About 25 years ago I became fascinated with Cinerama after reading Robert E. Carr and R.M. Hayes’s book Wide Screen Movies. I began doing my own original research on the process and eventually I crossed paths with an eccentric former Cinerama projectionist by the name of John Harvey. Harvey lived in Dayton, Ohio, and through the years he spent a small fortune acquiring old Cinerama projectors and prints. He essentially gutted the interior of his modest ranch home to fulfill his dream of recreating the long-dead Cinerama process, a remodeling job that, he joked, had cost him his marriage.
In the early 1990s I was invited to several screenings there, to what was then one of only two places on the planet the public could experience Cinerama, the other being in the backyard of a like-minded Australian. From the outside, Harvey’s house looked like any other, but inside was a professional screening room that could seat no more than about 10 people; the rest of the house all but consumed by three tiny projection booths, sound equipment, wagon wheel-sized reels of films, and Cinerama memorabilia. The 146-degree deeply curved screen, curtained, of course, was about 10 feet in height, floor-to-raised-ceiling and more than twice as wide. There, on that initial drive down from my then-home in Ann Arbor, Michigan I first experienced How the West Was Won (1962), an unforgettable viewing experience.
The next time I went down there was to see Cinerama Holiday (1955), the second of Cinerama’s five original travelogues. The film follows the adventures of two couples: Swiss-born Fred and Beatrice Troller as they visit America, and Kansas City’s Betty and John Marsh on their journey to Europe. As if seeing this virtually lost film in its original form wasn’t enough, there was to be, one might say, an extra added attraction: Betty Marsh, since divorced from John, had come to Dayton to see Cinerama Holiday again for the first time since its original release. And else how could she have?
Seated next to the barely-changed Betty as the film unfolded, I couldn’t help but wonder what it must be like for her to see her younger self in this manner. It wasn’t exactly like pulling out the old Super-8 projector and looking at home movies projected on a kitchen wall. Watching Cinerama Holiday, even for me, was like stepping into a time machine and vicariously experiencing these couples’ Cinerama Holiday.
It takes about three-and-a-half hours to drive from Ann Arbor to Dayton, but if had taken 13-and-a-half hours I wouldn’t have hesitated. Cinerama Holiday, along with the other travelogues, effectively hadn’t been seen in their original form since the early 1960s and at the time the odds were heavily stacked against any chance that they’d ever be revived theatrically or released to home video.
A lot has changed in the more than 20 years since that screening. Several commercial venues in America and England occasionally show the original three-strip Cinerama process, and historian and reconstructionist David Strohmaier is seeing to it that the best surviving film elements are preserved and the original movies made available on Blu-ray, in high-definition.
Cinerama Holiday, along with Cinerama South Seas Adventure (1958), are the latest Blu-ray releases from Flicker Alley. Last year the company released This Is Cinerama (1952), the first film, along with Windjammer (1958), made in the rival Cinemiracle process that was so similar to Cinerama the latter company eventually bought all rights to the film and released it in that format, too. Those first two releases, otherwise splendid, were a bit compromised because only 70mm conversion elements were available.
Fortunately, for both Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventure, Strohmaier had access to the original 3 x 35mm, six-perforations tall camera negatives, and thanks to computer technologies that didn’t even exist ten years ago, the results are staggeringly good. These results still aren’t quite true Cinerama, even on big screen TVs – the format can really only be fully appreciated in a properly equipped Cinerama theater – but it’s still an astoundingly good approximation, and the movies have untold values beyond their audience participation effects.
Like This is Cinerama, Cinerama Holiday begins with a black-and-white, standard 35mm prologue setting up the artificial but enjoyable premise: the Cinerama cameras follow the Marshes on their vacation to Europe and the Trollers on theirs in America. The curtains open (ingeniously recreated here) as the Marshes fly over the Swiss Alps and visit St. Moritz and enjoy winter sports their beautiful resort offers, later they ride the funicular railway to the Parsenn ski runs, travel to Paris where they visit the Louvre, visit with Art Buchwald, see a performance of l’Opera de Paris and visit the Lido nightclub, returning to America via Washington, D.C. and New York.
