DIRECTORS: Merian C. Cooper, Gunther von Fritsch, Ernest B. Schoedsack & Michael Todd Jr.
May Contain Spoilers!
“Truly wonderful to behold…The movie’s greatest innovation since sound.” (Newsweek- September 1952)
Well, that’s a flavour of what was being said about the innovation that was Cinerama back in 1952. The three projector, 146 degree curved screen system, boasted a “like you were there” feel and one of the first real stabs at multichannel surround sound, one which would take, unlike Disney’s attempt in 1940, with Fantasound, for Fantasia no less.
For more about what Cinerama is and what I feel its legacy, then feel free to read my reviews and articles on the subject HERE, but this is the review of Cinerama’s first motion picture, aptly named, This Is Cinerama. The title gives a lot away, and in modern-day terms, it might as well have been called This Is Imax, or DVD etc…
This is a showreel, demonstrating to 1952 audiences what this new concept was all about, and what it could do for cinema. audiences were used to 1.37:1 images for the most part, with mono sound as the standard, but this was about to challenge all that. This was widescreen, 6.1 surround in effect, which at the time, the very concept was state of the art.
But this was were the widescreen revolution took off. 3D was back on table in the 50’s and the following year, The Robe would launch Cinemascope, the format which would become the basis for modern widescreen which is still use today, but Cinerama was bold, ambitious and in many respect, a work in progress, with several elements simply cobbled together.
There were three strips of film running parallel via three projectors onto a curved widescreen, attempting, successfully, to utilise the audiences peripheral vision in order to create depth and emerson. This was 3D without the glasses and in many respects it worked. But it was a cumbersome process, relying on three projectors to remain in sync for two hours or more.
But as for this film, This Is Cinerama was always going to be hampered by its title. It’s a none narrative documentary of sorts. It’s not a travelogue and there’s no story, instead its aim to wow the audience and demonstrate the potential as entertainingly as possible.
The wide-angle nature of Cinerama prevents the intimacy of close-ups, necessary in story telling, and the format works at its best when showing us wide and vast vistas, The Grand Canyon, America by air etc… This would ultimately be the death-nail of Cinerama just ten years later, but in 1952, it was a phenomenal hit, and with good reason.
Back in 1993, I had the pleasure of watching at least half of this film on a REAL Cinerama screen, at the Bradford Film And Television museum, and I can tell you that Cinerama, in spite of its many faults, looks and sounds amazing and now, watching this Flicker Alley restoration, presented in Smilebox, it’s still pretty dam good to look at.
But as a film, you have to look at several elements. The first is what is it trying to do? Well, it wants to show us as much stunning imagery as possible and wow us. Does it work? Yes, the photography, in spite of Cinerama’s limitations, is inspiring, and looking back at this 60 years later, it also serves as a historical document of an America long since developed.
But does the film work on the whole? No. It has nothing about it which lives on or would appeal to anyone not already interested in the subject, and that being Cinerama. There’s nothing here that you can’t see on Imax or any TV documentary and without the distortions which the flawed process has to put up with.
But as a fan on the subject, I really liked this film. The first Act is a collection of short vignettes, with the famous rollercoaster point of view, a couple of ballets and a misjudged choral rendition, obviously appealing the political right of U.S. culture of the day.
The second Act, after the Intermission in which the narrator, Lowell Thomas, takes us through a sound demonstration, and as a audiophile, a rather successful one at that, we are given two 30 minute pieces, one set at the water amusement park, Cypress Gardrens in Florida and the best section, an aerial tour of the U.S.A. from the nose of a B-52 bomber.
The film was basically presented as a night out, designed to wow and stun the audience with a visual feast which they had never seen before. But once the flashy lights had stopped and the heavy dose of Americana had been served, you’re left with a film with little longevity, little substance.
This is a great showreel for Cinerama and even though it looks very good on Blu-ray and the Smilebox is a revelation proving that there’s enough room for as many formats as possible in order to present a film properly, there was only one place to show this properly, at that was a Cinerama cinema. But not having a plot and the fact that its photography has been replaced by better methods, such as Imax, there’s little that this film can offer besides being a very interesting sidebar in film history, paving the way for a lush legacy, spawning 2.39:1 widescreen and Imax 70mm.
I would recommend this film to any film collector, especially those who haven’t seen a Cinerama film with the hopes that it may still convert one or two more…
Flawed but progressively so, similar to Tron (1982) in that respect.
This WAS Cinerama.