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Monday, March 02, 2020

Come The Color Revolution, But When?

1934 Sees Early Bite From Three-Color Technicolor's Live-Action Apple

Technicolor In Full Bloom

Imagine if color had taken over movies in the mid-30’s. It could have happened. A lot of people expected it to happen. Writers said at the time that three-color Technicolor would revolutionize the business and erase black-and-white off screens. “America’s foremost stage designer” Robert Edmond Jones applauded an “entire industry reoriented” by color, if only movies could harness the rainbow. So far, Jones said, they had not, a task to which he would apply skills. It surprises me how then-contemporary voices knocked early efforts with color. Jones went west to advise Samuel Goldwyn, who announced Technicolor for all future output, while Fortune magazine wondered if the old two-color process had crippled prospects for what was now vastly improved. Color had been around long as movies. The French hand-applied tints to physical prints, a task that even eagle eyesight found arduous. Talk about labor intensive … George Melies upped price for color versions of his magic reels, the surviving lot of which is on Blu-Ray and works wonders yet. The Great Train Robbery made history enough as was, but there again came colors penned by unknown artisans to wow watchers in 1903. Reminds me of what desk-bound labor did later for cartoons at Disney and elsewhere once animation took on color. Blackhawk once sold The Great Train Robbery in color and one or two Melies to teach us that it wasn’t an altogether black-and-white primordial world.

So color didn’t take over in the 30’s. We could wonder why that was (or wasn’t). Quality they surely had, if surviving evidence is to be believed. A recent Blu-Ray of Glorifying The American Girl has historic short La Cucaracha (1934) as an extra. This was claimed a first use of three-color process with live action, but Warners made two comedies ahead of it, among Warner Archives’ Vitaphone Collections. La Cucaracha, however, was pushed hardest. RKO did a lavish-for-shorts pressbook, issued lobby cards, plus B/W and color-tinted stills. La Cucaracha was made to promote Technicolor as a perfected format, and it’s said, to promote use of same for features. Somewhere I heard that color added a third to production budgets. Maybe that is why support was slow in coming. There had been complaints about the old two-color being pale and inaccurate; now fuss was over hues hurting eyes, a signal to mute bright application lest we be blinded by too real renderings. Look at Trail of the Lonesome Pine on DVD, or lately at Retro Plex in HD, where colors are subtle and natural backgrounds soothe rather than startle. Nitrate prints, where occasionally seen, display often muted effect. You could ask why they applied color at all where so dialed down. Were users afraid to go full tilt with it? Maybe we were all waiting for Betty Grable to show up and empty paint cans with 40’s abandon.

Disney wanted, and had, three-color to himself for a first couple years, leaving rivals w/ inferior two-hues to demonstrate how superior his cartoons were, but proper preservation will show how appealing limits could be, red and green suggesting blue and yellow if not showing them. MOMA ran Mystery Of The Wax Museum, new-restored by UCLA Archive, and it was amazing, so good as to make me wish two-color were still around as an aesthetic choice. I wonder how closely it could be duplicated by modern photography. Two-color gets a rap for being rotten-rendered since initial runs. Most films that used the process are lost. Would-be improvers juiced up what was left with blues dishonestly applied, like with Whoopee, and Wax Museum before UCLA got there. If we can’t see two-color accurately, why see it at all? Assuming Warner gets out Mystery Of The Wax Museum on Blu-Ray as promised, there could come dawn of appreciation for artists whose ingenuity at the time did miracles.

To UCLA Goes Credit for Fixing Mystery Of The Wax Museum. It Has Never Looked So Grand.

