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Saturday, December 31, 2011

3D Grabs Hold --- Part One

I'll tread lightly upon this subject of 3D for realizing there are experts that know it chapter/verse, and so humbly invite same to expand upon or correct data gathered here. Just understand that 3D represents a noble tradition of screw-ups and breakdowns, my own in respectful observance of that. I embark upon multi-posts about the process, mindful not to exceed an initial three (more will follow later) as we’ve all known fatigue too much 3D can inflict. Like a lot (most?) of you, I’ve never seen it decently presented. By that I mean with two projectors side-by-side running in perfect synchronization.

I'm for dealing out modern third dimensions this trip. The only sampling I’ve seen anyhow was a handful of ear-jangling IMAX shorts about jungle safaris. What I’m for exploring is so-called primitive 3D that excited patrons during 1953 and much of ’54. I was born during the boom and feel closer to it for that. The Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood has run two depth festivals with practically everything extant on view. A friend flew cross-country to see them while headache fears kept me home. An experienced operator will assure you that no pain comes of watching 3D provided those in the booth know what they’re doing. As this was/is/always will be a species rare, there’s little wonder the 50’s flame burned off quickly.

Moviegoing travels brought me twice to House Of Wax on single-strip reissues (1972 and 1983), both botched. Other than that, there was Revenge Of The Creature with 16mm reds and greens having faded, thus killing the 3D effect, and more recently the challenge of DVD-delivered Spooks, with The Three Stooges. Yet I’m rarin’ to go for 3D after boning up on 50’s showman efforts to get a rope ‘round a novelty most of them figured for the flash in the pan it turned out to be.

Old timers in the business said 3D reminded them of the mess that was Vitaphone, and here they were twenty-five years later reliving sync-up nightmares. Each to a man knew what a minefield that could be. There was always option of letting the craze pass, but what of lines and epic grosses your opposition’s fielding down the street? Exhibitors sought elixir to bring people back into theatres. Hit movies continued declining in number as solid attractions on TV carved inroads. Wouldn't you elect to stay home and watch Lucy or maybe Martin and Lewis doing the Colgate Comedy Hour over going out and paying admission for a commonplace feature?

By late 1952, most were voting the tube. Whoring out to a gimmick was desperation’s last resort for an industry down on canvass and taking the count. Independent producer Arch Oboler was an experimenter from radio who guessed 3D might click at feature-length. Maybe others considered it before, but he was first to throw dice with monies borrowed and bookings scavenged where management would gamble with an unsure thing. Two Paramount theatres in Hollywood were Oboler's testing Ground Zero. For four weeks they would play Bwana Devil to what observers called unprecedented business. They'd have kept it longer but for prior booking commitments. This was December 1952.

Arch Oboler at Bwana Devil's Hollywood Opening with Stereo-Realist Lobby Display

Just as industry watchers wondered if The Jazz Singer might be a fluke back in 1927, so too did studios flinch over dives into 3D. Another independent with spring in his step was Sol Lesser, always quick to move in on someone else’s good thing. A British developer leased him rights to a process called Tri-Optican and a handful of shorts utilizing its depth (including a documentary, cartoon, ballet, and an abstract film, according to Boxoffice). Some said the latter looked better than Oboler’s Natural Vision. Lesser’s Tri-Opticon was America debuted at Chicago’s Tele-News Theatre on Christmas Day 1952. $30,000 was rung up for a week that would normally average four to five G’s. Santa Claus was finally back in town to call on besieged exhibitors.

Seizing initiative as they had with talkies, Warner Bros. announced shooting would begin January 15, 1953 on Wax Works in Natural Vision 3-D. They understood this was a race for what Jack Warner called a fast dollar at the box office. Directors of the Theatre Owners of America exhibitors group convened in January 1953 to discuss future possibilities of 3-D, and provided a print could be secured, to inspect Bwana Devil as well. Sol Lesser was meanwhile delivering equipment and accessory packages to theatres booked for Tri-Opticon. They’d need a “metalized” screen, a coupling device for interlocking projectors, and Polaroid glasses, these being reusable provided they were sterilized after each show.

