Quick: Name the highest-grossing film of 1952. Good guesses would include Singin' in the Rain, The Quiet Man, and High Noon. But they all fell well short of the $15.4 million earned by a movie you couldn't watch today even if you wanted to: This Is Cinerama.
What is Cinerama? It was the first of a wave of widescreen processes that debuted in the early '50s. Cinerama used three projectors to fill a giant screen curved to the contours of the human retina. Using films shot by a three-lens camera—in essence, three cameras in one—it created panoramic imagery that filled even the viewer's peripheral vision. This Is Cinerama showcased the format's capabilities, giving the Cinerama treatment to a water-skiing show, Niagara Falls, and the canals of Venice. (Less thrilling: a demonstration of the system's then-new stereo sound via a static shot of a church choir.)
Cinerama arrived at a moment when movies needed to stir interest. The 11 million televisions then in American homes had begun to eat into theatrical profits. In his introduction to This Is Cinerama, impresario Lowell Thomas promised an "entirely new form of entertainment" with "no plot" and "no stars." In the coming decade, Cinerama movies showed viewers the wonders of the world, from a roller coaster at Rockaway Beach to the white-water rapids of Pakistan—travelogues not unlike the glam documentaries that until recently defined the IMAX experience. It wasn't until 10 years later that the first, and ultimately only, two narrative features shot in three-strip Cinerama made their debut: The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm and How the West Was Won, recently released in a new special-edition DVD and Blu-Ray. The latter is worth revisiting—as a cinematic curio but also as a clue to what the future might hold for IMAX.
Cinerama faded before I was born, but my hometown of Dayton, Ohio, became the unlikely site of a Cinerama revival in the '90s, thanks to the efforts of Dayton projectionist John Harvey. Harvey had previously set up a Cinerama screening room in his ranch home—eliminating two bedrooms in the process—and helped the National Media Museum in Bradford, England, set up Cinerama projection in 1993. In 1996, Harvey moved his home equipment to the Neon Movies, a downtown theater that had served as a pilgrimage site for Daytonians seeking art house fare since the mid-'80s. Harvey's Cinerama setup was supposed to have a one-month stay. Instead, it stuck around for more than three years, attracting widescreen enthusiasts like Quentin Tarantino and Joe Dante.
On trips home to visit my parents, I was able to see both This Is Cinerama and How the West Was Won, and the experience has stayed with me. Cinerama does only one type of shot better than other formats—long shots in which the camera proceeds into or retreats from an environment—but it does it spectacularly well. Early in How the West Was Won, there's an uninterrupted shot, slightly more than a minute long, that proceeds through the dirt-road center of a young Albany, N.Y., past carts, tradesmen, crude streetlamps, a hotel, and a ticket office, finally arriving at the banks of the Erie Canal, where laborers are unloading a boat. It's a Hollywood vision of the past, to be sure, but seen in Cinerama it feels vivid and dramatic, immersive in a way it could not have been in a traditional format. Later sequences, in particular a buffalo stampede and a shootout aboard a train, achieve a similarly enthralling effect.
Can such spectacles add up to a movie? In the case of How the West Was Won, they mostly do. The film's interlocked stories are designed to depict the heroic conquest of the American West, "won from nature and primitive Man." It's essentially the story of manifest destiny played without irony—unless a final sequence presenting the Los Angeles freeway system as a symbol of humanity's triumph over adversity counts—by an all-star cast that included James Stewart, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and George Peppard, among others. Three directors divvied up the film's five segments: John Ford, George Marshall (best known for directing Destry Rides Again), and the dependable vet Henry Hathaway.
Surprisingly, Ford provides the weakest segment, an inert Civil War vignette about the attempted assassination of Ulysses S. Grant (played by Harry Morgan of M*A*S*H and Dragnet fame). Hathaway, however, looks almost at home. His three segments move the story along and let Cinerama-friendly action build naturally. In Hathaway's hands, Cinerama's third narrative film might have really been something.