Smell-o-vision Vs. Aromarama
THE EARLIEST-KNOWN USE OF SCENTS TO accompany motion pictures came around 1908, when S. L. (“Roxy”) Rothafel, the famous theater owner who later founded Radio City Music Hall, spread rose perfume with a fan while showing film of the Tournament of Roses at a theater in Forest City, Pennsylvania. A few other exhibitors tried similar stunts through the years, usually with floral fragrances. Typically just a single scent was used, and it had to be sprayed by hand. Patents in 1930 and 1939 proposed schemes to release scents automatically at certain points during a movie, but there is no record that they were ever used.
Emery Stern of Queens, New York, patented a more refined system in 1951. He envisioned a separate scent-selection reel to run in synchronicity with the film, though geared down to a much slower speed. Scents would be distributed through the theater’s ventilation equipment, with their release triggered by a photoelectric signal from the scent reel. Stern suggested using Lucite rods to carry the light signal and quick-dispersing Fréon as a vehicle for the scents. When a scene was over, a neutralizing agent could be released to remove traces of an odor.
Stern’s system was overlooked in the rush to 3-D and wide screens, but late in the 1950s Hollywood finally gave scented films a try. A pair of industry scions were the pioneers: Walter Reade, Jr., whose father had founded the cinema chain that still bears his name, and Mike Todd, Jr., son of the flamboyant producer who, among his other accomplishments, had married Elizabeth Taylor and helped develop a pair of wide-screen processes, Cinerama and Todd A-O. In classic 1950s fashion, Reade called his system AromaRama while Todd dubbed his Smell-O-Vision.
Reade made it into theaters first, in December 1959, with Behind the Great Wall , a documentary about China. The film was a sybarite’s delight; besides having smells, it had been filmed with wide-screen Totalscope, Deluxe Color, and four-channel sound. It won two awards when it was screened at the Brussels Film Exposition despite, or perhaps because of, being shown unscented there. Looking for a quick way to try out his idea, Reade bought the North American rights to the film and added several dozen fragrances (reports vary from 31 to 72), including oranges, tea, smoke, incense, and grass.
The system Reade used was similar to the one described in Stern’s patents, though the scent track was contained on the movie print itself instead of a separate reel. Air was cleaned for reuse by passing it over a device called the Statronic, whose electrically charged surfaces attracted scent-bearing particles. Reade said his equipment could get a smell to every seat in the house within two seconds and suck it back out almost as quickly, though not all audience members agreed.
Critics praised the film for its vivid depictions of life in China but found AromaRama an unnecessary distraction. Scents lingered too long; the “neutral” fragrance meant to help deodorize the theater had an odor of its own; and everything smelled synthetic. “A beautiful old pine grove in Peking, for instance, smells rather like a subway rest room on disinfectant day,” said Time .
The next month saw the premiere of Todd’s Scent of Mystery , a comedy/suspense film whose cast included Peter Lorre (in all-purpose foreigner mode, this time playing a Spanish cabdriver); Leo McKern, who would later become famous as television’s Rumpole of the Bailey; Diana Dors, the British Marilyn Monroe wannabe (typecast as, in one critic’s words, “a woman in a bikini who has nothing whatever to do with anything”); and, making her film debut, Beverly Bentley, who later became the fourth of the novelist Norman Mailer’s six wives.
Unlike its predecessor, Scent of Mystery had been conceived and shot with scent accompaniment in mind. The plot revolved around the search for an elusive woman who was detected by lingering traces of her perfume. At the very end she appeared onscreen; the actress playing her was Todd’s stepmother (and many other people’s), Elizabeth Taylor. Eddie Fisher, Taylor’s incumbent husband, sang the theme song.
As had been the case with 3-D, the filmmakers searched for ways to show off their gimmick. A loaf of bread was taken from an oven and thrust at the camera for no reason except to justify the use of its smell. When Lorre and the lead, Denholm Elliott, were supposedly drinking coffee, Elliott and the audience detected the scent of alcohol, for which Elliott chastised the driver.
