The following is an article from the book Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader.
Hollywood has produced a lot of bad movies over the years, but most of the time when we say we saw a real “stinker,” we don’t mean it literally. Most of the time. Behold the wonder of Smell-O-Vison.
Dr. Hans Laube was a Swiss inventor who designed machinery that removed stale, bad-smelling air from theaters and auditoriums in the late 1930s. Or at least that’s what he did until it dawned on him that it should also be possible to reverse the process and inject pleasing odors into large enclosed spaces. Not long after that, he developed a system that piped artificial scents through a network of tubes to the back of every individual seat in a movie theater, releasing them into the air just a few feet away from the nose of every person in the audience.
Laube called his invention “Scentovision.” To demonstrate it, he produced a 35-minute film that he called Mein Traum, or “My Dream,” and presented it at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York. Mein Traum’s scenes were timed to Scentovision’s smells: When roses appeared on-screen, the projectionist manually released the scent of rose oil into the theater; in other scenes, viewers were treated to snootfuls of peaches, burning incense, frying bacon, fresh-cut hay, and hot tar.
FATHER AND SON
Laube hoped to interest theater owners in outfitting their movie houses with Scentovision, but there were no takers. A decade after the stock market crash of 1929, the United States was still mired in the Great Depression, and theater owners had their hands full just keeping their doors open. Scentovision faded away and remained forgotten for nearly 20 years.
That it re-emerged at all was thanks to Broadway producer Mike Todd Sr. and his son, Mike Jr. The two of them had attended a screening of Mein Traum at the World’s Fair in 1939. When the elder Todd branched out into motion pictures in the 1950s, he remembered Scentovision and was intrigued by the idea of making Hollywood’s first “smellies.” But he died in a plane crash in 1958 before he could bring his plans to fruition. (Does his name sound familiar? Todd was Elizabeth Taylor’s third husband.)
BY ANY OTHER NAME
Mike Jr. took over the reins after his father’s death and hired Hans Laube to come up with an improved version of Scentovision.
Laube’s original system had relied on projectionists to release the smells in the proper order at the proper times. To eliminate human error, he came up with something he called a “Smell Brain” to release the odors automatically: Bottles containing the scents were loaded into a rotating drum in the order that they were to be released into the theater. A “smell track” similar to a soundtrack used electromagnetic cues to tell the Smell Brain when to release each scent. As soon as one was discharged, the drum advanced the next bottle into position to await the next electromagnetic cue. Puffs of fresh air and even chemical deodorants could be released into the theater between smells to act as nasal palate cleansers.
Todd insisted on one more improvement: Laube’s invention had to be renamed. Convinced that the nickname “smell-o-vision” was inevitable, he wanted “to get the jump on those who will call it that anyway,” and Scentovision became Smell-O-Vision. The new name wasn’t nearly as classy as the old one, but so what? “I don’t understand how you can be ‘dignified’ about a process that injects smells into a theater,” Todd said.
LIGHTS, CAMERA, AROMA!
While Laube perfected Smell-O-Vision, Todd set to work on producing a light-hearted chase film called Scent of Mystery to show it off. He told screenwriter William Roos to put “smell-action” into as many scenes as possible. Roos delivered: Scent of Mystery had 40 different scent scenes, an average of one smell every three minutes.
Scent of Mystery starred British actor Denholm Elliott. (You may remember him for playing Dr. Marcus Brody in Raiders of the Lost Ark.) In the film, Elliott plays a mystery novelist who’s vacationing in Spain. There he sees a mystery woman, identified only by the smell of her perfume, nearly run down by a truck driven by an unseen man smoking a smelly pipe. When Elliott learns that the “accident” was actually a murder attempt, he and a boozy cab driver, played by Peter Lorre, set off to find the mystery woman and warn her of the danger.
SOMETHING TO SNIFF AT
Some of the smells in the movie, such as shoe polish, hot chocolate, and freshly baked bread, were little more than background smells that had nothing to do with the story. But others were instrumental in advancing the plot. The audience learns that Peter Lorre’s character is a drunk, for example, by means of a “scent gag”: When he and Elliott are drinking coffee in one scene, Lorre takes a sip from his mug and the theater fills with the smell of brandy. Later, when Lorre and Elliott are on the trail of the wrong woman, they (and the audience) learn as much by getting a whiff of her perfume, which is the wrong scent. When the audience finally does get a whiff of the correct perfume— the “Scent of Mystery”— they know that the mystery woman (played by Elizabeth Taylor, in a short, non-speaking cameo) has been found. At the end of the film, a second whiff of the pipe tobacco smoked by the truck driver reveals the identity of the man who tried to kill Taylor.
Scent of Mystery opened in January 1960 in New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles in theaters that had been specially fitted for Smell-O-Vision. If the film proved successful, Todd hoped to install the system in a hundred theaters around the world. Who knows? If it had been a success, we might be smelling Star Wars, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Hobbit today.
