Fox had introduced the original 35 mm version of CinemaScope in 1953 and it had proved to be commercially successful. However the additional image enlargement needed to fill the new wider screens that had been installed in theatres for CinemaScope resulted in visible film grain. The obvious solution was to use a larger film so that less enlargement would be needed. CinemaScope 55 was the result of this thinking, and was one of three "high definition" film systems introduced in the mid-1950s, the other two being Paramount's VistaVision and the Todd-AO 70 mm film system.
Fox determined that a system that produced a frame area approximately 4 times that of the 35mm CinemaScope frame would be the optimum trade-off between performance and cost, and the 55.625 mm film width was chosen because it provided that. Camera negative film had larger grain than the film stocks used for prints so there was some logic in using a larger frame on the negative than on prints. Since prints need to allow space for soundtracks whilst camera negative doesn't, CinemaScope 55 had different frame dimensions for camera negative and print film.
The negative film had the perforations (of the CS "Fox-hole" type) close to the edge of the film and the camera aperture was 1.824" by 1.430" (approx. 46 mm x 36 mm) giving an image area of 2.61 sq. inch. This compares to the 0.866" by 0.732" (approx. 22 mm x 18.6 mm) frame of a modern anamorphic 35 mm negative, which provides a frame area of just 0.64 sq. inch. On the print film, however, there was a smaller frame size of approximately 1.34" x 1.06" (34 mm x 27 mm) to allow space for the 6 magnetic soundtracks. Four of these soundtracks (two each side) were outside of the perforations, which were further from the edges of the film than in the negative film; the other two soundtracks were between the perforations and the image. The pull-down for the negative was 8 perforations, whilst for the smaller frame on the print film it was 6 perforations. In both cases however the frame had an aspect ratio of 1.275:1, which when expanded by a 2:1 anamorphic lens resulted in an image of 2.55:1.
A pre-war camera originally built for the obsolete Fox "Grandeur" 70 mm format was modified to work with the new 55 mm film and Bausch & Lomb, the firm that created the original anamorphic CinemaScope lenses, was contracted by Fox to build new lenses which could cover the larger film size.
Fox shot two of their Rodgers and Hammerstein musical series in CinemaScope 55, Carousel, and The King and I. However no 55 mm release prints were made for either film, both being released in conventional 35 mm CinemaScope with a limited release of "The King and I" being shown in 70 mm.
The process was soon discontinued as it was too impractical for theaters to re-equip for 55 mm prints, and Fox substituted Todd-AO for its wide-gauge production process, having acquired a financial interest in the process from the Mike Todd estate.
Notwithstanding the apparent absence of commercial 55 mm prints, 55 mm prints were, in fact, made, although not for commercial distribution. Samples of these prints reside in the Earl I. Sponable Collection at Columbia University.
Several projectors and at least one reproducer are in the hands of collectors.
Cinemascope 55 was originally intended to have a six-track stereo soundtrack, and the premiere engagement of Carousel in New York did use one, recorded on magnetic film interlocked with the visual image as with Cinerama. However, this proved too impractical, and all other engagements of Carousel had the standard four-track stereo soundtrack (printed on the actual film) then used in all Cinemascope releases.
- American Widescreen Museum (Cinemascope section)
- Ilias Chrissochoidis (ed.), CinemaScope: Selected Documents from the Spyros P. Skouras Archive (Stanford, 2013)
- "Why Wide Film" by Earl I. Sponable, Journal of the SMPTE Vol 65 February 56