What Was the First 3D Movie?

I was watching that horrendous Jaws 3 movie and I asked myself why I put myself through this. At one point, the direction was really bad and I realized it was because the movie was supposed to be in 3D. That led me to think about the old 3D movies I already watched. The oldest is probably Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder from 1954. That’s a great movie. But…

When Did the First 3D Movie Was Produced?

We will never have the chance to see the first 3D movie ever made again. It was lost, like so many movies from that period. I’m talking about the silent era, a time of experimentation in the field of visual art that was not treated with a lot of reverence. It was the wild west. Anyway, we already talked about the invention of cinema in another article.

The first 3D movie in the world was The Power of Love, a movie produced by Harry K. Fairall that premiered at the Ambassador Hotel Theater in Los Angeles in 1922.

Harry K. Fairall worked with the assistance of the cinematographer Robert F. Elder to invent the camera equipment used to make that 3D movie. We are talking here about “dual-strip projection” in the red/green anaglyph format. You needed a special pair of spectacles to watch it, of course.

Still from the movie The Power of Love (1922) published in Exhibitor’s Herald

That’s mostly it for the technical part. The Power of Love was presented in Los Angeles, then New York, and disappeared. Apparently, the story was pretty typical, you know, a “love conquers all” kind of scenario against a vile capitalist antagonist. Here is the plot summary found on IMDb.com:

Because of financial reverses Don Almeda offers his daughter, Maria, to Don Alvarez, though she does not love him. Terry O’Neal arrives at the Southern California settlement in which the Almedas live, and is slightly wounded when Alvarez’s henchmen seek to rob him. He is found by Maria, to whom he loses his heart. Just before the wedding, O’Neal waylays Alvarez … and takes his place at a fiesta. Alvarez appears and denounces him. Later, Alvarez … slays the padre with O’Neal’s knife. Denouncing O’Neal as the murderer, Alvarez tries to shoot him, but wounds Maria, who throws herself in front of him. Later, she succeeds in proving that Alvarez is the thief and murderer, and everything ends happily for Maria and O’Neal.

The movie was directed by Fairall and Nat G. Deverich and stars Barbara Bedford (Maria Almeda), Elliot Sparling (Terry O’Neal), Albert Prisco (Don Alvarez),  Noah Beery Sr. (Don Almeida), and Aileen Manning (Ysabel Almeda).

Later, The Power of Love made a comeback in 2D under the title Forbidden Lover (also lost, it seems).

1922 was a booming year for 3D as others like Laurens Hammond and William Cassidy presented a series of shorts plus one feature, The Man From M.A.R.S., a science-fiction movie. They used two projectors synchronized with stereo headsets, but only one cinema was equipped to project it. A few months later, Frederic Eugene Ives and Jacob Leventhal began releasing their first stereoscopic shorts made over a three-year period.

The Origin of the 3D Movies

These were certainly innovative technic, but 3D projection was invented a lot earlier. In fact, The Power of Love was the first 3D movie that was projected to a public audience, not the first 3D film.

English inventor and professional photographer William Friese-Greene developed in 1890 a camera with the help of Frederick Varley to shoot stereoscopic moving images. He even patented his process. The idea was to have two films projected side by side on the screen. Apparently, it worked, but the system was not usable in the theater. Also, his experimentations in this field led him to be declared bankrupt.

In 1903, U.S. inventor Frederic Eugene Ives patented the parallax stereogram, his own stereo camera rig. It was presented as the first “no glasses” autostereoscopic 3-D display technology. His camera had two lenses coupled together a bit more than one inch apart. The concept was similar to the 3D postcards we know now.

The 3D movies really started to take off in the 1950s, but one attempt, in 1935, was successful. It was the American short documentary film directed by Jacob F. Leventhal and John A. Norling that won the Best Short Subject (Novelty) Academy Award.

House of Wax movie poster from 1982

So, in the 1950s, as television menaced the domination of cinema, the studios experimented. House of Wax directed by Andre DeToth (a remake of Warner Bros.’ Mystery of the Wax Museum from 1933) with the great Vincent Price became the first color 3D feature film from a major American studio—two days before, Columbia Pictures released Man in the Dark, a film noir directed by Lew Landers, the first major-studio black-and-white 3D feature. It started a craze that lasted two good years.

After that, 3D movies came back on occasion. A bit during the 1970s, but mostly during the 1980s as 3D became a gimmick used to revitalize horror franchises. Of course, nothing compares to the post-Avatar era that lasted a few years.

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