Book review: The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935 - birth of colour movies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 March, 2015, 8:30pm


The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935
by James Layton and David Pierce
George Eastman House

Most feature films made during the Golden Age of Hollywood were in black and white, so audiences were dazzled when a movie exploded in Technicolor. Today, the flamboyant colours in such late 1930s classics as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, The Adventures of Robin Hood, The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind enchant audiences in the digital era.

Yet it took nearly two decades for Technicolor to become so glorious. The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935, an exhaustively researched book by James Layton and David Pierce, explores the early years of the technology and includes some 400 photographs and an annotated filmography for the early two-strip process that, because of technical limitations, couldn't replicate natural blues, purples and yellows.

Technicolor was founded in 1916 by Herbert Kalmus, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a physicist; fellow MIT graduate Daniel Comstock, an engineer, physicist and professor; and mechanical engineer and inventor W. Burton Wescott.

Kalmus, Comstock and Wescott didn't have any experience in motion pictures, Layton says, but they saw opportunity when a British colour system called Kinemacolor was proving problematic. "It flickered a lot on the screen and caused headaches," says Layton, an assistant archivist in the Moving Image Department at the George Eastman House. "Wescott saw a demonstration and saw the flaws."

He took the sample of the film back to the lab, and his team tried to improve it, Layton says. "They came up with an improved camera and an improved way of projecting it. That was the first Technicolor process." Film historian, archivist and author Pierce says the then-new company was similar to the modern Silicon Valley start-up.

"They raised investments from Boston bankers, railroad magnates, people who were looking to invest their fortune in something that could be profitable," Layton adds.

Technicolor's first film, The Gulf Between in 1917, was a disaster. The company had technical problems in the presentation and had to go back to the drawing board.

Five years later, the company's next film, The Toll of the Sea, was a marked improvement in photography and colour design. Still, Layton says, the two-strip process couldn't reproduce the full spectrum, so Technicolor had to control a film's palette carefully.

New make-up had to be created because the make-up used in black-and-white films looked artificial. "They had problems with the way colour photographed under different lighting," Layton says. The solution was to have different sets of costumes. They were made of different colours, but when photographed, appeared to match.

Technicolor sometimes needed as much as five times the light of a black-and-white film. Banks of lights were needed to illuminate enormous stages and temperatures inside the studios became unbearable. "There are stories of actors' make-up just sort of dripping off their faces," Layton says.

Although the authors documented 371 films that were entirely shot or featured sequences in the two-strip process, they found no proof that colour drove ticket sales, Pierce says.

Technicolor's fortunes boomed in 1929 and early 1930 when Warner Bros gave the company a lucrative contract to make several colour musicals. But audiences soon grew tired of musicals. As colour was so closely associated with musicals, Warner Bros pulled the plug.

It was the three-strip Technicolor process, which replicated the full spectrum, that saved the company. Technicolor struck a deal with Walt Disney to make animated shorts in the three-strip format. In 1933, Disney and the company scored their first big hit with the three-colour process with Three Little Pigs.

"It made an enormous amount of money for Disney," Layton says, adding that it helped fund Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

Los Angeles Times