Tuesday, August 28, 2018


An inaugural inductee into the American National Toy Hall of Fame in 1998, the View-Master has proven to be a popular toy with each successive generation of children and young teenagers. Introduced to the world at the 1939 New York World’s Fair, the View-Master was a small handheld viewer, through which stereoscopic 3-D photographs could be seen, via thin cardboard discs (known as ‘reels’) containing seven pairs of small colour photographs, which is inserted into the viewer and rotated via a small lever at the side.

The View-Master had its beginnings within the walls of the Oregon-based Sawyer’s Services, Inc. (later shortened to just Sawyer’s), one of America’s largest producers of scenic postcards during the 1920’s. When avid photographer William Gruber hooked-up with Sawyer’s in 1938, he presented them with a special rig he had built in order to view stereoscopic (3-D) images from frames of the then-new Kodachrome 16mm colour film. After refining the viewer and dubbing it the View-Master (a name Gruber hated, thinking it sounded too much like a kitchen appliance), the initial viewers were made from Bakelite and sold at photography stores and scenic attraction gift shops. Subjects for the early reels included scenic attractions like the Carlsbard Caverns in New Mexico and the Grand Canyon.

The novelty of the View-Master quickly saw its popularity, as well as the profits of Sawyer’s, skyrocket. During the Second World War, the American military used View-Masters as a valuable tool for training their personnel in depth perception, purchasing over 100,000 viewers and nearly six million reels between 1942 and 1945. When Sawyer’s absorbed True-Vue, View-Master’s main rival, in 1951, it not only took care of the competition, but enabled Sawyer to take advantage of True-Vue’s lucrative licensing agreement with the Walt Disney Studios, producing popular reels of Disney characters, as well as reels depicting the various rides and attractions at Disneyland after the theme park opened in 1955.

In 1966, Sawyer’s was taken over by General Aniline & Film (GAF) and the View-Master, now more streamlined and manufactured in plastic rather than Bakelite, became a much more youth-oriented product. While scenic and travelogue reels were still being produced, the focus began to shift more towards movies, television shows, cartoons and occasionally music groups. Many of these post-GAF reels are amongst the most popular and sought after with collectors – some of the View-Master TV show sets produced during this period include Star Trek, Planet of the Apes, The Brady Bunch, Hawaii Five-O, Laugh-In, Batman, The Man from U.N.C.L.E and many more. 

1970 saw the introduction of the Talking View-Master, a larger and heavier model which played special reels that had a clear plastic sound disc attached to them. While they were more expensive and had electronics in them that tended to break down after time, and the sound was often tinny and hard to understand, the Talking View-Master was a popular addition to the line, and remained in production in various incarnations until 1997. Another variation was the lighted View-Master, introduced in 1958, which used batteries and a built-in light globe to illuminate the reels, rather than have to hold the viewer up to a window or other external light source.

While the majority of View-Master reels were manufactured in America and Belgium, a number were also produced in countries like France, Austria, India and Australia (there were several Australia specific sets produced in 1973, covering cities like Alice Springs, Cairns, Adelaide and Melbourne). 

In terms of collectability, most View-Master viewers and reels can be found quite easily and inexpensively, such was the huge numbers they were produced in. There are certainly exceptions, though. Early viewers and reels will always command good prices if they are in great condition, and of course some of the reels for popular or cult movies and television shows remain desirable as they appeal to a cross-section of collectors. Again, condition is always a main factor in the value of the reels, since they were made of rather thin cardboard and could be damaged or bent easily, and the film frames were susceptible to scratching. The paper envelope packaging for the reels was also rather thin and easy to tear, and the rear flaps often detached. Most reels also came with an illustrated booklet that will often be missing or damaged. Naturally, packets that are unopened and still in their cellophane wrapping are the most sought-after.  Also popular with collectors are the special gift sets that are occasionally produced to tie-in with general themes (like superheroes, monsters and Disney) and specific movies/topics (such as the E.T., Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Hello Kitty and The Little Mermaid).

