Friday, June 26, 2015

3-D Films of the 1950s

" A Lion in Your Lap! A Lover in Your Arms!"

So heralded the publicity posters for Bwana Devil, the first full-color three-dimensional feature film to be released in the United States and the film that was instrumental in launching the 3-D craze of the 1950s. The picture itself was a routine programmer with a lackluster story line, however, because it featured the new technology that took audiences into the third-dimension, tickets to Bwana Devil quickly sold out upon its premiere at the Paramount Theatre in Hollywood on Nov. 26, 1952, with lines of people spanning several blocks. This film, along with the horror classic House of Wax, created such a demand for 3-D that Hollywood studios churned out nearly 50 films within the following year, creating what many critics now term as the "golden age of 3-D"

The Creation of an Illusion

3-D image processing was not as modern as audiences in the 1950s may have believed. It was demonstrated as early as 1856 when J.C d'Almeida showcased before the Academy of Sciences his method of projecting, in rapid succession, two stereoscopic magic lantern slides - one colored red, one colored green - while the viewer wore goggles fitted with the same two color lenses. The slides were of the same image shot at slightly different angles but when combined at a fast speed the viewer's brain would process the image as one three-dimensional picture. 

William Friese Greene made several advancements to this 3-D process in the late 1800s when he created the first motion picture camera to film three-dimensional anaglyphic images. On June 10, 1915, audiences at the Astor Theatre in New York City previewed three reels of test footage filmed by Edward S. Porter and William E. Waddell of oriental dancers, rural scenes, and even Niagara Falls. Audiences were amazed with the process and in the coming decade several more short films were produced, creating a small boom in the 1920s. 

Film maker and inventor Harry K. Fairall enthralled silent movie audiences with the release of the first full-length 3-D movie - The Power of Love - in 1922 at the Ambassador Hotel Theatre in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this film is now believed to be lost. 

The Polaroid 3-D Films

All of these short subject novelties utilized cardboard anaglyph ( red and green or blue ) viewers that a person would hold by hand up to their eyes. It was not until 1939, when Edward Land demonstrated the use of his Polaroid sheets as a filter in stereoscopic presentations, that the two-colored lenses of the past changed and the era of cardboard "glasses" began. Land had conceived of the Polaroid filter to reduce glare from car headlights. It just so happened it made a superior 3D filter! 

At the 1939 World's Fair in New York City, Chrsyler Corporation showed a 15-minute short titled In Tune With Tomorrow which used the new Polaroid 3-D projection method. This film showed a Chrysler Plymouth magically assembled in sync with music and was an instant hit at the fair where over 1.5 million people viewed it. It was so popular a year later the film was re-shot in color and re-released as New Dimensions

During World War II stereoscopic photography was prioritized for military applications and so most producers turned away from the new process. It was not until 1952 that it made its way back into popularity. Earlier that year, director Arch Oboler was approached by the Gunzberg brothers who demonstrated a new camera rig that they had invented for use in 3D filming entitled "Natural Vision". Oboler thought Natural Vision would be the wave of the future and decided to scrap the 10 days worth of "flat footage" he shot of his latest film The Lions of Gulu and re-film it in 3D. He also retitled it Bwana Devil. 

The major studios had all turned down the Gunzbergs invention because they felt that it was another "novelty" not worth pursuing. Also, many were already heavily invested in the Cinemascope process which featured wall to wall screens and stereophonic sound. It was only after Bwana Devil's success that the major studios decided to ride with the crowd and create 3D films. And they wasted no time getting down to business! Bwana Devil had premiered on November 26, 1952 and between January and October 1953, the major studios released 48 three-dimensional films. 

Televisions were slowing finding their way into the average American's home and, because of this, movie attendance was on the decline. 3-D was a fabulous method of bringing them back to the theatres. Humans have long held a fascination for in-your-face action and with the advent of 3D technology, some of their favorite stars were practically within arm's reach. These stars included Barbara Stanwyck, Edward G. Robinson, Robert Ryan, Arlene Dahl, Vincent Price, Jane Russell, Rock Hudson, John Wayne, and Grace Kelly. Even the movie posters at the time appeared to grab the audience and pull them into the theatres. 

