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Cinerama Comes Home

by Leonard Maltin
September 25, 2012 1:00 AM
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Cinerama 60th Anniversary-375

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.

This is Cinerama-3-680

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.

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  • Dave Kirwan | September 27, 2012 3:12 PMReply

    Great piece! I grew up in Hartford, CT in the 60's, home of one the Cinerama Theaters. Wonderful stuff! One thing I never see fully explained in Cinerama articles though, is the use of such a narrow-angle lens when so much of these things were shot. The exaggeration of depth (even when one views only one 'panel' at a time on an old 3x4 TV set) is outrageous! When Jimmy Stewart walks towards us, he seems to be taking 8 foot strides!

  • Kevin Barry | September 27, 2012 7:31 AMReply

    Great article, Leonard! I was lucky to have seen both The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grim (where is that movie?!) and How The West Was Won during their original Cinerama releases at the Loew's Cinerama Theatre in NYC (formerly the old Loew's Capitol), I also saw How The West Was Won again years later at the Neon Movies in Dayton (I bought the $10 "sweet spot" seats) and I was expecting to see a faded and scratchy remnant, not the sparkling print that looked freshly minted. I bought my first Blu-ray player prompted by Dave Kehr's article in The New York Times when How The West Was Won was released in the "smilebox" format. I also saw Windjammer in Cinemiracle at the Bellevue Theatre in Montclair, NJ, and I remember the projection system broke down about three times. This Is Cinerama was revived years ago at the Ziegfeld Theatre in NYC with all three panels on 70mm and the effect just wasn't the same. I'm so excited that there are dedicated film enthusiasts working to bring these memories back for us.

  • John | September 25, 2012 7:20 PMReply

    You described the uniqueness of Cinerama perfectly Leonard! At age 12 I saw "This is Cinerama" in 1952 at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco and was totally stunned by the enveloping experience. Screens were small and almost square (the same size as in the Lowell Thomas prologue to "This is Cinerama") in even the biggest movie palaces in those days. This was before CinemaScope and the other wide screen processes that we take for granted today. It was also the first experience for most of us with any form of stereophonic sound. At home and at the movies we lived in a strictly mono sound world. This was the one of the greatest experiences of my young life and I've been fascinated by Cinerama and other wide screen processes ever since. Needless to say I saw all the follow up Cinerama films several times and was sad to see Cinerama come to an end with "How the West Was Won" only 10 years after the process premiered. I suppose those joint lines and that complex, labor intensive projection system sort of doomed it from the beginning though, certainly after Mike Todd did almost (but not quite!) the same thing with one camera and one projector and 65mm/70nn film with his Todd-AO system.

    I'd like to but can't make it to LA this weekend to see all of the Cinerama films, even though the majority will be projected digitally. I was able to see "This is Cinerama" and "How the West Was Won" in three strip Cinerama at the Dome a couple of years ago though and feel very fortunate in having that opportunity, something I could only dream about in past decades. My Blu-ray/DVD copies of "This is Cinerama" and "Windjammer" are in the mail from Flicker Alley and I can't wait to see them! No way they can re-create the theatrical experience but they'll definitely bring back some fond memories and should actually look quite good in Blu-ray on HDTV! Who would have thought we'd ever see them in any form on video? Kudos to all involved in the restoration and presentation of these revolutionary (for their time anyway!) films! Long live Cinerama!

  • TC Kirkham | September 25, 2012 7:02 PMReply

    Dammit, Leonard! Now I want to see this on a Cinerama Screen! I've been to two Cinerama theaters back when I was a kid, but they were showing regular movies by that time. And now there are none around the Boston area. I'll have to make do with Faux IMAX...and the BluRay to try it out with, though the experience could never be the same....::sniff::

    Thanks for a FANTASTIC article as always!

  • Larry Smith | September 25, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    Great article about Cinerama and it’s growing revival. I especially like the story about John Harvey a one man Cinerama projection team. I hope the showings at the Cinerama Dome in Los Angeles sells out and the Blu-Ray DVD sales hit the roof! I’ve seen Cinerama presented in the 3-projector process nearly 100 times and it still amazes me with the 3-D you are feel with out needing glasses and the sound separation unprocessed (raw and full range).

    Thanks Leonard Maltin for all that you do for film history, classic movie appreciation and being a friend since the Minneapolis Cinecon in the mid-1980s.

    Larry Smith
    Nitrate Film Specialist
    Library Of Congress
    Culpeper, VA.

  • Norm | September 25, 2012 3:51 PMReply

    Excellent treatise on "Cinerama." I doubt if there has ever been quite a thorough treatment on the subject. Makes one want to fly to Dayton.Maybe one day...

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