The Classic Film Thread: Color by Technicolor!

An alternative subtitle for this thread – “Now featuring blue!”

If you hadn’t already, I recommend reading the last thread if you’re interested in the topic at hand.

For a brief period during The Great Depression, it seemed that color film was destined to be a fleeting novelty. It was too costly to justify, and not an especially big driver of ticket sales. Perhaps this was due, in part, to the limitations of Technicolor’s technology. The combination of red and green could get a lot done, but it wasn’t quite reflective of the world as we saw it. When the Depression hit, Technicolor began hemorrhaging money and resources, but wasn’t ready to throw in the towel. They downsized and moved their operation from the east to the west coast, and began working on turning their two color process into a three color process.

from the George Eastman Museum

As you’ll remember from the last thread, the two color process involved shooting two separate strips in the same camera, with the filmed image being split by a prism behind the lens onto pre-treated film strips. The three color process worked in much the same way. The “green” strip was shot on its own, while the “red” and “blue” strips were bipacted. The blue strip was treated for red light on its backside, so acted as both a filter and its own strip simultaneously. Confused? Watch this video from The George Eastman Museum and you’ll be – if not not confused, then at least less confused. This process created beautiful color never before seen on film, but there were a lot of expensive caveats involved. A lot of studios simply weren’t interested in jumping through the hoops that Technicolor required, both technically and financially. So Technicolor turned to a rising star in Hollywood, who was interested in toying with the newest technology filmmaking could offer.

Despite the Depression, Walt Disney and company were in full steam with their series of Silly Symphony cartoons. Although cartoons were very popular at this time, they were expensive to produce and didn’t see a return on their costs the way movies did. Studios’ interest in producing color cartoons was minimal, and apart from a handful of two-color cartoons like Flip the Frog in Fiddlesticks (which you can watch here), studios were even less interested in investing in color for their cartoons than they were for their films. Walt Disney, however, had an eye to the future – having already produced Steamboat Willie, the first sound cartoon, he was looking for the next big piece of technology to prove that cartoons were just as worthy as their live-action counterparts. He agreed to produce a cartoon with Technicolor, and in 1932 released Flowers and Trees, the very first full color cartoon.

Flowers and Trees was an instant sensation, and won the first Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film. Disney began cranking out color cartoons to run in front of black and white films, and the audiences often spoke more highly of the cartoons that preceded the movies than the actual feature they’d seen. A rumor states that Merian C. Cooper, the director of King Kong, said he never wanted to make a black and white picture again after seeing a full-color Silly Symphony. Technicolor was back, and they weren’t going to let their brand’s renewed name go to waste – or be used by just any ol’ filmmaker.

from the Smithsonian Museum

Technicolor knew they had a valuable product on their hands, and a very complicated one to boot. Technicolor film had a very slow speed, meaning that it couldn’t pick up a lot of light, so sets had to be extra brightly lit to accommodate. This meant that sets (such as on The Wizard of Oz) could reach temperatures of 100°F / 38°C (and remember that The Cowardly Lion Bert Lahr was wearing a costume made of real lion fur). Technicolor insisted that any studio using their film hire a Technicolor camera operator, use Technicolor makeup, have their film processed by Technicolor themselves, and use a Technicolor consultant on set at all times. Often, this consultant was Natalie Kalmus, ex-wife of the co-inventor and CEO of Technicolor, Herbert Kalmus. Give that link a click and prepare for some scrolling – Natalie is credited in almost four hundred films. Also note the above image, which showcases a Technicolor camera. These cameras were so noisy, they required special housing called a blimp, which were extremely heavy, expensive, and about four feet tall. The first full-length film made with the three color process was a film I admit I’ve never heard of before now, called Becky Sharp. The movie was a bit of a dud, but was praised as a proof of Technicolor’s concept. It took a few years for color film to truly explode onto the scene, which it did with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

