15 December 2006

The Technicolor Revolution (Part One)

Black Pirate

Lights! Color! Action!
Neon Rainbow
The Technicolor Revolution
by Donny Jacobs
It’s common knowledge that the first commercial motion pictures were quite different from what we see today. They were silent films with no soundtracks; on-screen title cards were used to substitute for dialogue. Also, these movies were shot on monochromatic film, which meant their images projected only in black-and-white or sepia tones. Many people know that commercial sound films were introduced with great fanfare in 1927 when Warner Brothers Pictures released The Jazz Singer. However, relatively few people know that before there was sound, there was color! Black-and-white photography was the standard for Hollywood movies well into the sound era, but 'way back in the glory days of silent cinema, audiences were often treated to the sight of rainbow hues on screen.

Rudimentary color photography was first demonstrated in 1855. Dr. James Clerk Maxwell presented it during an historic seminar on the subject at London's Royal Institute. This led to a twenty-year period of intense experimentation, but by the closing years of the nineteenth century, emphasis had shifted to creating artificial rather than natural color on film. The first motion-pictures produced in color were dyed or hand-tinted affairs. A tinting technique was patented by German technicians in 1897, the same year inventor Thomas Edison produced a tinted Kinetoscope feature called Annabelle's Butterfly Dance. Also around this time, several color-tinted films were shot by Frenchman George Meliés. They include the early silent comedy Trip To The Moon (1902), best remembered for its whimsical depiction of a lunar body with human facial features.

In the early 1900s, another pioneering French filmmaker named Charles Pathé invented Pathécolor, an expensive and very time-consuming process that involved stenciling color tints directly onto film stock. The years of painstaking work required made it a commercial non-starter, but its aesthetic appeal was considerable; the resulting color movies looked stunningly realistic, and were universally hailed by art critics. The best-known of the early Pathécolor silents is Cyrano de Bergerac (1923), which survives and was recently made available on DVD. Visually pleasing this technique may have been, but it no more represented true color photography than any of its crude predecessors. Yet, that didn't keep dyed and tinted films produced in Pathécolor and other experimental processes from appearing regularly in the teens and early 1920s. Monochrome movies with selected scenes tinted entirely in one primary color were the most common; DW Griffith's masterworks Birth Of A Nation(1915) and Intolerance(1916) both contained such scenes. The more adventurous filmmakers flirted with numerous semi-photographic color processes, which sported names like Kromascope, Colorcraft, Kodachrome and Kinemacolor. The latter, developed in England, was reportedly the most impressive, but not even this method produced true-to-life colors on screen. What's more, it was far too technically complex to ever be considered viable in the marketplace.

Then came Technicolor! In 1912, a young physicist named Herb Kalmus took on two business partners and launched a consulting firm for scientific and industrial research. One of his clients solicited help in perfecting a new kind of motion-picture camera. Over the course of working with him, Dr. Kalmus encouraged the client to think about a camera that could film in true color. This led to Herb Kalmus, Don Comstock and Burt Wescott joining financier William Coolidge to found the Technicolor Corporation in 1915. The company's stated goal was to create a three-color film projection process that could accurately reproduce all the colors of the spectrum. A group of cocky young chemists and mechanics were recruited and set up inside a "mobile laboratory"; this was actually a streamlined railway car equipped with darkrooms, a photo lab, office space and a miniature power plant. Based in Boston, Massachusetts, Technicolor's mobile office operated under the strict yet inspiring direction of Herb Kalmus. The desired three-color process proved elusive, but before long, the laboratory had developed a promising two-color technique that utilized red and green light filters to expose film. Its inventors named it "Technicolor Process Number One." A year after work had begun, the company felt confident enough in its new color method to produce a short film. The mobile office traveled to Jacksonville, Florida, towing a Pullman car filled with actors and technical experts.

Once on location, it was the experts who proved most valuable to the production, because there were technical glitches galore! Technicolor's first production ended up going thousands of dollars over budget. However, with lots of experimentation and teamwork, the problems were overcome and the film was completed in the summer of 1917. Starring Niles Welch and Grace Darmond, the movie was called The Gulf Between; Technicolor executives screened it to a select audience of critics on September 21, 1917 at New York City's Aeolian Hall. Reaction was decidedly mixed. Reviews in the Motion Picture News raved about "colors (on film) that are really natural," and noted how often the audience had burst into applause at the beautiful outdoor scenery. Yet they also complained about blurred faces and backgrounds. Other reviewers took a much more negative tone; color photography, they sniffed, wasn't so spectacular that it called attention away from a lethargic storyline! Unfortunately, The Gulf Between does not survive, so there's no way for modern connoisseurs to pass judgment on it. Historical documents do tell us how Herb Kalmus felt about the movie. His judgment was that Technicolor Process Number One had failed to make the grade. His mind was made up after diabolical projection problems plagued a series of limited screenings of The Gulf Between for general audiences. He and his partners decided that the mobile laboratory was too restrictive an environment for research, and it was abandoned. The Technicolor Corporation set up shop in a building on Boston's Brookline Avenue and got busy inventing Process Number Two.