Highlighted below are some of the best and most memorable 3-D classics of this golden age : 

Bwana Devil ( 1952, United Artists ) 

The film that started it all. The 3-D lion may have jumped into audience's laps, but the story itself was a sleeping bear. Robert Stack portrays a lion hunter sent to Africa to kill off a pair of vicious man-eaters who are attacking workers during construction of a rail line. Robert Stack, Barbara Britton, Nigel Bruce.

Devil's Canyon ( 1953, RKO )

A marshal is unjustly convicted and sent to an Arizona prison in the 1880s. Westerns were an ideal feature for the 3-D process making the vast landscape of the West seem even more impressive. Dale Robertson, Virginia Mayo, Stephen McNally.

Flight to Tangier ( 1953, Paramount ) 

Three people, including a female FBI agent, follow a three million dollar letter of credit beyond the Iron Curtain into Communist territory. Joan Fontaine, Corinne Calvet, Jack Palance. 

Fort Ti ( 1953, Columbia )

A platoon of Roger's Rangers marches north to defend their territory against Indians during 1759. Before William Castle ventured into the realm of horror films, he directed westerns for Columbia Pictures. Once 3-D became popular, Castle was one of the first directors to try the new process and - like most of his films - he exploited it for its gimmickry. As he once said himself "I threw everything I could find at the camera". Virginia Mayo, Dale Robertson, Stephen McNally.

The French Line ( 1953, RKO ) 

"J.R. in 3-D!" Now that's an eyeful to see! Jane Russell went out with her limbs into the audience as a cheery Texas oil heiress who ropes herself a husband while on a trip to France. Jane Russell, Gilbert Roland, Arthur Hunnicutt.

The Glass Web ( 1953, Universal )

Edward G. Robinson portrays a TV executive who kills a blackmailing actress and then allows a young scriptwriter to be accused of the crime. This film was a not so subtle jab from the movie industry towards the television industry. Edward G. Robinson, John Forsythe, Marsha Henderson.

Gun Fury ( 1953, Columbia ) 

After an outlaw gang ambush a stagecoach, a Civil War vet takes off in hot pursuit to bring back his bride-to-be whom they have kidnapped. Raoul Walsh directed. Rock Hudson, Donna Reed, Philip Carey. 

Hondo ( 1953, Warner Brothers ) 

Geraldine Page makes her film debut in this exciting western which is undoubtedly one of John Wayne's best pictures. The Duke stars as a half-Indian cavalry scout defending a woman and her son who live on an isolated ranch in unfriendly Apache territory. Geraldine Page, John Wayne, Ward Bond. 

House of Wax ( 1953, Warner Brothers ) 

Outside of Cinerama, House of Wax was the first time American audiences heard stereophonic sound. Considering that the film was put into production so quickly after Bwana Devil's premiere, it's a wonder that the film is as great as it is. Vincent Price was nicknamed "The King of 3-D" because he was the only actor to appear in four 3-D features ( The Mad Magician, Dangerous Mission, Son of Sinbad ). Vincent Price, Frank Lovejoy, Phyllis Kirk.

Inferno ( 1953, 20th Century Fox ) 

Film critic Leslie Halliwell proclaimed that Inferno was "an outdoor melodrama which made better use of 3-D than any other film". Indeed, he is right. The film centers around a millionaire who is abandoned by his wife and her lover and left to perish in the desert after he breaks his leg. Keep an eye out for the excellent fire sequences. Robert Ryan, William Lundigan, Rhonda Fleming.

It Came from Outer Space ( 1953, Universal )

If sci-fi films weren't a drawing feature on their own, this was one of the first to combine aliens with shocks in three-dimension. It was also Universal's first film in the new process. Richard Carlson stars as a young astronomer who sees a spaceship land in the Arizona desert and finds that they can adopt human appearances at will. Richard Carlson, Barbara Rush, Charles Drake.

