HOW THE WEST WAS WON IN CINERAMA
by GREG KIMBLE
(this article appeared in American Cinematographer magazine, October 1983)
Since the days of the first sound film, publicists have been fond of describing Westerns as "thundering across the screen." This past February marked the twentieth anniversary of a film which "thundered" in a way quite unlike any other. How The West Was Won thundered-quite literally-into theaters on February 21, 1963, just eight months before the innocent era of the 50s would end in Dallas. An epic of Americana, it followed three generations of the Prescott family through 50 years of westward expansion beginning in 1839 with the opening of the Erie Canal. Filmed in the awe inspiring 3-screen Cinerama format, it was enthusiastically received by the public, becoming the final vindication of a dream born more than 15 years earlier.
Since its beginning in the late 1800's, the motion picture had (with a few notable exceptions) assumed the compositional format of classic art, mirroring the 1.33 to 1 aspect ratio of a majority of the great paintings of the last several hundred years. Until an idea took root in the mind of a man named Fred Waller. He conceived of a film system that would reproduce the full peripheral range of human vision. And, in the way Americans have of acting out their dreams, it came to be.
This Is Cinerama opened on Broadway on September 30, 1952, a full year ahead of The Robe, which was filmed in that "modern miracle you see without glasses," CinemaScope. Audiences hungering for a new movie-going experience now had a highway to take them.
The road for Fred WaIler, however, had been long and frustrating. While head of Paramount's special effects department in the 30s, he had become fascinated with understanding the complexities of human vision. He had developed a special wide angle lens for the studio's spectaculars and noticed that scenes filmed with it carried a slight impression of depth. Eventually discovering the importance of peripheral vision in interpreting spacial orientation, he began experimenting with multi-camera systems. He synchronized eleven l6mm cameras to cover a range of 1850 wide and 850 high-so wide, in fact, that the cameras photographed each other. Worse still, the image was severely distorted on a flat screen. Well, back to the drawing board.
About this time, Ralph Walker, one of New York's most famous architects, contacted Waller to create a film for Longines to be presented on the spherical dome of his just completed "Perisphere" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. Waller responded with a seven-camera flight through the solar system. One look at the Perisphere's concave screen (not unlike OmniMax) and Waller realized that the answer to the problem of recreating peripheral vision was not a flat, but a curved screen.
Reducing the number of cameras to five, he developed for the Air Force a gunnery flight trainer, which was used during the war. Later, backed by the Rockefeller brothers and Time, Inc., he set up shop in an indoor tennis court on Oyster Bay, Long Island. The five cameras were reduced to three and a seven-channel magnetic sound system (the first in history) was developed by Hazard Reeves. Tests were shot of Rockaways Playland roller coaster and the Long Island Choral Society's performance of Handel's Messiah.
"Waller's Wonder" attracted heads of all the majors to Oyster Bay. Many turned around instinctively upon hearing the choir on the rear channels before their appearance on screen. Skouros, Mayer, Cohen, and Schenk all raved about the effect, but privately realized the enormous capital involved to bring the system to the public. Over the next year, Waller's discouragement grew as the phone continued not to ring. Hollywood is, after all, a town long on enthusiasm and short on front money.
Then one afternoon in 1949, Lowell Thomas, "the most famous voice in America" for his series of travelogues and radio shows, came by to visit his friend Reeves and saw a demonstration of Cinerama. Just hours later an enthusiastic Mike Todd (later to develop Todd-AO for Oklahoma!) called and began a courtship that resulted in the Todd-Thomas Company producing the first theatrical feature in Cinerama.
The roller coaster ride was reshot in color, a Cinerama camera flew over Niagara Falls and crews were dispatched to several locales in Europe and across America, including a sequence of the water show at Cypress Gardens, Florida, made possible by another WaIler invention, the water ski. Creating a coherent film from all this footage fell to Merian C. Cooper, veteran producer of Chang, Grass, and a little picture called King Kong.
As the distinguished first night audience filed into the completely redesigned Broadway Theater that night in late September, 1952, they had few clues to the visual treat in store for them. And when the film began, there was the familiar image of Thomas, relating a brief history of visual communication up to the current state of the art in motion pictures from a standard size screen. Heads turned. "Cinerama; so what's the big deal?" Then unexpectedly, the curtains began to part. Higher and wider, farther and farther to reveal an impossibly huge, deeply curved screen 40 feet high.
