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

13 December 2006

The Technicolor Revolution (Part Two)

Robin Hood
Lights! Color! Action!
Neon Rainbow
The Technicolor Revolution
by Donny Jacobs
Herb Kalmus's production of The Viking, starring Pauline Starke and Donald Crisp, is the most impressive of all silent films ever shot in color; its visual glory even surpasses that of The Black Pirate. As Douglas Fairbanks' film had demonstrated, the dreamlike, ethereal look of two-color Technicolor was ideally suited to historical costume dramas. Kalmus's production crew made sure there was plenty of period costuming for viewers to feast their eyes on, and plenty of actors to wear it onscreen. At times, the movie's teeming battle scenes almost rival those found in the films of DeMille and Griffith. Technicolor even paid for a synchronized orchestral soundtrack to enhance the on-screen action. The finished feature was screened for M-G-M executive Irving Thalberg, and it left him breathless. He was so impressed, he convinced his studio to purchase the rights from Technicolor, and the company was subsequently reimbursed over $300,000 in production costs. As an official Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer release in 1928, The Viking wasn't the smash hit Herb Kalmus had hoped it would be, but nonetheless, he viewed it as an unqualified success. His company had recouped its investment, and the movie reviews were mostly glowing. Even more important, he knew that Irving Thalberg was highly respected in the movie colony; once news of Thalberg's enthusiasm for Technicolor's latest project had spread to other studio executives, good things were bound to happen. All he had to do was wait.

He didn't have to wait long! Suddenly, Hollywood's biggest moguls were clamoring at his company's door again. Foremost among them was Jack Warner, CEO of Warner Brothers Pictures. With The Jazz Singer, he had proven the profitability of talking pictures; now Warner was eager to top himself by releasing hit movies that boasted both sound and color. Three subsequent films produced in 1929, The Desert Song (featuring color sequences only), Gold Diggers Of Broadway, and On With The Show (the first Technicolor movie released with synchronized dialogue) helped Warner Brothers dominate box office receipts that year. Rival studios panicked, fearing they were about to miss out on the Next Big Thing in movies. By January of 1930, the Technicolor Corporation had been contracted to photograph three dozen Hollywood productions, and found itself sitting pretty on a million dollar bank account. It was a heady time for Dr. Kalmus and his partners.

The 1930s kicked off with a slew of two-color Technicolor releases, the most significant being the costume dramas The Vagabond King (starring Jeannette MacDonald) and Song Of The West, the musicals King Of Jazz (which won an Oscar) and Sally, and the ribald comedy flick Whoopee, starring Broadway sensation Eddie Cantor and featuring elaborate Busby Berkeley dance sequences. However, Technicolor found that new problems came with its new visibility. The 1929 stock market crash had thrown the country into economic collapse, and it soon became apparent that the novelty of color wasn't enough to draw jobless people into movie theatres. Box office flops multiplied. What's more, many of the new color movies suffered from bad scripts and deplorable directing . . . and that included art direction. Scenes filmed in garish, clashing colors became so common, movie critics took to complaining of eye strain. Dr. Kalmus's wife Natalie, who served as Technicolor's chief color consultant, was particularly appalled at this development. For his part, Herb Kalmus was no longer satisfied with the implied realism of the two-color process. From the beginning, his goal had been true-to-life color, and despite what dozens of fawning reviews were claiming, red and green filters alone couldn't achieve it. The only way to reproduce a full spectrum of natural hues was with a three-color process. As contracts for new film productions failed to materialize, Kalmus realized it was do-or-die time: Only the success of Technicolor Process Number Four could save his company from bankruptcy!

Marlene Dietrich
made Technicolor look like money in the bank
It took technicians another three years to perfect the three-strip process (which exposed film through red, green and blue filters), but by the summer of 1932, it was finally ready for its debut. However, Technicolor's most spectacular innovation yet came very close to being dead on arrival. Hollywood was now in the depths of the Great Depression; studios were struggling to make a profit, and this new color process was almost prohibitively expensive. Herb Kalmus had door after door slammed in his face; at Paramount, M-G-M, Warner Brothers, Universal, and on all the other movie lots, he was persona non grata. He could only raise interest at animated movie studios, and even they were cautious. However, he reasoned correctly that some adventurous producer would be intrigued with the idea of color cartoons. That producer was Walt Disney. In late 1932, Disney released an animated short subject called Flowers And Trees in the new full-color process. Critics were ecstatic, audiences were enchanted, and the film industry would up giving the cartoon an Oscar. The same thing happened in 1933 when Disney's second color feature, The Three Little Pigs, hit theatres. Black-and-white cartoons became obsolete overnight, and just in time to fend off angry creditors, the Technicolor Corporation claimed a roster of steady animation clients. Live-action studios remained stubbornly resistant, though, until Jack Warner agreed to gamble again on the old two-color process. In 1932 and ‘33, his studio spiced up a pair of horror films with it, both starring a soon-to-be famous actress named Fay Wray. The most successful and best-remembered of the two movies was Mystery Of The Wax Museum.