Kiss Me, Kate ( 1953, MGM ) 

Even Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, one of the most prestigious film studios in Hollywood, couldn't resist creating a 3-D film and they topped them all by making it a musical! William Shakespeare's "Taming of the Shrew" was boisterously brought to the screen in truly eye-popping color. Howard Keel, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller.

The Maze ( 1953, Allied Artists )

Some actors have to really stoop low to hold onto their film careers. Richard Carlson had a great run of films in the 1940s, but was relegated to horror and B films throughout the 1950s. Here, he "toad"ally hit bottom ground as a Scottish heir who inherits a title, a fortune, and the family curse to boot. Richard Carlson, Veronica Hurst, Katherine Emery. 

Sangaree ( 1953, Paramount  )

When a plantation owner wills his wealth to the son of a slave, troubles ensues between two families. Patricia Medina was so popular with audiences that she was the actress they enjoyed having in their lap the most. Along with Rhonda Fleming, she shares the honor of being the actress to appear in the most 3-D films. Fernando Lamas, Arlene Dahl, Patrica Medina. 

Second Chance ( 1953, RKO ) 

If this poster doesn't lure you into a theatre then you need to take a second glance at it. The producer of this film knew how to catch an audiences attention. For women, Robert Mitchum was the draw..and for men, Linda Darnell. The plot has something to do with a killer and a gangster moll in South America but the highlight of the film is the cable-car sequence at the end. Robert Mitchum, Linda Darnell, Jack Palance. 

Taza, Son of Cochise ( 1953, Universal ) 

The king of melodrama, Douglas Sirk, was level-headed enough to realize that a domestic drama had no 3D potential and so he attempted a western. This one was a sequel to Broken Arrow and featured the Rock as an Indian chief. Rock Hudson, Barbara Rush, Gregg Palmer. 

Creature from the Black Lagoon ( 1954, Universal ) 

A group of scientists discover a terrifying prehistoric monster whom they dub "Gillman". When they disturb his tranquil lagoon he attacks them. Creature of the Black Lagoon and House of Wax remain two of the most memorable 3D films of the 1950s. It also spawned two sequels - Revenge of the Creature ( also in 3D ) and The Creature Walks Among Us. Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning.

Dial M For Murder ( 1954, Warner Brothers ) 

Aficionados of 3-D consider Dial M for Murder to be one of the best examples of the process. Hitchcock utilized just the right proportion of pie-in-your-eye gimmickry and just plain ol' beautiful depth of vision. Ray Milland, Grace Kelly, Robert Cummings. 

Gorilla at Large ( 1954, 20th Century Fox )

"He's in the aisles! He's in the balcony! He's EVERYWHERE " Yikes! Three murders occur at an amusement park and a young law student, who works part-time in a gorilla suit at the park, is accused. It takes a real gorilla to catch the killer. Corny plot but darn good dimension. Cameron Mitchell, Anne Bancroft, Lee J.Cobb. 

Other 3-D films included Drums of Tahiti, Dragonfly Squadron, The Nebraskan, Louisiana Territory, Phantom of the Rue Morgue, Cat-Women of Outer Space, Cease Fire, Money from Home, The Command, The Mad Magician, Southwest Passage, The Moonlighter, Those Redheads from Seattle, Wings of the Hawk, The Stranger Wore a Gun, Man in the Dark, Hannah Lee, Robot Monster, Arena, The Charge of Feather River, Jivaro, Top Banana, Jesse James vs the Daltons, Son of Sinbad, Gog, The Diamond Wizard and The Bounty Hunter. 

Although 3-D films had been popular throughout 1953, by the end of the year exhibitors noticed a decline in attendance. Many of the major 3-D feature releases were issued by the studios in both 3-D and flat versions and there was not a remarkable difference between attendance of the two. In fact, some films performed better in their non-3D version. Revenge of the Creature, released on March 23, 1955 was one of the last 3-D films to be released in the 1950s. 

