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The Classic Movie History Project Blogathon: Color Design in «The Trail of the Lonesome Pine» (1936)

Of all God's gifts to the sighted man,
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
In an attempt to reconcile film color with cinema's growing industrialization, Spanish director Segundo de Chomón developed a partially mechanized stenciling process for French production giant Pathé Frères in 1905. Pathécolor incorporated an original print of a film with sections cut by a pantograph connected to a needle, which cut out pieces of each frame. The resulting stencil was placed in contact with a second print of the film and the two prints were then run together under a roller saturated with color ink or put in front of an airbrush. Early examples of stencil-colored films include Les Oeufs de Pâques (1907) and Excursion dans la Lune (1908), an almost shot-by-shot remake of Méliès's Le Voyage 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
The practice of tinting and toning came to an abrupt and almost complete end with the coming of sound in 1926. This was because the presence of a uniformily applied color dye interfered with the optical soundtrack of the film, affecting both the signal level being fed to a cinema's amplifiers and the volume of sound being played in the auditorium. To address this problem, Eastman Kodak introduced in 1929 a range of release stock known as «Sonochrome,» which was pre-tinted in the picture area, but not in the soundtrack. According to an Eastman Sonochrome ad, this new system featured «sixteen expressive tints — new to the screen, expressing the entire color spectrum, rich and varied in their emotional effects.» The Sonochrome shades included Rose Doree, Peachblow, Afterglow, Firelight, Candleflame, Sunshine, Verdante and Aquagreen. However, these stocks were not commonly adopted within the industry and most sound films remained uncolored.
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
In 1921, Kalmus, Comstock and Wescott developed the Technicolor Process Number Two, a subtractive color system which again captured the incoming light through a beam-splitter with red and green filters. The difference was that the frames exposed behind the red filter were printed on one strip of black-and-white films, while the frames exposed behind the green filter were flipped upside down and printed on another strip. The two prints, made on stock half the thickness of regular film, were then toned to a color nearly complementary to that of the filter (orange-red for green, cyan-green for red) and finally cemented together back to back for the projection prints. Because the hues were physically contained in the release copy, no special projection equipment was necessary to screen these films, which meant that they could be more easily accommodated by mainstream distribution channels. The first full-lenght motion picture produced entirely in Technicolor Process Two was The Toll of Sea (1922), followed by Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924) and The Black Pirate (1926). The process was also used to color short sequences in such major films as The Ten Commandments (1923), The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (1925).

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.
Throughout 1930, two-strip Technicolor continued to be used for many entire features as well as to add color to selected scenes, such as in Hell's Angels (1930) and Paramount on Parade (1930). By the following year, however, the Great Depression finally took its toll on the Hollywood motion picture industry, which began to cut back on expenses. As such, Technicolor had generally been abandoned by 1932, as it was three times more expensive than black-and-white photography. In addition, Technicolor faced mediocre quality control in the company's limited space. Many two-strip dye-transfer prints had apparent grain caused by improperly exposed matrices and reels with an inconsistent color balance.  

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
As color found a niche within the film industry, Technicolor engineers worked to make their technology more flexible so that it could better match the standards of black-and-white photography. In conjuction, color designers limited the palettes placed before the camera in favor of an emphasis on tone and value, qualities more agreeable with the dominant black-and-white practice. Soon, the vivid foreground displays of Becky Sharp gave way to a less obtrusive look that was considered more easily integrable with film narrative. This was referred to as the "restrained mode of color design," which aimed to achieve a coordination between hues and dramatic intention by emphasizing subtlety and the avoidance of high contrast.

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.
For two weeks, Hathaway fought Technicolor executive Natalie M. Kalmus, ex-wife of the company founder, over how to photograph The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. Kalmus was the head of the Color Advisory Service, which guided the productions on how to develop a color score in accordance with the narrative structure of a film. Sets and costume designs, props, make-up, lighting and even the camera work were all controled by the Technicolor company.

