In an era where streaming and television offer unparalleled convenience, theatrical venues are striving to captivate moviegoers with innovative experiences like “4D” motion chairs and 3D technology. These efforts are essential as theaters aim to recover from the significant attendance decline caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, the concept of enhancing cinema experiences is far from new. As television gained popularity in American households during the 1950s, the film industry responded with elaborate marketing schemes, including wraparound Cinerama screens, 3D films, and even scent integration.
The use of scents to enhance narratives predates the cinematic era. Ancient Greeks would burn incense or scatter flowers onstage to set the mood for their performances. Similarly, 19th-century dramatists would utilize pine needles to create a forest atmosphere or cook food to simulate a restaurant scene. The incorporation of scent into storytelling isn’t merely a clever trick; it has a scientific basis. Evolutionary theory suggests that smell, one of our earliest senses, is closely tied to basic emotions and memory. Artists have long recognized the power of fragrance in influencing audience emotions and triggering vivid memories.
The first documented use of scent enhancement in cinema dates back to 1906 when the owners of the Family Theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania, infused the aroma of rose oil during a newsreel about Pasadena’s Rose Parade. This early experiment paved the way for scent-enhanced films like “Story of the Flowers” in New York’s Rivoli Theatre (1916) and “Lilac Time” in Boston’s Fenway Theatre (1929), both of which used floral scents. Perfume was even sprayed from the ceiling during the New York premiere of “The Broadway Melody” in 1929. However, these early attempts were isolated occurrences, with limited fragrances relevant to each film.
The true breakthrough in scent-enhanced cinema came a decade later, thanks to Hans Laube, a Swiss innovator with an obsession for aromas. In the 1930s, Laube developed an air purifier to eliminate odors, like cigarette smoke, from large auditoriums. His fascination with aromas led him to explore the possibility of reintroducing scents into theaters. In 1939, he unveiled the “Scent-o-Vision” system, capable of delivering 32 distinct aromas, including coconut, rose, tar, and peaches, through hoses integrated into theater seats. Projectionists manually operated the apparatus to release the appropriate scents at key moments in the film.
To promote Scent-o-Vision, Laube showcased a 35-minute short film titled “My Dream” at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The technology garnered positive reviews, despite some viewers finding the artificial scents less convincing, especially the bacon aroma.
Despite its innovative nature, Hollywood producers and theater owners were initially hesitant about Scent-o-Vision. Even Walt Disney decided against incorporating it into his 1940 animated musical “Fantasia.” Nevertheless, some theaters experimented with scent-enhanced films in the 1940s. For instance, a Detroit theater enhanced the Errol Flynn swashbuckler “The Sea Hawk” with fragrances like salt air and tar. These experiments paved the way for the eventual adoption of scent-enhanced cinema in the 1950s.
During the 1950s, movie studios and theater owners faced increasing competition from television and responded by creating ever more immersive cinematic experiences. One early innovation was Cinerama, which used three independent projectors to fill the audience’s field of vision with an extra-wide curved screen. Although Cinerama created a sense of full immersion, it was limited in use due to the high costs and complexity of production.
Later, single-projector systems like 70mm Panavision, Cinemascope, and IMAX offered a more affordable means of achieving widescreen effects. Additionally, the 1950s marked the golden age of 3D films, with titles like Alfred Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder” and Andre de Toth’s “House of Wax” utilizing 3D effects, albeit with mixed results.
William Castle, known as the “King of Ballyhoo,” was a B-movie director and producer renowned for his eccentric cinematic devices. Castle’s screenings featured elaborate props, such as glow-in-the-dark skeletons and special glasses for seeing invisible ghouls. Among his inventions was the “Percepto” format, designed for the 1959 film “The Tingler.” In this film, audience members were encouraged to scream to free themselves from a spinal cord parasite, while electric motors in their seats provided jolts during crucial moments.
Amid this era of innovation and showmanship, Hans Laube’s Scent-o-Vision made a triumphant return. Michael Todd, a producer known for extravagant productions, became Laube’s sponsor in the mid-1950s. Although the original name was retained, it was rebranded as “Smell-o-Vision” under the supervision of Michael Todd Jr. Following the successful debut of Smell-o-Vision at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, Laube improved the system, introducing a “smell brain” that simplified the delivery of fragrances.
Smell-o-Vision faced skepticism and challenges, but it found its place in comedic films like “Scent of Mystery.” This 1960 film, starring Denholm Elliott, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter Lorre, utilized fragrance as a storytelling tool. Specific aromas hinted at offscreen characters’ presence, adding depth to the narrative. Smell-o-Vision marked a unique chapter in cinematic history, as the audience experienced scents aligned with the on-screen events, from perfume to tobacco smoke.
What You Didn’t Know About Scent-o-Vision
- The idea for incorporating smells into cinema dates back to the early 20th century. In 1906, the silent film “A Trip to the Moon” experimented with scent by spraying the film with various perfumes during screenings.
- Hans Laube, the inventor of Smell-O-Vision, was a Swiss engineer and inventor who had a long-standing fascination with aromas. His early experiments with air purification systems eventually led him to develop a method for reintroducing scents into theaters.
- Smell-O-Vision was capable of delivering a wide range of aromas, not just limited to pleasant or familiar scents. It could produce odors like tar and even bacon, although some viewers found these artificial scents less convincing.
- During Smell-O-Vision screenings, a projectionist had to manually operate the scent-emitting apparatus to release the right aromas at specific moments in the film. This required precise timing and coordination.
- “Scent of Mystery,” the first Smell-O-Vision film, was a comedic murder mystery released in 1960. It was notable for utilizing fragrance as a storytelling device, providing clues to the audience through the emission of specific scents.
- Smell-O-Vision faced challenges in terms of practicality and audience reception. The system was not widely adopted by Hollywood studios due to concerns about technical reliability and the limited range of compatible film genres.
- While Smell-O-Vision was used in “Scent of Mystery,” several other films experimented with scent-enhanced experiences during the 1950s and 1960s. For instance, “Behind the Great Wall” (1959) and “The Scent of Mystery” (1960) utilized similar scent-dispensing systems.
- The name “Scent-o-Vision” and “Smell-o-Vision” were used interchangeably, but the latter became more widely recognized after Hans Laube’s invention was rebranded as “Smell-o-Vision” by Michael Todd Jr.
- Smell-O-Vision was not limited to the United States. It had international screenings, including in the United Kingdom and Japan. However, its international success mirrored its reception in the United States.
- Despite its limited commercial success, Smell-O-Vision left a lasting legacy in the world of cinema. It remains a curiosity in film history, sparking occasional interest and discussions about the possibilities of enhancing sensory experiences in theaters.
While Smell-O-Vision may have faded into obscurity, its memory lingers as a reminder of Hollywood’s audacious spirit.Their ambitious forays into Smell-O-Vision, Scent-o-Vision, or whatever name it took, showcased the boundless creativity of Hollywood in its quest to redefine the cinematic experience.