Not even a modern familiarity with flat 70mm and six-track Dolby could prepare one for the impact, as the Rockaway roller coaster plunged into cinema history to Thomas' simple, triumphant, "This is Cinerama."
Peter Gibbons was with the Cinerama corporation the entire time the company was producing films, later becoming head of the camera department at CBS Studio Center. Now semi-retired, he teaches cinematography at Columbia College in Hollywood. He is truly one of those people who have "forgotten more than you'll ever know" As Cinerama cameraman and technical advisor for over 20 years, he is uniquely qualified to explain the mysteries of the Cinerama system:
"The Cinerama camera was actually three cameras in one. There were three synchronized movements, three separate 1000-foot Mitchell magazines and three separate lenses. Each camera was set at a 480 angle to the next, so the center movement photographed straight ahead, the right movement captured the left portion and the left was aimed to the right. Eastman manufactured 21 identical lenses for us, so that footage from all seven cameras would be consistent. Those lenses were fantastic. We discovered that 27mm was a very close approximation of the focal length of the human eye. Each camera had three, each covering one third of the field of view.
"When projected, the three images blended into one, covering an astounding 1460 horizontal angle of view. A single shutter, rotating in front of the lens at a point where all three images crossed, assured simultaneous exposure. The film ran vertically as in a conventional camera, but each frame was six perforations high, instead of four.
"Because Cinerama carried its seven channels of sound on a separate full coat head, the entire width of film could be used. The additional two perforations, plus the now usable sound track area meant that each frame had twice the standard Academy area. The total available image area was 3.24 square inches, six times that of Academy, nearly twice that of 65mm. The aspect ratio was 2.66 to 1.
"I built the first camera blimp myself. It was made of layers of plywood faced with 1/32 inch lead sheeting. Then the whole thing was given a finished coat of fiberglass. Completely blimped, the camera weighed over 800 pounds.
"There were five sound channels behind the screen, and two at the rear of the theater for ambient and directional sound.
"Even the screen itself was unique. It was discovered that the deep curvature - a radius of 25 feet - caused the left and right images to reflect onto each other. This was solved by redesigning the screen as narrow vertical strips, like venetian blinds.
"To solve the problem of double light intensity in the 10 overlap of the projectors, Fred incorporated small stainless steel combs in the aperture. Vibrating at high speed, they reduced the light on each edge by one half, creating a 'soft split.' I suppose it was inevitable that they would be called 'jiggolos.'"
The name "Cinerama" is an anagram of "American." Its impact was simply sensational. A wave of "O-Ramas" swept the country. Launderamas, liquor-amas sprang up everywhere, even a kiddie-rama for pre-schoolers. And, of course, a stripper billed herself as the "Sin-Erama Girl."
The film ran for 122 weeks in New York alone. It created a whole new concept in motion picture marketing - the road show. Cinerama films changed only twice a year. Attending them was an event - the Metropolitan Opera of the movies.
In the next three years, three more Cinerama travelogues were released, each as successful as the last. By now the town was taking notice. Peter Gibbons and Cinerama moved West in 1960, setting up shop in the old Forum Theater on Pico Boulevard.
In April of 1959, Life Magazine ran a series of articles on the westward expansion in the last century. Bing Crosby bought the rights and released a record album of period songs on the theme of the winning of the West. From these simple beginnings came Cinerama's greatest achievement, How The West Was Won.
Of the three legendary directors who guided HTWWW - John Ford, George Marshall and Henry Hathaway - only Hathaway is still living. He comes close to embodying the entire history of motion pictures.
His career began in 1908 when, at the age of 10, he worked as an extra at the old Inceville Studios for $1 a day plus lunch. In March, 1914, he quit school and followed his mother's lead to Universal, becoming a prop man alongside another kid named John Ford.
"In those days, the prop man did everything. Paint, drapes, set decoration, you name it."
And did he know then he wanted to direct?
"Sure, from day one. Do you think I wanted to be a prop man?"
