Hollywood and Its Efforts to Introduce the Wacky World of Smell-o-Vision
These days, it seems that movie theatres will try just about everything to lure viewers away from the comfort and convenience of television and streaming, from 3D releases to giant IMAX screens to “4D” seats that shake and rock along with the onscreen action. And as theatres struggle to recover from the massive hit in attendance caused by the COVID 19 pandemic, such gimmicks are likely to become even more prevalent in the future. But this is nothing new. Back in the 1950s, as the newfangled technology of television made its way into ever more American homes, the film industry turned to ever more elaborate gimmicks to get butts in theatre seats, from wraparound Cinerama screens to 3D films to special seats that jolted audience members during moments of high tension. But perhaps strangest gimmick of all was a system that pumped various scents into the theatre in an attempt to better immerse viewers in the film. This is the story of the brief rise and fall of Smell-o-Vision.
The use of scent to enhance storytelling predates the use of sound in film – and, indeed, the art of film itself. Ancient Greek plays often made use of incense or fresh flowers to build atmosphere, while 19th Century dramatists sometimes scattered pine needles to evoke the scent of a forest or cooked food onstage to create the ambiance of a kitchen or restaurant. While this might seem like nothing more than an elaborate gimmick, there is a solid scientific justification for using smell to enhance immersion. Evolutionarily speaking, smell is one of our oldest senses, and the one most closely tied to memory and basic emotions such as fear, disgust, joy, and sadness. This is why a single odor can unleash a flood of powerful memories, and why artists through the ages have sought to harness the power of scent to evoke the desired emotions in their audience.
he first recorded use of scent enhancement in a movie theatre was in 1906 when the owners of the Family Theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania piped the scent of rose oil into the auditorium during a newsreel about Pasadena’s Rose Parade. In 1916, the Rivoli Theatre in New York also released floral scents during screenings of the short film Story of the Flowers, while in 1929 Fenway Theatre in Boston used lilac perfume to enhance the romantic drama Lilac Time. That same year, the New York premiere of The Broadway Melody, one of the first Hollywood musicals, was accompanied by perfume sprayed from the ceiling. However, these early attempts were one-off stunts implemented by individual theatre owners, and rarely incorporated more than one or two thematically relevant scents released during the show. It would be another decade before fully scent-integrated films finally became a reality. And the mastermind behind this would-be cinematic revolution was a curious 40-year-old Swiss inventor named Hans Laube.
Born in Zurich in 1900, Hans Laube was the spitting image of the Germanic mad scientist, with round black eyeglasses and an obsessive, fastidious nature. Relatively little is known about the man, who at various points in his life identified himself as a professor, electrical engineer, advertising executive, and an “expert in cosmology, the science of odours.” According to one story, in the mid-1930s Laube invented an air purifier to clear cigarette smoke and other odours from large auditoriums, and became fascinated with the notion of reversing the process and returning the smells into the theatre. This led to a lifelong obsession with scents and the emotions they could trigger. Around 1939, Laube invented a system called “Scent-o-Vision” which could pipe 32 different scents including roses, tar, peaches, and coconuts through hoses built into each theatre seat. The system was manually operated by the projectionist, who released the appropriate scents at key points throughout the film. To promote the technology, Laube produced a 35-minute short film called Mein Traum or “My Dream”, which was exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. While some viewers complained that a few of the artificial scents – most notably that of bacon – were less than convincing, reviews of the experience were generally positive, with the New York Times reporting: “[Scent-o-Vision] produces odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound.”
Yet despite the inherent novelty of Scent-o-Vision, Laube failed to interest many Hollywood producers or theatre owners in his invention. Walt Disney briefly considered integrating Scent-o-Vision into his 1940 animated musical Fantasia, but ultimately decided against it for reasons of cost. There were scattered attempts throughout the 1940s to integrate scents into films, such as in 1943 when a theatre in Detroit used smells such as tar and salt air to enhance the Errol Flynn swashbuckler The Sea Hawk. Also on the bill was the western Boom Town, in which each actor was given the olfactory equivalent of a musical leitmotif – tobacco for Clark Gable, pine for Spencer Tracy, and perfume for Hedy Lamarr. But it would not be until the 1950s that the movie industry would truly be ready for Hans Laube’s odiferous vision.
