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Meet the Forefather of Immersive Attractions at Today’s Theme Parks: 'This Is Cinerama'

A home viewing can never match the experience of seeing this on a giant screen, but This Is Cinerama offers a hint at this unique presentation's original exhibition.


This is Cinerama

Director: Merian C. Cooper
Cast: Lowell Thomas
Distributor: Flicker Alley
Rated: G
Release date: 2012-09-25

In today’s world of giant IMAX screens and 3D technology, it’s fitting to look back at one of the early advances that had audiences flocking to theaters. Cinerama was developed in the early '50s by Fred Waller and Merian C. Cooper. The basic idea was to expand the field of vision by using three 35 mm cameras put together for a massive shot. The images appear on a curved screen and help to enhance the “you are there” feeling. Cinerama was the forefather of Circle Vision and immersive attractions at today’s theme parks.

This grand wave of the future (sort of) was introduced to the public in 1952 with its flagship production. This is Cinerama has faded into history and is hardly known today, but it’s still very impressive. The “Smilebox” format has brought it home in a manner that effectively recreates the theatrical exhibition.

The film begins with a lengthy black-and-white introduction from Lowell Thomas that gives an overview of how Cinerama works. It’s a bit over the top, as Thomas is a travel writer and newscaster, so he understands how to present the dry material with the right aplomb. He sells the technology like it’s the greatest thing ever to appear on your screen, and he does a solid job in building our expectations. When he belts out “This is Cinerama!” and we board a rollercoaster, it’s an energetic opening that builds to that immersive experience.

The “Atom Smasher” from Rockaways’ Playland in Queens is a classic wooden coaster that no longer exists, so this scene is a step back into history. The downside is that it’s the best sequence in the entire movie. There are exciting moments throughout the two-hour presentation, but nothing matches the feeling of taking that first hill on the coaster.

Rarely has a movie tried so hard to convince you that it’s a grand, one-of-kind production. The Academy Award-nominated score from Louis Forbes, Paul Sawtell, Max Steiner, and Roy Webb includes plenty of sweeping music to accompany the widescreen images. If you’re willing to take the ride, it can be a stunning experience.

However, if you’re not swayed by seeing the vistas of this country while “America the Beautiful” plays in the background, it could be tougher experience. Regardless, the historical importance of this film makes it a necessary viewing for anyone interested in that side of cinema. Considering the rarity of seeing it in recent years, this Blu-ray/DVD release is an impressive discovery. It’s not a spotless technical presentation given the age of the movie, but it looks pretty darn good.

Following the roller coaster, the follow-up scenes include a lengthy temple dance from Aida, a Viennese choir, and attractive shots of the canals of Venice. The tricky part of the performances is that we don’t get a close-up look at the productions. The cameras weren’t able to zoom, so it’s mostly long shots of the entire stage and scenary. That said, the overall view of these scenes is very impressive. It creates a specific feeling of being in a specific seat at that performance.

Following an extended intermission, there’s a surprisingly long sequence at Cypress Gardens that slows down the movie. There are fun shots of acrobatic feats from water skiers, but they go on for a very long time. It’s an interesting look at an old-style amusement park where seeing pretty girls in old-style dresses was an attraction. It’s just maddening to note how much of the screen time is spent at that one location.

This Blu-ray DVD combination release provides interesting extras that give some background on the production. “Remastering a Widescreen Classic” offers a 19-minute look at how the film was restored from Remastering Director David Strohmaier. He’s dryly reading from a script and seems a bit nervous, but it’s still worthy information. We hear from some other guys involved with this process, and they don’t seem as awkward as Strohmaier.

A fun inclusion is the Breakdown Reel, which theaters could show if there was an error with the movie. It runs for about five minutes and has Thomas providing random stories about his life experience. The European version had a slightly different opening after the intermission, which gives a separate introduction to the Cypress Gardens sequence. This two-minute alternate scene appears on this release.

The release also includes a re-designed trailer, several TV spots, tributes to Cinerama theaters, and a radio interview with Waller. Another cool inclusion is a reproduction of an original program from the original run. Finally, there’s also an audio commentary from Strohmaier, John Sittig, Randy Gitsch, and Jim Morrison that provides a wide-ranging perspective on the movie. Strohmaier also directed the wonderful 2002 documentary Cinerama Adventure, which offered a fun and nostalgic look at this technology.

The climax of This is Cinerama takes us on a brisk journey across the United States while “America the Beautiful” blares over the soundtrack. A B-25 airplane glides over the land and provides the type of view that we rarely see. It flies low enough to get an up-close view of the scenery that you don’t see from an airplane. An interesting element is how different the country looked back in the early '50s. . Although there are some hiccups along the way, this powerful sequence ends the movie on the right note. While a home viewing can never match the experience of seeing it on a giant curved screen, This is Cinerama offers a hint at the look of this unique presentation during its original exhibition.

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