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Saturday, January 07, 2012

Part Two From The Third Dimension

People attended initial 3-D shows like they’d go to see exotic species of animal on display. It was a novelty that lured out sober citizens who’d not otherwise dream of patronizing a film called Bwana Devil. The bigger elephant in corners (or rather, booths) of each theatre was odds against smooth presentation. Single projectionists were all of a sudden performing a two-man job. Every 3-D print coming through the door was twins, and both had to play in to-the-frame perfect synchronization. Catch one sprocket in your mechanism and suddenly there are a thousand malcontents removing their cardboard glasses to glare back at you. Defusing land mines was safer work in 1953.

Audiences had a right to expect an orderly program, especially with tickets selling at advanced prices for Natural Vision shows. 3-D jumping the track was not something you could fix with a lick and a promise. These were no five-minute waits for management to re-thread. A left or right side breakdown sent the whole bag ker-flooey, and fixing that needed cooler heads than most houses could summon. More than one audience spent their bits for half a show, if that. Still, it was something like nothing they’d seen before, and social capital could be acquired by youngsters especially who longed to experience 3-D and brag about it to their friends. A harried industry could only address snafus as they occurred, all the time knowing that if these didn’t somehow abate, their dream of a boxoffice redeemer-in-depth would soon be a lost one.

Three-Dimension became a catch-all term for any process that expanded our screen vision. Cinerama was getting its legs as Natural-Vision emerged and backers announced three-panel's expansion to twenty-five theatres for 1953. Projectionist unions struck in Pittsburgh to get two operators into booths running Bwana Devil. The three-dimensional films mean more work and take more skill to operate, said an AFL spokesman. Exhibitors realized one man would be hard pressed to coordinate interlocked machinery, but generally used lone staffers to project unless forced to do otherwise.

Massive coinage at theatres hosting Arch Oboler’s freak hit was balm to disarray 3-D wrought upon house procedure. The Chicago Theatre took a smash $44,000 in its first three days of Bwana Devil, even with Sol Lesser’s competing Tri-Opticon show continuing to play next door at the Tele-News. It was the perfect backdrop against which Oboler fielded bids from major studios to take over distribution of Bwana Devil. By January’s third week, there was a dead heat between United Artists and producer Edward L. Alperson for those marbles.

A now re-titled Here Is Tri-Opticon widened in the meantime to Boston and Denver. Nationally circulated magazines were featuring 3-D and showmen everywhere were getting calls from eager patrons. When would hometowns experience the screen’s New Sensation? Hollywood’s Natural Vision Corp. geared up to equip theatres for 3-D presentation. There wasn’t much rivalry for their peculiar sort of expertise, so demand was booming. Studios entered the fray with announcements of 3-D to come. MGM prepared Arena for lensing in Arizona the following month, while Columbia and Warners forged ahead in what was looking more and more like a race to the wickets.

John Arnold, Chief of MGM's Camera Department, Shows Off The Dual
Camera He's Built To Shoot Arena in 3-D
January 31 was a key date heralding the revolution. Virtually all the trade magazines devoted multi-pages to exploration of the whirling-est dervish movies had experienced since Jolson talked. United Artists took the Bwana Devil pennant during that month’s final week. Arch Oboler and his associates received a half million up front (among these was Bwana star Robert Stack’s mother, who had invested $30,000 in the film), with another $1.25 million guaranteed later from the film’s receipts. This was a buyout of the negative and all worldwide revenue to come.

Broadway's Loew's State Sees It's Single Week Record Broken by Bwana Devil. They had to Stop Selling Tickets Four Times on the Pic's First Weekend.

UA’s sales force immediately went to work securing dates while interest was peaking. An immediate concern for the new distributor was shortage of prints and viewing glasses. UA had taken charge of 230 prior bookings in 225 cities and was reporting an avalanche of inquiry about playdates. Exhibitors wanted 3-D yesterday. There was no precedent for such anxiety to put a new attraction on screens. What UA lacked were personnel with knowledge and expertise about the exotic process they were now handling.

