Techniques & aesthetics in 3D films of 1950s and their impact on later productions
By David A. Cook

Although I have written about 3D films before in A History of Narrative Film (HNF, W. W. Norton, 1981; 1990; 1996; 2004; 2016) – both polarized and digital – in Chapters 12 and 21 respectively, I wanted to understand stereoscopy in moving images better and thought an historical survey of the various processes used to achieve it, plus chapters on aesthetics and VR, might be useful to myself and others.  That’s why I began to write HNF more than 40 years ago and have continued to revise and enhance it ever since.  I expected to learn a lot that was new to me, especially in the realms of optics and physics (which I did with some difficulty, because I am less scientifically inclined than I’d like to be), and on formats like IMAX and streaming theatrical Digital Cinema, which I knew only superficially.  

The real surprise to me, however, was the so-called “golden age” 3D cinema of the early 1950s, most of which can only now be seen on Blu-ray restorations on disc, and only on 3D Blu-ray players combined with 3D-capable HD television monitors, that last of which were manufactured for less than seven years between 2011 to 2016.  (It is still possible find new 3D Blu-ray disc players and projectors.) I had seen sloppy single-strip duo-color 35mm restorations of House of Wax in 1971 and Dial M for Murder in 1983 and watched the wretched 3D video version of Gorilla at Large on my home TV in 1982, but the only “golden age” 3D movie that I had actually seen in a theater at the time of its release was Kiss Me Kate (1953), which I barely remembered except for getting a headache from what must have been careless projection or poorly polarized glasses.  (The 2015 Warner Bros. restoration Blu-ray did not cause any such problems, nor did other recent digital restorations, most of which are the combined efforts of Kino Lorber or Flicker Allley and Bob Furmanek’s 3-D Film Archive, www.3dfilmarchive.com, the leading online resource for 3D, widescreen, and stereophonic film history.)

The impression that 1950s 3D movies had little value beyond their exploitation of emergence effects, or negative parallax, is patently untrue. Most were carefully made in terms of their (mainly) color cinematography, layered art direction, and use of stereophonic sound, and many of them measure up to the best contemporary critical standards. The value of such high-end productions as Kiss Me Kate and Dial M for Murder is obvious, but many lower-budget genre films also have stood the test of time. The Maze, for example, is a model of gothic horror, and Inferno is a film noir whose color palette can fairly be compared to that Leave Her to Heaven (John M. Stahl, 1945); Those Redheads from Seattle is a refreshing  blend of musical and frontier western, and Miss Sadie Thompson is a musical comedy that bears close resemblance to South Pacific (Joshua Logan, 1958), in kind if not in budget; Wings of the Hawk, Gun Fury, and Hondo are important, if not great, Westerns; The Mad Magician is a comedy-horror film that easily rivals its predecessor House of Wax and provided inspiration for many Roger Corman genre-benders; Creature from the Black Lagoon ventured classically luminous underwater photography and created an enduringly sympathetic monster; while It Came from Outer Space is one of the very best of 1950s science fiction films, exceeded only perhaps by Them!, which was slated for 3D production but shot flat in 1954 because the boom was clearly over.

Another thing that’s impossible not to notice about golden age 3D films is the way in which their makers angled around the Production Code in terms of the representation of women’s bodies.  From 1952 through 1954, this was not a subtle phenomenon in terms of marketing (Bwana Devil:  “A Lion in Your Lap, A Lover in Your Arms!; The French Line:  “See “See J.R. [Jane Russell] in 3D–it’ll knock both your eyes out!”)  Thanks to the phenomenon of negative parallax (the emergence effect), a medium close shot of a women in a tight costume from any perspective looked a lot different in three dimensions than in two.  And this erotic promise found its fulfilment in late 1960s/1970s stereoscopic soft- and hard-core pornography.

In fact, stereoscopy, going back to its 19th photographic incarnations, has consistently fetishized women’s bodies. During the 1950s boom, it is hard to find a movie in any genre that does not feature objectified, if costumed (sometimes discreetly, sometimes not so much), feminine breasts, buttocks, – and – because of the rigors of the PCA – legs in chorus lines or similarly revealing presentations. And as the film industry moved toward the end of the Code, there was a prevalence of “crotch shots” in bathing suits (September Storm) and peek-a-boo dance-hall girl costuming (The Bubble), so it was almost inevitable that when the Code was replaced by the Ratings System in 1968, the potential for 3D to create male-oriented pornography – both heterosexual and gay – would be at least partially fulfilled. One could argue that three-dimensional representation has always had a dark, pornographic underside, and that would be true. But, then, so too have all forms of representation since classical antiquity (when, sometimes, as in Roman phallic statuary, it wasn’t dark at all but simply normative).  The fact that 3D cinema was sustained through the 1970s and 1980s mainly by sexual exploitation shouldn’t dissuade us from its importance. If it weren’t for The Stewardesses in 1969, we probably would not have Avatar in 2009 (maybe not such a bad thing) but then neither would we have Hugo (2011), Pina (2011), The Hobbit trilogy (2012-14) or They Shall Not Grow Old (2018), which would create a terrible void in film history. In criticism of the arts, moral judgement is not simply bad practice—it is fatal.