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Hollywood's Most Misunderstood Miracle

HOUSE OF WAX just played on cable TV and I was surprised to see an intermission card come up about halfway through. The guide says that WAX, which was one of the first 3-D movies, is only 88 minutes long. Did it once have an intermission because it was originally longer, or does this have something to do with 3-D?

It's because it was in 3-D. The exact answer to your question is annoyingly buried within the following mini-essay on 3-D movies:

Arch Oboler's 1952 BWANA DEVIL started a 3-D craze that never really became a theatrical standard, yet has also never completely disappeared.

None of the 1950's fad movie gimmicks made quite the splash that 3-D did, nor faded as quickly. In its first year or so, industry pundits predicted that all filming would quickly convert to 3-D, just as talkies eclipsed silent films only 23 years before.

Film standards were formed by the marketplace, and exhibitors who bought into Edison and Eastman's original 35mm standard had no interest in changing anything for almost 50 years. When soundtracks were added, industry engineers just subtracted what was previously picture area on the same 35mm filmstock used in nickleodeons in 1898. Early attempts at 65mm in the early 30's, French experiments with multiscreen extravaganzas and anamorphic 'wide' projection all failed, not because they were faulty, but because of studio unwillingness to experiment: the exhibition industry needed one projection system and one film standard to be economical.

It was Television that started the '50's format revolutions; exhibitors were willing to try anything to lure back their lost audiences, and the obvious first step was to improve quality: studio engineers had been crying for improved audio systems and larger film formats for decades.

First off the block was the 'wonder miracle of the screen', Cinerama, covered in another Savant entry. But almost immediately followed BWANA DEVIL, which hit the big towns with ballyhoo posters showing lions leaping out of the screen, and promising an experience that wasn't just a movie, but participatory reality. LIFE magazine carried surreal photos of hundreds of viewers laughing and cringing, all wearing similar 3-D glasses that looked like sunglasses. Press coverage of the initial audience enthusiasm was so good that the fad snowballed into a craze that confused and frustrated studios, exhibitors, and audiences for years to come. This led directly to the surfeit of bizarrely-named film processes or formats, each touted as the ultimate in cinematic amazement: CinemaScope, VistaVision, SuperScope, Technirama, Todd-A0.

Mention 3-D now and you'll probably hear a lot of talk about eyestrain, those miserable glasses, and blurry effects that don't work. Screenings constantly happened where some of the audience oohed and ahhed in approval while the rest could be heard mumbling, 'I don't see any 3-D, what's going on?' It wasn't always that way. 3-D demands precise projection, the kind that wasn't always the case in the '50's, and today is almost extinct. In modern 3-D systems and in the original NaturalVision, 3-D is breathtaking when screenings go well.

Time for the basics. Mr. Oboler's NaturalVision was no different than the original stereopticon 3-D photos that had been a favorite parlor pasttime since the beginnings of photography. Because human 3-D vision is based upon our brain combining the slightly different images seen by our two eyes, stereovision depends upon delivering to each of the viewer's eyes two separate images taken from a camera with twin side-by-side lenses. Photographing the 3-D scenes was fairly straightforward. For viewing, Polaroid filters were placed in front of each projection lens. The light from the left projector, Polaroid-screened on the vertical axis, would bounce off the screen and through a matching-axis Polariod filter over the viewer's left eye. With the Polariod filter over the right eye rotated 90 degrees, the image reaching each eye from two overlapping projected images stayed completely separated.

In test screenings and original theatrical runs in major cities, with NaturalVision experts personally tweaking the projectors, 3-D got enthusiastic reviews and the kind of reception that sold stock in optical companies. Show Biz was convinced that Hollywood would have to be retooled from the floor up to accomodate this next step in movie evolution. Warner Brothers, perhaps wanting to benefit from early adoption the same way it had scooped the talkie craze, jumped on the bandwagon from the get-go. For better or for worse, 3-D was launched.

3-D was tough sledding for the industry, both technically and economically. The laws of optics decreed that filming, lab work and exhibition all would have to be refined to higher standards for 3-D to go over with audiences. Appreciation of the format went from high to nil when 3-D screenings with mismatched color or focus or a hundred other problems ruined the effect.

