An Afternoon with 3-D Rarities to Celebrate the 100th Anniversary of 3-D

October 13, 2015

Though I hate watching modern movies in 3-D (it gives me a headache!), I've recently become fascinated with the format after attending the World 3-D Film Expo back in September 2013 and watching a handful of movies that screened as part of "The Golden Age of 3-D" series at the Aero Theater.

 

One of the Aero's "Golden Age of 3-D" presentations a few months ago was a special evening full of 3-D Rarities. Sadly, I was out of town and couldn't attend, but luckily, the program was repeated a month later at the Downtown Independent, co-hosted by the LA 3-D Club and the Los Angeles Film Forum. Guests included 3-D archivist Bob Furmanek, who also attended the screening of The Bubble I saw, and entertainer Trustin Howard (aka Slick Slavin), who actually starred in one of the 3-D shorts shown.

 

As a special video from a 3-D celebration at the Marriott Marquis in New York City - steps away from where the first 3-D short debuted at the old Astor Theater - reiterated, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the 1st 3-D motion picture. Sadly, this historical piece does not survive, but we were treated to several other rare, early examples of 3-D at the event that afternoon.

The cover of the 3-D Rarities Blu-ray from Flicker Alley.

The 3-D Archive's Bob Furmanek was on hand to provide some historical insight before the event started and answer some questions afterwards. He began, well, at the beginning with the first documented public exhibition of 3-D cinema, which took place on June 10, 1915 at the Astor Theater in New York City. There, three test reels shot by Edwin S. Porter (director of 1903's The Great Train Robbery) were screened. As I mentioned above, that nitrate film no longer exists, but a consolation prize comes in the form of the earliest surviving footage, which dates only a few years later to 1922. One would assume the technology and way in which 3-D was experimented with at the time was probably very similar to Porter's tests only a few years earlier. 

 

The selections screened that day from the 3-D Rarities Blu-ray set certainly spanned a range of time periods, subjects, and technical skill. In my opinion, one of the coolest shorts was also one of the earliest: a example of 3-D conducted with squares on the screen. I'll admit, a smile crept across my face when, one by one, the squares started to extend into the audience. The incredibly simple and straightforward piece actually made me feel as though I was experiencing the technology for the first time like the original audience was. Just goes to show that sometimes you don't have to use fancy effects to make a point.

 

Other early existing footage includes a batch of test recordings taken in New York City in 1935 that feature shots of Riverside Drive, the George Washington Bridge, Queens, an integrated baseball team, and the Coney Island Thunderbolt Rollercoaster; a 1940 short for the Pennsylvania Railroad called Thrills for You; and the 1st full color domestic 3-D film New Dimensions, which opened in 1940 at the World's Fair in New York.

It's pretty impossible to tell here, but the short this is from, Thrills for You, was shot in 3-D.

Another highlight was 1953's Stardust in Your Eyes, featuring a hilarious standup routine by nightclub entertainer Slick Slavin. Aside from the content, which was a riot, his spot on imitations of Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart, Sydney Greenstreet, Humphrey Bogart, Peter Lorre, and more had the audience cracking up. Apparently, the short was originally intended as an opening for 1953's absurd Robot Monster (not sure where the logic is in that), but was never listed on any 3-D or lost film lists; thus, when it was uncovered, little to no information existed on the picture. As a special surprise, comic Trustin Howard, who starred as Slick Slavin, attended the screening that afternoon. Furmanek invited him up to the microphone  afterwards to "say a few words," which quickly translated into a mini standup set. Old people sex jokes and all.

Slick Slavin in Stardust in Your Eyes.

One of the more bizarre shorts included in the lineup was a burlesque film unseen in 3-D in 62 years called I'll Sell My Shirt. This bit was surprisingly raunchy and bawdy - by today's standards! - and I'm assuming it must have raised quite a few eyebrows in 1953. I wonder what movie that would have screened with...

 

The show also integrated 3-D shorts produced during the classic 3-D era in Hollywood, which began in 1952. One of the most infamous of these is 1953's Doom Town, a government sanctioned short filmed at an atomic testing site in Nevada that surprisingly takes a very pessimistic view of atomic power. Perhaps due to its negative tone, the film only played in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Oakland (that Furmanek is aware of) before being pulled from circulation. Furmanek's guess is that the picture was suppressed due to its tone, but he hasn't been able to track down much information on it.

Well, this one didn't stay on screens for long, according to Furmanek.

After the program ended, Furmanek took the stage to discuss his background, talk more about his work, and field some questions.

 

At 19, Furmanek landed his first job in the field inspecting original camera negatives in a nitrate vault inside a New Jersey film lab. A few years later, he got involved in the repertory scene in New York City. At the time, many of those theaters still screened films in 3-D, but it became apparent to Furmanek that many of the copyright holders didn't really care about preserving their materials and presenting them in the best way possible. 

 

In the early-mid 1980s, Furmanek started working for Jerry Lewis and relocated to California. Lewis' name opened doors at the studios and film labs; if it hadn't been for that connection, Furmanek admitted that Doom Town and Stardust in Your Eyes probably wouldn't have been rediscovered, as both were orphaned elements uncovered in a lab he was scouring for Lewis materials.

 

Furmanek confessed that tracking down prints stands as one of the hardest parts of his job. Why? Well, he explained that after the 3-D craze settled left and right eye prints were usually separated and sent out on their own, as either side could screen as a flat print. Though locating both sides and matching them up usually proved difficult, it seems that he and his team have achieved a certain amount of success in this respect: at one time, the 3-D Film Archive held 30 completed left-right eye prints from about 50 Golden Age 3-D features.

 

While discussing the 3-D boom of the early 1950s, Furmanek shared a fact that surprised me: of the 50 domestic feature length films produced in 3-D from 1952-54, 48 and a half survive, which is pretty impressive; I didn't think that many still existed. The only lost 3-D feature from this period is 1954's Top Banana. What about that half, you ask? The answer: a few reels of 1954's Southwest Passage are missing, which accounts for the .5.

No one will be able to see Top Banana at NY prices ($7.70, really?!) unless the film is found. Note: 3-D isn't advertised on this poster, only 'color' is.

Another interesting fact Furmanek pointed out was how short the so-called Golden Age of 3-D lasted: less than two years; Bwana Devil premiered in Los Angeles on Thanksgiving Day in 1952, and by early 1954 advertising for a 3-D movie turned people away. To put this in perspective, the Martin and Lewis movie Money from Home, released in late 1953/early 1954, booked close to 18,000 play dates. At the time, roughly 5,000 theaters were equipped to run 3-D, but of those 18,000 dates, only 350 were booked for 3-D screens.  

 

Guess the format has certainly made a comeback, hasn't it? 

 

 

 

Do you own a 3-D TV? Interested in watching some of these shorts at your home? If so, check out the full set, available from Flicker Alley here.

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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