Later this month (Sunday, April 27 to be exact), the destination of choice is definitely Stinkylulu’s Online Palace of a Thousand Delights. Occasion? The kick-off of a new season of Supporting Actress Smackdowns. Wherein Lulu and panel (of which I’m honored to be a member) mull over a specific year of supporting actress Oscar nominees, sniffing around the pros and cons of each performance – and either reaffirming the Academy’s choice or crowning a new winner. A kind of George Cukor rumble – essentially decorous but frequently barbed. With Jets and Sharks led by Mary Haines and Sylvia Fowler.
In the meantime I’ve got a lot of related rambling to do. Because 1953 is the Smackdown target this time out – and movie-wise, that’s a year I just can’t stop talking about. I was actually around in ’53. But not quite old enough to know what year it was. Though I wasn’t actually aware it was ’53 in ’53, I do remember things that happened then. And I can even recall a year or two earlier when my parents gave me a plastic wrist-watch. In response to any adult who'd humor me with a "Kenny, what time is it?", I’d stare intently at the face of that thing, then announce , "It’s a quarter to time." I’m not sure whether I thought I was hoodwinking them – or actually believed I was imparting legitimate information.
The first time I actually remember being conscious of its being such and such a year was in 1955. Mainly because of ads for ’55 cars. Plus my parents took a trip to some American Emerald City (Minneapolis, I suspect) and brought me back a souvenir. A toy Car of the Future. Streamlined, spacey and colored a vivid chartreuse. In order to make me understand the concept of a future year, I expect someone must have clued me in as to exactly what year we were in. At any rate, for all its supposed futurity, that car remains fully linked in my mind with 1955. There was also Cinemascope 55 – garden variety Cinemascope, I imagine, dressed up in the year’s movie ads to suggest startling new dimensions – presumably the nearest thing , thrill-wise, to a trip to Mars.
Cinemascope was one of the weapons in Hollywood’s battle to woo defectors back from their TV sets. By ’55 I realized it meant widescreen. But in ’53, when it first arrived, I apparently wasn’t too sure. Because one of my 1953 memories is of sitting in a theatre watching "The Robe". The publicity mills had made it clear even to a four year old that this picture was in Cinemascope. And, whatever that was, it clearly constituted a substantial addition to the wonders of the world. Stereophonic sound must have been part of the package too. Because I can remember being scared bug-eyed by a sudden theatre-rattling trumpet blast announcing the onscreen arrival of wicked Emperor Jay Robinson. Thereafter, I made my official policy on the new phenomenon clear to anyone who’d listen. "I hate Cinemascope. It’s too loud!"
I came to terms with Cinemascope soon enough. And widescreen movies did come to stay. But the process wasn’t enough to turn back the clock. The old Hollywood system – with its comfortably ritualized genres and enormous, loyal audience was in for a jolt
Among the gimmicks Hollywood hauled out to combat audience attrition, 3D remains the one most inextricably linked to 1953. The technique, which provided a pleasantly giddy optical sensation, had been around in some form since the 1800’s. Stereoscopic images, looked at through special viewers, were a diverting novelty in homes across the country. But no one had figured out an effective and commercially viable way to transfer the experience to the motion picture screen. That is, until a tireless Hollywood promoter called Arch Oboler purchased an option on a new Polaroid process called Natural Vision which not only provided 3D motion picture images, but could do it in full color. As far as I can tell, the filming process – cumbersome and time-consuming – involved two cameras shooting scenes from different angles. Theatre showings required a pair of projectors which – perfectly synchronized (and this was vital) – superimposed both images onscreen together. Special polaroid glasses (provided by the theatre}–one lens red, one green - allowed audiences to see a different image through each eye. A trick of the brain enabled viewers to combine the two pictures into one. The resultant separation of background and foreground – startling and quite fascinating – made it apparent that the 2D images audiences had been long conditioned to accept were, in fact, severely limited perspective-wise. And - properly photographed and projected –onscreen objects aimed (sometimes hurled) toward the audience seemed to leap right out of the screen. Hence the 3D slogan "A Lion in Your Lap! A Lover in Your Arms!" The picture that slogan was initially attached to was Arch Oboler’s "Bwana Devil", which he’d convinced United Artists to release late in 1952. It was a routine jungle adventure with no particularly big names in the cast. But audience response to the picture – and more specifically to 3D - was stupendous. Box-office records were shattered in city after city, as people lined up for blocks waiting for a chance to don the red and green glasses. Hollywood execs looked up from their hand-wringing, smelling a solution to the industry’s woes.
