Flicker Alley further tightens their hold on the home video market for historically-important cinema with each subsequent release by delivering some of the most beautifully-transferred, special features-packed DVDs and Blu-rays available today. And their recent DVD/Blu-ray combo companion releases of This is Cinerama: 60th Anniversary Edition and Windjammer: The Voyage of the Christian Radich are certainly no exception. Not only do these releases bring two works of great historic significance to home video for the first time, but they do so with the reverence for the material that we expect from this one-of-a-kind distributor.
Before diving into the content of the films, we have to talk format, because therein lies the real historical significance of these films. Both Cinerama and its competitor process Cinemiracle (in which Windjammer (1958) was shot) were widescreen processes developed in the 1950’s requiring three cameras and, consequently, three projectors. Films shot in these processes were then projected on curved screens, 146° deep. This wraparound image was revolutionary in that it not only played before the audience, but it engaged their peripheral vision as well.
In Flicker Alley’s releases of This is Cinerama (1952) and Windjammer, the films are presented in a Smilebox format approximating the viewing experience of the films during their original road shows, on the requisite, massive curved screens. As such, the Smilebox frame is curved on the top and bottom so that the image is taller on the ends than in the middle. However, in order to actually allow the films to engage your peripherals as a home viewer, you’ll want to watch them on a very large television, or projected on a large screen where possible. Flicker Alley further simulates the Cinerama/Cinemiracle road show experience by including overtures, intermissions, and superimposed curtains that open after each film’s 1.33:1 full frame introduction to reveal the full scope of the Smilebox frame.
In addition to the curved screen, each process also required a 7-track stereophonic sound system. This made exhibition of Cinerama pictures in standard theaters virtually impossible (financially-speaking anyway, given the installation cost for the limited number of films available in the format). Hence, the films traveled as part of road shows, wherein a film would play in single, Cinerama-converted theaters in cities across the country for a limited run. But now, of course, you can enjoy these pictures in the comfort of your own home, spectacularly-restored from the original, three-strip elements in HD with vibrant colors, stabilized picture, and a powerful 5.1 sound mix (you do have the choice between a 2.0 and a 5.1 mix, but you’ll definitely want to go with 5.1 where possible).
This is Cinerama takes you around the globe to experience the wonders of our world in this impressive showcase of the fully-immersive capabilities of Cinerama. Once the film proper begins (which is to say, once the 1.33:1 introduction concludes and the film widens to reveal the breadth of Cinerama), we are treated to a now legendary sequence, discussed in many a film history book, in which Cinerama takes its audience for a ride on a roller coaster. From there, it’s off to Venice, Madrid, and other such exotic locales, before concluding with a flight over the sprawling landscape of the United States (filmed from the nose of a B52 bomber, I understand). As a showcase of the technology, This is Cinerama is, needless to say, a bit on the light side content-wise. The film does open with a pretty thorough lecture from narrator/host Lowell Thomas about the origins of the film form in technology dating back to the magic lantern shows. In fact, his lecture is not unlike any you might hear in an introductory film course at the college level, for what that’s worth.
What’s more, the cinematography throughout, limited by the process to an extent, tends to be noticeably stagnant when not flying over the countryside or sitting in the front car of a roller coaster. To this end, many of the musical numbers or dance routines captured in This is Cinerama are shot not unlike those earliest of films, with a stationary camera set fourth row, center stage. That said, if you allow yourself to become immersed in the experience, This is Cinerama is a truly captivating and fascinating experiment in the possibilities offered by film in its most innovative forms. Moreover, watching it has the desired effect of making you want to see more films in that format, particularly narrative films, in order to see how they might play out in this immersive ratio.
And with that, we turn to Windjammer, which offers a sort of narrative, or at least a series of staged events and musical numbers tied together by a very loose narrative in the guise of a documentary. Windjammer follows the teenage crew of the Norwegian school ship, Christian Radich, from enlistment aboard the ship to their trip across the Atlantic to the Americas and back again to Norway. Along the way, they stop to see the sights, party with locals (and their beautiful daughters), and of course take occasional breaks for musical interludes. Windjammer serves much the same function as This is Cinerama. It showcases the Cinemiracle process by taking us on a voyage around the world (at least across the Atlantic and back), but it offers something that This is Cinerama does not: a sort of story. And in that we begin to see the potential for narrative storytelling in this immersive form that unfortunately for us now never quite found its foothold in the market (although it did evolve into the 70mm format we know today, so there’s that at least).
Each of these releases boasts more than a half dozen special features with a combined running time of 75 minutes on This is Cinerama (not counting the feature-length commentary) and 103 minutes on Windjammer. The DVD/Blu-ray combos also include the sort lengthy, full-color booklets that have become a staple of Flicker Alley’s product. No cinephile’s collection should be without these two stellar releases!