The boom years

The 1950's were crucial years for the exhibition industry. On the one hand they were a period of strong recovery after the restrictions and inconvenience of the war, but on the other they also saw the first signs of a crisis that was soon to overtake the sector. Meantime, however, the cinema enjoyed its moment of greatest splendour, thanks to the widespread distribution of theatres and the broad demographic range of the audiences that flocked to them; for many, cinemagoing was a ritual almost as customary as their daily bread. There was no lack of opportunities to see a film; never as in the fifties did the cinema enjoy such penetration of so wide a variety of venues: on board ship, in-flight, drive-ins, open-air screenings on summer nights. Audiences seemed to enjoy the whole entertainment of going to the movies as much as the show itself. Actually watching the film could be only a part of a kaleidoscope of forms of cinemagoing, and traditional cinemas were joined by popular neighbourhood theatres, the film clubs where generations of cinema lovers learned their metier (this was the age of the cinema forum), the cinemas of schools and churches, with moralizing or educational programmes. There was large-scale reorganization, refurbishment and new building of cinemas: the vast size of theatres of this golden period testifies to exhibitors' faith that it would last. From 1955 to 1958, admissions reached their all-time high in most European countries.
Technological improvement was also proceeding apace: colour films became the norm, mostly printed by the inbibition system of Technicolor positives but shot on Eastmancolor negatives, while for safety reasons and because of its greater durability cellulose acetate replaced the highly flammable nitrate for prints. Nor were these by any means the only novelties. In 1953 Fox perfected cinemascope, a system using anamorphic lenses to widen the horizontal dimension of the projection and offer the audience a more majestic and involving screen experience. The film that launched the new system was The Robe, which also featured four-track stereo sound. Another widescreen system had been introduced the previous year, cinerama, shot by three cameras set at different angles and then screened using three projectors, achieving an even wider field of vision. On the giant concave screen, cinerama produced an even more effective illusion of being actually involved in the action than cinemascope did. A massive publicity campaign accompanied the installation of the system by American technicians in Europe's major cities, where it aroused a great deal of interest; the screenings at Milan's Manzoni cinema continued for six months.
A flood of inventions marked this drive to overcome the limitations of the traditional screen - this was also the period of the brief flirtation with 3-D. Various systems of shooting and projection for the wide screen were patented, sometimes, as in the case of the Vitavision process, using unusual film sizes (65-70 mm) to achieve more precise imaging. In sound recording and animation, too, there was a string of new devices intended to enhance the entertainment value. With the benefit of hindsight, however, all this exuberant creativity appears only too clearly, rather like the last years of silent film, as an attempt to veil the symptoms of a profound disquiet within the whole industry. The advent of television did no more than reveal the transformation in the dreams, desires and modes of collective leisure.

Elena Mosconi