Technically Hollywood was certainly up to the challenge; its engineers and camera machinists welcomed the opportunity to show how well they could grind precisely matched lenses, how reliable their cameras could be. From all reports, most 3-D shooting went smoothly because the production teams prepared well. Hollywood labs also did amazing work, preparing what were in essence two movies, a left and right eye version, that matched perfectly cut for cut and color for color.

Exhibition is where it all broke down; projection in 1953 was of a high standard, but it just wasn't possible to make every booking of a 3-D film, in every town, mistake-proof. Many an owner who refitted his theater felt cheated when shows were cancelled because of film problems, or audiences were furious because of imperfect projection. Running a theater is based on the proposition that projection is simple and dependable, and the complexities of 3-D didn't lend themselves to 'nabe' movie houses.

With resistance from exhibitors building, the first rush of quality pictures came to an abrupt halt. There were a few hits like DIAL M FOR MURDER, HONDO and KISS ME KATE, but studios began making their 3-D films as cheaper, lower-tier pix: westerns, science fiction films, horror films. Many played 3-D in the largest cities and in normal 2D everywhere else. Often these 2-D showings erroneously used 3-D advertising, and patrons in the sticks watched the films wondering where the depth was. Because product failed to keep up with exhibition, grade-zero movies like ROBOT MONSTER and CAT WOMEN OF THE MOON found wide bookings and alienated audiences everywhere, reinforcing 3-D's bad rap as a gimmick. (now deemed loveable maladroit sci-fi nostalgia, I am assured that in '53 they were considered as being beneath contempt.) In 1954 many films announced as 3-D were dropped or simply shot flat; the 1955 sequel to the 3-D blockbuster CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, was filmed in 3-D but only sporadically shown that way.

Exhibitors turned instead to the beautifully-marketed CinemaScope format championed by 20th-Fox and trumpeted as the sane answer to movie problems. Capitalizing on 3-D frustration, CinemaScope was misleadingly advertised as '3-D without glasses'. Exhibitors burned by 3-D, even if they needed new 'wider than wide' screens, understood immediately the advantages of a one-projector system, and saw that every studio was putting out CinemaScope product. 3-D faded like a bad dream. 3-D has made many a comeback attempt, some of which Video Savant has seen and can remember....

HOUSE OF WAX was given a serious reissue in 1971. Seen in true NaturalVision at Grauman's Chinese, it looked terrific, especially the nighttime fog scenes and other 'environmental' effects that were much more successful than the 'in your face' paddleball gimmick. Depth 'behind' the screen seemed flawless, but many 'projecting' effects looked odd. At one juncture a Vincent Price henchman leaped up in the foreground, a shock that didn't exactly work because the figure of the man seemed both too small, and too flat, like a cardboard cutout. HOUSE OF WAX did indeed have an intermission card after only 45 minutes or so; exhibitors didn't have 4 projectors to do 3-D changeovers between two separate 3-D systems, so the 3-D shows were mounted in halves on oversized projection reels. The intermission was to give the poor man in the booth an opportunity to do what must have been a really back-breaking changeover.

Soon thereafter CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON and IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE were reissued not in NaturalVision but in a single-projector system generically called the anaglyph duo-color red-blue system, that had seen use in the fifties. Each 35mm frame was divided in two, with the left eye image on top and the right on the bottom. A bulky prism affair that clamped in front of the projector converged the two images back together on the screen. To avoid the expense of a special screen, red and blue filters were used instead of Polaroid to deliver discrete left-right images. Besides the above titles, Savant has seen THE MASK, PRISON GIRLS and several Three Stooges shorts with this system and the effect was never very good. By dividing the frame in half and then using the dark colored filters, the image on the screen was always grainy and dim. The optics never seemed very good and often the pictures seemed flat or blurry. As your eyes got tired (human eyes are prone to share the visual workload unequally) the red and blue images drifted apart. Perhaps others have had perfect experiences with this system but I never did. THE MASK was more successful than the others, perhaps because its 3-D sequences were isolated, giving one's eyes time to rest and something to appreciate when the 3-D came back. Montage design genius Slavko Vorkapich is credited with the 3-D scenes, and that helped a lot too - they were terrific.

