More From Life: Widescreen, Big Screen

CineramaThe premiere of the first Cinerama film, This is Cinerama, at the Broadway Theater on September 30, 1952, marked a turning point in film history. The three-projector process developed by Fred Waller spelled the end of the old Academy aperture format that had dominated filmmaking from its very inception, and was the first effective response by Hollywood to the threat posed by TV. Widescreen experiments date back to the silent era, most famously in Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), and the early sound era (e.g., Raoul Walsh’s The Big Trail [1930]), but Cinerama was the first to prove itself at the box office. (The one exception was Magnascope, which Paramount first used in films like Old Ironsides [1926] and Wings [1927], in which big action sequences were shown on a bigger screen.)

The above photo for Life magazine by Ralph Morse, bears the caption of “3 Dimensional Film At Broadway Theater,” and was probably taken just before its premiere. The people sitting facing the camera were obviously put in to provide a sense of scale, or perhaps the impression that the screen surrounded the audience (which it did not). The film itself was a documentary produced and directed by Merian C. Cooper and narrated by Lowell Thomas. (Cooper, of course, was co-director of King Kong with Ernest B. Schoedsack, who apparently directed the film’s prolog).

Audience at Los Angeles premiere of Bwana DevilTwo months later, producer Arch Obler caused another sensation with his 3D production of Bwana Devil, which opened  in Los Angeles. The Life archive’s caption for J. R. Eyerman’s photo notes: “3-D Movie Viewers. Formally attired audience sporting 3-D (3D) glasses during opening night screening of movie Bwana Devil, the 1st full length, color 3-D (aka ‘Natural Vision’) motion picture, at Paramount Theater, Hollywood, CA.” The 3D craze petered out after about two years, but has been reborn of late.

The Robe in CinemaScopeCinerama never took hold beyond a limited number of theaters, but it did inspire 20th Century Fox to dust off an anamorphic process from the 1920s and called it CinemaScope, which is still with us. The caption for this July 1953 J. R. Eyerman photo says: “Huge Cinemascope (63-by-24 foot dimensions) screen [with] image of actor Victor Mature as Demetrius in Calvary scene [from] the movie The Robe dwarfs 5′ 8″ man man standing in front at right as producer Spyros Skouras & associates watch during private [screening].” Today, in this age of home theaters and multiplexes, we tend to think of CinemaScope as a widescreen rather than a big screen process.

James Wong Howe with VistaVision cameraFinally, here’s an August 1955 “Portrait [by Allan Grant] of cinematographer James Wong Howe beneath [VistaVision ] camera.” (This may have been on the set of The Rose Tattoo.) VistaVision was a high resolution process almost exclusive to Paramount in which 35mm film moved horizontally through the camera, producing a negative twice as large as a normal, though rarely shown that way. (Technicolor later added an anamorphic lens to VistaVision cameras and called it Technirama, which was used by Disney in Sleeping Beauty.)

Howe, who was one of the few cinematographers who was close to being a household name, seems curiously forgotten these days. However, he was one of the most respected names in movies whose credits included such films as The Prisoner of Zenda (1937) to The Sweet Smell of Success (1955).

Author: Harvey Deneroff

Harvey Deneroff is a Los Angeles-based independent animation and film scholar specializing in labor history. He formerly taught at the Savannah College of Art and Design and was editor of Animation Magazine, Animation World Magazine, and Graiffit (published by ASIFA-Hollywood). He is the founder and past president of the Society for Animation Studies.