Posted on Leave a comment

The 3-D Movie Craze of the 1950’s

3D movie audience reacting to film

Hollywood seeks to attract viewers back to the theater

Audience wearing special glasses watch a 3D "stereoscopic film" at the Telekinema on the South Bank in London during the Festival of Britain

For Hollywood, the 1950’s era presented a plethora of obstacles to success. McCarthy’s communist witchhunt battered the growing movie industry as actors, writers and directors came under scrutiny whilst McCarthy turned every stone looking for his communist demons.

In addition, weather-beaten Hollywood had to contend with new competition from the extraordinarily successful television market. To counter TV, Hollywood looked for gimmicks to attract moviegoers. Once such device was a newly improved medium for projecting movies in theaters – the three dimensional or 3D movie.

The introduction of the first color 3D movie set off a chain reaction of 3D movies that served Hollywood’s purpose well. Movie goers came back to the theaters in droves to see the new technology which itself triggered several new inventions in film making, many of which are still in use today.

How 3D Movies Work

A 3-D film is a motion picture movie that uses various technologies as a means to enhance the illusion of depth perception. A special motion picture camera system is used to record the images as seen from two perspectives (in modern days, computers generate the two perspectives). To view the 3D images, special eyewear is worn to provide the illusion of depth when viewing the movie.

3D movies are expensive to make and as such, are often relegated to a niche in the movie industry and because the films required two projectors and a lot of film, an intermission was necessary while the film cameras were reloaded with the second reel.

History of 3D Movies

Paper glasses for viewing Anaglyphs

3D image processing has been around almost as long as still camera photography. In 1856, J.C. d’Almeida demonstrated a 3D method to the Academy of Sciences. His stereoscopic images (two views of the same scene photographed at slightly different points of view) worked by projecting, in rapid succession, two lantern slides colored red and green with the viewers wearing glasses fitted with red and green lenses. The green image could only be seen through the green lens and the red image only seen through the red lens. The effect was to send two slightly different images of the same scene to the viewer whereby the brain would re-combine the images to form a three-dimensional picture.

Several advancements in 3D processing occurred during the 1890’s. By this time, d’Almeida’s method of using two different colored lenses was still the backbone of the 3-D process. In the early 1890’s, Ducos du Hauron produced a two-color anaglyph system using red and blue colors (with viewers using glasses having one blue and one red lens). In 1897, William Friese Greene filed a patent for the 3-D movie process. In Greene’s anaglyph method, two films were simultaneously projected side by side on the screen while the viewer used a stereoscope set of glasses to combine the two image perspectives. Again, red and blue filters were used on the projector with the viewer donning glasses with red and blue lenses. A few years later, Frederick Eugene Ives patented a 3D anaglyph stereo camera rig that used two lenses on a single camera, coupled together.

The Anaglyph 3-D Method

3D camera used to film The Power of Love movie

3D, or stereoscopic, movies can be produced in a variety of ways with the two most popular methods being anaglyph and polarization methods. The anaglyph system was often used in the periods before 1950. Anaglyph systems became popular with comic books in the 1930’s and being easier to produce and show, transitioned to the movie screen during that same period.

In an anaglyph system, the two images are superimposed in an additive light setting. Two color filters are used, one red and one cyan. Glasses with colored filters in each eye separate the two images by cancelling the filter color out leaving a slightly offset image in each eye. This produces the illusion of depth.

Variants of the anaglyph 3-D system were introduced including ColorCode 3-D, a system which worked well with the NTSC television standards and used colors of yellow and dark blue (with glass lenses of amber and dark blue). Unfortunately, all anaglyph methods make accommodation of full color movies difficult and frequently cause headaches and eyestrain in movie watchers.

The Polarization 3D Method

IMAX 3D movie Hidden Universe filming with IMAX camera

In 1929, Edwin H. Land conceived the idea of reducing glare on car headlights by using polarized light. The process involved depositing a layer of crystals as a thin film which was then manipulated to align the needle-like crystals in one direction. This had the effect of creating a microscopic grill through which only certain light waves were allowed to pass through. While his original idea was to use polarization to reduce glare, he recognized the use of polarization to produce stereoscopic presentations. Since the method did not involve blocking certain colors, it was now possible to produce full color 3D images. In January 1936, Land demonstrated the Polaroid filters with 3-D photography at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. The new media was well received by the public.

Beginning in the 1950’s, polarization systems were used to create 3D movies. In the polarization method, two images are projected superimposed onto the same screen through different polarizing filters (and typically using two different movie projectors). The viewer of the movie wears eyeglasses which contain a pair of polarizing filters oriented differently so that each lens filter passes only the light which is similarly polarized and blocks the light that is polarized differently so that each eye sees a different image. The two different images represent slightly different perspectives of the scene and give the viewer a sense of depth.

In modern day systems such as RealD, two different projectors, each projecting a different perspective of the polarized image, are not required. Instead, a single projector can be used that switches the polarity rapidly (144 times per second with RealD) using a liquid crystal filter that is placed in front of the lens. Only one projector is needed as the left and right images are displayed alternately at such a rapid rate that the viewer cannot discern the effect.