In 1974 I caught IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE in excellent NaturalVision at a tiny, now-defunct theater called the World on Hollywood Boulevard; in 1979 the Tiffany theater on the Sunset Strip showed a string of NaturalVisions, of which I caught KISS ME KATE and DIAL M FOR MURDER. All of these screenings had the midpoint intermission break to change to the second half of the show. If I recall correctly, the intermission card was cleverly worked into the end of a street scene in DIAL M. .... The science fiction classic IT CAME was a weird experience. The rockslide at the beginning was extremely effective and the audience got some big jolts when boulders tumbled into our faces. Elsewhere, however, the screen was less a deep space than a series of very flat planes arranged as if in a moving diorama. Most scenes had a foreground component (a fireplace, a hat rack), actors in the midground, and a background, all of which seemed to be existing in separate movies.... In the sheriff's office, a shot raking down the length of a wooden interior partition looked more like two or three forced-perspective theater flats that had been arranged to suggest depth. KISS ME KATE was a marvel, its highlight being the already-startling Ann Miller stalking a retreating camera in the 'Too Darn Hot' number. At the end, a weird effect occurred when Howard Keel appears to fly off the stage (just as Gene Kelly does at the end of the Broadway Ballet in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN). Keel was either matted over the receding stage background or in front of a process screen; either way, the depth effect was reversed or the left and right eye inverted or something, because perspective and depth perception went all kablooey. At least that's how Savant remembers it from 19 years ago. Of the three, DIAL M FOR MURDER was the masterpiece. Hitchcock's serious approach to 3-D shows both restraint and insight. Most of the angles are from lower than shoulder height and mastershots with minimal but telling movement make the 3-D environment present but unpreposessing; it's the only film Savant has seen where the gimmick is truly at the service of the storytelling and not in its way. Watching DIAL M flat, one notices many compositions in the living room set where a foreground lamp or other object is prominent. Hitchcock seems always to know where the spectator's attention will be, and the effect of peering past the bric-a-brac enhances the illusion of being in the room, present but undetected, as a murder plot is hatched. The feeling of a 'round' 3-D depth instead of the diorama planes pervades all of DIAL M, with the odd exception of the famous scissors murder. In the screening I saw, the hand with the silver scissors was an odd blur that had that strange 'anti-depth' problem I described with the foreground henchman in HOUSE OF WAX.

Savant remembers the ads for Arch Oboler's 3-D Spacevision comeback in 1967, THE BUBBLE, but his Aunt wouldn't take him to it. Nuts. I also remember the nude streakers that ran through UCLA's quad to promote ANDY WARHOL'S FRANKENSTEIN, but even though that feature was said to have excellent 3-D, Savant skipped it, probably out of prudish snobbery against the X-rated film. Savant has also foolishly missed a screening of William Cameron Menzies' THE MAZE, which was reported to be a real 3-D treat. Incidentally, until recently many writers assumed Menzies' INVADERS FROM MARS was a 3-D film, which is false (it may have been planned as one, though). They might have been confusing it with THE MAZE, or reacting to the fact that design genius Menzies seems to have composed practically every scene of the famous science fiction film for a maximum 3-D impression. Come to think of it, INVADERS FROM MARS does look more 3-D than some real 3-D films I've seen.

Modern attempts to re-launch the fascination with 3-D have met with mixed results, even though the systems have apparently been perfected to eliminate the difficulties showing NaturalVision. The modern systems are of the single-film variety. One of the FRIDAY THE 13TH sequels was 3-D, as was JAWS 3-D, a gimmick opportunity if there ever was one.

In the 90's 3-D has found its place not in films but in film-based amusement park rides and short special-venue film systems like IMAX and the startling CAPTAIN EO, achievements which go beyond the ken of DVD Savant. These 'special curiosity' venues seem the perfect place for 3-D, the movie miracle that never quite found its place in movieland. Anyone have any outstanding 3-D memories from the brief 'Golden Age"? I'd be happy to print them here.

Recommended reading and research resource: 3-D movies: a history and filmography of stereoscopic cinema / by R.M. Hayes.

Text © Copyright 1998 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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