As a beardless youth, many of my cinematic obsessions were addressed via the publication of James L. Limbacher’s 1968 book The Four Aspects of Film. The quartet comprised the technological advances in cinema that I avidly revered: color, sound, widescreen and 3-D. The advent of high-echelon home video, most prominently Blu-Ray, has allowed take my addictions beyond the written word and actually enjoy all of these sensational illusions over and over again.
Earlier this year, I was delighted to have the chance to view and review the wonderful Flicker Alley disc A Trip to the Moon, at last presented in its original color version. Now, they have further extended the world of pure celluloid nirvana by the simultaneous release of two landmark widescreen classics, the pictures that introduced (and entertained millions of ) 1950s moviegoers with the awesome processes known as the Multi-Panel Film and Deep Curved Screen format, or, via their more common terms, Cinerama and Cinemiracle. This pair of extraordinary special editions, 1952’s THIS IS CINERAMA and 1958’s WINDJAMMER, is now permanently available for exhibition in your home theater. If, like me, you’re a widescreen fanatic, collecting doesn’t get much better than this.
Like the individual panels, which were required for the processes, there are three folks who are the unsung heroes of Cinerama and Cinemiracle. First and foremost, there is Fred Waller, who is generally acknowledged as the inventor who developed, refined, and helped market the process. I say “generally,” since three-panel movies, as a wow, did exist in limited, primitive renditions – the most notable being a tryptych (and French tri-colored flag) finale for Abel Gance’s 1924 epic Napoleon. This kinda cool gimmick wasn’t what attracted Waller to the idea of a viable three-panel journey. His dream was, to quote Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes in their excellent 1988 book Wide Screen Movies, “recreating reality in a motion picture setting.”
What we now call “peripheral vision” or “what we see out of the corners of our eyes, helps produce our sense of depth and space. Normal vision covers 160 degrees and 60 degrees, respectively…Waller’s screen could come very close to approximating the field of view of the human eye.” This was achieved by using “three 35MM camera equipped with 27MM lenses” that essentially mimicked the human perception of distance. The three pictures, photographed from three cameras, set at 48-degree angles from one another, were synched to a single rotating shutter in front of each lens. “Camera speed was changed from 24 to 26 frames per second,” with footage running at a speed of 146.25 feet per minute (as opposed to the standard 90 fpm). Three separate projection booths, controlled by selsyn interlocked motors, shot each image (left, center, right) onto the mammoth curved screen in perfect synchronization. This brought on board Hazard Reeves, who designed a multi-channel stereo system to match to visuals.
Waller’s theories and past test results (see below) led to his hooking up with legendary producer Merian C. Cooper (King Kong), a master of showmanship, who was able to make the format saleable as a first-run popular attraction. Along with Lowell Thomas (both Cooper and Thomas were documentarians, explorers and risk-takers), they helped form the Cinerama Organization; Cooper brought on publicists, musicians, idea men, etc., to generate interest in the process. Obviously, he succeeded.
The third name that must be given mucho kudos is David Strohmaier. Several years ago, Mr. Strohmaier, through the recommendation of my good pal Brian Jamieson, sent me a review copy of the Blu-Ray The Scent of Mystery, a 1961 three-panel picture that originally had the additional perk of Smell-O-Vision. To say I was stunned by the release of this hen’s tooth title is an understatement. I was downright goofy.
Like Scent of Mystery, these two Flicker Alley platters have been painstakingly restored by Strohmaier & Co. The results here far surpass Scent. Both titles are virtually flawless. This took a lot of dedication, frustration, experimentation and, I daresay, borderline obsession. I’ll go out on a limb and say that the chemistry between David Strohmaier and Cinerama parallels that of Abbott for Costello, William Powell for Myrna Loy, or Warren Beatty and himself. The proof is in every frame of CINERAMA and WINDJAMMER (and spills over into the plethora of extras included with each set).