Other methods have been used to some degree. The eclipse method uses a mechanical shutter to block light from each eye when the converse eye’s image is projected onto the screen. The projector alternates between the left and right images and opens and closes the shutters in the glasses via a synchronization mechanism. LCD shutter glasses work using the same method but instead of a mechanical shutter, use liquid crystal glasses that synchronize the images.

Even new systems such as Autostereoscopic LCD displays were introduced that required no special glasses at all to view the movie. As noted in “You should see them with glasses”,

“Whilst all this was happening in Europe and America, The Russians had quietly been experimenting with various 3D systems, from alternating frame, through anaglyph up to and including polarized 3D. But in the end, they decided to explore a completely different route by attempting to perfect a method of 3D presentation that did not require the audience to wear glasses at all: the parallax stereogram. This method of stereo photography had first been demonstrated in the early part of the century by A. Berthier, E. Estenave but by the early 1930s had been perfected by Russian engineer Semyon Pavlovich Ivanov. A parallax stereogram is produced by placing a screen, usually made up of fine wires, in front of a sensitive photographic surface, in such a way that parts of the surface are shielded from the left eye lens and other parts from the right eye lens. When exposed, this will produce a double image made up of interlaced left and right eye views of a scene. The printed photograph is then viewed through a similar screen which will allow each of the viewer’s eyes to see only the appropriate left or right eye parts of the image. The wire viewing screens were later replaced by plastic screens made up of fine lines which could be laminated directly on to a parallax stereogram, each line, in effect, acting as a tiny lens directing the eyes to their appropriate view. This type of stereoscopic process, which does not require viewing glasses and permits simultaneous viewing by any number of persons, is still used today, usually in the production of novelty 3D items such as 3D bubblegum cards, 3D postcards and even 3D posters.”

Early 3-D Movies

The Power of Love – Still from film published in Exhibitor’s Herald 1922
Scene from The Power of Love (1922)

On June 10, 1915, Edwin S. Porter and William E. Waddell presented the first 3D test movie to audiences in the Astor Theater in New York City. Using a red-green anaglyph method, the audience was shown three reels of tests including rural scenes, a musical passage, oriental dancers, and footage from Niagara Falls.

In 1918, an interesting application of the 3D process occurred in the Keith-Abbey vaudeville circuit. A troupe of high kicking dancing girls danced across the stage while a translucent screen was lowered in front of them. The screen was lit from behind using red and green lights. Their red and green shadows were viewed through glasses with red and green lenses to give the dance routine a 3D effect.

On September 27, 1922, the Power of Love premiered at the Ambassador Hotel Theater in Los Angeles. Presented by filmmaker and inventor Harry K. Fairall, using the same red-green anaglyph format that was used in a 1915 Astor Theater showing, the film was presented to a paying audience who left the theater enthralled. Sadly, the film was mishandled and is now considered lost.

Scene from The Man from M.A.R.S. aka Radio-Mania 1922
The Man from M.A.R.S. (Radio-Mania)

Also in December 1922, Laurens Hammond (later inventor of the Hammond organ) and William F. Cassidy unveiled their Teleview system. Teleview was the earliest alternate-frame sequencing form of film projection. Using two interlocked projectors, alternating left/right frames were projected one after another in rapid succession. Synchronized viewers attached to the armrests of the seats in the theater open and closed at the same time allowing viewers to watch the movie through their own “televiewer” mounted in front of them. The result was a true stereoscopic image. The only theater known to have installed this system was the Selwyn Theater in New York. Only one show was ever produced for the system, a group of shorts and the only Teleview feature The Man from M.A.R.S. (later re-released as Radio-Mania) on December 27, 1922, in New York City.

The late 1920s to early 1930s saw little to no interest in stereoscopic pictures, largely due to the Great Depression. It was not until 1939 that John Norling shot the fifteen-minute short title In Tune with Tomorrow using the Polaroid method. The short film premiered at the 1939 New York World’s Fair at the Chrysler Motor Pavilion where more than 1.5 million people viewed it. The film showed a Chrysler Plymouth magically put together in sync with music. The black and white film was so popular that it was reshot in color the next year under the title New Dimensions. In 1953, the movie was released again as Motor Rhythm.

The 1950’s Golden Era of 3D Movies

Amazing Thrills 3-Dimension 3D movie poster IT Came From Outer Space

The Golden Era of 3D began in 1952 with the release of the first color 3D movie, Bwana Devil (pre-production known as The Lions of Gulu). The film starred Robert Stack, Barbara Britton, and Nigel Bruce and used the Natural Vision 3D rig to shoot. Natural Vision was invented by the brothers Milton and Julian Gunzeburg. The Gunzeburgs had shopped the Natural Vision system to Hollywood executives. Most were heavily involved with the new CinemaScope process, which featured wall to wall screens and sound, and did not want to invest in what they felt was nothing more than a gimmick. But filmmaker Arch Oboler saw the system and fell in love with it. He immediately scrapped 10 days’ worth of “flat footage” on his The Lions of Gulu movie, soon to be renamed Bwana Devil, and started from scratch using the Natural Vision Rig.

Bwana Devil, which was set in Africa and portrayed man-eating lions attacking railway workers, was projected using Polaroid filters with viewers using the familiar disposable anaglyph glasses. The movie was based on a series of true events which took place at the Tsavo River crossing in Kenya in 1898 during the building of the Uganda Railway. The movie opened on November 26, 1952, at Paramount Theaters in Hollywood and quickly sold out with lines of people waiting to get in spanning several blocks. Further openings occurred on December 13, 1952, in Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio. The success of the film prompted Hollywood executives to sit up and take notice. They immediately scrambled to duplicate the success of Bwana Devil.

3D movie Revenge of the Creature movie poster

In April 1953, Hollywood introduced two new groundbreaking movies which served to fuel the 3D craze even further. Man in the Dark and House of Wax were introduced with House of Wax being the first movie to feature stereophonic sound. Originally titled Wax Works, the House of Wax, starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson, is often considered the spark that ignited the 3D movie craze. The House of Wax was an instant hit when it premiered in New York on April 10, 1953. Its 3D photography, new widescreen format of 1.66:1, and new six track stereophonic sound were truly groundbreaking. Ironically, director Andre De Toth was blind in one eye and therefore had no stereoscopic perception. The success of these two films proved that major studios now had a method of getting moviegoers back into theaters and away from television sets, which were causing a steady decline in attendance. For a time, over 5,000 theaters in America were showing 3-D movies (with 3D movies also gaining popularity in Germany, Britain, Japan, Mexico, and Hong Kong).

By the next month, all the major producers were releasing 3D movies with stereo sound. Universal-International released It Came from Outer Space on May 27, 1953. Paramount released Sangaree the same week. Columbia released several 3D westerns and slapstick comedies including 13 Ghosts, House on Haunted Hill, and The Tingler. Spooks and Pardon my Backfire, starring the Three Stooges were also released in 3-D. 20th Century Fox, late to the party, eventually caved into the demand for 3D and released Inferno with great reluctance as they continued to advertise their CinemaScope formatted movies with the tagline, “You can see it without glasses!”.

3-Dimensions 3D movie Those Redheads from Seattle

In December 1953, MGM released Kiss Me, Kate in six theaters – three in 3D and three flat. The film was so well received that the movie immediately went into wide 3D release throughout the country. Other well received 3D movies were released in 1953 including John Wayne’s Hondo, Miss Sadie Thompson, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis’ Money from Home and several 3D cartoon shorts including Boo Moon (Casper the Friendly Ghost) and Ace of Space (Popeye the Sailor). One of the best examples of the 3D process was Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder starring Ray Milland, Robert Cummings, and Grace Kelly.

By the end of the 1950’s, 3D was in decline as widescreen versions of films began to take center stage. Problems and irritations with the 3D process contributed to its decline. The projection of two prints produced major headaches for theater owners. For one, if a film broke or had to be repaired, it was easy to get the two reels out of synch with each other.

3D movie Inferno 1953 movie poster

An out of sync or unfocused 3D movie was almost unbearable to watch and frequently resulted in nausea or headaches for viewers. In addition, the 3D viewing process was very directional and caused sideline seating to be unusable for both 3D and regular films. And for some 3D movies, it was just “hard on the eyes”.

To make matters worse, 3D movies were also expensive for theater owners to rent. Distributors of 3-D movies figured since two reels were distributed for each movie, they should cost twice as much (even though theater owners knew moviegoers would not pay twice as much to see the movie in 3D). Unless a 3D viewing sold out, the theater owners were at risk of losing money on the showing.

The production of 3D movies began to taper off as the studios turned to the less troublesome CinemaScope as a means of coaxing the audiences back into the movie theaters. By the mid to late 1950’s, 3D movies were out of favor and widescreen features were once again the dominant film format for moviegoers.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

3D movie Inferno 1953 movie poster via Original Movie Posters with usage type - Public Domain
Scene from The Man from M.A.R.S. aka Radio-Mania 1922 via IMDB with usage type - Public Domain
The Power of Love – Still from film published in Exhibitor’s Herald 1922 via The Vintage News with usage type - Public Domain
Amazing Thrills 3-Dimension 3D movie poster IT Came From Outer Space via Home Cinema Choice with usage type - Public Domain. May 27, 1953
3D movie Revenge of the Creature movie poster via Home Cinema Choice with usage type - Public Domain
3-Dimensions 3D movie Those Redheads from Seattle via Home Cinema Choice with usage type - Public Domain
3D movie audience reacting to film via Stareable
Paper glasses for viewing Anaglyphs via Wikipedia Commons with usage type - GNU Free
IMAX 3D movie Hidden Universe filming with IMAX camera via Wikipedia Commons by Malcolm Ludgate/ESO with usage type - Creative Commons License
Audience wearing special glasses watch a 3D "stereoscopic film" at the Telekinema on the South Bank in London during the Festival of Britain via Wikipedia Commons by The National Archives UK with usage type - Creative Commons License
3D camera used to film The Power of Love movie via The Vintage News with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

3D movie audience reacting to film via Stareable


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *