What's the Best Kind of Holiday? A Cinerama Holiday, Of Course! 

October 2, 2014

My experience with Cinerama prior to watching this film involved snapping a photo of the Seattle Cinerama, because a friend said it was one of the last theaters of its kind left in the world. He was right, but I still had no idea what the term meant. The theater looked interesting though, at least on the outside.

 

So, for those of you like me who didn't/don't know, Cinerama is a process in which a movie, shot with a camera made up of three rolls of film shooting simultaneously, is displayed onto a large curved screen from three synched 35mm projectors. It's like IMAX but the image is much wider than it is tall. The method was born partly from the 1950s competition between film and television; after all, the film industry had to do something amazing to tear people away from the comfort of their own homes. Though short lived - the process fell out of popular use some time ago in the early-mid 70s - approximately 30 movies were produced using the system, and currently, four theaters in the world are equipped to properly project them in their native format. 

Just take it in for a while....This diagram explaining how the Cinerama process works is very interesting to look at, though I still don't exactly understand all of it.

If you happen to live in Los Angeles and have ever passed the IMAX/planetarium looking Dome on Sunset Blvd. that now belongs to the Pacific Theatres, that is one of the Cinerama theaters. Yes, the one that shows The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) one day and The Philadelphia Story (1940) the next is a cinema rarity.

 

One of the highlights of the 2013 TCM Classic Film Festival was a screening of the 1955 flick Cinerama Holiday in....wait for it...Cinerama!  Though the festival's usual haunts include the screens inside the Chinese and Egyptian Theaters in the heart of Hollywood, with the Cinerama Dome so close, TCM arranged the special screening at the Dome of one of its own. I would expect no less from them. 

The movie poster in the Dome lobby. (Picture by Kim Luperi)

Just to put the film in historical context, here are some other movies released in 1955 that you may have heard of: Lady and the Tramp, Rebel without a Cause, and Guys and Dolls, just to name a few. No biggie. However, the highest grossing release of the year, according to Motion Picture Herald, was Cinerama Holiday, the second feature to utilize the Cinerama format.

 

Cinerama Holiday features two real life couples, John and Betty Marsh from St. Louis, Missouri and Fred and Beatrice from Switzerland, who switch places and explore each other’s countries (and continents, in the case of the Marshs). The couples were chosen specifically because they were normal and relatively uncultured.

 

Normal, you say? That would never fly today. How is that even interesting?

 

Well, instead of focusing on a story, acting, or, as is today's reality standard, insane drama that is clearly scripted, the film leans heavily on pure spectacle. The Marshs toured parts of the Troller's home country then moved on to landmark capitals of Europe, such as Paris. Meanwhile, the Troller's trip completely bypassed Missouri and the entire Midwest (sorry, Midwest, there's more glitz and glamour elsewhere), focusing on famous cities like New York and Las Vegas. 

What a ride!

The result was absolutely breathtaking. I've been to Paris, Switzerland, New York, and Vegas, but, because of my age, I obviously couldn't make it there in the 1950s. Though familiar landmarks still stand in those cities, a lot has changed on the ground, and it was interesting to view the types of sights that captured people's interest back then. It's also noteworthy to mention how long some of the scenes flowed on; for example, one ice show in Switzerland ran well over 10 minutes with no dialogue, and my brain, which is now trained to withstand shot lengths of mere seconds, had to adjust accordingly. It wasn't too hard, though, because the show kept moving, and with a massive screen I had about 50 different places I could focus my eyes on.

 

Nowadays, with 58937450 million images available at your fingertips courtesy of the world wide web, this travelogue style may not wow audiences, but back in 1955, it was almost guaranteed that there were people in the audience who never saw footage - in COLOR! - of some of these locations. Besides the incredible landscapes, the extraordinary Cinerama process was used to great effect during two scenes in particular that would rival any 3D or simulated sequences today: an exhilarating bobsled ride in which three cameras were attached to the bobsled, and an airplane landing on an aircraft carrier...yes, in the water. 

I'd love to see that massive Cinerama camera on a sled...someone should have been filming that too!

As a special treat, both Beatrice Troller and Betty Marsh were present to share their wonderful memories of filming the movie. Their nonchalant discussion of their experience would be unheard of in today's entertainment industry, given the world's obsession with reality stars and some people's unsatiated quench for fame; indeed, both ladies seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to travel and immerse themselves in a difference culture more so than whatever brief celebrity may have accompanied the filming. Both women seemed truly unfazed by the process and end result, and afterwards, they said they went back to their normal lives in midwest America and Switzerland, respectively. In actuality, it was also unlikely that anything more could have come from the experience (except perhaps some acting bits if so desired), considering shows like Wife Swap, and the audience for Wife Swap I'm guessing, didn't exist back then (thank goodness for that). 

 

How to have a Cinerama Holiday of your own: The movie is available on Blu-Ray from Amazon.com, though I'm going to guess that the effect is greatly minimized on any screen smaller than a million feet (aka the Cinerama screen). So, if you ever get the chance to see this, or any other Cinerama picture, in its original screening format, don't pass that opportunity up! Otherwise, just find the largest screen you can to project this fun, awe-inspiring flick for your family and friends.

thanks for stopping by!

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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