There is a land well within the Outer Limits and just this side of the Twilight Zone. It is known as the Third Dimension, and its inhabitants can be identified by the cardboard eyeglasses that hurt their noses and an insistence on remembering the 1950s, which reasonable people try to forget.
Hollywood was desperately fighting for its life then, the way so many movie characters had for decades, and so it unleashed on small-town U.S.A. a battalion of technological gimmicks designed to lure us away from our 14-inch Uncle Milties became wider than life, louder than life and, with 3-D, we were told, even more life-like than life!
Thanks to the illusion created when the same scene was photographed with two cameras and shown through two projectors, guns were fired into audiences, flaming arrows were shot at them, fists smacked them in their kissers, can-can girls flaunted their derrieres and, in one Western, an old geezer even let the crowd have big mouthful of chewing tobacco.
No. wasn't exactly a golden age. And it isn't going to recur with such tasteless flamboyance. But we should have learned by now that no matter how daffy a thing may seem in its time, it is going to come back, and 3-D has returned. A porno movie called "The Stewardesses" helped usher it in , and this week a 3-D kung fu movie opened in Washington and other cities.
The genre perhaps best suited to 3-D and its exaggerated perspectives is science fiction, and this weekend the American Film Institute Theater begins a small but tantalizing sci-fi series with rare 3-D showings of two vintage Jack Arnold thrillers: "The Creature From the Black Lagon" and "It Came From Outer Space."
What came from outer space? It hardly matters. The film opens with a fiery meteor zooming into the audience and continues from there, using 3-D rather subtly and telling a naive but throughly enjoyable sci-fi tale of invaders who control men's minds. As for "Creature," while every movie monster of the 50s pretended to be interested in girls (and you always wondered just what the gaint anchovy carrying the screaming woman had in mind, the slithery gill-man was the only one who seemed man enough to do something about it. This may be why he became a very popular monster.
These two Universal films, both about 24 years old, were re-released in 2-D versions when the 3-D craze died out (CinemaScope helped kill it) and the 3-D versions languished in vaults, unwatched, for years. But then Universal began getting requests for the originals from college film groups, who have subsquently made them all but box-office bonanzas again, and from revival theaters.
Now Universal has had to make additional prints to meet the increasing demand. And the company has even produced a new home version of "Creature," in Super-8 sound and 3-D, that runs for 17 mimutes and costs $49.95. About 1,500 have been sold, and though two pairs of 3-D glasses are given away with each picture, the company says that 4,000 additional pairs have been sold to consumers who ordered them at 50 cents a pair.
Why 3-D again, when it gave so many people a roaring headache in the 50s? For one thing, the process isn't as accident-prone as it was. Originally, since two projectors were required to run at once, perfect synchronization had to be maintained or what you saw on the screen looked LLIIKKEE TTHHIISS. Newly made 3-D films and new prints of oldies use a perfected one-projector system. The glasses no longer have a red lens and a green lens and have been made slightly less uncomfortable.
And if you can have great happiness without any discomfort, you're silly.
It's obvious that the resurgence of 3-D can be tied to the phenomonal success of "Star Wars" and its re-assertion of the movies as joyride and spectacle. People have grown visually weary of the cool sameness of color TV and the passive flatness of the TV image. Universal discovered that even a hockey contrivance like the rumbling Sensurround audio system drew customers to dogs like "Earthquake." Stereophonic sound, though now common in most home hi-fi systems is once again being advertised as a lure to motion pictures.
Columbia's upcoming "Close Encounters of the Third Kind," with its elaborate and eye-popping special effects, will confirm this rediscovered priority in films even further, as well as insure a huge new wave of science fiction.
Whether the 3-D craze will expand to bring back 3-D bubble gum cards and comic books we don't know yet.
One mistake of early 3-D movies was the advertising. It was claimed 3-D made movies more realistic, when in fact 3-D is about as realistic as Orphan Annie. It was the heightened surreal, distorted sensation that made it fun.
The carnival effects are only part of it, though. Little things can mean a lot, too. Says 3-D buff Gary Bordzuk of Universal, "A man lighting a pipe and having the smoke swirl around him suddenly becomes this beautiful thing to watch. It would mean nothing in a 2-D movie."
A number of largely unseen 3-D treasures still hide in studio storage rooms. Alfred Hitchcock filmed "Dial M for Murder" in 3-D but the fad cassed before the movie was fininshed, so it was released "flat." Hitchcock said recently he believes a 3-D print does exist.
At a belovedly imaginative Hollywood movie theater called The Tiffany earlier this year, a 3-D print of the MGM musical "Kiss Me Kate" was given a rare screening for crowds that packed the theater every single night, necessitating a return engagement. "Kiss Me Kate" was originally released in 3-D but only to a few theaters. The 3-D version was quickly yanked and replaced with a normal print.
Well, you should hav seen that movie. Suddenly, the most humdrum scenes became spellbinding. Relentless tapster Ann Miller was, it turns out just made for 3-D. In fact, the night of the showing, a friend had asked me to go to a nightclub opening where Miller would appear in persons. I said. "Who wants to see her in person. I said. "Who wants to see her in person when you can see her in 3-D?"
Every time Miller threw one of her scarves into the audience, the crowd gasped, clapped or laughed. It was almost like going back 24 years to the Rialto Theater in Elgin, III., and sitting through another matinee of "House of Wax" surrounded by a couple hundred screaming kiddies. Except that this time the film didn't break and anybody poured a box of buttered popcorn over my head.
Movies can be wonderful.