Lost Technology: The First 3D Film

Overlooked, and sometimes forgotten, what kind of insight does the first commercially available 3D picture have to offer?

The first commercially available 3D movie was the 1922 silent film, The Power of Love, produced by the Haworth Film Company and distributed by Perfect Pictures. The American drama starred Elliot Sparling, Barbara Bedford, and Noah Beery. The plot follows the protagonists Terry and Maria (respectively), as they fall in love despite and arranged marriage between Maria and Don, the nefarious thief and murderer.

A far cry from IMAX 3D, The Power of Love used the red-and-green anaglyph system to achieve a stereoscopic effect. The film was the first and only picture to use the two-camera, two-projector Fairall-Elder stereoscopic format. This means two images of a scene were taken at slightly different angles but viewed together, in order to create a sense of depth.

This seems like quite an odd film to be made in 3D as it seems as though there is nothing in particular to gain from watching a film like this in a new and different way. There was a reason for it, however, and that is the fact the filmmakers were not only trying to make the first 3D film, but also the first interactive, choose-your-own ending film. By viewing the picture through only the red or green lens, the viewer could choose to see either a happy ending or a tragic one.

The Power of Love was not a success, and never again booked in its 3D format. It was distributed in 2D under the title Forbidden Lover between 1923 and 1924, but both version of the film are thought to be lost now.

Throughout the 1920s, there were other forays into the new and exciting technology of stereoscopic projects, such as Pathé’s Stereoscopiks Series. Despite this, it took the arrival of the at home TV set in the 1950s to ramp up 3D technology again. As more people began to rent or own television sets, picture houses were looking for a way to draw audiences back, by offering something they couldn’t see at home – colour, widescreen, and of course, 3D. The biggest hit of the decade is usually thought to be House of Wax (1953), starring Vincent Price, as it was not only 3D but also used stereophonic sound. This led the film into grossing $5.5 million at box office, which in terms of today’s money, is equivalent to around $61.9 million.

3D then died down again in the 1960s and 70s, before resurfacing in the 1980s, when we saw groan-inducing titles such as Friday the 13th Part III (1982) and Jaws 3-D (1983). Today, films are often available to view in 3D at the cinema, and I imagine the screenings are attended by audiences because they otherwise wouldn’t be on offer. Personally, I haven’t seen a film in 3D for many years and have no desire to do so at present. I much prefer watching a film with good picture and sound quality over a slightly blurry one with awkward glasses and a headache.

The Power of Love is often overlooked, and sometimes entirely forgotten, as a part of film history. It wasn’t received particularly well, and to be honest, the use of Fairall-Elder stereoscopic format was almost entirely superfluous. However, I am intrigued by the idea of the choose your own ending element. I find it hard to imagine what this would have looked like – we’ll never know – and I imagine it would be very underwhelming, yet there’s still something very attractive about the idea of alternate endings and giving the audience some autonomy on the story they take from the film.

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