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Lesson #9 - Beware of Unproven Technologies
The Lingering Reek of “Smell-O-Vision”

The 70mm Newsletter
Written by: Patrick J. Kiger and Martin J. Smith. Article excerpted from "Oops : 20 Life Lessons from the Fiascoes That Shaped America", by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger. Published by HarperCollins, 2006 Date: 22 May 2006
Sound revolutionized motion pictures, but the tortured effort to bring smell to the silver screen proved that some things are best left to the imagination.

In satiric director John Waters’ 1981 film "Polyester", Divine, a 300-pound transvestite, portrays a love-starved suburban housewife married to a porno theater proprietor, and aging former teen idol Tab Hunter plays her malevolent paramour. But despite the perversity of the casting, and a script filled with jokes about subjects ranging from macramé to foot fetishism, the film became best known for an even more bizarre gag. "Polyester" was the facetious debut of “Odorama,” in which moviegoers were handed scratch-and-sniff cards, and numbers were flashed on the screen to signal them when to smell appropriate odors ranging from roses to flatulence. The film’s prologue takes place in the laboratory of the technology’s purported inventor, “Dr. Arnold Quackenshaw,” who explains in a thick Teutonic accent that “through this nose come some of life’s most rewarding sensations…however, you may experience some odors that will shock you. This film’s producers believe that today’s audiences are mature enough to know that some things just plain stink!”

It’s a safe bet, however, that relatively few of the people who rent the DVD reissue of "Polyester" today even realize that Waters’ fragrant humor parodied an actual cinematic phenomenon. In 1960, a romantic whodunit entitled "Scent of Mystery" featured a dubious innovation billed as “Glorious Smell-O-Vision,” in which a “smell brain” device pumped 30 different scents — wine, freshly-baked bread, pipe tobacco, a salty ocean breeze ? through a network of tiny tubes to movie viewers’ seats. The gadgetry was the masterwork of Hans Laube, touted in publicity accounts as a “world famed osmologist,” or smell expert, from Switzerland, who collaborated with flamboyant, gimmick-loving Hollywood producer Mike Todd, Jr., on one of the most outlandish projects in movie history. “First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!” the ads proclaimed.

While "Scent of Mystery" wasn’t the first attempt to employ aromas in filmmaking, it was by far the most technologically intricate. Beyond that, it was the first — and apparently the only — motion picture that relied upon smells as integral devices in the plot. The history-making nature of “Smell-O-Vision” aside, audiences and movie critics were unimpressed, and Scent of Mystery quickly evaporated at the box office. Today, it’s remembered, if at all, as a bit of trivia on movie-buff web sites. Yet Laube’s and Todd’s attempt to lead moviegoers by their noses presaged a postmodern culture in which the manipulation of scents would become a powerful tool in shaping consumer behavior, in which synthetic aromas would become so ubiquitous that some would begin to fear them as environmental hazards.
More in 70mm reading:

Mike Todd, Jr. Interview

"The New World" with smells

"Holiday In Spain" released on Blu-Ray

Oliver Michael Todd in Conversation with Thomas Hauerslev

Paul Rayton Remembers "Scent of Mystery" in 3 minutes and 49 seconds

Internet link:


About the authors

Patrick J. Kiger
's articles have appeared in GQ, George, the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Philadelphia, and other publications, and at Discovery.com on the Internet. He lives near Washington, DC.

Martin J. Smith
is a journalist, magazine editor, and winner of more than 40 newspaper and magazine writing awards. He is a senior editor of theLos Angeles Times Magazine and is the author of three critically acclaimed suspense novels, including Straw Men, a 2002 Edgar Award nominee. He lives with his family in southern California

So Real It Made Audiences Queasy

Authors Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger. Photo by Steve Marsel.

Almost since the invention of the motion picture, filmmakers have sought to exploit other senses in addition to sight, in an effort to create a more compelling experience for audiences. Some tricks, such the THX system that provides high-quality sound in theaters, have been successful. Others, such as “Sensurround” — a violent motion-simulating technology featured in the 1975 film "Earthquake" — ended up joining the list of cinematic gimmicks that fell flat.

