Technology and Spectacle
Technology and Spectacle
VistaVision, Todd-AO, and Other Formats
One response of the Hollywood studios to the rapid audience loss of the late 1940s and the 1950s was to emphasize the motion picture's capacity for spectacle. Television was limited by a small screen, poor visual definition, black and white (rather than color), and mediocre sound quality. Film could do better in all these areas. Further, with the increased affluence of the 1950s, people were buying automobiles, taking vacations, and experiencing the sights and sounds of the United States and foreign lands. Film was capable of bringing these experiences to the local theater, albeit in a passive and not completely satisfactory way. Several popular genres stressed the power of the image in the early 1950s: the musical (An American in Paris, 1951; Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1953), the Western (Shane and The Naked Spur, both 1953), the Biblical epic (Quo Vadis?, 1951; David and Bathsheba, 1951), the exotic adventure film (King Solomon's Mines, 1950; The Crimson Pirate, 1952), even the suspense film (Niagara, 1953; To Catch a Thief, 1955). Though the musical was, in general, bound to soundstages for a few more years, other spectacle-oriented movies derived much of their power from location shooting. Thus, many Westerns took advantage of harsh and majestic landscapes of the Western states, and Niagara never strayed far from the awesome spectacle of Niagara Falls.
A key aspect of the new interest in spectacle was a gradual shift to color filming. Since the early 1930s, color film production and laboratory work in Hollywood had been dominated by the Technicolor Corporation. Technicolor had introduced the first practical three-strip color system in 1932; prior to that color systems had been either very cumbersome or limited to a partial color spectrum. Three separate negatives were exposed by the Technicolor camera (one for each primary color), and these three images were eventually printed onto positive film stock by a dye transfer process known as "imbibition printing." This process, similar to color lithography, produced bright, pure colors that worked especially well for high key interiors (as in musicals or historical dramas). Technicolor's equipment and industrial processes were zealously guarded, and every film that used Technicolor cameras was required to employ a Technicolor-approved color consultant. (Often the color consultant was Natalie Kalmus, the ex-wife of Technicolor President Herbert Kalmus.)
In the early 1950s, the demand for color filming in the United States increased, and Technicolor was unable to keep up with the Hollywood industry's needs. Technicolor had always been a small company that serviced a limited number of high-quality films; for example, in 1952 Technicolor could supply cameras to only fifteen films shooting simultaneously.1 This allowed other processes, such as Ansco, Cinecolor, and Trucolor, to gain a foothold in the market. Though it has been suggested that Technicolor limited its capacity to keep prices high, a more likely explanation is that Technicolor's expansion was limited by war-related shortages, postwar strikes, and the expectation that three-strip Technicolor would soon be replaced by a tripack film stock.2 "Tripack" in this context means placing three layers recording the primary colors onto one strip of film. Technicolor had experimented with tripack in the 1940s, but the results were not satisfactory.
Hollywood's approach to color filming changed significantly with the introduction of Eastmancolor tripack negative film—announced in 1950, with the first feature films released in 1951 and 1952. A few of the early Eastmancolor features were Hurricane Island (Columbia, 1951), The Sword of Monte Cristo (Fox, 1951), Sunny Side of the Street (Columbia, 1951) and Carson City (Warners, 1952). The color processes for these films were credited as "Super Cinecolor" and "Warner Color."3 Eastman Kodak's one-strip process meant that the cost of color film stock was greatly reduced, and special camera equipment was no longer needed when shooting color rather than black and white. Also, Eastman Kodak was willing to license its processing technology to other companies, so that film companies could use their in-house facilities for color laboratory work. Warnercolor, for example, is Eastmancolor film developed with Eastmancolor technology in Warner Bros.' own laboratory. Color filmmaking was suddenly more affordable (as well as more competitive), though costs were still higher than black and white. In response to this technological breakthrough, plus the need to compete with television, color production rose from about 15 percent of Hollywood's output in 1950 to about 50 percent in 1955.4
Technicolor Corporation responded to the new, more competitive environment of color technology by rapidly phasing out its production component and adapting its laboratory operations for tripack film. The last American film photographed with Technicolor cameras was Foxfire, produced by Universal in 1954. However, Technicolor did succeed in making its imbibition printing compatible with the tripack Eastmancolor negative. Therefore, Technicolor became a high-quality (and high-cost) lab for color processing in the 1950s. In 1955, Technicolor further modified its lab processes to improve the image quality of widescreen projection.5 Though the specialized Technicolor cameras disappeared, "Color by Technicolor" (meaning all processing done by Technicolor) was a credit found on many of the important films of the 1950s.
Despite the new technologies, the percentage of Hollywood films made in color actually dropped between 1955 and 1958, before recovering in 1959 and 1960. Film historian Gorham Kindem gives two explanations for the decline. First, attendance dropped sharply in this period, and producers, budgeting for the decrease in revenue, could reduce costs by using black and white. Second, it became clear in 1956 that Hollywood films would soon derive much of their income from sales to television (before this, the major studios held out against selling to a competitor). Since television was in black and white, color filming added no value to a potential TV sale.6
One could add that the film industry may have gone too far in the early 1950s in its enthusiasm for color, because some types of film are better suited to black and white. Twentieth Century-Fox, for example, declared in 1953 that all of its films would hence-forth be in color and CinemaScope. Fox was accentuating the "special event" quality of CinemaScope, but its all-color policy still seems excessive, since the Best Picture Oscars for 1953 (From Here to Eternity), 1954 (On the Waterfront), and 1955 (Marty) all went to black and white films. By 1959, Fox had figured out that black and white works well with certain subjects; it allowed George Stevens to make The Diary of Anne Frank in black and white and CinemaScope.
