Day 824: Lights… Camera… Stink!

originally published April 3, 2014

Imagine if you will the scent of Scent Of A Woman. The stink of Mel Brooks’ Life Stinks. The sweet smell of The Sweet Smell of Success. With so many leaps in the technologies of CGI to improve a film’s look and the constant reinvention of pristine Dolby sound, it feels as though our other senses are being neglected. Movie theatres are offering pre-assigned seating, full bar service and popping Sam Worthington’s face off the screen in terrifying 3D, but why the hell can’t I smell his sweat?

A couple days ago I wrote about an April Fools’ prank in which the BBC convinced viewers they’d be introducing new technology that would allow their TV audience to experience the smells of their favorite programs without having to purchase any additional equipment. The mental image of millions of curious viewers pressing their shnozzes up against their TV tubes still tickles my giggle-muscle.

But I was inadvertently gobsmacked by the extensive available information on legitimate attempts to incorporate the olfactory into the public cinematic experience. Perhaps it’s time for Smell-O-Vision to make a resurgence. They’re trying to lure us away from our torrents and our Video-on-Demand by encouraging us to sit among the chatty teens and cell-phone-happy nudniks for $15 a pop in the theater; why not give us the visceral experience of finding out what Kevin James really smells like?

As I learned a few days ago, Samuel Roxy Rothafel, the brains behind Radio City Music Hall, first tried to engage the sense of smell in his Forest City, Pennsylvania theater in 1906. The story goes that he had a pile of cotton wool that had been soaked in rose oil placed in front of an electric fan, titillating the nostrils of his patrons while they watched the Tournament of Roses Parade. This was two decades before the movies had figured out how to fuse themselves with sound – Rothafel was jumping the curve with this.

Arthur Mayer, who ran the Rialto Theater on Broadway, installed an elaborate smell system in his theater in 1933, believing this to be the way the medium was headed. The technology was deeply flawed; piping smells to the crowd was easy, but in a windowless chamber getting the smells to leave was tricky. Some scents would linger for days afterward. Each smell-dose would also require a substantial amount of perfume, which made transitioning from one smell to the next nearly impossible. Someone had to work out the kinks before this technology would be functional.

The man on the right is Hans Laube. Hans came up with something called Scentovision, a means of blasting smells into a theatre courtesy of a control panel in the projection booth. He debuted the technology at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, after which it was seized by police under the charge that a similar (and patented) system already existed. On the left, that’s Mike Todd Jr. When this photo was taken, Mike had recently produced the 1956 Academy Award-winning Around The World In 80 Days, and along with his father he was looking for a way to enhance his next film.

By this time Walt Disney had considered and subsequently dropped the notion of using smells in film – Walt was thinking about some incense during the Ave Maria segment of Fantasia, but decided it was a cost-prohibitive experiment. The notion of smells and cinema had been shelved as a novelty. But Hans had improved on his invention, rigging up a “belt” of scents that could automatically be moved and diffused as the film called for it. Mike Todd Jr. was intrigued and Smell-O-Vision was born.

Three weeks before the release of Mike’s first Smell-O-Vision film, Scent Of Mystery (starring Peter Lorre and Mike’s step-mom, Elizabeth Taylor), a competing product hit theaters. 1959 was a weird year for film – there was actual competition between smell-movies. Behind The Great Wall, which was a travelogue and not a narrative motion picture, boasted a similar technology called AromaRama, with more than 100 unique nature-based smells in the picture. The awesomely-named New York Times critic Bosley Crowther called the piece “banal”, “capricious” and “perfunctory”. He credited the concept with possessing an artistic benefit of “nil”. Bosley was not impressed.

Time Magazine didn’t have anything nice to say about the film either, though they fell all over themselves praising the technology, in particular noting that the scents disappeared as soon as the visuals required them to do so, and that one did not have to strain to breathe in the various odors.

Scent Of Mystery, featuring Mike and Hans’ Smell-O-Vision did not fare quite as favorably.

The hissing noise as each scent was released was distracting to viewers. Also, larger movie houses had to contend with the smells reaching the balcony patrons several seconds after the visual cues that were meant to set them up. Sometimes the odors were too faint, which added the delightful sound of dozens of noses sniffing strongly to try to coax the full experience inward. Tweaks were made to fix these problems, but by then the notion of a scent-laden film had become a joke. Henny Youngman said of Scent Of Mystery, “I didn’t understand the picture. I had a cold.”

Mike tried re-releasing the film some time later, removing the smell gimmick and retitling it Holiday In Spain, but that made even less sense. Why, for example, was a character taking a fresh loaf of bread out of the oven and holding it for an awkwardly long pause in front of the camera? The film was crap and once again the technology was plunked back into stasis.

The innovative and delightfully weird director John Waters re-imagined the notion of “smellies” in 1982 with his film Polyester, a story about divorce, adultery, abortion and foot fetishism. His idea was much simpler – pass out scratch-and-sniff ‘Odorama’ cards to each patron and let them take a whiff when the appropriate number flashed on the screen. The ten scents on the card ranged from roses, pizza and new car smell to the other end of the spectrum: skunk, dirty shoes, and farts. Waters really wanted an immersive experience.

This is about as far as smell-movies are going to go for now – Rugrats Go Wild! in 2003 and the 2011 Spy Kids sequel that nobody on the planet paid to see also featured scratch-cards. Disney has finally embraced the idea, but only as it applies to Disneyland rides. We’re not likely to smell our summer blockbusters anytime soon.

Is this a tragedy? Could the notion of smell-capture one day progress beyond the gimmick and become a standard? Will we see it become part of a typical home theatre system, thus allowing some back-mastering of classic films to incorporate environmental smells? I hope so. I’m all for adding new toys to my living room.

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