Movie Night

This weekend one of only two plot-driven, Cinerama movies was shown at the Seattle Cinerama, which is one of the last three, genuine Cinerama theaters, and the only one with a Super Cinerama screen. My son Daniel and I decided to take advantage of a unique opportunity, and we went to see How the West Was Won.

A huge innovation for the film industry in the early 60s, Cinerama (cinema + panorama) movies were filmed with a sort of conjoined triplet-style camera: three cameras in one large box, each recording one-third of the scene, and sharing one shutter. The movies were then shown using three projectors, synced together, projected in a crisscross manner to a huge, deeply curved screen.  Contrary to standard movie screens, the Super Cinerama screen was not one continuous surface. It was made up of 1100 vertical strips of standard screen material angled to face the audience. Oh, and there was a high-quality, seven-track directional surround sound system too. Awesome stuff.

Joining thee images on the screen was challenging. Most of the time the seam where the three projections joined was visible, and the actors in the outer thirds of the scene could not look directly at those in the center third. The camera itself was cumbersome and heavy, filming was very expensive, and the process was soon abandoned.

How the West Was Won is an Academy Award winning spectacle with a prelude AND an intermission. It stars Debbie Reynolds, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Preston, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Gregory Peck, and many other big-name actors. The dialog is silly and politically incorrect at times, but the river rapids, Civil War, and buffalo stampede scenes are amazing. The closing scenes are aerial views of the West that was won, accompanied by narration giving credit to the heartiness of the pioneers who paved the way for what we valued in 1962, including a four-level freeway in LA.

If a movie like this was made today, the Bill Keene Memorial Interchange wouldn’t be chosen to highlight, but the story and scope of this film is still phenomenal. I saw How the West Was Won the first time in 1962 in Wichita. Very little, other than the theme song, stuck with me. But now I am duly impressed. I really enjoyed seeing it again, especially because I got to share a “movie geek” experience with my son.

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Paul Allen, the man who saved Cinerama in Seattle, has an extensive collection of movie and TV memorabilia some of which is displayed in the Cinerama lobby. We were playing around with the panorama feature of Daniel’s iPhone, and I took this picture in front of the case containing costumes from Batman, Captain Kangaroo, and Superman. No, Daniel doesn’t have a twin.


“You know what your problem is, it’s that you haven’t seen enough movies—all of life’s riddles are answered in the movies.” ~Steve Martin

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