Saturday, April 6, 2024

#2,953. This is Cinerama (1952) - Documentaries


The threat of television loomed heavy over the motion picture industry in the early 1950s, and Hollywood needed to up the ante to compete with the more convenient home-based medium.

It was then that Cinerama was born.

Invented by film pioneer Fred Waller, Cinerama utilized images shot by three individual cameras, operating in unison by way of a single shutter, that, when projected, offered viewers a widescreen experience like no other, a complete “field of vision” presentation beamed onto a 146-degree screen that wrapped around the theater. Combined with another new innovation, stereophonic sound, the Cinerama process was unlike anything seen before, and the movie that introduced it to the world was the 1952 documentary This Is Cinerama.

Produced and co-directed by Merian C. Cooper, the mastermind behind another revolutionary motion picture, 1933’s King Kong, This is Cinerama opens with a black and white sequence, presented in the standard aspect ratio, during which narrator Lowell Thomas offers a rundown of the history of moving images, from the attempts by prehistoric man and ancient Egyptians to show pictures in motion to the days of early animation, Thomas Edison, and The Great Train Robbery.

Once this segment is over, Lowell, staring straight ahead, bellows “Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama”, at which point the screen expands, the picture changes from black and white to color, and the viewer is treated, in full stereo sound, to a ride on a rollercoaster (the cameras were attached to the front of the Atom Smasher coaster in New York’s Rockaway Playland).

I can only imagine how that first audience reacted to this initial sequence, but to paraphrase Al Jolson in 1927’s The Jazz Singer, they ain’t seen nothing yet!

This is Cinerama follows it up with a variety of amazing segments, shot in Venice (including a Gondola ride), Scotland (The Rally of the Clans at Edinburgh Castle), Vienna (featuring an outdoor performance by the Vienna Boys Choir), Spain (where we witness a bull fight in a packed arena), and Milan (one of the film’s most impressive sequences, the triumphal scene from the opera Aida, staged at the La Scala Opera House).

Then, after a brief intermission and a demonstration (audio only) of Stereophonic sound, This is Cinerama focuses on a more “American” experience, with a half-hour water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens followed by aerial images (shot from a B-25 bomber) of some of the country’s more familiar landscapes, including Manhattan, Washington D.C., Chicago, the Mississippi River, and the Grand Canyon. Even today, in this age of high-tech entertainment, all of the film’s sequences are breathtaking.

The three-camera process as presented in This is Cinerama would be featured in a handful of movies over the next 10 years, mostly documentaries (Search for Paradise in 1957, South Seas Adventures in 1958), but also in two narrative films, both released in 1962: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and the amazing How the West Was Won. It was during the making of How the West Was Won that the Cinerama corporation realized it could create a similar (though not quite as grand) widescreen 70mm experience using a single camera, as opposed to the more expensive three-camera set-up. This new technique, renamed Ultra Panavision 70, would become the standard for Cinerama in the years to come, and be utilized in such movies as It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Hallelujah Trail, and, most recently, Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. Still, even with its short life span, This is Cinerama proved there was something special about that three-camera set-up. Watching it on Blu-Ray, projected onto my high-definition television, gave me a taste of just how cutting-edge this process was at the time, yet I can’t help but envy those lucky patrons who saw the movie in 1952 on that 146-degree screen.

I was enthralled, impressed, and entertained, but they were witnesses to history in the making.
Rating: 9 out of 10

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