The mere existence of a home-video version of This Is Cinerama is a bit perverse. Designed to showcase Cinerama, the first of a wave of widescreen film formats to appear in the early ’50s, the films can’t help but feel diminished in any other format. That’s partly because Cinerama is such a difficult-to-replicate experience. Designed to stretch to the human eye’s peripheral vision, Cinerama films required three cameras to shoot, theaters equipped with three projectors and a curved screen to exhibit, and unusually gifted projectionists to keep all the parts moving as they should. When it all came together, though, Cinerama offered an immersive experience like no other format, overwhelming the senses decades before IMAX. The format thrived in the ’50s and early ’60s, but today only a few theaters remain capable of showing Cinerama films. And it’s not like there are that many to show, anyway. Only two narrative films—How The West Was Won and the all-but-forgotten The Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm—were ever shot in the true, three-strip Cinerama process. (Some later films used the name but not the original format.) The rest were travelogues with self-explanatory titles like Seven Wonders Of The World and South Seas Adventures, all designed to take advantage of the format’s eye-filling qualities.
So, too, was This Is Cinerama, the format’s introduction to the world. Hosted by journalist, media personality, and Cinerama investor Lowell Thomas, the film begins with a history of filmmaking that starts with its stone-age roots before getting to the one sequence no viewer of This Is Cinerama has ever forgotten: a real-time, stomach-dropping trip on a roller coaster. From there the film proceeds to Vienna, Edinburgh, Milan, and other locations before a short intermission, a visit to Florida’s Cypress Gardens, and then an aerial trip across the United States visiting landmarks both natural and man-made, set to patriotic music. It’s less a film than a demo reel, and at least part of what it’s demonstrating has become such a part of everyday life, it no longer seems novel: the miracle of stereophonic sound, spotlighted here with a performance by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. The sights of This Is Cinerama, however, remain a stunning demonstration of the power of moving a camera—or three—through space.
That can’t really be duplicated on even the largest home theater system, but the This Is Cinerama set—which includes both a Blu-ray and DVD edition of the film with a generous assortment of extras—offers a taste of the experience. Assembled by film editor David Strohmaier, it’s clearly a labor of love. (Strohmaier has also just released a restoration of Windjammer, shot in the rival Cinemiracle format.) Shown in the “Smilebox” format, a curved letterbox simulating the Cinerama screen that Strohmaier introduced with the How The West Was Won Blu-ray, it suggests some of the enveloping qualities of the Cinerama experience. The film itself remains a treat, albeit one whose pleasures vary in quality from segment to segment. The visit to the Vienna Boys’ Choir will probably only delight boys’-choir enthusiasts, and while the segment filmed at La Scala captures some of the enormity of the venue, it also doubles as a reminder as to why filmed opera has never really caught on. But the sweeping excursions to beautiful locales remain powerful, even if the home-video version, like Cinerama itself, can’t quite hide the seams. It’s impossible to line three projected images up perfectly, which creates a ripple effect at the points where the three images become one. Nothing ever solved that problem, which probably assured Cinerama would remain forever a novelty. It was hard to shoot and hard to show, and even when it worked, it never worked completely. But as follies go, it was a beauty.
Key features: Many, including an audio commentary, a “breakdown reel” of footage played when Cinerama inevitably encountered technical difficulties, and a tribute to the New Neon Cinema in Dayton, Ohio, which revived the format in the ’90s with the help of a Cinerama enthusiast who had set up a system in his home.