Arch Oboler had long been a proponent of 3-D and something of a visionary in his pursuit of feature-length depth photography. He had made a remarkable success of distributing Bwana Devil independently and securing dates in numerous first-run theatres. Oboler was tight with makers of Stereo-Realist slides and viewers, many of whom participated with tie-ins and window displays. His specially designed 3-D preview boxes attracted much attention in lobbies and out on sidewalks, while three million or so members of a thriving Stereo-Realist hobby group knew Oboler as a friend among their number and respected him. The independent producer even arranged for retailers to carry a special set of forty 3-D slides from Bwana Devil that collectors could enjoy on their own stereo viewers. Much of this hands-on enthusiasm that Oboler brought to his campaigning would dissipate once Bwana Devil was sold to United Artists.

Part Three and Conclusion on 3-D HERE.


Anonymous MarcH said...

TCM-HD showed a beautiful, HD print of Bwana Devil a few months ago (maybe October?). The opening credits were very striking...even in 2D they looked like something you see inside your "ViewFinder" as a kid. The movie itself is LOADED with stock footage...were they able to take old animal footage and convert it to 3D? I thought it actually had to be originally filmed in 3D? Either way...not a great movie, but I was happy to finally see it.

3:25 PM  
Anonymous Brent said...

I was glad to get to see Bwana Devil, too, but didn't think it was a particularly good picture.

12:21 AM  
Anonymous DBenson said...

I just want to hear more about "Miss Dimension" contests.

1:50 AM  
Anonymous Paul Duca said...

Fascinating that Robert Stack's mother invested in her son and Oobler's dream. Of course, she could afford to...the Stack family was serious California old money. It was more like Hollywood came to Bob than vice versa. He certainly wasn't a lean and hungry dreamer wanting to escape a miserable existence.

10:02 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Dan Mercer shares some thoughts about 3-D:

I suppose that I must have been really enthralled with the idea of 3D films during the early eighties, or else I can't imagine why I subjected myself to so many bad and badly presented ones like "Comin At Ya!," or "Jaws 3D." It got so that I even sent a letter to the Sam-Eric Theater chain, offering some gratuitous advise on how to show a 3D film. They might have replied to the effect of, "Sure, Mr. Mercer, like we're really going to go to the trouble of metalizing our screens and installing more powerful projection lamps, just so you can appreciate what a dreadful film "Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn" really is. Sure we are." However, even this would have been more trouble to them than it was worth, so they just fobbed me off with a free ticket.

I did see two of the first wave classics during this time, "House of Wax" and "Dial M for Murder," which were rereleased in one of the single strip processes. At least, I had the the impression that one of them was "House of Wax," from the audio track, though it was so murky I couldn't have been sure otherwise.

As for "Dial M for Murder," however, the Temple University Cinemateque did a decent job of presenting it, and it is really a much better film than flat prints had led me to believe. Hitchcock later dismissed the process as a gimmick, but this film shows that he understood its artistic potential. The scene in which Grace Kelly reaches out for a pair of scissors, the startled audience invariably turning away from this gesture of need, is of course well known, but throughout the film, Hitchcock exploits the spatial field for emphasis. For example, a talky scene about a missing key becomes much more suspenseful because of his use of 3D. In flat prints, the purse in which the key is hidden is lost in a welter of objects in the foreground. In 3D, the purse becomes the focal point of the scene, a visual counterpart to the repetition of the word "knife" in his first talkie, "Blackmail."

I haven't experienced the new digital 3D process yet--seeing a James Cameron film is just more than I can bear--but this evening I'll be driving out to see "Hugo" at one of the few area theaters still showing it. I have my hopes for it and I'll let you know.


6:01 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon e-mails 3-D adventures he's had ...

