This Is Cinerama (1952) – reviewed by George

Though Lowell Thomas denies it in his narration of the film, this is a travelogue. But what a travelogue! Cinerama, as I wrote in my review of “The Bat Whispers”, is a wide-screen process which used three 35-mm cameras strapped together to create the sense of looking at a vista with full use of your peripheral vision. The screen was curved inward from the sides to the center and was HUGE. And three synchronized 35-mm projectors were used to show films in this process. I recorded this restored version (restoration copyright 2011) on 10-18-2012 from TCM, but only just watched it (my TIVO is full). Right off the bat I should note that in his introduction Robert Osbourne says “Cine-rah-ma”, while in the narration Lowell Thomas says “Cine-ram-a”. So call it what you like. Lowell Thomas also seems very proud of the sound system, saying, “We call it stereophonic sound”. It’s my understanding that Disney invented stereophonic sound for “Fantasia”, and that it was then used in the theaters that retained it in operating condition for subsequent films, like “Portrait of Jennie”.
The movie was shown as a roadshow attraction, which back in the day meant reserved seats, higher prices, and usually a longer run. There is an overture (and also intermission music), then a black-and-white 12-minute introduction by Thomas in which he traces man’s attempts to add movement to his art, beginning with a cave drawing of an 8-legged boar. I think I’ve seen this same drawing on a Disney program where an animator blocked out 4 legs , then the other 4, over and over, and it really did look like the boar was running. Also shown is “The Great Train Robbery”, almost in its entirety, and that alone is a fun reason to watch  this film. Thomas’s introduction is shown only on the middle portion of the screen (projected from only the middle projector, while, one presumes, the other two were projecting black). As Thomas completes the intro, the screen suddenly, not in a gradual expansion, begins to use the full screen with all three projectors, and you are in a roller coaster seat just emerging from the shed where people get off or on. The entire ride is filmed, and if the “Star Wars” scene of Luke diving into the trench to find the correct vent and bomb it made you queasy, well, so will this.
Aside from the roller coaster, Act One is basically filmed in Europe and includes looks at the canals of Venice, the Vienna Boys’ Choir in an outdoor concert, dancers at a festival in Spain, and the Act Two finale of “Aida”, the Triumphal March. The Spanish dancers are outstanding, but the “Aida” excerpt was for me the highlight of Act One. I found it humorous that the dancers move proudly, with good posture and so on, while the extras portraying various groups within the palace hierarchy look like schlubs, just strolling in a sort of uncoordinated way with lousy posture. Have to add: the men playing their leaders were fine, waving swords to get the old gang to go through the right exit.
Technically the restored Act One is an improvement over the original. The two vertical lines where the three pictures meet have been almost totally removed by modern digital clean-up practices. Yes, there are variations in color matching between the three screens, but this is a problem related to the pictured skies, where the blues are just not quite the same. One other caveat – Cinerama cannot zoom in or out – the whole 3-camera apparatus has to be pushed or pulled.
Act Two is in America, and begins with a segment almost half an hour in length on Cypress Garden, which Thomas tells us began when a man named Dick Pope bought 7 acres of cypress swamp. He made a garden, added water skiers (a sport not so well-known as today), and made lots of money. He employs “boys” to keep the gardens trim, and “girls” to wear Gone with the Wind dresses and stand around and look pretty. The basic conceit for this segment is nobody owns a watch, the audience is waiting, and “old Dick Pope”, as Thomas has it, has to blow a whistle until his cheeks fall off to get the “boys” and “girls” to strip off outer wear revealing bathing suits and do the water show. Three young people are featured here: Toni, who stops to help one of the guys and so does not make it in time to be in the show, and Kathy and Trammel, who do a routine where she rides on his shoulders while he skis. The show itself is a highlight. The women form pyramids like cheerleaders, or hold the tow bar between their legs so they can do graceful arm movements in synchronization, and the men ski up ramps, or dress like clowns and basically crash and burn. I liked this segment, but golly, it is so very old-fashioned until the water skiing starts.
Next we have flyovers of American scenes and landmarks, shot from the nose of a B-25 piloted by Paul Mantz. At first we see buildings, either industrial or corporate, including the Pentagon, all looking so clean. Then landscapes from the Middle West. I was most impressed by a shot of the point at Cairo, Illinois, where, as Thomas says, “the muddy Mississippi and the not-so-muddy Ohio become one”. You get a really terrific picture of the two distinctly colored rivers merging and see how the waters push against each other as if unwilling to mix. And over the expanses of Plains States wheat fields the Mormon Tabernacle Choir sings, “Oh beautiful for pilgrim feet, Whose stern impassioned stress, A thoroughfare for freedom beat, Across the wilderness, America, America, God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul, With self-control, Thy liberty in law.” They sing the whole song, but that’s my favorite verse.
There are a couple of missteps. The way what the narration calls Bridalveil Falls in Yosemite National Park (imdb.com says it is actually Yosemite Falls) is photographed is from the side as the plane moves across in front of it so that the full height of the falls cannot be seen for the surrounding rock. And Thomas calls it the tallest waterfall in America, so a full view would be appreciated. And in the same way, the footage of Lake Mead (“the largest man-made lake in the world”) is partially blocked by its encircling mountains so the size of the lake is minimized.
Technically the restored Act Two, while still better than the original, shows a “ripple” between the left and middle screens, usually at the bottom fourth of the picture, which I’m guessing CGI could not correct (the ripple was in the original).
Regardless of quibbles the effect is still very powerful, and the inventor/developer, Fred Waller, remains a huge contributor to the field of science in movie-making. This is one of those films that is so important in movie history (because of its place as the first modern-era widescreen movie) that every movie lover has to have seen it, in order not only to enjoy it, but also to join in when it is discussed. Also interesting: the restoration is in “SmileBox” (I guess that’s a CGI choice) so that the picture on your screen will look like the huge original screen looked – that is, there will be an ovoid scoop out of the top of the picture and one out of the bottom. You get the entire image, but the shape of that image mimics the look of the original theatrical presentation. Remember, I said the screen curved from the sides into a deep middle.
The final word has to belong to the guys who scored the various segments, because the musical accompaniment is never less than fitting and melodic. They are Sidney Cutner, Howard Jackson, Paul Sawtell, Leo Shuken, Max Steiner, and Roy Webb.

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