Immediately studios were falling over each other, announcing 3D projects. Titles previously planned for normal filming were re-tooled as 3D productions. Within six months, the 3D boom was in full swing and initial box-office results were colossal. Warner Brothers’ "House of Wax" with Vincent Price generated the kind of profits usually associated with De Mille blockbusters. A Guy Madison western called "The Charge at Feather River" was held over everywhere. As a matter of fact, there wasn’t a genre that wasn’t suddenly awash in 3D – sci-fi (the marvelous "It Came from Outer Space"), swashbucklers ("Sangaree" with Fernando Lamas and luscious Arlene Dahl), crime thrillers ("I the Jury", a Mickey Spillane slugfest), musicals (the lavish "Kiss Me Kate" from Metro). Martin & Lewis got into the act ("Money from Home"). As did John Wayne ("Hondo") and Hitchcock ("Dial M for Murder"). Assuming the profits would continue unabated, studio heads confidently stated that in future, all films would be in 3D. But there were flies in the ointment. Not the least of which were the technical problems inherent in the proper exhibition of 3D films. Perfect projection synchronization was necessary to assure proper 3D performance. And it was impossible to monitor every showing across the country. Equipment breakdown and projectionist error turned show after show into disasters. For neighborhood theatres, the costs of outfitting for 3D capability were often out of the question. What’s more, even after successful screenings, people were complaining about the 3D glasses – common charges: inconvenient, clumsy, uncomfortable, impractical for people who already wore glasses . And beyond that, there were widespread complaints of eye-strain everywhere 3D was shown. Viewers seated toward the side sometimes grumbled about not getting the full 3D effect. Some people got to the point where they preferred to stay home if they found out a movie they’d planned to see was in 3D. Plus it was still widely perceived as a novelty. And novelties have a habit of wearing off – of suddenly becoming "so yesterday". What’s more, censorship was relaxing. Audience tastes were undergoing a change. The incoming tide of heavy, increasingly frank black and white dramas, the Method acting, the restricted films and foreign art-house items hardly seemed compatible with 3D. Many considered 3D a gaudy huckster’s trick – meant for hyping the visual entertainment value of Saturday matinee potboilers. But unseemly, undignified and thoroughly inappropriate when attached to serious Cinematic Art. No single reason was responsible for 3D’s demise. But the combination was enough to bring the 3D era to a grinding halt. By the end of ’54, the process had been all but scrapped. The final 3D features were sneaked into theatres in flatscreen format. And 3D was quietly swept away to join other cultural dust-bunnies like the charleston and the snood.
I assume our town must have had 3D movies in ’53. But I never saw them then. Not until I was in my 30’s – and living in a big city. That’s when a spate of limited 3D revivals cropped up. I thought they were fabulous. Completely undisappointing. I remember "Inferno" with Robert Ryan and Rhonda Fleming was a particular 3D bull’s-eye. But the second-run theatre I went to as a child probably wasn’t equipped to show 3D. Still, I did know about 3D then. And I did have a couple of 3D comic books which I was crazy about. With the red and green glasses (not so) firmly in place, I perused and pondered these items as if they were pieces from the Shroud of Turin. One was Little Lotta. The other was Richie Rich. I remember a particular page showed somebody coming down a slide right at me – and I was endlessly delighted and boggled by it. I had 3D view-master reels too. Queen Elizabeth’s wedding, Niagara Falls, the Greatest Show on Earth and some fairy-tales with Gumby-like protagonists who were supposed to be Snow White and Cinderella, but looked more like the Golem. Still, the 3D was pretty good.
There have been periodic attempts to revive 3D. But none have quite caught on. In spite of the undying – almost hypnotic – appeal of the process itself. As I write, a new 3D boom seems imminent. The old-fashioned 3D glasses have been replaced by a light, comfortable apparatus, largely indistinguishible from designer sunglasses. Soon, it seems, there’ll be no need for glasses at all. And with technology growing by leaps and bounds, IMAX 3D presents images that are frankly jaw-dropping. Box-office returns for the 3D editions of films like "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf" have been enormous. 3D concert films have also made tons of money. Exhibitors around the world are spending fortunes equipping theatres to show future IMAX 3D productions. New 3D titles are announced regularly. The current slate includes Disney’s projected 3D remake of its 80’s sfx classic "Tron". This new 3D age may or may not pan out. But, for my generation, 3D will always mean 1953D.
