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"CinemaScope gives another demonstration of its photographic versatility, this time going underwater to add sock pictorial values to Beneath the 12-Mile Reef." Thus began Variety's December 16, 1953, review of Beneath the 12-Mile Reef (1953), the second (or depending on your sources, third) CinemaScope release by 20th Century Fox. The biblical epic The Robe (1953) kicked off the widescreen craze, opening at New York's Roxy Theater on September 16, 1953. Beneath the 12-Mile Reef followed The Robe into the Roxy, but How to Marry a Millionaire (1953) was in production at Fox during the same time, leading to somewhat of a dispute over which film actually came in second in the CinemaScope race.
A perfect choice for the CinemaScope format, Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is about a Greek family who make their living diving for sponges off the coast of Florida. Their livelihood is a dangerous one, though, due to the unpredictable weather and the dangers of the 12-mile reef. Another problem the family faces is ethnic discrimination from the local Florida sponge divers who resent any "outside" competition in their profession. Tensions between the two clans increase when young Tony Petrakis (Robert Wagner) falls in love with Gwyneth Rhys (Terry Moore), the daughter of his father's main rival. While the Romeo and Juliet-inspired romance provides the emotional fireworks in Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, it is the natural outdoor settings and stunning underwater photography that make this particularly memorable in CinemaScope.
The CinemaScope process was developed by Frenchman Henri Chretien as early as 1927. The simple idea allowed a wider image to be squeezed by an anamorphic lens onto conventional 35mm stock. The lens distorted the image, which was then corrected during projection by a compensating lens. For moviegoers, the outcome was a much wider picture. The old Academy aspect ratio (ratio of a film's width to height) had been set in 1932 at 1.33:1. This image was virtually square. CinemaScope began with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1, as displayed by Beneath the 12-Mile Reef, but was eventually reduced to 2.35:1. For the studios, CinemaScope's more rectangular, panoramic picture became a unique strategy to capture the audiences' attention, something the television screen couldn't compete with successfully.
Other widescreen processes, such as Cinerama, were attempted during this time. But CinemaScope had a great advantage in that it required only special lenses and a widescreen. No expensive new cameras or projectors were needed. Initially, all CinemaScope films also carried four-track stereo sound, which accounts for Bernard Herrmann's distinctive music score for Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. Normally, the studio would likely not have used as accomplished a composer as Herrmann (who would later win an Oscar for his work on Vertigo, 1958) on a movie like Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. But since CinemaScope required stereo sound, every effort was made to make it look and sound as good as possible. Fox eventually dropped the stereo requirement for CinemaScope in 1954, allowing more theaters to afford the conversion to widescreen.
The studio also insisted that all CinemaScope films be produced in Technicolor. And so five-time Oscar nominee Edward Cronjager was brought in as cinematographer for Beneath the 12-Mile Reef. The film received its only Oscar nomination for color cinematography, going up against The Robe. But both films lost out to the imposing Wyoming landscapes of Shane(1953). CinemaScope would be vindicated the next year when Three Coins in the Fountain (1954) took home the award.
Fox held the rights to the CinemaScope process and, by 1953, every studio except Paramount had been licensed to make CinemaScope films. While Beneath the 12-Mile Reef is a perfect example of fifties family entertainment, it's the movie's technical innovations that have assured it a place in film history.
Producer: Robert Bassler
Director: Robert Webb
Screenplay: A.I. Bezzerides
Art Direction: Lyle Wheeler
Cinematography: Edward J. Cronjager
Costume Design: Dorothy Jeakins
Film Editing: William H. Reynolds
Original Music: Bernard Herrmann
Principal Cast: Robert Wagner (Tony Petrakis), Terry Moore (Gwyneth Rhys), Gilbert Roland (Mike Petrakis), J. Carrol Naish (Soak), Richard Boone (Thomas Rhys), Angela Clarke (Mama), Peter Graves (Arnold), Harry Carey Jr. (Griff)
by Stephanie Thames & Jeff Stafford