You don't remember Cinerama? Its unveiling in 1952 was so newsworthy that for what must have been the first (and last) time, The New York Times put a film review on its front page. Beneath the paper's best stab at a Variety-esque headline-NEW MOVIE PROJECTION SHOWN HERE; GIANT WIDE ANGLE SCREEN UTILIZED the movie critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "The new motion-picture projection system known as Cinerama was put on public display for the first time last night before an invited audience at the Broadway Theatre. And, with due account for the novelty of the system, it was evident that the distinguished gathering was as excited and thrilled by the spectacle presented as if it were seeing motion pictures for the first time." Present was Arthur Sulzberger, the publisher of The Times, who in one telling had been so awed by Cinerama that he bolted from his seat and dashed to the paper's nearby offices, where he alerted his editors to the filmic marvel in their midst.
o appreciate Cinerama's impact, you have to remember that from their infancy, with very few exceptions, movies had been shot and shown in a virtually square format; even the bosom-heaving Technicolor spectacle that was Gone with the Wind had been corseted within a frame whose rigid proportions dated back to Thomas Edison's laboratories. But dreamers and malcontents had long wondered: Why can't a movie be wide? That was the void filled by Cinerama, which was so wide it had to be shot by three yoked-together cameras and shown by three synchronized projectors, their images blended to fill a vast, deeply curved, panoramic screen that was nearly three times as wide as it was tall. The soundtrack was wide, too, recorded in seven-channel stereo, something almost literally unheard of in a monophonic era. But to speak of Cinerama in terms of mere wideness is reductive: if movies had always been larger-than-life, Cinerama was larger than larger-than-life, in its day the closest thing to what the critic Andre Bazin famously called the "myth of total cinema," the impossible goal of a perfect simulacrum at once as literal and as dreamlike as real life itself. Not that Cinerama's marketing people needed that highfalutin Cahiers du Cinema stuff. "The biggest thing that ever stunned a theatre audience!" read the ad for its public premiere, making Cinerama sound like a cross between King Kong and a punch in the nose.
The process was invented by Fred Waller, a special-effects technician for Paramount in the 1920s and 30s who should arguably be better known for having also invented water skis. If Cinerama sounds cumbersome, consider that it grew out of Vitarama, an aborted 11-camera system Waller had designed for the 1939 New York World's Fair. But despite being backed in the 1940s by the likes of Laurence Rockefeller and Henry Luce, Cinerama didn't get off the ground until it was taken up in 1950 by Lowell Thomas, a well-known adventurer and radio newscaster, and Mike Todd, the legendary Broadway showman (and, later, Elizabeth Taylor's third husband). Along with Merian C. Cooper, the writer, director, and producer of King Kong, Thomas and Todd produced the first Cinerama feature. In another early triumph of marketing over poetry, it was entitled This Is Cinerama - the picture that so enthralled that audience of New York swells.
The film began on a conventional squarish screen with a deliberately plodding, black-and-white prologue in which Thomas offered a 12-minute lecture on the history of the moving image. Finally, with audience members probably wishing there had been multiplexes in those days so they could leave and sneak into a Jane Russell picture, Thomas got to the point: "The pictures you are now going to see have no plot, they have no stars .... Ladies and gentlemen, this is Cinerama!" It was a brilliant stroke of showmanship. As the curtains slowly parted to reveal the rest of the huge, engulfing screen, the film cut to what has been called the most famous point-of-view shot in history, taken by the bulky, three-eyed camera as it was lashed to the front seat of a roller coaster.