Reviews

3-D (Like it Used to Be) in ‘53

In 1953 and ‘54, this critic was popping the popcorn, changing the marquee, and patrolling the aisles of the Ritz Theater in Indianapolis, making sure couples kept both feet on the floor at all times. Being on staff at a neighborhood movie house as a high school student was the perfect introduction to the film business—particularly to 3-D.

Many first-run houses had permanent installations of View-Master stereoscopes bolted on display boards in the lobby, engineered so people could flip through scenes from upcoming 3-D films. People loved the novelty and edginess of 3-D, which gave already major stars like Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell, and Rhonda Fleming a size, presence, and immediacy they never had before. Audiences gasped when Vincent Price poured a tub of boiling molten wax over what our imaginations told us was a nude Phyllis Kirk, in House of Wax. And of course the underwater sequence in Creature From the Black Lagoon with the “Gill-Man” swimming along under a willowy, white-suited Julie Adams, matching her stroke for stroke, was surely the most subtly erotic stalking of the era.

If you didn’t like the flimsy cardboard glasses distributed at 3-D showings, you could have the local optometrist customize a pair with Polarized lenses in sturdy plastic frames. This writer brought his along for the 15 rarely shown 3-D delights presented in August at the Film Forum in Manhattan. Half a century had slightly darkened the personalized eyewear, but the sensations were, well, just as sensational.

The Film Forum has had a twin projector 3-D system, with Polarized filters and silvered screen, since the early ‘90s. According to Bruce Goldstein, who heads up the Forum’s retrospective programming, two of the theaters’ three projectionists were well experienced in double system 3-D, but when semi-computerized equipment was installed a year ago, the learning curve was steep. “Running double-system 3-D is relatively easy,” Goldstein reflected with a weary smile. “It’s the prep work that’s the big challenge for everyone.”

Goldstein said they pre-screened each of the 15 films in this festival to make sure everything was in synch, and in addition, “brought in an extra person just to check each print frame-by-frame on a synchronizer, with the two prints wound slowly side-by-side.” He estimated there are less than a dozen theaters nationwide that can run a double system, and the Film Forum has NYC’s sole system.

Part of the challenge of curating this festival was not just checking print quality, but finding 3-D prints at all. Two selections, Those Redheads From Seattle and Sangaree, borrowed prints from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, because Paramount had none. John Wayne’s Hondo wasn’t included in the fest because while the classic western has had European showings in digital 3-D, Wayne’s estate felt the cost of striking a twin-projector print (around $40,000) was prohibitive for a one or two-day showing. Creature From the Black Lagoon exists in a dual projector format but wasn’t available for this fest, and Goldstein hopes to program it in the future. In addition, Film Forum had to procure Polarized 3-D glasses, which are different from glasses given out for IMAX 3-D, digital 3-D, and Real-D new releases.

Remarkably, the Film Forum showings were virtually free of glitches. Kiss Me Kate looked swell because the booth worked 15 hours getting a print that had been wrenched out of synch back in synch. At the first showing of Gun Fury, the first and third reels were briefly shown together due to a mislabeled leader. Festival audiences were invariably patient and appreciative, with many fans sensing the delicacy, fragility, and exactitude of what they were watching. Up in the booth the projectionists’ work was changed to taking down and threading up two big reels during an intermission, rather than the usual procedure of running and changing 20-minute reels.

Here are some observations on a cross-section of films shown:

House of Wax (1953, Warner Brothers). After more than half a century, watching Vincent Price preside over a wax museum at 29th and Broadway as he fills it with coated bodies of loves and enemies still reigns supreme as the archetypal 3-D entertainment. Quite simply, it has more scenes you’ll forever carry around in your memory bank of thrillers: Price’s original museum aflame, burning and melting as Price is battered by his evil partner (Roy Roberts) and is nearly killed by a gas jet explosion; Price, crippled and horribly scarred by the fire, lurching through block after deserted studio block in pursuit of Phyllis Kirk, who he’s already cast as his next Marie Antoinette; Kirk climbing up to examine the Joan of Arc figure, convinced that her long lost roommate (Carolyn Jones) and the girlfriend of Roberts (his waxed-over figure is hanging in the elevator cage into which Price dropped him) is under the wax; Kirk being stalked through the closed, dimly lit museum by Price’s assistant Igor (Charles Bronson, mute and still being billed as Charles Buchinsky); and the best 3-D effect of ‘em all, the pitchman outside the Museum batting the balls attached to paddles into our faces so many times we grow dizzy with delight.