Eastman Kodak made a further contribution to color motion pictures in 1959 with the introduction of the Eastmancolor 5250 35 mm. negative film. This was a high-speed, low-grain film stock, meaning that it could provide excellent results with less lighting than other color films. Previous color stocks had required very high light levels, which increased production costs in comparison with black and white filming. Eastman 5250 reduced the cost differential, and also made it easier to film high-quality exteriors. Barry Salt, a historian of film technology, says that Eastmancolor 5250 "completely eliminated competition in the U.S.A. by its superiority."7
One unintended consequence of the switch to Eastmancolor was a shortened lifetime for color prints—not a problem for first and second runs, but a terrible dilemma for film preservation. Three-strip Technicolor printing creates a more-or-less permanent image, although the film stock itself deteriorates over time. Eastmancolor, however, can fade in a matter of years to a purplish red, with blue and green highlights disappearing (since the mid-1970s, Eastman Kodak has been marketing slower-fading stocks).8 This problem can be remedied by making separate black and white negatives for each of the three primary colors. However, the solution is so expensive that in practice film archives cannot save all of their films, and so must make agonizing choices.
The introduction of Eastmancolor in the early 1950s was a technological change which fit extremely well with the established standards and practices of the Hollywood film industry. Eastmancolor made the expensive Technicolor cameras unnecessary, and did not change projection equipment or other aspects of film exhibition. The basic structure of the film industry remained unaltered, except that the importance of one supplier (Technicolor) declined, and the importance of another supplier (Eastman Kodak) increased.
However, in 1952 the film industry was rocked by two other technological changes: 3-D and Cinerama. These inventions changed production equipment, exhibition equipment, and the experience of the viewer. Further, since both inventions were controlled (at least at first) by companies outside the studio system, they threatened to finish the work of the Paramount anti-trust consent decrees that went into effect on 1 January 1950 by curtailing the market power of the major and minor studios.
Stereoscopic motion pictures can be traced back to William Friese-Greene's experiments of 1889. The basic principle is simple—in human vision, depth perception results in part from the separation of the two eyes, resulting in two slightly different views of an object. This can be simulated in photography by using two cameras with lenses a few inches apart, or using a system of mirrors to produce the correct image separation. Then the two images are projected on a screen, either using a two-color system (for instance, red-green) or opposite polarization of light. When the images are viewed through glasses or filters so that the left eye sees only one color or polarity, and the right eye sees the other, a three-dimensional effect is achieved. Stereoscopic motion pictures work in the same way, except that there are additional projection problems. Either the image is produced by two projectors, in which case precisely matching registration is essential, or both images are printed by a lab onto one strip of film. In the second case, registration should not be a problem, but viewing the film absolutely requires the special glasses. (In a two-projector system, turning off one projector creates a conventional, 2-D film image).
Stereoscopic film was essentially an amateur pastime as the 1950s began. There was favorable press coverage for a program of stereoscopic shorts presented in London in 1951, and the New York Times respectfully reviewed a three-dimensional short by two UCLA graduate students in January 1952.9 However, the organization that made stereoscopic motion pictures an important part of the film industry in 1952-1953 was Natural Vision, a company controlled by screenwriter Milton J. Gunzburg and his family. Using equipment developed by cinematographer Friend Baker, who had experimented with stereoscopy as a hobby for many years, Gunzburg showed samples of 3-D production to a film industry audience in June 1951. Twentieth Century-Fox took a six-month option on the Natural Vision process, but decided not to commit to production. According to Gunzburg, Spyros Skouras of Fox was obsessed with finding a way to present 3-D "without glasses," and Natural Vision could not do this.10 With no offers from the studios, Gunzburg agreed to provide Natural Vision equipment and expertise to independent producer Arch Oboler (known mainly as a radio producer) for a film that was eventually called Bwana Devil. Gunzburg also negotiated an exclusive contract for polarized viewers from the Polaroid Corporation; Polaroid would supply viewers to theaters for 10 cents a pair, with Natural Vision receiving 3.3 cents for every pair sold. Though in effect only until 15 July 1953, this contract earned Natural Vision more than $2.5 million.11
Bwana Devil (1952) was a "B" movie about the building of a railroad in Africa and the disruption and terror caused by two lions. Variety commented that Oboler's "script and direction are very poor," and that the 3-D technique and the glasses both need improvement.12 The film did, however, present some interesting depth effects via wide angle close ups of monkeys, lions, and people; deep focus shots featuring objects in several planes and diagonal movements; and a spear which seems to be thrown right at the audience. The center of interest in Bwana Devil was the delight in a new kind of motion-picture vision; the mediocre plot was beside the point. When it opened at two theaters in Hollywood in November 1952 as an independent release, Bwana Devil was an immediate box-office hit. Based on this success, Arch Oboler negotiated a distribution contract with United Artists that guaranteed him $1,750,000. Natural Vision was entitled to 20 percent of Oboler's profit on the film.13 Bwana Devil went on to earn sev eral million dollars, even though its distribution to theaters was limited by Polaroid's inability to keep up with the demand for glasses.14
3-D filmmaking was suddenly the craze in Hollywood. The major and minor studios feverishly prepared to shoot and release films. Warner Bros. signed a two-picture deal with Natural Vision and announced that House of Wax (1953), a remake of the horror film Mystery of the Wax Museum, would be its first 3-D production. Other studios were interested in using Natural Vision equipment, but Natural Vision had only one 3-D camera, with another on order. Therefore, a number of Hollywood studios and independent companies quickly devised their own 3-D systems. The technology was relatively simple and not covered by patents, but by rushing into production the various companies may have sacrificed quality control. Columbia Pictures actually beat Warners into distribution with the low-budget Man in the Dark, which was released on 8 April 1953. Warners followed with the Natural Vision House of Wax at the end of April. This was a much better film than Bwana Devil, with "an exciting story, lush production trappings, perfect photography, color, a slight widescreen," and even "four track WarnerPhonic sound" (multitrack sound was also a feature of Cinerama and the slightly later CinemaScope).15 Strangely enough, André de Toth, the director of House of Wax, had only one eye and so was incapable of seeing stereoscopic effects. Despite the director's handicap, House of Wax was a tremendous success.
