With 2009’s Avatar (a film I’ve still not seen), James Cameron resurrected the commercial viability of the 3-D movie. Even if the initial burst of enthusiasm has seemed to deflate a bit, important filmmakers are using 3-D technology to create unique works of art that utilize the technology as more than a mere gimmick, and home video distributors are finding ways to bring these into our homes. In 2011, Wim Wenders released Pina, a 3-D documentary about contemporary dance choreographer Pina Bausch, and The Criterion Collection released this on home video (it remains their sole 3-D release). And importantly, last year, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language came out and received critical acclaim for using 3-D to make a statement and not simply to entertain, and this summer Kino Lorber brought this film to us at home. As important filmmakers imagine new ways to use the technology, it’s wonderful to step back and see how the form developed — and we can do this in our home as well.
Which brings me to Flicker Alley, a home video distributor that is swiftly making a case that all of their releases are essential for aficionados of cinema and its history. Flicker Alley’s releases focus on cinema history, bringing us high quality editions of films that are often from the earliest days of cinema (two of their recent releases — The Mack Sennett Collection, Vol. One and The House of Mystery — just won awards, and each feature films produced in the silent era; I’ll be talking about them here soon) but that also focus on interesting facets of cinema history. For example, they’ve released several home videos — such as Windjammer: The Voyage of Christian Radich (1958), Seven Wonders of the World (1956), and Search for Paradise (1957) — that feature films made in Cinerama, a widescreen presentation that was projected onto a curved screen using three synchronized projectors. I recommend seeing what they’re up to by checking out their webpage here.
Let’s return to 3-D filmmaking and its interesting history. A recent — and incredibly fun for me and my kids — Flicker Alley release focuses on the (much deeper than I suspected) history of 3-D filmmaking, 3-D Rarities, with the collaboration of the 3-D Film Archive. Clocking in at just under two and a half hours of material, including a Casper the Friendly Ghost cartoon I’ve watched a number of times with my kids (and am confident we will watch again and again), this set features twenty-two 3-D productions made between 1922 and 1962. The 3-D Film Archive has been working on assembling and restoring these films for the past thirty years, and their love has paid off in this unique (and for me now treasured) home video release.
3-D Rarities is intended to be an entertaining and educational trek through the 3-D niche of cinema history broken into two parts.
Part 1 is called The Dawn of Stereoscopic Cinematography, showcasing early black and white 3-D films and then moving us through the next two decades while producers — individuals, governments, corporations — tested the technology to see what it could bring. Though the set does not include the earliest known 3-D exhibition (that would be from 1915), it goes back nearly to the beginning, to a 1922 demonstration reel that was meant to show off the technology by taking us around Washington D.C. When we get to 1940, we watch a stop-motion, color, 3-D building of the new Plymouth automobile. This one got my father-in-law to sit down and take notice (the kids were already enraptured).
Part 2 is called Hollywood Enters the Third-Dimension, beginning when the short-lived 3-D craze started in 1952, through its swift demise in 1953, and taking us to the dying embers in the late-1950s and very early 1960s. This section contains a few trailers for 3-D films, but for me the real treats are not quite as related to Hollywood as one might normally think of that term.
Here we get the “first — and only — 3-D newsreel”: Rocky Marciano vs. Jersey Joe Walcott. The single reel introduces us to the boxers (Rocky Marciano really plays with the 3-D fun) and takes us to the fight. The restoration team did an exceptional job (as they did throughout the rest of the set); this is a sparkling black-and-white fight.
We also get the first 3-D documentary, Doom Town, in its entirety (it’s a short). This is an interesting film with a fascinating history. It’s about the “death of a city by atomic destruction,” and it opened in Los Angeles on July 2, 1953. Later that month, the film disappeared and was lost for decades (rumor is it was suppressed, the government hardly appreciating the message).
The 3-D boom was doomed, and some of the victims are included as well. The Casper the Friendly Ghost short, “Boo Moon,” was meant to act as a smooth transition to the world of 3-D cartoons, but it came too late. Still, from the excellent booklet (and the detailed commentaries) I learned that the budget was about double what a typical cartoon ran, and not just because of the 3-D. They really wanted this to be a touchstone, and it looks beautiful. I’ve seen this cartoon before, but it — I’ll use the word again, especially since this one takes place in space — sparkles here. The cartoon’s story itself is ho-hum, but the history and the art and the 3-D fun are making me want to go pop it in right now. Another victim, this one unreleased once it was finished in October 1953, is “The Adventures of Sam in Space,” a stop-motion puppet show that just came a few months too late.
This really has been one of my favorite home-video releases of the year. The amount of work and love that has gone into it shows and pays off. Below is the trailer; though in 2-D, I think it shows the promise the actual disc fulfills: