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Glasses for everyone

World 3-D Film Expo II shows off several rarities from the format's 1950s golden age at the Egyptian.

September 03, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

IT'S an all too familiar crisis in the movie business. New technology lures people out of the theaters, and the studios cast about frantically for ways to reel them back in. In the early '50s, when the threatening newcomer was television, the studios fought back with 3-D. From 1952 to 1955, a spate of 3-D films appeared, creating what would become the golden era of the process.

In all, Hollywood produced 50 3-D films in the '50s, plus countless shorts and cartoons. All were shot with two cameras -- one recording the right eye image and the other the left eye -- and dual projectors showed the separate images on a special silver screen.

Audiences would wear Polaroid glasses to get the proper effect -- the illusion that the action was hurtling toward them.

The fad began with 1952's "Bwana Devil" and took in such titles as "Creature From the Black Lagoon" and even musicals like "Kiss Me Kate." Then, in a few years, it was over. But over the decades, there has been a groundswell of interest and appreciation for these films.

Three years ago, producer Jeff Joseph screened 33 of these features for the World 3-D Film Expo at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. This year he offers a second installment, the World 3-D Film Expo II, which begins Friday at the Egyptian.

The program features eight studio films that were unavailable in 2003, including the opening night's offerings: the 1953 Western "Taza, Son of Cochise," starring Rock Hudson and directed by Douglas Sirk, and the first musical made in 3-D, 1953's "Those Redheads From Seattle," with Rhonda Fleming, who will be attending the screening, and Gene Barry.

The original festival was supposed to be a one-time event because studios were reluctant to spend the money to make new prints of several 3-D titles they had in their vaults, "but over the last year or so, we developed relationships with Paramount, Universal and MGM," Joseph says.

The studios aren't making new prints out of the kindness of their hearts. "We are paying for them," says Joseph. "The upshot of it all is we are doing a three-way deal with the studios and the [Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences]. The academy ends up as the repository for the prints under our control. They don't do anything with them without our permission."

The festival will be using Polaroid glasses for its presentations instead of the cheaper, disposable anaglyph glasses, which use red and blue lenses to give depth to the images on the screen. Polaroid lenses, says Joseph, are more effective and cause less eyestrain.

The 3-D expert Dan Symmes says that the format has gone through many rediscoveries since the "golden era," and today attention is focused on Imax's ability to turn 2-D films such as "Superman Returns" and "The Ant Bully" into 3-D. Digital 3-D was used last year with Disney's "Chicken Little."

But Symmes is not impressed. "It's the same old stuff repackaged," he says. "They had it right 55 years ago. It works better than if you go to an Imax film in 3-D. With Imax, almost everybody comes out of them saying, 'Why do my eyes hurt?' "

The reason, he says, is that the cameramen in the 1950s were "raised differently. Today's cameraman comes straight out of film school. They won't work their way through the ranks. They don't understand the history of 3-D, and they don't understand the technology behind 3-D. You end up with this 3-D that's bigger in scale and much more expensive to produce but not better."

Among the highlights of the expo is the first screening in more than a half century of 1953's "Kiss Me Kate" in wide-screen and Technicolor. Because the MGM vault print was destroyed, Joseph had to restore the film from two separate prints.

"We found a left eye print in one archive and a right eye print in another archive," says Joseph. "We married the two up as a 3-D print."

Three separate scenes were shot for the 3-D version of the film. Technicolor printed those for Joseph, and they have been inserted into the new print.

Another rarity is 1954's "Diamond Wizard," the only British film made in 3-D. Joseph had been told it was lost. "Then they found the elements at MGM/UA in England. It never played in 3-D either in England or here. In fact, the other eye of the negative wasn't even finished, so we finished it and printed it. So it will be a total world premiere."

Just as with the last festival, Joseph is presenting a rarities program whose contents he won't reveal, except for one title, a 1939 short, "Thrills for You," that played at the World's Fair and was restored from the only known print.

One unusual film is 1953's "Cease Fire!," which was shot in Korea on the front line using real soldiers. It hasn't been seen in 3-D in 50 years.

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