Some of the most fascinating stories in the history of business come about as the result of mistakes, misfortune and somewhat failed ideas, and nowhere is that more true than how a failed cinematic format war affected how a retail scent diffuser is made today.


This may seem like something of a non-sequitur, but throughout the history of cinema, producers and filmmakers have tried to use every single sense in order to make films more immersive, more enjoyable and more fun, with attempts still seen to this day.


However, from late 1959 through to early 1960, there was an intense format war to see which scent cinematic format would take off between AromaRama and Smell-O-Vision, and revolutionise film-making during the swinging sixties in the process.


Many people will know the answer to the question of who won the “battle of the smellies”, but the technology was a century in the making and the advances that emerged as a result still affect scent diffusers and perfume manufacture to this day.


A Brief History Of Scent

Given how fragmented accounts are of early dramatic arts, it is impossible to say if this was the first ever combination of sights, sounds and scents, but in 1868, a performance of the play The Fairy Acorn Tree at the Alhambra Theatre of Variety in London had stagehands spray Rimmel perfume into the crowd.


In terms of combining cinema and fragrance, the first film reel was claimed to have been shown in 2006, where rose oil was soaked into a ball of cotton wool which was subsequently put in front of an electric fan in a new reel about the Rose Parade in California.


The first film to feature accompanying scents was in 1916 by the Rivoli Theatre in New York City for a showing of the short film Story of the Flowers.


However, for the first few decades this was attempted, it was the owners of cinemas who implemented the system instead of the directors and production companies, who often responded with disdain.


The first filmmaker to openly consider incorporating smells into a feature film was Walt Disney for the 1940 film Fantasia but ultimately felt the cost was too much. If a Disney film had featured some form of Smell-O-Vision, it could have potentially changed cinema itself.


However, by the 1940s, there were several serious attempts to bring scents to celluloid, with the technique with the most potential being the invention of a Swiss national by the name of Hans Laube.


From Scentovision to Smell-O-Vision

First introduced at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, the system worked around the initial technical issue found with early attempts that relied on existing air conditioner systems and thus led to slow-acting smells, intermingling smells and smells that hung around for hours after a showing.


Initially dubbed Scentovision, Mr Laube’s system involved a complex series of pipes connected to each seat in the cinema, meaning that a small amount of perfume could be diffused at a time, initially with the aid of a control board before this process was automated by a system known as “smell brain”.


The latter system had a special series of perfume containers wound around a belt in the order they were released as well as a needle that would piece the membrane and release the scent to each seat.


However, issues with getting interest for the system caused Mr Laube to return to Europe in 1946 having abjectly failed to generate any interest for the system in the United States, in no small part because the installation cost ranged from $15,000 to up to $1m at the time (adjusted for inflation and converted to GBP that is around £108,000 to £7.3m).


Eventually, after learning of a demonstration General Electric set up for their Smell-O-Rama system, Mr Laube returned and finally patented his system in 1957. However, by that point, a new challenger had appeared.


Behind The Great Wall Vs Scent Of A Mystery

In September 1958, it was announced that a feature-length film would be released with a scent track, invented by a man named Charles H. Weiss.


The system was known as AromaRama and unlike Mr Laube’s bespoke system, it was far simpler, far cheaper for operators and used existing air conditioning systems to inject smells into the auditorium, similar to the early prototype systems used before 1940.


The first film to use this technique was Beyond the Great Wall, a somewhat lurid Italian-produced documentary travelogue of China that was not originally produced with the scents in mind but had them fitted into the AromaRama format.


As well as this, Mr Laube had found a supporter in Mike Todd Jr, whose father had initially decided against using Scentovision for their 1956 adaptation of Around the World in Eighty Days, but curious about the invention, signed Mr Laube anyway and planned a huge showcase for the technology.


The result was Scent of Mystery, a mystery-comedy film set to be released in January 1960 starring Peter Lorre and Denholm Elliott where the aromas would be key to finding out who planned to murder an heiress played by Elizabeth Taylor.


This meant that two scent-focused films were being shown within a month of each other, prompting an event described as “The Battle of the Smellies” by Variety magazine.


AromaRama came first and the reviews did not bode well; whilst the documentary was praised the smells themselves were savaged by some film critics such as Bosley Crowther, who described them as synthetic and confusing, although other critics were far less harsh.


The concept was given cautious praise but the system itself was far more criticised than praised by audiences, and whilst it could have been easily fixed, this bad first impression was seen as a concern for Scent of Mystery as audiences were disillusioned with the process already.


Ultimately, whilst the film itself was generally seen as a mix of Mr Todd Sr’s Around the World in Eighty Days, a Cinerama travelogue and an Alfred Hitchcock chase film, there was a loud distracting hiss with every scent and some parts of the cinema did not get a strong enough smell, leading to a lot of sniffing.


Ultimately this ended for a time the Smell-O-Rama film, although its legacy lives on not only in film but also in the scent industry.

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Benefit from a free consultation session with no strings attached. Our team is here to help find the perfect scent marketing or odor control solution for your business.

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