The Polaroid method was difficult for theater owners to display with two prints having to be simultaneously projected and an intermission required for changing the film reels. Two projectionists often had to be employed to keep sync working properly, otherwise the picture could become unwatchable. Polaroid released a "Tell-Tale Filter Kit" for the purpose of recognizing and adjusting out of sync 3-D but, even so, exhibitors felt uncomfortable with the system and were turning their sights to Cinemascope instead. All of these factors led to the decline of one of the most magical exhibition techniques of the 1950s. 

Nearly every one of these films have been preserved and, while a large number are not released in 3D format on DVD, a handful of the best titles are available to purchase on 3D Blu-Ray. These include Dial M for Murder, Creature from the Black Lagoon and Kiss Me Kate. All you have to do is pop on your dimensional shades, sit back and have a bowl of popcorn, and watch gilly monsters and tight-clad dancing men leap into your living room. 

This post is our contribution to the Classic Movie History Project Blogathon being hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings, and Once Upon a Screen and sponsored by Flicker Alley who, incidentally, have released a stellar compilation of 3D Rarities on Blu-Ray. 

Also, be sure to check out the 3D Film Archive website for a complete overview of the process and Silent Screenings post "Better Living Through 3D" reviewing the new 3D Rarities collection. 


  1. That's an excellent article and thank you very much for mentioning our website. I should point out that when the studios rushed into 3-D production in the first months of 1953, the widescreen boom was just a few beats behind. CinemaScope and non-anamorphic widescreen films (1.66, 1.75, 1.85 and 2.1 aspect ratio) didn't begin widespread production until April/May of 1953. We cover that changeover period in this article:

    Also, there is one actor that appeared in five 3-D features and is the King of 3-D: Morris Ankrum. He can be seen in ARENA, DEVIL'S CANYON, SOUTHWEST PASSAGE, THE MOONLIGHTER and TAZA, SON OF COCHISE.

    1. Morris Ankrum! Oh my, now there is an actor I never even heard of before! Mr. Furmanek, I think we'll have to dub you the King of 3D now for your knowledge of all things dimensional. ;-)

  2. Feeling a little sad that I have yet to see these films in all their glorious 3-D goodness. One of these days!

    1. That is terrible indeed! You'll have to watch at least one film on 3D now. I never saw any on a 3D television but I'm sure that is a sight to behold.

  3. Wow – this is a fab post! LOOK at all this research you've done. Like Caftan Woman, I'm feeling sad I haven't seen most of these films in 3D, especially Creature from the Black Lagoon. (Can you imagine how fun that would be on the big screen?)

    Thanks for joining the blogathon with this essential look at 3D film.

    1. I'm curious to find out just how many of these films are available on 3D Blu-Ray. Thanks for hosting such a fab blogathon Ruth!

  4. I had no idea that Hondo was released in 3D! Wow, that would have been awesome to see.

    1. I never realized that Inferno was until I started watching it and saw those flames shooting at the camera! When the actors start throwing stuff towards the audience then you can be sure it was meant to be seen in 3D.

    2. I have seen Hondo in 3D great picture.

  5. This was a full 3D lesson! Congratulations on putting together such an informative post.
    I watched Hondo in the plain 2D version only. On the other hand, I found a copy of Plan 9 from Outer Space in 3D. It was one of my craziest experiences with film.

  6. Considering the recent revival of 3D, it was great to be reminded about its origins. I've seen most of these in 2D only, look forward to comparing the visuals. I love the stills illustrating the technology - wonder how movie-goers thought the 3D lived up to the hype.

  7. Excellent entry.

    I would also like to invite you to participate in my upcoming blogathon.

    The link is below with more details

  8. I would swear on the sacred text of your choice that I saw a 3-D version of Broken Arrow as a boy at a drive-in theater in the mid-1950's, yet Wikipedia doesn't include it in their list of '50's 3-D films, and I can find no other reference to it. Is there an expert on this thread who can shed light on this(?).

  9. The Road to Bali was filmed in 3-D - you can find it on Amazon. I haven't seen any record that it was released in 3-D. Maybe the film historians have missed this one.