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Possessed of what can most tactfully be called a bravura personality, Todd bullied and charmed his way across Europe. Ever the showman with an eye for the spectacular, he photographed the Edinburgh Military Tattoo, a Venice canal boat parade, a Spanish bullfight (but thankfully not the final coup de grâce) and the Act II finale of Aida at La Scala, the first time cameras had every been allowed inside the venerable opera house in Milan. A few phone calls in Vienna turned up enough of the famous Boy’s Choir to sing The Blue Danube Waltz for the huge camera.
The footage, sent to NY for processing and so unseen by the crew, created a sensation back at corporate headquarters. But the board of directors was not happy with Todd’s assumption that he knew best in all matters and it was becoming hard to attract more financing because, as Lowell Thomas candidly writes, “Wall Street hated Mike Todd.” So he was quietly bought out and left the company, happily taking his money and developing Todd-AO, the 30 fps 70mm system with the huge bug-eye lens, which was designed to be, as he had stipulated, “Cinerama out of one hole.” His first production? Oklahoma!

This left the board with just over an hour of great footage – but no movie. Cinerama needed another friend. Quickly.

Enter the Veteran
In a business known for its larger-than- life personalities, few stand taller than Merion C. Cooper. A life-long adventurer in the 19th century fashion, he resigned from the Naval Academy in his senior year, and shipped out as an able seaman intending to get to Britain and join the Air Corps during WWI. Passport problems sent him back to the States where he joined the Georgia National Guard and chased Pancho Villa across Mexico.

He finally got his chance to fly when the US entered the war, but in 1918 he was shot down behind enemy lines and spent the rest of the war in a prison camp, where his severe facial burns were excellently repaired by German plastic surgeons. The next year he joined the Polish Army to help them resist the Russian invasion, but was again shot down. He escaped his Soviet prison after 10 months, and 26 days later, with the aid of a professional smuggler, made it to the Latvian border.
After a short stint as a reporter for the NY Times, he and cameraman buddy Ernest Schoedsack hit upon an idea to combine their two loves – flying and exploration. They headed for the Persian Gulf and spent the next several months with one of the wandering tribes there as they sought pasture during the terrible equatorial summers of the Middle East. The result was Grass (1925), a landmark in documentary film. Two years later, they released Chang, shot in Siam, to even greater success.
Brought to RKO by David O. Selznick to help with production, Cooper saw some dimensional animation tests by effects man Willis O’Brien for the studio’s unmade Creation. Cooper had no interest in the project, but was very interested in O’Brien, whoes magic with animated model animals he saw as the answer to a major production problem on a giant ape picture he wanted to make.
Selznick left for MGM in 1933, and Cooper was appointed Head Of Production at RKO. His jungle adventure picture had taken a year to complete and cost an astronomical $650,000. But when released, King Kong was just as astronomical a success. It played continuously at Radio City Music Hall and the Roxy for over a year. Eventually, Kong would take its place as one of the greatest fantasy adventure films ever made – perhaps the greatest.
Cooper was instrumental in the early success of 3-strip Technicolor, and in 1941 re-enlisted in the Air Force where he was Chief of Staff for the famous “Flying Tigers” which flew against the Japanese – over the Himalayas. After the war, he returned to producing, and with his partner John Ford, made several pictures, including She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and The Quiet Man.
Without Mike Todd, Lowell Thomas knew Cinerama needed a new producer, and he called Cooper, who agreed to take over production, direct new material and personally edit it all into a releasable film. The board liked the idea of shooting in Cypress Gardens (where the Waller-invented water ski would be featured) but hated his plan for a 26-minute flight across the country. And, oh yes, would he please put the roller coaster at the end of the film?
But the board was no match for the man who had faced enemy fire, imprisonment and charging elephants. Cooper got his way, and the picture was finished – barely in time.
“Prior to the premier [of This Is Cinerama]…no one – including myself – had seen the whole thing put together. Some wheat field shots were barely out of the lab in time for opening night. I only made the final cut a couple of hours before the opening.”
The lights dimmed on the invitation-only black tie audience, and on the screen, the familiar face of Lowell Thomas droned on for 15 minutes about the history of photography – from a regular 1.33 frame, and in black in white. Patrons began to wonder if they’d been had. “Cinerama, so what’s the big deal?” Suddenly, the curtains parted – it seemed they would never stop – until a deeply curved screen nearly 40’ high and over 90’ wide was filled with the Rockaway roller coaster, introduced by Thomas’ simple, triumphant, “Ladies and gentlemen, THIS IS CINERAMA!” No wonder Fred Waller was smiling.
The next morning a rave review of the opening appeared on the front page of the NY Times, the only time any film has been so honored. Executive phones lit up . . . . CONTINUED

page 34 cinema technology - december 2002


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Copyright ©2002 Greg Kimble, HTML Transcription Copyright ©2003 The American WideScreen Museum