Everything Old Is New Again—In 3D

If you’re in New York City any time over the next two weeks and you’ve never seen “old-school” Hollywood 3D, make a beeline for Film Forum on Houston Street. Forget the untruths and distortions you’ve read about how primitive the process was in the 1950s and judge for yourself. You’ll have a great time, even if most of the movies aren’t great…and you won’t be wearing red-green glasses: that’s just one of the myths that’s been perpetuated by an ignorant press while touting new digital 3D.

To quote Film Forum’s press release, “The fifteen rare 35mm 3-D prints (not digital) in the series will all be run in the original dual-projector Polaroid system, employing a silver screen, special filters, two synchronized projectors (one for the left eye, the other for the right) and a super-cool pair of Buddy Holly-style 3-D glasses for each member of the audience. Film Forum is the only cinema in New York equipped to screen vintage double-system 3-D.” That’s because Film Forum’s program director, Bruce Goldstein, is a movie lover of the first order who does things right. Appropriately, the 3-D Fest overlaps with a tribute to—

—movie showman William Castle.

I was two years old when America went through the 3D movie boom of 1953, so I missed out on the whole experience. By the time I was reading comic books, the movies had gone back into the vaults, and I had to make do with awkward cardboard red-green glasses to see 3D images that didn’t look very good. The best 3D I experienced as a kid is still the best there is: Viewmaster slides.

In the late 1970s, two revival theaters in Manhattan mounted 3D festivals, unearthing vintage prints from the studio vaults. This was when I got my first taste of Hollywood’s 3D movies from 1953: House of Wax, Kiss Me Kate, The Three Stooges, Woody Woodpecker, and much, much more.

More recently, I’ve participated in the two ambitious World 3D Festivals in Hollywood run by the 3D Film Foundation and seen all sorts of experiments and ephemera. I’ve become something of a 3D junkie. For me, the common link among almost all the movies Hollywood turned out during its one year of immersion in 3D was that they were fun to watch. That’s the point that some contemporary filmmakers seem to have forgotten. It’s not about environment or cinematic mastery: it’s about giving audiences an extra-sensory experience.

I can’t pretend Those Redheads from Seattle is a great musical, but when you see steam from a ship drift out into the audience, that’s fun. When you realize that the theater sets in Kiss Me Kate (a much better musical) feature perspective lines and a thrust stage to emphasize depth, that’s cool. Even when you see an effect as obvious as the Three Stooges’ bed in Pardon My Backfire, built in forced perspective, you have to give those pioneering 3D filmmakers credit: it works!

I still maintain the best moments in 3D history—circa 1953—are the paddle-ball man in House of Wax, the sudden pounce by Charles Bronson into the frame toward Phyllis Kirk in that same movie, and the slow thrusting forward of an oversized hypodermic needle by mad doctor Philip Van Zandt in The Three Stooges’ Spooks. (By holding the needle in place, your eyes have time to adjust to the illusion—and it looks like it’s jutting out into the theater. In contrast, other moviemakers kept throwing things at the camera, which doesn’t always work because the objects fly by too fast for your eyes to focus.)

The Film Forum show also features a number of Westerns which make excellent use of foreground composition—as those Viewmaster slides did—to create separate planes of objects in the frame.

Few theaters, archives or museums have the ability, or the ambition, to screen double-system 3D any more: it’s cumbersome, to put it mildly, and requires a silver screen (to bounce as much light as possible back at the viewer). But once you’ve experienced it for yourself, I think you’ll know why film buffs like me are so enthusiastic about it.

To consult Film Forum’s screening schedule, click HERE.

To read my column about the 2003 Edition of the World 3-D Film Festival, click HERE. To read my column about its 2006 folllowup, click HERE.

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