After a few months of ambiguous box-office results for stereoscopic movies, that’s a question Hollywood executives would love answered in the affirmative, because of the higher ticket prices they can charge. We won’t really know the answer for a year or so, when audiences respond — or fail to respond — to the big-budget 3-D films now entering the production pipeline, all chasing the phenomenal figures generated by “Avatar.” But 3-D is definitely part of the cinema’s past — never as gloriously and gaudily as in the approximately 45 stereographic features released by the American film industry between 1952 and 1955.
Fifteen of those vintage films, filled with flaming arrows, pointy surgical instruments, guys in gorilla suits and high-kicking chorines all hurtling from the screen and into your face, will be featured over the next two weeks in Classic 3-D, a series at Film Forum in the South Village.
For 3-D aficionados (and they are a dedicated bunch) that was the period known as the Golden Age. This is not as much for the blindingly high quality of the films themselves — as lovable as they are, “Cat-Women of the Moon” and “Gorilla at Large” are not “Citizen Kane” — as for the 3-D system then in use.
Generically known as “double system” — because it requires the use of two 35-millimeter projectors, running side by side in perfect synchronization — ’50s 3-D at its best produced an illusion of depth of such brightness and clarity that it puts many modern single-projector systems to shame.
And forget about those red-and-green glasses. Though it’s a myth that refuses to die, the 19th-century anaglyph process (to give the red-and-green technology its textbook name) played only a tiny role in the 3-D boom of the ’50s.
Back then, just as in the systems most widely used today, polarized lenses were used to separate the two images projected on the screen into left-eye and right-eye views. But because 35-millimeter film has a higher resolution than the digital video used for today’s 3-D, and the use of two projectors allows more light to strike the screen than the single projector of digital 3-D, the illusion produced by the double-system technique has a sharpness and presence all its own.
The trouble with double system, and one of the reasons for its short life span in the 1950s, is that it’s a bear to operate. A veteran projectionist once described the experience as trying to drive two semitrailer trucks down the expressway at 90 miles an hour, while keeping the hood ornaments perfectly aligned. If the left-eye and right-eye images are allowed to slip out of synchronization by even a couple of frames, the illusion is lost, headaches are induced, and audiences flee screaming into the streets.
Bruce Goldstein, the Film Forum’s resourceful repertory programmer, will be doing his best to make sure that moviegoers avoid that fate. He has scoured the studio archives for projectable prints (the great majority were junked when the 3-D boom collapsed, and in many cases the studios held on to only one of the two negatives necessary to create new copies). He’s even located a couple of rare titles (“Those Redheads from Seattle,” showing on Aug. 16, and “Sangaree,” on Aug. 26) in the vaults of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. And with them all he’s made sure they will be run in tight synchronization.
Though several more films exist in the hands of private collectors, the Film Forum program offers a rousing and representative overview of the ’50s 3-D phenomenon, from its carnival-like beginnings to its late bid for respectability. Carnivals, along with roller coasters, side shows and wax museums, occur with amazing regularity in the 3-D films of the 1950s. This wave of 3-D was never meant as a subtle enhancement of storytelling technique, but rather as a novelty designed to lure customers back into the tent — a fairground attraction, just as movies had been at their late-19th-century beginnings.
Confronted with television decimating the movie audience of the early ’50s, the studios tried to pry the viewers loose from their home screens by promising something they couldn’t get in the living room. As the ads put it for “Bwana Devil,” the low-budget, 1952 film that touched off the boom, here was your chance to experience: “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!”
Movies like Columbia’s “Man in the Dark,” which opens the Film Forum series on Friday, took unashamed advantage of the process’s flinch-inducing potential. The first 3-D film released by a major studio (it beat Warner Brothers’ bigger-budgeted “House of Wax” into theaters by two days), this otherwise unexceptional thriller — about an amnesiac (Edmond O’Brien) who learns he was a gangster in his former life — pokes a whole catalog of unpleasant objects into the spectator’s face, including a surgical scalpel, a lighted cigar, a rubber spider and countless meaty fists.
The pattern was set. As the title character in “The Mad Magician” (Aug. 23), Vincent Price pushes a giant buzz saw into the bridge of your nose; the outlaws in “The Stranger Wore a Gun” (Aug. 19) never seem to tire of discharging their six-shooters directly into the camera’s lens — a shot that echoes a famous image from the sensationalistic hit of 1903, “The Great Train Robbery.”
Audiences, however, did tire of the continual assault on their optic nerves — “The Stranger Wore a Gun” was not the only western that featured a character squirting tobacco juice into the auditorium. By the time 20th Century Fox got around to releasing its first 3-D film, “Inferno,” in August 1953, critics, including The New York Times’s Howard H. Thompson, were applauding the relative restraint shown by the film’s British director, Roy Baker. The fine Technicolor print to be shown at Film Forum on Aug. 25 reveals some ravishing use of receding perspectives, as a Howard Hughes-like millionaire (Robert Ryan), abandoned by his wife and her lover in the Mojave desert, tries to crawl his way back to civilization.
“While it still has far to go,” Mr. Thompson wrote, “in this tentative but sensible little undertaking 3-D comes of age.” More restrained work followed, including Raoul Walsh’s handsome “Gun Fury” (Aug. 18), in which that great action director (“They Died With Their Boots On”) largely conducts his business as usual, creating the carefully articulated compositions in depth that had been a defining feature of his style since the early 1930s.
But the move to naturalize 3-D may have come too late. By the holiday season of 1953 the studios were ready with their first batch of A-level productions in the new medium: MGM with the musical “Kiss Me Kate” (screening on Aug. 15 and 16), Columbia with Rita Hayworth in “Miss Sadie Thompson” (Aug. 26), Paramount with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis in “Money From Home” (unavailable, alas) and Warner Brothers with Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” (Aug. 20 and 21).
Fox, however, had beaten its rivals to the punch. “The Robe,” a biblical spectacle in Fox’s new widescreen process CinemaScope, had opened in September, offering audiences an imposing spectacle that could be enjoyed without the use of glasses — and with relatively little risk of being sprayed by tobacco juice.
Suddenly — a little over a year after “Bwana Devil” initiated the craze — stereoscopic motion pictures were yesterday’s news. “Kiss Me Kate” was released in both 3-D and “flat” versions, “Miss Sadie Thompson” opened at the Capitol on Broadway with only two of its D’s intact, and “Dial M for Murder” was held back by Warner Brothers until May 1954, when it was released only in conventional prints.
The carnival may have moved on, but as the Film Forum series demonstrates, the old rides can still pack a thrill.