Remember when it was fun to go to the movies? That feeling of enthusiasm, bordering on sheer abandon, that’s largely disappeared from the moviegoing experience was recaptured at World 3-D Film Expo II at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood this month.
Jeff Joseph, Dan Symmes, Bob Furmanek and a hearty staff of film fanatics, organizers, projectionists, collectors, and volunteers turned the ten-day event into a “happening” of major proportions. As with Expo I three years ago there weren’t a lot of young people in the audience; they’ve grown up in the era of multiplexes and IMAX, and the notion of gathering to watch a bunch of often-tacky 1950s movies holds no allure. It’s their loss.
Opening night provided a perfect example. There wouldn’t be much reason to revive Those Redheads from Seattle, a 1953 Pine-Thomas production released by Paramount. It’s a pleasant-enough musical, but watching a double-system print projected by two interlocked projectors in Polarized 3-D—on a highly reflective silver screen, erected just for the festival—made it An Event. Who could have guessed that this modest film, produced by the B-moviemeisters popularly known as “the two dollar Bills,” would have such inventive use of 3-D?
An establishing shot of a steamship at night has a taut—
—rope in the extreme foreground, and steam rising from the left of the screen that seems to waft into the audience. In a scene on a dock, someone shoots a hole into a barrel of wine and the dark liquid spurts toward the camera! The singing Bell Sisters perform an energetic rendition of “Take Back Your Gold” especially (and amusingly) choreographed for the medium, with lots of arm-thrusting you’d never find in a 2-D production number.
So while the film may not be a classic, the experience of watching it that night was great fun, and that’s the point. Our enjoyment was further enhanced by having so many people associated with it in attendance, including its stars, Rhonda Fleming and Gene Barry, the Bell Sisters, songwriter Ray Evans, and the redoubtable A.C. Lyles, who served as assistant to Pine and Thomas. No one had any particular memories about the process of filming in 3-D after fifty-three years’ time—but they all had a ball watching it on the big screen that evening, as most of them didn’t get to see in 3-D the first time around.
The curtain-raiser for Redheads was the short that originally played with it at its premiere engagements in 1953, Popeye the Ace of Space. I have waited for more than thirty years to see this cartoon in 3-D! My pal Jerry Beck located the left-eye and right-eye negatives many years ago but couldn’t get the powers-that-be to pay for new prints. Warner Bros. finally did, and we finally got to watch a pristine presentation of this Paramount “Stereotoon.” It’s not one of the best Popeye shorts, but it’s a kick to see the action unfold on separate planes of action—beginning with the lettering that’s layered over the Paramount logo!
The second feature that night, Universal’s Taza, Son of Cochise, also played quite well in 3-D, as director Douglas Sirk and cinematographer Russell Metty composed every shot with a foreground set-piece—from a dead tree to a wagon wheel—to lend perspective and depth to their compositions. Since the film was shot entirely on location at Arches National Park, they had spectacular scenery at their command, and made excellent use of it. Even the gimmicky shots are unusually well done. Other films have Indians throwing burning torches, but in this film the torch fills the screen, with considerable impact. Other in-your-face shots of a bullwhip (brandished by Morris Ankrum) and a gunshot are equally potent. Best of all, the film plays quite well; it’s better than its reputation, especially since its star, Rock Hudson, and leading lady Barbara Rush made fun of it for so many years.
My wife and I attended as many showings as we could over the next ten days, running into the same bleary-eyed friends and making new acquaintances among the diehards in the audience. Our most ambitious day came midway through the festival, when we began at 11:00 a.m. with Bwana Devil, the independently-produced Arch Oboler movie that kicked off the 3-D craze (in a unique AnscoColor print), continued with Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury, strikingly shot in black & white by the great John Alton, followed by the 3-D debut of a British-made programmer called The Diamond Wizard, directed by and starring Dennis O’Keefe, and winding up at 9:45 p.m. with the film many cite as the best movie of the 3-D lot, Inferno, looking especially great in the only known dye-transfer Technicolor print. For this showing the film’s 90-year-old director Roy Ward Baker provided an introduction on video from his home in London.
Inferno stars Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan as a duplicitous couple who leave her wealthy husband Robert Ryan—who’s broken his leg during a day trip—to die in the Mojave Desert. It’s a spare, understated drama you wouldn’t likely see today, precisely because it doesn’t paint its characters as heroes or villains. (The original screenplay was written by Francis Cockrell, a Hollywood veteran who went on to pen many of the best Alfred Hitchcock TV shows.) Baker admitted that he had at least one concerned memo from Fox chieftain Darryl F. Zanuck asking about the absence of 3-D effects (prompting him to insert a shot of a rattlesnake attack)...but again, that’s to the movie’s advantage. Baker saves up his effects for the movie’s climax, and because he’s been so restrained they have all the more impact at that moment.
The discoveries (and rediscoveries) never stopped. On the last day of the Festival, our hosts took delight in presenting Walt Disney’s 3-D Jamboree, the short subject that played at Disneyland in Anaheim, California fifty years ago in tandem with the 3-D Disney cartoons Working for Peanuts and Melody. It features Jimmie Dodd, Roy Williams and the Mouseketeers in a brisk musical revue with plenty of 3-D gimmickry—right up to the final moment, when Jimmie lets go of a long balloon which flutters into the auditorium. Seeing this rarity was topped only by the unveiling of an original poster for the attraction that Dan Symmes located (where else?) on eBay. Dan has been kind enough to let me reproduce it here.
Last time the 3-D Gang put on this terrific show they swore they’d never do it again. It is a tremendous amount of work that involves formidable logistics and expenses. (Diamond Wizard existed in the MGM library, under its British title The Diamond, but it turned out that the studio had never finished cutting the negative for the second “eye” because they decided not to bother releasing it in 3-D. The Festival folks had to finish fine-cutting that negative just to strike a print of the programmer for one showing at the Egyptian.) But exhausted as they are, I know they also had a great time, and I hope they’ll consider revving up their engines one more time not too far down the road.
If you would like to support their efforts, I encourage you to make tax-deductible contribution at http://www.3dfilmpf.org/ . To learn more about the Festival and purchase program books and merchandise, go to http://www.3dfilmfest.com/ .
(originally posted in 2006)