As previously mentioned, in that decade growing competition from television forced movie studios and theatre owners to come up with ever more elaborate gimmicks to get viewers into movie theatres. At first such efforts focused on creating an epic, immersive experience that television simply could not recreate. Among the first such technologies was Cinerama, which used three separate projectors to fill an extra-wide curved screen, filling the audience’s field of view and creating the illusion of total immersion. Introduced in 1952, Cinerama was mainly used for travelogues and historical epics, such as 1955’s Cinerama Holiday and 1962’s How the West Was Won. However, the equipment needed to film and project Cinerama proved prohibitively expensive and technically challenging to use, and only a handful of films were ever produced in this format. A similar widescreen effect was later achieved more economically with single-projector systems such as 70mm Panavision, Cinemascope, and, of course, IMAX.
The 1950s also saw the golden age of the 3D films, starting with 1952’s Bwana Devil, a film about man-eating lions in Africa whose promotional tagline touted the experience as “A lion in your lap! A lover in your arms!” Throughout the decade, films ranging from the 1954 Alfred Hitchcock thriller Dial M for Murder to the 1955 Andre de Toth horror House of Wax would exploit the 3D effect to varying degrees of success, with plenty of objects like trains, weapons – or, in the case of House of Wax, a paddleball – shot to appear as though they were coming straight at the audience. But the novelty quickly wore thin, and could not compensate for the lower image quality of most films shot in 3D. Theatres also found it difficult to persuade audience members to return their cardboard 3D glasses, cutting significantly into profits. By the 1960s, the first wave of 3D films had all but died out.
But the undisputed master of outrageous cinematic gimmicks was B-movie director and producer William Castle, known throughout Hollywood as the “King of Ballyhoo.” Castle was infamous for integrating elaborate props into his film screenings, such as swinging a glow-in-the-dark skeleton through the theatre at the climax of 1959’s House on Haunted Hill or giving audience members special “Illusion-O” glasses that allowed them to see the invisible ghouls in 1960’s Thirteen Ghosts. But perhaps Castle’s most outlandish invention was his so-called “Percepto” format, specially created for 1959’s The Tingler. The plot of the film revolves around a parasite that wraps itself around the human spinal cord and can only be defeated by screaming. At the climax of the film, electric motors built into the theatre seats would give audience members a jolt of vibration, as onscreen, actor Vincent Price urged them to “Scream! Scream for your lives!”
This period of freewheeling showmanship and experimentation created the perfect conditions for the triumphant return of Hans Laube and Scent-o-Vision. In the mid-1950s, Laube finally found a patron in producer Michael Todd, known for his bombastic, larger-than-life productions on both stage and screen. Todd initially considered integrating Scent-o-Vision into his epic 1956 adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days, but ultimately decided against it. And while Todd died tragically in a plane crash in 1958, his son, Michael Todd Jr, remained fascinated with the potential of Scent-o-Vision and signed Laube to a movie deal – on the one condition that the name be changed to “Smell-o-Vision.” When an indignant Laube asked why he didn’t change the name to something more dignified, Todd replied: “I don’t understand how you can be ‘dignified’ about a process that introduces smells into a theater.”