When did we adopt color as a must, or more to point, when did we banish black-and-white, and why? I understand drive-ins, powered by greater attendance after the war, chose color because parked fans could see it better. B/W holdouts gave allowance by timing prints lighter to juice outdoor screens. I think it was color television, however, that wiped out monochrome. Viewers with color by hearthside saw no reason to drive out and pay for less. My family didn’t get a rainbow set until the end of 1966. Before then, I took movies however presented, the play being the thing, unless it was showroom of a Hercules In The Haunted World or The Nutty Professor, where color was drilled into skulls and we had to notice. I saw Seconds at the Liberty shortly before we got the color set, barely realized how effectively it used black-and-white, let alone the fact movies presented that way were on a fast road out. Is it safe to call those born after the mid-sixties, a point to which we can date color’s takeover, a first generation to reject any and all of black-and-white?

All Of Primary Colors Make Up a Golf Team in 1934's Service With A Smile

Seems to me B/W has been in-part rescued by improved rendition as Blu-Ray and/or HD broadcast. It’s easy to romanticize movies from beneath blanket of nostalgia, but face it, most of what we saw looked lousy, unless they were projected on theatre screens … but where? I saw a literal handful on ticket basis before being old enough to drive or fly to distant climes. Even vaunted revivals used 16mm prints where 35mm (often) wasn’t available. This happened at Gotham sites that flocks look back on as exemplars of a Golden Age. Color prints were often as not horrid. For every IB Technicolor print of Adventures Of Robin Hood, there were a dozen Eastman smears that could not begin to reflect what the movie was supposed to look like. Revivilers would book titles and pray. Gone With The Wind was for large part a mess in 1968 and after, color a way fall down from IB long abandoned (MGM used their own “Metrocolor” lab). Subsequent ownership tried a 90’s-rejuvenated IB process, for which GWTW and The Wizard Of Oz served as test rats, but I saw neither that way. Did anyone? … and if so, how did they look?

Service With A Smile Satisfies Mid-30's Yearn For Fullest Colors

Back to what-iffing. Heard about BFI recovering 68mm Biograph films shot in Victorian England? They’ve got footage of the Queen, as in the nineteenth century Queen, sharp/clear as a Star War on IMAX. Movies were a bear to shoot that way, let alone project when folks still rode horse and buggy to cinemas. But what if somehow, 68mm had been accepted as the standard? Imagination boggles at the thought. I frankly feel cheated that they didn’t embrace 68mm, because truth to tell, 35mm looks pretty punk beside it. The topic came up again when rebel William Fox did a brace of large-format specials in 1930-31, others tentative-following his lead. The Big Trail was most noted offspring of the try. Theatres lately switched to sound, and spending plenty to accomplish that, raised H as Depression revved up, obliging an allied industry to declare no more 65,68,70, or whatever, jumbo millimeter. Again I’m miffed for that lost opportunity, technology being there, and these folks timid to embrace it. Reasons made sense of course, film companies worried about how best to survive, so where do I come off second-guessing them from ninety-year distance?

Lovely Blue-Skied Beach Scene Captured in Good Morning, Eve!

Good Morning, Eve!: Nero Fiddles While Technicolor Lights Burn
I looked again at opener rounds of three-color Technicolor. The process, outside the Disney cartoons and animated one-off The Wizard Of Oz, made independently, were industrials and ad shorts to start (one for General Electric products), then a couple of WB comedies, one of which beat La Cucaracha to theatres, though some claim the RKO-released two reeler was shown earlier at closed venues in addition to trade screenings. All this matters because it’s worth knowing what mainstream commercial audiences saw first. There were Technicolor sequences, fairly brief, to cap features MGM and Twentieth-Century Pictures did: The Cat and The Fiddle and The House Of Rothschild. Under heading of never pleasing everybody, complaints were heard that gaudy color lowered an otherwise dignified saga of the banking family as personified by dual-player George Arliss. The Leon Errol laffers, vanguard of major studio live action shorts done in three-strip, were thought vulgar in “garish” color, as if suddenly critics needed to protect Technicolor from heathen misuse. Service With A Smile and Good Morning, Eve! are vulgar, but cheerfully, slangingly, so, and I’ll take garish color the live-long day where it appeals like renditions of these given us by Warners in five-disc Vitaphone Cavalcade of Musical Comedy. For that matter, there is wide DVD, now more-so Blu-Ray, access to earliest Technicolor. For a splendid go at so-called limit of two-color, we have King Of Jazz to show how lovely it could look; lately too has come Becky Sharp, The Garden Of Allah, Nothing Sacred, all high-def. I bet Kino ends up releasing Trail Of The Lonesome Pine as part of their pre-49 Paramount haul. Methinks after seeing these that maybe we missed good revolution opportunity in those mid-30’s years, though on the other hand, look how much the poorer we are for black-and-white being so long run out of town. There should be a bigger tent for it all, even two-color Technicolor, if somehow they could revive that.


