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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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The image is incredibly sharp and vivid, and there’s a good reason for that, too.  The larger a negative and print, the more detail it can present to a viewer.  That’s why 35mm is sharper than 16mm, and 70mm is sharper than 35mm, etc.  The Cinerama picture is 25 times sharper than the average 35mm film you see in a movie theater, with an incredible depth of focus—from 18 inches from the lens to infinity.

Little of this impressed the Hollywood actors and technicians who worked on How the West Was Won.  The logistics of adapting their normal working methods to the demands of Cinerama were daunting in every way.  One actor later remarked, “We were not the stars; the camera was.”  The award-winning cinematographers all agreed that this was one of the greatest challenges of their careers.  Lighting, staging, dollying—there wasn’t anything unaffected by the size, scope, and nature of the Cinerama equipment and presentation.

But you know what?  Watching How the West Was Won in this format is great fun.  When trapper Jimmy Stewart paddles upstream to do business with an Indian tribe, early on, not only are he the native Americans in focus, but the details on the majestic mountain peaks behind them are equally razor-sharp.  Reportedly the costumers on the picture came to realize that machine-sewn costumes wouldn’t do—because they’d look phony under the microscopic gaze of Cinerama!  The only thing that doesn’t work is the use of rear-projection; the difference between the characters in the foreground and the less-defined 70mm material behind them is simply too great.

Alfred Newman’s score is magnificently presented in Cinerama sound—and, as this was a road-show presentation (a concept most younger moviegoers have never known) there is an overture, intermission music, and even exit music.

The icing on the cake is that John Harvey’s print—cannibalized from about twenty different copies around the world—is in Technicolor, its original hues intact.

The final feature I got to see was Cinerama Holiday.  This box-office success of 1955 (the highest-grossing film that year, in fact) was the followup to This is Cinerama, and the concept was both simple and effective:  take a young couple from Switzerland and another young couple from Kansas City.  Follow the Europeans as they make their first trip across America, while the Americans see Europe for the first time.  In other words, a travelogue with a human touch.

Watching Cinerama Holiday in Dayton was made especially enjoyable by having both couples in attendance, more than forty years later!

The film is highly enjoyable, even though the only surviving Eastmancolor print has faded to shades of pink.  The highlight is a first-person bobsled ride that rivals (and possibly even exceeds) the excitement of the roller coaster in the first Cinerama film.  Riding that bobsled is even more thrilling than joining Luke Skywalker in his climactic fighter-plane mission—because this hair-raising ride is real.  Not only is the picture genuine, but so is the sound---with every swoosh and scrape recorded as the sled made its way down its precipitous path.

Whew!  What a weekend…and what an experience.  I encourage any of you who love movies to make the Neon Movies a priority destination, while this program continues.

Larry Smith and John Harvey would love to make Cinerama a permanent installation in Dayton, perhaps as a Cinerama Museum.  (There is such a thing in Bradford, England…which Harvey helped to install.)  That will take money, which they don’t have, but if enthusiasm and perseverance count for anything, they’ll make that dream come true.  After all, they’ve come this far.

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