Scale and Spectacle: AC In the 1950s

As theatrical motion pictures faced off with broadcast TV in the 1950s, American Cinematographer covered the surge in new formats.
Photographed by Leon Shamroy, ASC (below) in CinemaScope, the smash biblical epic The Robe (1953) accelerated the trend toward widescreen pictures.

By Dawn Fratini

Photos and covers courtesy of the AC Archive. Leon Shamroy, ASC portrait courtesy of the Roy H. Wagner, ASC Archive.

The 1950s was an era of profound insecurity and restructuring in the American film industry. Beginning in the postwar years, plummeting box-office revenue, labor conflicts, a federal antitrust suit, House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, and the rise of television combined to force the industry into a defensive position that played out via dramatic changes over the next decade. 

Leon Shamroy, ASC — one of the pioneers in shooting CinemaScope. (Courtesy of the Roy H. Wagner, ASC Archive)

The most exciting of these changes involved experimentation with new technologies. Widescreen, large formats, stereophonic sound, 3D and drive-ins all promised audiences a bigger and more immersive movie-going experience. The 1950s were stressful times for Hollywood executives, but, as captured in the pages of American Cinematographer, the decade presented new opportunities, both creatively and financially, for the industry’s cinematographers.

Most of the challenges and changes to the industry actually began in the late 1930s but were placed on hold during the war years. No sooner had the war ended than the U.S. Justice Department resumed an anti-trust case against the major studios (U.S. v. Paramount Pictures, et al.), and in March of 1948, the Supreme Court decreed that the studios would have to sell off their theater chains. The intention was to create more favorable conditions for independent exhibitors, but in effect, exhibition became a buyers’ market in which each film posed a greater financial risk to the producing company.

Meanwhile, the spread of TV broadcasting commenced in earnest. The major Hollywood studios were poised to enter into this new medium, but the Federal Communications Commission, noting that these companies were already being sued by the U.S. government for monopolistic business practices, declined their applications for broadcasting licenses. The timing could not have been worse. Although 1946 was a peak year for domestic box office, a precipitous decline began the following year as more and more Americans decamped from urban centers to suburban homes in which TV was the more convenient form of entertainment. 

Directed by Jack Arnold, The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) was shot in monochrome 3D by William E. Snyder, ASC and stereo specialist Clifford Stine, ASC.
Directed by Jack Arnold, The Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954) was shot in monochrome 3D by William E. Snyder, ASC and stereo specialist Clifford Stine, ASC.

As the 1950s began, studios were making fewer but more-expensive films, and innovative technology became a core strategy to get audiences back into theaters. Spectacular imagery and sound, it was believed, would dramatically differentiate the cinema experience from the black-and-white boxed image in the living room. To coordinate and facilitate technological development for the industry as a whole, the Association of Motion Picture Producers launched a pan-studio, noncommercial research laboratory, the Motion Picture Research Council, in 1948. ASC cinematographers served key roles in MPRC activities, and MPRC articles appeared in AC [1]. This centralization of the industry’s technical program empowered Hollywood’s technical workforce to rapidly adopt and adapt numerous technologies throughout the 1950s.  

AC offered extensive reportage on the era’s unique camera systems, including cover stories on Joseph Biroc, ASC shooting the Natural Vision 3D feature Bwana Devil (AC Aug. ’52), and CinemaScope, featuring John D. Hayes, head of the photographic department of Bausch & Lomb Optical Co. (AC July ’54).

One of the most radical technologies to come to the fore was 3D cinema. In 1951, the Telecinema exhibit at the Festival of Britain brought stereoscopic motion pictures to widespread attention and prompted a flurry of articles in trade journals. Stereoscopy pioneer John Norling described the situation in AC in early 1952: 

“That the motion-picture industry could use something to combat television’s capture of more and more of the theater audience is undeniable. Stereo movies might well induce people to return to their former favorite amusement. But the return is likely to come about in mass [sic] only if the film theater gives them something they can’t get on a 17-inch TV tube, namely the ultimate in photographic realism, the stereoscopic movie in full color, with all dramatic possibilities that are only waiting to be appreciated.” [2] 

The format did experience some initial success, [3] but by the time Hondo, Dial M for Murder (both shot by Robert Burks, ASC) and Kiss Me Kate (shot by Charles Rosher, ASC) — which showed remarkably expressive and inventive uses of space — were released in late 1953 and early 1954, most exhibitors had soured on the expense and hassle of 3D.

