By 1951 film attendance had fallen dramatically from 90 million in 1948 to 46 million. Television was seen as the culprit and Hollywood was looking for a way to lure audiences back. Cinerama had premiered on September 30, 1952 at the Broadway Theater in New York and was a success there, but its bulky and expensive three-projector system and huge curved screen were impractical, if not impossible, to duplicate in any but the largest theaters.
Former screenwriter Milton Gunzburg and his brother Julian thought they had a solution with their Natural Vision 3D film process. They shopped it around Hollywood. 20th Century Fox was focusing on the introduction of CinemaScope and had no interest in another new process. Both Columbia and Paramount passed it up.
Only John Arnold, who headed the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer camera department, was impressed enough to convince MGM to take an option on it, but they quickly let the option lapse. Milton Gunzburg turned his focus to independent producers and demonstrated Natural Vision to Arch Oboler, producer and writer of the popular Lights Out radio show. Oboler was impressed enough to option it for his next film project.
Oboler said he had overheard Joseph Biroc and the camera crew talking about 3D while filming The Twonky and Oboler became interested.
Oboler announced the project in March 1952. He said it would be called The Lions of Gulu and would include footage shot in Africa several years beforehand. Filming was to start in May. It was always going to be in Natural Vision.
Howard Duff and Hope Miller were the first stars signed.
Eventually Duff and Miller dropped out and were replaced by Robert Stack and Barbara Britton. The title of Oboler’s film was changed to Bwana Devil in June 1952. (Oboler already announced he would make a second film in the format, Spear in the Sand with Lisa Howard.
The film was shot in the San Fernando Valley.
The Paramount Ranch, now located in The Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, sat in for an African savanna. There is now a hiking trail in the area named “The Bwana Trail” to denote the locations used in Bwana Devil. Authentic African footage shot by Arch Oboler in 1948 (in 2D) was incorporated into the film. Ansco Color film was used, instead of the more expensive and cumbersome Technicolor process.
Lloyd Nolan appeared in a prologue for the film.
The film was given Code approval in two dimension but not in three dimension due to a kissing scene. Eventually approval was given.
The film premiered under the banner of “Arch Oboler Productions” on Wednesday, November 26, 1952 with a twin engagement at the Hollywood Paramount Theatre and the Paramount Theatre in downtown Los Angeles. It opened to the public the following day.
At all U.S. screenings of feature-length 3D films in the 1950s, the polarized light method was used and the audience wore 3D glasses with gray Polaroid filters. The anaglyph color filter method was only used for a few short films during these years. The two-strip Natural Vision projection system required making substantial alterations to a theater’s projectors and providing its screen with a special non-depolarizing surface.
The film was a critical failure, but a runaway success with audiences. It opened in San Francisco on December 13, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio on December 25, and New York on February 18, 1953.
M.L. Gunzburg presents 3D, a short film produced by Bob Clampett and featuring Beany and Cecil, was screened preceding the film. Long thought lost, the short rejoined Bwana Devil for screenings at the Egyptian Theater in 2003 and 2006.
Natural Vision announced they would make 12 follow up films.
United Artists bought the rights to Bwana Devil from Arch Oboler Productions for $500,000 and a share of the profits and began a wide release of the film in March as a United Artists film. A lawsuit followed, in which producer Edward L. Alperson Jr. claimed that he was part owner of the film after purchasing a share of it for $1,000,000 USD. The courts decided in Oboler’s favor, as Alperson’s claim was unsubstantiated and “under the table”.
The other major studios reacted by releasing their own 3D films. Warner Brothers optioned the Natural Vision process for House of Wax. It premiered on April 10, 1953 and was advertised as “the first 3D release by a major studio”. In truth, Columbia had trumped them by two days with their release of Man in the Dark on April 8, 1953.
The film stars Cameron Mitchell, Anne Bancroft, Lee J. Cobb and Raymond Burr, with Lee Marvin and Warren Stevens in supporting roles. Directed by Harmon Jones, it was made by Panoramic Productions, and distributed through 20th Century Fox in Technicolor and 3-D.
It is notable for being one of the early movies at 20th Century Fox to be filmed in 3-D. (The first was Inferno, released a year before Gorilla at Large.)
For an independent production, Gorilla at Large was unusual because it featured both seasoned actors and upcoming stars.
Cameron Mitchell had appeared in the 1951 screen version of Arthur Miller‘s Death of a Salesman. For Anne Bancroft, Gorilla was her fifth film under contract to 20th Century Fox, and in 1962 her performance in The Miracle Worker won her an Academy Award. Lee J. Cobb had a prolific screen career and received two Oscar nominations, the first for On the Waterfront, made the same year as Gorilla at Large.
Raymond Burr’s imposing stature and dark brooding looks often landed him the role of the villain before his breakout role of lawyer Perry Mason. The movie was released the same year, he was the main enemy in Alfred Hitchcock‘s Rear Window. Lee Marvin began his film career in Hollywood in the early 1950s, playing mainly crooks or cops, and later became a leading man.
George Barrows played the gorilla Goliath, one of many gorilla roles in his film and TV career. The most famous of these was as the alien Ro-Man in Robot Monster (1953), also a 3-D production, in which he wore a gorilla suit with a diving helmet on his head.
Production for Gorilla at Large took place at Nu Pike Amusement Park in Long Beach, California. The crew had the use of the amusement park from midnight until morning for approximately a week.
Although released through 20th Century Fox, the film was made by Leonard Goldstein’s Panoramic Productions. The idea behind the deal that was made between the two companies was that Fox would focus and release primarily CinemaScope films, and Panoramic would be its supplier of flat widescreen ratio films. The only other 3-D productions released or produced by Fox until Ice Age: Dawn of the Dinosaurs in 2009 were the previous year’s Inferno, with Robert Ryan and Rhonda Fleming, and 1960’s September Storm, with Joanne Dru and Mark Stevens.
Rather than make different posters for the 2-D and 3-D release of this movie, only a flat (non 3-D) poster was made. Poster snipes with 3-D were furnished to use on the posters for theatres showing the 3-D version. This was common practice at the point that the film was released because fewer theaters were booking 3-D films in their stereoscopic form.
Bosley Crowther of The New York Times called Gorilla at Large a “straight scoop of melodramatic muck about murder and other odd distractions at an outdoor amusement park.”
TV Guide wrote “This often hilarious 3-D thriller stars Bancroft as a trapeze artist at an amusement park, where the top attraction is a ferocious gorilla”.
Cameron Mitchell recalled that he met Mel Brooks when both were dining at the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Commissary. Brooks told him that Gorilla at Large was his favorite film and asked him if he wanted to play a Jimmy Hoffa-type character in a movie for him that was the 1982 comedy My Favorite Year.
DVD-R contains BWANA DEVIL and GORILLA AT LARGE. for BWANA DEVIL the lenses on the glasses are reversed – blue goes on left eye, red on right eye, while GORILLA AT LARGE is presented in the usual red lens on left eye, blue lens on right eye. both films are color, fullscreen, mono, VHS transfers. quality is unfortunately nothing special for these two rare 3D films, but they have been color corrected and fixed up to look and sound as nice as possible. includes 2 pair 3D glasses and comes packaged as shown in color DVD case, wrapped in plastic!