The CinemaScope Revolution
Hollywood's largest studio, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, proudly boasted that it had had more stars under contract "than there are stars in heaven". By 1946, however, MGM's golden age was over. Leo the Lion was no longer the industry leader. The new boxoffice champion for 1946 with record profits of $22.6 million was 20th Century-Fox. Production boss Darryl F. Zanuck continued to out-fox his competitors throughout the rest of the decade. Due to the postwar attendance slump induced by television, however, profits actually began to rapidly decline, reaching a low of $4.3 million in 1951. Although Fox had bettered all other studios in the fight against TV, it was obvious that the one-eyed monster was gaining ground. All Hollywood was in panic. What to do? Bigger films, better films had been tried, and with success, but the overall attendance graph was still sliding inexorably down.
One man saved the day. His name was Professor Henri Chretien. For years he'd been hawking a widescreen system around the major studios. None were interested because widescreen had been tried before and failed way back in 1930. There were two problems: (a) its cost; and (b) public indifference. The advantage of Chretien's system, however, was that it minimized cost by using standard 35mm film. No money was required to purchase new cameras and even more importantly new projectors. All that the equipment needed was a simple prismatic lens to compress the image while it was being photographed and to uncompress it when projected. As for the public's conception of widescreen, surely now was the time to highlight the difference between the extremely limited dimensions of the boob-tube and the vast panoramas now open at the local cinema.
In 1952 a couple of straws in the wind indicated that public attitudes were indeed changing. The first was This Is Cinerama, a sensational success which offered little more than an extra-big widescreen novelty. The second of course was the 3-D Bwana Devil which despite extremely hostile reviews returned a dividend of over fifteen hundred per cent to its lucky investors. Oddly enough though it was not the astute Darryl F. Zanuck but his arch executive rival at 20th Century-Fox, Spyros Skouras, "a complete ignoramus about all things technical", who signed the studio up for CinemaScope.
It all came about through Earl Sponable, the head of Fox's research and engineering division which was based in New York. Since 1948, Sponable had been experimenting with widescreen effects. The normal screen size at that time had a width 1.33 times as large as its height. Sponable set out to achieve a ratio of 1.85 to 1 with minimal costs. He had achieved only limited success in 1951 when he heard about Chretien's anamorphic lens. He was sufficiently impressed by Chretien's demonstration to purchase an option. At this crucial moment in the studio's history, Sponable's immediate boss Skouras was in Greece, whilst Zanuck was similarly uncontactable in Paris. So it was left to Raymond Klune, who was looking after the Hollywood end while Zanuck was away, to authorize Sponable to pay Chretien $2 million for his invention. (Chretien, a professor at France's Optical Institute, had developed his lens way back in the 1920s).
Joined by experts from Bausch & Lomb, Sponable and his technicians began to refine the lenses and prepare a demonstration reel. Although there were mixed reactions to this test reel ranging from the wildly enthusiastic to the indifferent, Klune sent Zanuck an urgent message to come home.
When Zanuck saw the tests, he was bowled over. CinemaScope was the right answer to all the motion picture industry's problems. Not just Fox's doldrums either. Zanuck saw Fox as the leader of the industry being now in a lifesaving position to license the CinemaScope revival to other studios. Fox was now in the royalties business. With one hand, Fox offered its rivals financial salvation and a share of the CinemaScope revolution. With the other hand, Fox collected a fee for the use of its process, the proper dues of all servitors to their lord. Fox was king of the Hollywood manor.
Only two of the other major Hollywood studios, Paramount and RKO, did not see things Zanuck's way, but decided to go it alone on their own widescreen systems, Paramount’s VistaVision and RKO's SuperScope. Achieved by the simple process of running 35mm film horizontally through the camera, VistaVision provided the ideal aspect ration of 1.85 to 1.
The first round in the battle between CinemaScope and VistaVision ended in a draw. Fox achieved mighty boxoffice successes with "The Robe" and "How To Marry a Millionaire" and had an eager Hollywood customer in M-G-M who rushed "Knights of the Round Table" into production. Paramount, however, convinced Britain’s mighty magnate, J. Arthur Rank, that VistaVision produced the ideal ratio with miminal costs. Rank converted all his thousands of cinemas to accomodate VistaVision.
Despite the British setback, Fox was well on the way to winning Round Two by signing up all the Hollywood majors except RKO and, of course, Paramount. And in the U.S.A., Canada, and Australia, as far as movie-goers were concerned, Fox did indeed win the battle.