It featured in Time magazine's poll of 100 Worst Ideas of the Century, where it trumped, among others, mohawk haircuts and swine flu.
And now, like mohawk haircuts and swine flu, "Smell-O-Vision" is attempting a comeback. American filmmaker Robert Rodriguez announced that Spy Kids: All the Time in the World 4D will be released in "aromascope". The director told The Philadelphia Inquirer: "We brought 3D back the first time. We had to come up with a 4D, and the obvious choice was smell." He won't divulge what smells to expect ahead of the movie's 19 August release date, but does warn of a mischievous "smell prankster".
"Aromascope" is an improvement on the scratch and sniff "Odorama" cards from the likes of John Waters's 1981 comedy Polyester. To release the odours, audiences can "swipe" their finger (like an iPhone) over the panels. The film has Ricky Gervais giving a short tutorial before the film as robodog "Argonaut". It also has has the potential to be the rarest entry in the malodorous history of smelluloid – a box-office hit.
Samuel Roxy Rothafel was the first recorded pioneer of smell-cinema when he placed cotton wool soaked in rose oil in front of an electric fan during newsreel footage in 1906. 1960 was the next significant year for the aromatic cinematic industry when, in a clash Variety dubbed "the battle of the smellies", two producers competed to release the first fragranced film.
The producer Mike Todd Jr teamed up with Swiss inventor Hans Laube for 1960's Scent of Mystery, starring Peter Lorre. Laube's "Smell-O-Vision", first unveiled at the 1939 World Fair, emitted odours prompted by the movie's soundtrack. His costly and complicated system delivered scents via tubes leading to the audience's seats. Rival producer Walter Reade Jr's "AromaRama" was considerably less sophisticated, simply blasting smells through the cinema's air conditioning vents. Reade Jr's travelogue documentary Behind the Great Wall was the first into the cinema, treating audiences to 72 different smells from the orient. The film critic Bosley Crowther wrote: "The artistic benefit of it is here demonstrated to be nil."
Released weeks later, Scent of Mystery's advertisements heralded Laube's invention as a cinematic milestone, "First They Moved (1895)! Then They Talked (1927)! Now They Smell!" Todd Jr hyped the film through his newspaper connections and his own groan-inducing puns ("I hope it's the kind of picture they call a scentsation!"). Critics and audiences were unanimous in their appraisal of the film: it stunk. The smells were either too strong or too faint, the audience's sniffing too distracting, the whirring and hissing of Laube's brainchild too intrusive. Critics dismissed the whole thing as an unpleasant gimmick.
But it doesn't end there. In 2006, Japanese company NTT piped odours into cinemas for Terrence Malick's The New World. Their machine allows customers to "download" different scents. A recent press release from the University of California and SAIT in Japan proclaims they've developed a smell-o-vision device, which could add another aspect of realism to your TV viewing. The compact device produces around 10,000 scents.
Should smell-o-vision take off, expect a seismic shift in top 10 film lists. Trainspotting's popularity as a modern classic will go down the toilet, as will anything not set in a bakery. Chocolat will hurtle to the top of IMDB's top 250. Perhaps climate control will be the next innovation, with the cinema temperature corresponding to the film? Sweat your way through the hottest day of the year in Spike Lee's scorching Do the Right Thing! Watch Doctor Zhivago through a haze of your own frozen breath! Enjoy Andy's triumphant rain-drenched prison escape in The Shawshank Redemption while being soaked by the cinema's sprinkler system!
As with 3D and CGI, the reaction will depend largely on the entertainment it's enhancing. Perhaps a smell-o-vision version of 2006's Perfume: The Story of a Murderer could convince audiences of its value? For now, Rodriguez is leading the way in "new" old gimmicks.