Director William Wyler checks the finder of an MGM Camera 65 while shooting the Biblical epic Ben-Hur (1959), under the watchful eye of Robert Surtees, ASC. 

A more lasting technological change came in the form of widescreen formats. By 1955, AC could report six “well-established methods” for achieving widescreen imagery. The first to debut was filmmaker/inventor Fred Waller’s three-camera panoramic system, Cinerama, which opened in New York in late 1952 and became a long-running success. It was the “outgrowth of the famous wartime Waller Gunnery Trainer, which utilized a five-lens camera of unique design and five projectors to show airplanes realistically on a large curved screen.” [4] 

Because Cinerama required three tandem cameras, three tandem projectors and an enormous curved screen, it ultimately proved too unwieldy and expensive for widespread use. Nonetheless, its popularity — and indeed, that of 3D exhibition — indicated that the public would turn out for a more spectacular theatrical experience. 

Following decades of work behind the camera, Sol Halprin, ASC (seen second from left ) became 20th Century Fox’s executive director of photography. Him, studio engineer Grover Laube (far left ) and chief research engineer Earl Sponable (not in this photo), developed the widescreen CinemaScope 55 system being tested on this summer day in 1955. The camera is a Fox 4x55, a Mitchell 70mm camera built in the 1930s and converted by the Fox camera department to handle a 55.625mm wide, 8-perf-high negative. Bausch & Lomb made custom anamorphic lenses for the unique format. Unfortunately, tests with CinemaScope 55 — used to shoot the lavish musicals The King and I and Carousel (both released in 1956) — convinced the studio that the audience did not perceive the promised quality difference, meaning the added expense in production and post was not worthwhile. As a result, Fox abandoned CinemaScope 55 in favor of the more-established 65mm Todd-AO system.
Following decades of work behind the camera, Sol Halprin, ASC (seen second from left ) became 20th Century Fox’s executive director of photography. Him, studio engineer Grover Laube (far left ) and chief research engineer Earl Sponable (not in this photo), developed the widescreen CinemaScope 55 system being tested on this summer day in 1955. The camera is a Fox 4x55, a Mitchell 70mm camera built in the 1930s and converted by the Fox camera department to handle a 55.625mm wide, 8-perf-high negative. Bausch & Lomb made custom anamorphic lenses for the unique format. Unfortunately, tests with CinemaScope 55 — used to shoot the lavish musicals The King and I and Carousel (both released in 1956) — convinced the studio that the audience did not perceive the promised quality difference, meaning the added expense in production and post was not worthwhile. As a result, Fox abandoned CinemaScope 55 in favor of the more-established 65mm Todd-AO system.

Earl Sponable, head of research at Fox, was tasked with coming up with a viable alternative. Assisted by Sol Halprin, ASC, Fox’s executive director of photography, Sponable developed CinemaScope from a 1920s system by French inventor Professor Henri Chrétien. With elegant simplicity, Chrétien’s anamorphic hypergonar lens “squeezed” a wide image (2.35-2.66:1) onto a regular 35mm (1.33:1) negative, which would then be expanded back out to its wider dimensions via a complementary anamorphic attachment affixed to the projector. [5] 

Fox’s CinemaScope debuted with The Robe in September of 1953. Heralded by Bob Mintz in the pages of AC as “a new horizon in motion-picture technique … the greatest development since the introduction of sound,” [6] the process was rapidly adopted across the industry thanks to its relative ease of use on both the production and exhibition sides.  The new wide horizontal frame called for new photographic techniques, e.g., fewer cuts and longer takes. [7] Close-ups were a particular challenge, as the first generation of CinemaScope lenses made actors in close-up appear to have “mumps.” Even after this was corrected, there was the challenge of using all that horizontal space effectively. George Folsey, ASC described this challenge and the solution he devised on MGM’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers:

