From Smell-o-Vision to Odorama

Posted by in November's Magazine

The first movie of John Waters, Polyester, is out on Blu-ray. Kennedy Wilson asks: has it passed its smell-by date? 

From the off, Hollywood was constantly evolving its technology. Early silent movies were often just a notch above the nickelodeon on the seaside pier. Even primitive classics with stars like Valentino or Gloria Swanson are practically unwatchable today. With the invention of synchronised sound in the 1920s suddenly movies became talkies and a whole new world of nuance opened up. The first all-talking film was Lights of New York (1928). 


The very film in question

 There had been experiments with colour movies since 1898. Full-colour gave films a new, spectacular immediacy. You need only think of when Dorothy leaves monochrome Kansas for the Yellow Brick Road in The Wizard of Oz (1939). That same year Gone With the Wind (through sound, colour, music, fine acting and a literary script) became – and remains – one of the greatest films ever made.

In the 1950s there were assorted widescreen offerings the apotheosis of which was Cinerama’s presentation of How the West Was Won (1962), which has three screens, three projectors and even three directors. The IMAX owes much to Cinerama.

In Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World he envisioned a dystopian future where the population was tranquilized by the drug soma and by regular trips to ‘the feelies’, motion pictures where physical sensations were impressed on the audience through the arms of the cinema seats. (Huxley went to Hollywood briefly to try his hand at screenwriting.) The nearest thing to feelies was Sensurround where the whole movie theatre seemed to shake during films like Earthquake (1974). Thanks to low-frequency rumbles fed through a phalanx of speakers. Such effects are still with us thanks to Dolby Surround Sound. Other gimmicks like 3-D were introduced in the 1950s and this is still on the go in various guises. But the ‘smellies’ never took off.

The only cinematic offering in Smell-O-Vision was 1960’s turkey Scent of Mystery. According to Halliwell’s Film Guide the process saw smells ‘pumped to the cinema audience through pipes leading to individual seats in the auditorium’. It never caught on. Audiences just didn’t seem to want a whiff of Catherine Deneuve’s eau de parfum or Easy Rider’s burning rubber – although such sensations might have improved many a B-movie.

To enhance this cheesy feat of tastelessness the filmmaker produced an Odorama “scratch ‘n’ sniff” card, reproduced for the Blu-ray release 

Then in 1981 came schlockmeister John Waters’s malodorous Polyester, so named he said because it was the worst possible thing you could ever wear. The manmade fabric was also an effective trap for bodily smells. Film director Waters had made his name in a series of cheapo underground indie films in the 1970s. Many became cult ‘midnight movies’ popular with students. In the denouement of his Multiple Maniacs a fat drag queen gets raped by a giant; greasy, papier maché lobster. 

Suddenly with a big fan following, a big budget and 35mm the mainstream beckoned. Waters made Polyester with his muse Divine and it co-starred 1950s teen heartthrob Tab Hunter who had just turned 50 and was a bona fide has-been. The movie took as its inspiration a soft target. Douglas Sirk was famous for a series of women’s pictures – bold colourful weepies like All That Heaven Allows and Imitation of Life wherein assorted glamour queens get their comeuppance. 

Waters’s movie would be more smelodrama than melodrama. Divine played Francine Fishpaw a put upon mom with two bratty teenage kids and an unfaithful pornographer husband. The son is a solvent-abusing foot fetishist, the daughter a go-go dancing nymphomaniac. Francine has a highly developed sense of smell and her home is a shrine to Airwick. 

To enhance the cinematic enjoyment of this cheesy feat of tastelessness the filmmaker produced an Odorama “scratch ‘n’ sniff” card (reproduced for the Blu-ray release). 

When numbers flashed up on-screen during crucial scenes in the film audience members would be enjoined to scratch the relevant numbered patch on an impregnated postcard and get a whiff of Mr Fishpaw’s ‘Dutch oven’, the delivery boy’s pepperoni pizza, Francine’s gas cooker or a pair of her son’s rancid sneakers. 

The whole movie is as hilarious as it is appalling. Although, it must be said, the hilarity was enhanced in the collective environment of the cinema. Scratching ’n’ sniffing in the privacy of your own home isn’t quite the same.

Polyester was the last of Waters’s shockers – he went on to make the much more sedate Hairspray in 1988 and Serial Mom in 1994. Hairspray was Divine’s last picture (he died prematurely) and it went on to become a mega-successful stage musical before being filmed starring John Travolta in the Divine role. 

It wasn’t filmed in Odorama.

Twitter: @KenWilson84

Info: Polyester is released by Criterion on Blu-ray on 14 October

Leave a Reply

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *