I can vividly remember the first time I saw an Imax movie. It was called “To Fly.” It would’ve been around 1979 at the Pictorium theater at Mariott’s Great America (now Six Flags). It was impressive…and dizzying. At the time, it was the latest film fad. Now we’re seeing major studio releases in Imax…3-D has made a comeback…but what of Cinerama? The legendary film process involved a curved screen and three synchronized projectors providing an image that put the viewer in the movie. The process debuted in 1952 with this semi-documentary, “This is Cinerama.” The film has recently been restored and released for the first time on home video, in a format dubbed “smile-box” which kinda sorta creates the curved screen effect.
The film has no plot, but is simply a showcase for the Cinerama process. It opens with a lengthy black and white sequence, presented in the old square 4:3 aspect ratio, that is basically a history of the moving image. Narrator Lowell Thomas takes us all the way from cave paintings to the latest Hollywood hits. Then, the screen opens up to reveal Cinerama…starting with a ride on a roller coaster in Rockaway, New York. We also experience a dance performance, and a hymn sung by a very large church choir. They all parade in right past the cameras. We’re also treated to a look at Niagara Falls by helicopter.
From there we take a trip around the world, experiencing the sights and sounds of various nations. We take a gondola ride in Venice, stand in midst of bagpipers in Scotland, attend a bullfight in Spain, and many more. One scene treats us to a performance by the Vienna Boy Choir, who, though very talented, just sort of stand there. A rather lengthy sequence showcases a production of Aida. This is shown from a long angle as if we were in audience. I’m sure the effect was much grander on the huge Cinerama screen…but on the small screen it’s all very distant.
After a brief intermission, the film focuses on a look at America through the wonders of Cinerama. The first segment is my favorite of the film, focusing on the water show at Florida’s Cypress Gardens. It begins with simple panoramic shots of the gardens and the lovely southern belles who greet the visitors. But then the water show starts. The Belles all hurry off, scurrying out of their hoop skirts in a strangely voyeuristic moment in which we see them changing in a tiny room just behind where the gathered masses of tourists are seated. We then experience the water skiing as if we were sitting in one of the boats.
The film then concludes with a journey across America. We experience many of our great cities from the air…New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago…America’s 2nd biggest city (1952 remember). Very impressive are the scenes that follow, featuring amazing aerial footage of such iconic landscapes as the Colorado Rocky Mountains, The Grand Canyon, Mt. Rushmore, Crater Lake, and (my personal favorite) Zion National Park. These scenes are accompanied by the vocal stylings of the “Salt Lake Tabernacle Choir.” The film strangely goes out of it’s way not to use the word “Mormon.”
There is no doubt that “This is Cinerama” was probably far more impressive when shown on the Cinerama screen. I mean, in some theaters it played for more than two years! Even on the small screen, though, the footage is pretty incredible. It does require some patience on the part of the modern viewer, however. The film starts slow. The whole history of the moving image opening segment goes into ridiculous detail and is ultimately unnecessary. But then the roller coaster footage kicks in and BOOM…even on TV it’s cool.
The first half of the film is somewhat hit and miss. I loved the roller coaster, and the trip through Venice is very beautiful. The Niagara Falls footage is interesting, but shot from a bit too far away, and the footage of the choirs and stage productions lack inspiration. The 2nd half of the film, on the other hand, is where the WOW factor really is. The Cypress Gardens scenes are a lot of fun and the shots of America from the sky truly provide a view of these famous sites that, even today, many don’t ever get to experience.
The photography is beautiful, and given the film’s historical significance, I highly recommend all classic film buffs check it out. I have to admit, though, as I watched “This is Cinerama” I couldn’t help but wonder why the producers didn’t choose to highlight their new achievement with a great story. Images can be powerful, but when coupled with a powerful story it’s even better. Of course, in the year’s to follow, Hollywood did produce film’s that told stories for Cinerama. But I get the impression here that the producers didn’t completely know what they had yet. Some of the segments work…but three synchronized projectors and a curved screen to watch the Vienna Boys Choir sing in front of a fountain seems like overkill to me.