“ … the CinemaScope area in the camera finder loomed as empty as the Rose Bowl on January 2nd when setting up for close-ups or medium shots of the individual couples. Here the compositional and lighting problems were to make unobtrusive, without being obvious about it, those parts of the wide CinemaScope picture area left open when action was concentrated in the middle of the screen. The solution was in strategic placement of kickers and sidelights. ...” [8]

Co-stars James Mason and Eva Marie Saint pose with one of the other “big” stars of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller North By Northwest (1959) — the VistaVision camera. This 35mm film format was devised in 1954 as Paramount’s proprietary non-anamorphic widescreen answer to the popularity of 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope anamorphic process. North By Northwest was cinematographer Robert Burks, ASC’s fifth VistaVision outing with Hitchcock, following To Catch A Thief (1955), The Trouble with Harry (1955), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) and Vertigo (1958). 

Other popular widescreen systems of the early 1950s were Paramount’s VistaVision, which achieved a larger image (1.66:1) by running 35mm film horizontally; Todd-AO, which utilized 65mm film running at 30 fps; Fox’s T.F.C. 4X-55 MM, essentially a 55mm version of CinemaScope; and Superscope, an anamorphic process in which “the squeezing of the image is done in the laboratory, after the negative is shot.” [9]

On location in Elgin, Arizona, at a railroad station and seen here at the top of the frame, Robert Surtees, ASC sits high in the air while filming the opening scene of the hit musical Oklahoma! (1955), directed by Fred Zinnemann. In front of him is the bug-eyed 12.7mm lens of his 65mm Todd-AO camera. This was the first picture to be shot with the large-format, 2.20:1 widescreen camera system, which ran at 30 fps. Below Surtees, the other two cameras simultaneously captured the action in 24fps in CinemaScope, which was used to create a substantially different 2.55:1 35mm version of the picture.

As the decade progressed, new systems involving combinations of matting, anamorphic lenses and large-format film expanded upon these systems, e.g., MGM Camera 65 and Super Panavision 70. Each of these systems had advantages and drawbacks, and cinematographers shared their experience and expertise in the pages of AC. For example, Lee Garmes, ASC enthused over the Panavision 65 camera, which gave him “sharp, clear and incisive” photography for The Big Fisherman in 1959. [10] 

The Screen Actors Guild and Writers Guild of America strikes of early 1960 led to the dismantling of the Motion Picture Research Council, and the momentum of Hollywood’s technological advancement slowed as Old Hollywood gave way to New Hollywood. Once the studios no longer had a direct investment in technological development, industry-wide, coordinated advancement was no longer assured, and R&D was largely left to manufacturers. Nonetheless, the technologies of the 1950s continued to be refined well into the next decade, and cinematographers continued to explore the aesthetic possibilities they afforded. 

