Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, the movie hit The Robe introduced CinemaScope, the most successful of the wide-screen cinema formats. CinemaScope used anamorphic lenses to project a moving image more than two-and-one-half times as wide as it was high.

Summary of Event

Just as the Warner Bros. studio transformed the movie industry with talking pictures in the late 1920’s, Twentieth Century-Fox Twentieth Century-Fox[Twentieth Century Fox] (also known as Fox) infused profits into the business with the wide-screen process CinemaScope, which Fox introduced in the historical epic The Robe (1953). Choosing a sweeping narrative of religious conversion with proven appeal to showcase the new technology, Fox president Spyros Skouras capitalized on two audience-pleasers: the promise to “put you in the picture” first promoted by Cinerama Cinerama (a competing wide-screen technology) in 1952 and the excitement engendered by lavish spectacles. CinemaScope Robe, The (Koster) Wide-screen cinema[Wide screen cinema] Hollywood studio system;wide-screen formats[wide screen formats] Christianity;cinema [kw]Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film (Sept. 16, 1953) [kw]CinemaScope Film, Premiere of the First (Sept. 16, 1953) [kw]Film, Premiere of the First CinemaScope (Sept. 16, 1953) CinemaScope Robe, The (Koster) Wide-screen cinema[Wide screen cinema] Hollywood studio system;wide-screen formats[wide screen formats] Christianity;cinema [g]North America;Sept. 16, 1953: Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film[04230] [g]United States;Sept. 16, 1953: Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film[04230] [c]Motion pictures and video;Sept. 16, 1953: Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film[04230] [c]Inventions;Sept. 16, 1953: Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film[04230] [c]Science and technology;Sept. 16, 1953: Premiere of the First CinemaScope Film[04230] Skouras, Spyros Chrétien, Henri Koster, Henry Douglas, Lloyd C. Burton, Richard Maltz, Albert Simmons, Jean Mature, Victor

The scientific principle on which the various wide-screen processes were based had been introduced in 1927 by Henri Chrétien, but it was not then considered a necessary innovation by studio executives. Indeed, five years later, in 1932, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences established an aspect ratio Cinema;aspect ratios of 1.37:1 as the standard format for theatrically released motion pictures (the so-called Academy ratio Academy ratio ). That is, the rectangular image projected on a movie screen was 1.37 times as wide as it was tall. Almost all Hollywood films were made in the Academy ratio for the next twenty years.

In the early 1950’s, as television became popular and movie attendance shrank by one-third, wide-screen exhibition became appealing to the studios as a means of luring people out of their living rooms and away from their televisions. Cinerama produced an image with an aspect ratio of 2.65:1 by filming with three separate cameras simultaneously and projecting three synchronized images side-by-side on a screen. The success of This Is Cinerama This Is Cinerama (Cooper) (1952), the first Cinerama feature, demonstrated that American moviegoers were thrilled by this format, even when it was used to present what was essentially the simulation of an amusement-park experience. Cinerama was developed outside the Hollywood industry by American inventor Fred Waller Waller, Fred .

Movie-studio executives predicted that wide-screen roller-coaster rides and travelogues would not continue to hold audience interest as effectively as would classical narrative films that combined the emotional pulls of story and stars with the innovative wide-screen spectacle. They also sought to produce a wide-screen image with only one camera and projector, rather than using the expensive three-camera, three-projector set-up of Cinerama. Fox led the way in this endeavor, inaugurating the trade name CinemaScope for its system, which used anamorphic lenses projecting onto a curved screen to produce an image with an aspect ratio of 2.55:1.

Other versions of wide-screen technology soon followed: Paramount Pictures introduced VistaVision, Warner Bros. unveiled WarnerScope, and independent producer Mike Todd launched Todd-AO. These processes all produced a minor illusion of three-dimensionality, because the screen was so wide that spectators would see its edges with their peripheral vision, creating the impression that they were surrounded by the image. The techniques did not require special viewing glasses, as did actual 3-D cinema, nor did they require entirely new theaters and complex, synchronized projectors, as did Cinerama.

All these systems depended on high-fidelity, four-track, stereophonic sound to produce the sensation of audience involvement. To exhibit the new films, theaters had to add surround speakers, wider screens, and special projector lenses; however, the costs of these additions were recouped with the tremendous box-office returns from movies shot in wide-screen processes. For those theaters that did not purchase the expensive sound systems, Fox began to distribute CinemaScope films with optical sound tracks imprinted on them. The inclusion of these tracks necessitated shrinking the image to an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, which would become the most common wide-screen format.

For the initial CinemaScope production, the novel The Robe (1942) was a logical choice for source material, since it would allow Fox to combine new technology with old values. Lloyd C. Douglas’s conservative narrative provided the occasion for Roman opulence to be visualized on the screen but condemned, while Christianity triumphed. Before the publication of the novel, producer Frank Ross Ross, Frank had secured screen rights and shopped the project to Radio-Keith-Orpheum Pictures (RKO) and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) before a successful deal was brokered at Fox. The screenplay, co-written by Albert Maltz (originally uncredited) and Philip Dunne Dunne, Philip , continued Douglas’s emphasis on religious conversion, featuring a love story that linked earthly passion with Christian belief, played against the background of epochal historical events.

In early 1953, Henry Koster had directed Welsh actor Richard Burton in his first American film, My Cousin Rachel. My Cousin Rachel (Koster) Burton’s talent and his virile screen presence led to his casting as the Roman tribune Marcellus Gallio in The Robe, again under Koster’s direction. English actor Jean Simmons brought her typical grace and dignity to the role of Diana, who prefers Marcellus over Caligula and thus provokes the emperor’s rage. Victor Mature played Marcellus’s Greek slave Demetrius, who is given Christ’s robe after his master wins it in a game of dice played in the shadow of the crucifixion. This robe changes the life of both slave and master.

