TCM Fest: Smell-O-Vision to Get Rare and Pungent Encore at Cinerama Dome

Smell-o-vision at TCM Film Festival 2016 - H
Chris Willman

The ill-fated 1960 movie 'Scent of Mystery' treated moviegoers to the actual smells of everything from tobacco to bulls.

Standing in the mostly empty auditorium of the ArcLight Cinemas’ Cinerama Dome earlier this week, Turner Classic Movies host Ben Mankiewicz was doing an inordinate amount of sniffing, but not because he had a cold. Instead, he picked up one spray bottle after another, taking a whiff of some of the odors manufactured for use in this Sunday’s TCM Classic Film Festival screening of Scent of Mystery (1960), the one and only feature film ever released in Smell-O-Vision. The pic, which also goes by the title of Holiday in Spain, will screen May 1 at the ArcLight in Hollywood at 10 a.m.

“This is tobacco, one of the main clues” to the titular mystery, Mankiewicz said. “Tells you who’s nearby. Okay, they nailed it.” Moving on: “This is grass — smells like grass after a little rain. This is garlic. … This is a specially composed ‘smell of mystery,’ a retro perfume, made just for this show. It smells a little like Axe Bodyspray! I like Axe, don’t get me wrong.”

If everyone’s a critic, then everyone will get to be an odor reviewer on top of film commentator when Scent of Mystery unspools as an olfactory experience for the first time in an American theater since it proved to be a pricey bomb in a handful of Cinerama venues 56 years ago. A few film buffs will recall that a cropped and color-desaturated version of the movie showed up on MTV, of all places, in the mid-1980s, in conjunction with a 7-11 promotion that involved scratch-and-sniff cards. But for anyone whose bucket list included the hope of seeing a running-of-the-bulls sequence accompanied by several minutes of simulated bull smell, that holy grail has arrived.

But the technical aspects of Smell-O-Vision have been greatly altered for its comeback after a dormant half-century. In 1960, exhibitors installed small tubes — at considerable expense — underneath nearly every seat in the handful of theaters that were optimistically equipped for the format. They were connected to a central platter system that unleashed successive smells. In this version, giant ducts will release certain atmospheric smells, like that bull run. But most of the odors will arrive via audience participation, with each attendee finding a numbered vial on his seat that he and others will be instructed via onscreen cues to release at the appropriate moment, with the help of souvenir Smell-O-Vision paper fans.

“In general at the TCM Festival, we try to present films as the filmmaker meant them to be seen,” said Mankiewicz, “but here we’re adding as many gimmicks as we can to this movie to keep people involved” — a historical departure that probably won’t disturb too many purists, given the generally accepted mediocrity of the film. “They have live actors with this screening to make this a fully involved experience for filmgoers.” A la Woody Allen's The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), characters will occasionally seem to materialize in the audience, with a bad guy suddenly stepping from behind the curtain to eavesdrop on the onscreen characters, for instance.

Most of the scent effects are original to the film, though, including a gag in which cab driver Peter Lorre appears to be drinking coffee, but — if the chemicals and festivalgoers’ noses align — it becomes apparent he spiked his java with brandy.

The movie won’t be projected in its original three-projector Cinerama format, nor will it be the 1960 cut. No useable prints exist of that version, according to editor and historian David Strohmaier, who calls this digital print (which was released two years ago on Blu-Ray) “more of a reconstruction than a restoration.” Smell-O-Vision was such a disaster that it was quickly recalled and then re-released, with about 20 minutes cut out, as Holiday in Spain, eliminating the smells — and some of the mystery — to promote it as if it were more like the travelogues that did well in Cinerama venues at the time. It’s that shorter version that will show at the Dome, based on a non-Cinerama 70mm print Strohmaier found that had faded to pink, requiring a massive amount of computer colorization.

Despite its legend as a debacle, Smell-O-Vision “worked most of the time” in that first run, according to Strohmaier: “Probably the only times it wasn’t working properly was when critics came to see the movie, and that’s where it got most of its bad reputation. But I’ve spoken to five or six people who are still around who saw it originally in L.A., New York or Chicago and said it worked fine.”

The brand name became a punchline in the 1960s, with Henny Youngman quipping: “I didn’t understand the picture. I had a cold.” The very name, though, had its origins in a gag that could be coincidental. In the 1944 Looney Tune The Old Grey Hare, Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd are found in their old age in the year 2000, which brings a newspaper headline: “Smellevision (sic) Replaces Television.”

With the advent of the D-Box experience, you could argue that Smell-O-Vision was ahead of its time in some way. “It’s all about immersive cinema coming back, which Cinerama kind of started in a way back in 1952,” said Mankiewicz. “And I think virtual reality has some intriguing possibilities for filmmakers. But, while I’m not an industry oracle, I don’t know that smell is going be a big part of that. Smells linger — that’s the thing. It’s hard to get them out and get on to a new smell.”

The TCM Festival has no interest in adding smells to any classic films that didn’t originally bear them, even though it’s easy to imagine the possibilities that could have been created for this year’s Francis Ford Coppola tribute — say, a screening of Apocalypse Now in which the entire audience could love the smell of napalm in the morning.

The last time smells were part of the theatrical experience came when John Waters introduced “Odor-ama,” with scratch-and-sniff cards, for 1981’s Polyester, a film he acknowledged owed a debt to Scent of Mystery. Reached for comment at his office in Baltimore about the unlikely revival of the 1960 non-classic, Waters didn’t exactly rhapsodize about the antecedent to his own film, though. “The problem with Scent of Mystery,” Waters said, “was that they only had good smells.”