The Cinerama wonder movies were all but extinct fifteen years ago, un-preserved, un-projectable in their original 3-panel splendor, and largely forgotten. Countless hours of labor and research have now brought them all back to life on Blu-ray in the wraparound simulation ‘Smilebox’ format. These latest (and last?) discs properly restore two early releases, the show that started it all and the competing ‘Cinemiracle’ production that eventually became part of the Cinerama fanfold of travelogue gems.
This Is Cinerama
Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich
Separate Blu-ray Releases
2017 Authorized Restorations
1952 & 1958
Street Date May 15, 2018
Back about ten years ago, the preservation team headed by the dauntless David Strohmaier had to rush their first two Cinerama releases onto the market, before the money could be found to properly refurbish them. The other seven productions would get the benefit of a new restoration process that involved scanning each of the three panels separately and then compositing them in the digital realm, using new tools not only to match color, but to make the panels fit together more smoothly. The multi-track audio was also given the full R&D rejuvenation process.
These latest two releases are a needed backtrack — a comparison of the older disc masters to the new restorations sees a remarkable improvement in quality. The extras have been augmented as well. There are baby boomers slightly older than this reviewer that remember the awe and spectacle given the premiere of the first Cinerama picture, which did indeed set in motion an orgy of new and bigger film formats. The new discs show what the fuss was all about.
This Is Cinerama
1952 / 127 min.
Starring: Lowell Thomas
Cinematography: Harry Squire
Film Editor: William Henry, Milton Shifman
Pilot: Paul Mantz
Creator of Cinerama process: Fred Waller
Original Music: Sidney Cutner, Howard Jackson, Paul Sawtell, Leo Shuken, Max Steiner, Roy Webb
Produced by Robert L. Bendick, Merian C. Cooper, Lowell Thomas, Mike Todd
Directed by Merian C. Cooper, Gunther von Fritsch
“This is CINERAMA!” The first Cinerama spectacular was launched very much like Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, with Cooper joining another mighty showman of the century (Mike Todd) in cueing Lowell Thomas to make the big announcement before the curtain parted to reveal the giant wrap-around Cinerama screen. Although Lowell says it isn’t a travelogue, exactly, it of course is. About 70% of the picture are locked-down shots of various visual splendors from America and Europe, and aerial shots taken from the nose of Paul Mantz’s B-25 bomber as it makes runs over various major cities and national landmarks, diving into the Grand Canyon.
The you-are-there audience participation gimmick was the big appeal. The Cinerama system enveloped a large part of the viewer’s peripheral vision, putting the viewer in the pilot’s seat, or the front row of La Scala in Italy. The showmen that risked their fortunes on the format knew it would work because they’d seen Fred Waller’s gunnery training system from back in WW2, that used similar (the same?) technology. The kicker that starts off the original This Is Cinerama is what’s been remembered so well for 65 years — a simple POV shot from the first car of a roller coaster. In original Cinerama, the you-are-there effect was a sensation, augmented by multiple channels of stereophonic audio.
This original travelogue jumps from location to location with simple artwork cards, and narration that’s mostly good natured hype. We hop from Venice to Madrid, from Edinburgh Castle to various venues for choirs and opera companies. One shot in a church was originally a test item filmed in B&W.
Athough the Cinerama folk soon found ways to expand on the format’s filmic vocabulary, most of the first half of This is Cinerama are static shots of buildings and performances. The camera holds stock still while toreadors battle bulls and dancers spin and gyrate. In 1952 it was more than enough to see the miracle format work; nowadays many of the shots seem less than optimal, with the subject matter remote from the camera.
This is because of the extreme wide angle of the 3-panel setup. Even when the camera is planted at the very edge of the stage, the performers seem half a world away. ‘Objects are closer than they appear’ really applies to Cinerama, which practically saw behind itself. When we see an airplane view graze some mountaintop, the truth is that pilot Mantz is much closer to these objects than is apparent. In most cases the camera could have been much closer to the subject matter, we’re told.
In the second half of the show the crew and directors begin to innovate, to test the limits of what Cinerama can do. The long sequence in the Florida nature park sees many more camera setups that tell a minimal story: the showman in charge of the beautiful water skiing models rushes them from Antebellum dresses with hoop skirts (teasing one girl that loses control of a shoulder strap) into the water for acrobatic stunts. Speedboats zoom through narrow bayou passages and slide over sandbars, in a preview of the crazy stunts that would follow twenty years later in the James Bond film Live and Let Die. The famous image shows a row of six smiling skiiers spread across the screen for our delight. It’s one of the (dare I say it?) iconic visuals of the Eisenhower decade — happy young folk well fed and free from fear of war, expending their carefree lives on glittering, healthy outdoor extreme sports.
