I currently have about 7,200 titles in my DVD/HD DVD/Blu-ray library, but less than an hour into the two-and-a-half-hours-long 3-D Rarities, I knew I was looking at one of my Top Ten favorite titles. Of immense historical, technological, and cultural interest, and supremely entertaining besides, 3-D Rarities is one of the year’s top releases – heck, it’s one of the format’s best releases! – and a bona fide must-see.
A grab bag of material stretching from 1922 into the early 1960s, 3-D Rarities gathers together an enormous amount of all sorts of things even hard-core 3-D enthusiasts have never seen presented so perfectly, when at all. The digital 3-D conversions are uniformly excellent and, truly, there’s something for everyone: historical footage of New York City and Washington D.C. in the 1920s; an amazing promotional film for the Pennsylvania Railroad line; trailers for ‘50s 3-D films (in 3-D); dazzlingly 3-D shorts directed by the National Film Board of Canada’s resident genius Norman McLaren; a completely unexpected anti-nuclear documentary made during the height of the Cold War (and quickly suppressed, unsurprisingly); an eye-popping Casper cartoon, and lots, lots more.
This isn’t just for 3-D enthusiasts. Watching Thrills for You, the Pennsylvania Railroad documentary, I couldn’t help thinking how train buffs would go absolutely nuts over all the footage showing the construction of a big steam locomotive engine, and footage taken inside real, en route passenger trains that allow the viewer to vicariously experience that long-lost form of travel, remembered primarily in the distorted form of ‘30s and ‘40s movies set aboard trains but always filmed on soundstage sets.
3-D Rarities also includes gobs of extra features, including excerpts from 3-D comic books, View-Master reels, and even 3-D stills from the Lon Chaney version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)!
A marvelous 24-page, full-color booklet guides the viewer through this unique collection. Following brief introductory essays by comedian Trustin Howard (who, as “Slick Slavin,” headlines Stardust in Your Eyes) and Leonard Maltin, the two-part program (Act 1: The Dawn of Stereoscopic Cinematography; Act 2: Hollywood Enters the Third-Dimension) is explained in short but illuminating essays by experts Jack Theakston, Hillary Hess, Donald McWilliams, Ted Okuda, Julian Antos, Thad Komorowski, Mary Ann Sell, and disc co-producer Bob Furmanek.
The essays provide valuable information about the 3-D processes used, how and when they were originally exhibited, quotes from contemporary reviews, and information about how they were rescued and restored. In many cases, the lone surviving negative or print was literally on its way to the junk yard and very nearly lost forever.
Many of the earliest shorts were originally exhibited in anaglyphic format (using red-green glasses) but for 3-D Rarities impressively have been reformat to “polarized” format, with the image in crystal-clear black-and-white with minimal ghosting effects.
This reviewer found everything totally fascinating, with only New Dimension, essentially a long if 3-D commercial for Chrysler’s 1940 Plymouths, wearing out its welcome before it was over. But old car enthusiasts, like train buffs watching Thrills for You, will delight in this stop-motion film showing a single car being put together, part-by-part. I had assumed this was done with a detailed scale-model, but Theakston reports that, incredibly, all of the stop-motion was done full-scale, presumably with (for the most part) real car parts.
Scottish expatriate McLaren’s ingenious shorts for the National Film Board of Canada got the deluxe treatment some years back via a superb DVD set, but the quartet of dimensional films presented here, Now Is the Time, Around and Around, O Canada, and Twirlgig are truly magical, bearing McLaren’s (and the NFB’s) unmistakable stamp while literally adding a new dimension to the NFB’s filmmaking innovations.
Finally, there’s a wealth of home movie-type scenes filmed to promote Bolex’s Stereo film gear, which awkwardly halved the 16mm gauge’s frame size, making it taller than wide, but the 3-D is nonetheless impressive.
Part 2 begins with an amusing short film that originally preceded Bwana Devil (1952), the picture that mainstreamed the ‘50s 3-D craze. Starring Lloyd Nolan, “Miss Third Dimension” and, in puppet form, Beany & Cecil, it’s a charming artifact of the period. 3-D Trailers for Oh-how-I wish-they-were-out-already ‘50s titles It Came from Outer Space, Hannah Lee, The Maze, and Miss Sadie Thompson provide, at least, tantalizing previews.
The first and only 3-D newsreels documents the unexpectedly brief Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott fight, a controversial rematch that never went beyond the first round. This proved a bonus for 3-D fans, as the two-reeler is padded with loads of other good stuff, including Marciano reaching out and “punching” the movie audience.
The aforementioned Stardust in Your Eyes is a real oddity, clearly slapped together in haste by director Phil Tucker as a prologue short to his magnum opus, the infamous Robot Monster. Tucker’s notorious turkey actually has an infectious, child-fueled dream-like logic and apparently pretty impressive in good 3-D, but the short never takes advantage of the format, with comedian-impressionist Slavin doing his entire act in front of what looks like the kind of padding movers wrap furniture in.
Doom Town, on the other hand, is a revelation. Made independently by producer Lee Savin and written and directed by Gerald Schnitzer, it provides a rare, sharp contrast to the gung-ho propagandizing of most Hollywood films as well as the Cinerama travelogues. After a few bookings it was abruptly pulled and disappeared for decades, until the 3-D Film Archive discovered the original negatives, about to be junked, in 1985. There’s was a historic find and Doom Town all by itself is, as they say, worth the price of admission.
Another major restoration is the little-seen The Adventures of Sam Space, done in the stop-motion/replacement animation style of George Pal’s Puppetoons. Bursting with imaginative production design and effects, it was completed just as the fad for 3-D died and, until now, has never been seen in its correct widescreen aspect ratio.
I’ll Sell My Shirt is a cheap, typical burlesque/mild striptease-type short with the added benefit of 3-D. Far superior is the Paramount-distributed Casper cartoon, Boo Moon, one of the best-looking 3-D cartoons ever. After seeing the disappointing Bugs Bunny short Lumberjack Rabbit several times in 3-D, Boo Moon is a real surprise. It really uses the format spectacularly well.
The shorts all look great, especially considering the considerable restoration effort that went into many of them. All films are presented in their correct original aspect ratios and the 3-D is perfect nearly all the time. The disc is region-free, too.
Extras include a few minutes of 3-D footage aspiring director Francis Ford Coppola shot for The Bellboys and the Playgirls, an otherwise 2-D nudie-cutie made in West Germany. Also included are amazing 3-D still galleries from the Lon Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame and the 1939 World’s Fair; Adventures of Sam Sawyer, a View-Master release, along with excerpts from several 3-D comic books, all transferred to polarized format from their original anaglyphic.
This is an outstanding collection, with delightful surprises around every corner, gorgeously realized on all levels. Kudos to the 3-D Film Archive and Flicker Alley for one of the best releases of this or any year.