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The shortest dimension

3-D flashed into movie houses in 1952 and quickly disappeared. It's time to don those funny glasses again and give the films another look.

September 10, 2003|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

The 3-D movie craze took Hollywood and movie audiences by storm in 1952 and then, as is the case with most fads and novelties, disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived.

Although its heyday lasted just slightly more than a year, Hollywood churned out 50 features, several short subjects and a handful of cartoons in 3-D in hopes of luring audiences from their homes and their increasing love affair with television.

Call it nostalgia or curiosity, the romance of these 3-D movies has endured over the last half century. In the 1970s, Universal re-released two of its biggest 3-D hits, "It Came From Outer Space" and "Creature from the Black Lagoon." Warner Bros. followed suit with a revival of its "House of Wax." Even in the 1990s, the John Wayne Western, "Hondo," aired on television in its original 3-D format.

Over the years, the format has been resurrected with success -- the current "Spy Kids 3-D" -- and failure -- "Jaws 3D." More recently, the large-screen Imax format has been responsible for some of the best 3-D pictures and short subjects.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
3-D movie festival -- In the schedule for World 3-D Film Expo that ran in Wednesday's Calendar, the first two days listed were both labeled Friday. The second reference to Friday programming actually takes place this Saturday.

This week, 3-D movie buffs from all over the world are converging upon Hollywood for the World 3-D Film Expo at the Egyptian Theatre. Presented by SabuCat Productions, the 3-D festival, which begins Friday and continues through Sept. 21, features 33 classic and rare 3-D movies from the 1950s, cartoons and more than 20 short subjects, as well as a screening of "It Came From Outer Space" in stereophonic sound.

The festival will include some of the best-known titles of the era, including "House of Wax," the musical "Kiss Me Kate" and "Creature From the Black Lagoon," plus obscure 3-D titles finally making their L.A. premieres: "The Nebraskan," "Flight to Tangier," "Jesse James vs. the Daltons" and "The Glass Web."

Several stars of these films, including Kathryn Grayson ("Kiss Me Kate") and Rhonda Fleming ("Inferno") and the original "Miss 3-D" are scheduled to appear.

SabuCat's Jeff Joseph has spent the better part of a year organizing the festival.

"We are running everything we can get our hands on," he says, conceding that some of these films are less than classics. "Granted, 'Gog' is not a great film, or 'Robot Monster,' but people haven't seen them in 50 years."

The earliest film in the festival is the clever stop-motion 1939 Technicolor short, "Motor Rhythm," created by John Norling for the 1939 World Fair. It and the others in the festival will be presented in the Polaroid dual projector versions with clear view glasses. The dual projector 3-D used two cameras during production; one filmed a left eye image and the other the right eye image. Then two synchronized projectors using polarized filters showed separate images on a special silver screen that maintained the polarization, which resulted in each eye's perceiving only the correct image because of 3-D glasses.

Joseph says the Polaroid version is superior to the anaglyph ("Spy Kids 3-D" is anaglyph), which uses superimposed red and blue images. Red and blue glasses help the eye see each separate image but, says Joseph, "Your eye is constantly fighting the two images to blend these two color images. They said 3-D gives you headaches, and it did."

Joseph secured prints for the festival from a variety of sources, including public and private film archives, collectors and studios. But even when he got an individual print, often Joseph didn't know if was a right-eye or a left-eye print. "After they'd run in 3-D, the prints got separated to run in 2-D. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. That's one of the reasons we are not running 'Popeye.'... I cannot find a left-eye print."

In the late '40s and early '50s, Hollywood was in a slump. Post-World War II Americans were staying at home to watch television. So Hollywood tried all kinds of gimmicks to lure them back to theaters. In early 1952, the large-screen format Cinerama was introduced with great success, but only in big cities. Then on Nov. 26, 1952, the first 3-D film of the era, "Bwana Devil," premiered. An independently produced feature starring Robert Stack, Nigel Bruce and Barbara Britton, "Bwana Devil" was a pretty dreadful African adventure film, but it was the only one to feature man-eating lions looking as if they were jumping out at the audience. Over the years, these 3-D movies have gotten a bad rap for being as gimmicky as "Bwana Devil," but these films attracted major stars (Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis), cinematographers (John Alton) and directors (George Sidney, Andre de Toth, John Farrow).

"I think if you take any 50 random movies, you'll find some good ones and some bad ones and some mostly average," says Joseph. "I don't think the 3-D movies are any better or any worse than any other movies at the time."

Many circumstances led to the quick demise of 3-D. In September 1953, 20th Century Fox premiered "The Robe," its first production in its wide-screen format, CinemaScope.

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