Now, as anyone who’s ever read this blog knows, I love old Hollywood – and old Hollywood movies. Even so, I’d like to think I can appreciate what’s come after. Don’t – I repeat, don’t – lump me in with the cobweb and crinoline crowd who think good movies died with Louis B.Mayer. I can still feel nostalgic, though, for the innocent adventure films, knights and bandits, pirates and pashas – cynicism-free and decked out in mouth-watering color. The endless stream of war-bonnet westerns. And the musicals – those twinkling dream-factory creations where a 3-strip Technicolor breeze was all it took to transform ordinary dialogue into buoyant song and dance. I remember nodding in agreement when I read someone’s fond recollection of the time when a new musical – with something wonderful in it – opened every other week
Looking back, it’s clear 1953 was the Indian summer of that era.
I lived in a small Canadian town. And my mother took several years off work when I was born – mainly to focus on Baby. She started taking me to the movies before I could walk or talk. And you’d better believe it - the movies played a part in teaching me to talk. Those big beautiful technicolor faces, those voices – dulcet, dramatic – speaking directly to me in the dark. Demanding a response of some sort – awe, affection, emulation. All erupting sooner or later in words. My mother was young – and probably looked younger. I can remember, when I was six or so, walking with her near the train station. And some pint-sized smart-alec called out, "Hey, kid! Is that your mother or your sister?" She was my first movie-going confederate. And little more than a kid herself.
It was – as I said – a small town. And safe. I never heard of anything really bad happening to a child. By the time I was five, the next-door kids and I would trek downtown ( it wasn’t far} nearly every Saturday to the Royal Theatre for a Saturday matinee. Fifty cents tops would cover the cost – refreshments included. There were similar second-run theatres in other parts of town – the Lake and the Fort. But these we rarely visited. A grown-up would have to drive us there. And pick us up around five when the show let out.
Occasionally my parents would take me along to a night-time movie. Usually at the Capitol or the Odeon. These would be more sober and sophisticated events. But thrilling in their own "so this is what adults do" way. Even more rare were forays to the Drive-In. An especially exotic destination. A kind of combination theme park and Katmandu. Where hot dogs and french fries achieved cordon-bleu levels of delectability. And Mom and Dad always had to be careful to remove the speaker from the car window before they drove away.
But, above all, the movie-going experience meant Saturday afternoon at the Royal. Kids were not only welcome. That one day a week, they seemed to have exclusive rights to the place. I don’t recall ever seeing a grown-up actually occupying a seat on a Saturday afternoon. It’s unlikely they’d have relished the experience. What with the intermission – frantic onstage games and contests plus occasional special appearances by dignitaries like Elmer the Safety Elephant and the Planters Peanut Man. I seem to remember a real celebrity horse onstage once, though which cowboy he belonged to I couldn’t tell you. The adult world was pretty much represented by a manager (who doubled as MC), a box-office lady, a candy-counter operator, an usher or two. How did they all cope?
Certainly the Saturday afternoon noise levels would have scared away most voting age patrons. I can still remember the tumultuous audience response to onscreen events. I have an idea we weren’t always clear as to exactly what features we’d be seeing. The tiny foyer was so crammed with exciting lobby cards and posters. Some current. Some forthcoming. Some just there for pure razzle-dazzle. But the most ecstatic moments of all would come when the onscreen credits revealed the names of a favorite comedy team (Martin & Lewis, Abbott & Costello, the Bowery Boys). The shriek of approval would be deafening. And then, if the next frame started in with spooky music and eerily wavering graphics, indicating that our comic heroes would be encountering a ghost or a monster or anything haunted or headless, the place just went nuts. The only thing that kept a roof on the building was the presence of the ever-patrolling matron , a Jane Darwell type – uniformed, stern, sturdy – armed with a flashlight that carried the implied authority of a cudgel. Like a grandmother who meant business. It was her job to see that the situation never morphed into full-on prison riot mode. Unfailingly – and amazingly - she accomplished her mission. Even the tough kids didn’t want to cross her. And – as far as I know – never did. And at the end of the afternoon, when sated audiences spilled out onto the streets, like cap-guns exploding, the place was still standing.
The Royal Theatre and the Saturday matinees are only memories now. But in ’53 the fun had already been going on for decades. And – without really thinking about it – most people just assumed it would go on forever. But the writing was already on the wall.