TCMFF 2017 Special Presentations, Part 1: This is Cinerama
May 18, 2017
TCMFF's special presentations, programs I generally consider unique to TCMFF, normally rank as my top priorities at the fest, and this year was no different. From Ben Burtt and Craig Barron's discussion before It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963) and The Great Nickelodeon Show to This is Cinerama (1952) and Republic Preserved, these shows definitely landed among my festival highlights.
Due to the overabundance of information shared during these various events, I'll be splitting my coverage up into three separate pieces, the first two of which will focus on the Cinerama offerings, starting with Leonard Maltin's intro for This is Cinerama. Be on the lookout for my report from Burtt and Barron's IAMMMMW discussion within the next week or so, followed by my recaps of The Great Nickelodeon Show and Republic Preserved.
A marquee for This is Cinerama in northern California, above, and an Irish advertisement, below. One huge selling factor was the fact that the movie could - and would - only be shown in select theaters, due to the unique specifications the Cinerama process and theaters demanded.
But first, let us all give TCM a round of applause. I've had the opportunity to watch two Cinerama selections at past festivals - 1955's Cinerama Holiday in 2013 and 1960's Holiday in Spain aka Scent of Mystery in 2016 - and I believe the company should get more credit for programming these pictures. Not only does the format rarely screen, but there are only three, yes THREE, venues left in the world capable of showcasing Cinerama. (More projectors are retrofitted for nitrate use worldwide, for goodness sake!) Furthermore, the range 2017's two Cinerama selections exhibited was quite remarkable, from the very first one (This is Cinerama) to the film the Cinerama Dome was built for and the first picture shot with "one-projector" Cinerama, aka Ultra Panavision 70 (It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World).
So, let's start at the beginning, 11 years before the theater we were sitting in was built. 1952. Without resorting to any sources, could you name the biggest box office hit that year? Singin' in the Rain? High Noon? The Greatest Show on Earth? The Bad and the Beautiful? Nope, nope, nope, nope. It was This is Cinerama, a story-less travelogue produced as a show piece for the newfangled process. Such an event was this, that the film screened in special theaters formatted for Cinerama found mainly in the largest cities across the country and world, complete with reserved seating. When you hear the specs Maltin provided for us, you'll better understand the hype.
I doubt this actually happened, but...
For starters, three cameras captured the action, a feat I can't even begin to visualize back in the early 1950s, and audio was recorded separately. For viewing purposes, the pictures were projected onto three panels on a specially formatted Cinerama screen, and audio was played back on magnetic film. Directional dimensional sound filled the theater; at the Dome, we were treated to seven channels of magnetic sound, which Maltin claimed has an "immediacy" and a live feeling that newer sound processes can't duplicate. (Indeed, the audio enveloped the theater and provided a fully immersive experience.)
If you're keeping up, that's four projectors in total: three for the images and one for sound. Taking a gander behind me in the Dome, I spotted three individual projection booth portholes, a modern day curiosity for sure. Just like in 1952, the event required four separate projectionists - three handling the film and one on sound. Maltin also shared another component to these Cinerama screenings that isn't really a rarity, but a sight audiences would not likely pay much attention to today: a technician, walkie in hand and headset atop his head, constantly in contact with the booths to adjust sound and picture in an attempt to make the show as perfect as could be. I'm not sure if a technician was on hand for this particular program - I assumed theater staff on the floor would alert the booths of any issues, but I could be wrong.
A miniature of the Cinerama Dome, which was on display in the lobby. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Though technicians and projectionists could try their darnedest to align the pictures, ultimately that was an unattainable pursuit, as viewers could observe a join line in between the panels. But an "inevitable" flaw in trying to sync everything perfectly onto one huge curved screen isn't necessary a negative; in fact, Maltin claimed that very 'fault' as part of Cinerama's magic, stating: "There's something charming about imperfection at times." In this case, I couldn't agree more.
A Spanish poster that also showcases the technology. I can totally see how the three separate images probably wouldn't line up perfectly.
Speaking of shortcomings, if anything went wrong during a screening of This is Cinerama, the producers were more than prepared - they had a breakdown reel ready to go. (Yes, that's a real thing). Considering the talent behind the scenes at both the Dome and TCMFF, the chances of that reel being utilized as such were slim, so Maltin gave us the run-down of what it entailed: well-know traveler/journalist/newsreel narrator/friend of Lawrence of Arabia/front man for Cinerama/producer and 'host' of this movie, Lowell Thomas, appeared onscreen to inform the audience that there were technical difficulties. So they wouldn't become bored, he entertained them for approximately three minutes. When finished, Thomas 'asked' the projectionist if they were ready to roll again. "No? OK..." and he'd continue (presumably) amusing the audience. As I mentioned previously, I couldn't stay for the whole picture, but those who did were in for a special treat that played after the movie was finished: the breakdown reel, sans actual breakdown, which Maltin promised would be "precious." (I heard it was a hit.)
At the beginning of his talk, Maltin promised This is Cinerama would be a "one-of-a-kind movie and a one-of-a-kind experience." Though I skipped out around the intermission, during the first half of the picture I experienced a gripping/slightly dizzying roller coaster ride, a plane ride over Niagara Falls, a dance filmed in Spain, and much more.
One of the cameras used during the filming of This is Cinerama, above. (Picture by Kim Luperi)
Before the movie started, Maltin pointed out the below opening Cinerama scene. Just picture the camera riding this roller coaster - how did they ever pull that off?!
As someone who loves to travel, appreciates just how groundbreaking this technology was (and still is, to me), and cherishes the fact that we still have the capability to watch Cinerama in its original format, I wholeheartedly agree with Maltin's assessment. Despite the grand leap we've taken technology-wise, these spectacular images still possess the ability to stun and awe. If you ever have the chance to see This is Cinerama in Cinerama, do not pass that adventure up.
Next up: Burtt and Barron's It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World presentation. Check back sometime within the next week or two for that recap.