By Dan Daley

September 7, 2023

Reading Time:
6 Minutes

As visual media moves toward three dimensions, a look back at how the nose was never quite able to become the equal of the eyes and ears in movie theaters 

“Ooh that smell, can't you smell that smell…” sang Lynyrd Skynyrd back in 1977. Long before that though, cinema owners were asking a similar question, wondering if, having conquered visual motion media and later its audio counterpart, could they find a way to add an olfactory component and get a majority of the five senses into those theater seats?

Despite working media magic with film and sound, and despite trying a seemingly endless loop of ways going back over a century to introduce scents, aroma, bouquets, and other nasal stimulants to complement the images on the screen, cinema mavens were never able to get theatergoers’ noses in synch with the moving pictures.

That’s not that surprising, given the various sensory dynamics. Visual stimuli occur at the speed of light, or at least at 24 frames per second, which provides enough illusion of motion to feed the eye/brain connection. And when it comes to audio, even the longest reverberations last no more than a matter of seconds, with the air — sound’s medium — clearing quickly to let the next batch of sounds be coherent.

American film producer Mike Todd Jr (left) sits with Swiss inventor Hans Laube, who points to his 'Smell-O-Vision' machine, which produced smells in synchronization with action in a film. The device was used for director Jack Cardiff's 1960 film, 'The Scent of Mystery,' produced by Todd. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

But smells behave differently, the droplets comprising them riding on that same air but able to float on it, departing only when forcibly blown away or until their particles drop below sensory levels, which can take a while when an audience is seated and unable to move much. The narrative shift between a whispered warning in a restaurant scene and an explosion on screen can be instantaneous; an olfactory counterpart moving from the whiff of marinara sauce to the acrid odor of cordite is impossible to achieve as precisely as with sound or picture. A ventilation system capable of that kind of precision still hasn’t been invented.

Lights, Camera, Action, Odor?

The first intersection between smell and cinema was unintentional but inevitable. In the early days of film, movies were shown in a variety of ad hoc settings — the first proper U.S. cinema, the Vitascope Hall on New Orleans’ Canal Street, opened in a vacant storefront in 1896 — and were certainly not chosen based on what might have made for the best viewing experience. One result was that the hoi polloi of the pre-popcorn era often showed up right after work, likely on a day in between their Saturday night bath. The enclosed, poorly ventilated spaces would have quickly become pretty malodorous by the third show of the night. Theater owners took actions ranging from flinging open doors between showings to clear the air to spraying industrial-strength perfume around the space. Thus, cinema’s first encounter with the nose was subtractive rather than additive.

Once cinemas entered their palatial era in the 1920s — the discovery of King Tutt’s tomb sparked a spate of ever-more ostentatious Egyptian-themed movie mansions in the U.S. — that architectural competitiveness soon encompassed ambitions to set the entire cinematic experience apart, including live performances, light shows, and orchestras. Synchronized sound, of course, had been the goal for decades, as film technicians sought to record and then match that sound with picture. But also pursuing the sense of smell wasn’t far behind, and it picked up steam in the 1930s as theater owners looked to get patrons back in during the Depression.

More primitive attempts at getting smells into cinema included fragrance-dipped cotton balls held in front of fans at strategic moments in a movie narrative. But the first technically oriented move was Los Angeles inventor John H. Leavell’s patented process introduced in 1930 “…to provide a method of and apparatus for presenting a moving picture in which an odor will be presented to the sense of smell of those viewing the picture[,] which will awaken olfactory images closely associated with the visual images of the picture, thus strengthening the impression of reality made by the picture.” Said apparatus was a battery-powered set of blowers and pipes that emitted various smells through holes in the floor under the theater seats and was synchronized with the appropriate scenes in a film via a mechanical system activated by notches on the side of the celluloid reel. Leavell’s technology was not dissimilar to how audio would be synchronized with film, and had it succeeded it likely would have created an entirely new department at movie studios, just as sound did.

Ad card for Scent of Mystery, starring ElizabethTaylor in which scents where deliver to each seat.

However, the system’s complexity — the projectionist had to manually change scent sources during showings — doomed the idea but not the concept. In 1939, Melvin W. Merz, of Geneva, Illinois was issued a patent for an “Aroma diffusing apparatus” that used fans and a theater’s own HVAC system. (Cinemas since the 1920s had been using then-novel air conditioning as a marketing tool.) His moonshot, though, ran into the problem of keeping smells discrete in a large space, limiting its effectiveness.

Sell It And Smell It

Nonetheless, these contrivances launched a series of further attempts to bring cinema to the nose. The technology was getting more sophisticated — the prosaically named “Motion pictures with synchronized odor emission” in 1957 asserted 15 distinct “odorant cells” — including using chemical neutralizing agents to quickly attenuate the fragrances’ aerosol fixatives (the formula elements that help a smell linger), thus allowing faster changeovers between scenes.

As each attempt seemed to get a bit closer to success, they began to take on marketing monikers, such as the Swiss-originated “Odorated Talking Pictures” and “AromaRama” (a pun on the wide-screen Cinerama format introduced in 1952), and — actual title here — “Glorious-Smell-O-Vision,” developed by Scentovison Inc., which debuted with the Mike Todd production of Scent of Mystery, in 1960 starring Elizabeth Taylor, in which clues to the identity of the murderer were provided by scents delivered direct to each seat. These included whiffs of garlic, gunpowder, wine, peppermint, lemons, fish, and pipe tobacco.

Handout for Spy Kids 4D

The fact that the films these nose candies used to launch were not particularly good didn’t help, and were easily classified in Variety-speak as “stinkers” in more ways than one. But they were also done in by the cumbersomeness of their operation, the noise the pneumatic systems would induce, and the potential for certain smells to induce nausea (or worse) in moviegoers. Like a foul smell, the notion stuck around the margins of the film industry for decades to come, occasionally manifesting in productions like director John Waters’ 1981 cult classic Polyester, in which the protagonist’s powerful sense of smell was shared via scratch-and-sniff cards distributed to the audience, a marketing concept that had become popular at the time with perfume and other ads inserted in fashion magazines. (Waters dubbed his version “OdorRama,” with the catchphrases “Smelling Is Believing” and “It’ll Blow Your Nose.”) Another flick that used the same concept was Robert Rodriguez’s Spy Kids 4, a spy action comedy shot with “Aroma-Scope.”

After a certain point, the kitsch that came to be associated with these olfactory contraptions began to obscure their original, more earnest intentions. Even as these effluvious efforts were gaining some seemingly legitimate momentum — in the 1944 Merrie Melodies cartoon The Old Grey Hare Bugs Bunny predicted that by the year 2000 “Smell-O-Vision” would have replaced the then still-nascent television — they still fell short. The fourth sense — touch — was addressed by haptic devices such as buttkickers that, like surround sound and high-def pictures, have made the jump from cinema to the home theater. The sense of taste remains unfulfilled, already occupied by the popcorn and other confections usually consumed in the movies. Only the nose seems to have made the effort and failed to become part of the sensualization of movies. Based on past performance, though, others are almost certain to continue trying to change that. Will they be successful? Don’t hold your breath.

                                           # # #

Sidebar: It’s Not You, It’s Us

It's possible that an actual “movie smell” may even have been here all along in the modern cinema era. A study published in Nature in 2016 revealed that people generate very distinct scents as we watch films and experience the emotions they elicit, and that those odors can even differ between genres such as comedy and horror. For instance, chemicals such as CO2 and isoprene gradually increased their levels as audiences in a German cinema watched the second Hunger Games movie, peaking during especially intense moments. Something to take your mind off of what’s making the floor so sticky.