It is widely believed that the 3-D films of 1953 and 1954 were mostly low-budget genre films, but R. M. Hayes, author of a history of 3-D, maintains that these films were of equal or better quality than the 2-D films made by the same companies at the same time.16 Certainly, 3-D was used for low-budget features and shorts, but a surprising num ber of higher budget and high-prestige features were also shot (though not necessarily released) in 3-D processes. The list includes House of Wax, The Charge at Feather River (Warners, 1953), Kiss Me Kate (MGM, 1953), Taza: Son of Cochise (Universal, 1954), Miss Sadie Thompson (Columbia, 1953), Hondo (Warners, 1953), and Dial M for Murder (Warners, 1954). The French Line (RKO, 1954), starring Jane Russell, was also in 3-D; this poorly written, poorly acted film is nevertheless interesting for its challenge to censorship standards and its salacious advertising campaign (for example, "Jane Russell in 3 Dimensions—and what dimensions").17 And one of the 3-D features without big stars, Creature from the Black Lagoon (directed by Jack Arnold, Universal, 1954), is often mentioned as a horror film classic.
Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder is the only film on this list which has recently been presented to audiences in 3-D. In 1954 it was released primarily in a 2-D (or flat) version, though there were several 3-D engagements. A 1999 theatrical rerelease in 3-D was surprisingly successful.18 Though Hitchcock professed a dislike of the 3-D technique, his approach to it in this film was unusual but effective. The film was based on a stage play, and most of it takes place in the living room of a London flat. Hitchcock carefully controlled composition and movement, so that the first half hour is static but full of lamps, chair arms, and other items jutting out in front of the actors. Then actors and camera begin to move as Tony (Ray Milland) sketches out the perfect murder. The only 3-D action shot involves Tony's wife, Margot (Grace Kelly), killing an intruder with a pair of scissors—even here there is restraint, as the movement goes away from the camera rather than toward camera and audience. J. Hoberman of the Village Voice, writing in 1999, praised the film's "minimalist" approach, adding that "Hitchcock's canny restraint allows the stereo image to assert its own uncanny characteristics."19
In March 1953, an article in American Cinematographer announced "All Hollywood Shooting 3-D Films." However, by December 1953 the same magazine's lead article asked "Is 3-D Dead…?"20 3-D by this point had encountered a great deal of criticism from distributors, exhibitors, critics, and audiences. There were complaints about the polarized glasses: they were uncomfortable and poorly made; they were not always available from suppliers; and they cost too much (10 cents a pair). There were complaints about projection: the image was shaky; the image was too dark; the 3-D illusion was reduced or absent for patrons sitting to the side. There were also complaints about production quality and the choice of subjects.
By early 1954 the boom was over. Studio heads had decided that 3-D was a novelty without lasting importance; they quickly released films already made (often in 2-D rather than 3-D engagements), and started no new 3-D productions. The Polaroid Corporation had improved viewing glasses and projection systems, but no one was interested.21 Producers and exhibitors moved on to other technical innovations, involving wider screens and sharper images.
Cinerama was a process using three cameras and three projectors to create a panoramic image that was projected on a large, curved screen. The cameras and projectors used 35 mm. film, but with "the height of the frame extended over 6 sprocket holes rather than the usual 4."22 Cinerama's aspect ratio (the width divided by the height of the film image) was 2.72 to 1, or about twice the width of the "Academy Ratio" of 1.33 to 1 which had been standard in American movies for many years. The film speed was 26 frames per second, slightly higher than the standard 24 fps in order to improve image stability. Cinerama also used a multitrack sound system involving eight microphones and eight speakers (five behind the screen, three in the back of the theater). Via peripheral vision and stereo sound, this system created a powerful effect of audience participation.
As with 3-D, multi-projector processes had a long history; there had even been a Cinéorama using 10 projectors demonstrated in Paris in 1900. Cinerama (the name is apparently unrelated to "Cinéorama") was developed in the United States over a period of fifteen years by Fred Waller, who had at one time been the head of special effects photography at Paramount. Waller was responsible for two multi-projector and curved screen exhibits which were part of the 1939 New York World's Fair. Then during World War II he created an aerial gunnery simulation using five projectors and a huge spherical screen. After the war, Waller worked on adapting his multi-screen concept for civilian use with backing from Laurence Rockefeller, Time, Inc., and sound engineer Hazard E. Reeves. With the Hollywood studios showing no interest in the process, Rockefeller and Time, Inc. dropped out in 1950, but Reeves persevered.
The first entertainment figure to become excited about Cinerama was theatrical producer Michael Todd (who at this time had no film experience), and Todd involved radio and newsreel commentator Lowell Thomas. Between 1950 and 1952, Michael Todd and his son Michael Todd Jr. shot the European travelogue material that became the first act of This Is Cinerama. It was Mike Todd Jr. who shot the roller coaster footage that so memorably introduced the new Cinerama process. (The idea for this sequence came from test footage shot by Fred Waller.) In 1952, Michael Todd Sr. ended his association with Cinerama; he was replaced by film industry veteran Merian C. Cooper, whose background included documentary filmmaking in the 1920s, the production of King Kong in 1933, and a partnership with John Ford in the independent company Argosy Pictures in the 1940s and 1950s. Cooper shot the American scenes for Act 2 of This Is Cinerama and edited the film for its 30 September 1952 debut in New York City. Both Michael Todd Sr. and Cooper deserve credit for the artistic side of the film; Lowell Thomas, co-producer (with Cooper) and narrator of the film's prologue, was less involved with the creative decisions.
The music for This Is Cinerama was composed primarily by Max Steiner, uncredited and uncompensated because in 1952 he was music director for Warners. Lowell Thomas had tried to borrow Steiner for the film, but Jack Warner declined. Steiner decided to go ahead anyway, working on Warners' Springfield Rifle (1952) and This Is Cinerama at the same time. Composer and musical director Lou Forbes, one of Steiner's close friends, was sent to New York to work with the Cinerama people. Steiner wrote the music and supervised the orchestrations in Hollywood. Forbes conducted the orchestra in New York. Forbes and Steiner together figured out how to adapt click tracks (a way to match musical compositions to film shots and scenes) to Cinerama's 26 frames per second. Steiner later wrote that he had taken on this job "because of my admiration and affection for my friend Merian Cooper."23 Cooper, summing up This Is Cinerama in 1954, thanked "a great musical genius who cannot be named, but who contributed hugely to the music for this picture."24 The story of the music illustrates that This Is Cinerama was an oddly marginal venture, far outside the Hollywood mainstream.
Cinerama was an enormous success in its premiere engagement, with critics comparing its importance to the introduction of sound movies in the late 1920s.25Time magazine (no longer financially involved in the process) spoke of a "Movie Revolution" and talked about Cinerama as a "'three dimensional' sensation to eyes & ears," even though the optical basis of Cinerama was not stereoscopy but peripheral vision.26 Merian C. Cooper and other Cinerama officials confidently predicted that widescreen filming on the model of Cinerama would "replace most flat screen movies."27
Cinerama was consciously planned as a one-of-a-kind system that would provide an experience far different from that of normal motion pictures. This approach had both positive and negative consequences. On the positive side, Cinerama was able to promote itself as a new entertainment experience and to charge premium prices for reserved-seat engagements. But the choice to remain apart from established film industry standards also limited the impact of Cinerama in a variety of ways. To begin with, Cinerama productions could not be adapted for regular 35 mm. showings, because of the three projectors, the 26 frames per second, the 6 sprocket holes per frame, and the multitrack magnetic sound (in the 1960s, technical adjustments made Cinerama compatible with conventional film and television screenings). The cost of transforming a theater for Cinerama presentation was an estimated $75,000 to $140,000 per screen.28 Theater owners were unwilling to advance such a large sum, so Cinerama remodeled or built its own theaters, one market at a time. And Cinerama projection was so labor intensive that about 50 percent of box-office receipts went to operating expenses.29 In production, the visible lines between the three projected images were a constant irritation; filmmakers had to learn to mask or minimize them. Also, Cinerama close-ups were so large as to be disquieting. However, Cinerama was very good for what Merian C. Cooper called "true environmental effect"; it could hold the attention of the audience with only landscapes (or seascapes) and music.30
Cinerama's complex financial arrangements caused additional difficulties. Ownership of the process was split between three companies: Vitarama, which owned the patents; Cinerama, Inc., which owned the production and exhibition equipment; and Cinerama Productions, which produced the films. Key figures like Fred Waller, Hazard E. Reeves, Lowell Thomas, Merian C. Cooper, and Louis B. Mayer (who was chairman of the board for a few years) were given blocks of stock and also stock options. The arrangements favored early owners such as Reeves and hurt other owners—including those who had bought publicly traded shares of Cinerama, Inc.31 The Stanley Warner theater chain (formerly a branch of Warner Bros.) invested in Cinerama in mid-1953, a welcome development. However, Stanley Warner was unwilling to support a major expansion until it could acquire a controlling interest in Cinerama Productions, which finally happened in 1958.32 The Byzantine financial situation meant there was little money for new films or new theaters. Cinerama produced only five films—all travelogues—in the 1950s: This Is Cinerama; Cinerama Holiday (1955); Seven Wonders of the World (1956); Search for Paradise (1957); and South Seas Adventure (1958). As to theaters, in November 1954, This Is Cinerama was screening in thirteen cities; but by 1959 there were still only twenty-two Cinerama theaters in the world.33
Cinerama had ironically lost its technological edge before Stanley Warner's accelerated theater-building program began in the early 1960s. By the mid-to-late 1950s a variety of widescreen formats with excellent picture and sound quality was available: Todd-AO, Super Panavision 70 mm., Ultra Panavision 70 mm., and others. These formats used one camera and one projector and therefore got rid of the irritating frame lines. Cinerama stuck with its three-camera, three-projector setup through How the West Was Won (1962), but switched to the one camera, one projector Ultra Panavision 70 for It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). From this point on "Cinerama" became a prestigious brand name rather than a distinctive approach to film production and exhibition.
