The film was Cinerama Adventure, a 2002 movie about the pioneering wide-screen process invented by Fred Waller, a fascinating figure not only in movie history but in other fields as well (among other things, he invented water skis — apparently in the 1930’s you could buy a waterboard that you could stand on and be towed by a boat, and Waller figured that you’d be more stable if he cut the waterboard in half and put one on each leg), who worked at the Astoria studio run by Paramount in New York City and did special-effects work for movies including Cecil B. DeMille’s Male and Female and D. W. Griffith’s That Royle Girl. He also directed band shorts — the music videos of the 1930’s — including what are probably the two best band shorts ever made, A Bundle of Blues (1933) and Symphony in Black (1935), both featuring Duke Ellington and coming far closer than most of them to the trick photography and dazzling editing we became familiar with when music videos reached the peak of their popularity in the 1980’s. (At the same time I’ve always thought that Ellington himself, which his training and lifelong interest in the visual arts — he began as a painter and still thought of color when he focused on music instead, as witness how many of his songs are named after colors —must have had some input into the visual creativity of these films, not only the two Waller directed for him but the 1929 Black and Tan, directed by Dudley Murphy, as well.) In 1938 Waller left his job with Paramount and focused on a system of using multiple cameras and strips of film to create movies that would reproduce the entire field of human vision, not only what we see directly in front of us but his peripheral vision as well. He even walked around his house with a special pair of glasses fitted with two toothpicks, which he moved so he could measure exactly what the range of his peripheral vision was. His first attempt was a process called Vitarama, which involved 11 16 mm cameras and was first publicly exhibited in a dome-shaped theatre at the 1939-1940 New York World’s Fair. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941 Waller’s invention was put on hold as a commercial property but was enlisted in the war effort; Waller used five cameras and a directional light beam to create a film used as the basis for a machine to train aerial gunners; his five strips of film showed planes flying across a sky that ranged across the full panoramic range of human vision, and the trainees sat at mock guns that emitted beams of light, while behind the translucent screen a machine measured where their light beams landed and therefore whether their shot would have hit the plane on screen had it been real. (Essentially Fred Waller invented the video game.) He built 74 of these training modules in the U.S. and Britain, and they were credited with saving hundreds of thousands of lives by allowing gunners to hone their skills before they got into actual combat.
In 1948 Waller formed a company to market his invention and exploit it commercially, and he ended up attracting an odd assortment of partners: Lowell Thomas, who’d been narrating the Fox Movietone newsreels for years and had cut his teeth using film cameras to cover T. E. Lawrence’s campaigns in Arabia in World War I (this film showed a still photo of the real Lawrence — and he looked amazingly like Peter O’Toole, underscoring just how well cast O’Toole was in Lawrence of Arabia); Merian C. Cooper, who’d been involved in both movies and aviation for decades, who had begun his career with his business and exploration partner Ernest B. Schoedsack making nature documentaries like Grass and Chang before entering fiction film with his productions of The Most Dangerous Game and King Kong (and who, by an odd coincidence, also had wanted to make a dramatic film about T. E. Lawrence; in 1933 he and Schoedsack sent a unit to Arabia to shoot second-unit footage and intended to cast John Barrymore as Lawrence, but the film was shelved and the Arabian footage wasn’t used until 1943 for an RKO “B,” Action in Arabia); and Mike Todd, whose legendary skills as a showman and a negotiator won the fledgling Cinerama company the right to shoot an actual opera performance (Verdi’s Aïda) in La Scala as part of the first Cinerama release, This Is Cinerama. Other key people in making Cinerama work were Paul Mantz, the seemingly fearless stunt pilot who flew in Hollywood for over 30 years and piloted the camera plane for many of the Cinerama travelogue sequences; and Harry Squire, the equally fearless cameraman who was director of photography on most of the famous Cinerama films and who managed to tame the unwieldy beast of a camera needed for the process, an object which looked like a miniature tank and contained three cameras with three lenses (ironically for a process equated with bigness, the lenses themselves were quite small — about the size of a contact lens — obviously they were going for maximum depth of field, meaning small lenses and wide angles) and three strips of film, itself off-putting since a malfunction on one of the camera mechanisms or a break or jam in one strip of film would result in the entire sequence being unusable.
Cinerama debuted in September 1952 at the old Warner Theatre on Broadway in New York (though the documentary didn’t make the point, this was also where The Jazz Singer had premiered 25 years earlier, launching the movie industry’s transition from silent to sound!) after all the major studios had turned it down; making a deal with Stanley Warner Theatres, the company that had acquired the Warners theatre chain after Warner Bros. had been forced to divest by the 1948 Paramount consent decree (by which the movie studios agreed they would no longer own theatres after the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled this violated the antitrust laws — incidentally this was widely credited with breaking up the studio system, and among the people who believed that was Ronald Reagan, which was one reason antitrust enforcement virtually ceased once Reagan became President), and exhibited This Is Cinerama themselves in a specially remodeled theatre to accommodate not only the three projectors (actually there were four film strips — three containing the visual parts of the movie and one recording the seven-channel stereo soundtrack — which occasionally led to some of the same synchronization problems the sound pioneers had had keeping the Vitaphone records in synch with the film) but also the unique screen, which consisted of hundreds of translucent silver-coated vertical strips. The strips were so narrow you could walk through the screen the way you could with vertical Venetian blinds, and their purpose was to refract the light so you could see the film equally well wherever you were in the theatre — and also to smooth out the join lines between the three separate film images that combined to give you the Cinerama effect. (The clips from Cinerama films included here show that the join lines were all too obvious anyway.) The documentary emphasized that Cinerama was a special experience, in some ways more like attending a live play than a movie — the tickets were “hard” (they admitted you to one and only one seat, which was numbered like a live theatre seat) and no refreshments were served (when you went to a Cinerama movie they weren’t going to let you distract yourself with popcorn, candy or soda), and people instinctively understood the “specialness” of the experience and dressed up for Cinerama showings the way they would for a play or a symphony concert.
