THE FIRST YEAR OF STEREOPHONIC MOTION PICTURES
by Bob Furmanek
Unless you were an audiophile with deep pockets in the 1950's, you would have heard true high fidelity stereophonic sound for the first time in a movie theatre.
However, twelve years before stereophonic sound first appeared in the home, moviegoers got a taste of audio excellence from the creative genius of Walt Disney.
Premiering on November 13, 1940, FANTASIA was the first feature film to receive distribution in multi-channel optical sound. This landmark production had eleven Roadshow engagements in Fantasound.
In August 1948, Warner Bros. was the first studio to test a 35mm magnetic recorder during production of THE FOUNTAINHEAD. Seven months later, MGM was the first to record a complete production in magnetic sound with INTRUDER IN THE DUST.
Variety reported on May 18, 1950 - NEW RECORDING METHOD USED BY ALL STUDIOS: "Studios and producers are saving thousands of dollars annually through adoption of magnetic film recording in various steps required in dubbing, re-recording, scoring, etc, between original production shots and the final release negative."
November 1, 1950: "Switch over in the studios from the old method of recording on film emulsions to the use of magnetic tape began about 18 months ago. Today, both Paramount and WB are utilizing the magnetic system almost exclusively, and 20th-Fox, RKO, Metro, Republic and Universal are currently in the process of converting."
In May 1951, the Festival of Britain's Telecinema opened with a trio of polarized 3-D shorts presented in four channel magnetic stereophonic sound. With three speakers behind the screen and multiple speakers mounted in the ceiling and rear of the auditorium and balcony, the audio followed the action. As objects floated off the screen, the sound wrapped around the audience. The films were immensely popular and attendance totaled 488,000 in 22 weeks.
At the New York Audio Fair in November 1951, Magnecord demonstrated their dual-channel tape recorder publicly for the first time. Audio Engineering wrote, "The Magnecord demonstration walked away with top honors as the Fair's most popular commercial exhibit." They concluded, "Make no mistake, binaural is one of the year's innovations."
Interest in high fidelity was rapidly increasing and the word audiophile entered the vernacular. Radio stations began binaural broadcasting using AM and FM frequencies in May 1952. Emory Cook demonstrated his two channel binaural recordings at the New York Audio Fair in November 1952 and Atlantic Records issued "the first commercial binaural disc recording" at that event. The record sold for $5.95 and adjusted for inflation, that's $52.32 in 2015. High fidelity was certainly not a poor man's hobby!
The premiere of THIS IS CINERAMA in the fall of 1952 ushered in a new era of motion picture audio fidelity and multi-channel sound. The following 31 feature films were released in 35mm magnetic stereophonic sound from
September 30, 1952 to October 1, 1953.
THE ROBE was four channel stereophonic and shown on a single-strip composite picture/track 35mm print using the new Simplex X-L magnetic reproducer. The remaining features were exhibited with 35mm full-width coated magnetic tracks that were interlocked with the picture utilizing selsyn motors. If the audio reproducer lost synchronization, the prints carried a mono optical track as an emergency backup. The only feature that did not have a mono back-up was THIS IS CINERAMA. In the case of sync issues, the show was stopped and a nine minute breakdown reel was shown with Lowell Thomas explaining the technical problems.
The three channel titles released in 1953 utilized left/center/right speakers behind the screen.
The 3-D Warnerphonic films used a four channel mag/optical system with the left/center/right channels on magnetic and the fourth channel on the right print optical track. More details are in the House of Wax article.
If the theatre selected for an opening had not yet installed the necessary multi-track equipment, the films were presented in standard mono optical.
Most of these films were in production long before the spring 1953 transition to widescreen cinematography and stereophonic recording. In most cases, the on-set recording was in mono. The five titles actually composed for widescreen - and recorded in stereo on set with multiple microphones - are highlighted in green.
I have also listed the intended aspect ratio during principal photography followed by the new recommended ratio.