Hi John,

I have enjoyed---as always---your recent articles. I must say that your aiming a small spotlight to illuminate for the reader the real challenge of showing (projecting) a 3-D show in 1953 woke me up a bit! I've attended several screenings over the years of 3-D revivals done the "old-fashioned way", utilizing two parallel L eye / R eye prints, and I must tell you that if memory serves, they all went off without a hitch. (My pal Brad Arrington contributed a comment to your Part One installment and mentioned a couple of 3-D pictures I saw with him, back when SabuCat rented out the American Cinematheque's Egyptian in Hollywood two years [almost] in a row in the early '00's to screen extant 3-D prints.) However, you make a very good case for the fact that these showings had the potential to have gone the other way, very easily---and I'm quite sure with your scruples for facts and figures, you are aware of incidents wherein that's just what happened. The odds wouldn't have been against it! All the more, therefore, do I now appreciate the work (and possibly expense) that must have gone into insuring that those shows I enjoyed were presented 'flawlessly'. It strikes me that the elevated ticket prices (paid without serious complaint) might have gone in part to hiring TWO projectionists---perhaps (?)---to concentrate on operating each machine. I wouldn't know the particulars, because in tribute to the guys who mounted these [three separate] revivals, it all went so well that I committed the classic sin of 'taking it all for granted'.

I'm amused by the role the Stereo-Realist camera line played in popularizing or otherwise enthusing the general public to go inside and have a look at the little film that acted as a wedge to introduce the giddy 3-D fad to America: the amusingly-named "Bwana Devil". I wonder if it was the clever Oboler himself who came up with the catchline, "A lion in your lap!"...? Your one reader (so far) who's seen the film, evidently 'flat' on TV, testifies to having identified a lot of stock footage, which is not surprising for an ultra-low budget feature, but it's of course antithetical to getting impressive 3-D effects!

6:04 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Part Two of Craig Reardon's 3-D experiences (Great stuff here --- Thanks Craig!) ---

I remember a movie I saw during the first 3-D mini-festival I attended in LA in the '80s (at a small theater on Sunset; you can actually see it briefly in a shot in John Boorman's "Point Blank"!) which starred Edmond O' Brien, and the ad for it, reproduced in the program, played up a scary fist-fight on a roller coaster. Wow, I thought---a 3-D fight on a roller coaster!! Well, you know the punchline: it was mostly O'Brien emoting in a partial mock-up of a roller coaster in front of a nice, flat rear projection screen in a studio! Some '3-D' that was. I think only people who've actually recently seen (I mean, within the past couple decades---that's recent enough!) a LOT of these movies would be able to best identify the most outstanding examples---the films which best exploited and incorporated the process dramatically. I think everybody's fave, "House of Wax", actually did a pretty darned good job, although it's got its share of filler, dramatically. One example might be the young guy taking the girl to the dance hall, mainly so the girlies can flaunt their legs and bottoms at the 3-D camera. But the best example, and the best-remembered example from any 3-D film I would surmise, is the paddle-tennis guy---right? As far as the film itself and its actual look, I still expect it has the potential to benefit, a lot, from whatever restoration work WB is [I hope!] doing to it to prepare it for its vaunted Blu-ray release in true 3-D this coming year; ditto Hitchcock's "Dial 'M'...". "Dial M For Murder" looked pretty darned good in the version included in that excellent boxful of Hitchcock WB Home Video released six or seven years ago. However, even in its most recent reissue on DVD, I was a little unimpressed at the look of "House of Wax". You know what, too? I think Jack Warner must have gotten a hell of a good deal on several-hundred gallons of gray-green paint, sometime in the later '40s! Because many of the interior sets for "The Adventures of Don Juan", to name one, and many more in "House of Wax" loom in my memory as being painted this obnoxious, bilious color. What's more, when I first worked at WB Studios (then still called 'The Burbank Studio'...booo!) in 1978, the interiors of many of the functional buildings were also painted with this somewhat of a downer color. I'm joking, of course...but, uh, not that much!

6:08 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

And Part Three of Craig Reardon on 3-D, this time with emphasis on Stereo-Realist viewers ...