The sense of smell, in particular, has tempted filmmakers for a long time, and with good reason. The olfactory neurons in the nasal cavity, which detect chemical components of aromas, and the brain’s olfactory bulb — a clump of cells that somehow identifies nerve impulses as being caused by jasmine rather than rose petals — are capable of sensing and distinguishing about 10,000 different scents. Research has shown that scents are capable of stimulating physiological responses before people even realize what they’re smelling, and as a result they often have powerful, primitive emotional associations. It was no accident that that ancient Greek festivals such as the Eleusinian mysteries were replete with potent smells, such as burning incense and flowers. In the 19th century, stage dramatists sometimes used aromas as special effects in plays. They scattered pine needles to suggest the odor of a forest, or cooked food in the theater to simulate the aroma of a restaurant onstage.

The use of smells in the movie industry, in fact, actually preceded the introduction of sound. In 1906, proprietors of the Family Theater in Forest City, Pennsylvania dipped cotton wool in rose oil and put it in front of an electric fan during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl game. Similarly, in 1929, a Boston theater put lilac oil in the ventilating system to get audiences in the mood for Lilac Time, a love story about a British aviator and a French woman during World War I. That same year, when The Broadway Melody, one of the first Hollywood musicals, premiered in New York, perfume was sprayed from the ceiling.

In the early 1940s, Hollywood experimented with using compressed air to force various artificial scents through air-conditioning systems. In 1943, a theater in Detroit showed The Sea Hawk, a pirate swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, with aromas such as the smell of tar from a sailing ship to add ambiance. Also on the bill was Boom Town, a drama in which each character was given a distinctive scent ? tobacco for Clark Gable, a pine scent for Spencer Tracy, and “My Sin” perfume for sexy actress Hedy Lamarr.

There were two obvious shortcomings to early attempts at olfactory filmmaking. Since they were added to existing movies, they were an offense against film aesthetics, a distraction from what the director had intended audiences to focus upon. Beyond that, the clouds of perfume that accumulated in theaters created a problem. The human nose, which has only so many smell receptors, has difficulty transitioning to a new smell until it is cleared of the molecules that triggered a previous scent. The result was a phenomenon called “olfactory fatigue,” in which the sense of smell gradually stops working, like a smoker who no longer notices the acrid stink of his cigarette. (Films with smells would work a lot better if audiences were rabbits, which depend upon smell to avoid predators and possess nostrils equipped with skin flaps, which restrict the volume of molecules they can take in with a sniff.)

Enter Hans Laube with what seemed like a solution. A tall, gray-haired Swiss native who affected owlishly severe dark eyeglasses, Laube’s background is a bit mysterious — media coverage of his work identifies him variously as a professor, an advertising executive, an electrical engineer, and “an expert in osmology, the science of odors.” By one account, sometime prior to World War II, he invented a method for cleaning the air in large auditoriums, which became widely used throughout Europe. That success somehow led him to his fascination with reversing the process, and putting odors of his choosing back into rooms. He developed an artificial scent-delivery process, in which chemicals were transmitted through a network of pipes connected to individual seats in the theater, so that the timing and amount of aroma could be more carefully regulated. With a colleague, Robert Barth, Laube produced a 35-minute “smell-o-drama” movie, "Mein Traum" — in English, "My Dream" — for the 1940 World’s Fair in New York. The projectionist operated a control board with dials that allowed him to release 32 different odors, including roses, coconut, tar, hay and peaches.

Laube’s invention, “which of course is a secret pending patents, is said to have produced odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound,” a newspaper reported in 1943. “The scientists maintain that with few exceptions, almost any smell can be produced and sent out to the audience, and furthermore, any theater equipped for sound can handle the odors, which are synchronized with the action of the picture just as the sound is.” The New York Times was a bit more reserved, noting that audiences thought the film’s simulated bacon aroma didn’t quite seem real, but that the incense was on the mark.

Laube returned to the United States in 1944 intending to market a version of his smell-producing technology to the nascent medium of television. Laube claimed that he could produce 500 different scents with a small, inexpensive gadget that could be installed inside a TV set. A 1946 United Press account of Laube’s demonstration of “Scentovision” in a New York hotel suite depicted him as laconic and wary about revealing too much about his invention. Nevertheless, the correspondent came away impressed: “Laube has one view of a circus at work which gives off such realistic odors that his audience almost always lets out a yell and runs for the window.”

