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A TCMFF Presentation: The Dawn of Technicolor in Early Hollywood Musicals

May 5, 2015

Authors David Pierce and James Layton spent Friday morning at the 2015 TCMFF presenting a fascinating lecture on the use of Technicolor in early movie musicals. The discussion was based in part on their book, The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935, which focuses on the Technicolor company's attempts to put color on the screen during its first two decades.


Since you can't have musicals without sound, the presentation concentrated on the early sound years, in particular 1929-1930. With sound still in its infancy at that point, studios didn't know what to expect in regards to the newly adopted technology. Throwing color into the mix resulted in a period of experimentation, as the industry sorted out what would and wouldn't work in both areas.


Below are some topics Pierce and Layton touched upon in the realms of Technicolor, sound, and musicals during these select few years that fascinated me. And at 9am in the morning, that is one difficult feat to accomplish. 

James Layton and David Pierce's book that I must buy!

Slowly Moving Along and Then...

Technicolor was originally founded in Boston, and during Technicolor's early days, negatives still made the three day trip back and forth between the east coast and California, where most of the studios were located. Up until the late 1920s, only about one feature a year was filmed in Technicolor, though the company provided color for shorts and inserts during those years as well.


Eventually, the cost of the technology lowered and the quality steadily improved - though there was still a long way to go - and by 1929, Technicolor was all the rage. To keep up with the interest in the process, the company recruited one of the largest camera departments in Hollywood. This growth, coupled with the demand from movie studios, forced westward expansion. Technicolor's increased presence in California included the building of a large west coast branch that opened in 1929 and a new film lab that opened its doors the following year.



Lots of Reds, Greens, and Light

Throughout the 1920s, Technicolor used a two strip process featuring red and green only; yellow, blue, and purple didn't exist yet in the Technicolor rainbow, which made for a pretty muted palette (the signature three strip process would come into use during the next decade). To accomodate the color restriction, various changes were made during production. For example, sets were painted according to how they would show up on the Technicolor cameras and prints. Case in point: in 1929's Sally, trees and plants were painted silver so they would reflect light rather than appear too dark on film. 

I don't know for sure, but there's a chance that shrubbery was painted...

Furthermore, natural light appeared dimmed, because light traveling through the camera was split twice before it hit the film, and as a result, hundreds of incandescent lights flooded sets to provide the appropriate level of illumination.  At one point, it was reported in Variety that RKO registered about 900 kilowatts of power for one musical number, which the magazine estimated was enough light to power the average American town!



Not Just Any Color - the Right Ones!

When color first made its debut, the quality was a "second hand" consideration, usually relegated to the camera team to simply throw color on the screen. However, it soon became obvious that method clearly wasn't showcasing the process at its best, and by 1929, both the company and industry really took notice of the flaws in the way color appeared onscreen.


Technicolor responded by creating a Color Control Department headed by Natalie Kalmus. Kalmus and her associates assisted studios and filmmakers in picking which shades would look best for sets and costumes and also taught creatives how they could apply meanings and emotions to certain colors.



And Then There's the Issue of Quality...

Typically, the Technicolor lab made about 100 prints of a film when they worked on one or two features a year. However, by the time color exploded in popularity in 1929, a higher number of films began to utilize the process, and those pictures played in a larger number of theaters across the US and abroad. Orders quickly rose from 100 to 200, 300, or even 400, in the case of uber popular movies such as 1929's Gold Diggers of Broadway. Consequently, the company soon found it harder to get negatives of each new film printed and delivered. 

"100% Natural Color." Ummm, with no yellows or blues? Regardless, this film was a massive hit. 

While Technicolor's new lab boasted state of the art equipment and a few MIT graduates to boot, this demand and focus on quantity resulted in inconsistent quality. Exhibitors and studios alike started to complain; in fact, an editor present at the New York opening of 1929's Show of Shows wrote to Technicolor saying that the technology was a natural step forward but "everything in the past month gives the appearance of a rush job." General grievances in the industry included sharpness (many times long shots appeared out of focus and looked too soft), color matching (a test print approved by a producer in Hollywood wouldn't look the same when printed in Boston), and more. Surprisingly (to me), the company itself recognized these various issues; they even claimed that one of the biggest problems, graininess, was very hard to solve because it involved many factors...that they weren't exactly sure of.