Anyway, back to the Stereo-Realist, this was the camera I do believe the Sawyer View-All company used to photograph the original L/R pictures they then duplicated to be mounted in their unique circular cardboard wheels for viewing in their (literally!) Bakelite viewers. A year or two ago, somebody 'linked' me to a site where I was able to view a long industrial film which was all about the Sawyer company, taken back in its early heyday, and it was absolutely fascinating, including views of the unique machinery they'd had made to manufacture all their components. A true American one-off, and it made me sad to see, in a way. There were lots of skilled and talented people employed there---somewhere near Seattle, WA---not the least of whom were designers and artists who collaborated to come up with subjects that could be made right there, in-house. (The miniatures that were built, and the photographic set-ups, were often exquisite.) I must confess that the reels I bought in the '60s reflected my love of movies and TV, and I had one which was a virtual tour of Universal Studios ca. 1964-'65 (?) or so, as well as one featuring 3-D views of one episode of my beloved "The Munsters", also probably dating from '65 or so. Although the studio had already changed by the time I worked there myself in 1977, it hadn't changed nearly as much as it has since then---not surprisingly. I think I still have one of the original-type viewers, made of the heavyweight Bakelite, vs. the crappier styrene plastic replacement they started selling subsequently; and I had several sets [3 reels per set] of 3-D subjects that I purchased back when the tiny 16mm frames were still being duplicated on Kodachrome film. These still retain their color, all these years later---and I'm talking at least 46 years, thereabouts. Later the company went to some really terrible alternatives, including photographing crappy flat cut-outs of movie stills, and advertising these as "3-D views" from a given film (e.g., "Dick Tracy", 1990.) Ughh...about as 'realistic' as a pop-up birthday card; and what was worse was that they were later duplicated on Ektachrome, a much-inferior looking product which did not age well (i.e., faded---plus, it didn't look as good as Kodachrome in the first place.) The difference between Ektachrome and Kodachrome is---I should say, was---roughly analogous to the difference between Eastmancolor and IB Technicolor which had preceded it.

My friend Randy Cook, AKA Randall William Cook [professionally], used to be a great 3-D enthusiast, and he had a Stereo-Realist camera he'd bought used, and he frequently took pictures with it that came backmounted in special '3-D mounts' furnished by Kodak, even as late as the early 1980s . It was great fun to look at these through a special manual slide viewer I imagine the company must also have manufactured, which Randy had taken care to obtain. I'm thinking there must be some way today that these slides could be transferred in such a way that they might be able to be viewed on one of the new 3-D TV displays.


6:09 PM  
Blogger mndean said...

I appreciate Mr. Reardon's recollection of stereo photography. My brother and I were gifted with View-Masters and a stack of reels by our family's next door neighbors when I was a small child and it was a remarkable experience to my young eyes. Somehow, though, the 3-D cinema experience didn't take my fancy when the '80s wave came along. The films that came out in the period were retreads, cheese, or both. Revivals of the early Polaroid versions didn't come to town, either. Alas, too, the newer stereo still cameras didn't take. Only the Nimslo and its clones were being peddled when I was doing a great deal of still photography. The Stereo Realist and its brethren were strictly for specialists.

P.S. to Mr. Reardon: You'd be amazed how well the Ektachromes I took have held up since the '70s when I started photography. They may not be as stable as Kodachrome but certainly haven't faded greatly or exhibited crossover. Sad that can't be said for Kodacolor-X or early Kodacolor II negative film.

7:51 PM  
Blogger citizenkanne said...

Until your posts, all I ever got from 3-D was a headache. Fascinating stuff with great photos. Especially the top picture with all the movie marquees (Gary Cooper in "Along came KILLER Jones"?!). And, as a struggling actor, I agree with Mr. Duca that Robert Stack did it right. Have rich, well-connected with Hollywood parents and start at the top! Surprising that he was so good and dedicated to the acting profession.

1:42 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

To Citizenkanne: The worst headache I ever had in my life was after a 3-D showing of Warhol's FRANKENSTEIN at the Janus Theaters in Greensboro, NC back in the early 70's. I recall an image of eviscerated intestines coming at me through a grate in the laboratory floor from which I'm yet to fully recover.

11:17 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Craig Reardon speaks to the topic of film stock and 3-D TV to (hopefully) come ...

Dear John,

I was reading your comment page to your second installment on 3-D, and wanted if I might to respond (positively) to a comment another reader made.