Advertising and other promotional material can also appeal to the hardcore collector. This includes store display signs, wholesale catalogues, demonstration reels given out to retailers, and even incentive items, like the pair of gold-plated View-Master cufflinks that were given out to company employees who had achieved or exceeded their sales targets. Another very desirable item is the thin plastic folding View-Master, which was produced to fit inside medical text books in the early-1970s, and came with a number of specially made medical reels, which helped students visualise diseases and parts of the human anatomy with a depth not achievable on the printed page (many of these images required a rather strong stomach to look at).

After 25 different models of viewer, thousands of titles and nearly 1.5 billion reels produced over the decades, and even a feature film reportedly being developed by DreamWorks (!), it’s safe to say the View-Master will be around and entertaining kids – and adult collectors – for many years to come.

Happy clicking!  
Copyright John Harrison 2018
(Note: The above piece was originally written for Collectables Trader, an Australian magazine which I regularly contributed to. Unfortunately, the magazine ceased publishing before this final piece could be run).

Saturday, August 4, 2018


Recently had the chance to catch-up on the first season of the HBO drama series THE DEUCE, which looks at life amongst the denizens of New York's 42nd Street in the early-seventies, a decade before the big clean-up started and the area was rife with street prostitution, drugs, crime and corruption, and hardcore XXX movies were moving from the back room peep booths to the once-grand old cinemas which populated Times Square.
Of course I only know this period from what I have read in books and seen in movies and documentaries, so how accurate it may be in capturing the zeitgeist of the times may be open to debate, but THE DEUCE certainly brings the period to life in a visually impressive way (apart from the odd dodgy 70s wig on some of the male cast members). Created by the team behind the acclaimed THE WIRE, there are certainly some impressive names behind THE DEUCE that lend it some extra gravitas and credence. Noted crime fiction author Megan Abbott serves as a story consultant and also wrote one of the episodes, while the folks behind The Rialto Report (a remarkable website/podcast which documents the golden age of adult sinema) worked on it as creative consultants.
Maggie Gyllenhaal (who also executive produces the series) is excellent in the lead role as the hooker who finds a much-needed mental and creative outlet behind the camera, and she has some quite brave and daring scenes. I am not a huge James Franco fan and was dubious about him playing not one but two roles in this (as twin brothers), but I warmed to his characters and performances after a couple of episodes. And of course there is just the sheer joy of seeing all the Times Square cinema marquees recreated and advertising everything from Dave Friedman and Herschell Gordon Lewis films to THE OMEGA MAN and Argento's THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE (given an extra M here).
Looking forward to the second season which premieres in September and apparently jumps ahead five years, picking up the story and characters in 1977.

Friday, August 3, 2018



Usually thrown-in with the 1970s cycle of disaster films (AIRPORT, EARTHQUAKE, THE TOWERING INFERNO, etc.), James Goldstone’s ROLLERCOASTER (1977) is actually much more in the style of the classic Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller, and in that regard it is one of the best films of its type to emerge from that decade. George Segal turns in a marvelous performance as Harry Calder, a safety inspector for a big insurance firm, who finds himself caught up in a game of cat and mouse with an intelligent, blackmailing young psychopath (Timothy Bottoms) who is crisscrossing across the US planting bombs in some of the country’s biggest and most populated amusement parks.

A spectacular opening sequence, in which Bottoms’ unnamed character derails the old wooden Rocket rollercoaster ride at Ocean View Amusement Park in Virginia, is later followed by a tense and extended scene in which Calder, acting as bag man for the ransom money, is sent all over the Kings Dominion theme park by the psychopath, in an attempt to wear him and the cops down, disorienting them until he has the chance to snatch the suitcase filled with a cool million (well, it bought a lot more in 1977 than it does today). Adding suspense to this scene is the revelation that Calder is carrying a bomb, planted in the walkie-talkie which the bomber has delivered to him to enable communication. There are some terrific moments here, none more so than when Calder is ordered to ride the Rebel Yell rollercoaster, the first person camera doing a dizzying twirl off the ride’s highest turn, momentarily giving the impression that the coaster is soaring off its track.

