Home Video Hovel: The Best of Cinerama, by West Anthony
Cinema is probably the least likely place for a greatest-hits package – they are certainly nothing new in the realm of recorded music, and literature has seen many anthologies of short stories and poetry. Heck, I’ve even got a book consisting entirely of collected suicide notes (You heard me). But MGM managed to raid their library of musicals long enough to sustain three That’s Entertainment! pictures, and the films shot in the grandly unwieldy widescreen process Cinerama were almost entirely free of narrative and incident anyway, so I suppose we can excuse The Best Of Cinerama. Nay, we should celebrate it, for it is sure to appeal to fans of obsolete widescreen filmmaking, but it is also an ideal place for the newbie to sample Cinerama’s panoramic charms.
After the debut feature, 1952’s This Is Cinerama, broke box office records, narrator Lowell Thomas and producer Merian C. Cooper kept the ball rolling with several more films in the same vein, taking the cumbersome three-strip Cinerama cameras to far-flung exotic locales and filming them, then filling movie audiences’ field of vision with the fruits of their labors. Cinerama Holiday, Seven Wonders Of The World, Search For Paradise and South Seas Adventure followed; these five films are the basis for The Best Of Cinerama, which has been lovingly restored by David Strohmaier, the same guy who’s been carrying the flag for Cinerama on all of their restorations. And this film follows pretty much the same pattern as its predecessors – a collection of splendiferous places and events around the world captured by Cinerama’s larger-than-life format, connected by little more than the fact that the camera went there. Whether those cameras are hurtling under bridges in New York, through a luge track in St. Moritz or over the Pyramids, attending a funeral in New Orleans or astride a runaway train in Darjeeling, or even just standing still for the Vienna Boys Choir, Cinerama takes in amazing sights and sounds near and far and puts them on a vast screen where audiences can ooh and aah over the sheer scale of the thing, having finally been pried away from their television sets.
Of course, the crowning irony of all these home video releases is that your television, however much larger it may be than its comparatively miniscule 1950’s antecedents, is now pretty much the only game in town for watching these movies, and no matter how big your flat-screen is it cannot hope to compare to a real Cinerama screen, of which there are exactly three left in the world. I happen to live near one of them – the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood – and I’ve seen the wonders of Cinerama in front of my very face, so believe me when I tell you that these Flicker Alley blu-ray/DVD combos are weak sauce compared to the theatrical experience. They are ideally for widescreen aficionados and people who enjoy quaint classic-Hollywood curios, and on that level The Best Of Cinerama is entirely satisfying. Strohmaier’s restoration is as good as all his others, and its presentation in the “Smilebox” format, recreating the curves of a Cinerama screen on your TV, enhances the viewing experience (the curvature is actually necessary because that’s the way it was shot and meant to be projected; when you lay the image out flat it does weird things to the perspective). As with their previous releases, Flicker Alley has loaded up their product with extra goodies, and as with their previous releases it’s a mixed bag. Some interviews about the production and restoration are informative and helpful; the commentary track by “Cinerama historian David Coles” is mannered and negligible; a three-minute film of a battleship pulling into San Pedro, shot in 2012, appears to be little more than a camera test of the last working Cinerama rig in existence, because there is virtually nothing interesting about it other than that it was made (the longer, more narrative-oriented short In The Picture, also shot in 2012 and included on the Search For Paradise blu-ray, is an extension of this testing and an even worse example of widescreen filmmaking; see my review for more if you dare).
The best extras are a pair of short films that were once shown on Cinerama screens. Shellarama, filmed in 70MM Super Technirama, is a well-photographed but blatantly propagandistic film produced by the Shell Oil corporation which documents the production, distribution and consumption of petroleum. That’s it. There is no narration or subtitling, just a series of images meant to extol the wondrous virtues of fossil fuel – think of it as Koyaanisqatsi with a corporate agenda. The superior short is Bridge To Space, another 70MM film that pays a visit to Cape Canaveral and explores the wonders of the American space program in 1968, mere months before man finally walked on the moon. Unlike Ron Howard’s Apollo 13, the rocket footage in this short is real, and the thrill of seeing it on a giant Cinerama screen must have been quite a thrill indeed (Al Reinert’s 1989 documentary For All Mankind was shown at the Cinerama Dome, and it was wonderful, but it was never released in 70MM and couldn’t pack the same punch). Both films have been given Strohmaier’s same tender loving care and look swell.
After How The West Was Won (1962), the second and most successful attempt at a narrative Cinerama feature film, the format went into decline as its spectacle was usurped by more inexpensive and less complicated widescreen processes. The Best Of Cinerama was the swansong of the original three-strip process, and while its name lived on via single-strip Ultra Panavision 70 for a few years, it was effectively retired by the early 70’s. If there remains any way for you to see these films properly projected on a massive screen as nature intended, you absolutely should as there is no real substitute for it; this blu-ray is the best around in terms of home video presentation, but make no mistake – the mountain is NOT coming to Mohammed. We are simply making do with molehills.