Paramount's Adolph Zukor Being Prepared for His 3-D Debut
Harrison’s Reports saw those glasses as 3-D’s main obstacle to wide acceptance even as crowds braved snowstorms to break house records at northeastern theatres where Bwana Devil was playing. Every Hollywood studio was knee-deep in experimentation to develop their own “dimensional” format. Mid-January saw Fox announcing what they called Anamorphisis, the large-screen French process which offers a three-dimensional effect. The Robe was slated to be the company’s first in Anamorphisis. Paramount’s Adolph Zukor promised 3-D that would not require glasses (we’re still waiting for that). Sol Lesser was sufficiently buttressed by Tri-Opticom’s success to foresee twelve complete 3-D programs per year under his auspices. Arch Oboler meanwhile fielded offers from distributors eager to buy him out of Bwana Devil. He'd be in New York negotiating with United Artists for a sale of what was at that moment the industry’s hottest picture property.

Part Two on 3D is HERE.


Anonymous Grand Old Movies said...

I've managed to see correctly projected 3-D films at the Film Forum in NYC, which makes it a point of pride to screen films accurately during its 3-D retrospectives; and these festivals always do extremely well both financially and technically (though there was the showing of "Gorilla at Large" in which the soundtrack screwed up). The problem, it seems, with classic 3-D once you had the technical bugs fixed is that 1) you always have to take an intermission half-way through the film to change reels, which interrupts the flow; 2) though the images may be in depth, the films are not. Because 3-D emphasizes action, 3-D films are either Westerns with lots of arrows whizzing from the screen, jungle flicks with leaping animals, or horror with the emphasis on hairy arms reaching out to grab. These are fun movies, but one does like to leaven one's film fare with something else once in a while.

9:18 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

Here are the movies which played Salisbury, North Carolina, in 3-D:

April 26 - 28, 1953 - BWANA DEVIL - CAPITOL THEATRE
June 12 - 16, 1953 - HOUSE OF WAX - CAPITOL THEATRE
June 27 - 30, 1953 - FORT TI - CENTER THEATRE
August 2 - 6, 1953 - SANGAREE - CAPITOL THEATRE
September 13 - 14, 1953 - THE MAZE - CAPITOL THEATRE
November 22 - 25, 1953 - DEVIL'S CANYON - CENTER THEATRE
December 23 - 24, 1953 - ARENA - CAPITOL THEATRE
January 5 - 9, 1954 - HONDO - CAPITOL THEATRE
January 17 - 19, 1954 - KISS ME KATE - CAPITOL THEATRE
February 7 - 10, 1954 - CEASE FIRE - CAPITOL THEATRE
March 11 - 13, 1954 - HONDO - CAPITOL THEATRE

11:02 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

The concern about 3-D glasses...who was it who said (I think Harry Cohn)..."They'll wear toilet seats around their necks if you give them what they want to see!"

12:54 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have almost every 3D movie made in my archive in digital form which allows them to be projected with one DLP projector. This overcomes the problem of making sure both projectors have the same light intensity. I use wireless shutter glasses (this technology was created by Lenny Lipton, the man behind present day 3D).

I am big on IMAX documentaries. Nothing beats birds, bugs and fish in 3D. It is, however, an unbelievable pleasure to see a film like KISS ME KATE in 3D.

Got special programs that allow me to convert 2D movies to either side by side or above/below high quality 3D quality so that I have been able to get an idea of what HONDO with John Wayne ought to look like.

Don't need a silver screen with this set-up.

I, for one, never get tired of 3D.

6:32 PM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

Saw a presentation of "Kiss Me Kate" at the Stanford Theater in Palo Alto some years ago. The comic highlight was Howard Keel, a hammy actor in a play, delivering a broad comic monologue straight to the camera while constantly thrusting a banana in your face. I like to think they were deliberately mocking the process.

