Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How the 'West' Was Shown -- in Cinerama!


We happened to be driving on Sunset Boulevard a few weeks ago and passed the Cinerama Dome. It went unoticed by everyone except me, and in the back of my mind I thought, "Hmmmm ... I wonder what's playing there."

It turns out that "How the West Was Won" was playing there, and when I discovered this I began drooling. And why, you may ask, should I salivate at this? Because the 1963 move was filmed in Cinerama, and the chance to see it as originally intended was too much to pass up.

And boy, am I glad I decided to do so! It turns out that "West" is shown during one week every year at the Cinerama Dome -- and it happened to be while I was there. What kind of luck is that?

Now that you understand why my shirts are sometimes stained with drool, you may be asking yourself, "What is Cinerama?"

Well, to keep it short, it's a unique wide-screen process in which a piece of equipment with three cameras on it shoots the movie. Then each of the three strips of film is projected from its own booth and shown in unison on a large, curved screen to create a giant widescreen effect, with the curve adding another dimension to it. Cinerama also has a fourth strip that contains the sound for a multi-channel sound experience. (You can find much longer, technical descriptions of the process online or in books.)

Now, imagine where filmmaking was in the early 1950s. Most films were still in black and white, although color was becoming more popular. No widescreen processes yet. Movie attendance was way down; after a banner 1946, the returning veterans settled down, went back to school, got married and began having families ... thus the beginning of the baby boom. Then TV became a popular fixture in living rooms, and the movie studios were scrambling to come up with ways to compete with TV and woo audiences back to the theater.

When "This Is Cinerama" debuted in 1952, the effect was immediate. Audiences could now see and hear something unique.

"This Is Cinerama" was a travelogue, without a storyline or stars, that took audiences on a trip they'd never experienced on film before: a ride on the Atom Smasher, the world's fastest and steepest roller coaster, as viewed from the front car; the canals of Venice; a helicopter ride over Niagara Falls. In these days before color TV, a gazillion TV channels like the Travel network or National Geographic specials, "This Is Cinerama" was a unique adventure.

And it made lots of money. Even though most theaters were not equipped for Cinerama, enough were located in the major markets to make this profitable. In fact, these movies could run for years.

But it wasn't long before other widescreen processes began showing up. In 1953, "The Robe" made its debut as the first movie in CinemaScope, and others quickly followed. Still, Cinerama remained wildly popular throughout the decade through a series of travelogue films, including "Cinerama Holiday," "Seven Wonders of the World" and "South Seas Adventure."

By 1960, though, the popularity of the travelogues was waning. So it was time to take it to the next level. Now, according to one source, only two traditional Hollywood movies were made using Cinerama. Another source cites only one, which is "How the West Was Won." Regardless, the point is few were made using this unique three-camera process.

I had seen "West" on TV a number of years ago. I enjoyed it despite rolling my eyes at some of the dialogue. The movie has an all-star cast, including Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, George Peppard and Carroll Baker; has super narration by Spencer Tracy; and is told in three segments, each shot by a different director: Henry Hathaway ("The Rivers, The Plains, The Outlaws"), John Ford ("The Civil War"), and George Marshall ("The Railroad"). In tackling the various real events of settling the west, such as the wagon trains, the transcontinental railroad and various outlaws terrorizing small towns, the fictitious story follows one family, centering mostly on sisters Reynolds and Baker and Baker's son, played as an adult by Peppard.

If you've ever watched "West" on TV, you've probably noticed the seams that break up the picture into three equal-sized blocks. If you look closely at the picture below with James Steward, you can see the seams (hint: look first at the sky):

As I always say, movies were meant to be seen on a big screen. I don't care if you have a 70-inch plasma in your media room; it doesn't compare to an actual theater. And with "West," it was meant for a curved screen, and flattening it out for a smaller TV does take something away.

I'm happy to report that this movie improves dramatically when seen the way it was meant to: in Cinerama. In fact, my drooling nearly started with the first frame. The vistas are magnificent, and the audience can fully appreciate the point-of-view shots -- the buffalo stampede, the train shootout, the river rapids encounter. On the gigantic, curved screen, you feel like you are there on that train or on the river. Plus, because of the seams, the directors took great care in how they placed their actors. You couldn't have someone delivering lines while a seam cut them in two, so it's clear why so many shots have the actors in the center frame.

But the curve adds another dimension, and I often found myself turning my head from one side of the screen to the other to capture everything. This film is larger than life, and Cinerama gives it justice.

