During the 1950s, movie studios were grasping at any gimmick to lure eyeballs away from television and back into theaters. One gimmick that seemed to be a favorite among movie-makers,  judging by the frequent attempts (usually unsuccessful) to use it was the sense of smell.

Individual theater owners had played around with smells off and on aromafor years, using various makeshift techniques such as spraying perfume in front of an electric fan. But the first use of odor as created by the producers of the film itself didn’t come until the December 8, 1959, premiere of Behind the Great Wall, a travelogue featuring the sights, sounds and, yes, odors of China. The odors were provided by a process called AromaRama. On the heels of this movie, came another film cleverly titled the Scent of Murder, touting the wonders of Smell-O-Vision. (We also had Scentovision and Smell-O-Rama.) Variety called the competition “the battle of the smellies.”

In an interview, the inventor of AromaRama gushed: “More than 100 different aromas will be injected into the theater during the film. Among these are the odors of grass, earth, exploding firecrackers, a river, incense, burning torches, horses, restaurants, the scent of a trapped tiger and many more. We believe, with Rudyard Kipling, that smells are surer than sounds or sights to make the heartstrings crack.”

Well, maybe. There were a few glitches early on. Faulty timing might give you a picture of a steaming bowl of jasmine rice that smelled like that trapped tiger. And the distraction of a hundred or so members of the audience simultaneously and loudly sniffing. Even though most of the bugs were ironed out, the whole idea never caught on, despite occasional attempts to revive it (including one notable high tech process that provided audiences with scratch and sniff cards along with instructions on when to scratch and sniff).

Those fun-loving folks at BBC jumped on the bandwagon in 1965, airing an April 1 interview with the inventor of a process that allowed viewers at home to experience aromas produced in the television studio. In a vivid demonstration, he chopped onions and brewed a pot of coffee, then took calls from viewers who had experienced the transmitted smells.

Even BBC couldn’t slow the demise of AromaRama et al, however. In 2000, a Time magazine survey listed it as one of the “Top 100 Worst Ideas of All Time.”




One thought on “December 8, 1959: Battle of the Smellies

  1. In 1981 John Waters brought us “Polyester”, a movie filmed in “Odorama”. This film paid homage to Smell-O-Vision.

    As you entered the theatre you were given a card with ten scratch-n-sniff spots. You were instructed to scratch a numbered spot when that number flashed on the screen and smell the scent. When the first number flashed on the screen the audience could smell the rose that was on the screen next to the scientist who was explaining the “Odorama” film process. The main movie started with Divine sitting on the bed with her/his husband. As you saw a confused Divine sniffing the air, the number two flashed on the screen. All you could hear was the theatre full of people scratching their cards and sniffing. Then the loudest collective “Ughhhhhh” as everyone groaned in unison at the smell of Divine’s husband’s flatulence.

    I don’t think I ever laughed harder in a movie theatre.

    They don’t make them like that any more!

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