Iconic Photo: Watching Bwana Devil in 3D at the Paramount Theater

This iconic photograph by LIFE magazine photojournalist J. R. Eyerman turned 60 this past week. Shot at the Paramount Theater in Hollywood in 1952, the image shows the opening-night screening of the first ever full-length, color 3D movie, titled Bwana Devil.

Two interesting facts regarding the image: (1) Polaroid played a role in what the moviegoers were watching and what they were wearing, and (2) the people in the photo didn’t actually enjoy the film.

Here’s what LIFE magazine said about the Paramount audience at the time:

These megalopic creatures are the first paying audience for the latest cinematic novelty, Natural Vision. This process gets a three-dimensional effect by using two projectors with Polaroid filters and giving the spectators Polaroid spectacles to wear. The movie at the premiere, called Bwana Devil, did achieve some striking three-dimensional sequences. But members of the audience reported that the glasses were uncomfortable, the film itself — dealing with two scholarly looking lions who ate up quantities of humans in Africa — was dull, and it was generally agreed that the audience itself looked more startling than anything on the screen.

The December 15, 1952 LIFE magazine issue in which this quote appeared dedicated a full page to the photograph above. It would soon go on to become an iconic image in American culture and the defining image of Eyerman’s career.

When Marilyn died, I was in Japan making a movie and I remember being so sad because it seemed to be our loss. But she lives forever on film; she gave so much, she had a deep caring for her work and cared a great deal. Actors care about the parts they play, but Marilyn cared even deeper. She was glorious, something else. She stands alone and is incredibly unique. When I need cheering up, I watch “Diamonds” or the opening number of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and it lifts my spirits. Marilyn was a lovely, kind person who wouldn’t hurt a fly, she was adorable but that isn’t even a good enough word. She was so gifted.
-George Chakiris (who was a dancer in the “Diamonds” scene with her in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes)

JR Eyerman

Watching Bwana Devil in 3D at the Paramount Theater, Hollywood, 1952

JR Eyerman famously captured this photo of a formally-attired audience sporting 3D glasses during the opening night screening of the movie -Bwana Devil- (the first full length colour 3D motion picture) at Paramount Theatre, Hollywood. The film is set in British East Africa during the early 20th century. It is based on the true story of the Tsavo maneaters, a pair of lions which were responsible for the deaths of a number of construction workers on the Kenya-Uganda Railway, from March to December 1898. Although panned by the critics, the movie started a temporary 3D boom in the US film industry from 1952 to 1954. The advance of television halved the movie attendance from 90 million in 1948 to 46 million in 1951 and the movie studios tried desperately to lure the audience back into the theatres with many innovative techniques, among which were National Vision, Cinerama and other unsuccessful 3D ventures.