Best of Cinerama, The (Blu-ray Review)19 Dec, 2016 By: Mike Clark
For an assemblage whose reason for being at the time was mostly to fill a temporary dearth of product, The Best of Cinerama (culled from five preceding reserved-seat travelogues dating back to 1952) plays so spectacularly well that if you need a “demonstration” disc to help show off the home system for which you forfeited your kids’ education, this could be the one. Source-wise, of course, we are talking here about the first five original three-camera Cinerama releases — and not the later Super Panavision 70 blockbusters like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World or 2001: A Space Odyssey (which carried the Cinerama name but weren’t as effective at putting you in the action — though you can’t say they weren’t easy on the eye). Thus, the feature-length travelogues forming the basis for this two-and-a-half-hour look-back were: This Is Cinerama (1952); Cinerama Holiday (1955); Seven Wonders of the World (1956); Search for Paradise (1957); and South Seas Adventure (1958) — all of which have preceded Best as Flicker Alley home releases.
The pleasures here exist on dual levels. If you want to enjoy the famed Cinerama roller coaster ride or a visit to the Vatican or an aerial flight directly over a volcano that isn’t oozing lava yet is still plenty hot inside, here you go with multi-channel stereo, robust Technicolor and one of those surprisingly effective “Smilebox” curved-screen simulations (I’m not sure how small your screen can be and have the presentation still be effective, but even my old 57-inch Hitachi did a pretty fair job). But if you’re a real lover of film and especially film exhibition, here’s a release whose history-packed bonus extras will separate the big kids from pretenders. More on these added goodies in a minute.
One of the greatest movie-related documentaries I’ve ever seen is 2002’s Cinerama Adventure by David Strohmaier, who also did the reconstruction and remastering on Best). A 93-minute history of the format, Adventure was included on the Blu-ray and most recent DVD of How the West Was Won (which followed The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm — whose restoration is reportedly too bank-busting to undertake — in theaters as one of only two fictional features shot in three-camera Cinerama). One of the many points the doc makes is of Cinerama’s onetime value as a tourist attraction — which is how “travelogues” were able to place at the top or near top of the year’s box office performers despite playing in just a handful of cities (and at the beginning, New York exclusively). When planning a trip to see the Empire State Building or Statue of Liberty, a lot of ’50s folks would also order tickets (sometimes way in advance) for a pricey reserved seat showing on a curved screen that just about covered your peripheral vision capabilities. This is how I got to see Search for Paradise in ’58 at Manhattan’s old Warner Theater (47th and Broadway) despite living in Central Ohio, which didn’t get its own Cinerama theater until the early ’60s.
Projecting three separate 35mm images simultaneously and in sync was good for Excedrin Headaches No. 12 and 35 when it came to exhibition, as well as for the post-production labors Cinerama editors who had to deal with when it came to an additional fourth reel of footage (for the soundtrack). This is why the company filmed additional “filler” as insurance for travelogue host Lowell Thomas to spout to the audience in case one of the supposed-to-be-synched prints got mangled, and the projectionist had to have some emergency Ben Casey surgery in the booth while the natives in the audience were getting restless. This is the kind of inside-baseball at which this release excels, though the best features (which almost had me tearing up) are exclusively on the Blu-ray.
One is a lengthy — and magnificent — photo montage of the process’s scores of pioneers, beginning with Fred Waller (who died in 1954 and thus only got to see the first Cinerama release presented in a theater); it’s one of those relatively rare times when you want to cheer corporate execs with the kind of gusto usually reserved for a postseason sporting event. The other is a chronological theater-by-theater review (also heavy on photos) of all the Cinerama theaters that opened worldwide up until about 1960. There’s a shot, and I’m not making this up, of Hirohito himself at the Japanese launch gala. And I learned that Havana’s Cinerama theater opened in 1958, for which I hope the boys in corporate were able to score a significant tax write-off from their friends at the IRS. Some shots in the montage show what urban decay did to the theaters’ cosmetics after even single-camera Cinerama ended around the time of Krakatoa, East of Java (which got off to a bad start when critics pointed out that Krakatoa is actually west of Java). One former Cinerama theater shown here is playing a Fred Williamson bill, which is not the kind of attraction out-of-town patrons would have purchased advance seats to see.
Other extras include a voiceover commentary by Cinerama historian David Coles plus a pair of 70mm featurettes restored and saved from oblivion — one about Shell Oil and another about NASA. An unadvertised bonus (to me) was heavy samplings in the bonus material from Dimitri Tiomkin’s Paradise score — which I now realize is one of his great ones, though no one ever talks it up much (if you can’t tell in two seconds who composed it, you shouldn’t be writing on the movies). About 20 seconds after finishing this extravaganza, which delighted me to no end, I ordered the soundtrack album off Amazon.