Demetrius is the first of the three central characters to convert to Christianity. The film ends with Marcellus and Diana choosing to die as Christian martyrs rather than live as pagans. The ending motivated a sequel in which Demetrius continued the saga of the robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators Demetrius and the Gladiators (Daves) (1954). So confident was producer Frank Ross of the future success of The Robe that production on this sequel was begun even before the first film was released on September 16, 1953. The theatrical trailer for Demetrius and the Gladiators promised, among other inducements, “the miracle of CinemaScope” to its potential audience.

The core narrative of The Robe focused on the transformation of Marcellus from Roman playboy to guilt-ridden madman to altruistic friend, faithful lover, and courageous Christian. Marcellus’s interior changes were enacted in a vibrant Technicolor world that included lavish feasts, military parades, storms at sea, chariot chases, sword fights, and public trials, all of which filled the wide screen with pageantry and excitement. The emotional effect of the music composed by Alfred Newman Newman, Alfred —most obvious in the choral theme associated with Christ’s crucifixion and with Christ’s influence—was intensified through the new stereophonic systems.

The film was shot on spectacular sets created at the Fox studio and in nearby California locations to simulate Jerusalem, Rome, and Capri. Cinematographer Leon Shamroy’s creative responses to the challenges of focus and composition while working with the first cameras fitted for CinemaScope earned him an Academy Award nomination. Burton was nominated for Best Actor in a Leading Role for his portrayal of the tormented Roman; the 135-minute film, after breaking box-office records in its early release, was nominated for Best Picture. The film won Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color, Academy Awards;Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Color[Best Art Direction Set Decoration, Color] and for Best Costume Design, Color Academy Awards;Best Costume Design, Color .

The Robe and other Hollywood movies set in imperial Rome provoked ideological readings when they were first released, and they continue to do so. The default Cold War analysis was to compare all antagonistic cultural systems to the Soviets, however forced and historically unconvincing those comparisons might be. In The Robe, when the emperor commands that the magical robe be found and destroyed, he says, “I want the name of every disciple. I want names.” This obvious reference to the infamous hearings of the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) equated the persecuted and hidden Christians and Jews of the ancient world with the (often Jewish) political left of the 1950’s and, by analogy, equated the Romans with the anticommunist right. Subsequent postcolonial readings of the film interpreted it as portraying in the figures of the Christian and Jewish slaves the subaltern desire for independence from the colonizing imperial power of Rome.

It was not only historical epics that were displayed on the wide screen. Very soon after The Robe premiered, a cluster of expensively produced romantic comedies and musicals were released that capitalized on the new visual expansiveness of the wide screen and also featured the aural expressiveness of stereophonic sound. Warner Bros. and MGM quickly joined Fox in successful wide-screen productions that included How to Marry a Millionaire (1953), a comedy that confirmed stardom for Marilyn Monroe; a remake of the musical melodrama A Star Is Born (1954), starring Judy Garland; a cowboy-musical hybrid, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954); a romantic comedy shot on location in Rome, Three Coins in a Fountain (1954), and Silk Stockings Silk Stockings (Mamoulian) (1957), a musical whose score included the Cole Porter song “Stereophonic Sound,” "Stereophonic Sound" (Porter)[Stereophonic Sound] whose chorus asserted that no one would see a film unless it featured “glorious Technicolor, breathtaking CinemaScope, and stereophonic sound.”

Significance

Although The Robe has not worn well with critics or audiences, the system of filming for wide-screen projection that it introduced became a staple of Hollywood filmmaking, especially for productions grand in scale. CinemaScope got the jump on Panavision Panavision in 1953, but CinemaScope’s leadership was supplanted in the early 1960’s with Panavision’s 35mm anamorphic technology, which has dominated for decades. The story of Cinerama demonstrates that the appeals of new screen technologies are fleeting unless coupled with compelling narrative content. CinemaScope Robe, The (Koster) Wide-screen cinema[Wide screen cinema] Hollywood studio system;wide-screen formats[wide screen formats] Christianity;cinema

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Balio, Tino, ed. Hollywood in the Age of Television. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990. Useful background essays, the most relevant of which is John Belton’s “Glorious Technicolor, Breathtaking CinemaScope, and Stereophonic Sound.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Barr, Charles. “CinemaScope: Before and After.” Film Quarterly 16, no. 4 (Summer, 1963): 4-24. One of the earliest and best scholarly analyses of CinemaScope.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Belton, John. Widescreen Cinema. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992. The essential text on wide-screen cinema; a consideration of technical, aesthetic, economic, and social dimensions. Especially germane are two chapters devoted to CinemaScope and another to spectatorship, which Belton claims was fundamentally changed by wide-screen cinema.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Matthew, ed. “American Widescreen” issue of The Velvet Light Trap 21 (Summer, 1985). Essays by Andre Bazin, David Bordwell, James Spellerberg, John Belton, and Richard Hincha.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Curti, Carlo. Skouras, King of Fox Studios. Los Angeles: Holloway House, 1967. A breezy biography of the Greek immigrant known as “the man who saved the movies” in 1953, only to be reviled as “the man who ruined Fox” a decade later because of the debacle of Cleopatra (1963).
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Davis, Ronald L. Just Making Movies: Company Directors on the Studio System. Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2005. Interviews with twelve Hollywood directors, including Henry Koster.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Douglas, Lloyd C. The Robe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1942. Best seller about the conversion of a Roman tribune in charge of the crucifixion of Christ, on which the film was based.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pomerance, Murray, ed. American Cinema of the Fifties: Themes and Variations. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Thematic essays by film scholars.

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