#329) This Is Cinerama (1952)

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#329) This Is Cinerama (1952)

OR “Curve Appeal”

Directed by Merian C. Cooper and Gunther von Fristch (with Ernest B. Schoedsack and Michael Todd Jr.)

Class of 2002

No original trailer, but here’s one for the 2017 HD restoration.

The Plot: It’s 1952 and television is keeping people away from the movies in droves. “This Is Cinerama” is a feature-length demonstration of the new three-camera widescreen process that will bring audiences back to the theater. Introduced by broadcaster/producer Lowell Thomas, “This Is Cinerama” takes us around the world with its curved wide screen and stereophonic sound. Highlights include a roller coaster at Rockaways’ Playland, a performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir, the La Scala production of “Aida”, the water ski show at Cypress Gardens, and a bird’s eye view of practically every American landmark. You won’t see any of this on Sullivan, that’s for sure.

Why It Matters: The NFR gives a synopsis and history of Cinerama, plus a detailed essay by film expert Kyle Westphal.

But Does It Really?: “This Is Cinerama” is a benchmark for film techniques, and essentially the birth of the widescreen movie as we know it. The spectacle of Cinerama still comes across over 65 years later, and the film is an entertaining and effective demonstration of what widescreen can accomplish. “This Is Cinerama” is a pivotal moment in film history, and more than worthy of preservation by the NFR.

Shout Outs: The prologue features clips from such early films as “The Kiss”, “The Great Train Robbery” and “The Son of the Sheik”.

Everybody Gets One: Before “This Is Cinerama”, Lowell Thomas was already a well-known author, broadcaster, and world traveler. He famously interviewed and photographed T.E. Lawrence while in Arabia, which he later turned into a stage show that escalated Lawrence’s notoriety. Look for a portrait of Lawrence during one of Lowell’s on-camera appearances.

Seriously, Oscars?: Although it premiered in New York in September 1952, “This Is Cinerama” didn’t play Los Angeles until 1953, and received one Oscar nomination. The film’s score lost to the Leslie Caron film “Lili”. Nominee Louis Forbes is credited with composing the score, but was in reality the musical director, with the actual score being penned by an uncredited Max Steiner. Steiner was under contract with Warner Bros. at the time, and any outside work would have been a violation.

Other notes

  • Before we go any further, what exactly is Cinerama? Well I’m glad you asked. Cinerama is a widescreen process that was filmed using three cameras simultaneously. These three films were then projected on a screen that was three times wider and twice as tall as the average movie screen. In addition, this screen was curved at 146 degrees, approximating peripheral vision. The result was a film that seemingly surrounded the audience, creating a unique immersive experience.
  • Cinerama co-creator Fred Waller had tinkered with widescreen film using multiple cameras for decades. His 11-projector “Vitarama” was first demonstrated at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Waller received a technical Oscar for his work on Cinerama, but passed away two months later.
  • In addition to co-creating Cinerama, Merian C. Cooper is best remembered for writing and directing the original “King Kong”. Coincidentally, the King Kong musical is currently playing at the Broadway Theatre, the same venue “This is Cinerama” premiered at!
  • Kudos to the team behind the film’s 2012 restoration. “This Is Cinerama” is presented in its original roadshow version, and in the curved “Smilebox” widescreen format. There’s even a digitally added curtain to give the full effect of being in the theater.
  • The on-ride footage of the Atom Smasher roller coaster was originally intended for the finale, but Merian C. Cooper convinced the producers to make it the first sequence to draw the audience in. It’s the right choice, and an exhilarating opening.
  • For all of Cinerama’s early achievements, on-set sound wasn’t one of them. Lowell Thomas sounds a bit muted once his introductions go from the standard Academy Ratio to Cinerama.
  • The church choir’s performance of “Hallelujah” from “The Messiah” fares much better in the sound department, though the acoustics help. This choir definitely has a Handel on the material. Thank you!
  • One of Cinerama’s ongoing issues was the blending of the three cameras onto the screen. The “seams” between the frames were always visible, though it is fun watching people squash and stretch as they cross the screen.
  • I assume all of these members of the Vienna Boys’ Choir turned down “The Sound of Music”. Also, did you know the “Blue Danube Waltz” has lyrics? I sure didn’t.
  • Oh man, the La Scala performance of “Aida” goes on forever. Please, Elton John, have mercy.
  • Cypress Gardens was a Florida attraction known for its botanical gardens, water ski shows, and…Southern Belles? Still can’t figure that one out. After a change in ownership, the site closed in 2009, and is currently the home of Legoland Florida.
  • Why so much screen time devoted to water skiing? Fred Waller held a patent on water skis. It’s all connected, people!
  • The last segment of the movie is essentially ‘50s-style “Soarin’”, with too many American landmarks to mention them all. I can only imagine what a stirring, moving viewing experience this must have been in 1952. Television was tiny and black-and-white, there was no home video or streaming, so seeing this much of the country in widescreen and color was an once-in-a-lifetime event.

Legacy

  • “This Is Cinerama” only played in one theater in 1952 – the Broadway Theatre in New York – but was so popular it became the highest grossing film of the year!
  • The Hollywood studios weren’t quick to take on three-camera Cinerama for their upcoming epics, but this film inspired every studio to take a crack at their own one-camera widescreen process. Within a year there was Panavision, CinemaScope, and Todd A-O (created by Michael Todd, one of this film’s producers). Widescreen very quickly became the standard for film going forward.
  • Cinerama was the precursor to IMAX, as well as Disney’s Circle-Vision, which also specialized in uber-patriotic panoramas.
  • A few more films were made in Cinerama over the next decade, primarily travelogues such as “Cinerama Holiday”. The technology was impressive, but costly, making Cinerama difficult to catch on as the next big thing. A few narrative features were produced (including NFR entry “How the West Was Won”), and although several standard widescreen films bare the Cinerama name, the three-camera process was discontinued in the mid-60s.
  • Cinerama’s expensive operating has also prevented the revival many of its creators had hoped for. Although the Blu-Ray release tries its best to recreate the experience, there’s nothing like seeing “This Is Cinerama” on a big curved screen.

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