1:45 AM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Hey John! Great article! Being here in So. Cal. I, along with pal Craig Reardon, were able to see several of the 3-D films shown over the 2 festivals at the Egyptian a few years ago (one festival was held in 2003 and the second was in 2006 and both were presented by "SabuCat Productions"). I was able to see: "Creature From The Black Lagoon", "Revenge Of The Creature", "Gog", "Phantom Of The Rue Morgue" (with actor Steve Forrest in attendance)and "House Of Wax" and I'm telling you, when you see one of these things properly projected (the Egyptian theater used the dual-projector polaroid system with a silver screen specially installed for the festivals)they are a REAL treat to behold. Steve Forrest addressed the audience saying that, although he was in "Phantom" he had never seen it in 3-D until that night (!)With today's technology a polaroid 3-D film can be put onto a digital disc and seen in true 3-D. Craig and I saw a special screening of "Hondo" at the Academy and that is exactly the format we saw it in and it looked incredible. It is my understanding that Warner Brothers Home Video (who's parent comapny owns about 17-18 of the old classic 3-D films from the 50's) is going to release two of it's "800 pound gorillas" to home video this year (2012)in exactly that format. "House Of Wax" and "Dial M For Murder" will be released sometime this year. If sales do well, hopefully the rest of the 3-D catalogue owned by WB will follow....I certainly hope so!I know it sounds cliche' but if you haven't seen these films in 3-D you really haven't seen them.

Keep up the great work John!


Brad Arrington

10:56 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Brad, I'd sure spring for 3-D home projection should "Wax" and "Dial M" land on DVD (presumably Blu-Ray). Both are presently streaming here or there in HD and look terrific.

On a related subject, why doesn't someone release a CD soundtrack collection of Dimitri Tiomkin's music scores for Hitchcock?

12:09 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

John, I got that news from George Feltenstein's mouth. And he oughtta know!

As far as Tiomkin goes, get on Amazon and look up "A History Of Hitchcock" on the Silva Screen Records label. There are two volumes (CD's) and, while they concentrate mainly on Herrmann, they have suites from "Strangers on A Train" and "Dial M For Murder"...Maybe Tadlow Recording will do a "Hitchcock/Tiomkin" recording, since they seem to do Tiomkin VERY well.....

I certainly hope that with directors such as Scorsese, Spielberg and Cameron all using 3-D that it will not be just another "passing fad" but will actually be here to stay. I love it and will certainly be picking up "House Of Wax" and "Dial M" when they are released in that format.


3:20 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

For me the best of first-wave 3D remains Kiss Me, Kate, which I've managed to see three times "in depth". The first time was in 1980 at the Tiffany on LA's Sunset Strip (then a revival house, now a live venue), on a double bill with House of Wax (plus the Stooges' 3D short Pardon My Backfire).

Kate was a revelation. The banana-shove cited by Donald Benson was no doubt a nudge-wink, as was Tommy Rall kicking the camera in "Why Can't You Behave?" and Ann Miller flipping her scarf in our eyes during "Too Darn Hot". More impressive, at least to me, were the big dance numbers with Miller, Rall, Bob Fosse and Bobby Van: "Tom, Dick or Harry" and "From This Moment On". Whether by design or serendipity, the camera was placed at exactly the right distance, and the result was a truly startling illusion of watching a live performance by these four great dancers.

3:56 PM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

Oh, and another thought: "Anamorphisis"??? It sounds like some dreaded birth defect. Whoever came up with "CinemaScope" sure earned his pay for the week!

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Jack M. said...

I also saw "Kiss Me Kate" at the Egyptian 3-D festival. It was very impressive. However recently I saw "Hugo" in 3-D and loved it. This is Martin Scorsese's love letter to cinema. Highly recommended.

10:07 PM  
Anonymous Chris U. said...

I've always wanted to see Douglas Sirk's SIGN OF THE PAGAN in 3-D. Right now I'd settle for a domestic Blu-Ray.

1:32 PM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

DBenson...I thought it was PARDON MY BACKFIRE that mocked 3-D.

8:34 PM  
Blogger James Corry said...

Chris, I believe that "Sign Of The Pagan" was CinemaScope; not 3-D. But who cares? I'd LOVE to see it too!


10:07 AM  
Blogger MDG14450 said...

