After World War II, which had helped reverse the Great Depression, Americans were ready to party! And move. Between 1947 and 1953, the U.S. suburban population increased by 43 percent; the overall population, only 11 percent.
Movie “palaces” were centered in cities. A new medium, television, allowed suburbanites to be entertained in their own living rooms. Free! (Except for the box.)
In 1950, only nine percent of American households had a (black-and-white) television set; by 1955, it was 64.5 percent. What happened to movie viewing? During the war, from 1940 to 1946, weekly attendance increased. But by 1956, attendance had dropped about 50 percent from the 1946 peak.
Another wrench in the works for Hollywood coffers: resolution of the Hollywood Antitrust Case of 1948 meant movie production companies had to sell their theaters (illegal vertical integration) effective 01 January 1950.
Movies had segued from silent to talkie between 1926 and 1930. In 1939, The Wizard of Oz symbolically represented the transition from black-and-white films to color. It was not the first Technicolor film, but it was the first with a massive audience.
Could technology help Hollywood compete with television?
In 1952, the B-movie Bwana Devil introduced audiences to 3D glasses. The tag line: “The Miracle of the Age!!! A LION in your lap! A LOVER in your arms!” The technology sparked a short-lived flirtation that was revived in 2009 with Avatar.
Also in 1952, the first Cinerama movie, This Is Cinerama, premiered in New York City. According to Britannica.com, Cinerama was a “prohibitive[ly]” expensive “novelty.” The technology was abandoned in the 1960s.*
Enter CinemaScope, a twist on movie making (and viewing) from Twentieth Century Fox, via an invention from French physicist Henri Chrétien (1879–1956). Would this be the ticket?
The Robe debuted at the Roxy in New York City on 16 September 1953.
It was the first widescreen movie filmed in CinemaScope (2.55:1 aspect ratio). Not all movie theaters had wide screens. For the broadest audience, that meant the movie also needed to filmed in “Academy ratio” (1.37:1, non-wide-screen). According to IMDB, “Each time a shot was completed for the scope version, the actors had to do another take for the ‘flat’ version.”
The New York Times reported (front page) that more than 12,000 people were on hand for the showing: 6,500 invited guests and 6,000 crowding sidewalks to get a glimpse of celebrities.
The paper described CinemaScope as “comparable to Cinerama.” It lauded the stereophonic sound.
The debut was a media event par excellence. Voice of America and the British Broadcasting System had radio broadcasts from the event. The same television networks “whose inroads on movie attendances Hollywood is trying to counteract” were also on hand to note the debut.
According to Variety (23 September 1953), Wall Street responded favorably (stock price increased), and critics were “generally favorable.”
The Robe was based on the 1942 book of the same name, which had spent almost a year as number one on the New York Times bestseller list. It told the story of a Roman military tribune and his effort to learn about the life of Jesus after his unit managed the crucifixion. The movie starred Richard Burton, Jean Simmons, Victor Mature and Michael Rennie.
About aspect ratios
*The Seattle Cinerama Theater opened in 1963; Microsoft executive Paul Allen bought and restored the theater. It closed in 2020, after Allen’s death in 2018. It had been one of three Cinerama theaters in the world.