Premire screening o Bwana Devil ACMI.jpg
Premiere screening of Bwana Devil. J. R. Eyerman, USA, 1952. Courtesy the LIFE Picture Collection / Getty Images
Stories & Ideas

Wed 08 Jul 2020

The 50s in the third dimension

Film History Pop culture
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

Over a century before James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) broke box-office records and ushered in the new era of 3D cinema, filmmakers were fascinated with three-dimensional technology.

British inventor William Friese-Green’s early interest in 3D motion pictures dated back to the late 1890s, with his patented invention, the stereoscope, allowing a lone viewer to watch as two images converged on each other to give the illusion of 3D. It wasn’t ideal visually and even less so practically, with the device restricting viewership to one person at a time, making it impractical from a theatrical or profitable standpoint. It wasn’t until the 1950s that the true golden age of 3D cinema began, with some of the first and most pivotal titles appearing early in the decade.

Technically the first 3D feature was The Power of Love (1922), which arrived a full 30 years before the golden age from 1952 to 1954. A silent film, it premiered in Los Angeles and offered viewers two alternate endings depending on whether they wanted a happy or sad finale. To achieve this, the audience would look through either the green or the red lens of the 3D viewing glasses. The movie was not a success, with both the 3D and 2D versions of the feature lost during attempts at distribution. Yet it was warmly received by the small audience that saw it, meaning studios began pioneering a more cost-effective technique with shorts over the next several decades as technologies advanced and World War II ended.

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The 3D camera used to shoot The Power of Love alongside a still from the film

A people-pleasing action adventure film based on the true story of two man eating lions – Bwana Devil (1952) – sparked the beginning of the first 3D wave in earnest, with the movie critically panned but loved by audiences. The concept of 3D was a bankable novelty and the film’s success quickly spawned a legion of other features utilising the technology as studios scrambled to have something competitive in the market: many of which were collections of shorts and are now considered lost.

Westerns in three dimensions such as Arena (1953), The Charge at Feather River (1953) and Devil’s Canyon (1953) surged to prominence, before other genres started to get in on the action. Most notably Warner Brothers’ House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price, which was the first 3D horror feature and the first-time many people experienced stereophonic sound. A remake of Warners’ earlier Mystery of The Wax Museum (1933), it made Price an unintentional star of 3D after he went on to appear in other features using the technology like The Mad Magician (1954), Dangerous Mission (1954) and Son of Sinbad (1955).

The increased popularity of television sets in American homes had many fearing the end of the theatrical experience, but the widespread success of 3D features like House of Wax helped studios believe the technology was the source of swelling audiences. A key part of the film’s success – and the success of many three-dimensional features – was the marketing leaning into a groundbreaking viewing experience. “Beauty and terror meet in your seat … as every thrill of its story comes right at you in NATURAL VISION 3-DIMENSION,” the one-sheet read. “The hand is at your throat … RIGHT AT YOU! This kiss is on your lips … RIGHT AT YOU! The horror that chills the spine!”

House of Wax Movie Poster ACMI.jpg

House of Wax film poster.

In a three year stretch from 1952 to 1954, there was a staggering amount of 3D features produced and screened – some 57 all up – with majority of them being manufactured in America and Hollywood, but not all. Italy, Mexico and Hong Kong all capitalised on the trend with movies like musical melodrama Cavalleria Rusticana (Fatal Desire) (1953) and fantasy epic Ulisse (Ulysses) (1954) both from Italy. The UK had just one 3D feature during this period, its first, The Diamond (1954) which was a crime noir starring Dennis O'Keefe and Margaret Sheridan.

There were many considerable 3D hits during this period: such as Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder (1953), Creature from The Black Lagoon (1953) and The French Line (1953) with Jane Russell at the fore. Yet running costs were expensive: two technicians were needed to screen a single film as two separate prints had to be projected concurrently and overlaid. That meant that if there was an issue with one print, the film could be out of sync and the experience would be difficult for audiences at best and unwatchable at worst.

The era came to an end by 1955, with only the occasional 3D film getting a release before there was an uptick again in the late 70s and early 80s. In an interview with CNN, one of the UK’s leading 3D experts Doctor David Burder posits that 3D has a cinematic trend that tends to run in 30-year cycles.

“It takes one generation to discover the third dimension, grow tired with its capabilities and the next generation to re-discover it as the next big thing. The fundamentals of 3D technology have not changed since the 50s. All that has improved is the way we can watch it.”

Given the spike of 3D features post Avatar that saw 2010 to 2013 crowded with three-dimensional fare, it’s certainly not a theory without significant evidentiary support.

Check out the trailer for Bwana Devil below.

Creature features screening in ACMI Cinemas

Immersive realities

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