In 1955, Laube set up his apparatus at the Cinerama-Warner Theater at 47th and Broadway in Manhattan. He filmed a 10-minute pilot film, with 17 different odors, to show to test audiences. Nevertheless, for reasons lost to history, the television industry passed on Laube’s invention. The inventor also approached supermarkets with the idea of projecting slides of oranges, smoked ham and chocolate pie, accompanied by the appropriate scents, as a way to entice shoppers. But that, too, proved fruitless.

The Sweet Smell of Excess

Laube finally found a patron in Michael Todd Jr., the son of flamboyant Broadway and Hollywood producer Michael Todd. The elder Todd, who today is best remembered as one of Elizabeth Taylor’s husbands, had put on a series of successful musical spectaculars at the same World’s Fair at which Laube first exhibited his experimental smell movie. A decade and a half later, Todd and his collaborator-son were looking at gimmicks that might make Todd’s outrageous wide-screen epic, "Around the World in 80 Days", even more spectacular. Smells were an intriguing possibility, and the Todds looked at several different setups. Ultimately, they opted not to include aromas in the 1956 film —a wise choice, since "80 Days" already had enough pizzazz to become a box-office smash and win an Oscar for Best Picture. But after the elder Todd died in a 1958 plane crash, the younger Todd — who’d inherited his father’s penchant for the outrageous ? decided to take a chance on Laube’s technology. He signed the Swiss inventor to a movie deal, one proviso being that “Scentovision” be redubbed “Smell-O-Vision.” When asked why he didn’t change the name to something more dignified, Todd Jr. was bemused. “I don’t understand how you can be ‘dignified’ about a process than introduces smells into a theater,” was his reply.

Todd Jr.’s wonderfully tacky, Walter Winchell-esque plays on words (“I hope it’s the kind of picture they call a scentsation!”) made great copy for newspapers, and before a cast had been hired, Scent was already generating hype. Syndicated columnist Earl Wilson, for example, gushed that “Smell-O-Vision” “can produce anything from skunk to perfume, and remove it instantly.”

Meanwhile, Todd provided Laube with use of the Todd Cinestage Theatre in Chicago as a laboratory, so he could perfect the patented process. The core of Laube’s process was his “smell brain” — actually, an assortment of perfume containers linked in a belt, which in turn was wound around a motorized supply reel. As the movie footage began to roll, markers on it cued the brain. The containers, apparently arranged in the order that the scents would be used in the film, whirred into position. At the right moment, needles pierced membranes on the bottom of the appropriate container and drew off perfume. Electric fans mixed the perfume with air, which was then pumped through a mile’s worth of tubing that stretched to vents under each and every seat in the theater. At the end of the movie, the belt would be rewound and the containers refilled.

Laube added other nuances in an effort to prevent the smells from clashing or mixing together, as had happened with other scent-producing gadgets. The special perfumes were mixed without the chemicals normally added to make a scent last longer. Between two clashing aromas — for example, garlic and the delicate smell of lilacs ? he would squirt a neutralizing chemical designed to revive audiences’ nostrils.

Laube saw “Smell-O-Vision” as having certain aesthetic limitations. He theorized that heavy drama wouldn’t mix well emotionally with odors, but that lighter fare could be enhanced by the right aroma. Wisely, Todd agreed, and scheduled “Smell-O-Vision” to debut in a tongue-in-cheek whodunit, "Scent of Mystery", instead of, say, a Biblical epic or historical costume drama that would have resulted in an even more embarrassing fiasco. Scent’s plot centers around a photographer, played by British actor Denholm Elliott, on vacation in Spain when he stumbles upon a plot to murder a beautiful American heiress played by Todd Jr.’s stepmother, Elizabeth Taylor, in a surprise cameo appearance. With the help of a brandy-sipping cab driver, portrayed by screen legend Peter Lorre, Elliot embarks on a wild chase across the picturesque Spanish countryside to thwart the crime.

For someone who was building a movie around a gimmick, Todd was remarkably conscientious. To direct, he hired Jack Cardiff, who’d won an Oscar for his cinematography on the 1947 film "Black Narcissus", and spent the summer of 1959 shooting at 149 different locations in Spain.

