The year was 1952. The major movie studios were in a panic because they were losing audiences in droves thanks to the invention of home television. Movie ticket sales reportedly took a very steep drop from 90 million in 1948, to 46 million in 1951. Something drastic had to be done. Something spectacular, something bigger than life to bring people back to the theaters.
Sound familiar? When Dreamworks' Jeffrey Katzenberg was going around Hollywood telling anyone who’d listen that 3D would be the salvation of the movie industry, you couldn’t help but get déjà vu back to the first time 3D movies came on the scene in the early fifties. And the big breakthrough for 3D movies came in with Bwana Devil, which was the first major 3D feature in color.
Bwana Devil was the brainchild of Arch Obeler, a producer/director who created the famous radio show Lights Out. Lights Out told spooky horror stories, which were brought to life with foreboding narration and graphic sound effects. It was the key inspiration for the Tales From the Crypt comics, which wanted to add grisly visuals to what you couldn’t see on radio.
Obeler also directed Five, which was one of the first sci-fi movies that dealt with the horrors of nuclear war, as well as The Twonky, a comedy about a man’s television set being taken over by aliens, who try to take over the world through the tube. As Michael Weldon wrote in The Psychotronic Encyclopedia, The Twonky was “a wonderful anti-television comedy nightmare” that “makes a more startling statement than network.”
In trying to bring people back to the movies, 3D was certainly a much cheaper option than the other cinematic technology of the time, Cinerama, which could cost a theater $70,000 to install an ultra-wide screen. Still, shooting a major feature in 3D, as you could guess, was a cumbersome process.
Bwana Devil used the two-camera system, which was then dubbed “Natural Vision,” and the rig was so big and unwieldy the crew nicknamed it “the barndoor.” The cameras were two mounted 35mm Mitchells, covered with a big blimp, and most of the shots were done in a camera car nicknamed “the Blue Goose,” which had a forklift, as well as a hydraulic platform.
Bwana Devil was based on a real historical event, where wild tigers were attacking and killing workers on the Uganda Railway in 1898. (This story was redone in 1997 as The Ghost and the Darkness, starring Michael Douglas and Val Kilmer.)
Yet Bwana Devil was certainly not a big budget affair. The hills of Malibu had to substitute for the wilds of Africa, and according to Ray Zone’s book, 3D Revolution, once production started, the crew quickly learned that Obeler had only $10,000, which was enough to cover a day or two of shooting. (Robert Stack, who starred in Devil, put up some money to help keep things going.)
Bwana Devil was screened in theaters using a two-projector system, and both prints had to be in perfect condition, or it would screw up the film’s look and continuity. Its 3D effect was done with the the anaglyph process, with the iconic red and blue glasses created by Polaroid. Glasses cost 6.7 cents to make, and were sold to distributors for 10 cents a piece. (After Bwana Devil was a hit, Polaroid’s stock went up 30%.)
As far as editing 3D, the process wasn’t that much different than editing a regular film, especially since the movie was shot with the two-camera system. You had one strip of film the editor would cut that represented the right eye, then when you projected the movie, you would match up your left eye with the second projector. Eventually the “over under” 3D system was created, in which the image was split into two sections on the celluloid strip, one on the top, the other on the bottom. These days it’s much harder to edit a 3D movie because a lot of them are converted from 2D, which makes the post-production process longer and constlier.
Back in the 50s, 3D movies also had to have intermissions because there were two projectors running the movie in sync, which left projectionists without a second projector to change reels. On a 3D film, the reels ran an hour each, and 3D movies were usually pretty short for this reason. Bwana Devil and Creature From the Black Lagoon are both just 79 minutes long.
Bwana Devil promised a direct challenge to the new innovation that was keeping people at home: “Newer than television!”
With typical huckster zeal of the times, the ads for Bwana Devil promised: “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” It also promised a direct challenge to the new innovation that was keeping people at home: “Newer than television!”
Bwana Devil premiered on November 27, 1952 at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood, and it was a smash hit. It made over $95,000 its first week in just two L.A. theaters when the average movie ticket price was about 54 cents. Reviewers panned the film, but with 3D it was critic proof, and a new cinematic technology was launched.
The front page of Variety hailed 3D as “the next big thing” and 3D was also the subject of a major spread in Life magazine, which featured a famous black and white photo of a packed theater audience, all wearing 3D glasses. Soon every studio reportedly had a 3D movie in development. Much like the recent Katzenberg crusade, once Bwana Devil was a hit, Harry Cohn, the head of Columbia, impulsively announced that all of the studio’s upcoming movies would be in 3D.
Yet even a huckster like Obeler warned that 3D would quickly burn out if the movies were only about throwing things out into the audience. “If audiences begin to look upon three dimensional pictures simply as a circus, the law of diminishing returns can quickly catch up with the entire advance,” he said. “There is a great danger in overdoing the spectacular.”
Martin Scorsese declared House of Wax the best 3D movie ever made, and he loved the irony that its director, Andre de Toth, only had one eye.
After Bwana Devil, 3D movies got much better. There was Creature From the Black Lagoon, It Came From Outer Space (which was written by Ray Bradbury), and House of Wax (starring Vincent Price). As John Carpenter recalled in his biography, Prince of Darkness, he saw It Came From Outer Space when he was five years old. When a meteor flew right off the screen and blew up in his face, he knew he wanted to be a director when he grew up. In Film Comment, Martin Scorsese declared House of Wax the best 3D movie ever made, and he loved the irony that its director, Andre de Toth, only had one eye.
As Obeler predicted, the 3D trend fizzled out quickly, and its subsequent comebacks throughout the decades were short-lived as well. In 1966, Obeler made one more 3D film, The Bubble, a sci-fi story about several people trapped in a weird domed world. (Again, sound familiar?)
As the New York Times points out, it’s hard to see movies from 3D’s golden age these days, although the 3D version of Creature From the Black Lagoon finally came out on DVD and Blu-Ray last year, along with Hitchcock’s Dial M For Murder. Bwana Devil is still not officially available for home viewing in either 3D or 2D, but as a cinematic curio it should definitely be reissued. It could make a fascinating history lesson to look back at where 3D features began, and how far they’ve come since then.