Of course, while size itself played a relevant role in the ultimate three-panel experience, detail and depth were equally important. While even collectors with kaiju-sized flat screens can’t compare to the 1950s exhibitions, curved Blu-Ray simulation, achieved by a cousin of letterboxing, christened Smilebox, does enable one to witness the jaw-dropping cineramic effects of 1080p High Definition at its breathless best. There is truly a near-third dimensional buzz present in many of the shots replicated in these discs. As for the POV stuff, WARNING: don’t indulge in a heavy meal prior to screening.
And now, on with the show.
THIS IS CINERAMA is literally a filmic roller coaster ride. The “opening” is one of The Movies’ most iconic sequences, a POV shot from a front seat in the Rockaway Playland coaster. It made 1952 audiences giddy, dizzy, and often left them breathless and sick. It was swell. Those who weren’t woozy burst into enthusiastic applause when the segment concluded. Note, I put “opening” in quotes. It has a double meaning. To make the introduction of Cinerama even more spectacular, Lowell Thomas appeared onscreen in a 12-minute 1.37:1-framed monochrome prologue, discussing the evolution of the motion picture medium. Then, the screen slowly expands, stunning Technicolor replaces the black-and-white, and, hold on to your seats, folks!
The first-run flagship exhibitions of THIS IS CINERAMA additionally offered mass bookings for out-of-towners. And it worked. Americans, tourists, school groups, religious organizations and basic thrill-seekers all converged on the nearest Cinerama theaters in massive proportions. The movie was sold out for years.
The success of THIS IS CINERAMA and the process itself wasn’t, as indicated, a one-two punch overnight shoo-in. Cinerama was a vision in the making for decades. Inventor Fred Waller had been toying with recreating peripheral vision since the 1930s. Vitarama, an embryonic version of Cinerama, highlighted the 1939 World’s Fair, as a new movie phenomenon. That, it was. The coming of World War II saw Cinerama as more serious and essential tool for preparing and training pilots. The enveloping screens were used to replicate motion picture-simulated battle situations (or, if one wants to be current in a superfluous way, the first video games). It proved incredibly valuable, and likely saved many lives.
After the war, Waller continued to tweak the outstanding, but, to be honest, impractical format. He needed showmen to push Cinerama into the limelight it deserved. That, of course, happened when it piqued the interest of Merian C. Cooper and Lowell Thomas.
Forming the Cinerama Corporation, and hiring studio-contracted artists on the sly: Max Steiner, Paul Sawtell, Roy Webb, Leo Shuken, plus directors Gunther von Frtisch and Mike Todd, Jr., King Kong’s SFX master Willis O’Brien and Cooper’s celebrated former partner Ernest B. Schoedsack; even an ousted Louis B. Mayer had an invisible hand in the production, as did the great flight cinematographer Paul Mantz, who shot the swooping panoramas over Zion National Park and other flight material. The company sent the gargantuan cameras all over the globe to achieve the best and awe-inspiring effects. Officially, the key crew members of the CINERAMA units included first-rate craftsmen and entrepreneurs, including cameraman Harry Squire and coproducer Michael Todd (the elder Elizabeth Taylor one), dying to dip his toes into the movie universe. Waller’s inclusion of test-showcasing a church choir was a stroke of genius. Although in black and white (ultimately tinted in sepiatone) and about as cinematic as a 1928 talkie, the sequence alone brought in hundreds of thousands of a dollars from the special church-group screenings.
The picture quality knocked the sox off anyone who saw CINERAMA in 1952. Critics loved it, audiences worshipped it. Further improvements and subsequent features immediately were given the green light.
Now, I totally understand why collectors (outside of 1950s and Cinerama buffs) are wondering what’s the point in owning a movie that was meant for a behemothian screen. It’s a valid claim, but one easily debunked. With big screens becoming more affordable these days, THIS IS CINERAMA (and its offspring) have been given a new life. Agreed, a 60-inch-plus image can’t compare to the 140 degree curve of a 100 foot 1952 theater screen, but the detail of the restored 1080p imagery, the crisp, vibrant Technicolor, the sheer overall effect of the thing is absolutely amazing. As evidence, I cite the trip through the Venice canals, the performance at La Scala and a water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens. And then, of course, there’s that roller coaster.