After working with Von Sternberg and Victor Fleming as assistant director, Hathaway got his chance to direct when Paramount remade their Zane Grey Westerns as talkies in 1932. Fleming, director of the silent versions, recommended Hathaway for the job.
Hathaway's career included many firsts. He directed the first Shirley Temple film ("the brightest, most wonderful child I've ever met-a complete professional"); made the first sound film shot entirely in the streets of New York Kiss Of Death); helmed the first outdoor film shot in three color Technicolor Trail Of The Lonesome Pine); and gave several stars their first movie jobs: Henry Morgan, Karl Malden, Richard Widmark, Grace Kelly. But he remembers HTWWW as his most unique - and enormous - undertaking.
"They asked Bing Crosby if he would do a television show on the record album he had released, but it became too expensive, so it was offered as a feature to Sol Siegel, who had been looking for a story to do in Cinerama. For some time, Irene Dunne had been looking for a property that could be made to benefit Saint Joe's Hospital in Santa Monica. Crosby sold the rights, and assigned his profit participation to the hospital. Everyone on the crew worked for half salary. The top price for actors was $25,000, even John Wayne, who at the time was making upwards of half a million per picture.
"The original concept was mine. The first step in the winning of the West was the opening of the canal, then came the covered wagon, next the Civil War, which opened up Missouri and the mid-west, then the railroads, and finally the West was won when the Law conquered it instead of the gangs, which was the theme I worked out for the picture," says Hathaway.
"So I conceived that whole idea, then got writers to work on the five episodes." (HTWWW won an Oscar for adaptation screenplay) "Each section was to be about a song, originally. Then I traveled all over the country to find locations.
"There was supposed to be a different director for each segment, but I ended up making three of them. And I did over the fourth one, the railroad building sequence of Marshall's. It was awful. The only one I didn't do over was Ford's (Civil War) - and I should have, because it was lousy. But I didn't want it known in the industry that I was doing over John Ford's work!
"You couldn't move the Cinerama camera much, or the picture would distort. The opening dolly down the street to the wharf was the first ever done. I thought we might have to shoot it in 65mm and split it, but it worked beautifully
"Except for the interiors, which we shot at MGM, we were on wilderness locations almost all the time. That must have been a strain on my camera crew, but they never complained.
"And I think we made a pretty good picture, though I didn't think I'd do another one with that system. There was so much you couldn't do with it. You had to get 18 inches from somebody just to get a waist shot. To see anything, I had to lie on top of the camera and look down at the person. But it was worth it. The picture was a big success.
"There were a lot of obstacles to getting this picture done, but I've learned in this business that you've got to have guts, you've got to believe in what you're doing, then do it and don't fool around, and don't let anybody change your mind, and be entirely responsible for what you're doing."
Principal photography of HTWW began on May 26, 1961 in Paducah, Kentucky but not before a year of intensive pre-production was completed. Even allowing for the usual hype surrounding an "epic" the production's statistics and logistics are awesome.
MGM's art and research departments were on yellow alert almost continually, designing 77 sets and thousands of period props from over 200 volumes and 10,000 photographs collected especially for the film.
During early tests of the Cinerama camera, it was glaringly apparent that the huge format revealed fine detail to an extent no one could have imagined. Machine-sewn costumes were reassembled by hand and thousands of yards of authentic homespun were ordered from India. Fifteen hundred pairs of moccasins arrived from Indian reservations across the country and an entire studio department was created to hand-craft 2300 pairs of period shoes.
Conestoga wagons were built - 107 of them - many being full scale mechanical effects designed to break apart on cue, as was the entire train from "The Outlaws" sequence. (HTWWW received an Academy Award nomination for its mechanical effects.)
The casting department was kept busy filling the 12,617 bit and extra parts in the film. One grizzled man, cast in Hollywood as a railroad worker, later turned out to be a local millionaire and treated cast and crew to weekend sightseeing trips of the Black Hills in his private plane. The Indian cast was drawn from five tribes, including survivors of the Wounded Knee and Little Bighorn massacres. Of course, all 12,617 needed costumes, designed by Gone With The Wind alumnus Walter Plunkett.
