In the midst of this atmosphere of distrust and paranoia, the advent of television also loomed as a threat to the industry. In 1939, television was a novelty in the United States, featured as a scientific wonder at the World’s Fair in New York, but hardly a household item. The National Broadcasting Corporation began regular daily television broadcasts in 1939, but there were fewer than a million television sets in use nationwide, so it seemed that the new medium posed no serious threat to Hollywood dominance. In only ten years, however, the number of sets rose fivefold, and the studios were scrambling to lure back to the theater viewers who were staying home to watch Milton Berle for free. This meant a reversal of Hollywood’s early strategy of simply ignoring television, in which networks were forbidden to employ studios’ contract stars or to broadcast its older films. A new industry sprang up, however, providing viewers with such classic television series as I Love Lucy, The Honeymooners, and Dragnet, as well as an array of variety shows and sports programming, which were cheap to produce.
European producers were less afraid of the new medium than Hollywood, and foreign films, especially British productions, flooded the American airwaves, along with “B” films from Monogram, Eagle-Lion, PRC, and other smaller studios, plus Laurel and Hardy comedies and ancient black-and-white cartoon shorts. With television screening long-forgotten films to an entirely new audience, the studios realized the error of their ways and in 1956 began leasing their pre-1948 catalogue of films to the major networks and independent stations.
As for bolstering sagging theater attendance, Hollywood fought back against television with the foremost weapon in its arsenal: spectacle. This took several forms, the simplest of which was the almost universal introduction of color in motion pictures. In the late 1940s, nearly 90 percent of all feature films were in black-and-white; by 1957, roughly 50 percent of all films were shot in color; and by 1966, black-and-white movies had been phased out almost completely. Indeed, for years there were two categories for Best Cinematography at the Academy Awards, color and black-and-white, but these were consolidated after 1966.
The wide-screen CinemaScope process shaped the panoramic through the somewhat stage-bound spectacle of Henry Koster’s biblical epic The Robe (1953).
In 1953 Twentieth Century Fox dusted
off an old anamorphic photography and projection process the studio dubbed CinemaScope, which had been perfected by the Frenchman Henri Chrétien and first used by director Claude Autant-Lara in the experimental short film Construire de feu (To Build a Fire, 1928). Based on a process discovered in the 1860s and patented in 1898, Chrétien’s technique essentially “squeezed” a long, rectangular image into a standard 35 mm film frame during shooting while another lens “unsqueezed” the image during projection. This created a panoramic image roughly two and a half times as wide as it is high for an aspect ratio of 2.35 to 1, compared to the standard Academy ratio of 1.33 to 1, which had been adopted in the early days of cinema as the industry standard.
Viewing CinemaScope as a cost-effective way of making films that were both highly exploitable and inherently spectacular, Twentieth Century Fox chief Darryl F Zanuck decreed that from 1953 all the studio’s films would be produced in CinemaScope, no matter what the subject matter, even travel shorts and other filler material. The first film presented in CinemaScope was Henry Koster’s The Robe (1953), a biblical epic appropriately themed for the early 1950s. Within less than a year, the system was being copied by other studios, with names like WarnerScope. Though introduced as a gimmick, CinemaScope and its allied methods rapidly became industry standards that are still used today, although in the mid-1950s Fritz Lang famously complained that it was only suitable for photographing “snakes or funerals.”
The same cannot be said of the brief 3-D craze that hit Hollywood in the early 1950s, the most successful process being Natural Vision, created by Milton L. Gunzburg. Using two frame-for-frame interlocked cameras “slaved” inside a single blimp, Natural Vision photographed films from two slightly different vantage points simultaneously, much as we view the world through two eyes. Polarizing filters then staggered one of these images to reach the brain a millisecond after the other, causing a sensation of depth perception. There was also a cheaper, competitive system using an anaglyph process, which melded red and green images printed on the same frame to create a black-and-white image that also produced an illusion of depth.
The first 3-D film was radio dramatist Arch Oboler’s Bwana Devil (1952), a tepid tale of jungle adventure that nevertheless pulled in excellent grosses on the strength of the novelty of 3-D; Warner Bros. soon followed with André de Toth’s infinitely superior House of Wax (1953), photographed in Gunzburg’s Natural Vision process, which remains for many the most effective commercial 3-D film ever made. De Toth was an odd choice to direct the movie: he had only one eye, the other having been lost in an accident, and thus had no sense of depth perception, which he found highly amusing when Jack Warner assigned him to the project. But perhaps because of this, de Toth’s use of the 3-D technique is generally restrained (except for one sequence, inserted at the studio’s insistence, featuring a sideshow barker using a flyback paddle and ball, aimed directly at the audience). But despite this propitious beginning, and even though a number of major productions such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1954) employed the Natural Vision process, the resulting image caused a great deal of eyestrain, and by 1955 the 3-D fad was dead, its novelty exhausted.
Similarly evanescent was the Cinerama process, easily the most complex of the 1950s wide-screen formats. Originally developed by technician Fred Walker for Paramount for the 1939 World’s Fair, Cinerama employed three cameras, all in frame-for-frame electronic synchronization, to photograph its epic scenes, and then three similar synchronized projectors, again in frame-for-frame interlock, to screen the finished film for audiences. Additionally, the cameras were positioned in a 165-degree arc during filming to create the widest possible panorama, with the three separate images melding on the screen to create one gigantic, overwhelming image, albeit with seams.
The three-projector Cinerama setup for theater screenings used three interlocking images to create one wide-screen whole and thus achieve a reasonable illusion of depth.
To the right and left of the screen’s center, where the three images meshed. The projectors were positioned in a similar, arc-shaped arrangement in the projection auditorium, and stereophonic sound was added to complete the illusion of depth and audience participation.
The audience is taken on a first-person roller-coaster ride in Merian C. Cooper, Gunther von Fritsch, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Michael Todd Jr.’s This Is Cinerama (1952).
Cinerama’s debut film, This Is Cinerama (Merian C. Cooper, Gunther von Fritsch, Ernest B. Schoedsack, and Michael Todd Jr., 1952), employed first-person point-of-view sequences on a roller coaster and other shock techniques to thrill the viewer, and a number of Cinerama theaters were built throughout the
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