Last week I received an email alert from my friend Art S. Revolutionary, publisher and editor of the MUSEA ‘zine and blog, announcing that the fabled Technicolor film lab is closing its doors in Glendale, CA. Oh, Technicolor isn’t going out of business necessarily, but as the movie industry shifts to digital production and/or presentation, there is less and less of a need for film prints, the bread and butter of Technicolor lo these many decades.
Of course, even before the the rise of digital technology, the nature of Technicolor had changed significantly from its heyday in the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Beginning with 1935’s Becky Sharp, Technicolor entailed using an elaborate three-strip process, that is, three strips of black-and-white film running simultaneously through one specialized camera equipped with a prism, all of it supervised by the people at the Technicolor labs. To clarify, studios did not own their own Technicolor cameras, rather they leased them, and when they did, they did so under the watchful eye of Technicolor personnel who apparently were on-set day in and day out to protect both their property and their brand. (Oh, and, yes, I’ve greatly simplified the process, but please feel free to explore the links to further reading I’ve supplied at the end of this piece.)
By the mid 1950s, Technicolor introduced a less cumbersome and less expensive process which still produced fantastic results, per the likes of To Catch a Thief (1955), Vertigo (1958), Ben-Hur (1959), West Side Story (1961), Lawrence of Arabia (1962), My Fair Lady (1964), and Mary Poppins (1964), though purists still insist the full-bloom of the Technicolor magic was lost, meaning loss of depth, loss of resolution, etc. That loss continues with the reliance on digital production. Yes, turning away from pure celluloid is a democratic move as it means more and more people can make the movies of their dreams. Indeed, a friend of mine in New York City is excited about the prospect of making his own dream project a reality, and I’m certainly rooting for him. Plus, the quality of digital recording has come a long, long way as the price has fallen. Look no further than 2013’s Oblivion and Gravity. That noted, no less than Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight and Inception) still holds that film produces superior, more satisfying imagery.
Here are some of our favorites from the classic three-strip era:
Of course, I could go on all day, what with the likes of The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), Annie Get Your Gun (1950), An American in Paris (1951), The African Queen (1951), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), The Quiet Man (1952), and 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954), as well as The Ten Commandments (1956), not to mention a few Disney animated classics, such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) and Cinderella (1950). Don’t ask me how these animated films were filmed using Technicolor. I’m just the reporter. Esther Williams’ aquatic spectacles, such as Oscar nominated Million Dollar Mermaid (1952), also presented challenges since portions of Williams’s movies were shot in water-filled tanks. Oh, and don’t forget Ziegfeld Follies (1945) featuring Lucille Ball, known in those days as ‘Techinicolor Tessie’ thanks to her flaming red hair and big blue eyes–never seen to better advantage.
Over the course of researching this article, I’ve discovered that some of my faves weren’t even filmed in the simplified version of Technicolor as innovations in technology allowed studios to work their own magic. For example, Giant (1956) was filmed in WarnerColor, and Gigi (which I prefer to, say, An American in Paris) was filmed in Metrocolor. Universal’s popular Ross Hunter/Douglas Sirk version of Imitation of Life (1959) starring Lana Turner was in Eastman Color; moreover, 1954’s terrific mystery The Black Widow, starring Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, and Gene Tierney, was filmed using “Color by De Luxe,” but, trust me, it’s as plush and eye-catching as Technicolor at its snazziest. The Black Widow was a 20th Century Fox offering as are other choice De Luxe entries such as The King and I (1956, another one of Michael’s picks), An Affair to Remember (1957), and The Sound of Music (1965), along with Three Coins in a Fountain and The Best of Everything, both of them highly entertaining “career girl” flicks that offer equal doses of newfangled romance and old-fashioned morality. Of course, once single strip color film became available–and less expensive than the old three strip method–it all but spelled the end for black and white films and, arguably, gave movies an advantage over television.
Even though, as the old saying goes, “They don’t make ’em like they used to,” that doesn’t mean that good movies–with amazing visuals–aren’t still being made in Hollywood. They are, and they will continue to be; nonetheless, it’s hard not to get nostalgic about the end of this most robust, and yes colorful, passage of old school filmmaking.
Okay, that’s my two-cents. Now, I’d love to hear from you. What are some of your favorite color films from Hollywood’s Golden Age? What recent movies did you love for their eye-popping visuals?
Thanks for your consideration.
“Technicolor Shutters Glendale Lab as Film Fadeout Continues” by David S. Cohen in Variety, featuring quotes from Chris Nolan: http://variety.com/2013/film/news/technicolor-shutters-glendale-lab-as-films-fadeout-continues-1200981010/
“Filmmakers Lament Extinction of Film Prints” by Andrew Stewart and David S. Cohen in Variety: http://variety.com/2013/film/news/film-jobs-decline-as-digital-distribution-gains-foothold-1200375732/
Natalie Klamus on The Red Shoes at the Internet Movie Database: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0040725/trivia?ref_=tt_ql_2
“The Rise of Technicolor” in the Los Angeles Times: http://articles.latimes.com/1998/dec/04/entertainment/ca-50659
“Fabulous Technicolor! A History of Low Fade Color Print Stocks” by Les Paul Robley: http://www.in70mm.com/news/2010/technicolor/
“The ‘Tech’ Behind Technicolor: The Advent of Classic Color Films” by John Cunningham, 1997: http://www.reelclassics.com/Techtalk/technicolor-article.htm
“Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland” by Technicolor founder H.T. Kalmus: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kalmus.htm
‘Technicolor Camera” by Martin B. Hart at the American Widescreen Museum: http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/big_camera_pic.htm
“Happy Birthday Natalie Kalmus, Queen of Technicolor” by Anne Marie: http://werecyclemovies.com/2013/04/09/happy-birthday-natalie-kalmus-queen-of-technicolor/