For many years, the most popular image associated with 3-D has been that of an 1950s-era audience wearing two-tone shades and gazing up at a mainstream movie, most likely a sci-fi flick or a western. The story of the format is more complex though. There are 3-D films that date back to the silent age, and they have been used for everything from promotion and children's programming, to burlesque and documentary.
Now in a set of 22 beautifully-restored films compiled by 3-D Film Archive and released by Flicker Alley, the full glory and reach of 3-D can be admired.
While it is of course preferable to view the disc in 3-D, it can be watched in 2-D. I ended up having to do this when I realized that my Blu-ray player did not have the 3-D capability that I though it did. A huge disappointment, but I found the collection fascinating viewing nevertheless. Still, I'm tempted to upgrade my player to get the full experience.
The program is divided into two parts: The Dawn of Stereoscopic Cinematography and Hollywood Enters the Third Dimension. Part one is a quirkier mix, including silent film and a few experimental movies, while the Tinseltown clips are, unsurprisingly, a bit more on the glossy side.
While the first documented 3-D film exhibition was recorded in 1915, that collection of test footage is thought to be lost. Program-opener Kelley's Plasticon Pictures (1922/1923) is to date the earliest existing movie in the format. It provides a basic introduction to 3-D for audiences, in addition to an interesting series of shots around 1920s Washington D.C.
The film is followed by a series of amusing tests were all sorts of things are flung or dramatically pointed at the screen, from fresh flowers and ladies on swings to a menacing man with a gun. It's a surreal sequence of images, many of them filmed in silhouette. By the 1930s, test reels capture more than moments, as can be seen here with brief vignettes capturing a ball park, a racing car and a rollercoaster ride.
Many of the 1950s clips demonstrate the ways 3-D was used for advertisement. There are film trailers for a musical, a western and a pair of sci-fi flicks. A promotional travelogue for the Bolex Stereo camera is most appropriately filmed in the format. There are also films advertising the Pennsylvania Railroad and Plymouth Sedans, both of them interesting documents of their times.
My favorite films in the set were a quartet of animated shorts, Now is the Time (1951) and Around is Around (1951) created by Canadian experimental filmmaker Norman MacLaren, Oh, Canada (1952) by his collaborator Evelyn Lambart and Twirligig (1952) by MacLaran's student Gretta Ekman. These fanciful, and often playful films put 3-D into the hands of artists, and the results are mesmerizing. Instead of flinging things at the screen for the thrill of it, the filmmakers use the whole screen to explore the depth offered by the format.
One of the elements I found most intriguing about the collection was the incredible variety of the shorts. While the stop motion The Adventures of Sam Space (1960) was made to thrill children, the next film on the disc, I'll Sell My Shirt (1953), is for titillating adults. This cheeky burlesque short, which hasn't been seen in over sixty years, featured a lady swinging toward the audience before a brief striptease. The action then segues into a segment with a pair of male comedians and yet another lady who soon loses her laundry. Any disc that features a Caspar cartoon, a prize fight newsreel and an anti-nuclear warhead documentary is not going to bore you, 3-D or not.
Bonus features include a brief clip from Francis Ford Coppola's The Bellboy and the Playgirls (1962) and several 3-D photo galleries, including View-Master reels, comic books and images from the 1939 New York World's fair. The set also includes a detailed booklet with a solid background on each of the films which I found very useful.
This is a special set, and the care that went into the selection of the films and restorations is evident. I hope that 3-D Film Archive is hard at work producing 3-D Rarities Two.
Many thanks to Flicker Alley for providing a copy of the disc for review.
Images courtesy of 3-D Film Archive.