But Scent of Mystery wasn’t a success— it laid a smelly rotten egg at the box office. An odorless version called Holiday in Spain also bombed. The movie itself was a big part of the problem. The acting was terrible, and even Peter Lorre, the film’s biggest star after Liz Taylor (who only appears on-screen for a few seconds), gave a listless performance after he nearly died from sunstroke while filming on location in Spain in the heat of summer.
The film’s budget was so tight that when some scenes were accidentally filmed out of focus and others were shot using a malfunctioning camera, there was no money to re-shoot the scenes, and the ruined footage ended up in the movie anyway. These and other problems made a dull and dreary mess out of what could have been a fascinating cinematic experience.
As bad as Scent of Mystery was in its own right, the addition of Smell-O-Vision made it even worse. For all the improvements Dr. Laube had made to his system, it was still plagued with problems, not least of which were the scents themselves. Director Jack Cardiff commented that they smelled “exactly like cheap eau de cologne.”
The delivery system was another problem. In Los Angeles, the smells took so long to get to the seats in the balcony— where they were accompanied by an annoying hissing sound— that they were out of sync with the film. In New York, the smells were so faint, complained New York Times film critic Bosley Crowther, that “patrons sit there sniffling and snuffling like a lot of bird dogs, trying hard to catch the scent.”
The worst problem of all was the fact that Smell-O-Vision relied on the theaters’ existing ventilation system to remove the smells once they’d been pumped in. The equipment wasn’t up to the task, and as the smells accumulated, they combined into a single overpowering stench that many found nauseating. “Customers will probably agree that the smell they liked best was the one they got during the intermission: fresh air,” Time magazine observed.
SILENT BUT DEADLY
Scent of Mystery completed its three-theater run and then faded quietly into history like a bad smell that nobody wanted to own up to. Its failure took Smell-O-Vision down with it, and no film was made using Hans Laube’s technology again. Scent of Mystery has never been released on DVD.
Mike Todd gave up on “smellies” after Scent of Mystery flopped, and took on another project that, in its own way, stank even worse: He produced “America Be Seated,” an interracial minstrel show for the 1964 New York World’s Fair. It closed after two performances. He didn’t produce another movie until 1979, when he brought the popular novel The Bell Jar to the big screen. That bombed, too. (At least this time it wasn’t a stink bomb.) Todd never produced another film. He died in 2002 at the age of 72.
THREE MORE STINKERS
• Behind the Great Wall (1959). A few months before Scent of Mystery stank up theaters in 1960, a film distributor named Walter Reade, Jr. bought the U.S. rights to Behind teh Great Wall, an Italian documentary about a trip through China, and added “seventy-two smells from the Orient,” including dirt, wild grasses, firecrackers, horse manure, and burning incense. He also tacked on an opening demonstration scene that featured a man slicing an orange. Reade’s “Aromarama” process consisted of little more than dumping industrial perfumes— like the kind used to make vinyl smell “like real leather”— into theater air-conditioning systems. Bad idea: The scents combined with the Freon in the air conditioner to create a smell that one critic likened to “a subway restroom on disinfectant day.” (Uncle John saw Behind the Great Wall as a kid and can smell the horse manure and orange slices to this day.)
• Polyester (1981). Audiences of this John Waters film were given “Odorama” scratch-and-sniff cards that had circles numbered from one to ten. When a number appeared on-screen, the audiences were supposed to scratch the corresponding circle. The smells included airplane glue, gasoline, new-car smell, dirty socks, and poop. (Waters says he loved the idea of his movie fans “paying to smell $#*!”) Rugrats Go Wild (2003) and Spy Kids 4 (2011) also used scratch-and-sniff cards in theaters.
• The New World (2005). The Japanese distributor of this Hollywood movie collaborated with telecommunications giant NTT to pipe smells into theaters, as part of a promotion for NTT’s line of smell-generating machines for the home. Instead of aiming for realism, like pumping in tobacco smells when a pipe is smoked on-screen, the film’s “aroma coordinator” used abstract scents to establish mood: Peppermint and rosemary underscored sad scenes, orange and grapefruit accentuated happy ones, and herbs and eucalyptus were released during angry scenes. The smell generators were located in the back of the theater, and only the last three rows were designated “Premium Aroma Seats.” Film critic Chris Fujiwara sat in one; he said the experience was “like watching a movie while an aromatherapy clinic was being held in the lobby.”
The Future of Smell-o-Vision
The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John’s Perpetually Pleasing Bathroom Reader. The 26th annual edition of Uncle John’s wildly successful series is all-new and jam-packed with the BRI’s patented mix of fun and information.
Since 1988, the Bathroom Reader Institute had published a series of popular books containing irresistible bits of trivia and obscure yet fascinating facts. If you like Neatorama, you'll love the Bathroom Reader Institute's books - go ahead and check 'em out!