It proved to be such an expensive undertaking, William Coolidge withdrew his financial support. However, Dr. Kalmus refused to give up. By 1920, he'd secured a new group of investors, and in 1922, a revamped two-color projection system was perfected. The blurring problem was solved (under optimal laboratory conditions, at least), and another film project was given the green light. The Gulf Between had been a one-reeler, but this time, the company would showcase its product with a feature-length film. A professional cameraman, Ray Rennahan, was hired; it would be the first of many Technicolor assignments for him. Metro Pictures, the direct ancestor of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios, agreed to distribute the film. Toll Of The Sea was filmed in Hollywood in 1922; it was a screen adaptation of the famous Japanese-themed opera Madame Butterfly. During this period, Caucasian actors were always hired to play Asian roles, but Technicolor couldn't find a White actress who was willing to star in their experimental film. The lead role ended up going to a bonifide Asian actress, Anna May Wong, which made Toll Of The Sea a revolutionary production in more than one respect. However, the only revolution Dr. Kalmus and his associates wanted to foment was at the box office, and happily, they succeeded. The film, resplendent in shimmering pastel hues, proved to be both a critical and box office smash when sampled by theatre patrons in early 1923.

Anna May Wong
Star of the first hit movie in Technicolor

Hollywood jumped at the opportunity to cash in on Technicolor's apparent commercial appeal. Ray Rennahan was quickly hired to shoot color sequences for Cecil B. DeMille's lavish Ten Commandments epic, and Jesse Lasky's Famous Players Company contracted with Technicolor to photograph a second feature-length flick, Wanderer Of The Wasteland. Samuel Goldwyn's romantic tearjerker Cytherea, filmed on location in Cuba, followed in 1924. Herb Kalmus was particularly pleased with the Goldwyn movie; all Technicolor productions up to that point had been filmed outdoors, but Cytherea demonstrated how good color could look in the artificial light of a studio set. Profits from Toll Of The Sea were channeled into a new processing plant in Boston and a photo lab in Los Angeles; it seemed that Technicolor was well on its way to becoming the norm in silent pictures, but such proved not to be the case. When Cytherea and Wanderer Of The Wasteland failed to duplicate the commercial success of Toll of The Sea, Hollywood studios resisted embracing Dr. Kalmus's technology. They felt its high cost would cut into profits; what's more, the intense lighting required for indoor color photography raised movie sets to such a broiling temperature, actors complained of heat exhaustion! Most of the major movie directors dismissed color movies as a fad. As for movie stars, they adored the way black-and-white photography's dramatic shadow effects enhanced their profiles. Silent screen divas like Mary Pickford, Mae Murray and Theda Bara were in no hurry to see their onscreen mystiques destroyed by color.

In 1925, Paramount, Universal Pictures and the newly-rechristened M-G-M Studios were the only major film companies to use color in any of their releases, and in each case, it was color sequences added to an otherwise monochrome movie. It was hard to get filmmakers to commit even to the sequences! The classic original version of Ben-Hur, released in 1926, was filmed mostly in Technicolor, but director Fred Niblo decided it was too much of a distraction and threw out most of the footage; only a handful of color scenes appeared in the completed melodrama (fortunately, they survive). Hopes were high when legendary action star Douglas Fairbanks resolved to film his next adventure flick in Technicolor. The subsequent movie, The Black Pirate (1926), was heavily praised by critics for its "unrivaled beauty . . . mindful of the paintings of the old masters," and the public turned out in droves to see it. However, movie house projectionists were untrained in the idiosyncracies of color film. They frequently screened prints of The Black Pirate out of focus, eliciting howls of protest from indignant audiences; the old complaints about blurry scenes came back with a vengeange! Douglas Fairbanks communicated his displeasure to Herb Kalmus in no uncertain terms. Despite the acclaim his latest movie had attracted, he vowed never to shoot another one in color.

With a star as important as Fairbanks turning a cold shoulder to Technicolor, the rest of Hollywood followed suit. To Dr. Kalmus’s great dismay, interest in his company's product all but evaporated in 1927; only three films were produced in color that year, and two of them were black-and-white productions with color sequences inserted. The Technicolor Corporation dug in its heels during the dry spell, developing a third two-strip process that was easier to project. The new method was marketed in a series of historical short subjects which the company was unfortunately forced to produce at its own expense. Though strapped for cash, Herb Kalmus and his partners felt they'd come too far to throw in the towel; they were determined to sell color to a stubbornly disinterested Hollywood. It was especially hard to generate enthusiasm for Technicolor productions now that The Jazz Singer had dazzled the public with spoken dialogue. Studios were pouring nearly all their resources into building soundstages. However, consistently positive critical reaction to the short films, especially to one called Lady Of Victories (1928), was enough to get M-G-M Studios knocking at the company’s door. The studio agreed to distribute another color feature film, but offered nothing more; the Technicolor Corporation would have to cover all production costs on its own. It was a tall order that required a frenzy of fund-raising, but somehow, Dr. Kalmus once again managed to meet the challenge.

Technicolor Fiesta
in the Technicolor film short Fiesta De Santa Barbara

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