Laube had improved the Smell-o-Vision system since its 1939 debut, integrating what he called a “smell brain”. No longer did the projectionist have to cue up each scent manually; instead, the vials of scent were mounted on a belt looped around a pair of feed reels. Optical markers on the film cued the belt to advance through the machine, ensuring that each scent was delivered at the right moment. Still, Todd and Laube recognized that Smell-o-Vision had its limitations. The system, they realized, would not mesh well with heavier fare like dramas or romances, so for the first Smell-o-Vision feature, they produced a light-hearted comedy whodunnit titled Scent of Mystery. Starring Denholm Elliott, Elizabeth Taylor, and Peter Lorre, Scent of Mystery centres on a photographer on vacation in Spain who stumbles upon a plot to murder a beautiful heiress. With the help of a drunken cab driver, he embarks on a madcap chase across the Spanish countryside to thwart the crime. Unlike previous scent-enhanced films, Scent of Mystery used scent as an integral storytelling device, with the offscreen presence of certain characters being telegraphed by the release of particular smells like tobacco smoke or perfume. Smell was also used to add humour. For example, in one scene where Elliot and Lorre’s characters are drinking coffee, Lorre’s drink smells suspiciously like it has been spiked with brandy.
With his trademark flair for over-the-top promotion, Michael Todd Jr. touted Scent of Mystery and Smell-o-Vision as the next great advance in filmmaking technology, the film’s posters proclaiming that:
“First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!”
But before Todd and Laube’s revolutionary new film could make it into cinemas, it was beaten to the punch by the 1959 Italian travelogue Behind the Great Wall, which at its premiere at the Mayfair Theatre in New York was accompanied by a suite of 100 different aromas including grass, earth, seawater, burning gunpowder, and incense. These scents were delivered via a system called “Weiss-Rhodia Screen-Scent,” invented by public relations executive Charles H. Weiss, which released odours not through specially built pipes in the seats but rather the theatre’s air conditioning system. The scents themselves were mixed with a quick-evaporating Freon base, while the system incorporated a special electrostatic filter to quickly remove the scents from the air, preventing them from lingering too long. Reviews of the resulting experience were mixed, with some papers like the Sunday Morning Herald Tribune praising the illusion:
“Curiously enough, they do not give the impression of being blown in or wafted from any specific direction. Actually the individual smells simply appear in the nostrils without any effort being made to sniff or strain for them. And what is more remarkable, each individual odor disappears promptly when the image smelled leaves the screen. There is no question about its effectiveness in creating illusions of reality.”
The New York Times was less flattering, with reviewer Bosley Crowther describing the piped-in scents as:
“…capricious … elusive, oppressive or perfunctory and banal … merely synthetic smells that occasionally befit what one is viewing, but more often they confuse the atmosphere.”
Audiences proved indifferent to the gimmick, but Behind the Great Wall, stripped of the accompanying scents, became a critical and box-office success. Meanwhile, Michael Todd Jr. and Hans Laube pushed forward with Scent of Mystery, which premiered in three specially-equipped theatres on January 12, 1960. Alas, the lukewarm reception of Screen-Scent proved to be an ill omen, for Smell-o-Vision failed to make the impression that Todd and Laube hoped. Audience members in the balconies noted that the scents reached them several seconds too late, muddling their dramatic impact, while others complained that the puffs of scented air emerging from the delivery pipes were distractingly loud and the scents themselves too faint, with Bosley Crowther writing that:
“…patrons sit there sniffling and snuffling like a lot of bird dogs, trying hard to catch the scent.”
The rapid-fire aromatic salvo also prevented viewers’ noses from resetting between scents, resulting in an effect known as olfactory fatigue that caused all the various smells to blend together into a meaningless .
The film itself has hardly better-received, with Crowther pithily suggesting that the filmmakers pump laughing gas into the theatre to make up for the unfunny script and wooden performances. Comedian Henny Youngman also joined the critical dogpile, quipping:
“I didn’t understand the film—I had a cold.”
While Laube was eventually able to solve most of the technical issues, it was already too late: bad press had doomed Smell-o-Vision to cinematic oblivion. Hans Laube and Michael Todd Jr. disappeared into obscurity, the three Smell-o-Vision theatres were stripped of their equipment, and Scent of Mystery was re-released as Holiday in Spain. However, as scent was so intimately woven into the film’s storytelling, its absence led to even more confusion among viewers, with the Daily Telegraph noting:
“…the film acquired a baffling, almost surreal quality, since there was no reason why, for example, a loaf of bread should be lifted from the oven and thrust into the camera for what seemed to be an unconscionably long time.”
