A 1950s-early '60s motion picture novelty that possesses strong nostalgic allure is explored in loving detail in "Cinerama Adventure."

A 1950s-early ’60s motion picture novelty that possesses strong nostalgic allure is explored in loving detail in “Cinerama Adventure.” Serving up a treasure trove of behind-the-scenes footage and background info on the process that triggered the craze for widescreen motion pictures a half-century ago, David Strohmaier’s long-in-the-works docu could scarcely have done a better job of conveying all you might ever want to know about the startling three-screen process and of suggesting the excitement that surrounded its advent. Buff interest should be sufficient to support limited theatrical runs in some of the major urban markets that once boasted Cinerama venues, with a good ancillary life to follow.

Although its inventor, Fred Waller, made his first technical tests in 1938, Cinerama, when it finally reached the public on Sept. 30, 1952, was a direct response to the threat posed to films by television. With three synchronized projectors throwing images on a 146-degree wrap-around louvered screen to create a unique you-are-there, 3-D-like sensation, Cinerama indisputably provided an experience unlike anything the public could get at home, or in any other theater.

Reserved seats were sold at elevated prices at picture palaces made over for the process, “surround” stereo was installed in cinemas for the first time, people dressed up as if for live theater or concerts and no concessions were permitted. Cinerama made going to the movies an event again; no matter that for a while the movies themselves were basically very square travelogues that offered the occasional vertiginous aerial or waterborne shot that attempted to duplicate the thrills of the famous roller-coaster sequence that introduced the format in “This Is Cinerama.”

Strohmaier, a professional film editor, establishes a personal connection at the outset when he recalls seeing “Seven Wonders of the World” at age 6 at St. Louis’ Ambassador Theater, one of about 200 Cinerama venues around the world. Filmmaker deftly blends his own enthusiasm for the form, admiration for its creators and practitioners and colorful background information in telling the Cinerama story.

Waller, whose background as an inventor and maker of short subjects featuring black musicians is neatly sketched, devoted years to perfecting a process that would match the ocular field of human beings, including peripheral vision. His first creation, Vitarama, was adapted for military use during World War II, when, as some great footage attests, the Waller Gunnery Trainer employed 11 cameras to simulate battle conditions and greatly improve the skills of future Allied anti-aircraft personnel.

With his system rejected by the Hollywood studios as too complicated, Waller teamed with veteran newsman/adventurer Lowell Thomas and showman Mike Todd (the latter soon replaced by Merian C. Cooper) to commercially launch the expensive venture. Amazingly, the first print of “This Is Cinerama” wasn’t ready until the very eve of its premiere; newsreel and promotional footage beautifully illustrates the intense hoopla surrounding early Cinerama performances, and pic stresses the personal investment company staff had in the process. “It was almost like a religion to us,” marketing veep Arthur Manson recalls.

Cold War politics enters the story in a manner made amusing by the picture. As so often happened, the Soviets pounced on an American innovation (“Cinerama” is an anagram of “American,” after all), reproduced it, then claimed they invented it. In this instance, the Russians came out with a format called Kinopanorama, and for some years the two adversaries competed for the hearts, minds and eyes of the world with bigscreen processes shown at international trade fairs and the like.

Similarly revealed here with ample footage is subsequent Cinerama owner Nicolas Reisini’s ambitious program of taking the format on the road via enormous tented theatrical installations for brief engagements around Europe.

Despite the enormous B.O. response, it was clear after five productions in eight years that the travelogue approach was wearing thin, so in 1962 Cinerama took the inevitable plunge into narrative features. First effort, “The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm,” isn’t included here, as viewable Cinerama materials reportedly no longer exist. But “How the West Was Won” receives comprehensive coverage, from the train accident that severely injured a stuntman to star Carroll Baker’s recollection of how annoyed director John Ford was by the three-camera technique, as opposed to how intensively Henry Hathaway studied its special challenges in order to master it.

Despite the latter film’s huge success, it marked the end of the road for true Cinerama, although the logo continued to appear for a few years on such single-camera 70mm features as “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World” and “2001: A Space Odyssey.”

An unusually large number of commentators contribute nuts-and-bolts history along with revealing insights into the Cinerama saga; not a beat seems to have been missed, with Abel Gance’s ahead-of-its-time three-panel presentation in his silent “Napoleon” being duly noted.

Crucially, docu successfully copes with the problem of how to convey the widescreen process in a normal video format. A three-panel Rank telecine was devised by technician Greg Kimble that produces a curved screen simulation within the frame that the filmmakers call “Smilebox.” Effect is akin to letterboxing but with some deliberate stretching and reshaping of the rectangular image that ultimately provides a surprisingly acceptable impression of the general effect of Cinerama, albeit without the grandeur and visceral impact.

Cinerama Adventure

Production

A C.A. Prods. presentation produced in cooperation with Cinerama Inc. Produced by David Strohmaier, Randy Gitsch. Executive producer, Carin-Anne Strohmaier. Co-producer, Gary S. Hall. Directed, written, edited by David Strohmaier.

Crew

Camera (color, video), Gerald Saldo; music, William Stromberg, John Morgan; special effects, Brian Ross; production associate, Mark A. Martin. Reviewed at Telluride Film Festival, Aug. 30, 2002. Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Russ Tamblyn, Leonard Maltin, Joe Dante, Kevin Brownlow, Rudy Behlmer, Otto Lang, Roger Mayer, Lowell Thomas Jr., Mike Todd Jr., Loren James, Bob Morgan, Claude Johnson, David Raksin, Richard Goldstone, Bob Bendick, Jane MacLardy Schacht, Jim Morrison, David Blangsted, Sayul Cooper, Gregg Mantz, Corkey Fornof, David Pal, Louis DeRochemont III, Gayne Rescher, Bernard Smith, Gloria Tetslov Conroy, John Belton, Thomas Erffmeyer, Greg Kimble, A.C. Lyles, Roy Webb, Arthur Manson, Wentworth Fling, John Caron, John Primi, Bill Martinez, Frank Foulkes, Richard Cooper, Andrew Reisini, Charles Fitzsimonds, Howard Rust, Alex Reeves.
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