Location scouting was an ardous task, as no sign of modern civilization could be apparent anywhere. And, as wagonmaster Robert Preston said, "Every time you moved the camera 10 feet, you had to dress another 200 acres."
Locations ranged nationwide; the Ohio River Valley the Black Hills of South Dakota, several shots in the Colorado Rockies, the Rogue and McKenzie Rivers in Oregon, and, of course, Monument Valley Utah.
A caravan of 71 vehicles carried the company nearly a million miles. Since 75% of the show was on wilderness locations, everything had to be brought along - even studio bulldozers to build access roads where none existed.
Three thousand feet of film flew by each seven-and-a-half minutes, keeping an army of loaders hopping, particularly during the five-unit buffalo stampede. Miles of film were processed at Technicolor, and reduced to standard four-perf anamorphic at MGM to facilitate editing, which was handled largely by the uncredited Maggie Booth. (No one wanted to remember negative cutting.)
The legendary Alfred Newman (who was to 20th what Max Steiner was to Warners) composed one of his finest scores, an exquisitely melancholy blend of period songs and original leitmotifs which perfectly captured the bittersweet nature of the story.
All this to tell the saga of three generations of the Prescott family as they head West, marry, have children and pass on during the years 1839-1889.
HTWWW begins "The Rivers" as the family waits on the wharf for their turn aboard the Erie Canal barge "Flying Arrow" Papa Karl Malden has sold his Eastern farm and with a son and two daughters, Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lillith (Debbie Reynolds) has begun the journey West into Ohio, following, as Mama Agnes Moorhead says, "his itchin' foot."
At the end of the canal, they fell trees for a raft to continue their journey, encounter Linus Rawlins, a mountain man/fur trapper (James Stewart) and rout a band of river pirates led by Walter Brennan.
Later, we careen down the rapids (p.o.v. shots being a Cinerama specialty) when the raft takes the wrong fork in the river. It goes over the falls, and both parents are drowned. Eve decides to stay, marries the mountain man and starts the farm Papa wanted. Lillith returns East on the first riverboat and becomes an entertainer.
In Part II, "The Plains," Lillith is taking a wagon train West to claim a gold mine inherited from a deceased admirer. She is pursued romantically by wagonmaster Preston, and avariciously by gambler Gregory Peck. Together they cross the Great Plains, enduring all the classic Western film discomforts and one breathtaking Indian attack. Peck finally wins her affections, but disappears when the gold mine peters out. Just before intermission, they are reunited by chance, years later, aboard a posh Mississippi riverboat. They agree to marry and move to San Francisco.
The "Civil War" segment, directed by John Ford, returns to sister Eve. Linus is away fighting for the Union and, against her wishes and better judgment, she agrees to let her oldest son Zeb (George Peppard) enlist as well. Linus is killed at Shiloh, and Zeb saves Gen. Grant (Harry Morgan) from an assassin's bullet. He eventually returns home disillusioned ("There ain't much glory in seeing a man with his guts hanging out.") to find his Mother dead, and his younger brother anticipating their farming together. But Zeb announces he is transferring to the regulars and departs that same afternoon, leaving a stunned brother on the porch at the fade out.
The Marshall-directed portion, "The Railroad," finds Zeb (as treaty liaison to the Indians) in conflict with railroad builder Richard Widmark. The film was somewhat ahead of its time with its sympathetic treatment of the Indian question and consciousness of ecological issues. After a terrifying buffalo stampede, Zeb decides he has had enough of seeing the Indians "railroaded." We last see Widmark astride the front of the locomotive, undefeated amid the wreckage and death of the stampede. It rolls inexorably forward as the camera dollies back, vainly attempting to escape this malevolent juggernaut.
In the final segment, Hathaway's "The Outlaws," Peppard is a nearly 50, married U.S. marshal, battling arch enemy Eli Wallach aboard a runaway train that crashes spectacularly.
The emotional climax comes much earlier in the segment, however. Her husband dead, and all her possessions auctioned except her land in Arizona, an aged Lillith steps off the train to meet nephew Zeb, son of the sister she never saw again, for the first time.
