Of all God's gifts to the sighted man,
color is holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.
color is holiest, the most divine, the most solemn.
(John Ruskin, English art critic and writer, 1819-1900)
The efforts to join color to the moving image are as old as cinema itself. At least since the release of Annabelle Serpentine Dance (1895) by the Edison Manufacturing Company, filmmakers had been hand-painting frames to add color to black-and-white prints. In this 45-second short, Broadway dancer Annabelle Moore is dressed in white veils that appear to change colors as she swirls them. Hand coloring was often used in early European trick and fantasy films, especially those produced by pioneer French filmmaker George Méliès, whose astonishingly intricated visual effects amazed audiences at the time. Méliès first experimented with color in Jeanne d'Arc (1900), leading to a more spectacular use of the technique in Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902) and Le Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904), which offers four hues in at least ten shades and tints simultaneously on screen. Despite its artistic potential, hand-painted film died in its infancy. By the mid-1900s, the average lenght of motion pictures had increased and the number of exhibition venues demanding prints had multiplied, making the process of coloring films frama by frame with a paintbrush economically unfeasible.
|Frame from Excusion dans la Lune|
A more common method of bringing color to film emerged in the early 1910s and involved tinting and toning. Both of these processes achieved more or less uniform coloring by running release prints through baths of either dye or toning agents. Tinting required dyeing the gelatin of a print so that the entire image was covered in color, while toning replaced the silver particles in the film with metallic salts or mordanted dyes so that highlights remained clear. Film tinting was widely used in early silent features, with specific colors employed for certain narrative effects. For instance, blue signaled night, red indicated fire and passion, magenta and lavender designated romance, green was used for nature and gruesome scenes and amber indicated lamplight. American director D. W. Griffith displayed an interest in color and utilized tinting to a unique effect in many of his features, including the 3-hour epic drama The Birth of a Nation (1915). The ease with which these techniques could be carried out resulted in color permeating cinema more widely in the 1910s. By the beginning of the following decade, between 80 and 90 percent of all films were tinted or toned.
|Sample plate of tinted film stock|
from Eastman Sonochrome
While artificial color dominated the silent era, natural (or photographic) color processes also vied for adoption. The earliest photographic color systems were additive, meaning that white light would be created by adding various densities of red, blue and green. The first commercially successful natural color process was Kinemacolor, a British venture invented by George Albert Smith in 1906 that reproduced red and green (but not blue) wavelenghts of light. The first motion picture exhibited in Kinemacolor was A Visit to the Seaside (1908), an 8-minute short directed by Smith, showing people doing everyday activities. In the United States, Herbert Kalmus, Samuel Comstock and W. Burton Wescott developed the Technicolor Process Number One, in which a prism beam-splitter behind the camera lens exposed two consecutive frames of a single strip of black-and-white negative film through two filters, one red and the other green. Because two frames were being exposed at the same time, exhibition called for a special projector with two apertures equipped with red and green filters, two lenses and an adjustable prism that aligned the two images on the screen. This requirement, as well as several technical deficiencies such as color fringing, contributed to the ultimate failure of this additive color process. The only feature filmed in Technicolor Process One was The Gulf Between (1917), starring Grace Darmond and Niles Welch.
|Frames from The Toll of the Sea |
and The Phantom of the Opera
A crucial step in the Technicolor system was taken in 1928 with the introduction of dye-transfer printing, referred to by the company as Technicolor Process Number Three. The two strip negatives were exposed in the same fashion as in the previous cement method, only this time the two images were printed on the side of the positive through the incorporation of dye imbibition. This technique involved the coating of a normal thickness 35mm matrix with the appropriate dye and its subsequent transfer onto a special blank stock. The two strips would then come into direct contact in a machine that used pressurized rollers to emboss the dyes in colors nominally complementary to those of the camera filters into a single print, thus eliminating some of the problems that had become evident with the double-cementing method. Since dye imbibition was not suitable for printing optical soundtracks — which required very high resolution — the blank stock used for sound-on-film system swas a conventional black-and-white stock on which the soundtrack, as well as the frame lines, had been printed in the regular way prior to the dye transfer operation. The first feature made entirely in Technicolor Process Three was The Viking (1928), which had synchronized score and sound effects. There followed such pictures as On with the Show! (1929) — the first all-talking color film — Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929) and King of Jazz (1930).
|Jean Harlow in Hell's Angels. This is the only color|
footage of Harlow's short career.
In response to the sudden decline in color films, Kalmus and his associates introduced the Technicolor Process Number IV, which — unlike its predecessors — recorded all three primary hues. Using a special dichroic beam-splitter equipped with two 45-degree prisms in the form of a cube, light from the lens was deflected by the prisms and split into two paths to expose each one of three black-and-white negatives (one each to record the densites of red, green and blue). The three negatives were printed onto the corresponding matrices (one for each color), which were then developed, bleached and washed to form reliefs that could absorb the dyes for the imbibition process. Since this was also a subtractive system, the dyes were complementary to the color of light recorded by the negative printed on it: cyan for red, magenta for green and yellow for blue. The final stage in Process IV consisted of bringing the matrices for each strip into high-pressure contact with the receiver, which imbibed and held the dyes, thus rendering a wider spectrum of color than previous technologies. The first feature to use three-strip Technicolor was Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp (1935), a historical drama starring Miriam Hopkins, Frances Dee and Cedric Hardwicke.
