Any fan of Singin’ in the Rain knows all about Hollywood’s chaotic transition to sound: microphones hidden in flowerpots, starlets squeaking through musical numbers, out-of-sync dialogue. Perhaps because it never threw the industry into a tizzy of equal proportions, the advent of color on-screen is often given relatively short shrift—marginalized or ignored entirely as a fundamental turning point in the history of film. “Glorious Technicolor,” a series running at the Museum of the Moving Image from November 18 to December 2, and a new book from Wesleyan film professor Scott Higgins (who helped put the series together), may go some way toward changing all that. After all, Singin’ in the Rain may have been all about sound, but it actually demonstrated the capabilities of Technicolor.
“Glorious Technicolor” is a pocket history lesson in the use of cinematic color and the heretofore unheralded role of the Technicolor company in assisting filmmakers with the new technology, beginning with the first films to utilize the process (1934’s short La Cucaracha and 1935’s Becky Sharp) and continuing from there with films both monumental (Gone With the Wind) and forgotten (Trail of the Lonesome Pines, anyone?). Technicolor had begun in the teens and ’20s with a two-color process that offered a beautiful but limited color palette—lifelike flesh tones, but no blue skies or green grass. Three-color, which blended yellow, cyan, and magenta, was intended to provide the entire color spectrum. “Early three-color Technicolor were attempts to make color a new art form—to put color on the top of the hierarchy of filmic devices available in a production,” says Higgins, author of the book that inspired the Moving Image series, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow. “You watch Becky Sharp, and that film is designed so that color comes forward so it’s almost like opera.”
But studios and filmmakers didn’t want opera; they wanted colors to help tell the story, not be
the story. After that initial misstep, Technicolor pulled back, offering a more muted color package. “The story of Technicolor in the ’30s,” says Higgins, “is, at first, trying to promote Technicolor to the master position that color controls everything, then backing off that and finding ways to insinuate color into the flow of traditional storytelling.”
The company sent its own cinematographers to film sets as consultants and created a special department to oversee preproduction and production on Technicolor films. At times, filmmakers bitterly resented these consultations and felt as if they were shackled by Technicolor’s specialized needs. Director Vincente Minnelli attempted to remove chief Technicolor advisor Natalie Kalmus from the set of Meet Me in St. Louis, concerned that her barrage of advice was suffocating his creativity. Nonetheless, he ended up using her color guidelines in the finished film, as did other Technicolor malcontents like producer David O. Selznick, who grumbled about corporate interference while making Gone With the Wind. Fighting with Technicolor was one thing, but disobeying the precepts was a rebellion of an entirely different magnitude. It simply wasn’t done.
“Glorious Technicolor” concentrates the bulk of its attention on the early years of Technicolor, which reached its apotheosis with 1938’s The Adventures of Robin Hood and 1939’s Gone With the Wind. “When you watch Adventures of Robin Hood, they give you plenitude and a very broad color palette, but with the lessons learned in restraint,” says Higgins. Gone brings color and light together, taking the shadowing techniques perfected in black and white and rendering them in color. “You get to Gone With the Wind [and] realize, ‘I haven’t seen a really precise close-up [until now].'” Experimenting with a multitude of styles and genres, Technicolor eventually settled into a lengthy run as the film stock of choice for adventure films and musicals like The Wizard of Oz, which craved and benefited from its ability to make color spectacular.
“Color is . . . fleeting,” says Higgins. “It’s very ephemeral. It’s difficult to track and to remember and to describe.” “Glorious Technicolor” turns our attention to that most evanescent, and least explainable, of cinematic pleasures, and in so doing, offers a glimpse of the technical effort hidden behind the spectacle.