This Is Cinerama (Blu-ray Review)15 Oct, 2012 By: Mike Clark
For all the printer’s ink they generated from their mammoth annual box office tallies throughout the 1950s, the original Cinerama travelogues (moviegoing stunts that delivered) were by no means universally seen even during a barely decade-plus heyday that preceded their descent into semi-obscurity over subsequent decades. A common refrain I used to hear (and always personally ignored) was the one that said, “You don’t go out of the town to go to the movies.” But the truth is — as explained on the wonderful Cinerama Adventure documentary included on Warner’s deluxe DVD/Blu-ray editions of How the West Was Won — is that when people journeyed to New York City in the 1950s, they did shell out to see format launcher This Is Cinerama, follow-up Cinerama Holiday, Seven Wonders of the World and (as I, or rather, my deep-pockets father, did on a 1958 NYC visit) Search for Paradise. It was something you engaged in along with the usual tours of the Empire State Building or the Statue of Liberty. (Before too long, the process did branch out in relative tippy-toes to other cities, but my hometown didn’t get Cinerama until the early 1960s — and then not for too long.)
This Is Cinerama was the big one, of course, because it had the element of surprise and a marvelous opener. Following a lengthy on-screen intro by pitchman Lowell Thomas, this two-hour extravaganza got itself out of the gate with one of the greatest examples of showmanship in the history of the movies: mounting the Cinerama camera(s) on the front of the now long extinct “Atom Smasher” roller coaster at Rockaway Playland and projecting the three separate images captured (joined together via two often visible vertical dividing lines) onto a huge curved screen. The resulting illusion was that you were actually “in the picture” — and as one who saw the much later How the West Was Won five times in its Cinerama version, I can tell you that it worked. And with the pioneer roller coaster sequence in particular, viewers had something close to the best of all worlds. You could be a coward who ordinarily, in real life, would never consider partaking in off-the-ground amusement park madness — yet in this case, nonetheless experience an approximation of what it was like to have yourself zoomed through the heavens (well, relatively speaking even in its original incarnation and inevitably less so on a home-viewing “Smilebox” presentation).
Flicker Alley’s restoration takes source material that looked as if it had been in the car with Thelma & Louise when they went off the cliff and almost miraculously (as shown in a great-of-kind documentary on its restoration that is part of this release) turns it into something pretty exceptional — though this is still a case of when negative damage was originally done, it was really done. What’s more, the on-screen-content result is at times a nostalgist’s case of “you had to have been there” because some of the post-coaster passages (bag-pipers in Scotland, a portion of Aida performed at La Scala) look mighty quaint today — though seeing them in pre-CinemaScope widescreen and with stereophonic sound must have been really something at the time. It will be a value judgment for each viewer to determine whether the Vienna Boys Choir in 1952 Cinerama was as impressive as Marilyn Monroe in 1953-54 CinemaScope not long after.
Thomas’s intro (by the way, I was digging his suit) is purposely pedagogical in dry fashion that would serve a James Bond martini well. Something akin to Edward R. Murrow’s prelim at the beginning of Around the World in 80 Days, it parades us through movie milestones that even include Thomas Edison’s The Kiss from 1896 (for all you May Irwin-John Rice fans out there). This, of course, sets us up marvelously for when the curtain parts on the roller coaster, and we’re off to smash some atoms. The movie’s second half — and, yes, Flicker Alley even gives us the official intermission footage — is livelier. A long Cyprus Gardens sequence gives us water skiing, pulchritude and a speedboat finale akin to the one in Martin & Lewis’s 1955 You’re Never Too Young. Even better is an East-to-West travelogue of the United States that’s welcomely heavy on aerial shots. You don’t have to be a Steelers fan to get a buzz from an overheader of the Allegheny and Monongahela joining in Pittsburgh to form the Ohio River.
Flicker Alley can be relied upon to pile on supplements, and the ones here beyond disc 1’s meaty commentary and restoration featurette include an alternate post-intermission opening geared to European audiences; tributes to Denver’s Cooper Theater in Denver and the nationally famous Cinerama revival showings in Dayton, Ohio, TV spots and even a “breakdown” reel that was utilized if one of the three projectors broke down during a screening (something well beyond the “Let’s Go Out to the Lobby” jingle). The same distributor has also just put out 1958’s Windjammer — a lengthy ocean-voyage documentary filmed in rival “Cinemiracle” and one whose well-recalled publicity from the time has me anxious to see.