In later installments Cinerama would become the entertainment arm for the State Department, as Cinerama theaters sprung up in interesting places around the world, and toured cultural exhibitions meant to sell the third world on superior American products (and superior American democracy). The Russian picture Soy Cuba inadvertently reveals the presence of a Cinerama Theater in downtown Havana! But This is Cinerama is free of the anti-Communist sarcasm that marred one or two of the later narration scripts.
The large selection of historical extras explain most of the crazy Cinerama technology — this is the most unwieldy film format ever invented. The extras also chart the impressive restoration process, that in these full go-back-to-the-source projects, had to understand the original technology inside and out.
One of the new extras is an hourlong docu on the composers of the Cinerama films.
My personal experience with Cinerama was limited. At age eight or nine I saw South Seas Adventure in the Cinerama Theater in Honolulu, and was blown away by the image. Then we took a bus from San Bernardino to The Warner Theater on Hollywood Blvd. to see How the West Was Won, which was quite an experience. But at college Clark Dugger and I raced to Beverly Hills to see a 1971 revival of This Is Cinerama, only to find that it was a 65mm re-composite, projected on a flat screen, that was a pale shadow of the original experience. Everybody felt cheated.
The Smilebox format, distorting the three panels into a simulation of the original wrap-around alignment. It has its drawbacks — the middle panel can seem a big removed — but does straighten out a lot of screwy perspectives, reminding us of the deeply curved screen that was part of every 3-panel, 3-projector Cinerama exhibition setup.
Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich
1958 / 142 min.
Cinematography: Joseph C. Brun, Gayne Rescher
Film Editor: Peter Ratkevich
New York montage sequence: Weegee (Arthur Fellig)
Original Music: Morton Gould
Written by James L. Shute, from the book by Captain Alan Villiers
Produced by Louis De Rochemont III, Louis De Rochemont
Directed by Bill Colleran, Louis De Rochemont III
Why anybody would want to compete with the ungainly Cinerama process is hard to explain — the Russians had an excuse in terms of keeping up with the West, but National Theaters launched its competing system Cinemiracle in 1958, with this part-Norwegian production put together by the famed newsreel legend Louis De Rochemont. Some say that Cinemiracle was superior to Cinerama but the format was so similar that the companies soon merged. The one Cinemiracle production Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich saw most of its screenings in Cinerama houses.
Because This is Cinerama so shyly uses the format Windjammer seems much more active. It’s also much longer, but has more variety, and its travelogue format is enlivened with the pretense of a story. A group of Norwegian naval cadets set sail in the glorious 200-foot sailing ship Christian Radich, making a circuit around the North Atlantic with stops in Portuguese Madeira, Dutch Curacao, San Juan Puerto Rico, Port-of-Spain Trinidad and finally New York. Fairly flimsy scenes with the young crew members introduce seven songs; in each port the Norwegian boys miraculously find bright and accommodating dates with which to tour the sights.
In comparison to the often wholly confected human interest angles in the Cinerama pictures, Windjammer tells an at least partly true story. The young seaman really did take this trip in 1956, with the cameras grinding away. We’re told (in the disc’s excellent extras) that a second ship rushed ahead now and then to film festivals, etc., that the Christian Radich would otherwise miss. And the cute dog brought along to co-star in shots of the boat’s deck disappeared at the first port of call, requiring a semi- lookalike replacement at the last moment.
But there’s nothing fake about the film’s visual splendors, at least for those likely to be impressed by clear images of grand ships on the high seas. The Norwegian ship looks beautiful cruising through the waves on wind power with all its sails unfurled. We get plenty of variety in shots of men working on deck, even when the sideways tilt is over ten degrees to the port or starboard.
De Rochemont made plans for variety, as the Christian Radich passes scores of other ships at close range — a couple other training ships with the tall sails cruise by, exchanging greetings. American seapower also is represented by an armada of ships and plane fly-overs. We see destroyers, a cruiser and an aircraft carrier, and the Radich also sails in close quarters with a U.S. submarine. Extra fun is had by sub-mounted cameras that stay put as the sub submerges and surfaces.
A couple of underwater sequences are attractive, if a little less convincing. Some of these special scenes are a bit suspicious and may have been adapted from 65mm footage — the idea of strapping the three camera system to the outside of a sub seems one or two tech challenges too far. I didn’t notice when watching, that’s for sure.
We get music and a little dancing at several stops, with a Calypso sequence highlighted: Calypso tunes and limbo stick stunts were all the rage in 1958.