Blogger Mike Cline said...

I saw GWTW in the 1990's IB process, even granted access to the booth to look at the platter-bound 35mm print. It was, indeed, as advertised. And the screen image was a beaut.

7:00 AM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

When I first began doing cartoon festivals I noticed that my audiences liked the look of the color in Cinecolor prints of Ub Iwerks cartoons. That caused me to track down more films done with that process. Similarly the two color Technicolor films done by the Fleischer Studio and others were crowd pleasers.

It has been said the audience is the only teacher. I learn a lot from my audiences.

I'm looking forward to seeing a Blu-ray of MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM. That's good news.

8:25 AM  
Blogger Tommie Hicks said...

My old man had monochromatic vision hence we did not get a color set until 1976. I agree with your assessment that the proliferation of color sets made monochrome an anathema. It's similar to my belief that it was the proliferation of radio that drove the demand for talking pictures, not technological innovation.

I've heard some younger collectors aver that Eastman color was a failure because it turned red. Then I explain to them that Eastman color was not a failure. Back during film distribution's prime era, prints in circulation were replaced before the color turn. It was much more expensive to make an IB print, so Eastman color's economy enabled wider distribution of color film. Eastman color did not become a failure until film collectors started buying Eastman color on eBay around the turn of the century, only to find out a couple of years after they won their bid, their $300.00 purchase was turning red. In the 1980's when film distribution started its slow death, LPP was utilized as the prints were now in the field longer.

I had an Eastman print of Clint Eastwood's THE GAUNTLET, a 1980 strike that did not start to turn until 2005. One of my collateral duties on the USS RANGER was operating the film shack on duty days. If we saw a film start to turn (or any type of significant damage for that matter) we had to make a report, stating the strike date, when we sent the film back to the film hub in San Diego. I noticed some of the films turning at four years.

I have read that some people were adverse to viewing color films at their inception because it annoyed them. Today people are adverse to watching black and white because it annoys them. I still keep some of my reds but sometimes I hold my pitifully few IB's to my chest like babies.

9:51 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

I'm going to respectfully disagree with the above. Eastmancolor's fading issues were known well before the eBay era, as you point out. Martin Scorsese was writing about it as early as 1980 (in a letter to Film Comment.) His choice to shoot "Raging Bull" in b/w was in part driven by his fear that shooting in color would result eventually in faded negs and prints. As you note, some films were fading in just four years. Pros like you certainly knew about it; and I personally recall that even as a kid who was interested in old movies and television noted that shows like "Bewitched" and "Family Affair," which were being shown in 16mm syndication prints on local TV, were starting to look pinkish even in the 1970s. We certainly saw a lot of faded 16mm educational films in school in the 1980s ("Signal 30" is still upsetting even when it's faded!) But you're entirely right, I think, about its success in that it did its job--getting out a lot of color prints that were at that time considered disposable after their initial run.

11:19 AM  
Blogger Mike Cline said...

My daughter-in-law will turn 40 in a few months. She will not watch a black and white movie or TV episode. I tried and tried to change my mind, to no avail.

And 16mm film collectors began buying eastman color prints decades before eBay.