Smell-O-Vision was invented by the Swiss “osmologist” Hans Laube. An early version had been used in the 1940 Swiss film My Dream and exhibited briefly and unsuccessfully the same year at the New York World’s Fair. The perfumes (somewhere between 14 and 40 of them) were made by Alpine Aromatics of Metuchen, New Jersey, whose greatest previous triumph, according to a company history, had been “the masking of strong odors in the Raritan River.”
Laube was the first inventor to understand that the main problem in making scented films was a chemical one. In commercially available perfumes, the aromatic substances are dissolved in a fixative, such as benzol, that slows down their evaporation and thus makes them last longer. For most applications, this quality is desired, but for movies, it’s exactly what you don’t want. So in Laube’s system, perfumes were mixed into a paste with a vehicle consisting primarily of kieselguhr, a finely divided form of silicon dioxide.
To release the odor, a partial vacuum could be drawn over the paste or a puff of heated air could be blown across it. This would cause the volatile aromatic portion to evaporate while leaving the fixative behind, bound to the kieselguhr. With no fixative to hold them back, the aromatics mixed quickly with the ambient air and could be removed in a hurry with ventilating equipment—as opposed to the fixative-laden droplets of other methods, which tended to stick around much longer.
Todd equipped three theaters—one each in Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles—for Smell-O-Vision. The process required mounting an individual dispenser on the back of every seat, with scents to be generated at a central location and piped to the dispensers. Installation cost $25 per seat, and each theater required more than a mile of tubing.
Scent of Mystery (which was shown along with a scented cartoon called The Tale of Old Whiff ) got no better a reception than Behind the Great Wall . Critics agreed that the olfactory assault was gentler than in the previous film (too gentle, according to some) but no more necessary. One found the succession of scents to have “a slightly emetic quality,” while another suggested sourly that the film might be salvaged by releasing laughing gas instead.
This brief flurry was the beginning and end of Hollywood’s involvement with scented films. Unlike 3-D, it attracted too little interest even to qualify as a fad. In 1981 John Waters revived Smell-O-Vision in a low-tech variant: Scratch-and-sniff cards were distributed to audience members, who were signaled onscreen when the time came to scratch the numbered scent patches. (The same method was used for a televised showing of Scent of Mystery in the 1980s and has been revived sporadically elsewhere, including a 1989 production of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges at the English National Opera.)
A few avant-garde filmmakers have continued to experiment with the artistic possibilities of smell, and there has also been the occasional scented art-house film, such as Luc Besson’s The Big Blue , a 1988 oceandiving romance that was accompanied in some theaters by sea scents. The most recent scented films have been Lavender (2000), a movie about an aromatherapist that was shown in Hong Kong with smells dispersed through the ventilation system, and the European One Day Diet (2001). At the latter film, audience members wore “Sniffman” devices around their necks that released scents when activated by a radio signal.
Inventors keep devising improved schemes for scented films, television, and video, though all are basically elaborations on the Stern and Laube methods. In the 1980s, for example, one inventor proposed to update Laube’s system by putting individual scent wheels on seatbacks, to be activated by an electronic signal. This avoids the problems of regulating the pressure of scented air over long stretches of tubing. Related innovations include “olfactory virtual reality,” with scent outlets next to the user’s nostrils, and a Japanese process that makes it possible to fax a scent, should the need ever arise.
That would still leave the question of what the technology is good for. Like 3-D, scented films rest on the assumption that viewers can, and want to, feel that they are part of the action onscreen. This may be true in a few situations, but in the great majority of cases, viewers know they are watching a movie and don’t really care. A more practical problem is the expense of producing realistic odors. Noel Coward once wrote that it is “extraordinary how potent cheap music is,” and decades of Hollywood soundtracks have borne him out. But it is just as extraordinary how unpleasant cheap scents can be.
The best commentary on scented films may be an inadvertent one. On the same page with its critic’s dismissal of Scent of Mystery, The Commonweal printed a positive review of a different film. Describing an eager young suitor, the critic wrote that “you can almost smell the flowers as he hurries to keep a date.” Would the film be more effective if it actually smelled like flowers—or, more probably, like cheap perfume or hand soap? Hardly. The Smell-O-Vision episode provides yet another example of the fallacious yet persistent belief that a technology will be useful just because it is clever.