It started with Bwana Devil, a low-budget movie starring Robert Stack, Nigel Bruce and Barbara Britton about African lions attacking a transcontinental railroad crew. “A lion in your lap,” the tagline boasted, “a lady in your arms!” Premiered on November 26, 1952, Bwana Devil went down in cinematic history as the first feature-length stereoscopic motion picture to get widespread release in the United States.
In other words, the first big 3-D movie. And that’s when the national craze, most recently manifest in Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 3-D, began. Scads of new films were hurried into 3-D production, and in some cases footage from films already in production was discarded and re-shot in 3-D to capitalize on the trend.
It didn’t all start with Bwana Devil, though. Prior to 1952, stereoscopic films had been around for nearly 40 years. In 1915, three 3-D shorts were screened for a paying audience (wearing early versions of the red-and-blue specs that decades later would become iconic not just of 3-D cinema, but of the ’50s as well) at New York’s Astor Theatre. Two feature-length movies followed in 1922: Nat Deverich’s melodrama Power of Love and R. William Neill’s Mars, aka Radio Mania, starring Grant Mitchell as an inventor who makes contact with Mars via television—which, by the way, still hadn’t quite been invented yet!
Even the Soviets were 3-D before 3-D was cool! Talk about your enticing cinematic obscurities: A 1947 Russian-language version of Robinson Crusoe was the first 3-D picture to dispense with the red-and-blue spectacles. Instead of requiring its audience to don the goofy glasses, the film was projected on a corrugated metal screen with “raster” grooves designed to do the same thing: trick each eye into seeing the proper half of the stereoscopic image necessary to create the illusion of depth.
For the most part, 3-D hasn’t changed much since its inception. Although some 200 different 3-D systems have been puttered with over the years, the basic aim has always been the same: to simulate depth by mimicking human stereoscopic vision. The right and left eye, just a few inches apart, record slightly different images that are processed by the brain into a three-dimensional composite. A 3-D movie works in much the same way, recording the same scene with two lenses set slightly apart. The two films are later projected simultaneously or combined into one print with the two views slightly offset.
The problem, again, is how to fool each eye into singling out the proper image when the two are projected simultaneously. Most vintage 3-D films use the anaglyph process, in which each half of the stereoscopic image is recorded in a different color—yep, you guessed it: and the other in blue. The process is called subtractive filtration, and the upshot is that when you’ve got your 3-D glasses on the right way, the red and blue lenses permit only one image to filter through each. As usual, it’s your trusty ol’ brain that completes the illusion.
The 3-D craze lasted all of three years in the early 1950s, and for good reason. The slightest defect in projection could leave moviegoers with whanging headaches, but more than that, the movies just weren’t very good. Only a few 3-D films from the era—Kiss Me Kate, Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder, and House of Wax, which is generally considered to be the finest 3-D horror film—are remembered charitably today. Audiences at the time simply got bored with the gimmick.
Not surprisingly, the same thing happened in the early ’80s, when producers revived the 3-D movie—funny specs and all—to promote their tertiary installments in a rash of increasingly useless but eminently sequel-able franchises. Among these castoffs: Jaws 3-D, Amityville 3-D, and Friday the 13th Part 3: 3-D. Prior to this, 3-D had been in a fitful sleep for almost 30 years, waking only occasionally in service of oddities like the 1975 soft-core porn flick The Stewardesses (Comin’ at ya, indeed!).
But at long last, in 1983, younger audiences could finally get a taste of their parents’ 3-D headaches and suffer through a whole new plague of movies that were even worse than the crummy sequels the technology was revived for. Perchance you recall these dusty dog’s eggs: Metalstorm: The Destruction of Jared-Syn and Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone, starring a barely pubescent pre-Sixteen Candles Molly Ringwald. Gah! It should go without saying that, as in 1953, audience enthusiasm quickly petered out.
Ultimately, the numeral 3 and the letter D together have rarely stood for high quality in the movies. After all, you can see a bad movie any time, and you don’t even have to get a headache! But if you’re still interested in a stroll down migraine lane, the following list of rentable videos might help you in your quest for the third dimension.
Newer movies using improved “field-sequential” 3-D technology (now with 62 percent fewer headaches!): Encounter in the 3rd Dimension, Alien Adventure 3-D, Haunted Castle, SOS Planet.
Anaglyph movies available on video in 3-D form (dig out the glasses!): Comin’ at Ya! (oddball 1981 Western directed by Italian Ferdinando Baldi), The Bubble, Blonde Emmanuelle in 3-D, Cat Women of the Moon, Robot Monster, The Mask (1961, not the Jim Carrey movie), The Stewardesses.
3-D movies available in 2-D form only (save a bundle on aspirin!): Creature from the Black Lagoon (possibly the most famous 3-D monster movie), Dial M for Murder, House of Wax, Flesh for Frankenstein, Friday the 13th Part 3: 3-D, Jaws 3-D, Spacehunter, Metalstorm, It Came from Outer Space, The Stranger Wore a Gun, Kiss Me Kate, Gun Fury.