|Miriam Hopkins and Cedric Hardwicke in Becky Sharp|
The landmark film in the restrained mode was Henry Hathaway's The Trail of Lonesome Pine (1936), which was also the first three-strip Technicolor feature to be shot on an outdoor location. Based on the popular 1908 John Fox Jr. of the same name, this Paramount release centers on a love triangle between coal-company engineer Jack Hale (Fred MacMurray), wild country girl June Tolliver (Sylvia Sidney) and her fiancé and cousin, Dave Tolliver (Henry Fonda). This romantic entanglement is complicated by a feud between the Tollivers and the Fallins, who inadvertently kill June's little brother Buddie (George "Spanky" MacFarland) in a bombing at his construction site. Dave eventually sacrifices his own life to end the violence between the families, opening the way for June to marry Jack, who has by now turned her into the sophisticated lady that she had always wanted to be. One of the top five highest-grossing pictures of the year, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine served as the model for a brief cycle of color "ecology dramas," including 20th Century Fox's Ramona (1936) and Warner Bros.' God Is Where You Find It (1938).
|Frames from The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.|
The film's mise-en-scène is dominated by shades of
brown and gray, with neutral colors emerging
organically from the background.
After viewing the rushes shot on location at Big Bear Lake and Santa Susana Pass in Chatsworth, California, where the studio recreated the rural and mountain setting of the novel, producer Walter Wanger sided with Hathaway and ordered the Technicolor team to give the director whatever he needed. "I wanted to make an authentic looking account of these pioneer people," Hathaway recalled. "[The Trail of the Lonesome Pine] was Paramount's first [outdoor three-strip process] Technicolor film and [...] nobody knew what we couldn't do. I had the cameraman [...] shoot directly into shadows, use half-light, do dawn shots, and the Technicolor consultant had a fit, claiming that everything had to be brightly lit. But [...] Wanger said to go ahead and these vignettes saved the picture."
Despite Wanger's claim that the production crew "let colors fall where they may," the film's persistent avoidances of bright and satured hues indicated an extraordinary attention to color. Technicolor cinematographer William H. Greene described the team's efforts to subdue color: "Whereas in many productions in times past, everything colorful that could be thought of was put before the camera, in [The Trail of the Lonesome Pine] people and places were photographed just as they really are." He added, "Even red and black checkered shirts, which might well be found in the mountains, were not allowed beause the effect might suggest that they had been added to bring out more color." Instead, subtler motifs were preferred and color was eased into the background so that "the audience will not be conscious of the fact that they are looking at color. They will only see men and women goig about the business of life looking real."
|Evolution of June Tolliver's costumes|
A restraint palette of closely related hues also allowed for color patterns and motifs that accrue meaning across a film to stand out more easily on screen. For example, June's costumes become more colorful as she falls in love with Jack. In the first half of the film, she appears in a nearly black Majolica Blue ensemble that includes a knit skirt and short-sleeved blouse. Later, she tries to impress Jack by adding a cape and a white lace collar to the dress. She finally discards the outfit when, as she leaves town for a city education, she wears a gray plaid dress, a gray cape and a straw hat decorated with a black and red-brown band, the most striking element in this attire. Following her brother's death, June returns home in a Stone Green hat, skirt and tailored coat, which she wears over a brown shirt, her attempt to emulate Jack's idea of sophistication. These costume changes introduce color variation without departing from the palette and are crucial to character development.
|Shots from Buddie's funeral sequence|
Undoubtedly, the major attraction of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine lay in the presentation of spectacular landscapes in so-called "natural color." Apparently, one Brooklyn exhibitor forced pine extract through the air conditioner and advertised the showing as "so realistic you'll smell the odor of the pine," illustrating just how important natural settings were for the marketing of the film. Greene emphazised the point by boasting that the production "is made up largely of exteriors, vast sweeps which thrill you with their beauty. Shot with a color process that gives you the ultimate in natural color reproductions, these exterior scenes will give the public what it long has been wanting — naturalness." Even so, restraint still prevails in most of the exterior footage.
|The film's atmospheric scene|
|June and Jack's telephone love scene|
Adhering to a narrow coordinated color palette opened new possibilities for tying hue with story. Like lighting or music, color offered an additional register through which to establish motifs, set mood and highlight narrative and character development. Following The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, films like A Star is Born (1937), Nothing Sacred (1937) and The Goldwyn Follies (1938) continued to make of this method to correlate chromatic shifts with narrative structures. However, the antagonism between supporting the story unobtrusively while showcasing Technicolor as an "added attraction" contributed to the eventual decline of the restrained mode. By the end of the decade, it had been eclipsed by the "complex and assertive" displays of color of films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and Gone with the Wind (1939). But even these films built on the methods for integrating and controlling color that had been formed within this extraordinarily important, though nearly forgotten, mode of design.
This post is my contribution to The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon hosted by Movies Silently, Silver Screenings and Once Upon a Screen. To view all entries to the blogathon, click the links below.
DAY 1 | DAY 2 | DAY 3 | DAY 4 | DAY 5 | DAY 6
Chromatic Cinema: A History of Screen Color by Richard Misek (2010) | Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s by Scott Higgins (2007) | Henry Hathaway: The Lives of a Hollywood Director by Harold N. Pomainville (2016) | Moving Color: Early Film, Mass Culture, Modernism by Joshua Yumibe (2012) | Moving Image Technology: From Zoetrope to Digital by Leo Enticknap (2005) | Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing by Richard W. Haines (1993) | Timeline of Historical Film Colors