What’s fascinating about Cinerama Adventure is not only the difficulties Cinerama faced in both making and showing the films, and the business problems involved in keeping the company afloat (even though it was sensationally popular, the cumbersome nature of the process meant that there were never more than a handful of theatres equipped to show it, though a French entrepreneur tried to solve that problem by creating a mobile, inflatable Cinerama theatre, which devastatingly collapsed one day in a windstorm — fortunately not during a public screening, so the theater was destroyed but no one was killed), but the sheer verve and optimism inherent in the process. Cinerama debuted in the 1950’s, at the peak of America’s confidence in itself and its future — and at a time when (at least if you were white) this was more of a “middle-class” country that it had been before or ever would be again, a time when one-third of America’s workforce belonged to labor unions (now it’s less than 7 percent) and America was also the world’s industrial powerhouse. The documentary indicates that Cinerama was such a broad-based phenomenon that the suffix “-rama” itself became a major advertising ploy, attached to all sorts of things in an effort to communicate their sensational bigness and modernity. (One stripper even billed herself as “Sinerama.”) There’s a fascinating clip from a 1955 General Motors promotional film called Motorama, and it’s heartbreaking to watch this given what’s happened both to GM and its then-home city, Detroit, since. The clips from the big Cinerama documentaries — including the “Flight Across America” sequence from the first one, This Is Cinerama, in which the breathtaking vistas of the great canyons of Utah are guyed by an enormously loud performance of “America, the Beautiful” (the whole song, not just the familiar first chorus) by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir— show not only the impressiveness of the process but also the patriotism behind it (Merian C. Cooper was one of Hollywood’s most notorious Right-wingers and, as the film points out, the very name “Cinerama” was an anagram of “American” and the Cinerama logo was colored red, white and blue) and the bizarre mix of spectacle and kitsch that makes Cinerama representative of America’s chest-out sense of world supremacy during the 1950’s. The film also goes into Cinerama’s role as a weapon in the Cold War, getting sent to trade shows around the world and overwhelming whatever the Soviet Union put up to compete with it — until the Soviets developed a knock-off version, which ironically created footage the Cinerama company later licensed for a film of its own called Cinerama’s Russian Adventure. (The film didn’t mention a Western Cinerama knock-off, Cinemiracle, whose inventors attempted to avoid infringing on Cinerama’s patents by having their images bounced off mirrors onto the screen; Cinerama won a patent infringement suit against Cinemiracle and took over Cinemiracle’s one completed film, Windjammer, and re-released it as a Cinerama production.)
One of the ironies of Cinerama is that though it inspired the wide-screen craze of the rest of the 1950’s, as studios looked for “almost as good” processes that would approach the width and size of the Cinerama screen (the theory being that one way to lure audiences out of their homes and away from their TV sets was to offer them the one thing TV couldn’t: sheer size — also color and stereo sound, which early-1950’s TV didn’t have) and came up with things like CinemaScope (an anamorphic lens which “squeezed” the image during filming so you could photograph a wide-screen image on an ordinary strip of 35 mm film, plus a decoder lens on the projector that reversed the effect) and VistaVision (shooting on 35 mm film sideways to create a wider frame), Cinerama itself wasn’t used in a non-documentary feature film until MGM and Cinerama co-produced How the West Was Won in 1962. Only two fiction films were ever made in the full three-strip Cinerama process, How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (later films like Grand Prix and 2001: A Space Odyssey were advertised as being in “Super Cinerama” but were really shot in ordinary 70 mm formats, much like the “Grandeur Screen” Fox had briefly experimented with in 1930, shooting John Wayne’s first major film, The Big Trail, in it — it was a flop and theatre owners, reeling from the cost of sound conversion and the Depression on top of that, refused to spend the extra money to put in the new projectors and wider screens required), and interviews with surviving cast members for How the West Was Won (including Carroll Baker, Russ Tamblyn, Eli Wallach and Debbie Reynolds) expressed just how difficult it was to act in a Cinerama movie. Instead of looking at the other actor you were supposed to be talking to, you had to look in a different direction altogether so your face would register properly in the Cinerama image, and the challenge of composing shots for the giant format also daunted the directors (How the West Was Won had three: John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall). Ford had to abandon his usual habit of sitting next to the camera as the film was shot because his body kept cutting into the frame of one of the cameras; eventually they built a platform for him so he could sit behind the three-camera rig and watch the action from the point of view of the camera(s) as he always had. Cinerama Adventure is a fascinating tale, a reminiscence of a time when both the movies and the country were very different from what they are today — though the idea of an all-enveloping movie experience lives on in the Imax and Omnimax formats as well as the expansive wide-screen 3-D of films like Avatar — and it seems like a cultural tragedy that as of 2002, when this documentary was made, there were only three theatres in the world (one in Europe, one in Seattle and one in L.A.) still equipped to show the original Cinerama format. (San Diego had a Cinerama dome as late as the 1980’s, but it was non-functional and it was ultimately destroyed when the owners of the shopping mall it was in had it torn down so they could put in more shops.)