Talk about childhood memories you can’t shake over a lifetime—House of Wax also contains some of the first serious uses of prosthetic face masks, a device borrowed from weird menace pulp magazines that found their inspiration in Parisian Grand Guignol playlets. Fitted, skintight masks still have the power to shock and surprise today (it’s the disguise Angeline Jolie uses to sneak into the White House in Salt). And to think all this was directed by Andre de Toth, who had vision in only one eye and could never perceive depth.

The Mad Magician (1954, Columbia). Most fans think of Price’s return as a betrayed magician who exacts revenge as an homage to House of Wax, but it’s actually a continuation of director John Brahm’s love of fire effects, coupled with some first-rate illusions devised by top ‘50s magician and author, Bob Haskell. Brahm directed The Lodger and Hangover Square much earlier, both with the grossly overweight and critically ill Laird Cregar. In Hangover Square, Cregar is spurned by Linda Darnell, whom he kills, then carries onto a burning pyre in a London square. In Magician Brahm has Price haul Eva Gabor’s body over his shoulder to another burning-by-restless mob, this one maybe in Union Square. It’s a neat setup for the magician’s “crematorium,” an illusion that appears to incinerate its victims and seems ready-made for Mary Murphy, perky and winsome as Price’s assistant. Crane Wilber wrote the scripts for House of Wax and The Mad Magician and both use facial prosthetics and models of heads to keen effect.

Gorilla at Large (1954, 20th Century Fox) echoes the ‘40s carnival novels and reportage of William Lindsey Gresham (Nightmare Alley, Monster Midway) and Chicago newsman Fredric Brown (Madball, The Dead Ringer) by setting a string of murders in an amusement park. The prime suspect is the ape Goliath, who had his real-life counterpart in Gargantua, for years the number one attraction in Ringling Brothers sideshows. Goliath (acted by George Barrows, the last and most nuanced of a long line of film and cliffhanger serial gorillas) is the one you watch, while director Harmon Jones spins out the usual jealousy-and-rage plot involving the hardboiled carnie boss (Raymond Burr) and his young aerialist (Anne Bancroft), who’s drawn to the sideshow barker (Cameron Mitchell).

In ravishing Technicolor, Bancroft tries on some of the smoky moods and languid poses that will eventually mature into her iconic role as Mrs. Robinson in The Graduate. Jones was a noir editor and a good one (Cry Of The City, Panic In The Streets) and in Gorilla at Large he directs a fine tribute sequence to Orson Welles’ house of mirrors in Lady from Shanghai. But he builds a centerpiece around Goliath, rising in a diving bell (a diving bell!) from his underground cage in the dead of night, and follows as the gorilla methodically starts up each of the carnie attractions—the merry-go-round, bumper cars, a mechanical band of tooting monkeys, and hula dancers. The 3-D camerawork and lighting are exquisitely rich and lurid, and you will be saddened when the flustered Goliath decides to give up Bancroft (long passed out) on the rails of the roller coaster, to face a police firing squad far below.

Those Redheads From Seattle (1954, Paramount) is the hybrid 3-D musical of the cycle, an awe-inspiring mix of Little Women, High Sierra, and Paramount’s ill-fated surrealistic musical of a year earlier, Red Garters. The screenplay is anchored by crime and mystery writer Geoffrey Homes, whose Out of the Past (Robert Mitchum, Jane Greer) is considered by many the archetypal film noir. Agnes Moorehead plays the matriarch to four daughters (Rhonda Fleming, Teresa Brewer, Cynthia and Kay Stroller, the latter two girls billed as The Bell Sisters) who come to the Klondike after the father, a brave newspaper editor, is killed by a gunman (John Kellogg). We last saw actor Kellogg as the sleaze running a cupie-doll stand in Gorilla At Large until he’s strangled and left hanging in the bars of Goliath’s cage. It won’t surprise you that here Kellogg’s done in by an avalanche that falls all over the audience.

