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CINERAMA: The Last Belch

None of us went to see How the West Was Won for history, we went for the ride. The second and last of the three-strip Cinerama “story” roadshows was expressly designed to use the medium to its fullest: the charging Indians on the warpath, the roaring choo-choo, the timber about to tumble from a railroad car, raft cascading down the rapids, buffalo on a rampage and the nearly endless stunts are for no other purpose than swooning over the whirling imagery and vibrating to the thunderous sound. The younger or more impressionable the viewer during the initial run, the more successful the movie was deemed. (You understand why director Ron Howard as a kid was so impacted and clearly see the processs influence in his Far and Away.) For adults, however, theres considerable frustration. Its a sprawling hodge-podge of episodic generational vistas failing to flow to or from each other with ease. So much connecting narrative is missing that, despite Spencer Tracys vocal annotations (and concluding narration suggesting De Mille), were feeling undernourished; beyond the meant-to-be wowie effects, we get table scraps of humor and history and concession stand drama. The Civil War sequence, directed by John Ford, is starving for clear-headed detail—we cant really tell where we are or why were there, other than for John Wayne to listen to Henry (Harry) Morgan as Grant worrying about the gossip that he’s a drunk the newspapers are printing about him and for George Peppard to prevent Morgan from being assassinated by Russ Tamblyn. Other than a setup, its unaccountable why dullard Peppard is basically the star of the second half of the movie. (Mercifully Hope Lange as his love interest was edited out.) The cast is billboard glory—including Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Robert Preston, Carroll Baker, Thelma Ritter and fifteen other recognizable names—but the acting isnt. Though we have to admire Reynolds for trying to escape the very apparent confines of the stilted blocking demanded by the Cinerama camera and admire Bakers almost touchingly funny quest for Stewart whos made out to be a babe magnet, which should send us all packing. (A real steal-stealer, Peppards dog doesnt have that doggie stare looking for instructions from his trainer off camera; the least constricted bit is when the dog’s walking away on a porch.) The non-war segments were directed by George Marshall and Henry Hathaway. People knowledgeable about the difficulties with Cinerama swear that the real directors were photographers Williams H. Daniels, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang, Jr. and Joseph LaShelle. No one can figure how James R. Webb won an Oscar for best original screenplay, its genesis a photo essay published in Life. Or Harold F. Kress winning for editing? The Academy must have voted to reward his months of labor in trying to splice together the contraption. The same MGM voting block got the epic nominated for best film, color art direction, cinematography, costume, sound, original musical score. This last nom a real insult to lovers of movie music; listening to Dave Guard and the Whiskeyhill Singers and the Ken Darby Singers is like one long cringefest.  

Using what is referred to as Smilebox technology via Blu-ray, How the West Was Won is the best restoration of a mediocre movie Ive ever seen. Simulating the curved Cinerama screen effect, the movie finally becomes substantially moreno, make that much morewatchable. The original Cinerama movies have always been problematic for audiences because of those damned two seams that joined the three camera technique together; despite all the camouflage (trees, mountains, poles, buildings, overstuffed sets, etc.) used to conceal, the seams were persistent distractions. If the prints were old and dirty, the color differences and scratches in the strips were additional annoyances and sometimes one or two of the reels werent quite aligned when projected. And of course, the blocking of actors was so exaggeratedly precise as to become exhausting to watch: the performers (particularly Debbie Reynolds) were too often anxiously crammed into the middle panel to help avoid the distortions of movements that occurred when they moved to the left or right. And when the actors were speaking to each other, they often didnt look like they were looking at one another and in fact they werent, hoping to compensate for the huge 146 degree expanse of screen angle and only occasionally did the trick work. Cinerama was great for outdoor panoramas and action, especially if the three cameras were moving straight forward or if the action moved towards the audience. But when, for example, the buffalos were rampaging from right to middle and then to left, the distortion was peculiarly curvy, without logic to the eye. The process took in busied up large sets with high satisfaction yet if the sets were of a reduced size, like a train car or a hotel bedroom, the warpiness caused by the camera angles suggested an accidental example of some of Terry Gilliamss Mad Hatter set designs. Processed shotsin-studio action on rafts and railroad carswere pitifully exposed. Because so few of todays viewers are likely to see any of the original Cinerama presentations in theatres, the closest they could get to what it offered was the very poor letterboxed version that TCM played until recently. With the 2008 release of Warner Bros. Blu-ray edition of the restoration, HWWW is a “must see” for lovers of Cinerama and those new to it; not only are there the terrific enhancements of color, definition and sound and sound effects but now, because of SmileBox software, this Cinerama is a nearly breathtaking improvement over the original. The biggest and most obvious improvement is the near elimination of those two lines. While some remain (the unnecessary lift from The Alamo the one super glaring example), the seams have in many vistas disappeared altogether. We keep so glued to the crystal-clear imagery and its stunning cleanliness that we dont pay attention to the cliche-ridden story. The daytime sweeps provide us with the sensation of textures: we can virtually reach out and touch the lumber, trees and most amazingly the dirt of earth. All of the night scenes, including those for the Civil War and the beautifully appointed interior sets, have a near-transcendent spell about them; we get caught up in the allure of luxury. And yes, there is depth perception, so the larger the TV screen, the more impressive it is. The restoration isnt confined to Cinerama. The technicians provide a flat-screen version with all the improvements, sans the SmileBox technology, and its the one TCM now airs. The deluxe Blu-ray packaging duplicates the Random House hardcover souvenir booklet, with a better cover shot, and included are the flat-screen version and the fun documentary Cinerama Adventure. Its not clear if the powers over at Warner Bros and Turner Classic Movies will attempt a SmileBox restoration of The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm, the first dramatic story released in Cinerama; damage to or lack of masters/prints are the issues involved, though no one seems to be clamoring for it, either.

ROLL OVER IMAGES (from the SmileBox Edition)



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Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER Revised 2010. All Rights Reserved.