Eastman House has had 3-D festivals w/ the special screen and interlocking projectors with good results. Last one, however, the word was that Universal only distributes anaglyph versions of Creature and It Came from Outer Space, so they weren't included.

12:31 PM  
Blogger Dave K said...

Okay. I hope I'm not once again pointing out something everyone on the planet already knows, but Flickstream's so-cheap-it's-practically-free service DRIVE-IN CLASSICS is streaming great gobs of those 1950's era titles in 3-D, not just the biggies like HOUSE OF WAX and DIAL M FOR MURDER but stuff like TAZA SON OF COCHISE and INFERNO. And, again running the risk of stating the oh-so-obvious, be prepared to enjoy these gems in 30 minutes chunks or so because if the original projected versions gave people headaches, pro-longed exposure to these fluttery multiple-multiple image transmissions may make your eyeballs pop like bubble wrap. But the effect is there, and at times, pretty startling.

12:36 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

For anyone considering a home 3D system use a DLP projector (they come with a built in chip for 3D) and talk to the people at: and . They have been around a long time and know way more about the technology than the people you will meet in shops. You don't need a silver screen. The wireless shutter glasses (which can cost a fortune) can be gotten for less from these folks.

The Illustrated 3D Movie List is the best resource for what has been and is being filmed in 3D while its companion The Illustrated 3D Blu-ray list is the best guide to what is out in both Blu-Ray and DVD. Sensio, for example made superb 3D transfers of a number of titles including TAZA SON OF COCHISE (which looks terrific). The Illustrated 3D list also provides free downloads of some excellent books including that by Lenny Lipton (who put the royalties from his hit song PUFF THE MAGIC DRAGON into advancing 3D. He's the man behind all the major new advances).

You will need a 3D player. I use the Peter Wimmer Stereo Player ( which he updates regularly to handle new formats.

There is also this one which is free: .

There are a number of systems for converting 2D to 3D. I have them all. DVDFAB is the best.

For information on the restoration of HONDO (and the explosion of many 3D myths) go here: .

I used DVDFab to create a 3D side by side version of HONDO. While not true 3D the results are impressive. Contrary to what we have been told the 3D runs of films like KISS ME KATE, DIAL M FOR MURDER and HONDO did way better with the public than the 2D versions did (the same, for the most part, as today).

A real mind opener is reading Bosley Crowther's review of HOUSE OF WAX. He was as opposed to stereophonic sound as he was to stereocinema: .

If you are going to get into 3D take advantage of the sites I have given you. People who come to my 3D programs constantly say, "Wow! This is better than in the theaters!"

Some of the best books on 3D are authored by Ray Zone. I have them all. They are a must: .

If you are thinking of shooting your own Digital 3D movies the Sony 3D Bloggie is dirt cheap and awesome. It does full 1080p. The quality is theatrical. Everything else is 720p and nowhere near as good: .

I also have a number of 3D cameras I bought from 3DInlife in China. They are the best 2nd choice: .

I just saw HUGO last week. It is way ahead of AVATAR in its use of 3D. Martin Scorsese can always be counted on to give more study and thought to everything he does than anyone else currently ,making pictures. I felt the film to be perfect. Scorsese's use of foreground space (Z Space) is first rate. There is a theory running that action in Z-space takes us (the viewer) out of the movie. That is not true. But a number of recent films dampened down the Z-space effects (GREEN LANTERN, etc.). They did not do as well in the theaters as they should have. I feel that is because they did not look like 3D movies.

This site, 3D Forums ( will let you know all you need to know about everything.

3D enthusiasts are a special breed. They are short on attitude and ready to share.

I am looking forward to the rest of this series.

When you contact people on these sites tell them I sent you.

6:24 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

The 3D fests at the Film Forum still gave me headaches. Plus the glasses did a number (temporarily)on my vision after the movies. The green lens had me seeing red out of one eye and vice-versa.

The new 3D is pain-free but, as Roger Ebert says, is often like looking through a dirty window. "Up" looked far better flat on my hi-def TV than in 3D at the Ziegfeld -- which is the greatest theatre in NYC.

11:41 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...


That's called "induction." It has nothing to do with 3D.

See a red circle on a TV screen. Take it away and we see a green circle. Aldous Huxley discusses this in fascinating depth in his book, THE DEVILS OF LOUDON.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

One facet of anaglyphic (red/blue) 3D that I've seldom seen addressed is the fact that it is apparently geared to people who are right-eye dominant -- i.e., most people, like right-handers. I happen to be left-eyed, and the anaglyphic glasses give me a headache every time. (Wearing the glasses backwards is not an option.) I'm still recovering from an anaglyphic double bill of It Came from Outer Space and The Creature from the Black Lagoon that I saw in Portland in 1996. Give me polaroid (with or without the wireless shutters) every time.

5:15 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Some years ago on CARTOONBREW I saw a Popeye cartoon that had been converted from 2D to 3D. Wondering how it had been done I surfed the web for answers. Along the way I discovered sites offering anaglyph versions of CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON, DIAL M FOR MURDER, HOUSE OF WAX, etc..

I ordered them. I loath the ghosting that comes with anaglyph. I bit the bullet, spent the bucks and installed my current system with wireless shutter glasses, emitters, and the Peter Wimmer Stereo Player.



Big screen projection beats the Hades out of big screen TV.

The ILLUSTRATED 3D MOVIE site lists 3D compatible projectors. Go for the brightest model as the extra light counts (we lose light with the glasses). Pump up the light as far as you can go without the image breaking up.

There will always be a problem for folks who are left eye dominant. That can't be helped.

8:31 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

Thanks Reg, I wondered what was happening. I'm just glad it wasn't permanent!

One more thing I meant to add. The Film Forum ran a 3D Pete Smith short(from circa 1942)some years back. Whether it was the print or the process, the result was less than impressive.

I've read that the Marx Bros.' "The Big Store" was supposed to have been shot in 3D. True?

10:23 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Kevin K. notices innate hipness of Arch Oboler in just arrived e-mail:

Judging by that photo of Oboler in your 3D essay, you could drop him into any hipster neighborhood in Brooklyn and he'd fit right in. Especially with the 3D camera.

I was using a 3D camera in the '80s -- does that make me a proto-hipster?

Can't wait for part two,


1:17 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

I have all three of those Pete Smith shorts (I have a 16mm anaglyph of THIRD DIMENSIONAL MURDER) and all three in digital field sequential.

Maybe it was how they were projected. They look good here. The 3D was done by John Norling. His later fim, MOTOR RHYTHM. is xlnt. You can find it on my site under HISTORY OF 3D in BLOGS. Just google Reg Hartt and it will take you there. Lots of other neat 3D stuff there as well. Check out my site "TORONTO IN 3D"

Youtube posts anaglyph 3D. Does a good job of it, too.

As to THE BIG STORE that new to me.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Correct me if I'm wrong, but didn't a Charlotte TV station do a grocery store tie-in back in the late Sixties, wherein those tatty cardboard spectacles with red and green lenses were dispensed to patrons for the 3D exhibition of, was it, BWANA DEVIL on Channel 9? Of course, you had to watch it on a COLOR television to get the effect; otherwise, the picture was unintelligible, a gauzy mess. Or am I suffering from a false memory?

Until the day comes when audiences can throw away those damn polarized DEVO sunglasses, 3D will remain a novelty that takes away from the subject matter of the film. Silicon Valley has figured almost everything else out, why not 3D without glasses? I'm sure there's some techno-nerd out there that will come up with the solution soon.

9:12 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

Glassless 3D has been around for years. It requires a lenticular screen (same as that uased on pictures to create depth or alternaste images). Info at these sites:

9:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great post, as is Part 2 & 3.

The fog scenes in House Of Wax and the underwater scenes in The Creature From The Black Lagoon are some of the most awesome things I've seen in a movie theater. The "box" or fog or water that thrust out of the screen really knocked me out.

In your post, I love the photo of Arch Oboler with his hipster look!

And looking at Mike's comment, the very idea of Randolph Scott in 3-D on Halloween, 1953 sounds like a dream come true.

2:41 PM  

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