By the 1970s, the fad for elaborate cinematic gimmicks had died out as a new generation of bold, exciting directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola spearheaded the renaissance in filmmaking known as “New Hollywood.” Still, occasional attempts were still made to further enhance the cinematic experience. One such system was “Sensurround”, which made theatre seats shake and rock during screenings of the 1974 disaster epic Earthquake. Far more ambitious was the Laser-Disc-based “Interfilm” system developed by inventor Bob Bejan, which allowed audience members to direct the course of a film in real-time, Choose Your Own Adventure -style. Seat armrests were fitted with joysticks, which the audience could use every few minutes to choose between three possible story paths. The films produced using this system were only 20 minutes long, allowing viewers to return for repeat screenings and experience multiple different iterations of the same story. Unfortunately, like many such systems, Interfilm proved prohibitively expensive to implement and failed to draw a large enough audience, and only two films – 1992’s I’m Your Man and 1995’s Mr. Payback – were produced before Bejan’s company folded. Still, the inventive concept anticipated future works of interactive media like Netflix’s 2018 experiment Black Mirror: Bandersnatch.
Yet despite the repeated failure of similar gimmicks, Smell-o-Vision continued to pop up in one form or another. In 1981, cult filmmaker and self-proclaimed “king of bad taste” John Waters paired his comedy film Polyester with a variation of Smell-o-Vision he dubbed “Odorama.” Instead of having smells piped through their seats, audience members were handed a card with ten numbered scratch-and-sniff discs, each cued by matching numbers appearing onscreen. The scents ranged from roses to farts to pizza, but all reportedly smelled vaguely of oregano. While Waters intended the gimmick as a tongue-in-cheek homage to schlock masters like William Castle, the Odorama concept has been been copied many times since, such as for 2003’s Rugrats Go Wild and 2011’s Spy Kids: All the Time in the World. There have even been attempts to resurrect Hans Laube’s original Smell-o-Vision concept. Hong Kong director Ip Kam-Hung’s 2000 fantasy-romance film Lavender was enhanced via floral scents pumped into theatres’ air conditioning systems, while in 2006, select Japanese screenings of Terence Malick’s historical romance The New World were accompanied by floral scents for romantic scenes, peppermint and rosemary for sad scenes, orange and eucalyptus for joyful moments, and tea tree oil for angry moments. Several rides at Disney parks also make use of piped-in-scents, such as It’s Tough to be a Bug at Animal Kingdom, Mickey’s Philiharmagic at Disney World, and Soarin’ Around the World at Disney California Adventure. Several companies are currently developing smell-release systems that can be plugged into a television or computer, while Vermont-based firm OVR technology recently introduced the ION, a scent device for the Oculus Rift Virtual Reality headset. It just goes to show that as cynical as we might think we are, we will always be suckers for a novel cinematic gimmick. And so, like a fart in a sofa, the strange allure of Smell-o-Vision will continue to linger for some time to come.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
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Henry, Gabriel, What the Fact?! 365 Strange Days in History, Chronicle Books, San Fransisco, 2018
‘Smellies’ Back in 1916? Variety, November 27, 1940, https://archive.org/details/variety140-1940-11/page/n195/mode/1up?view=theater
Smith, Martin, The Lingering Reek of Smell-O-Vision, Los Angeles Times, February 5, 2006, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-tm-oops6feb05-story.html
Dirks, Tim, Hollywood’s War Against Television, The History of Film, https://www.filmsite.org/50sintro2.html
Innes, Erika, Smell-o-Vision is Real! Medium, April 4, 2021, https://medium.com/from-the-desk-of-the-nerd-legion/smell-o-vision-is-real-1e50fa9f04f3
Braudy, Leo et al, Smell-o-Vision, Astrocolor and Other Film Industry Inventions That Proved to be Flops, Smithsonian Magazine, February 28, 2018, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/innovation/smell-o-vision-astrocolor-other-film-industry-inventions-that-proved-t
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