The ship eventually sails to New York City for more tours. Although less pronounced as in Cinerama pictures, the show does have two or three ‘rollecoaster’ POV scenes. They boys roll carts down steep streets in Madeira, and we follow a fire company racing through the streets of New York (where? Brooklyn?).
A most arresting sequence is credited to the famed Weegee, a three panel montage of Times Square lights, marquees and night life. Looking a bit like the same year’s avant-garde movie by Francis Thompson, N.Y., N.Y., the sequence is a dazzling abstract break, using superimpositions, mirrors, kaleidoscopic and prism effects to accompany a jazz soundtrack. Among the jumble of spinning marquees is a glimpse of the marquee for The Helen Morgan Story, which dates the filming as taking place in October of 1957.
Windjammer has a lot of Hollywood input, as the Norwegian kids all sing sappy songs in English. But a little Norwegian flavor slips through in the title design and the names and faces of the captain and crew. It’s not like we get to know them well, but they escape with their dignity intact. In fact, the idea of shipping out on a training cruise like the one pictured sounds like an ideal thing to do — a bold physical challenge not associated with military activity. The Cinemiracle Windjammer was conceived to compete with Cinerama but instead became one of its better examples.
Flicker Alley’s Blu-ray of This Is Cinerama & Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich continue the high standards of the earlier releases. My reviews are as follows:
Cinerama Holiday (11.12.13), Cinerama’s Seven Wonders of the World (11.01.14), Cinerama’s Search for Paradise (11.01.14), Cinerama South Seas Adventure (11.12.13), Holiday in Spain (aka Scent of Mystery; 11.18.14), How the West Was Won (9.27.08) and Cinerama’s Russian Adventure (11.22.16). Although most of the earlier releases were Blu-ray + DVD combos, these two new discs are Blu-ray only.
The picture quality is excellent, as are the voluminous extras, listed below. David Strohmaier’s long-form making-of docus are recommended for being easy to understand yet not dumbed-down on technical matters. The comparison extras show immediately why the older editions of these two titles needed to be supplanted.
Naturally, the larger the screen, the better these Cinerama presentations are going to look. I wonder what’s next for Smilebox presentations? Would single-strip Cinerama pictures like It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World look good, or different? I’m dubious, although Grand Prix might possibly benefit.
Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
This Is Cinerama &
Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich
Separate Blu-ray releases rate:
Movies: Very Good
Supplements (from Flicker Alley):
This is Cinerama:  : Audio Commentary – With John Sittig (Cinerama Inc.), David Strohmaier (Cinerama Restorer), Randy Gitsch (Cinerama Historian), and Jim Morrison (original crew member); The Best in the Biz – Updated hour-long documentary about the composers of Cinerama; Restoring This is Cinerama – A detailed, behind-the-scenes look at the brand-new restoration; Alternate European Opening to Act Two – A European-oriented segue into the second half of the film, featuring the panoramic view of the United States from the nose of a B-25 bomber plane; Cinerama Everywhere – A French-produced short on the Cinerama tent shows in Europe; Tribute to the New Neon Movies – A short film celebrating an Ohio theater where a projectionist revived Cinerama through special screenings for people from all over the country; Radio Interview with Cinerama Creator, Fred Waller – Recorded on the eve of opening night; accompanied by a slideshow of selected Cinerama images; This is Cinerama Trailer – An updated recreation of the original theatrical trailer, edited with newly-restored clips; Cinerama Returns to the Cinerama Dome (2002 Announcement Trailer) – Promotional short for the 50th anniversary of Cinerama and its return to the fabled Cinerama Dome in Hollywood; Breakdown Reel – Footage originally projected interstitially during the interruptions of any Cinerama performance; TV Spots – Original television ads for This Is Cinerama and Seven Wonders of the World.
Windjammer: The Windjammer Voyage: A Cinemiracle Adventure – A documentary by historian Dave Strohmaier on the film’s production; The Reconstruction of Windjammer – A behind the scenes look at the reconstruction and restoration of Windjammer from the original Cinemiracle camera elements; The Windjammer Breakdown Reel; The Christian Radich Today – A modern look at the famous ship at the Aalbourg, Denmark Tall Ships Festival in 2010; Windjammer Trailer – New re-creation from the original 1958 release trailer; Windjammer Behind The Scenes Slideshow – Images from the production of the film; Cinemiracle Showplaces Slideshow – A look at the unique venues that screened Windjammer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? N0; Subtitles: None
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: May 5, 2018
Text © Copyright 2018 Glenn Erickson
Here’s Brian Trenchard-Smith on This is Cinerama and Windjammer: