How the West Was Cinerama

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How the West Was Won was the last film released in Cinerama. But what was Cinerama?

Cinerama – a combination of "cinema" and "panorama" – was in part a gimmick which hoped to compete with television. In 1949, there were approximately 950 thousand television sets in home across America. By 1952, that number became 11 million. As a result, theaters saw a significant drop in attendance. Average attendance in 1948 was approximately 90 million, but by 1952, it had dropped to 56 million. Cinerama hoped to pull people back in. The intent was to essentially place the audience in the middle of the action, similar to an IMAX experience today.

Fred Waller, one of Cinerama’s creators, said, “The process started by trying to reproduce what a pair of normal eyes would see and what a pair of normal ears would hear and reproduce it for the audience.”

Debuting in 1952, the new technique used three cameras, three projectors, and curved screens.

As newscaster Lowell Thomas stated in the documentary This is Cinerama, it was “an entirely new medium, which we believe is going to revolutionize the technique of motion picture storytelling.”

When it debuted on October 1, 1952 at the Broadway Theatre, it made the front page of The New York Times.

Carroll Baker said, “I remember that it was tremendously exciting and frightening, but the wonderful thing about Cinerama was the fact that you really felt enveloped by it.”

When How the West Was Won was being developed, the filmmaking team, including directors John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall, were tasked with showing off what could be accomplished.

Debbie Reynolds said, “They shot totally on location in remote areas. Henry Hathaway wanted primitive, everything like it was in How the West Was Won in the west.”

Eli Wallach said, “I must say that in telling a story as vast as the west the process they used in Cinerama gave you the feeling of what the undiscovered country was like.”

But the process of filming in Cinerama was complex. It required sets that had to be two times as big, wide shots were required so actors weren’t distorted, and actors had to be extremely technical about their performances to ensure their eyes and actions were facing the right direction.

“The film was so expensive that we were all sort of warned please be careful, know your lines, try to know your blocking, be spontaneous but don’t do anything wrong because we don’t want to shoot any more takes than we absolutely have to,” Carroll Baker remembered.

Wallach said, “I was told that if you’re going to play a scene with someone, don’t look directly at them. Look off to the side and look like you’re looking at them, which gave actors a strange sensation.”

“The camera is this this big,” said Debbie Reynolds, holding her hands out to show the camera was approximately a few inches wider than her shoulders, “and when you speak to your fellow actor you can’t. You’ll only hear his lines. You have to look straight into the camera… and you pretend that that’s whoever you’re supposed to be looking at. It was very difficult. It was very hard because your co-star is way over in the mountains saying their lines and you’re looking at them here.”

Despite the complexities, How the West Was Won proved to be a spectacle worth seeing and the highest grossing film in 1962. However, while Cinerama proved to be a unique experience, it wouldn’t last, mostly due to cost of the equipment (which had to be leased from Cinerama) and the construction necessary to use it. Since the distribution of these films was a challenge, it slowly faded away, though its elements weren’t forgotten.