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Cinerama Adventure

On September 30, 1952 the film This Is Cinerama opened for its long single-theater run on Broadway. As the movie began, the audience saw noted commentator/adventurer Lowell Thomas on a small black-and-white screen. Thomas explained a bit about the process they were to see and upon announcing, "This Is Cinerama," the large curtains on either side of the screen widened to reveal a huge curved panoramic view. Soon the theater patrons were being taken on a thrilling roller coaster ride. David Strohmaier's engaging and thorough documentary of the history of the screen innovation, Cinerama Adventure (2002), creates a similar effect. The documentary footage, vintage photos, and contemporary interviews with people who witnessed and participated in that history are all presented in standard Academy Ratio. However, when clips of genuine Cinerama footage are presented (and there are a generous number of clips), the screen widens out, and even the curvature of the Cinerama screen is simulated - not by Letterboxing the image, but by using a clever "Smilebox" visual format.

Produced by C. A. Productions in association with Cinerama Productions Corp. and the American Society of Cinematographers, Strohmaier's film is a vivid reminder of a time when cinema exhibition was combating the emergence of television with invention and showmanship. Cinerama was the first and boldest of the 1950s screen innovations that strived to put the viewer "in the picture." The final configuration consisted of three pieces of film projected at 26-frames-a-second from three separate projection booths onto a large 146-degree louvered screen. The experience for the viewer was an immersion into the picture thanks to a filling of one's peripheral vision. A robust seven-channel stereophonic soundtrack aided the effect.

Cinerama was perhaps the height of exhibitor showmanship during the course of American cinema, so it is no surprise to discover that the history of the process is peppered with numerous larger-than-life figures: colorful inventors, adventurers, documentarians, filmmakers, aviators, producers and showmen. Cinerama Adventure does a wonderful job rounding up these personalities and mixing in a wealth of technical information about the complicated process, all while keeping the story personable and interesting, rooted in human daring and a sense of adventure.

First and most prominent of the outsized characters profiled in the film is Fred Waller, the inventor of the format. Waller worked in special effects at Paramount Pictures and directed a few musical short subjects there, but his real fascination was with replicating human vision in elaborate experiments with widescreen. In 1938 he developed a system called Vitarama which employed an astonishing eleven connected 16mm film frames; Cinerama Adventure shows several seconds of footage from a few of the screen sections that still exist. Waller exhibited a version of this system at the 1939 World's Fair in New York, then in 1941 worked on a government contract to develop the Flexible Gunnery Trainer, which utilized five projectors and a 40ft. spherical screen to train soldiers in aerial machine gun combat. An astounding 75 of these trainers were built, and there is wonderful footage in Cinerama Adventure of the trainers in use. It is an easy leap to realize that Cinerama came about as a civilian version of this system, and beginning in 1948 Waller and his team created it at a large studio in Oyster Bay, Long Island - a former indoor tennis court. It was here that five feature-length documentary Cinerama films were produced over an eight-year period.

Cinerama Adventure engagingly profiles the other players who were vested in the project, including Merian C. Cooper, the legendary producer of King Kong (1933) fame; Lowell Thomas, the voice of Fox Movietone News; and Mike Todd, the colorful producer and impresario. Cinerama Adventure also takes the time to remind (or inform) the viewer that for many years in America, there was a top-tier style of movie exhibition called the Roadshow engagement. The first run of the most important pictures in a season would occur in the best theaters, at a premium cost, with reserved seats and an expectation of formal dress. Because of the very specific needs to outfit a theater with three projection booths, a custom 146-degree louvered screen, and seven channels of sound, every screening of a Cinerama film was a Roadshow screening. Therefore, the theater staff wore tuxedos, there were no concessions like popcorn sold, and patrons were invited to sign the guestbook in the lobby. Every effort was made to make the evening at the theater a special event. Since a single Cinerama film might have been expected to play at a city theater for a year or more, extra efforts were made to make the event a part of the community, with charity showings and tie-ups with civic groups, social clubs, schools and churches. Group travel was also arranged from nearby towns and communities. Cinerama was obviously adept at publicizing these efforts, since newsreel footage of theater patrons is plentiful in Cinerama Adventure. Perhaps the most remarkable such footage is of an outing in 1953 to a Warner theater by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to see This Is Cinerama.

In their efforts to bring audiences amazing sights from around the world in the Cinerama format, the filmmakers often courted danger themselves. Cinerama Adventure features interviews with a number of crewmen who participated in harrowing adventures, such as the filming of a South Seas ceremony involving a proto-bungee jumping stunt, and a particularly dangerous camera-plane flight by stunt pilot Paul Mantz into the top of an active volcano. Carroll Baker, Debbie Reynolds, Eli Wallach and Russ Tamblyn also offer up their perspective on the filming of the narrative Cinerama film How the West Was Won (1962). That picture posed enormous hurtles for actors who could not play off each other in traditional ways due to the distortions in eyelines created by the three-camera system. More tragically, the film also created extra dangers in executing stunts and an accident that severely injured stuntman Bob Morgan is detailed.

Further context for the Cinerama years is provided in Cinerama Adventure by such noted film historians and fans as Leonard Maltin, Rudy Behlmer, Kevin Brownlow and Joe Dante. The "Smilebox" formatting developed for this production proved to be so effective, when How the West Was Won was released on Blu-ray for home video, one of the viewing options made available was the entire movie in "Smilebox."

Producer: Randy Gitsch, David Strohmaier
Director: David Strohmaier
Screenplay: David Strohmaier
Cinematography: Gerald Saldo
Art Direction: Martin Hart
Music: John W. Morgan, William T. Stromberg
Film Editing: David Strohmaier
Cast: Lowell Thomas (Himself, archive footage), Fred Waller (Himself, archive footage), Jim Morrison (Himself, Cinerama crew member), Rudy Behlmer (Himself, film historian), Jane MacLardy Schacht (Herself, production secretary), Kevin Brownlow (Himself, film historian), Mike Todd, Jr. (Himself, Cinerama crew member), A.C. Lyles (Himself, film producer), Leonard Maltin (Himself, film historian), Howard Rust (Himself, International Cinerama Society)

by John M. Miller

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