While Todd Jr. was in Italy working on the film’s musical score, the entertainment press broke the story that "Scent" had competition. Soon after, Walter Reade Jr., owner of a small theater chain and film distribution company, confirmed at a news conference — scented, of course — that he was releasing his smell-enhanced film, "Behind the Great Wall", in early December, two months before "Scent"’s planned premiere. Todd Jr. had been laboring for several years to generate hype for "Scent"; Reade’s project smelled suspiciously like an effort to capitalize on that publicity spadework. He’d taken an existing Italian-made travelogue and added “AromaRama,” which basically pumped perfumes into the theater’s air-conditioning system in a fashion virtually identical to the one used to scent "The Sea Hawk" and Boomtown back in the 1940s. To make matters worse, Reade boasted that “AromaRama” could be installed in a theater for just $7,500 — about a third of what it cost to put in “Smell-O-Vision.” “This contest may well hang on who has the best set of smells,” Newsweek reported.

Unfortunately for Reade, the pump didn’t work any better in 1959 than it had years before. The high point of the production came during the opening minutes, in which TV newsman Chet Huntley cut an orange and the accompanying aroma was strong and realistic. But after that, the perfumes lingered in the air and mixed together. “The odors that follow are neither clear nor pleasurable,” sniffed New York Times critic Bosley Crowther. "Great Wall" and “AromaRama” quickly disappeared.

But "Scent" still faced the difficult task of living up to the expectations that Todd Jr. had so artfully created for “Smell-O-Vision.” The technology was billed as far more precise and realistic than any of the previous attempts at olfactory filmmaking, and some, such as New York Times writer Richard Nason, thought it might actually represent a genuine advance in cinema, the way that early crude attempts to add sound eventually had been followed by the synchronized soundtrack.

"Scent" opened in three specially-equipped theaters in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in February 1960. Some of the olfactory effects clearly had been included to demonstrate the new technology’s capabilities. A view of a monastery’s rose garden, predictably, was accompanied by a floral scent. When wine casks rolled down a hill and smashed against a wall, the apparatus produced the odor of grape juice. Additionally, director Cardiff had included a number of “whiff gags,” such as a scene in which Elliott and Lorre appear to be drinking coffee, but Lorre’s cup gives off the smell of brandy ? leading Elliott to chastise him about the need to keep a clear head. Beyond that, though, Scent was the first film in which aromas actually were integral to the story, providing pivotal clues to the audience. The killer is identified, for example, by the smell of his pipe tobacco, and in turn, the mysterious heiress by her perfume.

But despite Laube’s years of laborious effort, on opening night “Smell-O-Vision” didn’t work as intended. According to Variety, moviegoers in the balcony complained that the aromas reached them a few seconds after the action on the screen, and were accompanied by a distracting hissing sound. Crowther, the New York Times critic, complained that the aromas were too faint, so that “patrons sit there sniffling and snuffling like a lot of bird dogs, trying hard to catch the scent.” He caustically suggested that Todd Jr. pump laughing gas into the audience instead, since the film’s acting and script seemed to him nearly as sparse as the aromas.

Despite the care Laube had taken in designing his system, the audience apparently was still afflicted with the same olfactory fatigue that had doomed “AromaRama” —though, perhaps because of the delivery method, they perceived it as an absence rather than excess. As Todd recalled years later in an interview with Roy Frumkes of Film in Review magazine, Todd Jr.’s press agent, Bill Doll, finally suggested that the “Smell-O-Vision” pump be reversed after each scent. “It sucked air back so that there was no overhang on the previous smell,” Todd Jr. explained to Frumkes. “Otherwise it just sort of drifted in between smells. It wasn’t overpowering, but just enough not to make the clearest delineation.” With that small adjustment, Todd claimed, “Smell-O-Vision” worked just fine.

But it was too late. Negative reviews and word-of-mouth already had doomed the film to oblivion. (Quipped comedian Henny Youngman: “I didn’t understand the film — I had a cold.”) Todd Jr. shelved plans for installing “Smell-O-Vision” in 100 theaters around the world, and the film eventually was re-released as “Holiday in Spain,” minus the odors. As a British newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, noted, “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.”