Redheads has a half-dozen numbers sung by pop celeb Brewer, Guy Mitchell (trying again after Red Garters), Fleming (always a game lead in noirs like Cry Danger and Where the Sidewalk Ends, plus a multitude of Universal costume epics), and her sisters. Like most action/adventure films of the era from the producer-director team of Bill Pine and Bill Thomas, Redheads has lavish and extensive second unit photography combined with impressive studio sets. Pine-Thomas was a B-team that delivered A-level work and finally earned major assignments. The 3-D here avoids most gimmicks and clearly was intended by Paramount to work as a 2-D or 3-D release: it shows its stitches mostly in process photography scenes like Fleming and Mitchell on a dog sled in a wilderness, in which the backgrounds whiz along like the flat, 2-D projections they are. The final fight on snowy cliffs between Barry and Kellogg is much like RKO’s 3-D Dangerous Mission of the same year, in which Vincent Price fires away at Victor Mature from deep within a collapsing ice crevice.

Gun Fury (1953, Columbia). Raoul Walsh’s post-Civil War western stands in handsomely for the unavailable Hondo. War-weary Rock Hudson is traveling by stagecoach to California with fiancée Donna Reed when the coach is robbed (Phil Carey with Lee Marvin, Neville Brand, and Leo Gordon). The gang takes Reed away while Hudson is wounded and left for dead. This is a pursuit western, unusually well-scripted by hardboiled pro Roy Huggins (creator of 77 Sunset Strip, Maverick and The Fugitive) and novelist Irving Wallace, a marquee author who wrote The Chapman Report and The Prize. Their script has snap and bite.

The endless depth of Walsh’s Sedona backdrops are perfect for 3-D. Shooting low to the ground with precise, careful setups allows Hudson to build some authentic trail rage as he tracks down his beloved. Hudson is better here than in the (also 3-D) Taza, Son of Cochise and worlds better than 3-D heroes Guy Madison (Charge at Feather River), George Montgomery (Fort Ti), and Randolph Scott (Stranger Wore A Gun). Once she’s kidnapped, Reed intuits this is not her moment or her movie, and she yields the screen to Carey and his Mexican girlfriend (Roberta Hayes), who strike more sparks here than in the low-budget 3-D programmer, The Nebraskan. At the Film Forum, Donna Reed’s daughter was in the audience and loved it all.

Drums of Tahiti (1953, Columbia). Sometimes low-budget 3-D pictures sank under the weight of concepts that could never be realized on screen. Drums is a prime example, illustrating what happens when a Poverty Row producer like Sam Katzman partners an innovative and imaginative director like William Castle. Not a good mix.

The premise of Dennis O’Keefe (still looking good after top-drawer appearances in T-Men, Raw Deal and Walk A Crooked Mile) smuggling arms in the South Seas opposite Patricia Medina (the poor man’s Ava Gardner) as his pouty wife, probably looked good on paper. Adding Francis L. Sullivan, the oily club owner in Night and the City, as the local police prefect, plus an island volcano primed to blow its top, also held promise. The problem is that for over 60 of its 73-minute running time, virtually nothing happens. O’Keefe and Sullivan play chess…O’Keefe and Medina chat on a sailboat…there’s no action or adventure or tension or even 3-D gimmicks. You can imagine Katzman telling Castle to milk the exposition as long and as inexpensively as possible so the rumbling volcano and subsequent hurricane could get the lion’s share of the budget. This may be why all three principals appear so leaden, under-rehearsed, and imprisoned by a script that’s all talk and no action.

