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​New Blu-rays complete collection of Cinerama classics

Cinema | December 18th, 2014

“Seven Wonders of the World” and “Search for Paradise,” the remaining two of the five 1950s travelogues filmed in the revolutionary Cinerama process have recently been restored and released on Blu-ray last month from Flicker Alley. Of course, viewing the two films at home, even on a large HDTV, can never quite compare to seeing them in a genuine Cinerama theatre, but projecting the “Smilebox” Blu-ray onto a large home screen with a good surround sound system gives an amazingly good approximation.

Cinerama’s synchronized projection of three strips of film side-by-side onto a curved widescreen with a fourth reel playing a seven-track stereo soundtrack was an innovation that blew away audiences used to the nearly square picture with monaural sound, often on a substantially smaller screen and in black-and-white. The overwhelming success of the first Cinerama film in late 1952 immediately caused Hollywood to develop a variety of other (cheaper and easier) widescreen and stereophonic sound formats, in an attempt to counteract the rapidly growing competition from television with an experience people could not reproduce at home.

“Seven Wonders of the World” (1956), as with all the Cinerama documentaries, is really an excuse to record exotic locations around the world that most audience members could only dream of visiting, using the most impressive visual and audio technology available at that time. Running just over two hours including the overture, intermission music, and exit music/restoration credits, the film begins with a shot of the closed drape in a Cinerama theatre. As the overture ends, the house lights dim and the curtain opens part-way for the prologue, in which producer/narrator Lowell Thomas discusses the premise of the film, the seven wonders of the ancient world, in mono sound on a standard-sized 1.33:1 screen. When he gets to the sole surviving ancient wonder, the pyramids at Giza, the curtains open to full width as the camera flies over the pyramids and the music score swells up in full stereophonic surround sound.

Then the film visits various candidates for the seven wonders of the modern world, man-made and natural, starting at New York City and moving on to South America, Japan, Cambodia, India and the Holy Land, then to Africa, Arabia, Istanbul, Greece, Rome (including the Pope at the Vatican) and finally back to the United States where scenes are accompanied by stirring patriotic tunes sung by the Apollo Club of Minneapolis. Overall, “Seven Wonders of the World” is a vivid and sometimes poignantly moving time capsule of the world in the mid-20th century, and its diverse sights and cultures are viewed from a hopeful, admiring and distinctly American perspective of its era. In some ways, “Seven Wonders” is comparable to the later large-format film travel documentaries “Baraka” (1992) and “Samsara” (2011).

Picture quality is very good. It has been amazingly restored mostly from the original (faded and often damaged) camera negative and, for missing portions, from a faded archival print. The original seven-track stereo sound has been nicely remixed into the modern standard 5.1 track in the compressed Dolby Digital format. Besides a mini-reproduction of the original souvenir program booklet, there is a great selection of bonus features on the disc, the best of which is an hour-long documentary (in HD) about the soundtrack music composers for all the Cinerama productions and the pioneering use of stereo recordings.

SEVEN WONDERS OF THE WORLD on Blu-ray – Movie: A- / Video: A- / Audio: A- / Extras: A-

“Search for Paradise” (1957) was originally conceived to record the elaborate festival for the coronation of the new king of Nepal. Lowell Thomas believed it might be the last such event ever staged, as the world was becoming ever-more modernized, both technologically and politically. However, he expanded the concept to cover India, Ceylon, Kashmir and Pakistan, centering mainly on the Himalayan mountains. The primary theme was about people searching for their own Shangri-La, the mythical kingdom of happiness and contentment made famous by the novel and film “Lost Horizon.”

Although there was no formal script, as a unifying element Thomas cast two actors as a philosophical Air Force officer and a laid-back sergeant on leave to see the world before deciding whether or not to reenlist. The durbar festival is covered largely as a newsreel story. The rest of the film is more a blend of National Geographic-style documentary and glorified home movies, with narration written after it was shot to tie things together. As a salute to the Air Force participation, the film ends with spectacular shots of American airpower and the effects of a sonic boom shockwave.

Picture quality again is very good, thanks to extensive digital restoration from the incomplete and damaged original negative. Audio is very clear with an impressive Dolby Digital 5.1 remix of the original seven-channel stereo spotlighting Dmitri Tiomkin’s score. Once again there is a wonderful selection of bonus features, including the half-hour short “In the Picture,” a brand-new three-panel Cinerama film made in 2012 for the 60th anniversary of the process, using a refurbished camera that had not been used in 50 years. Also included is a great making-of documentary about the short.

SEARCH FOR PARADISE on Blu-ray – Movie: B / Video: A- / Audio: A / Extras: A

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