Segal’s performance in ROLLERCOASTER has nice moments of humor and a great sense of mid-70's polyester swagger (a running subplot has him trying electric shock therapy to help him quit smoking), and he and Bottoms play off each other wonderfully. A nice supporting cast includes Richard Widmark as a gung-ho federal agent, Harry Guardino as a police chief, Henry Fonda as Calder’s boss, Susan Strasberg as his girlfriend and a teenaged Helen Hunt as his daughter.

Originally released in Universal Studios’ short-lived Sensurround process (initially developed for EARTHQUAKE in 1974), ROLLERCOASTER also benefits from a nice score by Lalo Schifrin, who mixes the usual amusement park calliope sounds with cues that are very reminiscent of past classic Hitchcock soundtracks (Bernard Hermann’s PSYCHO score in particular). Using expensive speakers that had to be specially installed in cinemas who wanted to take on the format, Sensurround bumped up the bass in the low frequency range, causing the seats and floors of the cinema to rumble in correlation to the onscreen action. Other than EARTHQUAKE and ROLLERCOASTER, Sensurround was only used for two other feature films, the war adventure MIDWAY (1977) and the theatrical version of the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA pilot from 1978. While I saw ROLLERBALL upon its initial release in Australia, it was at the drive-in (taken along by my older sister and her future husband) so I unfortunately did not get to experience the movie in Sensurround, though I at least did get to see BATTLESTAR GALACTICA in that process.

Mixing-up the soundtrack a bit are a couple of numbers by cult American New Wave rock band Sparks, who perform two of their numbers - Fill ‘er Up and Big Boy - during the climactic third act, which takes place during the July 4th grand opening of the 360 degrees Revolution rollercoaster at Magic Mountain in California. According to varying sources, the producers originally hoped to have either KISS or the Bay City Rollers perform in the film, but had to settle for Sparks after the other choices fell through (KISS would eventually invade Magic Mountain for their own film, KISS MEETS THE PHANTOM OF THE PARK, the following year). As cool as it might have been to see KISS performing here, it is great to see Sparks get some decent screen time in a Hollywood production (though Sparks themselves often cite their appearance in the film as one of their biggest career mistakes, and the songs which they perform in the film are absent from the soundtrack LP released by MCA).

Long overdue for a home video upgrade, ROLLERCOASTER comes to hi-def in a limited (3000 copies) Blu-ray release from UK outfit 101 Films, who finally give the film the attention it deserves. Spread out over two discs, the release features both the US theatrical cut and the slightly longer German cut (in English language), which contains a couple of seconds of extra blood (in the opening roller coaster crash and during the climax). The transfer looks wonderful, preserving some nice light film grain yet adding so much depth and definition to the movie, and the amusement park sequences have never looked more vibrant or pulsating with colour (especially the neon-lit night scenes filmed at the Ocean View Amusement Park).

Extra features on the ROLLERCOASTER Blu-ray include an audio commentary by UK film journalists Allan (The Dark Side, Infinity) Bryce and David (Sheer Filth) Flint, a short featurette on the film and the 70s disaster film cycle (enjoyable if not overly-revealing), and an interview with Tommy Cook (who cooked up the original story for the film and served as an associate producer). The original theatrical trailer is also listed amongst the special features on the back cover of the sleeve and in the promotional specs, but I was unable to locate it on either of the discs. The Blu-ray is packaged in a cardboard slipcase and includes a very nice 28-page colour booklet printed on thick stock, which contains an essay on the film by Scott Harrison and a piece on the Sensurround process by Allan Bryce. The commentary by Bryce and Flint is pretty casual and free-flowing, not a lot of production information revealed but an enjoyable chat between two people who appreciate the film and have some entertaining observations about it, my favourite moments being those where the pair discuss the Lalo Schifrin score and the participation of Sparks (and rumoured KISS and Bay City Rollers involvement).

Though I would have loved a documentary featurette on the Sensurround process and a bit more variety in the packaging (the slick and cardboard slipcase both feature the same photo and design, ignoring the film’s great range of international poster art), this is still a much-welcomed and essential purchase, and will hopefully help this still somewhat underrated movie find the much larger audience that it deserves.

You can order the ROLLERCOASTER Blu-ray from 101 Films HERE.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2018