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As early as silent film, directors attempted to create widescreen images. But in the 1950s it became a commercial necessity to give the multitude of new TV watchers what they couldn't get on a small screen. So even before CinemaScope, VistaVision, Todd-AO and Panavision, there was Cinerama — a process in which three projectors threw three simultaneous images onto a gigantic curved screen. Cinerama offered what no TV or movie screen could provide before — peripheral vision, which could make you feel as if you were really in the midst of the action.
In 1952, the first Cinerama experiment, This Is Cinerama, was a sensation, and even though the ticket prices were higher, people flocked to specially designed movie theaters to ride a roller coaster, fly over Niagara Falls, or sway in a gondola through the canals of Venice. Two later Cinerama films — How the West Was Won and The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm — had actual stories, but mainly Cinerama stuck to travelogues. Probably wisely. This Is Cinerama and the 1958 Windjammer, which was filmed in a similar but slightly superior technique called Cinemiracle, have just been released on DVD and Blu-ray. Even watching them on a TV screen, in a format called SmileBox, which simulates the curved Cinerama screen, that roller coaster ride at New York's Rockaway Beach is still pretty breathtaking. And fun.
As a music critic, I'm of course especially interested in the musical selections and how well they work — or not. Part of the new Cinerama process was stereophonic sound, which in 1952 was not quite yet a household phenomenon. So audiences must have been startled to be surrounded by the sound of the Vienna Boys Choir or Mormon Tabernacle Choir. The biggest musical numbers in This Is Cinerama are two episodes from Verdi's Aida filmed on the grand stage of La Scala, Milan's splendiferous opera house.
It's great to be on La Scala's expansive stage looking out at the glittering audience, but the pseudo-Egyptian ballet and the klutzy staging of the Triumphal March were already operatic clichés. And while the on-stage trumpets are impressive in stereo, these opera sequences are hardly as exciting as flying over Niagara Falls.
There are also musical passages in the film Windjammer, which is a mildly charming 1958 semi-documentary about young Norwegian trainees working on a magnificent square-rigger sailing from Oslo across the Atlantic to the Caribbean, New York City, and up the Eastern Seaboard. The wide-angle technique works best on the open seas, unlike the tight kaleidoscopic views of Manhattan made for this film by the famed photojournalist Weegee. There's a wind-in-your-hair score by the American composer Morton Gould, visits to a couple of folk festivals, and Arthur Fiedler leading the Boston Pops. But the most treasurable musical moment has nothing at all to do with wide screens or stereophonic sound. It's rare footage of the legendary cellist Pablo Casals in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at 80, playing his favorite Catalan folk song. Here modesty and poignant understatement win the day.