Scent of Mystery

Smell-O-Vision was a system that released odor during the projection of a film so that the viewer could ‘smell’ what was happening in the movie. The technique was created by inventor Hans Laube and made its only appearance in the 1960 film ‘Scent of Mystery,’ produced by Mike Todd, Jr., son of film producer Mike Todd. The process injected 30 odors, such as freshly-baked bread, pipe tobacco, and salty ocean air, into a movie theater’s seats when triggered by the film’s soundtrack.

The use of scents in conjunction with film dates back to 1906, before the introduction of sound. In this first instance, a 1958 issue of ‘Film Daily’ claims that Samuel Roxy Rothafel of the Family Theatre in Forest City, Pennsylvania, placed a wad of cotton wool that had been soaked in rose oil in front of an electric fan during a newsreel about the Rose Bowl Game. Arthur Mayer installed an in-theater smell system in Paramount’s Rialto Theater on Broadway in 1933, which he used to deliver odors during a film. However, it would take over an hour to clear the scents from the theater, and some smells would linger for days afterward.

Further attempts with releasing scents timed to key points in a film happened at a Detroit, Michigan theater with ‘The Sea Hawk’ and ‘Boom Town.’ All of these early attempts, however, were made by theater owners and not part of the films themselves. The audience could be distracted by the scents instead of focusing on what the film director intended. Furthermore, because of the size of the theaters, large amounts of perfume had to be released to reach all members of the audience. This caused another problem: the human nose has a difficult time transitioning between smells until the molecules that triggered one smell are completely cleared from the nose, and with that volume of perfume, the scents would mix, becoming muddled.

Walt Disney was the first filmmaker to explore the idea of actually including scents with his 1940 film ‘Fantasia,’ but eventually decided against pursuing this for cost reasons. General Electric developed a system in 1953 that they called ‘Smell-O-Rama.’ They demonstrated its potential by exhibiting a three-dimensional image of a rose accompanied by floral scents. Laube’s technique, which he dubbed ‘Scentovision,’ was to connect pipes to individual seats in theaters, so that the timing and amount could be carefully controlled by the projectionist using a control board. He introduced this system during the 1939 New York World’s Fair. The New York Times reported in 1943 that Scentovision ‘is said to have produced odors as quickly and easily as the soundtrack of a film produces sound,’ but Laube, a Swiss national, returned to Europe in 1946, unable to interest any film or television studios with his invention.

Mike Todd Sr. had staged a series of musical films at the 1939 World’s Fair and met Laube during this time. Fifteen years later, Todd and his son were thinking of ways they could enhance their film ‘Around the World in Eighty Days.’ They remembered Laube’s invention and although they decided not to use it for this film, Todd Jr., after his father’s death, was intrigued enough to sign Laube to a movie deal. Laube’s system, for which he had been issued a US patent and which was renamed ‘Smell-O-Vision’ by Todd Jr., had been improved in the intervening time. Now, instead of the scents being manually released, it used what he called a ‘smell brain,’ which was a series of perfume containers linked in a belt, arranged in the order that they would be released.

The belt was then wound around a motorized reel. As the film threaded through the movie projector, markers on it would cue the brain. Needles would pierce membranes on the containers, releasing the scents, which would then be blown by fans through the pipes to individual vents underneath the audience members’ seats. The cost of outfitting a theater to accommodate the system was anywhere from US$15,000 at Chicago’s Cinestage theater to $1,000,000 elsewhere. Both Laube and Todd understood that the system had aesthetic limitations. For example, a heavy drama was not the sort of film that could employ it well. Thus, the system was to be used with the mystery-comedy ‘Scent of Mystery,’ which would be the first film in which smells revealed certain plot points to the audience. For example, one character is identified by the smell of pipe tobacco.

A competitor arose in 1959, as film producer Walter Reade Jr. was rushing to release ‘Behind the Great Wall,’ a travelogue through China made by Italian director Carlo Lizzani, accompanied by a process called ‘AromaRama’ to send scents through the air-conditioning system of a theater. The particular process was invented by Charles Weiss who stated in a 1959 appearance on CBS’s popular television program ‘To Tell the Truth’: ‘I… have invented a process to make movies smell. I call the process AromaRama. After more than two and a half years of work, our picture ‘Behind the Great Wall’ will open December 2 at the Mayfair Theater in New York. In addition to seeing the action and hearing the dialogue, our audiences will be able to smell the scenes. 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.’

‘Behind the Great Wall’ was released on December 2, 1959, just three weeks ahead of ‘Scent of Mystery,’ and the competition between the two films was called ‘the battle of the smellies’ by ‘Variety.’ Besides the slightly earlier release date, the name AromaRama itself made fun of Todd Sr.’s Cinerama process, and the choice of film was also deliberate, as travelogues were one of Cinerama’s specialties. The film received scathing treatment from ‘New York Times’ reviewer Bosley Crowther, who called it a ‘stunt’ that had an ‘artistic benefit’ of ‘nil.’ The accuracy of the odors was described as ‘capricious… elusive, oppressive or perfunctory and banal… merely synthetic smells that occasionally befit what one is viewing, but more often they confuse the atmosphere.’ By contrast, the film itself, which was not made with AromaRama in mind, received high praise.

The film’s poor reception threatened to derail the debut ‘Scent of Mystery’ before it even opened, as the cinematic press now expected the odor release system to be poor. Smell-O-Vision did not work as intended. According to ‘Variety,’ aromas were released with a distracting hissing noise and audience members in the balcony complained that the scents reached them several seconds after the action was shown on the screen. In other parts of the theater, the odors were too faint, causing audience members to sniff loudly in an attempt to catch the scent. These technical problems were mostly corrected after the first few showings, but the poor word of mouth, in conjunction with generally negative reviews of the film itself, signaled the end of Smell-O-Vision.

In homage to Smell-O-Vision, American film director John Waters released an enhanced ‘Odorama’ version of his film, ‘Polyester’ in 1982. Waters included ‘scratch and sniff’ cards that the audience could use while watching the movie. Each card contained ten numbered spots that were scratched when that number flashed in the bottom right corner of the screen. Although this approach solved the problems inherent in previous attempts at this technology, it did not gain widespread usage for other films.

The Walt Disney World and Disneyland Resorts currently make use odor technology in their 3-D films and other attractions. The Animal Kingdom’s attraction ‘It’s Tough to Be a Bug’ (also at Disney California Adventure Park) releases an unpleasant odor coinciding with a stink bug on-screen, causing an audience reaction, similarly ‘Mickey’s Philharmagic’ at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando produces pie scents. ‘Soarin’ Over California’ includes orange blossom, pine forest, and sea air fragrances as the scenery flies below the passengers. It is unknown, however, if Disney’s technology is derivative of Laube’s work.




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