I once had a 35mm Deluxe color trailer of a feature only 3 years old, which was heading to pink hues in a hurry.

11:32 AM  
Blogger DBenson said...

My sister-in-law tried showing Laurel & Hardy's "Babes in Toyland" to her fifth grade class on a rainy day. She said they were fiercely turned off by B&W, although I suspect they weren't prepared for the boys' deliberate pacing either.

On the flip side, a woman my age was likewise anti-B&W until her then boyfriend talked her into "Casablanca". Now she's kind of a snob about preferring old B&W movies, especially if the villains are Nazis.

I'm a big fan of those Technicolor two-reel musicals (and their B&W cousins). It's hard to argue they're great, but comparatively few are boring, and many deliver jaw-dropping crazy. I would love to see something like "Good Morning Eve" or "What, No Men?" sprung on an audience.

I had a theory that they existed so theaters could put the word "Technicolor" on the marquees and let the public guess which parts of the program it referred to, but on reflection it wouldn't work more than once.

2:05 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I'm glad I started showing my daughter b&w movies when she was five. Never had a problem with it, and actually enjoyed the look.

3:19 PM  
Blogger RobW said...

John, have you seen Scorsese's The Aviator ? The opening couple of reels were shot in a simulated two color process, not sure how, and puzzled many an audience member who were not in on the stylistic choice.

6:50 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

I saw THE AVIATOR, some years ago when it was new, but don't recall the opening reels. Come to think of it, I don't recall much about the film at all. I should check it out again.

8:38 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I adore those Errol shorts. There was never anything more Technicolor that Good Morning, Eve -- and if the color wasn't enough, having Vernon Dent sing a hot number accompanied by Roman hillbillies? Cinema doesn't get any better.

3:22 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

The Film Forum in New York ran both GOOD MORNING, EVE! and SERVICE WITH A SMILE with Leon Technicolor Errol, and they went over great. I agree with Dave that Vernon Dent's rendition of "Rhythm in the Bow" was the icing on the cake.

My wife and I went to see the new Tech prints of GONE WITH THE WIND and THE WIZARD OF OZ when they played theatrically. WIZARD OF OZ looked about like a home-video version would -- very nice, but it didn't knock us over. We were disappointed to learn later that the limited run of Tech prints was used only for roadshows in flagship theaters, and the rest of the run consisted of non-Tech prints in standard color.

9:39 AM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

i was also at the MOMA screen of the restored MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM

It was thrilling to see the movie look like! If they can do that to DOCTOR X ....just imagine.

I am giddy to get my hands on the Blu ray when it comes out.

12:12 PM  
Blogger William Lund said...

Sad to see how modern generations can't stand black and white movies. As a high school history teacher I would often show film clips to illustrate the conditions of America at certain time periods. We were studying the great depression of the 1930s and I decided to show William Welman's "Wild Boys of the Road" (1933). The film was well received, but one of the written comments by the students left me on the floor. "I liked the film, but the black and white hurt my eyes." Go figure.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

That faux two-color process was especially good in the golf course scene when Hughes meets Katharine Hepburn. Very impressive and pleasing to the eye.

5:23 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

The color in AVIATOR changes throughout the film. Yes, we start with Two Color Technicolor and move to Three Color. Not only that as the process advances so too does the color on screen. It's at its most obvious at the start of the film of course.

5:35 AM  
Blogger William Ferry said...

Wow! WAX MUSEUM looks fantastic! LA CUCARACHA has novelty value, but it's pretty boring, IMHO, certainly not Oscar-worthy. Any of the Warners shorts are far more fun.

7:28 PM  
Blogger antoniod said...

Back in the 60s and 70s, people assumed there had been no color films in the 30s or before, or they thought WIZARD OF OZ was the first one. When I told people there had been color films in the 20s, they thought I was crazy! I think Cable(TCM),DVD, and Blu-Ray changed that.

12:30 PM  

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