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Cinerama Comes Home

by Leonard Maltin
September 25, 2012 1:00 AM
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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.

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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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