In this, the film's most poignant scene, we realize how completely we have become vicarious Prescotts, experiencing an almost unbearable longing for those lost days, as though they were our own. As truth comes, not in the earthquake or the whirlwind, but in the still, small voice, West's strongest moment comes not with a stampede or a train wreck, but with a tear. As Lillith looks up into Zeb's face, we see the memory of all those separated years flash by in an instant, and get a sense, in the very midst of the West that is won, of what has been lost.
"Oh my" she weeps quietly "I swore up and down I wasn't going to cry."
HTWWW had more DP's than Close Encounters, all of them great, longstanding talents, all Oscar winners. There were four first unit cameramen who shared the cinematography nomination West received.
Charles Lang, ASC, shot "The Rivers" segment. "The best cameraman who ever lived," according to director Hathaway won an Oscar in 1933 for A Farewell To Arms and later photographed Some Like It Hot.
William Daniels, ASC, left Triangle in 1924 for newly-formed MGM, where he was Greta Garbo's exclusive cameraman. He received an Oscar in 1948 for Naked City. Bill Daniels photographed "The Plains." He passed away in 1970.
Joe LaShelle, ASC, started big, winning the Award for his second film as a director of photography the classic, Laura in 1944. He has been nominated a dozen times. He became involved when Ford called him to his MGM office to ask if he "knew anything about this Cinerama crap?" He captured both "The Railroads" and "The Civil War."
Milton Krasner, ASC, a most gracious gentleman, shot the closing sequence, "The Outlaws." His career reaches back to 1918 to the old Vita-graph and Biograph Studios in New York. Becoming a first cameraman in 1927, he won his Oscar in 1954 for Three Coins In The Fountain. He was called away from a long tenure at Fox by Hathaway's request.
In addition, pick-ups were shot by Dale Deverman, ASC, and Robert Surtees, ASC, process photography was handled by Harold Wellman, ASC, with some second unit work supervised by Peter Gibbons.
I was fortunate to talk with Milt Krasner and Joe LaShelle at length. Bill Daniels' comments survive in his January 1962 "Cinematographer" article. They were in agreement that it was a unique photographic challenge, but were just as candid about its limitations. For, while the Cinerama process creates a uniquely stunning impact on the screen, the camera creates major physical and artistic problems.
Devising set-ups with an 800 pound camera is itself a formidable undertaking, but it was the three separate panels that caused most of the headaches. Their 146 degree horizontal angle created an unusual lighting problem with exterior scenes.
Daniels: "In the afternoon, we may get the sun in the picture and not be able to reposition the camera to avoid it. The entire three-panel scene, therefore, would consist of a back light, a cross light, and a flat light-all in the same composition, but each in a separate segment of it. The diaphragm controls of all three lenses are interlocked to insure that sky exposures will be uniform in all three panels. Here it becomes necessary to improvise a means of obscuring the sun itself by introducing subtly into the scene a tree branch, cluster of foliage, etc. that will come between the sun and the camera lens."
Lashelle: "And you couldn't put much of a shade over it without photographing it. I had the grips build a great big shade sometimes to stand way off to keep the lens out of the sun, but it was a problem all the time. Every setup was a problem."
Interiors were no picnic either. Sets were built higher to accommodate the 55 degree vertical angle, and smaller because of the exaggerated sense of depth.
Krasner: "All our sets were movable because the width of the lens shot past the sets. We'd look through the lens to see what the side panels would cover, then we'd move the walls accordingly to narrow the set down."
BD: "Often, all four walls were in the shot."
JL: "That camera had to be absolutely level on interiors or the ceiling line in the side panels would curve up into a circle."
BD: "The camera couldn't be tilted up or down more than 'half a bubble' either, nor could it be tilted or panned during a shot."
There is very little moving camera in HTWWW apart from the action sequences. Since each panel had its own vanishing point, there was distortion when an object crossed the blend line to a different panel. While visually odd, this actually added subliminally to the illusion since the screen often seemed about to fall over on top of you.
MK: "Incidentally it wasn't too noisy. Once you closed it up, it wasn't noisy at all. We shot a lot of interiors with that camera and it worked very well. And remember, on closeups we were only 18 inches away.
It would be very unnerving to play a scene with that huge camera right in your lap. It must have been difficult for the actors.
ALL: "Difficult for me. Where are you going to put the lights!?"
