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Cinerama Brought The Power Of Peripheral Vision To The Movies

Mar 4, 2013
Originally published on March 4, 2013 2:51 pm

As early as silent film, directors attempted to create widescreen images. But in the 1950s it became a commercial necessity to give the multitude of new TV watchers what they couldn't get on a small screen. So even before CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and Panavision, there was Cinerama — a process in which three projectors threw three simultaneous images onto a gigantic curved screen. Cinerama offered what no TV or movie screen could provide before — peripheral vision, which could make you feel as if you were really in the midst of the action.

In 1952, the first Cinerama experiment, This Is Cinerama, was a sensation, and even though the ticket prices were higher, people flocked to specially designed movie theaters to ride a roller coaster, fly over Niagara Falls, or sway in a gondola through the canals of Venice. Two later Cinerama films — How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm — had actual stories, but mainly Cinerama stuck to travelogues. Probably wisely. This Is Cinerama and the 1958 Windjammer, which was filmed in a similar but slightly superior technique called Cinemiracle, have just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Even watching them on a TV screen, in a format called SmileBox, which simulates the curved Cinerama screen, that roller coaster ride at New York's Rockaway Beach is still pretty breathtaking. And fun.

As a music critic, I'm of course especially interested in the musical selections and how well they work — or not. Part of the new Cinerama process was stereophonic sound, which in 1952 was not quite yet a household phenomenon. So audiences must have been startled to be surrounded by the sound of the Vienna Boys Choir or Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The biggest musical numbers in This Is Cinerama are two episodes from Verdi's Aida filmed on the grand stage of La Scala, Milan's splendiferous opera house.

It's great to be on La Scala's expansive stage looking out at the glittering audience, but the pseudo-Egyptian ballet and the klutzy staging of the Triumphal March were already operatic clichés. And while the on-stage trumpets are impressive in stereo, these opera sequences are hardly as exciting as flying over Niagara Falls.

There are also musical passages in the film Windjammer, which is a mildly charming 1958 semi-documentary about young Norwegian trainees working on a magnificent square-rigger sailing from Oslo across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, New York City, and up the Eastern Seaboard. The wide-angle technique works best on the open seas, unlike the tight kaleidoscopic views of Manhattan made for this film by the famed photojournalist Weegee. There's a wind-in-your-hair score by the American composer Morton Gould, visits to a couple of folk festivals, and Arthur Fiedler leading the Boston Pops. But the most treasurable musical moment has nothing at all to do with wide screens or stereophonic sound. It's rare footage of the legendary cellist Pablo Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 80, playing his favorite Catalan folk song. Here modesty and poignant understatement win the day.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

In the early 1950s the movie industry was trying to get people away from their television sets by offering them things TV wasn't capable of matching - like panoramic images, stereophonic sound, and even three dimensions. One of the first of these technical marvels was called Cinerama. Lloyd Schwartz has a review of two Cinerama films that have just been released on DVD.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "SILK STOCKINGS")

CYD CHARISSE: (As Ninotchka Yoschenko) (singing) Today to get the public to attend the picture show, it's not enough to advertise a famous star they know. If you want to get the crowds to come around, you've got to have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound. If Zanuck's latest picture were the good old fashioned kind, there'd be no one in front to look at Marilyn's behind. If you want to hear applauding hands resound, you've got to have glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope and stereophonic sound.

LLOYD SCHWARTZ, BYLINE: As early as silent film, directors attempted to create widescreen images. But in the 1950s it became a commercial necessity to give the multitude of new TV watchers what they couldn't get on a small screen. So even before CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and Panavision, there was Cinerama - a process in which three projectors threw three simultaneous images onto a gigantic curved screen.

Cinerama offered what no TV or movie screen could provide before - peripheral vision, which could make you feel as if you were really in the midst of the action. In 1952, the first Cinerama experiment, "This Is Cinerama," was a sensation, and even though the ticket prices were higher, people flocked to specially designed movie theaters to ride a roller coaster, fly over Niagara Falls, or sway in a gondola through the canals of Venice.

Two later Cinerama films - "How the West Was Won" and "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm" - had actual stories, but mainly Cinerama stuck to travelogues. Probably wisely. "This Is Cinerama" and the 1958 "Windjammer," which was filmed in a similar but slightly superior technique called Cinemiracle, have just been released on DVD and Blu-ray.

Even watching them on a TV screen, in a format called SmileBox, which simulates the curved Cinerama screen, that roller coaster ride at New York's Rockaway Beach is still pretty breathtaking. And fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS CINERAMA")

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (screaming)

SCHWARTZ: As a music critic, I'm, of course, especially interested in the musical selections and how well they work - or not. Part of the new Cinerama process was stereophonic sound, which in 1952 was not quite yet a household phenomenon.

So audiences must have been startled to be surrounded by the sound of the Vienna Choir boys or Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The biggest musical numbers in "This Is Cinerama" are two episodes from Verdi's "Aida" filmed on the grand stage of La Scala, Milan's splendiferous opera house.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THIS IS CINERAMA")

SCHWARTZ: It's great to be on La Scala's expansive stage looking out at the glittering audience, but the pseudo-Egyptian ballet and the klutzy staging of the Triumphal March were already operatic clichés. And while the on-stage trumpets are impressive in stereo, these opera sequences are hardly as exciting as flying over Niagara Falls.

There are also musical passages in the film "Windjammer," which is a mildly charming 1958 semi-documentary about young Norwegian trainees working on a magnificent square-rigger sailing from Oslo across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, New York City, and up the Eastern Seaboard.

The wide-angle technique works best on the open seas, unlike the tight kaleidoscopic views of Manhattan made for this film by the famed photojournalist Weegee. There's a wind-in-your-hair score by the American composer Morton Gould, visits to a couple of folk festivals, and Arthur Fiedler conducting the Boston Pops.

But the most treasurable musical moment has nothing at all to do with wide screens or stereophonic sound. It's rare footage of the legendary cellist Pablo Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 80, playing his favorite Catalan folk song. Here modesty and poignant understatement win the day.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "WINDJAMMER")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: For us, Mr. Casals plays his favorite Catalan ballad, "Song of the Birds."

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of The Phoenix. He reviewed the new DVD and Blu-ray release of the 1950s widescreen films "This is Cinerama" and "Windjammer". You can see a Cinerama image of the New York skyline on our website freshair.npr.org where you can also download podcasts of our show. And you can follow us on Twitter at #nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.

We'll close with the title music from one of the Cinerama movies Lloyd mentioned, "How the West Was Won."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW THE WEST WAS WON")

GROSS: I want to thank Dave Davies for hosting FRESH AIR while I was on vacation last week. I enjoyed listening. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.