To mndean, I want to say I think you are quite right, actually. Whereas I still prefer Kodachrome when properly exposed to the best of my Ektachrome slides in my archives, I concede that they have NOT in fact faded any more than the Kodachromes. Some of these go back to the later 1960s, so that's about 45 years ago now, and that says plenty for their durability. However, I quite agree with your addenda re: Kodacolor X and even the 'improved' Kodacolor II, of which I have several former rolls of color negatives, preserved as cut strips---the way Kodak would return them from processing. I've scanned several of these rolls and they frequently require quite a boost via Photoshop to get them to some semblance of their original richness and color balance, and that's at best. (If not exposed properly in the first place, which was often the case when I took the pictures, they're even harder to resurrect.) I inherited some 2x2 inch Kodacolor negatives taken by my late Dad in the '50s, and naturally the problem is exacerbated the further back in time one goes. So, that would be the better comparison in movie terms with Kodachrome/Technicolor representing the 'good guys', still going strong after all these years, and Kodacolor/'Eastmancolor' (also a color negative film) the perishable and 'fadey' ones.

For those who felt they were being introduced in essence to what '50s audiences had once seen, via the dismal efflorescence of 3-D as a fad in the '80s via technically slipshod stuff like "Spacehunter" and "Jaws 3", I can say from personal experience of having been able to see some samples of '50s 3-D films properly projected, vs. having been gypped and half-blinded by "Spacehunter" et al, that there is no comparison. Those who own or have access to the recent, high-quality TVs which are 3-D 'able' will be able to judge for themselves when WB Home Video brings out "House of Wax" and "Dial M for Murder" this year. They are sensational in true 3-D (L and R eye.) I also got to see "Hondo"---Brad Arrington covered this in his comments---screened using the same technology as 'active' 3-D TVs use, with shutter glasses. This was done under the auspices of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences in collaboration and with the permission of Gretchen Wayne representing her father-in-law's Batjac holdings. (Gretchen is the widow of Michael Wayne and the daughter-in-law of John Wayne.) "Hondo" also looks stupendous in 3-D (photographed by Hitchcock's great D.P., Robert Burks---who also shot "Dial M for Murder"), and it looks good in panoramic scenics as well as intimate scenes---if anything, better in the latter. The famous shot of Wayne galloping at us and leaping over the camera that begins the film was obviously conceived for 3-D, and when you finally see it that way....well, it's just pure fun. (The titles also 'emerge' from the screen---as they also do with "House of Wax" and probably almost any other 3-D film made at that time, a practically de rigueur presentation.) We can keep our fingers crossed that Ms. Wayne will provide her 3-D version of "Hondo" to Paramount, which appears to hold the license for the Batjac library (ironically most of which were originally made for Warner Bros---including "Hondo"!), and that they will release it once again in 3-D this time for home video.


5:12 AM  
Anonymous Kevin K. said...

"Frankenstein 3-D" was a hoot. I remember a scene with children trapped in a closet with bats flying around them -- the audience applauded at how good it looked. And that's not to mention blood spurting at the camera when a poor fellow lost his head when decapitated (as I recall) by ice tongs. The whole movie was so over the top -- as was "Andy Warhol's Dracula" -- that my friends and I laughed almost non-stop.

10:43 AM  
Anonymous Jon said...

The only 3D movies I have seen on DVD were the two Three Stooges shorts that Sony released on one of the Stooges sets. If those are examples of what 3D looks like on DVD, then I have no interest in ever seeing another 3D movie on DVD again. I thought they looked awful.

11:34 PM  
Anonymous Allan said...

I thought those two 3D Stooges shorts looked pretty awful on DVD, too, since somebody brought them up. Anybody know what went wrong with them?

I remember the short-lived 3D revival in the '80s. Three friends and I actually paid to see "Friday the 13th, Part Something or Other" simply because it was 3D and none of us had even seen a 3D movie before. Never thought I would plunk down a single one of my hard-earned dollars on one of those stupid movies. The things a curiosity about 3D leads you to do....

8:13 PM  
Anonymous Chris U. said...

I'll just come out and say it: I think Jaws III is pure entertainment, even in 2D. It's an immaculate example of cinema failure on many levels and I love it for that. It's one of those movies that I'll check out again (at least for a bit) every time I stumble across it while I'm flipping through the cable channels (unless there's commercials, of course).

There, I said it.

2:06 PM  
Blogger Tbone Mankini said...

I too recall the probably last of the heavy Bakelite View Masters.... because it was the battery power lit that had no translucent screens on the back. Unfortunately it ate up power from the batts really quickly...

4:30 PM  

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