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The history of Technicolor in ten films

19 November 2015

4:33 PM

19 November 2015

4:33 PM

Does the Queen only send telegrams to British subjects? If so, I guess the rest of us will have to celebrate Technicolor’s centenary without Her Maj’s involvement. I’ve already written about the occasion for last week’s issue of The Spectator; but I thought I’d return to it having spent most of yesterday gorging on films and cake. For yesterday was the anniversary day itself. The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation filed its start-up papers on 18 November 1915.

One thing that I tried to communicate with my article is the great variousness of Technicolor. The word tends to conjure up a particular era and mood: the colourful Hollywood musicals and romances of the 30s, 40s and 50s. But the actual process and its history are far broader than that. It began with rudimentary experiments in red and green light, and it continues with sophisticated experiments in digital photography. In between, there have been films of every quality and hue.

Here is a list of ten movies that were filmed in Technicolor, and which tell something of that varied history. It isn’t a best-of, nor even a list of my favourites, though it is close to being both. It’s meant to be a chronology of colour according to Technicolor. A useful starting point.

The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926)

Over a decade of innovation had to occur before Douglas Fairbanks would chance one million dollars of his own money on a Technicolor feature. The resulting swashbuckler, The Black Pirate, was one of colour’s first popular successes, although it wasn’t colour as we understand it today. The two-strip process only captured red and green light. There was no blue in these dangerous seas.

Doctor X (Michael Curtiz, 1932)

The studios were wary of two-strip Technicolor, although they did dip their brushes in its palette. At Warners, Michael Curtiz directed a couple of spook-shows called Doctor X and Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933). The first of these is so clunky that you can almost feel the heavy Technicolor equipment being dragged around off screen, yet it manages to be atmospheric in other ways. The scene in which the monster reveals itself – ‘Syn…thetic…flesh’ – benefits from those weird colours.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz and William Keighley, 1938)


Curtiz also managed to work in full colour, with three-strip Technicolor. His The Adventures of Robin Hood is, as I reveal in my original article, a movie that can cure illnesses. Everything in it is given over to colour and colour’s reproduction on screen. Even the trees of Sherwood Forest – in truth, some corner of California – were sprayed green to make them more resplendent.

Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)

The Biggest Movie of All Time doesn’t contain many surprises. Of course it helped to popularise Technicolor. And of course it wrung an entire rainbow out of the system. But I’m still taken aback by the shading of some of its scenes, such as the one embedded above. These are not the fluorescent colours of The Adventures of Robin Hood, but subtler ones such as brown and grey. Technicolour makes them rich instead of dull.

Fantasia (Norm Ferguson et al, 1940)

The defining moment in Technicolor’s history came in 1932, when one of its founders, Herbert Kalmus, showed the new three-strip system to Walt Disney. Five years later, and two years after the first full colour feature Becky Sharp (1935), good ol’ Uncle Walt would use it for Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – and that was it. The movie-going public was utterly enraptured. What they didn’t know is that bolder colours and art were to come. Fantasia is Disney unchained, with all the confidence in fairyland.

Black Narcissus (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947)

Oh dear, which Powell and Pressburger film to include? They not only made my favourite movie: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943). With the cinematographer Jack Cardiff, they also made three of the most beautiful: A Matter of Life and Death (1946), Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes (1948). I think I’ll plump for Black Narcissus. Colour bleeds from the Himalayan scenery right into the nunnery at its centre. No wonder Sister Ruth is driven mad.

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)

With the exception of numerous short travelogues made in its early years, Technicolor was generally confined to Hollywood soundstages. With She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, John Ford showed what could be done on location. His cinematographer, Winton Hoch, had a single directive as they filmed in Monument Valley: recreate the Old West paintings of Frederic Remington – which he certainly did, and then some. This film about a man’s autumn is as colourful as any autumn I’ve ever seen.

The River (Jean Renoir, 1951)

Trust the son of Auguste Renoir to understand colour and its uses. Jean Renoir’s The River was another Technicolor marvel shot mostly on location, but it was more international than Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Here was a French director capturing India through the lens of an American camera. Is it documentary? Is it drama? The colour, simultaneously real and unreal, undoes the divide between the two.

Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)

The era of three-strip Technicolor ended in 1955 with Foxfire and the invention of the cheaper – and inferior – Eastmancolor process. Among the standout films of that late period is Hathaway’s Niagara. It is as noir-ish as they come: lust and death orbit around a woman’s curves, in this case Marilyn Monroe’s. But it has the added irony of a picture postcard location and a picture postcard look. Be warned: the above clip, which, bizarrely, is in slow motion, is the best of an unsatisfactory selection on YouTube.

The Aviator (Martin Scorsese, 2004)

What’s a director to do when he wants to recreate the look of two-strip and three-strip Technicolor for a modern movie? In Scorsese’s case, for The Aviator, he got in touch with Technicolor themselves. They came up with a digital process for colouring the film just right, as detailed in this American Cinematographer article. It’s what they do now. Colour enhancements and manipulations, like Photoshop for motion pictures.


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