While the decrease in Hollywood feature-film production led to a drop in studio employment, the rise in TV production was actually a boon for experienced Hollywood cinematographers. By the spring of 1953, AC was able to report that  “an average of 35 cinematographers each week were shooting TV films in Hollywood” — adding, “It has been a long time since there have been that many cameramen working simultaneously in feature-film production.” The employment of ASC cinematographers dramatically improved televisual style as the new medium shifted from live broadcasts to filmed programming. In January 1952, Leigh Allen proclaimed, “Major film producers could take a lesson from” Desilu, in an article profiling the streamlined production process of I Love Lucy and the contributions of Karl Freund, ASC in innovating the method of filming with three cameras before a live studio audience. [12]
While the decrease in Hollywood feature-film production led to a drop in studio employment, the rise in TV production was actually a boon for experienced Hollywood cinematographers. By the spring of 1953, AC was able to report that “an average of 35 cinematographers each week were shooting TV films in Hollywood” — adding, “It has been a long time since there have been that many cameramen working simultaneously in feature-film production.” The employment of ASC cinematographers dramatically improved televisual style as the new medium shifted from live broadcasts to filmed programming. In January 1952, Leigh Allen proclaimed, “Major film producers could take a lesson from” Desilu, in an article profiling the streamlined production process of I Love Lucy and the contributions of Karl Freund, ASC in innovating the method of filming with three cameras before a live studio audience. [12]
Articles Referenced
  1. See for example: Dr. Armin J. Hill. “The Motion Picture Research Council 3-D Calculator.” American Cinematographer 34, No. 8 (August, 1953): 373, 398.
  2. John A. Norling. “Stereoscopic Motion Pictures Part 1.” American Cinematographer, 33, No. 2 (February 1952): 66, 78-80. 
  3. See: Joseph Biroc. “Hollywood Launches 3-D Production.” American Cinematographer 33, No. 8 (August 1952): 336-337, 350-352.
  4. “Summary of Current Wide Screen Processes.” American Cinematographer 36, No. 11 (November 1955): 654-56, 74-76.
  5. Cinemascope: What It Is; How It Works.” American Cinematographer 34, No. 3 (March 1953): 112-13, 31-34
  6. Bob Mintz. “The Big Changeover.” American Cinematographer 34, No. 10 (October 1953): 480-81, 97-502.
  7. See: Charles G. Clarke, ASC “Cinemascope Photographic Techniques.” American Cinematographer 36, No. 6 (June 1955): 336-337, 362-364.
  8. Folsey, George. “Simultaneous Production Shooting in CinemaScope and Wide-Screen.” American Cinematographer 35, No. 7 (July 1954): 338-39, 360-361, 363.
  9. Ibid. “Summary of Current Wide Screen Processes.”
  10. Frederick Foster. “Photography Sharp, Clear, and Incisive.” American Cinematographer 40, No. 8 (August 1959): 480-81, 504-06
  11. “TV Films Seek Hollywood’s Top Cinematographers.” American Cinematographer 34, No. 5 (May 1953): 220, 236-239.
  12. Leigh Allen. “Filming the ‘I Love Lucy’ Show.” American Cinematographer 33, No. 1 (January 1952): 22-23, 34-36.
Actors Charles Bronson (far left) and Phyllis Kirk (foreground) are positioned for a take during the production of House of Wax (1953), one of the most popular of the stereoscopic films made during the 3D craze of the 1950s. Warner Bros. unit photographer Jack Woods snapped this shot as the Natural Vision camera unit — designed by Milton Gunzberg — was about to roll. House of Wax was screened using dual interlocked 35mm projection with polarized glasses. The film was re-released in the late 1970s in both single-strip 35mm Stereovision 3D and Stereovision’s pioneering 70mm 3D process. Ironically, House of Wax director André De Toth (left of camera, in white vest, next to studio exec Jack M. Warner) was blind in one eye and unable to actually see his film’s 3D effects. To that end, he relied on ASC cinematographers Bert Glennon, Peverell Marley and Robert Burks (right, in front of the camera), operator Howard Schwartz (far right, in white shirt), and 3D consultant Lothrop B. Worth (crouching under camera), both of whom later became Society members.
Actors Charles Bronson (far left) and Phyllis Kirk (foreground) are positioned for a take during the production of House of Wax (1953), one of the most popular of the stereoscopic films made during the 3D craze of the 1950s. Warner Bros. unit photographer Jack Woods snapped this shot as the Natural Vision camera unit — designed by Milton Gunzberg — was about to roll. House of Wax was screened using dual interlocked 35mm projection with polarized glasses. The film was re-released in the late 1970s in both single-strip 35mm Stereovision 3D and Stereovision’s pioneering 70mm 3D process. Ironically, House of Wax director André De Toth (left of camera, in white vest, next to studio exec Jack M. Warner) was blind in one eye and unable to actually see his film’s 3D effects. To that end, he relied on ASC cinematographers Bert Glennon, Peverell Marley and Robert Burks (right, in front of the camera), operator Howard Schwartz (far right, in white shirt), and 3D consultant Lothrop B. Worth (crouching under camera), both of whom later became Society members.


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