Director: David Strohmaier
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
The 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).
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.
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