Magic Hour

Source: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 237-238

Text: One day soon afterwards I asked Michael Todd what news he had about the smells. I knew there was a man in Switzerland, Professor Hans Laube, who was working on the various smells outlined in the script and I asked Michael if he had received any samples yet. I was shocked when Michael answered that he hadn’t seen anything yet. I suggested that Laube should send some samples to us – of the sea, tobacco, apricots, etc. – as soon as possible. I took out a bottle labelled ‘apricots’ and inhaled excitedly. It smelled of cheap eau-de-Cologne. Every sample smelled the same: a third rate perfume, nothing at all like they were supposed to smell.

Michael and I were horrified. Michael telephoned Professor Laube who assured him that everything would be perfectly alright on the night of our big test in Chicago in two months’ time. All we could do was trust the professor and pray.

Our big night duly took place in Chicago. The cinema had a thousand seats and most of the audience were trade people. On the back of each seat a tiny pipe was fitted with a spray to project smells to the viewer seated behind. The pipes ran under the floor where an enormous dispensing machine had been installed acting as a ‘smell brain,’ having stored every aroma to be projected during the film. In addition to the eight tracks on our 70mm film, there was an extra track carrying the smell signal. As the film travelled through the projector an electric signal triggered a mechanism which projected a small quantity of aroma-laden air on-cue to every seat in the audience.

Well, the magnificent machinery worked wonderfully. The only trouble was, the smells that were projected towards the eager nostrils were exactly like cheap eau-de-Cologne…

The film was released in New York where the critics all had wrinkled noses and acerbic tongues.

Then came a bathetic coup de grâce. In a nearby cinema, a few days before the New York opening, an enterprising gent showed an awful ‘B’ film and installed incense in the air conditioning, triumphantly advertising his film as ‘the first smellie’.

Comments: Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) was a British cinematographer and director. Magic Hour is his autobiography. The feature film Scent of Mystery (USA 1960), whose test screening is described here, was the first and last film to be produced in Smell-o-Vision. It was directed by Cardiff, and starred Denholm Elliott, Beverly Bentley and Peter Lorre. It opened in February 1960 in specially rigged-up theatres in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Technical problems with the smells, combined with poor reviews, condemned the film, which was subsequently re-issued in Cinerama, without the smells, as Holiday in Spain. Smell-o-Vision involved a belt holding a sequence of perfume containers which connected to a motorised reel, synchronised through a system of markers to the projector. The smells would be released when their cue came on the film, and were emitted through pipes under the seats of the audience.

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