Audiences in the ‘50s were familiar with these stalling tactics from B-movies (and cliffhanger serials) that filled the undersides of double bills. Patrons waited patiently for The Big Finish, assuming the movie delivered on its bold premise. But Drums of Tahiti runs out of gas and switches to stock footage of flowing lava almost from the get-go. There’s one shot of orange-y waters rushing up to the camera lens, and that’s about it. If you’ve thrilled to the budget effects in Fair Wind to Java (a similar Republic tale restored by Marty Scorsese several years ago for a showing at the Tribeca Film Festival) or marveled at the big-budget hurricane/earthquakes of Fox’s The Rains Came or MGM’s Green Dolphin Street, you know what a sore disappointment Drums of Tahiti turns out to be with its collapsing papier-mâché huts and palm trees. Maybe there was no money to begin with, and Columbia simply counted on the novelty of 3-D combined with the proven ability of Medina and O’Keefe to open a film. The Three Stooges opened a few 3-D shorts, but they wisely changed their style from throwing things at each other to pitching stuff at the audience.

Sangaree (1953, Paramount). “We were romancing,” said Arlene Dahl to a sold-out and rapt audience about her growing attachment to co-star Fernando Lamas during the making of Sangaree. She was 26, had recently divorced actor Lex Barker, and would soon marry Lamas. He plays the handsome, bare-chested surgeon son of an indentured servant, trying to set up medical clinics for the poor in post-Revolution Georgia. In this pulpy stew from best-selling author Frank Slaughter, Dahl’s an aristocrat who initially poses as a salty wench. Their attraction is palpable and entrancing; you believe they’re falling in love on screen because they were falling in love off-screen, just like Tracy/Hepburn and McQueen/McGraw. All their scenes were shot twice, first for 3-D and then with conventional cameras for a 2-D release. Sangaree is the rarest 3-D of the Film Forum’s 3-D presentations, and Bruce Goldstein explained to the audience that the left-eye print borrowed from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is the only print in existence, while the slightly brighter right-eye print was newly struck five years ago.

Like Those Redheads From Seattle, the other Pine-Thomas production, Sangaree aims for the widest possible audience, so Lamas sings a rousing saloon ditty, takes on and defeats a bruiser (named Goliath, like the ape in Gorilla At Large) in a humdinger of a slugfest, duels with Charles Korvin, and cleans the rats out of the warehouse of obnoxious Francis L. Sullivan, who still seems stuck in his Drums of Tahiti mode. Patricia Medina returns to this one, too, and again she barely registers in a thankless, thinly scripted role as the drunken also-ran who’s dying from bubonic plague and throws herself down the longest flight of stairs since Gene Tierney’s plunge in Leave Her To Heaven. You can’t say Sangaree doesn’t have something for everyone.

Thankfully it has Dahl, now 82 and a dazzling New York sophisticate, well-known author, and every inch a movie star. Asked about directors during intermission, she confided that Lamas directed most of their scenes together, and that many of her studio directors were no more than ushers. “They’d say, ‘Stand here, Arlene’ or ‘Walk over there, Arlene’,” she sniffed. “The best director I ever had was Anthony Mann in Reign of Terror because he took the time to explain everything and he gave us plenty of time to rehearse. Tony’s cameraman was John Alton, my best cinematographer in this and Slightly Scarlet. Alton gave me his book, Painting With Light, the most wonderful study of his lighting techniques.” Miss Dahl could have held her audience far longer than both reels of Sangaree.

At the end of the day (and night), the Film Forum’s fest was a vivid, unforgettable look at the way 3-D used to be in ‘53 and ’54. By early 1955, Revenge of the Creature was the last of some 55 releases by mainstream studios over the two-year period. The phenomenon was replaced by CinemaScope, launched by 20th Century Fox with The Robe, which greatly enlarged screen size by widening the aspect ratio from 1.33:1 to 2.55:1. CinemaScope made for bigger stories with top-notch stars, and was eagerly embraced by studios, theater owners, and audiences tired of those pesky cardboard glasses. Today’s second generation of 3-D films, exemplified by Avatar in IMAX 3-D, intensifies the dramatic content, maximizes screen size, and demonstrates the spellbinding effect of computerized magic to a far more sophisticated viewer, providing a new and vastly different viewing experience. The worldwide impact of Avatar as the most successful motion picture ever made is transferring itself to television and the promise of a 3-D future without glasses.

Who can resist? This viewer, for one. Because without living dolls like Arlene Dahl, it’ll never be the same.

Click here for a complete list of the Film Forum’s classic 3-D series.

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