‘3-D Rarities’ Review: When the World First Loved 3-D Movies
A new 3-D Blu-ray disc titled “3-D Rarities” extensively documents 3-D cinema that goes back to 1915.
Aug. 25, 2015 6:02 p.m. ET
From a promotional poster for ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (1953). Photo: 3-D Film Archive, LLC
‘First, we had the silents. Next, we had the talkies. And third—and last—we have the roundies.” So speaks actor Lloyd Nolan in a 1952 short film with the catchy title of “M.L. Gunzburg Presents Natural Vision 3-Dimension.” That attempt at a shorthand phrase for 3-D never caught on, even though the process itself did for about three years, during which time Hollywood released 50 feature films in 3-D. That period is generally known as the Golden Age of 3-D, despite the recent renaissance of the medium, epitomized by “Avatar,” the top-grossing film of all time. But, as a new 3-D Blu-ray disc titled “3-D Rarities” extensively documents, 3-D cinema goes back to 1915. Thus, 2015 (a year in which virtually every one of the top-grossing films was released in 3-D) marks the hundredth anniversary of the medium.
The release is a production of the 3-D Film Archive, whose founder, Bob Furmanek, has been actively preserving and restoring classic stereoscopic films for over 30 years. The earliest known showing of a 3-D movie occurred in New York on June 10, 1915—a special “industry” screening presented by pioneering director Edwin S. Porter that included shots of Niagara Falls and of an exotic dancer doing her stuff (which would be a recurring subject for the medium). That footage, alas, is lost, as is the first 3-D feature film, “The Power of Love” (1922), but the new 3-D Blu-ray begins with the earliest surviving 3-D film, “Kelley’s Plasticon Pictures: Thru’ the Trees, Washington, D.C.” (1922), depicting parks and gardens in the Washington area. As you might expect, the silent images do look like a turn-of-the-20th-century stereopticon in which, yes, the images and the people therein are actually moving.
For roughly 30 years, the idea of stereoscopic motion pictures was the province of experimentalists, inventors and promoters. The new Blu-ray, which features 150 minutes of material, includes shots from 1935 of a Negro League baseball team (the Brooklyn Royal Giants) and images of a locomotive factory. The most impressive of these early efforts is “New Dimensions,” which was exhibited at the Chrysler pavilion of the 1940 World’s Fair in New York; by the time the fair closed, 4.5 million people had watched this imaginative short in which a 1940 Chrysler is assembled part by part right before their eyes—in vivid Technicolor and 3-D via stop-motion animation.
Hollywood turned to 3-D again in 1952 as a result of its standoff with another medium: television. The smash hit “Bwana Devil” (preceded by the Gunzburg film as a kind of prologue) launched the 3-D trend in a big way. The Golden Age of 3-D hit its pinnacle in 1953, when the process briefly convinced audiences that rather than stay home and stare at a small, flat, black-and-white screen, they should put on their 3-D glasses and immerse themselves in the big, colorful, fully dimensional fare at the neighborhood cinema. However, by the end of 1953, newer processes like CinemaScope (driven by the idea of a wide screen rather than a deep screen) were on the rise in movie theaters, and 3-D began to be perceived as a fading fad.
Mr. Furmanek believes it was a lack of quality control in the projection booth that sabotaged the medium. “In too many theaters, the shutters were out of phase and the poor alignment gave people headaches,” he said in an interview at his home in Clifton, N.J. “It was shoddy projection that killed 3-D.” (Mr. Furmanek knows all about projection—he has a full-scale setup in his basement with two vintage 35mm projectors.) The original 3-D boom differed from the current one in at least one important aspect: Today, nearly all the movies using the digital 3-D medium are animated or action films. But in the 1950s, while there was no shortage of sci-fi, horror and action epics (westerns, war and jungle movies), there were also highly prestigious 3-D musicals, comedies, crime and detective stories, and dramas, most famously Alfred Hitchcock’s dialogue-driven “Dial M For Murder” (1954).
One of the gems of the 3-D Blu-ray is the trailer for what was advertised in 1953 as “The First All 3-D Program.” The main attraction is the iconic alien invasion epic “It Came From Outer Space.” The trailer also contains a few moments from a musical featurette starring Nat King Cole, making him, to this day, one of very few musical superstars to be documented in 3-D.
The disc also features footage of a stand-up comedian, a burlesque show (and, as a bonus, an excerpt from “The Bellboy and the Playgirls,” a 1962 cheesecake flick directed by Francis Ford Coppola), and a singularly novel cartoon in which Casper the Friendly Ghost battles evil walking trees on the moon. The most surprising item is “Doom Town” (1953), an early hybrid of newsreel and documentary. Ostensibly a film of an atomic weapons test in Nevada, the soundtrack commentary by Gerald Schnitzer (who, at 98, is still with us) doesn’t wave any flags, but dwells on the death and destruction that resulted from splitting the atom. It’s hard to say which aspect of the film more presciently points to the future, the 3-D technology or the movie’s startling antinuclear stance.
Mr. Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for the Journal.