Triumph in the cartoon genre notwithstanding, the devastated American economy was almost too high a hurdle for Technicolor to clear. Salvation came in the form of two big-talking investors named Merian C. Cooper (director of the megahit King Kong) and Jock Whitney. Cooper and Whitney were bowled over by the sample live-action color footage Dr. Kalmus screened for them, and they contracted with Technicolor to photograph every movie they planned to release through the independent studio they'd co-founded. The two men may have been high-stakes gamblers, but they weren't beyond hedging their bets; in order to test the feasibility of their proposed venture, they decided that the first Pioneer Pictures release would be a film short. Character actors Don Alvarado, Paul Porcasi and Steffi Duna were engaged along with a Mexican dance troupe, and the cantina comedy La Cucaracha went before the cameras in early 1934. Cooper and Whitney gave their gambling impulses free reign during the production. They spared no expense; the final budget was in excess of $60,000, making La Cucaracha the most costly two-reeler filmed up to that time. Luckily for them, the money was well-spent. The combination of Mexican song and dance with splashy primary colors yielded a big hit, both commercially and critically. Hardly any reviewers bothered to comment on the comic storyline or exotic musical segments; they were too busy proclaiming the arrival of rich reds and true blues to the American cinema palette. Everyone agreed that this was the most vivid color process seen to date. Clearly, the limitations of two-color photography were now a thing of the past, and nothing underscored that fact more strongly than the Oscar awarded to La Cucaracha for Best Comedy Short Subject of 1934.

Pioneer Pictures only completed two full-length movies before going belly up: The historical drama Becky Sharp, and the period musical comedy Dancing Pirate. Neither made money. However, a three-strip Paramount Studios production called Trail Of The Lonesome Pine did turn a profit, and the time Technicolor staff spent working on all three productions taught them some valuable lessons. They discovered that camera glare was a problem with the new process, so certain costumes and props had to be color-treated before filming. A new kind of pancake makeup was needed to keep skin tones pure, so Max Factor began developing one in close consultation with Ray Rennahan and other Technicolor cameramen. Most important of all, film sets needed to be designed for color so that intense hues wouldn’t clash or distract audience attention from the storyline. Much to the chagrin of directors, Natalie Kalmus began to assert herself more forcefully on Hollywood movie sets. No production could begin without one of her color charts being on hand for art directors to reference!

Armed with new expertise, the Technicolor Corporation was raring to go when Jock Whitney convinced maverick producer David O. Selznick to pick up Pioneer Pictures’ movie option. The deal brought with it something Dr. Kalmus and his associates had been craving since their ill-fated collaboration with Douglas Fairbanks: Major movie stars willing to be filmed in color. For his first production, Selznick cast Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich in the lead roles. Miriam Hopkins had starred in Becky Sharp, and an up-and-coming player named Henry Fonda had led the cast of Trail Of The Lonesome Pine, but in 1936, neither actor could match Boyer and Dietrich’s international star power. Miss Dietrich’s ravishing beauty and glamorous costumes proved to be the main selling points for Selznick’s Garden Of Allah, and sell it did. The lavish desert romance broke big at the box office, and while it didn’t win any Oscars, the Motion Picture Academy saw fit to honor it with a special color photography citation. This led directly to the establishment of a Color Cinematography Oscar in 1939.

Profits + Star Power = a formula that finally convinced Hollywood's skeptical studio executives that Technicolor was bankable. Accordingly, the late 1930s were awash in color spectacles, several of which have attained the status of legend: Walt Disney's Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs; Warner Brothers' The Adventures Of Robin Hood, Dodge City and Private Lives Of Elizabeth And Essex, all starring Errol Flynn; 20th Century Fox's Drums Along The Mohawk, another box office smash for Henry Fonda; M-G-M's timeless Wizard Of Oz featuring Judy Garland; and David O. Selznick's classic melodramas A Star Is Born and Gone With The Wind. Among the rack of Oscars awarded to the latter film was Technicolor's first for photographic excellence. The avalanche of acclaim these productions garnered flung open the door for a multitude of color extravaganzas, which held forth on movie screens with ever increasing frequency through the 1940s and '50s. Female stars like Betty Grable, Doris Day, Esther Williams, Carmen Miranda, Maria Montez and Maureen O'Hara became known for appearing almost exclusively in color films. By 1955, it was rare to see a musical or costume drama filmed in black-and-white, and by the late 1960s, movies in monochrome had become the rarity Technicolor films once were. Now, over 100 years after Thomas Edison experimented with clumsy hand-tinting, the tide has turned completely in color's favor.

Frank Morgan may have played the Wizard Of Oz in the famous 1939 movie, but he doesn't deserve the title. Herb Kalmus was the real wizard! Without him, there might never have been a yellow brick road for Judy Garland to dance along, or sparkling ruby slippers for her to wear. It was Dr. Kalmus's vision, his brilliance, his tenacity and his Technicolor wand that transported Hollywood over the neon rainbow.

La Cucaracha

in the climactic scene of La Cucaracha

Quotes and other information for this essay were taken from the book Glorious Technicolor: The Movies' Magic Rainbow by Fred E. Basten (Technicolor, 2005). It contains a complete list of Technicolor film productions released between 1917 and 2005, as well as hundreds of stunning color publicity stills.