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Inferno - Infidelity in the Mojave Desert

Thursday, 8 April 2021  |  Admin

Not for the first time the Hollywood movie making machine faced falling numbers at the box office in the early 1950s. The growth in movie-making during the 1920s had been threatened by the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the depression of the 1930s. Filmgoers stayed at home more, their entertainment coming increasing from the radio, or the speakeasies for those who could afford it.

The cost of equipping theatres for sound movies had posed a financial challenge and demanded more turnover at the box office. So the B-movie industry was born, producing second features to go with the main, A-movie. Quickly made films on fixed budgets became possible with the arrangement that studios would be paid a fixed rental for the showing rather than a share of the box-office receipts as paid for the main features. Unkindly earning the soubriquet "poverty row studios", the B-movie industry thrived for a few years in the 1930s, but tight budgets, and competition led to the impending bankruptcy of several. Consolidated Film Industries owned by Herbert J Yates was also threatened as they developed and printed film for many of these studios, Yates bought out several studios to protect his business. Thus was born Republic Pictures, which would continue to produce quality budget films until the 1950s, when the B-movie rode into the sunset. Republic and many other studios had provided training grounds for many to become great stars, and a training ground for directors and cameramen. Singing cowboys Roy Rogers and Gene Autry became top box-office stars thought the second half of the 1930s and 1940s, despite neither ever starring in a A-feature, and John Wayne made dozens of B-movies for Warner Brothers, Lone Star Pictures and Republic before rising to stardom in Stagecoach.

The war years saw the need for entertainment more than ever, but as the 1950s dawned, another danger appeared in the form of that box increasingly appearing in the corner of living rooms everywhere. Television was another major threat which had to be met by the movie industry.

Colour films, in the form of Technicolor and less costly formats, Trucolor and Cinecolor had made their mark, but the studios knew they had to continually differentiate themselves from the little square box.

In 1953, 20th Century-Fox president Spyros P. Skouras created CinemaScope, for shooting wide screen films, marking the beginning of the anamorphic format where special lenses squeezed the picture into a standard 35mm frame. Anamorphic lenses theoretically allowed the process to create an image of up to a 2.66:1 aspect ratio almost twice as wide as the previously common Academy format of  1.37:1.

That year shooting began on the first CinemaScope film, the biblical epic The Robe, absorbing almost all of Fox's resources. However, Darryl F. Zanuck had noticed the box-office success of 3D (or "3rd Dimension") films and decided on a late foray into 3D filmmaking, which had already begun production in several studios.

The subject chosen was a story called The Waterhole written by Francis Cockrell for a monthly magazine published by Blaustein and Bloom, and which director Roy (Ward) Baker had had his eye on for some time.

Baker had been interested in making a film in which "the leading character spends long periods alone on the screen, where the interest would be in what he does, rather than what he says" [1], thus harking back to the silent film. The story of the The Waterhole is of a man abandoned by his wife and her lover and left to die in the desert after breaking his leg in a accident.

In his autobiography, Roy Baker discusses the 3D process used and was clearly proud of the excellent equipment, despite the difficulties of using it in the Mojave Desert, the location chosen for filming. He writes:

"The indispensable element in stereoscopy is that there must be two separate images of the subject, photographed by two cameras spaced three to four inches apart, roughly as the human eyes are set. No difficulty so far. However, in presenting these two images to the viewer they must still be kept separate, so the left image is presented to the left eye and the right image to the right eye." ...

"Our method was quite simple: two cameras were bolted on to a large plate at right angles to each other and mounted on the usual dolly. A polar screen was placed in front of the lens of each camera and the two scenes were set in opposition to each other. A two-way mirror was set in front of both cameras at 45 degrees: the right camera shot straight through the mirror and the left camera received the mirror image, which was then flopped in the processing so as to present it the right way round. Some compensation was made in exposure for the slight loss of light. The cameras were interlocked and run in synch. Thus we had two matching films, left eye and right eye."

Screenings required two perfectly matched prints and two projectors running in synch with carefully balanced illumination, and polar screens over the lenses. For reel change-overs a second pair of projectors was also needed. An intermission card was normally included show to allow the change, where a second set of projectors was not available.

All these conditions and the requirement for the audience to wear spectacles with polar lenses, which were expensive and had the be hygienically cleaned before next use meant that films of "The 3rd Dimension" did not have a wide release and 3D filmmaking had ceased by early 1954.