Smell-O-Vision

As one who loves movies, I cherish my memory of the first, and only, feature film in Smell-O-Vision. Scent of Mystery was produced by Michael Todd Jr., a young man who gambled his legacy on a film that would go beyond sight and sound to engage the sense of smell.

In the 1950s, movie theaters were losing their patrons to television screens. Anxious to reverse the trend, they tried to lure viewers back with things they couldn’t find at home, such as wide screens and air conditioning. Hollywood producer Mike Todd, a gambler if one ever lived, had the idea of filling a theater with scents that would match the action on the screen. When Todd died in an airplane crash in 1958, his son took over the production, financing it with all the money from his inheritance.

In the spring of 1960, shortly after the film began to play in three theaters in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, I was in Manhattan on a spring trip with my mother, my grandmother, my Aunt Rhea, and my cousins. All of us liked mysteries, and a movie in Smell-O-Vision was certainly something we would never see in Buffalo. In the theater, on either side of us, blocks of seats had been removed for large, round, silver metal machines, each surrounded by a high square of curtains.

The program began with a cartoon that I barely remember, The Tale of Old Whiff, by animator John Hubley. It was the only animated film done in Smell-O-Vision and featured a bloodhound who had lost his sense of smell. The running gag was that Old Whiff snuffled blindly past items that even the audience could smell. Bert Lahr provided the voice of Old Whiff, who was searching for a museum’s lost dinosaur bone. Along the way (according to sources who do remember), he saw, and we smelled, a hot dog, mustard, chocolate, violets, pine trees, a field of clover and a horse. With each aroma, the mysterious machines behind the curtains would rumble and hiss and the audience — small but enthusiastic that afternoon — would sniff, smile, ooo and aahh, even laugh out loud with delight.

And then the feature. Scent of Mystery was set in Spain. A British tourist named Oliver Larker, played by Denholm Elliott, overhears a plot to murder an American tourist named Sally Kennedy, and tries to find her before the killers do. When the film cut to a scene on the beach, we were all hit with a blast of salty sea air. When a character named Smiley, played by Peter Lorre, bit into a peach, we could smell the peach. A rose garden, a woman’s perfume, a shattered cask of red wine — all had their moment. Others who have written about the film remember the aroma of baking bread, pipe tobacco, clover and grass. It was great fun, all the way to the end when the real Sally turns out to be Elizabeth Taylor, appearing in a fleeting, uncredited cameo.

The critics did not enjoy the film as much as we did. Scent of Mystery was an easy target for “this movie stinks” reviews. The process was expensive and few theaters were willing to install the equipment. In 1962, the film ran again as Holiday in Spain, without the scents, but even then it could not make money. Mike Todd Jr. lost his fortune and left the movie business forever.

Smell-O-Vision was invented by a Swiss “osmologist” named Hans Laube, and the scents were supplied by a New Jersey company, Alpine Aromatics, founded by Raoul Pantaleoni. As with Todd Jr., this was to be their only brush with cinematic fame. In 1981, John Waters paid homage to Smell-O-Vision by supplying audiences with scratch-and-sniff “Odorama” cards to accompany viewings of his film Polyester. I have read that there is a surviving print of Scent of Mystery, in terrible condition, that occasionally screens for film buffs who must see everything. I’d be willing to go again.

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