When it became clear, around 1950, that television wasn’t going away, the movie industry knew it had a problem to deal with. The steady decline at the box office seemed to be in inverse proportion to the number of antennas sprouting on rooftops everywhere. Studio chiefs had to figure out how best to reinvent their content to compete with the new technology.
The biggest challenge was to figure out how to create a compelling film experience that audiences could not get at home on their Philcos. Necessity being the mother of invention, studio showmen gave birth to Cinemascope, Cinerama and other forms of wide screen projection, along with the delights of stereophonic sound.
In 1952 United Artists led the way in introducing the most gaudy of the new technologies, 3D, with the release of Bwana Devil starring Robert Stack and Barbara Britton. The advertising taglines promised “A Lion in Your Lap” and “A Lover in Your Arms.” (No you couldn’t choose…you either got a lion in your lap or a lover in your arms…or both. You pays your money and you takes your chances.) Surprisingly the first feature-length 3D movie was The Power of Love, released in 1922.
Bwana Devil, was the first 3D movie shot in color utilizing the new Polaroid dual projector system. Until the invention of the Polaroid system, 3D glasses of the red/green anaglyph type severely changed the color of the perceived image, making 3D only practical for black and white.
Thus began a steady stream of 3D releases by the major studios. Warner Brothers released House of Wax, produced in both 3D and stereophonic sound, shortly after Bwana Devil. Vincent Price, the star of House of Wax, shamelessly went on to make three more 3D movies; The Mad Magician, Dangerous Mission, and Son of Sinbad.
Warner Bros also distributed Hondo, a popular John Wayne western in 3D, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, a 3D thriller starring Karl Malden, and Dial M for Murder, directed by Alfred Hitchcock and considered by aficionados of 3-D to be one of the best examples of the process.
Other successful major studio 3D productions included Universal International’s Taza, Son of Cochise, starring Rock Hudson, and It Came From Outer Space with Richard Carlson. Paramount’s first 3D feature was Sangaree, with Fernando Lamas and Arlene Dahl, and the studio put Dean Martin & Jerry Lewis even more in people’s faces in Paramount’s 3D comedy Money from Home. MGM pulled out all the stops with a hugely popular blockbuster musical in 3D called Kiss Me Kate, starring Kathryn Grayson, Howard Keel and Ann Miller.
The French Line, starring Jane Russell, an RKO/Howard Hughes 1954 production, achieved notoriety by being released without an MPAA seal of approval due to suggestive lyrics and costumes. Of course, the movie went on to make big bucks at the box office. The studio’s tagline was “See Jane Russell in ‘The French Line’ – she’ll knock BOTH your eyes out!”
Columbia Pictures released several westerns in 3D and also produced its own adult-oriented 3D movie starring the glamorous Rita Hayworth in Miss Sadie Thompson. Columbia and other studios produced some entertaining short subjects in the 3D process as well. Among them, The Three Stooges received the 3D treatment in two shorts; Spooks and Pardon My Backfire. Paramount gave us Casper, the Friendly Ghost in 3D in Boo Moon, and Popeye the Sailor popped off the screen at audiences in Popeye, Ace of Space.
Three short years after Bwana Devil the 3D fad seemed to have run its course with the release of Universal’s Revenge of the Creature. The novelty had worn off, and technological limitations severely limited the types of shots that could be captured with two cameras forced to stay in sync. Anyone who’s seen the astounding 3D productions featured at Imax theatres or at Disneyworld knows that 3D movies have only begun to deliver on their promise. Though 3D didn’t start with Bwana Devil or end with Revenge of The Creature, it’s a pop culture phenomenon, like hula hoops and coonskin caps, that will always be inextricably linked with the zeitgeist of the 1950s.