This month sees the long-awaited return of the award-winning period drama Mad Men to the nation’s cable TV schedules, once again bringing us back to a simpler time when men were men, ties were skinny, and Scotch was breakfast. The Mad Men era was a golden age for misinformation, of course. Back then, it was generally believed that smoking was invigorating, seatbelts were unnecessary, massive nuclear stockpiles would guarantee world peace, and white guys with accurate set shots were the world’s best basketball players. But even after fifty years of debunking, plenty of midcentury misconceptions still linger with us today, as Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings reveals in his latest series of “Debunker” columns. He’ll tackle the 1950s this month and move on to the 1960s in April.
Fifties Myth #2: Moviegoers Wore Red-and-Blue Glasses During the Original 3-D Fad
Does this story sound familiar to you? Desperate to compete with television, movie studios unveil a splashy new gimmick: 3-D. At first audiences flock to see big-budget fare in three dimensions, but soon some start to grouse about high ticket prices and the uncomfortable, eye-straining glasses required. It happened in the early 1950s—and there’s some evidence that it may be happening again, as the bloom fades from the 3-D rose again in the 21st century. (Did you see Mars Needs Moms or Final Destination 5? Me neither.)
When we picture 1950s movie audiences enjoying 3-D classics like Robot Monster or Gorilla at Large, we tend to imagine them wearing those glasses with two colored lenses, usually red-and-blue or red-and-green. That system, which requires two images of different colors superimposed on the screen on top of each other, is called “anaglyph 3-D,” and it actually dates back to the 1910s, when the earliest experiments in filmed 3-D took place. But by the time Bwana Devil launched the 1950s 3-D fad, studios had switched to a full-color Polaroid technology using polarized lenses. That’s right: it was essentially the same technology theaters still use today. Cat-Women of the Moon’s 3-D was more or less the same as Avatar’s!
So where did we get the idea that 1950s moviegoers used the anaglyph glasses? Well, the red-and-blue glasses were around in that decade, but they were used not for 3-D movies, but for their less successful spin-off: 3-D comic books. J. R. Eyerman’s famous Life magazine photo of a glasses-wearing 3-D audience is in black-and-white, so it may give the impression its subjects are wearing colored lenses. (They weren’t.) But this myth probably got its biggest boost in the 1970s and 1980s, when TV stations would occasionally air old 1950s 3-D movies converted to the anaglyph format. (Just like today, the polarized-lens technology didn’t work on regular TV screens.) Viewers could hit up a local fast food restaurant or ice cream joint to score a pair of the red-and-blue glasses. I fondly remember forcing my parents to take me to Burger King as a kid so I could get glasses for a screening of The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3-D. I can’t remember which was worse, the burger or the movie.
Quick Quiz: What 3-D title character pilots a spaceship crewed by Fuzzball, Idey, Ody, Major Domo, Minor Domo, and Hooter?
Ken Jennings is the author of Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.
Photo by Flickr user Mike Licht. Used under a Creative Commons License.