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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 process’s influence in his Far and Away.) For adults, however, there’s considerable frustration. It’s a sprawling hodge-podge of episodic and generational vistas failing to flow to or from each other with ease. Meaningful connecting narrative is missing, despite Spencer Tracy’s vocal annotations and concluding narration suggesting De Mille, that we’re feeling undernourished; between wowie effects, we get table scraps of history, humor and concession stand drama. The Civil War sequence, directed by John Ford, is starving for clear-headed detail—we can’t really tell where we are or why we’re there, other than for John Wayne to listen to Henry (Harry) Morgan as Grant worrying about the gossip the newspapers are printing about him as a drunk and for George Peppard to prevent Morgan from being assassinated by Russ Tamblyn. Other than that setup, it’s unaccountable why dullard Peppard is basically the star of the second half of the movie. (Hope Lange as his love interest was mercifully edited out.) The cast is early 1960s billboard glory—Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, Robert Preston, Carroll Baker, Thelma Ritter and fifteen other recognizable names—but the acting isn’t. 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 Baker’s almost touchingly funny quest for Stewart who’s made out to be a babe magnet which should send us all packing. (A real steal-stealer, Peppard’s dog doesn’t 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. Its genesis from a photo essay published in Life, James R. Webb’ screenplay won an Oscar, about which no one can figure out. But the Academy voters clearly rewarded Harold F. Kress for his long months of labor in trying to edit together the contraption. MGM’s 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. After the Cinerama runs, How the West Was Won was released in both 35mm and Ultra Panavision prints. (Opening 2/27/1963 at the McVickers, running 37 weeks.)  

Using Smilebox and other corrective technology via Blu-ray, How the West Was Won is the best restoration of a mediocre movie I’ve seen before the Blu-ray of Doctor Zhivago. Simulating the curved Cinerama screen effect, the movie finally becomes substantially more—no, make that much more—watchable. 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 of the reels wasn’t quite aligned when projected. And of course, the blocking of actors was so exaggerated 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 into the views of the left and/or right panels. And when the actors were speaking to each other, they often didn’t look like they were looking at one another because in fact they weren’t, 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 instance, 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 Gilliams’s Mad Hatter set designs. Processed shots—in-studio action on rafts and railroad cars—were pitifully exposed. Because there are only a few original 3 panel Cinerama theatres left, the closest audiences have been able to get an idea of what the process offered—mainly screen size and the flawed sense of depth—is the poor 35 and 70mm transfers. 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 corrective software, this Cinerama is a 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 in many vistas have disappeared altogether. We’re glued to the crystal-clear imagery and its stunning cleanliness that we don’t 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 the perception of depth, so the larger the TV screen, the more impressive it is. The restoration isn’t confined to Cinerama. The technicians provide a flat-screen version with all the improvements, sans SmileBox’s curvature technology, and it’s the one TCM now airs. The deluxe Blu-ray packaging includes the Random House hardcover souvenir booklet, with a better cover shot, and the flat-screen version and the fun documentary Cinerama Adventure. Since 2008, the Cinerama travelogues have been restore twice, ultilizing advances in restoration, and it’s expected but not confirmed yet that HWWW will also undergo another.

ROLL OVER IMAGES (from the SmileBox Edition)



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Text COPYRIGHT © 2002 RALPH BENNER  (Revised 2018.) All Rights Reserved.