3-D Rarities promises “22 ultra-rare and stunningly restored 3-D films”, courtesy of the 3-D Film Archive, and it delivers. This is one of the year’s most delightful collections, and it’s accessible to all, for the Blu-ray automatically plays flat versions if you don’t have 3D equipment. That’s a good test, because if a movie’s not worth seeing flat, why bother to add depth? With the Archive’s determination to fix and improve bad parallax work, the results are 3D movies that play better than back in the day.
First come compilations of demo and novelty material from the ’20s, the earliest surviving examples of a 3D film tradition that goes back to 1915. The first film, with touristy shots of Washington DC and New York, includes footage hearkening back to the gimmicks of the earliest cinema: an approaching train, a pretty dancer, a man pointing a gun at the camera as in The Great Train Robbery (1903).
Such frontal attacks characterize 3D, as though feeding the desires of a masochistic audience. Indeed, the second compilation is among the most hostile films ever made as it literalizes the vaudeville dictum to “murder ’em”. Every kind of weapon, from a cup of poison to a cannonball, is hurled in our faces. A man doing a Chaplin impression throws water at us during the arty silhouette portion and ends the film with a pie in the kisser. Another silent compilation from 1935 has baseball, a worm’s eye view of a juggler, an exciting car chase across a bridge, and a rollercoaster.
In 1940, Pennsylvania Railroad and Chrysler adopted 3D for promotional films. The voice of the railroad ad promotes “the art, the beauty, the comfort, the speed of modernism”, and it’s hard not to feel wistful at this vision of gracious living now gone with no better replacement. The Chrysler film, exhibited at the New York World’s Fair, is the set’s first masterpiece: a wonderful Technicolor symphony of stop-motion animation in which a car is built piece by piece. A 1952 promo from Bolex demonstrates how you can make your own 3D home movies in color (with half a 16mm image higher than it is wide), including travelogue footage of Haiti and Guatemala plus people lounging poolside.
Four more masterpieces from the early ’50s hail from the National Film Board of Canada, made largely by Norman McLaren for the Festival of Britain. Here’s the art and beauty of modernism: abstract shapes transform in a hallucinatory Technicolor whirl so dazzling (sometimes with electronic music), it would make us squirm at the crass commercialism of the earlier films if the Chrysler hadn’t been so lovely. Even in 2D, this is glorious and elevating.
The second half of the program dates from the 1950s and concentrates on Hollywood, although there’s also a newsreel of the controversial final championship bout between Rocky Marciano and Jersey Joe Walcott and the documentary Doom Town on an A-bomb test in Nevada. A self-promotional 3D short has a white-coated doctor explaining to Miss USA that 3D is “healthy and beneficial” while Lloyd Nolan smokes a cigarette: “You should leave the theatre with your eyes relaxed and refreshed as never before!”
Amidst trailers for mainstream films are a few items from Hollywood’s fringes, such as the leering burlesque short I’ll Sell My Shirt and the colorful stop-motion animation of The Adventures of Sam Space, a cheerfully violent and optimistic work similar to George Pal’s Puppetoons. It was inspired by View-Master stories of Sam Sawyer, two of which are included in the bonus material. Also putting 3D in space is the gorgeous Casper cartoon Boo Moon. 3D is consistently linked with what’s “modern” and “futuristic”: rail travel, technology, the World’s Fair, A-bombs, outer space.
Three of the selections offer informative commentary, and there’s an excellent booklet. Although it doesn’t go into detail on the evolution of processes (anaglyphic versus polarized, “Natural Vision” and dual-35mm projection) and offers little info on the personalities involved, what we have is a delightful mini-history of the early decades of stereoscopic cinema. Extras include 3D photo galleries (including comics) and a 1962 clip of 3D color footage shot by Francis Ford Coppola for insertion into the black and white German import The Bellboy and the Playgirls. Seeds of The Godfather aren’t detectable, yet Coppola has made the 3D Twixt decades later, so maybe those seeds are here.