With the stunning debuts of 3-D and Cinerama in 1952-1953, the Hollywood film industry found new hope in the struggle with television. The Polaroid Corporation sold 60 million pairs of polarized glasses in 3-D's first year, and Cinerama earned more than $ 14 million in its first two years despite being in only thirteen theaters by the end of that period.34 However, these successes created some difficult choices for the Hollywood studios. Would widescreen and 3-D transform the motion-picture industry? Should the studios invest in one of the currently available formats? Or, since the underlying concepts of 3-D and widescreen were not patentable, should the individual studios strive to develop new formats of their own?
The studios responded to these issues in several different ways. Some of them invested heavily in 3-D, but Twentieth Century-Fox and Republic showed little interest. All the studios tried to do something with "widescreen," but sometimes this meant only that a standard 35 mm. image had been cropped so that the familiar 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio became 1.66 or 1.75 or 1.85. Paramount, for example, promoted Shane as the first major studio release in widescreen because a film shot in 1.33 to 1 was presented on the big screen at Radio City Music Hall in 1.66 to 1.35 This masking of the image was by no means a radical change in film technology. However, there was a significant widescreen process pioneered by a major studio in 1953: CinemaScope from Twentieth Century—Fox.
CinemaScope was Fox's attempt to create 3-D without glasses and Cinerama without high costs. It was based on Henri Chrétien's Hypergonar lenses, which had been demonstrated but barely used in France in the 1920s. Chrétien's lenses were "anamorphic," meaning that they could stretch or squeeze one dimension (in this case the width) of an image. The camera lens squeezed a wide image into the standard 1.33 to 1 film frame, and the projector lens stretched this image into a much wider aspect ratio—as much as 2.66 to 1. CinemaScope was an inexpensive process because the lenses were attached to existing cameras and projectors, and no changes were made to film stock. The major costs were in exhibition—a large and slightly curved screen, and audio equip ment that would play four track magnetic sound.
Fox president Spyros Skouras, production head Darryl Zanuck, and research head Earl Sponable had this long-forgotten invention ready for mass diffusion within an astonishing nine months. Skouras purchased an option on the lenses from Chrétien in December 1952—all patents had expired, but by acquiring working lenses Fox gained an important lead on its competitors. In the last week of January, Fox had already chosen the name "CinemaScope" and was demonstrating the process to its own personnel and the heads of other studios. On 1 February 1953 Fox announced that its entire output of films would move to CinemaScope, color, and stereo sound.36 This bold gamble was necessary to convince theater owners to invest in CinemaScope equipment—there would be little incentive to change for one or two films. Darryl Zanuck did hedge the studio's bet by arranging for several non-CinemaScope pictures to be filmed by independents but distributed by Fox.37
Fox then arranged for producers and exhibitors to see a 50-minute demonstration reel of CinemaScope in Hollywood, beginning 18 March 1953 (coinciding with Academy Awards week). The demo reel included scenes from the first two CinemaScope films in production, The Robe and How to Marry a Millionaire (both 1953); the "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (which Fox was to release that year in the traditional, non-CinemaScope format); and travelogue footage of Sun Valley, Idaho, New York harbor, and other locations. Also, on 18 March MGM announced that it would produce films in the CinemaScope format. By 23 March, Fox had commitments from more than 1,200 theaters to install CinemaScope equipment.38 Spyros Skouras had prepared for this rush of business by signing contracts with Bausch and Lomb and other manufacturers to ensure an adequate supply of lenses. In April the CinemaScope reel was shown to exhibitors and critics in New York. Bosley Crowther of the New York Times found it "similar to Cinerama" and praised the "commendable fidelity and naturalness" of the images. He was surprised by the fluid cutting, including close-ups, in the excerpt from The Robe. Crowther also noted the effective use of directional sound in a scene featuring a rehearsal of the Fox symphony orchestra.39
The Robe then premiered at the Roxy Theater in New York on 16 September 1953 before an enthusiastic crowd of 6,500 people. The film quickly became an enormous success, and those exhibitors who had signed up for CinemaScope in March profited from their foresight. The Robe, based on a best-seller by Lloyd Douglas, brings together scenes of early Christianity with Roman spectacle and a love story. It is at its best in the first hour, where the story elements blend seamlessly and the new CinemaScope process contributes to a sense of awe. The film follows the life of a Roman tribune, Marcellus Gallio (Richard Burton), who leads the soldiers who crucify Jesus and then becomes a Christian himself. Following a tradition of modesty before the sacred, we never see Jesus' face, and he speaks only one line: "Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do." But with composition, framing, sound effects, and music (the score is by Alfred Newman), director Henry Koster does create emotionally powerful sequences. In the film's second half there are many two-character dialogue scenes, and much of the religious meaning attaches to a relic (the robe of the title) rather than to Jesus and his teachings. Here The Robe sometimes feels like just another film.
