Saturday, October 06, 2012

This is Cinerama

Although my family wasn’t rich in any traditional sense of the word, we did love a good movie spectacle and so would occasionally drive into Hollywood to see films like West Side Story, Spartacus, Exodus, The Greatest Story Ever Told, and even the ill-fated Cleopatra—movies so grand they would fill theaters for months at a time. These films had their own musical overtures that would play before each screening and during intermission—yes, many of these movies were so long they had intermissions!—and their own souvenir booklets, which I still own. Going into Hollywood to see these films remains one of my fondest childhood memories and really helped shape my love of movie-going today.

My family especially enjoyed films shot in Cinerama, a three-camera technique projected onto an unusually wide theater screen. Though the three film panels were often clearly visible, the experience was completely immersive if you sat close enough to the screen—the IMAX of its day. The technology, however, was cumbersome and so was quickly replaced by Panavision and other single-film widescreen techniques. Still, we managed to see almost every Cinerama film ever made, including How the West Was Won, the last non-documentary movie shot in three-camera Cinerama and one of my favorite films as a kid.

 The unwieldy Cinerama camera

In its heyday, Cinerama was so popular it was shown in two Hollywood theaters: the Warner, on Hollywood Blvd., and the Cinerama Dome, which was built specifically to show widescreen films. By the time the Dome opened in 1963, three-camera Cinerama was no longer being made, so I have no memories of going there when I was young. I have, however, seen many movies at the Dome as an adult and am always blown-away by its simple majesty. The theater is round; therefore, the screen is famously bowed. In an age of what I call “bowling alley” multiplexes, the stand-alone Dome is a true anomaly. Happily, it was rescued from a proposed wrecking ball and remodeled in the early 2000s. It reopened in all its geodesic glory in 2002.

To celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the Dome’s reopening, the theater held a week-long festival featuring several three-camera Cinerama films. How the West Was Won was shown Thursday night. I insisted we go, even though I watched the movie on DVD not too long ago. Tim had never seen Cinerama.

The best seats in the house—front-row loge for a completely unobstructed view—were already sold by the time I got around to buying our tickets, so we sat toward the back in the center. (Center seats are mandatory to experience the full Cinerama effect.) Every seat was filled by the time the lights dimmed. The overture then played, as I quietly sang along.

Tim looked bemused. “Do you know all the words?” he asked.

“Yes!” I said, matter-of-factly. After all, my family owned the soundtrack, which I played over and over again when I was a kid.

The movie then started, to much applause. For those who don’t know the storyline, the plot follows members of the Prescott family as they move west during the pre- and post-Civil War periods. The characters are mostly archetypes: grizzled old mountain men (Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda), a sweet-talking gambler (Gregory Peck), an old spinster looking for a husband (Thelma Ritter), the stalwart soldier who becomes a humanitarian after seeing too much war (George Peppard), and a plucky entertainer (Debbie Reynolds). But, of course, the real star of the show is the exciting Cinerama camera work used to capture real-life adventure scenes, including: an unexpected river-raft ride down some lethal rapids, a buffalo stampede, and a death-defying shoot-out atop a fast-moving log train.

Lobby card of the raft ride (Carroll Baker & Debbie Reynolds)

Buffalo stampede

At the end of the movie, the narrator (Spencer Tracy) reminded everyone how beholdin’ we are to the pioneers who came before us, as the camera slowly panned over a fabulous shot of downtown Los Angeles circa 1962. Tim and I nearly leaped out of our seats.

Downtown L.A. ca. 1962, including the much missed
Richfield building (upper righthand corner)

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