Hollywood had a lot of trouble in the early 1950s. In addition to the repercussions from Joe McCarthy's anti-communist blacklisting of actors, writers and directors, the movie industry had to contend with the growing popularity of television.
Ticket sales were miserable and studio executives eagerly searched for a gimmick to get people to return to theaters. The gimmick that emerged was the three-dimensional movie.
On November 26, 1952, a low budget independent feature film called Bwana Devil opened to sold-out crowds with lines of people waiting to get in spanning several blocks.
The film, about an attack on railroad crews by man-eating lions, proved so successful that United Artists purchased the rights for the film and released it nationally. However, it was not actually the first 3D movie.
In September, 1922, the movie Power of Love was released. This film featured the "anaglyph process" which involved simultaneously shooting two views of a scene and then printing the film in two different colors and combining them with layered film on one reel.
The moviegoer viewed the film wearing a special pair of glasses with one red lens and one green lens. The red lens would draw the viewers attention to the green view of the scene and the green lens would draw the other eye towards the red view of the scene. This would cause an "overlap" which made certain objects appear closer than they were and others seem to move out of the screen towards the viewer.
Unfortunately, the anaglyphic process could not accomodate full color movies and often caused viewers to suffer from headaches.
This led to the development of the Polaroid 3D system which used two lenses filming lightwaves passing in perpendicular planes to each other. It was this process that was used in Bwana Devil.
A year later, the movie House of Wax was released starring Vincent Price and Charles Bronson. Considered the finest 3D movie ever made, it caused a 3D craze throughout Hollywood, with most major studios rushing to show their attempt at the novelty including Creature from the Black Lagoon, The Nebraskan and Kiss Me Kate.
Unfortunately, even the prospect of Jane Mansfield's ample chest being thrust out towards the audience was not enough to continue the craze.
Still mired by a propensity to cause headaches, 3D movies fell out of favor so much that two-dimensional versions often significantly outearned the 3D version. The public rebuke was such that Alfred Hitchcock's Dial M for Murder, originally filmed in 3D, was released only in 2D.
Since its initial craze in the 1950s, 3D movies have been produced very sporadically with moderate levels of success. The most successful of these was The Stewardesses, a soft-core porn movie released in 1969. It became the highest earning 3D film ever.
In recent years TV makers have been experimenting with bringing the three-dimensional experience into the home. This week Panasonic will be showing "3D HD" at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. (info & photo from Bad Fads Museum)