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The Lingering Reek of Smell-O-Vision

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This adapted excerpt is from "OOPS: 20 Life Lessons From the Fiascoes That Shaped America," by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger, which will be published on March 14. Copyright 2006 by Martin J. Smith and Patrick J. Kiger. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

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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.

Even 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. Todd wisely agreed, and he scheduled Smell-O-Vision to debut in the tongue-in-cheek "Scent of Mystery" instead of, say, a biblical epic or historical costume drama.

"Scent of Mystery" centers upon a photographer, played by British actor Denholm Elliott, who is 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, Elliott embarks on a wild chase across the picturesque Spanish countryside to thwart the crime.

"Scent of Mystery" 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.

The film opened in three specially equipped theaters 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 Jack 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, this was the first film in which aromas 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 the heiress by her perfume.

Despite Laube's years of laborious effort, on opening night Smell-O-Vision didn't completely 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. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther 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.

Smell-O-Vision's proponents made technical adjustments that mostly solved the problem, but it was too late. Negative reviews and word-of-mouth 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 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."

The Smell-O-Vision Fallout

With the failure of "Scent," Laube quietly disappeared. Todd Jr.'s Hollywood career similarly petered out. He announced plans to make two more films—a sci-fi picture, "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 Jr. went nearly another two decades before producing another. The olfactory auteur's swan song was a painfully serious cinematic version of suicidal poetess Sylvia Plath's novel "The Bell Jar."

But the notion of "smellies," as some had called them, was as stubbornly persistent as the aroma of cat pee 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 and Todd Jr.'s film was revived briefly in the mid-1980s, when the MTV cable network aired "Scent of Mystery" in conjunction with a convenience store chain promotion that offered scratch-and-sniff cards.

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 ambience, 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.

Mercifully, Ip chose to forgo the gimmick in the 2004 film "Elixir of Love," which focused on the romantic travails of a princess afflicted with intolerable body odor.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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