Monday, 3 April 2017

Classic Movie Fact of the Week #4

Did you know that...
The first ever feature-length color motion picture produced in the United States was the comedy-drama The Gulf Between (1917), starring Grace Darmond and Niles Welch.

Grace Darmond (1893-1963) photographed for The Gulf Between

In 1912, Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, two graduates and professors of the Massachussets Institute of Technology (MIT), teamed up with mechanic W. Burton Westcott to form an industrial research and development firm. Three years later, when the company was hired to analyze an inventor's flicker-free motion picture system, they became intrigued by the art and science of filmmaking, particularly the cutting-edge color processes that were being developed in England. The trio then decided to set up a film laboratory in Boston inside a charcoal black railroad car, which was outfitted with an electrical generator, a darkroom, a fireproof safe, a photochemical lab and an office with several sample oak desks. Outside, along the top, the words «Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation» were painted in white capital letters. The «Techni» part was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock's alma mater.

The Technicolor railroad car laboratory used for the production of The Gulf Between

In 1917, Technicolor hitched its headquarters to a train heading south to Jacksonville, Florida. The team's plan was to produce a feature film that would demonstrate what their innovative two-color «System 1» could do. Essentially, the process worked by means of a prism beam-splitter, which, in combination with filters behind the camera, divided the incoming light in a red and green separation negative on a single stip of black-and-white stock. When projected in the cinema, the two consecutive images were combined simultaneously into one picture consisting of red and green colored light, eliminating the heavy fringing seen in the other color processes in theory. 

Shot in Jacksonville to take advantage of its consistent weather and bright sunshine, The Gulf Between was a love story about a girl raised by a sea captain who falls in love with a boy above her social standing. Although the boy's weathly parents do everything they can to break up the couple, they are married with the help of the captain. This creates a gulf between the newlyweds and the parents, but in the end the family is happily reunited. The film was directed by Wray Bartlett Physioc and written by Anthony Paul Kelly and J. Parker Read Jr., with cinematography by Carl Gregory.

Filming The Gulf Between in Jacksonville, Florida

Production on The Gulf Between took place some time around spring and summer of 1917. Shooting proved a challenge, as «the snafus started as soon as film began running through the camera.» Skepticism about what Technicolor was trying to achieve was pervasive and, according to Comstock, it «even extended to the actors who appeared in our first picture.» Their attitude was, «This picture will never reach the screen.» Comstock had stayed behind in Boston to work on the new projector that would be required to show to movie, but he was summoned by telegram to travel to Florida immediately to help the crew figure out of to obtain usable footage from the camera. Filming outside was relatively easy, but interior were nearly impossible to shoot because of the amount of light that Technicolor required. In addition, it was hard to see an expression on an actor's face in anything other than a close-up.

One of the few surviving frames of The Gulf Between

Running at about 58 minutes, The Gulf Between premiered at the Aeolian Hall in New York on September 21, 1917. Audiences are critics alike were generally fascinated by the film's use of color. Pronouncing Technicolor as "vastly superior to any of its predecessors," The Motion Picture World wrote that «the final shot, showing the sun setting over the water, is beautiful mindful of a Japanese painting.» Photoplay magazine, on the other hand, complained that all colors were reduced into terms of reds and greens, adding that «the story is dull, trite, and drawn out interminably.»

Although The Gulf Between was well-received, the screenings were marred by several technical difficulties. Because two different frames were being exposed at the same time, exhibition called for a special projector fitted with two appertures equipped with red and green filters, two lenses and an adjustable prism that aligned the two images on the screen. Despite Comstock's best efforts, it was extremely hard to align the two images during projection, meaning that color fringing was still a problem. According to Kalmus, it also required «an operator who was a cross between a college professor and an acrobat.» All of these deficiences contributed to the utlimate failure of Technicolor System 1 and The Gulf Between remained the only picture made in this process. Today, the film is presumed lost, with only a few short fragments known to survive. The fragments are stored in the collections of the Margaret Herrick Library, the George Eastman House Motion Picture Collection and the Smithsonian National Museum of American History Photography Department.

Bringing Up Oscar: The Story of the Men and Women Who Founded the Academy by Debra Ann Pawlak (Pegasus Books, 2012)
Inventing the Movies: Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo by Scott Krisner (CinemaTech Books, 2008)
Timeline of Historical Film Colors: Technicolor No. I

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