September 30, 1952 New York premiere - THIS IS CINERAMA (2.59) - six channel
April 10, 1953 New York premiere - HOUSE OF WAX (1.37, 1.50) - four channel Warnerphonic
May 19 New York premiere - THUNDER BAY (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
May 22 London premiere in stereo, New York premiere in mono - YOUNG BESS (1.37, 1.75) - three channel
May 26 Los Angeles premiere - IT CAME FROM OUTER SPACE (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
May 27 Chicago stereo (April 23 New York premiere in mono) - SHANE (1.37, 1.66) - three channel
May 29 New York stereo (May 8 Ticonderoga NY premiere in mono) - FORT TI (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
On June 1, just two days after opening, stereo sound was dropped from the Los Angeles premiere of FORT TI. Union demands for an extra operator in the booth in order to thread the magnetic dubber caused problems for exhibitors throughout the country. This led to increased resistance to the interlock magnetic system.
June 4 New York premiere - JULIUS CAESAR (1.37, 1.75) - three channel
June 5 Oakland stereo (May 27 openings in mono) - SCARED STIFF (1.37, 1.66) - three channel
June 19 New York premiere - THE 5000 FINGERS OF DR. T (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
June 23 San Francisco opening - THE MAZE (1.37, widescreen ratio unknown) - three channel
June 24 New York premiere - MELBA (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
June 24 Los Angeles opening in mono - LET'S DO IT AGAIN (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
June 26 Chicago premiere - THE GREAT SIOUX UPRISING (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
June 30 Vernon, TX premiere - THE CHARGE AT FEATHER RIVER (1.37, 1.66) - four channel Warnerphonic
July 15 New York premiere - SECOND CHANCE (1.37, 1.66) - three channelJuly 18 Chicago premiere in mono - INFERNO (1.37, widescreen ratio unknown) - three channel
July 24 Chicago premiere - I, THE JURY (1.37, widescreen ratio unknown) - three channel
July 29 New York premiere - THE STRANGER WORE A GUN (1.85, 1.85) - three channel
July 29 Atlantic City opening - THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1.37, 1.66) - three channel
August 5 New York premiere - FROM HERE TO ETERNITY (1.37, 1.85) - three channel
August 17 Columbus, OH premiere in mono - THE CADDY (1.37, 1.66) - three channel
August 19 Arizona premiere - DEVIL'S CANYON (1.37, 1.66) - three channel
September 3 Hollywood premiere - ISLAND IN THE SKY (1.37, 1.66) - four channel Warnerphonic
September 11 Los Angeles opening in mono - EAST OF SUMATRA (1.37, 1.85) - No confirmed stereo bookings.
September 16 New York premiere - THE ROBE (2.66, 2.55) - four channel
September 21 El Paso premiere in mono - TAKE THE HIGH GROUND (1.37, 1.75) - three channel
September 23 San Francisco premiere - MOGAMBO (1.37, 1.66) - three channel
By January 1954, Altec had installed 750 stereophonic interlock systems throughout the country. When you add RCA, Motiograph and other equipment suppliers to the total, that's well over a thousand installations for 1953.
Fox had demanded that exhibitors install stereo sound if they were to play their Cinemascope product. This led to a huge battle which is detailed in Jack Theakston's 2007 article, Stereophonic Sound or Bust.
Full-coat magnetic tracks were eventually abandoned in 1954 for the system used on THE ROBE. The first composite release with both magnetic stereo and a mono optical track on one print was KISMET in December 1955. Magoptical prints were put into wide release in February 1957 with THE TRUE STORY OF JESSE JAMES.
During this period, high fidelity sound became more prevalent in the home. RCA Victor was the first major label to release a binaural tape with "Also Sprach Zarathustra" in September 1954. Over the next several years, stereo reel to reel tapes in all genres were released by nearly every label and were very popular among audiophiles.
After the development of the Westrex 45/45 cutter in September 1957, Audio Fidelity released the first four stereo albums in March 1958 and shipped 10,000 copies of these Stereodisc records:
AFSD 1830: Johnny Puleo and his Harmonica Gang volume 1
AFSD 1835: Bullring! La Fiesta Brava volume 4
AFSD 1843: Railroad - The Sounds of a Vanishing Era
AFSD 1851: Marching Along with the Dukes of Dixieland volume 3
Unfortunately, the full-coat stereophonic tracks were considered useless to the studios after the original theatrical release and many were lost, destroyed or erased. MGM was the most proactive in saving their early stereo tracks. At the other studios, those that managed to survive the various vault purges over subsequent decades eventually deteriorated with vinegar syndrome.