It’s difficult to overstate the impact that Snow White had on the filmmaking world. It, and the role of Walt Disney in Hollywood, could provide this series with content for a long time. Suffice it to say, Technicolor was now not just a novelty, it was fully integrated into the movies. The Wizard of Oz helped solidify Technicolor’s role in filmmaking history, but Gone With the Wind was the first to use Technicolor’s newly developed faster film stock, bringing sets down from Mojave Desert-like temperatures to…still pretty hot, but not dangerously so. This faster film stock also allowed for shots that played more with shadow and silhouette, like the ultra-famous shot of Scarlett as she proclaims she’ll never go hungry again. Hundreds upon hundreds of movies were made with Technicolor, and you’ll notice a run of especially vibrant movies from this time period. Technicolor’s grasp on color film was so complete that the federal government successfully brought an anti-trust case against the company, and forced them to loosen their restrictions on the use of its product. This wasn’t the only thing that threatened to bring down the giant, and while Technicolor was the absolute king throughout the 40’s, the end of World War II brought a competitor to the color film scene.

Other companies had, of course, been developing their own color film technology concurrent with Technicolor. During WWII Joseph Goebbels, inspired by films such as Snow White, invested in the production of high-quality color film. This led to the swift technological development of Agfacolor. Agfa had been producing film before the Nazis got involved, but the Third Reich’s money helped to speed up the technology, and soon a worthy competitor to Technicolor was being used in German propaganda films. In the waning days of WWII, Soviet troops discovered a large cache of the film, and before long the patent on this kind of film was moot and other companies were free to copy the technology. This film wasn’t as vibrant as Technicolor, but it was a helluva lot cheaper, and wasn’t accompanied by the elaborate cameras nor strict contracts that Technicolor demanded. Eastman Kodak became a major competitor to Technicolor, and the grasp that Technicolor once had on Hollywood began its inevitable decline. The last three color process film made with Technicolor stock was Jane Russell’s Foxfire. The technology grew in leaps and bounds over the coming years, and costs dwindled as access grew. Aside from some brief flirtations with other technologies (including a trip into the THIRD DIMENSION!) Technicolor began a slow shuffle into semi-obscurity. The company eventually settled into a successful second life as a film processing and digital duplication firm, and is still in business today.

If the mood strikes you, take a look at some of the more well-known Technicolor films, such as Singin’ in the Rain or Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Note how absolutely striking and saturated the color in those films is, and spare a brief thought for how many people it took to get Cyd Charisse’s dress to look more green than anything ever seen by the human eye.

Bonus topic: Have you watched many classic cartoons? Which is your favorite?

FEATURED FILMS

  • Flowers and Trees (1932) – currently available on YouTube, and in HD on Disney+
  • King Kong (1933) – currently streaming on HBO Max
  • The Wizard of Oz (1939) – currently streaming on HBO Max
  • Becky Sharp (1935) – currently streaming on Tubi
  • Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – currently streaming on Disney+
  • Gone With the Wind (1939) – currently streaming on HBO Max
  • Foxfire (1955) – not currently available to stream (please comment if you find it!)
  • Singin’ in the Rain (1952) – currently streaming on HBO Max
  • Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) – available to rent or buy from Amazon / iTunes / etc.

IF YOU LIKED THIS…

  • The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) – widely regarded as one of the first smash hit showcases of live action Technicolor, currently streaming on HBO Max
  • Fantasia (1940) – another incredible spectacle of color animation, currently streaming on Disney+

COMING SOON

  • TCM
    • TCM is celebrating its 26th year of 31 Days of Oscar. They’re showcasing films in straight up alphabetical order. Here’s some films of note.
      • Tuesday, April 6
        • Foreign Correspondent (1940), at 9:30 AM EDT
        • The 400 Blows (1959), at 6:00 PM EDT
      • Sunday, April 11
        • I Want to Live! (1958), at 9:30 AM EDT
        • In the Heat of the Night (1967), at 10:30 PM EDT
      • Tuesday, April 13
        • King of Jazz (1930), at 8:00 PM EDT (featuring two color process animation!)
    • Check out the whole schedule, it’s a murderer’s row of amazing films (and, y’know – some others.)
  • MeTV
    • Saturday, April 10
      • Svengoolie will be showing The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), at 8 PM EDT