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
Where Becky Sharp indulged in highlights against a neutral background, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine deliberately avoid using accents, instead varying the neurals to create a more complex texture. Dominated by cabin interiors and woodland, the setting of Hathaway's picture is generally rendered in shades and tones of brown and gray; when other hues are present (mostly in green foliage and blue sky) they often possess a pronounced gray undertone. The film's design also combines details of flat, unsaturated colors to produce a varied though neutralized background for action. As such, hard color contrasts are rejected in favor of a mixture of neutral (gray and beige) with analogous hues (red-rose and brown) of roughly constant saturation and subtly graduated brightness. Because of their saturation, the various colors are able to converge organically and contribute perfectly harmonized texture and visual interest to the shot without departing from a subdued design.

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
The emotional use of color in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine peaks during Buddie's funeral, which is preceded by arguably the most strinking shot in the film: a brief view from above a blank of clouds gathered around a distant mountain peak and reflecting bright orange sunlight. In the subsequent shots of the funeral party, mist covering the background veils the forest in a gray cast, neutralizing hues and accentuating shadows and rays of sunlight. Yet, at the center of the gathering a pile of orange leaves and foliage covers Buddie's bier. The orange-red accent is brought to the foreground by framing June's parents (Fred Stone and Beulah Bondi) and then the preacher (Frank McGlynn Sr.) from behind the casket. The orange foliage serves not only to remind viewers of the coffin's location and mark the season, but also to reinforce emotional effect in the scene.

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
An example of color restraint in an outdoor scenery occurs in the montage of the progress made by Jack's employees, where the only vivid hues are glimpses of blue sky above the brown and green tones of the work site. Workers are clad almost entirely in brown and gray, with few men in subdued blue shirts adding variation to the color design. The same principles rule more strictly atmospheric scenes. For instance, in a sequence showing the passage of winter, color progesses from near monochrome in the snowy season through the soft gradations of gray and brown during the thaw, culminating in the vivid pastels of the sky and clouds. Again, this gentle accents of color add texture to the film without deviating from the tight palette. 

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine certainly excels at developing the potentials of a restrained palette, but in one particular scene the film overtly stylizes color by calling attention to it. During a telephone love scene between June, now in her room at a Louisville boarding school, and Jack, who is in his makeshift field office, the frame explodes with stunning pastels. In the first shot of June in her hypereffeminate bedroom, she reclines in Pink Mist pyjamas on off-white bedding tinted a very light shade of pink. Beyond her is a set of frilly light pink curtains against a wall covered in blue-green paper with a pink floral pattern. The pink and green hues, as well as the ornamentation of curtains and flowers, dramatically depart from the film's rough mise-en-scène.

June and Jack's telephone love scene
More surprisingly, the overt color unexpectedly spills over into Jack's field office. As the couple flirts, Jack begins playing with a set of colored pencils that sit before a portrait of Sylvia Sidney on his desk. A series of insert shots then show Jack using a blue pencil to rearrange red, blue and green pencils in front of her photograph. As he compliments June's eyes and asks her if she has a dimple, Jack arranges the pencil in a V shape to frame the portrait and point to her chin with the blue pencil. This momentary expansion of the palette is part of the pattern  that connects color to June's feminization and Jack's growing attraction to her. True to the dominant style, however, color design still relies on the careful arrangement of a few hues (pinks and blues) and avoids deep and saturated shades.

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


  1. So many thoughts on your fab post, so here they are in random order...
    1. Loved the Seaside colour footage from. So vivid!
    2. It was interesting to learn how different colours were achieved.
    3. I did not know the 1st Techncolor film was made in 1928.
    4. The Lonesome Pine film sounds intriguing, but all the more so taking into account the realistic use of colour. I'm glad filmmakers resisted the temptation to be over the top.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon and teaching us (me) more about the early history of colour film. :)

  2. I enjoyed your survey of the history of color. I remembered that Trail of the Lonesome Pine looked different compared to contemporary Technicolor movies. Now I know why.

  3. Woman, Im here applauding this wonderful piece. Congratulations, I'm fascinated by the history of color movies and I still have a lot to learn - I had never heard of sonochrome before.
    As for The Trail, I loved how they used the colors for moods and gave the film a fresh look - it's difficult to say it's 80 years old.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  4. Wonderful blog entry! Thanks for clarifying the timeline of some of these intermediary processes for me (the films shot in Technicolor Process Two), and also the shot of the film tint sample plate (!). This seems to be fairly exhaustive in its scope, really appreciate it.


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