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Cinerama unwittingly kicks off
the great Widescreen Format War

October 1, 1952 must have been a busy day for many people in both large and small film companies. The premiere of Cinerama the night before set off a struggle to find something that could impress audiences without the huge cost of Waller's wide screen system. The format war was not to compete with Cinerama, it was to find something cheap that could compete with TELEVISION.

The major studios started tests to determine if their existing films could be cropped to create a viewable image in an ersatz wide screen effect. The ballyhoo machines were turned on full blast as information on new processes was "leaked" to the press. But activity wasn't limited to ballyhoo. Old 3-Dimension systems were dusted off and even old 3-Dimension films were dusted off by small companies with the hopes that they had another Cinerama in the closet. Metroscopix - Three Dimension Murder

Right: MGM 3-Dimension camera rig built for the Pete Smith Metroscopix film Three Dimension Murder, (1937)

Within a two week period in February, 1953, three different 3-D shows premiered in New York. The first was imaginatively titled Three Dimension, a program of five short films produced in a system from Stereo Techniques, Ltd. of London, and used both color and black & white films first shown at the Festival of Britain in 1950. This 45 minute program was a demonstration rather than an entertainment package. A week later another demonstration, Triorama, this time using 16mm Kodachrome film produced with Bolex 3-Dimensional gear. This 35 minute program consisted of four short films shown on a necessarily small part of the Rialto theatre's screen. Neither of these demonstrations, nor any of many others taking place at the same time, did much to create a sense of excitement with filmgoers. But the opening of Arch Obler's low budget quickie, Bwana Devil, a week later did draw the public. The Natural Vision system seemed somewhat better than earlier efforts.

Writer, Producer, Director Arch Obler lines up a 3-D shot in BWANA DEVILBwana Devil in Natural Vision 3-D

Above, left, Producer, Writer, Director Arch Obler lining up a shot through the Natural Vision 3-D camera rig. Above, right, poster gives us just a clue as to the thrills to be had. Bad as it might have been, the film did huge business and the 3-D fad went into full swing.


In December, 1952, Twentieth Century-Fox president Spyros Skouras and Fox R&D head Earl Sponable were in Europe working on a theatrical television system called Eidophor, which the company had been involved with since shortly after the end of the Second World War. Skouras had seen Cinerama demonstrations several years before but Fox's technical people, including Sponable, had dampened Skouras' interest in acquiring the three lens system.

Spyros Skouras, Henri Chretien, and Earl SponableSponable mentioned the anamorphotic lens system developed by French Professor Henri Chretien some 25 years earlier. Skouras was immediately interested but was disappointed when Sponable told him that Britain's Rank Organisation held an option on the system. Amazingly, that option was due to expire in two days and Rank failed to renew or act on it. Skouras hauled Sponable to see Chretien the instant that the Rank option expired. Skouras was given a demonstration, (see photo), and he immediately optioned the system and had lenses shipped to Hollywood for testing.

Representatives for Warner Bros showed up the following day only to find that they'd been beaten to the punch.

In January, 1953, Fox tested the optics and began a crash engineering program to bring Chretien's Anamorphoscope system to the screen under a new name, CinemaScope.

Quite wisely, Fox offered to make the new dimension in motion pictures available to all producers. Almost immediately, MGM signed a deal to use it on a number of films even though they had announced that they had their own new 2:1 wide screen system. Jack Warner balked at the idea, doubtless feeling hurt that he'd lost a race, and almost immediately announced his own new anamorphic system, WarnerSuperScope, which was virtually identical to the specs Fox had provided. Paramount, which still had a set of Chretien's lenses dating back to 1927, was very much in favor of the system but only if Fox sold them a 50% share in CinemaScope. Fox declined this offer.

And so dividing lines were marked in the sand. Jack Warner would push WarnerSuperScope in WarnerColor and WarnerPhonic Sound. Paramount and Rank, both of which had once had Chretien's system in the palms of their hands, would decline to use the system and adopted VistaVision about a year later. Fox committed to full production of CinemaScope and stood behind their commitment while signing up independents and other major studios like MGM, Columbia, Disney, and Universal.

The Troops Dig In -
Opening Salvos...

Warner Bros. Better Idea

CinemaScope Pre-Release Promo
Fox Tells Us How Much We'll Like It

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