MK: "That's why there's obies all over the front of it. You couldn't use a key, you generally lay back with a key light."
JL: "Everyone ended up being broad lit and you couldn't use back light or anything. If you wanted to light to fit the mood of a scene you just couldn't do it. If you just lit it at all you were happy."
The biggest problem, of course, was hiding the blend lines. Everyone quickly learned to place trees, street lamps, the corner of a building, anything there.
BD: "On the sound stage, we often used shadows to minimize the blend lines, arranging the lighting in such a way that the shadows appear natural to the scene.
Blend lines created some awkward blocking as well. An actor could cross through the line, but never stop on it. Hitting marks became unusually important. Anything extending into an adjacent panel had to be aligned carefully. Rifle barrels and train tracks kinked noticeably otherwise.
In a two-shot, the player in the side panel had to cheat away from the camera and play the scene behind the actor in the center. If this was not done, the side lens photographed the upstage side of the face creating a false eyeline. Karl Maiden recalls it was a difficult adjustment for cast members with little stage experience.
Further, although the 27mm focal length insured plenty of depth of field, the blend was only good at the focus point on the lens, so action was always at or behind that plane.
Gibbons: "There's a scene in CINERAMA HOLIDAY where a woman was closer than the focus point. She has three legs. I don't know why they left it in."
JL: "Ford wanted guys to crawl right up to the camera, and you just couldn't do it without distortion. Although in the buffalo stampede that actually helped. It made them appear even faster than they were."
So unlike regular films where the camera interprets the action, the Cinerama camera almost completely dictates the composition.
JL: "More or less. You had to do things you wouldn't ordinarily have done because you were always searching for something to hide lines. You just had to think of the mechanics all the time. You couldn't be an artist, hardly. But the composition wasn't so important because of the vastness of it."
Surprisingly though, the whole film matches wonderfully. Here were three directors and four cameramen, and the whole show looks as if it were shot by the same crew.
JL: "I know it. The first time I saw it I was amazed at how well it matched. It was remarkable."
Perhaps the long list of camera "Don'ts" tended to smooth out everyone's differences in style.
JL: "I think that's so, to a great extent. But I was really pleased with it - I thought it looked fantastic. I'd love to see it again in its original form. I hate seeing it on TV. By the time its panned and scanned and TV-safed, there's nothing left. I think its awful, but for a lot of people, that's all they've ever seen of HTWWW and its a shame."
But these men did their job so skillfully that none of these limitations are visible on the screen-even the cropped 65mm composite has a grandeur about it. And when viewed as it was intended (as I was once lucky enough to do) the deep screen, completely filling your vision, and the incredible reality of the ambient sound, make Cinerama, in Daniels' words, "the greatest audience participation in the world." Which, interpreted, means that even in this day of high-tech films, Cinerama still blows your doors off.
JL: "Its a unique process, that's for sure, but the fact of the matter is, I don't think I would ever do another one in that process. It was just too much work. It really was a white elephant."
MK: "But it did have its day in the sun.
Into the Sunset
HTWWW was the first and last three panel Cinerama show (Wonderful World Of The Brothers Grimm was started later and released first.)
Being naive to studio overhead charges, Cinerama executives were outraged to learn the hard way about creative accounting. They never realized the profit they had expected. Their four-picture contract was completed by releasing Ice Station Zebra and 2001, a Space Odyssey, both shot in Super Panavision, through MGM. They made The Greatest Story Ever Told and It's A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World for United Artists, then ceased production completely.
Today the company operates as Cinerama Hotels and Cinerama Releasing, running the Pacific Theaters chain. The cameras are mothballed and theaters all over the world, grandly built to house "the Metropolitan Opera of the movies" have been converted to standard projection. A dim vestige of the process still survives in the few Circlevision exhibits at the EPCOT Center in Florida.
But the breathtaking experience that was Cinerama is gone; like the monorail, "an idea of the future whose time is passed." The old Forum Theater is boarded up and, like the potential of the system it housed, abandoned. The last existing three-panel, 6-perf print - the company's nearly virgin show print - was chopped up and sold for sound spacer two years ago.
And I swore up and down, I wasn't going to cry.
The author, Greg Kimble, a former marine desk officer, is a special effects cameraman.
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