3 Times The Fun (2003)

Now that my eyes have uncrossed, I can tell you about the incredible experience of attending The World 3-D Film Expo this past month at the Egyptian Theater in Hollywood.

I knew it would be fun to see a lot of vintage 1950s films in genuine, double-system 3-D—the best method of all, which uses polarized filters and requires two projectors in “interlock” synchronization.

But I didn’t know that the festival would turn into a happening. My friend Michael Schlesinger, who helped to host the festival and provided many prints through Sony Pictures Repertory Division, likened it to Woodstock, and that’s exactly what it was: Woodstock for movie geeks.

Those geeks included a hardy handful of contemporary filmmakers who are also world-class film buffs, including Joe Dante, John Landis, Curtis Hanson, Guillermo Del Toro, and Quentin Tarantino, who confessed to me on opening night that he was playing hooky from finishing the sound mix on his new movie Kill Bill. He so harangued his editor, Sally Menke, that she finally agreed to let him go to see Andre De Toth’s The Stranger Wore a Gun if he’d take her along, too.

I was lucky enough to have seen some of the more popular titles during the last big 3-D revival, during the late 1970s and early 1980s in New York City. Both the 8th Street Playhouse and the venerable Thalia showed double-system prints of—

Kiss Me Kate, House of Wax, Drums of Tahiti, Second Chance, and Dial M for Murder.

That’s also when I saw the Three Stooges shorts Pardon My Backfire and the better-known Spooks, which contains one of the single greatest moments in 3-D history, when a mad scientist extends a hypodermic needle toward the camera and holds it there with a menacing grin. How, I wondered, could the makers of a cut-rate comedy short understand what big-time directors failed to get: it takes time for your eyes to focus in 3-D. By holding that needle in place, it enabled the audience to zero in on the three-dimensional object, coming to feel as if it was jutting out into the theater! Far too many feature filmmakers believed, incorrectly, that one could achieve the same effect by throwing things at the camera. (The Stooge comedies also grasped the idea of simple mechanical tricks, like making the hypodermic needle absurdly long, or building a headboard for Moe, Larry and Shemp’s bed in forced perspective.)

It was Andre De Toth who, despite the loss of one eye, provided my other all-time favorite 3-D moments: the paddle-ball man in House of Wax, and the incredible, rarely-imitated moment when Charles Bronson seems to leap into the frame from the foreground. Smart filmmakers (including cinematographers and production designers) made good use of foreground pieces in many other 3-D films, but no one ever got as good a scare out of audience as De Toth did in that perfectly-staged scene.

The Woody Woodpecker cartoon Hypnotic Hick surpassed any other animation I’d seen by imitating the look of a Viewmaster slide, with Woody sharp and clear in the foreground, dramatically separated from the backgrounds. Even the Disney 3-D cartoons didn’t replicate this effect. (Interestingly, the technical advisor on the Walter Lantz Woody cartoon was Bill Garity, who had been a key member of Disney’s staff when the multiplane camera and stereophonic Fantasound were developed years earlier.)

But if I thought I knew and appreciated 3-D movies before, the World 3-D Film Expo opened my eyes much wider. Thanks to three cheerfully obsessive fellows (Jeff Joseph of Sabucat Productions, Dan Symmes, co-author of the book Amazing 3-D, and film preservationist Bob Furmanek) the Expo went far beyond any festival of this kind ever staged before. They attempted to gather every feature, every short, and every scrap of film extant. They pulled favors from local film labs and sound studios. (Some of the most extraordinary footage, shown during a program called 3-D Rarities, included tests from the 1930s and raw footage for Pete Smith’s Metroscopix shorts that were digitally scanned from transferred from their unprojectable source material, then transferred to 35mm, and reoriented to the Polaroid system, with astonishing results.) They even persuaded archivist Grover Crisp of Sony to strike nine brand-new prints of Columbia feature films. Grover became so enthusiastic that days before the festival began he even provided new prints of some 3-D preview trailers.

Stereovision enthusiasts maintained an exhibit of contemporary 3-D photography in the lobby, while others mounted displays of original posters and advertising art from the 1950s for each new program.

The festival organizers also invited actors and filmmakers involved with these productions to attend and participate in panel discussions. Julie Adams proved to be as big a draw as ever, accompanying Creature from the Black Lagoon, while director Richard Fleischer confessed that he hadn’t seen his rodeo film Arena since it was finished fifty years ago. William “Biff” Elliot won over the crowd when he appeared with Mickey Spillane’s I, The Jury, while I, for one, never dreamed I would get to meet Revenge of the Creature’s Lori Nelson in person. At age 85, Herbert L. Strock was disarmingly candid, and lucid, about directing Gog, and assessing which aspects of the film dated and which held up.

Some two hundred souls purchased full festival passes, and spent the better part of ten days inside the Egyptian Theater (normally the home of the American Cinematheque). I attended as many shows as I could, but even sacrificed a few tickets here and there because my eyes were starting to feel the strain. No one ever conceived of these films being projected in marathon style!

Few if any of these movies could be called great, yet somehow it was just as entertaining to watch Edmond O’Brien in The Man in the Dark and Guy Madison in The Charge at Feather River as it would have been to screen genuine classics of that era.

My teenage daughter expressed no particular interest in this festival, because she’s seen impressive 3-D films at Disneyland and Walt Disney World, just as others have seen the latest that IMAX has to offer.

I was too young to experience the brief 3-D boom of 1953, but I always regretted missing out on it. It was just a few years later, during the waning days of Saturday matinees in the late 1950s and 1960s, that I developed my passion for moviegoing. Looking around at the Egyptian, I saw a preponderance of people in my own age group, and realized that beyond curiosity and film scholarship, much of what drew us all to the 3-D Expo was a chance to re-live an emotion we rarely feel when we attend films nowadays: enthusiasm.

Everyone in that theater was having a great time, not just because of the specific films but because of the shared experience, and, I suspect, an unspoken nostalgia for a time when we always felt that way walking into a movie theater.

(originally posted in 2003)

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