The CinemaScope process itself was both a critical and an audience success. W. R. Wilkerson of the Hollywood Reporter commented that the picture looked perfect from all parts of the theater and the sound was also perfect, even though the stereo effects took a few minutes to get used to. Perhaps inspired by the Biblical subject, Wilkerson concluded that CinemaScope was the "Moses" that would lead Hollywood "out of a film wilderness."40Variety's review was similarly effusive, comparing The Robe's release to the impact of The Jazz Singer (the first Hollywood "talkie") in 1927.41 According to Darryl Zanuck, Fox decided not to present The Robe as a roadshow (a reserved-seat attraction in a limited number of theaters) before general release because people were too eager to see it.42 Also, though Zanuck did not say so, a quick general release put pressure on wavering theaters to purchase CinemaScope equipment. The Robe cost $4.5 million and earned $30 million, justifying Fox's gamble on the CinemaScope process.
How To Marry a Millionaire, starring Marilyn Monroe, Lauren Bacall, and Betty Grable, was the second CinemaScope film. As critic Lisa Cohen suggests, the success of this slight romantic comedy showed that CinemaScope could convincingly present domestic spaces as well as the huge scale of the epic.43 The use of three female stars may in itself be a response to CinemaScope's shape, for it takes at least three figures in a line to fill the long, rectangular frame. How To Marry a Millionaire earned $7.5 million, nowhere near the return of The Robe but an excellent result for 1953. These two films, plus the commitment of Fox and MGM to future releases, established CinemaScope as a new (but by no means exclusive) standard for motion pictures.
However, Spyros Skouras did face a revolt from theater owners regarding some of CinemaScope's new technology. The wide aspect ratio, which required only anamorphic lens attachments, was accepted and even welcomed. But exhibitors strongly objected to Fox's policy of requiring a Miracle Mirror screen (which avoided the problem of unwanted reflections) and four-track magnetic sound. Fox yielded to exhibitor pressure about screens in December 1953 and allowed small theaters to use whatever screens they wished. Zanuck and Skouras were both strong advocates of stereo sound, especially the surround track, so they held out on this point a few more months.44 After a May 1954 meeting with exhibitors hosted by Skouras, Fox reversed itself on stereo sound as well and agreed that future CinemaScope films would be released in three different sound formats. An exhibitor could choose four track magnetic, or four track optical, or one track optical. The optical tracks slightly reduced the width of the CinemaScope image, so that the 2.66 to 1 aspect ratio became 2.55 to 1. Eventually, CinemaScope was standardized at 2.35 to 1 for all audio formats.45
The uncertainties of this period for production companies can be exemplified by Warner Bros.' experience with the musical version of A Star Is Born. This comeback film for Judy Garland was planned as Warners' big release for 1953-1954. An exceptionally talented group of creative participants was assembled: George Cukor as director; Moss Hart as screenwriter; Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin as songwriters; James Mason as costar with Garland. However, Jack Warner had no idea what film format would be appropriate for a high-budget musical in 1953. A Star Is Born was first announced as a film in 3-D. Then, as 3-D's novelty waned, the format was changed to WarnerScope (also known as WarnerSuperScope), which was the studio's attempt to develop its own anamorphic lens (similar to CinemaScope) without paying royalties to Fox. This was perfectly legal, but the test lenses manufactured for Warners by the German lensmaker Zeiss were obviously inferior to Fox's anamorphic lens.
Jack Warner changed his mind again and declared that A Star Is Born would be shot in 1.75 widescreen (but not anamorphic) and three-strip Technicolor. A few weeks of filming were done in this format beginning 12 October 1953. However, after the huge success of THE ROBE (which opened in September 1953) Albert and Harry Warner in New York pressured their brother Jack to switch over to CinemaScope. Jack Warner visited the Twentieth Century-Fox studio to have his first look at CinemaScope and immediately finalized the deal for Fox's process. So, A Star Is Born was now revamped CinemaScope and Eastmancolor. Released in September 1954, it became one of the more prestigious of the early CinemaScope productions, thanks to a wonderful performance by Garland and Cukor's fluid, long-take style. Unfortunately, the film went enormously over budget (due in part to Jack Warners indecision, in part to Garland's frequent absences) and did not make a profit.46 At any rate, Warner Bros.' switch to CinemaScope in late 1953 further enhanced Fox's pre-eminence in widescreen.
The brilliant debuts of Cinerama and CinemaScope touched off an intense period of technological development and entrepreneurial activity. Many new widescreen systems were introduced: Cinemapanoramic, CinemaScope 55, Dyaliscope, MGM Camera 65, PanaScope, Panavision, Super Panavision 70, SuperScope, Technirama, Techniscope, Todd-AO, Ultra-Panavision 70, Vistascope, VistaVision, and Vistarama.47 Of these, the most important were VistaVision, Todd-AO, and Panavision.
