In 1960, when the romantic whodunit "Scent of Mystery" opened in Los Angeles, New York and Chicago, audiences were treated to more than just sights and sounds. As the projector droned, a device known as a smell brain pumped 30 different scents—wine, freshly baked bread, pipe tobacco, a salty ocean breeze—through a network of tiny tubes to movie viewers' seats.
This was the debut of "glorious Smell-O-Vision," the masterwork of Hans Laube, touted in publicity accounts of the day as a "world famed osmologist," and the flamboyant, gimmick-loving Hollywood producer Michael Todd Jr. 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 on smells as integral devices in the plot. And Laube and Todd had high hopes. Ads for the movie proclaimed: "First they moved (1895)! Then they talked (1927)! Now they smell!"
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 websites.
Yet Laube and Todd's attempt to lead moviegoers by their noses presaged a postmodern culture in which the manipulation of scents has become a powerful tool in shaping consumer behavior, with manufacturers assaulting the nostrils with chamomile-scented carpeting and rosebush sofas and wristwatches and mobile phones that smell faintly like coffee. Synthetic aromas have become so ubiquitous that some people consider them environmental hazards. Laube and Todd, in fact, were visionaries.
Almost since the invention of the motion picture, filmmakers have sought to exploit senses in addition to sight. Some tricks, such as 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 1974 film "Earthquake"—fell flat.
The sense of smell has tempted filmmakers for a long time, 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 identify nerve impulses as being triggered by jasmine, say, rather than rose petals—are capable of sensing and distinguishing about 10,000 scents. Research has shown that scents can stimulate physiological responses before people even realize what they're smelling.
It was no accident that ancient Greek festivals such as the Eleusinian mysteries were replete with potent smells, including 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 1916, proprietors of the Family Theater in Forest City, Pa., 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 set 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 swashbuckler starring Errol Flynn, with aromas such as the smell of tar from a sailing ship to add ambience. Also on the bill was "Boom Town," a drama in which each character was given a distinctive scent: tobacco for Clark Gable, pine for Spencer Tracy, My Sin perfume for Hedy Lamarr.
There were two obvious shortcomings to early attempts at olfactory filmmaking. Since they were added to existing movies, they were an offense to 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 problems, because the human nose has difficulty transitioning to a new smell until it is cleared of the molecules that triggered a previous scent. People can suffer "olfactory fatigue" when the sense of smell gradually stops working; just think of the smoker who no longer notices the acrid stink of his cigarette. Enter Hans Laube with what seemed like a solution. A tall, gray-haired Swiss native who affected owlishly severe dark eyeglasses, he has been identified 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 that was widely used throughout Europe. This success led to his fascination with reversing the process: 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 the aroma could be more carefully regulated. With a colleague, Robert Barth, Laube produced a 35-minute "smell-o-drama" movie called "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, a newspaper reported in 1943, "is said to have produced odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound." The New York Times noted that audiences thought the film's simulated bacon aroma didn't quite seem real, but that the incense was on the mark.
The Sweet Smell of Excess
Laube found a patron in Michael Todd Jr., the son of flamboyant Broadway and Hollywood producer Michael Todd. The elder Todd, best remembered as one of Elizabeth Taylor's husbands, had put on a series of successful musical spectaculars at the same New York World's Fair at which Laube had 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 considered several different setups. Ultimately, they opted not to include aromas in the 1956 film—a wise choice, since "80 Days" already had enough pizazz to become a box-office smash and win an Oscar for Best Picture. After the elder Todd died in a 1958 plane crash, the younger Todd—who had 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 what Laube originally dubbed "Scentovision" be redubbed "Smell-O-Vision." When asked why he didn't change the name to something more dignified, Todd Jr. replied: "I don't understand how you can be 'dignified' about a process that introduces smells into a theater."
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. Syndicated columnist Earl Wilson gushed that Smell-O-Vision "can produce anything from skunk to perfume, and remove it instantly."
Meanwhile, Todd Jr. provided Laube with use of the Cinestage Theatre in Chicago as a laboratory so he could perfect the patented process. The core of Laube's device was his "smell brain"—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 seat in the theater. At the end of the movie, the belt was rewound and the containers refilled.