Edelman: Wide-Screen Wonders

Nov 25, 2013

Today our film commentator Rob Edelman discusses a pair of films from the 1950s.

Back in the 1950s, movie theater attendance was in sharp decline for a number of reasons, starting with the burgeoning popularity of television. Movie producers then were desperate to lure audiences away from the tube, and did so by offering paying customers the types of visuals that could not be found on TV sets. These images were the products of various widescreen processes that were meant to dazzle the senses and offer audiences what amounted to a trip around the world, all for the cost of a movie ticket.

One such process was called Cinerama. Happily, Flicker Alley has just released to DVD and Blu-Ray two Cinerama titles. They are Cinerama Holiday, which dates from 1955, and South Seas Adventure, from 1958. These films are not quite traditional narratives, and they are not quite documentaries. Both feature storylines of a sort. Cinerama Holiday follows an American couple from Kansas and what they see and experience as they tour Europe, as well as a Swiss couple and what they see and experience as they traverse the United States. South Seas Adventure includes several mini-storylines involving individuals in locales including Hawaii, Tahiti, Tonga, Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia.

What these two films share is that they are loaded with stunningly-shot and still-dazzling scenery. Cinerama Holiday opens with images of ice-capped Swiss Alps that look as if they might have been filmed last week using state-of-the-art 21st-century technology. But Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventures are more than just plush travelogues. They offer a privileged view of the world in the 1950s, when the Great Depression and the Second World War still were recent history. Americans now could travel to Europe not to fight the Nazis but to savor the sights of an un-Occupied Paris. Individuals could head off to the South Pacific not to battle the Japanese but to relax, sightsee, and experience native cultures.

Tellingly, these films do not acknowledge the concerns of the era. There is no mention of Communism, McCarthyism or any sort of across-the-globe strife. At one point in Cinerama Holiday, you see black singers and a preacher in a Southern church. But whatever issues these Americans may be dealing with are conveniently excluded from the film. Instead, Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventure present a world at peace. The individuals in them are of different cultures, and are warm and welcoming and more than willing to share their cultures with outsiders. This, indeed, is the world as it should be.

What also makes the DVD/Blu-Ray releases of Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventure so special is that they are presented in curved screen simulations, which duplicate the feeling of seeing them in their original presentations. So even though you are not watching them in a movie house that has been fashioned for Cinerama screenings, you do get a sense of their full breadth and scope.

While watching Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventure, a classic mid-1950s holiday musical came to mind. That film is White Christmas, released in 1954, which features Bing Crosby and Danny Kaye as World War II veterans who come to the assistance of and honor their now-retired former commanding officer. Almost a decade has passed since the end of the war. Crosby, Kaye, and their fellow veterans are Americans who have returned to their lives. Many are married, and have started families. In the film’s high point, dozens of veterans come together to pay homage to their beloved commander. There is a banquet, a celebration, and there is much reminiscing and warm feeling.

White Christmas-- which, by the way, is a partial remake of Holiday Inn, a 1942 Christmas movie that paired Crosby with Fred Astaire-- exudes the same kind of idyllic vibes that radiate from Cinerama Holiday and South Seas Adventure