Classic Home Toys Installment #23
The Rebirth of 3-D: Part 3
The Golden Era of 3-D Cinema
Author: James Russo
April 1953 saw two ground breaking features in 3-D: Columbia’s Man in the Dark and Warner Bros. House of Wax, the first 3-D feature with stereophonic sound. House of Wax, outside of Cinerama, was the first time many Americans heard recorded stereophonic sound. It was also the film that typecast Vincent Price as the horror star as well as the “King of 3-D” after he became the actor to star in the most 3-D features ) the others were The Mad Magician, Dangerous Mission, and Son of Sinbad) The success of these two films proved that major studio now had a method of getting moviegoers back into theaters and away from their television sets.
The Walt Disney Studio ,already world renowned for their ground breaking animated features entered the 3-D market on May 28, 1953 with the release of Melody, which accompanied the first 3-D western, Columbia's Fort Ti at its Los Angeles opening. It was later shown at Disneyland's Fantasyland Theater in 1957 as part of a program with Disney's other short, Working for Peanuts, entitled, 3-D Jamboree. the show was hosted by the Mousketeers and was in color.
Universal-International released their first 3-D feature on May 27, 1953, It Came From Outer Space, with stereophonic sound. Columbia produced several 3-D westerns produced by Sam Katsman and directed by innovative horror/suspense filmmaker William Castle. Castle, whose life was showcased in the film Matinee which starred John Goodman as film director William Castle, would specialize not just in the gimmickry of 3-D, but would develop many other in-theater gimmicks for such Columbia features as 13 Ghost, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler. Columbia also produced the only slapstick comedies conceived for 3-D. The Three Stooges starred in Spooks and Pardon My Backfire. Another comedian, dialect comic Harry Mimmo starred in the two-reeler short, Down the Hatch. Producer Jules White was optimistic about the possibilities of 3-D as applied to slapstick (with pies and other projectiles aimed at the audience), but only two of his stereoscopic shorts were shown in 3-D. Down the Hatch was released as a conventional “flat” motion picture. Through the wonders of modern CGI technology, Down the Hatch has been restored to its former 3-D granduer for special screenings and film festivals.
One of the most famous or infamous if you prefer feature films to utilize 3-D technology was the 3 Dimensional Pictures production of the B- Movies, Robot Monster. Well know by science fiction fans as a movie that appeared to have no script and a zero budget, the film titular monster is nothing more than a stuntman wearing a very fake looking gorilla suit with a diver’s helmet over his head. The film was allegedly scripted in an hour by screenwriter Wyott Ordung and filmed in a period of two weeks. Despite these shortcomings adnt he fact that the crew had no previous experience with the newly-built camera rig, luck was on the cinematographer’s side, as many find the 3-D photography in the film to be well shot and aligned.
Despite tremendous advancements in the 3-D process both at the production stage of a film as swell as the theatrical exhibition, many theater owners tired of the complex process. The two-strip 3-D projection process yielded excellent results…if it worked. Theater owners had to have people constantly at the projectors to make sure that the films stayed in synch. Frequently, patrons of 1950’s 3-D films complained that the parts of the film presented in 3-D appeared much darker in tone and contrast than the rest of the film making the 3-D action difficult to see.
Several other problems arose which caused 3-D films to be disliked my theater managers and exhibitors. Frequently, 35mm film prints need to be repaired and synchronization could be lost if one of the prints required repair or splicing and the other did not. If the two prints did become out of sync the picture became virtually unwatchable and accounted for headaches and eyestrains. In order to restore synchronization of the two prints, the theater projectionists would have to stop the projection of the film (amidst the vocal complaints of a dissatisfied audience) for some time and restore the synch. Yet another drawback to the 3-D craze which was not anticipated when the process first started to be used was the necessary silver projection screen was very directional and caused sideline seating to be usable with both 3-D and regular films due to the angular darkening of these films.
These problems with the 3-D film process started out mainly as technical problems, but any problem with the process later translated to a money problem which ultimately caught the attention of big studio moguls. Concerned that expensive 3-D films would not reap enough that the box-office to become profitable, many projects green lighted as 3-D productions were converted to 2-D or flat films at the last minute. In December of 1953, MGM hoped to stage a comeback for 3-D when the studio filmed the famous stage musical, Kiss Me Kate, in 3-D. Nervous that a wide 3-D release would present mass projection problems and audience outrage, MGM tested three 3-D prints and three flat prints. Surprisingly, the 3-D prints were very well received by theatergoers although film critics who saw both version stated that the film looked better as a flat print.
There were other notable fim releases which ran into problems. Alfred Hitchcock was well known for his ability to showcase advanced technical effects on screen and the idea of movie in three dimension was a natural for him. Dial M For Murder which starred Ray Milland and Grace Kelly is considered by aficionados of 3-D to be one of the best examples of the process. Although available in 3-D in 1954, there are no known playdates in 3-D since Warner Bros. had just installed a simulataneous 3-D/2-D release policy. A revival showing of the film in February 1980 at the York Theater in San Francisco did so well that Warner Bros. re-released the film in 3-D in February 1982.
Not all complaints about 3-D films were of a technical nature. Many of the 1950’s 3-D films lacked aesthetic value…the films were shot on a shoestring budge and featured cut rate actors. Many films used stock footage heavily or relied on sets left over from prior studio productions. Many audience goers complained that some films used the 3-D effects only sparingly and the remainder of the film was a talky bore.
It is a misconception by the majority of movie buffs that they golden era heyday of 3-D films continued throughout the 1950’s. By the spring of 1954, the format’s gloss was beginning to lose luster. The 3-D experience had given way to newer, widescreen formats such as Cinemascope and Cinerama which could “wow” audiences without burdening the theater projectionist. In an last ditch attempt to jump start audience interest in the format, Polaroid Corporation developed a well-designed feature called the “Tell-Tale Filter Kit’ for the purpose of recognizing and adjusting out sync 3-D films. Despite these technical innovations, Revenge of the Creature was the last film to be released in the 3-D format on February 23, 1955. Ironically, the film had a wide release in 3-D and was well recognized at the box office.
Much like 3-D’s original demise before World War II, national and world events began to overshadow moviegoers. The 1950’ s saw the beginning of another conflict in Korea and the 1960’s saw the beginnings of the war in Vietnam along with tumultuous domestic problems in the U.S. and the frivolity of 3-D films was again ignored. Nearly twenty-five years would pass before the 3-D format would come to life once again and make yet another comeback and this time the return would be larger than ever.