 1:33 pm

    This was a really fascinating piece, Marilyn, both educational and inspirational. Ironic how such new technology (a blog, the internet, a Blu-Ray player) allowed you to revisit the old technology.
    I really find the second screenshot captivating here, and your description of both the in-theater experience and the production methods just as much so. Hopefully these three theaters remain standing for a long while so I get a chance to check one out. As it happens, 3D has never really worked for me so I think this could be a much more engrossing experience.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 1:41 pm

    Thanks, Daniel. Believe me, the irony is not lost on me.

  • David Coles spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 11:02 pm

    Speaking as one of the additionally thanked persons on the credits of “Cinerama Adventure” I claim some authority when I point out that your photo of Mike Todd is actually Lowell Thomas and that ain’t Hazard Reeves either – it’s cameraman Harry Squire.

  • David Coles spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 11:08 pm

    OOPS sorry Marilyn the photos have suddenly appeared – must be a delay in getting all the way Down Under! Your photos are correct.

  • David Coles spoke:
    13th/01/2010 to 11:31 pm

    Speaking as someone without any authority at all, could I humbly suggest to Peter that GRIMM and HTWWW played the Chicago area in three projector format only at the McVickers in 1962/3.

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