A Big Bang Followed by a Bust

By the time the company managed to fix many of the technical issues, the industry had moved on and musicals quickly lost popularity with audiences, though they'd become popular again in a few years. The time in between the process' rise and fall was so brief that in 1931, Technicolor almost went out of business! Of course, we know they eventually bounced back with the three strip process a few short years later.



The Movies

Pierce and Layton provided a nice variety of visual examples to complement the history of early Technicolor musicals. Unfortunately, several of these pictures filmed between 1929 and 1930 are either lost, exist in black and white copies made for TV, or only survive in individual color frames. However, the pair surprised us with some recently rediscovered and rare footage, courtesy of a number of archives, libraries, and institutions. Below are some of my favorites from the presentation:



Show Girl in Hollywood (1930) - A black and white sequence in this feature turned the cameras on the sound process, which must have been very cool for a 1930 audience. OK, it was also pretty impressive for a 2015 audience, because we don't get to see stuff like this nowadays. In particular, it was fascinating to feast our eyes on early ice boxes, which Layton and Pierce explained was the term given to the boxes that housed cameras and their operators during the early years of sound. 

The inside of an ice box (not from Show Girl in Hollywood). Apparently, these could get very, very hot inside.

The Sultan's Jester (1930) - This bizarre musical was part of a WB series of Vitaphone shorts featuring exotic stories as an excuse to experiment with a mix of crazy colors and music. As an added bonus, the movie was recently fully restored from the original camera negative (which sounds pretty incredible considering it's a short film). As expected, the story was nuts: a man continually tries to impress a Sultan who will behead him if he's not satisfied. The highlight was an acrobatic sequence featuring  two men who literally throw a woman around. She's spun, tossed, twisted, and everything in between - oh, and this did not impress the Sultan. Someone quipped afterwards that we probably didn't want to see the outtakes from that reel...


Show of Shows (1929) - This Warners all-star revue was filmed mostly in color, and for years only one section survived in color, but we were in for a treat: Pierce and Layton debuted a musical number, "Meet My Sister," unseen in Technicolor since the film's release over 80 years ago. The number showcased several young starlets and singers, including Loretta Young and Sally Blane, Ann Sothern (as Harriet Lake) and Marion Bryon, Alice and Marceline Day, and Dolores and Helene Costello, to name a few. Each pair dressed in the garb of different nationalities - whether their background or not is questionable in some cases - and were backed up by a few dozen dancers. Each act stayed on stage in the background until the number was fully through, which was an managerial sight to behold! 

The "Meet My Sister" number is pictured in the top right corner.

MGM's unfinished The March of Time (1930) - Apparently, this production went "off the rails" and was never completed. Warners provided digital scans of two clips, which weren't mind blowing in themselves, but this marked the first time that I saw huge color issues. For example, in one scene women were dressed in what looked like neon orange costumes that literally hurt my eyes to look at. I also noticed a lot fuzziness; in fact, the picture looked like it was shot in 3D, but we were viewing without the 3D glasses!


Follow Thru (1930) - The musical number that closed the presentation, "I Want to be Bad," was by far my favorite, because it was so far out there. The first singer we saw onscreen was caked in full-cheek blush, which marked the second time I took note of such outrageous looking makeup; Diane suggested to me on Twitter that this was perhaps due to the intense lighting and heat on set. Perhaps... 

This is Zelma O'Neal's "bad" face (and bad makeup, I think) in the "I Want to be Bad" number.

Besides the lyrics to the song itself, the best parts of the scene were the visuals: a bevy of chorus girls decked out like angels who turn into devils via a lightning bolt, a superimposed fire that forms around the girls, and a child angel in heaven who calls for a heavenly fire truck that races through the clouds to put the fire out. It was a cheeky and a horrible dream all wrapped into one insanely hilarious number. This is definitely one that needs to be seen.


If you attended the presentation, which clip was the highlight for you?

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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