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This Is Cinerama (1952) is neither documentary nor drama. It's a pageant, a showcase, an immersive experience, or so it was for those audiences who saw the film the way it was designed to be seen: with three individual projectors trained on the biggest movie screens anyone had ever seen -- almost three times as wide as it was high -- with a heightened visual clarity and image intensity and a seven-channel stereo surround soundtrack.
The roots of Cinerama go back to the 1939 World's Fair, where special effects cameraman Fred Waller unveiled Vitarama, a cinema in the round that featured eleven projectors. He fine-tuned the technology in World War II with the Waller Gunnery Trainer, which projected films of enemy planes from multiple projectors on a spherical screen to give American fighter pilots a three-dimensional effect in simulation cockpits. The curved screen was the breakthrough, claimed Waller, in immersing the viewer in the effect. For the theatrical incarnation, Waller settled on three projectors and an aspect ratio up to 2.65:1 -- wider than CinemaScope and far sharper, but with visible seams where the separate images met. CinemaScope, an anamorphic process that launched a year after Cinerama, squeezes the image into a single standard 35mm print and then expands back out to widescreen through the projector lens. Cinerama uses three separate strips of film, shot by three carefully placed cameras and shown via three synchronized projectors on to a screen made up of hundreds of separate vertical strips placed side-by-side in a smooth, graduated curve, an arc of about 146 degrees. Needless to say, it demanded special equipment and carefully calibrated set-ups in theaters specially built or redesigned to showcase the process.
Newsman and world traveler Lowell Thomas and impresario Michael Todd signed on as investors in Fred Waller's process and took the lead in launching the new motion picture format. Thomas first approached documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty to helm their debut presentation, but when Flaherty died weeks later, he turned to old friend and filmmaking colleague Merian C. Cooper, a filmmaker with experience as both adventure documentarian (the silent non-fiction classics Chang (1927) and 1925's Grass) and big screen showmanship (King Kong, 1933). Cooper was excited by the prospects and took an active role not just in the film but in the company and brainstormed with Thomas on how to announce the arrival of Cinerama with a spectacle that showcased its unique attributes. "This advent of something as new and important as Cinerama was in itself a major event in the history of entertainment," explained Thomas in an article featured in the original This Is Cinerama souvenir program. "The logical thing to do was to make Cinerama the hero. And this is what we have tried to do. This, our first, is a demonstration."
To dramatize the scope of the new process, This Is Cinerama opens with a prologue shot in the conventional format, a squarish black-and-white image with Lowell Thomas taking audiences from cave paintings to modern movies. Then, as he announces "Ladies and gentleman, this is Cinerama!," the curtains open wide and the audience is enveloped in seven-channel stereophonic sound, bright, bold color, and Cinerama widescreen as they are dropped into the seat of the rollercoaster ride at Rockaways' Playland in Atlantic City. It's the most famous sequence in the film and a brilliant introduction to the visceral possibilities of the new format. With the cameras mounted in the front seat of the rollercoaster, it sent viewers on a wild high speed ride, immersing them so completely in the experience that they could feel the rush from their stationary seats.
Cooper didn't direct that sequence -- in fact, many of the vignettes had already been filmed, supervised by Mike Todd and his son, before Cooper signed on -- but he insisted that the rollercoaster open the film over the objections of Cinerama board members who wanted to save it for the finale. It was the type of showmanship that grabbed audiences right from the beginning, and it was a smart move considering that most of the footage shot by Todd was static. These sequences transported viewers to exotic locations and privileged vantage points that few Americans would have experienced in person, from the legendary La Scala Theatre in Milan, Italy, to the canals of Venice to a bullfight in Spain, but the cameras were all still simply observers from afar.
Cooper wasn't just responsible for putting the pieces together, he took charge of subsequent sequences, including the Cypress Gardens of Florida (where, in addition to capturing the brightly-colored beauty of the gardens, he took to the water to shoot water skiing stunts) and the majestic finale. "The last twenty-four minutes of this picture consists solely of aerial shots of the United States," Cooper wrote in a 1953 letter. "Lowell Thomas and I ended it in this manner for one -- and only one -- purpose -- to arouse the innate patriotism of the people of the United States." He mounted the cameras in the nose of a converted B-52 bomber to shoot dramatic vistas of the country from sea to shining sea, and set the montage of majestic views to music performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (with music arranged by Max Steiner, who provided the dramatic score for Cooper's King Kong).
This Is Cinerama was more than a movie. It was an event. This Is Cinerama opened on September 30, 1952, a year before 20th Century Fox unveiled its single-strip CinemaScope process with The Robe (1953), and though by 1954 it was screening in a mere 14 converted theaters, it had nonetheless become one of the highest grossing films of all time. Only eight features were ever shot in the 3-Strip Cinerama process, most of them travelogues or documentaries (the demands of the three-camera process made narrative features difficult, though not impossible, as How the West Was Won (1962) and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962) attest). This Is Cinerama was the first and, by most accounts, the best of them.
Producers: Robert L. Bendick, Merian C. Cooper
Directors: Merian C. Cooper; Gunther von Fritsch (director: Vienna); Ernest B. Schoedsack (prologue only, uncredited); Michael Todd, Jr. (European sequence supervisor, uncredited)
Cinematography: Harry Squire
Music: Sidney Cutner, Howard Jackson, Paul Sawtell, Leo Shuken, Max Steiner, Roy Webb (all uncredited)
Film Editing: William Henry, Milton Shifman
Cast: Lowell Thomas (Narrator), Kathy Darlyn (Cypress Gardens Water Skiier (uncredited).
by Sean Axmaker
"Living Dangerously: The Adventures of Merian C. Cooper," Mark Cotta Vaz. Villard Books, 2005."This Is Cinerama," Original Souvenir Program, 1952
Thanks to Jeffrey Masino and Flicker Alley for further research