VistaVision was Paramount's answer to Fox's CinemaScope. It used 35 mm. film stock, but ran the film through the camera horizontally and recorded a much larger frame area (eight perforations rather than four). Films could be exhibited with horizontal movement and larger frame, or reduced to standard 35 mm., or shown with a slight anamorphic process. In all three cases, the VistaVision system with its increased frame area offered more visual detail and greater depth of field than CinemaScope or the suddenly outdated 1.33 to 1 format. VistaVision could be presented at aspect ratios ranging from 1.33 to 1 to 2 to 1, but Paramount recommended 1.85 to 1. Paramount's publicity stressed that CinemaScope's screen was uncomfortably wide, and that in the VistaVision alternative "height is as important as width."48 VistaVision was also exhibitor-friendly: it could be shown in standard 35 mm., though more expensive alternatives were available; it required no special screen; and it used optical sound. The sound was recorded in a system called "Perspecta," which allowed for playback in mono or in a sort of stereo (via cues encoded on the optical track).49
The first VistaVision film was White Christmas (1954), a musical starring Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye, which showed off the process's visual quality, depth of field, and image height. The film often creates depth by presenting a narrow stage viewed from the audience area—such compositions would have been hard to fit into CinemaScope's elongated image. White Christmas was a creditable introduction to the new process, but it lacked the spectacular impact of This Is Cinerama or The Robe. VistaVision was used by Paramount for a number of high quality films of the 1950s including Strategic Air Command (1955), To Catch a Thief (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), The Ten Commandments (1956), Funny Face (1957), Vertigo (1958), and L'il Abner (1959). Though never attaining the acceptance of CinemaScope, it was also adopted by other studios for films including High Society (MGM, 1956), The Searchers (Warner Bros., 1956), Auntie Mame (Warner Bros., 1958), The Vikings (United Artists, 1958), and North by Northwest (MGM, 1959).
VistaVision became technologically obsolete because of the introduction of the finegrained, more light-sensitive 5250 color film stock by Eastman Kodak in 1959.50 Image sharpness on this stock was so good that VistaVision's larger negative and reduction printing were no longer necessary. VistaVision did, however, help to establish 1.85 to 1 as a favored aspect ratio for widescreen films. Since the mid-1950s, the two most common aspect ratios for Hollywood films have been 1.85 to 1 (the VistaVision ratio) and 2.25-2.35 to 1 (the CinemaScope ratio).
Theater producer and entrepreneur Michael Todd had supervised many of the scenes of This Is Cinerama, but he had been frustrated by Cinerama's join lines and other technical limits. When Cinerama became a huge success, Todd was no longer affiliated with any of the Cinerama companies. He resolved to make a "better Cinerama," even though he had no technical training and almost no film industry experience. In October 1952 Todd recruited a leading optics expert, Dr. Brian O'Brien, who was vice president for research at American Optical Corporation, and gave him the job of developing a superior widescreen movie process. Todd gave his new partnership with O'Brien the name "Todd-AO," meaning "Todd-American Optical."
Within a few months, O'Brien and his team had settled on a wide film solution—the use of a 65 mm. camera negative and a 70 mm. release print. Todd-AO's wider film would have about four times the frame area of a 35 mm. film.51 Wide film formats had been tried in the late 1920s (the 70 mm. Grandeur process, for example) but had been abandoned because of lack of studio interest. Todd-AO added to the wide film concept an enormous wide-angle lens, a film speed of 30 frames per second, six track magnetic stereo sound, and a projection system which corrected for distortion on the sides of the image.52
Magna Theatre Corporation was established as the new firm that would produce and distribute Todd-AO films. As investors and partners, Todd brought in Joseph Schenck and George P. Skouras of United Artists Theaters, producers Arthur Hornblow Jr. and Edward Small, and renowned theatrical producers Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. (Schenck was formerly a top executive at Fox and brother of Nicholas Schenck, chairman of Loew's, Inc.; George Skouras was the younger brother of Spyros Skouras.) For the first Todd-AO film, Todd wanted the rights to Oklahoma!, Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway musical, which they had withheld from Hollywood for ten years. After viewing a Todd-AO demonstration in mid-1953, Rodgers and Hammerstein agreed to sell Magna the film rights Oklahoma! for $1,020,000.53 Fred Zinnemann would direct, Hornblow would produce, and Rodgers and Hammerstein would retain artistic control.
Charles Skouras had an extraordinary suggestion for the opening scenes of Oklahoma!, which he thought would add $10 million to the film's gross. He described (in a memo to Rodgers and Hammerstein) the cast of the film boarding a DC-7 and beginning an aerial tour of the United States: New York City, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., the Mississippi River, and on to Oklahoma City and a transition to the musical Oklahoma!54 Rodgers and Hammerstein opposed this suggestion, clearly based on This Is Cinerama; they insisted that the film be shot without visual pyrotechnics.