Meanwhile, the Trollers visit the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, ride the California Zephyr through the Rockies, are guests at the Absinthe House in New Orleans and go to a traditional New England fair in Deerfield, New Hampshire. Spectacularly but incongruously, the picture climaxes with a demonstration of the Navy’s famed Blue Angels jet pilots as they show off their aerial choreography and land on the aircraft carrier Lake Champlain. (A concession to ‘50s Cold War tensions, no doubt.)
This is no boring travelogue. Aesthetically a big improvement over the content-with-long-takes This Is Cinerama, producer Louis de Rochemont offers more visually spectacular eye candy in Cinerama Holiday while its contrived but effective premise, of inviting viewers to vicariously experience the adventures of the two couples, this at a time when international travel of prohibitively expensive for most Americans, gives the film a narrative through-line missing in the episodic This Is Cinerama.
As expected, there are numerous armchair-grabbing audience participation effects: a bobsled run, skiing the Alps and, course, riding along with the Blue Angels in their supersonic jets. But for me the real appeal of Cinerama Holday lay in how it captures 1950s America and Europe in ways more familiar black-and-white newsreel footage never could. The late Bob Carr used to compare watching conventional movies as looking through a window, while Cinerama was like sticking one’s head out a window, with one’s peripheral vision surrounded by the outside air. In this way the footage of a burgeoning Las Vegas and jazz-infused New Orleans are particularly thrilling. One gets a real sense of what those places were like back then and it’s almost like experiencing them for real. The European scenes capture the allure of foreign travel, 1950s-style, in places not so far removed from the previous century and certainly not gentrified and overrun with Starbucks and Pizza Huts like today.
All this was possible because Cinerama was unique even among wide screen technologies both technically and aesthetically. The process used three modified, synchronized 35mm cameras during production and three projectors during exhibition to produce an extraordinarily wide, wraparound image on screens curved at 146-degrees. The effect is often likened to the present-day IMAX process, but Cinerama was much more than a large, super-sharp image with outstanding directional sound. Because Cinerama’s cameras used short lenses approximating the human field of vision the impact was extraordinarily, disorientingly lifelike. “Cinerama puts YOU in the picture” said the ads.
Cinerama Holiday‘s transfer is impeccable. The image is exceedingly sharp with startlingly rich color. The Smilebox formatting approximates what 1955 audiences saw and suggests the audience participation effects that wowed audiences then and which are still pretty impressive as presented here. (I found myself wishing I could have seen this via an HD projector on a really big screen.) Strohmaier’s restoration (in which all parties involved are generously credited and highlighted) expertly minimizes the join lines between the three panels, matching the color while eliminating unsteady panels, blemishes and other issues. The full roadshow version is here, with the original film’s overture, intermission break, entr’acte and exit music intact. The 5.1 STS-HD Master, adapted from the original 7-channel magnetic sound mix is extremely impressive. The disc is region-free.
The supplements are terrific, headlined by Strohmaier’s brief but extremely interesting overview of the restoration process. A Cinerama Holiday “breakdown reel,” exhibited when the extraordinarily complex system of exhibiting Cinerama went awry, is included. There’s also a brand-new documentary called “Return to Cinerama Holiday” featuring Betty Marsh and Beatrice Troller who, also with their husbands, appear in 1997 cast interviews. Betty Marsh looks at a 50-year-old scrapbook in another featurette, while co-director Robert L. Benedict’s 8mm home movies from the production are also offered. From Strohmaier’s Cinerama Adventure documentary are deleted scenes from the film, and a 28-page full-color reproduction of the original roadshow program caps the terrific extra features.
Given that this release marks the home video premiere of a film virtually unseen in more than half a century, that the transfer is stupendous and supported by great extra features, and that this is an entirely independent, independently-financed release, Cinerama Holiday stands one of the year’s major viewing events. Don’t miss it.
The Film (out of ****): ***1/2
Film Elements Sourced: ***1/2
Video Transfer: ****
New Extra Features: ****
Extra Features Overall: ****
1955 / Color / Cinerama / 129 min / $39.95
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes film history books, DVD and Blu-ray audio commentaries and special features. He’s written nearly 2,000 reviews for the website DVD Talk.