Yes, the dialogue can be corny. When Jimmy Stewart is trying to explain to Carroll Baker that his carousing days are not over, using a metaphor: "But I still went to see the varmint with that pirate girl. I'll always be goin' to see the varmint, Eve." As the 1960s progressed, films began to push hard against the production code, so code-friendly wording like this seemed laughable to some then and even more now.

Still, as giant, star-studded, wide-screen spectacles filled movie theaters during this era, "How the West Was Won" is so much fun and so expertly told that you can forgive its code-satisfying dialogue. Plus, when you see it in Cinerama, it's clear why this was a huge success. "West" made tons of money and played at one Cinerama theater in LA for nearly 90 weeks.

The film received eight Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture. I'd always questioned whether the nomination was deserved, based upon my television viewing. But the Cinerama experience has changed my mind: not only do I understand the nomination but I'd probably put it in my top 5 for that year. Considering its Oscar competition included the overblown "Cleopatra" (it's doubtful seeing this on a big screen could make it any better), "West" makes far more sense.

As for the Cinerama Dome, it opened in 1963 and was restored and reopened in 2002. Thank goodness for that. This original venue, with the gorgeous honeycomb-style ceiling, usually shows first-run films on the curved screen.

After the "West" screening, audience members were invited to the projection booth, where John Sittig, director, Cinerama Inc., explained how the process worked. He said it cost a quarter million dollars to restore "West" so it could be shown in Cinerama.

As for Cinerama itself, this unique process was not used on another film after "West." The single-strip Ultra Panavision apparently could be shown on the curved screen for a similar experience, and it was used in the 1960s to shoot such films as "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World." This makes sense, as I can imagine watching that crazy comedy on a large curved screen.

In addition, it was Cinerama that inspired Walt Disney to pursue creating what would become his 360-degree films for his theme parks. I believe two are still running at EPCOT in Florida, in the China and Canada pavillions.

Today, a handful of theaters in the world can show Cinerama. If you live near one of them, find out when the next showing of "West" or "This Is Cinerama" will take place. And then go. Cinerama is an important chapter in film history and one that should be preserved. I am so grateful that we drove past the Cinerama Dome; otherwise, I would have missed a grand moviegoing experience.


  1. Wow lucky. I've never really been taken in by West but it has been a while.

  2. You're really lucky. I would love to see a movie projected in Cinerama.

    I've always liked HTWWW despite the flaws you point out. I would imagine those flaws would be forgiven when those images are projected on the big screen.

    Mention should also be made of the Alfred Newman score, one of his very best. The main title especially is a splendid piece of Americana. Thrilling stuff.

    The train robbery sequence in the fifth segment is beautifully staged, shot and edited, putting most current action sequences to shame.

  3. Hi Andrew, thanks for the comment. If you are near LA or live in Seattle or another city with a Cinerama theater, see if you can watch "West" in that format. I think you'd be surprised by it.

  4. Hey Kevin, I completely forgot to mention the Alfred Newman score, and I wanted to. Thank you for bringing it up, because it is one of his best. And I agree about the train robbery sequence. Especially when seen on the big screen, it is as exciting as you could want.

  5. Unfortunately I have only ever seen he film on TV and the joins have always been far more evident than in the image you have shown. Although flawed it is still a great film in places. I personally think it should have won the best picture Oscar for its scope and ambition as much as anything. It was a bit of a strange year for best picture, I think the weakest film in the category won (Tom Jones) and there where far better films that didn’t get a nomination: The Birds, Hud, The Great Escape and most notably 8½.

  6. It was a strange year for nominees, although I like Tome Jones more than you do. The other films you mention are strong, too. In fact, this weekend I'm seeing The Birds on a big screen for the first time, so that should be fun.

  7. I have entered the conversation a little late, but I thought you should know that MGM and Cinerama presented, The George Pal Production of "The Wonderful World of The Brothers Grimm" in Cinerama in 1962. It became one of the top grossing films of that year and won an Acadamy Award.

    I was fortunate to see this film in Cinerama at the Plaza Cinema in Melbourne, Australia, when it was first released here, many years ago. The "Plaza" is no more, but my memories of "How The West Was Won" and "TWWOTBG" remain fresh in my memory. It is essential that one view both of these films in Cinerama - the process in which they were filmed, and, only then, can they be fully appreciated.

    1. Thank you for the comments. I wish I lived near a theater that can present a film in Cinerama so I could see "Brothers Grimm."