As indicated above, the picture alone couldn’t complete the overall effect of THIS IS CINERAMA. The giant images needed formidable sound to go with it. Nabe mono audio wasn’t gonna do it. No way. Enter Hazard Reeves. Stereo experimentation in movie sound had been around for a while. Fantasia attempted it with Fantasound. Warners tried it with VitaSound, an optical surround precursor of Perspecta, on their 1940 titles Four Daughters and Santa Fe Trail. But THIS IS CINERAMA needed to take sound to the next level. By elevating stereo technology to a new zenith – the installation of six-channel mag-coated 35MM stock – the movie delivered a complete intertwining of superior sight and sound. Thomas, beginning the post-intermission by screaming at the audiences via directional mikes had as much an impact on the ears in 1952 as the coaster did on the peepers (and the stomachs). Many folks who saw the original release told me they were turning around to see where the sound was coming from. Combined with the music and the choir singing, it was like diving into a world of the senses (“Incredible,” “outstanding,” “unbelievable” are the usual accolades that lucky Fifties viewers have told me). I guarantee you that you’ll feel likewise, in a 21st-century home-video way, about the Flicker Alley Blu-Ray.
The restoration of THIS IS CINERAMA is no mere hyperbole. Strohmaier truly deserves to be congratulated until the proverbial cows come home. I can verify that this 2017 re-mastered edition was an undertaking of meticulous proportions. How do I know this? Allow me to elaborate. In 1972, to commemorate the 20th anniversary THIS IS CINERAMA, a special new 70MM print was patchworked together from the original three panels. It was shown in New York at the Ziegfeld Theater, then the biggest screen in town (the Cinerama house and other cavernous movie emporiums had already gone the dust-is-my-destiny route). The effect left me and my friends nonplussed, to put it mildly. The picture quality was garish, grainy and often muddy. The lines dividing the panels were gratingly evident, and misaligned. The poor schmuck with the mustache in the aforementioned La Scala sequence was caught in the meld, and had two heads sprouting from his neck.
Stromaier’s restoration is nothing like that. You can barely (if at all) notice the panel lines, and the picture is crystal-clear with the colors ebullient. And mustache has but one melon.
In addition to this re-master, THIS IS CINERAMA comes with a treasure trove of fascinating extras, including audio commentary with Strohmaier and original crew member Jim Morrison (no, not him), The Best in the Biz, an hour-long documentary on the composers of CINERAMA, another documentary on the restoration, an alternate European post-Intermission opening, a rare radio interview with Fred Waller, a bizarre French short about traveling Cinerama tent shows in France, a tribute to an Ohio theater – the last true venue for Cinerama screenings, the theatrical trailer, TV spots and more.
Oh, yeah, and then again, there’s that roller coaster!
In an effort to give Cinerama a run for their money, the National Theaters chain decided to create a three-panel process of their own. It would improve upon the picture and sound of Cinerama, ideally making it more adaptable for other types of motion picture entertainment beyond the travelogue arena. Two improvements were made to the three-panel process: the first was utilizing only one booth for the trio of projectors, and the other, reducing the appearance of join lines by the use of mirrors. The latter, a magician standard, worked like a charm.
1958’s WINDJAMMER was the end result of this goal, and is another terrific release from Flicker Alley, in conjunction with David Strohmaier’s Cinerama home-video company. A windjammer is an oversized sailing ship, once considered (in the early twentieth century) to be the best way to swiftly carry large crews and cargo. One of the most splendid surviving examples of this ship builder’s marvel was the Norwegian vessel the Christian Radich. A Norway baptism of fire for its male youth was to select a group of fifty adolescents and test them on an overseas voyage that would, as the cliché goes, turn boys into men. This was seriously a big deal in 1958. Thousands of applicants arrived with athletic prowess, glowing academia records and a barrage of references from neighbors, clergymen, local politicians, etc. The fact that this voyage was to be captured in a spectacular new movie marvel, now known as Cinemiracle, made acceptance for the 17,500-nautical-mile excursion all the more desirable. Of course, this also ratcheted up the publicity angle, which was absolutely necessary for Cinemiracle to succeed.