Oklahoma! was filmed in both Todd-AO and CinemaScope, a necessary precaution in case Todd-AO broke down (at the start of production, for example, there was only one Todd-AO lens, no backup).55 Fred Zinnemann considered casting the then-unknown James Dean as the male lead, but settled on an established musical star, Gordon MacRae.56 Other leading roles were filled by Shirley Jones, Gloria Grahame, and Rod Steiger. The film version of Oklahoma! was stylistically cautious, but it nevertheless attracted a broad public. Shown on a roadshow basis, it became a major event, like This Is Cinerama and The Robe. Only a handful of Todd-AO installations existed in 1955, so most of the country saw the CinemaScope version. Even the London premiere of Oklahoma! in 1956 was presented in CinemaScope.57
The next Todd-AO picture was produced by Michael Todd: Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), directed by Michael Anderson and starring David Niven, Cantinflas, and Shirley MacLaine. This long and spectacular film based on the novel by Jules Verne combined a travelogue, a comic adventure, and cameo appearances by a long list of stars: Ronald Colman, Noel Coward, Marlene Dietrich, Buster Keaton, Beatrice Lillie, George Raft, Gilbert Roland, Frank Sinatra, and Red Skelton, among others. It was based in part on Todd's work with Orson Welles on a 1946 Broadway musical version of Verne's novel (Alexander Korda replaced Todd as producer of the Broadway show a few weeks before the opening).58 Around the World in Eighty Days was even more successful than Oklahoma!, and it won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1956.
In 1958, Twentieth Century-Fox invested $600,000 in Todd-AO for the right to produce three Todd-AO films plus an option to take over 51 percent ownership of the company. Donald A. Henderson of Fox explained that CinemaScope had lost most of its impact, and with Todd-AO Fox hoped to re-establish its widescreen competitive advantage.59 However, by this time the value of exclusive processes was ending, because the Hollywood film industry was rapidly standardizing its widescreen formats. In the late 1950s and early 1960s a film could be shot in 35 mm. anamorphic or non-anamorphic, or in 70 mm. anamorphic or non-anamorphic, or in Cinerama. Todd-AO reduced its film speed to 24 frames per second so that it could become interchangeable with other 70 mm. processes. Only sixteen feature films were released in Todd-AO, and only four in the 1950s: Oklahoma!, Around the World in Eighty Days, South Pacific (1958), and Porgy and Bess (1959).
Panavision was (and is) a company that made lenses and other equipment for the film industry. The company began in the early 1950s as a manufacturer of anamorphic lenses for theater projection. When Twentieth Century-Fox decided to cease supplying CinemaScope lenses to theaters in 1954, Spyros Skouros specifically endorsed Panavision lenses as a high-quality alternative, thus giving the fledgling company a boost. Another important early Panavision product was a laboratory printer designed for Columbia Pictures which could print an anamorphic CinemaScope negative as a non-anamorphic 1.85 to 1 release print, thus eliminating the need to shoot a film in two versions (anamorphic and non-anamorphic). In the second half of the 1950s, Panavision worked with MGM to develop a variety of wide-film (65 or 70 mm.) formats. Two films were made in MGM Camera 65: Raintree County (1957) and Ben-Hur (1959). Ironically, Raintree County was released in 35 mm. only, because in 1957 all theaters equipped for 70 mm. were playing Around the World in Eighty Days. Ben-Hur, however, was an enormous success, which helped to establish Panavision as the leading supplier of wide film equipment. Panavision then developed Super Panavision 70, a wide-film system with technical specs identical to Todd-AO. This system was used for EXODUS (United Artists, 1960), West Side Story (United Artists, 1961) and Lawrence of Arabia (Columbia, 1962). Though Panavision invented no revolutionary formats, it improved the visual quality and the flexibility of 35 mm. and 70 mm. widescreen cinema. Panavision lenses therefore became the de facto Hollywood standard.60
The key question to be asked about the widescreen processes of the 1950s is this: How much of a difference did they make in the history of Hollywood? For critic/historian Andrew Dowdy, their impact was minimal. The "CinemaScope rebound," he says, lasted only about two years, from late 1953 to late 1955, so widescreen was a novelty only slightly more successful than 3-D. Movie admissions declined alarmingly in 1957 and 1958, despite all the new image technologies.61 John Belton, author of the excellent Widescreen Cinema, gives a more nuanced view. On the one hand, he agrees that the various widescreen processes did not create a revolutionary change in cinema. They offered an aesthetic of participation, but it was only a false participation, which has "atrophied into an almost programmatic stimulus and response."62 On the other hand, Belton feels that Cinerama, CinemaScope, Todd-AO, and the other widescreen processes offered a model of cinema flexible enough to please many kinds of spectators in many different viewing situations. He explains that "spectators were confronted with a variety of viewing situations from which they could choose, each of which engaged them in a different way, depending upon theater size and design, projection aspect ratio, and the dramatic content of the film. The cinema became a host of different cinemas; its traditional mass audience became, in turn, an assortment of highly diverse viewing groups."63 This fragmentation of the film-viewing experience has, of course, accelerated since the 1950s.
A further claim could be made for widescreen's historical impact. In the early 1950s there were serious questions about whether film could survive at all as a form of mass entertainment. The successes of This Is Cinerama, The Robe, How to Marry a Millionaire, There's No Business Like Show Business (Fox, 1954), White Christmas, Oklahoma!, Around the World in Eighty Days, and The Ten Commandments showed that spectators would visit the theaters for the right kind of attraction. Producers needed to adjust, and continue to adjust, to audience needs—the "bigger is better" approach worked for only a few years. But at least the "CinemaScope rebound" demonstrated a basis for continuing to make movies for the theaters. The Hollywood film industry would not become a mere adjunct to television.