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Cinerama Comes Home

Leonard Maltin By Leonard Maltin | Leonard Maltin September 25, 2012 at 1:00AM

I was too young to see 'This is Cinerama' when it debuted in 1952 and became one of the box-office sensations of the year. Decades later I traveled to Dayton, Ohio to see it in its original three-screen presentation, but now, to my astonishment, anyone can experience the film at home on Blu-ray and DVD!
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Larry does a slide-show lecture before every screening, and this helps put the movie—and the experience—into its proper context.  John isn’t available for questions beforehand, because he’s so busy; when Cinerama built its own theaters around the world, it required five men to project and monitor each presentation.  John does it all by himself, and spends about eight hours cleaning, inspecting, rewinding and setting up every film.  P.S.  He loves it.

Random House-This Is Windjammer

The beauty of Cinerama, which I never really understood, is that unlike more modern large-format films, it isn’t meant to overwhelm you.  IMAX is impressive, but your eye can only focus on about 25% of the picture at any given time.  The same is true for the Circlevision 360 shows at Walt Disney World.   Cinerama was designed to correspond to the human eye; the deep curviture of the screen, at 146 degrees, matches the back of your eye exactly, so if you sit in the center of the theater, you get the same feeling of peripheral vision you experience in real life!  Cinerama’s inventor Fred Waller had tried many multiple-camera systems before hitting on this idea.

What knocked me out, as much as the picture, was the sound.  Hazard Reeves, the designer of the Cinerama sound system (which predated the introduction of stereophonic movies by one year), developed a seven-channel soundtrack in which the placement of the microphones during recording would be replicated by the placement of speakers in the theater. The result is a “live,” immediate surround sound that I would match against anything Dolby Digital has to offer.  In fact, the rich orchestral sound in Cinerama movies sounds better than anything I’ve heard in a contemporary movie theater---better, to my ears, because it seems as if the orchestra is there with you. What’s more, there’s true directional sound, because of the microphone placement during recording. Nothing had to be simulated in post-production.  (Incidentally, the film’s  magnetic soundtrack runs on a separate sound reproducer, quite apart from the three projectors.)

This is Cinerama opens in black & white, with famed newscaster and globe-trotting author Lowell Thomas as your host; he was also a key investor in the company.  Thomas discusses the history of moving images, with illustrations from ancient times through the development of motion pictures.  Then, after describing the innovative process we’re about to see, he says simply, “This…is Cinerama!”

On cue, the small, nearly square black and white image gives way to a giant, wide, curved three-paneled screen, with a picture almost twice as high as Thomas’ prologue.  The sharpness is incredible, and the color resolution dazzling, as the camera takes us on the roller coaster at Rockaways Playland in New York.  Again, it’s not just the first-person ride that makes for a visual thrill, but the accompanying sound—natural and realistic—that puts this over.  From there, we travel around the world with Cinerama:  to Niagara Falls…the canals of Venice…Vienna, where we hear the famed Boys Choir sing “The Beautiful Blue Danube”…to Scotland, for a rally of the clans…and to Spain, for a bullfight.  Finally, we enter the famous La Scala Opera House in Milan to witness a production of “Aida.”

After intermission, there is a sound demonstration—without picture—before we visit Florida’s Cypress Gardens.  If this sequence, with an everglades tour and an exciting water show, seems a bit extended, that’s because Cinerama inventor Fred Waller was also an investor in Cypress Gardens—and, believe it or not, the inventor of the water ski!  Finally, we travel from sea to shining sea in an airplane journey across our great land.

Corny?  Of course it is, but it’s also tremendous entertainment.  One cannot pretend that This is Cinerama is a 1997 film; it was made in 1952, with all the attendant sensibilities.  I loved every minute.

I saw three Cinerama films altogether during my weekend in Dayton, and with each one I gained new appreciation for the process.  The screen itself is something of a marvel.  Waller discovered that if he used conventional screen material, his deeply curved surface would simply bounce its own light back onto the center of the picture.  So he developed a sort of venetian-blind screen, a series of separate, slightly overlapping slats which reflect the light out toward the audience.  The screen at the New Neon consists of 980 flexible bands, which Larry Smith estimates took 2,000 man hours to install!

This article is related to: Journal, Cinerama, DVD reviews, Blu-ray, Flicker Alley