As someone who lives nearly two thousand miles from Los Angeles, one of my personal rules for creating my TCMFF schedule is prioritizing unique experiences I couldn’t have back home. Seeing This is Cinerama (1952) in its original format at the Arclight Cinerama Dome was one of them.
Though I was disappointed at the small size of the audience, I wasn’t too surprised at the lack of attendance compared to other festival screenings. It was a hard sell against a strong Saturday morning lineup, which included The China Syndrome with Michael Douglas in attendance, a new restoration of The Court Jester at the TCL Chinese Theatre, and Stalag 17, one of my favorite war films starring William Holden. Plus, the Cinerama Dome is the furthest venue from the festival hub–about a 20 minute walk from the Roosevelt Hotel.
But I’m so glad I attended This is Cinerama—it was one of my favorite experiences of the festival.
Film historian Leonard Maltin was on hand to introduce the screening, during which he explained the history and technical elements of the Cinerama format.
Cinerama was one of the gimmicks Hollywood introduced to help movies compete with television. This is Cinerama was the first film to use the format when it premiered in 1952. Though it only played in 14 specialized Cinerama theatres around the US, it still became the top grossing film that year.
The system for shooting Cinerama involved three interlocked 35mm cameras equipped with 27mm lenses, approximately the focal length of the human eye. Each camera photographed one third of the picture shooting in a crisscross pattern, the right camera shooting the left part of the image, the left camera shooting the right part of the image and the center camera shooting straight ahead. The three cameras were mounted as one unit.
Cinerama film was projected onto a curved screen from three projection booths arranged in the same crisscross pattern as the cameras and each booth had its own projector and projectionist. One person was in charge of communicating among the booths to make sure everything was in sync, but with separate projectors, images didn’t always line up perfectly and constant adjustments had to be made. There was also a separate reel for the seven channels of magnetic sound, which was fed through surround speakers.
As for the film itself, it truly is a spectacle. Narrator Lowell Thomas begins the film by recounting the history of the visual arts in a 12 minute black and white sequence. At its conclusion, he announces “This is Cinerama!” and the image expands and switches to color as viewers are taken on a roller coaster ride. The subsequent segments also manifest IMAX-like immersion and include scenes from a ballet at the La Scala Theatre in Milan, a bullfight in Madrid, a motorboat and water ski stunt show, and a spectacular sequence showing aerial views of New York, Washington, Chicago, the Grand Tetons, and other American locations. My favorite segment was the Vienna Boys Choir performance. It is a gorgeous demonstration of the magnetic sound, which brings immediacy and vitality to the experience. I was moved to tears.
To complete the experience, the screening had a 15 minute intermission and exit music, and they even played the “breakdown reel” after the final credits, which theatres would’ve played in the event of technical difficulties. Luckily, we didn’t experience any issues during the screening, though the three projected images didn’t always line up. But that’s part of the charm.
Seeing This Is Cinerama as it was originally presented to audiences in the 1950s was like stepping into a time capsule. Though parts of it may seem dull and even antiquated by today’s standards, I can imagine 1950s audiences going nuts for it; I sure did, and it became one of my favorite TCMFF memories.