The Christian Radach left Oslo (with boys, cast and crew) in the summer of 1957. The tribulations (and danger) of maneuvering such delicate and bulky camera equipment on a schooner is obvious. Nevertheless it was an upgrade from the original Cinerama, if for no other reason than the veteran technicians becoming increasingly familiar with the pros and cons of a three-panel process. This adaptability displayed a slightly more intimate execution, thus enabling an actual narrative strain to loop through the 142-minute proceedings (another important asset if Cinemiracle were to prosper and topple Cinerama).
WINDJAMMER is an awesome assault on the senses (in the best way). By capturing the ports of call around the globe, one gets a glimpse of cultural habitats and festivities that explode on the screen in mélange of color, sound, music, exploration and adventure (there is an actual tragedy that occurs during the making of the movie, which affects its participants by voyage end). New York City has an additional advantage by having much of its glam camerawork composed and shot by the photographic genius Arthur “Weegee” Fellig. It is, to put it mildly, a kaleidoscopic pip!
By zeroing in on some of the boy crew, we have the makings of a genuine scenario, rather than a mere travelogue. We are privy to the lads’ yearning for what they used to call “going steady,” plus other likes and dislikes. A main character, Sven Erik Libaek, becomes a focus of interest due to his devotion to music (a piano is actually loaded on board so that he can practice); his vision is to play for the renowned conductor Arthur Fiedler. This culminates in a musical feast during the American portion of the trip. Other treats for the ears (reproduced in fantastic stereo-surround) include a performance by Pablo Casals, while the ship docks in Puerto Rico, plus steel bands, Calypso and a limbo rock demo in Trinidad.
That the movie does manage to go one better than its predecessor is due to the ensemble array of WINDJAMMER’s artists and craftsmen, including composer Morton Gould, d.p.s Gayne Rescher, Joseph Brun, and Gordon Willis and codirectors Bill Colleran and Louis de Rochemont III. The picture had long legs, playing in some three-panel emporiums as late as 1964. An accompanying LP soundtrack likewise became a bestseller.
The pliability of Cinemiracle amazed and delighted Hollywood’s mogul crowd. As with Vitaphone, two-strip Technicolor and 3-D, Jack L. Warner was the one who bit at the bait. He announced that an upcoming Carroll Baker religious pic, The Miracle would be entirely shot in the new three-panel system. Production was actually started, but, as shooting commenced, it became obvious that Cinemiracle wasn’t as easy to manipulate as originally envisioned. The cost factor was, natch, another thorn in the side. The plans were scrapped and Carroll Baker had to suffer her miracle without the cine. WINDJAMMER would be the only movie ever using the process.
The POV use of three-panel in WINDJAMMER, is especially triumphant with the heart-stopping visuals of the raging sea. Coupled with the wonders of the world and its peoples makes WINDJAMMEER a unique movie outing that I emphatically suggest one undertake. A rollicking ride in a basket sled had me and my fellow viewers holding on to the sofa. Blu-Ray quality rivals THIS IS CINERAMA, and like its ancestor, WINDJAMMER, comes chock full of extras (documentaries on the filming and the reconstruction, a 2010 visit to the Christian Radach, etc.) that alone would warrant a purchase for widescreen geeks, such as myself, but also for those always looking to add that “something extra” to movie night.
THIS IS CINERAMA Color/Black and White. Widescreen [2.56:1 SmileBox; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Cinerama. CAT # FA0025R. SRP: $39.95.
WINDJAMMER Color. Widescreen [2.56:1 SmileBox; 1080p High Definition]; 5.1 DTS-HD MA. Flicker Alley/Cinerama. CAT# FA0026R. SRP: $39.95.