With the failure of "Scent", Laube, “Smell-O-Vision’s” inventor, quietly disappeared. Todd Jr.’s Hollywood career similarly petered out. He announced plans to make two more films — a sci-fi picture, "The Creature from the Bronx", and "Bumpkin’s Holiday", in which the action was to consist of a man riding on a bus, with no spoken dialogue or subtitles. Neither film was made, and Todd went nearly another two decades before producing another. Strangely, the olfactory auteur’s swan song was a painfully serious cinematic version of suicidal poetess Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical novel, "The Bell Jar".

Nevertheless, the notion of “smellies,” as some had called them, was as stubbornly persistent as the aroma of cat urine on a carpet. In 1981, independent filmmaker John Waters parodied the idea in "Polyester" with “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff cards, and Waters’ gag was copied by makers of the 2003 animated film, "Rugrats Go Wild", who claimed it was an “homage” to him. Laube’s and Todd Jr.’s film was revived briefly in the mid-1980s, when the MTV cable network aired it in conjunction with a convenience store chain promotion that offered scratch-and-sniff cards.

"The New World" presented with smell in Japan

Read the press release

In 2000, Hong Kong director Ip Kam-Hung released "Lavender", a fantasy romance in which an aromatherapy shop owner falls in love with an injured angel who has tumbled onto her balcony. To add to the film’s ambiance, producers reportedly spent $1 million to purchase special devices that would pump flowery scents into the air conditioning systems at theaters. Ip told the South China Morning Post that he got the inspiration from Internet accounts of previous odor-enhanced films. Ip, mercifully, chose to forgo the gimmick in a subsequent film, 2004’s "Elixir of Love", which focused on the romantic travails of a princess afflicted with intolerable body odor.

Sony Pictures also toying with smell for movies.

Press image for enlargement.

But while success has eluded "Scent"’s cinematic imitators, another of Laube’s underlying notions - that synthetic aromas could be used to influence consumers - has become a postmodern paradigm. Today, manufacturers of an astonishing variety of products imbue them with artificial fragrances - from chamomile-scented carpeting and rosebush sofas to wristwatches and mobile phones that smell faintly like coffee. Some doctors have blamed synthetic aromas for exacerbating patients’ hay fever, and a small but vociferous segment of the population have protested that the continual barrage of simulated scents may be having harmful effects on their immune systems. In the late 1990s, a high-tech company even developed a system called iSmell for transmitting aromas via the Internet. Perhaps fortunately for the olfactory-fatigued among us, the technology never made it to market.

Recipe for Disaster

Cream of Reek Soup


1 mediocre comedy-mystery film

1 theater full of curious moviegoers

30 different perfumes

1 mile of tubes

Tens of thousands of dollars’ worth of pumps and other gadgetry

Combine comedy-mystery film and moviegoers in crowded theater. Douse with indecipherable succession of perfumes. Kiss money goodbye.

Other Doomed Innovations

“Smell-O-Vision” was just one of many outlandish gambits tried over the years in the movie industry. Among the others:

CinemaScope: "The Robe", a ponderous 1953 religious epic, was the first film to use special lenses, one on the camera and another on the projector, that squeezed a wide-angle camera image down to 35-millimeter size and then expanded it again on a gigantic screen that was two and a half times as long as it was tall. The action was supposed to be more vivid; instead, it was grotesquely distorted. Director Fritz Lang once joked that it was fit only for photographing snakes or funerals.

Cinemagic: An attempt to exploit the hype around 3-D. In the 1959 film "The Angry Red Planet", producer Sid Pink added a filter to the projector, which was supposed to make the screen image seem surrealistically distorted. Instead, it was simply hard to look at.

Percepto: B-movie horror director William Castle, who never saw a cheesy gimmick he didn’t like, tried to put some electricity into his 1959 film "The Tingler" by rigging a few seats in the theater to give unsuspecting patrons a mild shock.

Hallucinogenic Hypno-Vision: Ads for the 1964 film "The Thrill Killers" (also known as "The Maniacs are Loose") claimed that it featured a hypnotic effect, which supposedly would fool audiences into thinking the crazed killers were running around in the theater.

Sensurround: The 1974 film "Earthquake" and 1977’s "Rollercoaster" used low-frequency sound to create the illusion of violent movement. And you thought that footage of Shelley Winters swimming underwater in "The Poseidon Adventure" was nauseating?
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Updated 21-01-24