We experience the world in color, so when movies first came along, there was immediate interest in making movies just as colorful. One of the most prominent forms of color filmmaking was Technicolor, a process first developed more than 100 years ago. Yes, even though most of the early movies were black-and-white, inventors had come up with a way of making movies in color as early as 1902.
This first process, called Kinemacolor, was invented in Great Britain. Kinemacolor was pretty rudimentary. In 1916, two graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology came up with a better way of making color film.
They called it Technicolor (in honor of their alma mater). Basically, what happens is that when film is exposed to light, the light passes through a beam-splitting optical cube that fractures the light into three different parts of the spectrum (red, green, and blue). These images were captured on three different strips of film. Technicolor would develop and print them separately and then laminate the film together to produce an approximation of natural color in a process called dye-transfer.
Over the years, Technicolor became the main form of color film processing. It dominated Hollywood films from the early ‘20s until the 1950s. But in 1950, the Eastman Kodak company developed a color negative film, making color significantly cheaper because filmmakers didn’t have to send their film to the Technicolor labs to be developed, processed, and laminated together. It could all be captured on a single strip of film.
The competitive disadvantage of Technicolor was pretty obvious once the Eastman Kodak color film came along. Technicolor went into a long period of decline. The last major film shot in Technicolor was The Godfather: Part II (1974). Technicolor made a brief reemergence in the late 1990s when the company reintroduced a refined version of the dye-transfer process. A number of blockbusters were shot in Technicolor again, including The Thin Red Line (1998), Pearl Harbor (2001), Toy Story (1995), and Bulworth (1998), but the company soon discontinued the process.
Technicolor movies are gorgeous to watch. The colors are vivid, rich, and deep, and are a feast for the eyes. Here are some of my favorite Technicolor masterpieces.
If you’re looking for a great year in American cinema, it would be tough to top 1939. This was the year that saw the release of Wuthering Heights, Stagecoach, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, and these two Technicolor masterworks: The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind.
For many people, The Wizard of Oz is the earliest color movie they can remember. At the time of its release, color movies had been around for decades, but were somewhat rare. What makes The Wizard of Oz so memorable as a color film is that the first act is in black-and-white, while everything in the land of Oz is in vibrant color. All of Dorothy’s life in Kansas is shot in black-and-white, illuminating how dreary life is there. That’s why she wants to go somewhere beyond the rainbow, someplace where life is exciting and vivid—and far from Kansas. The best example of the power of Technicolor is the “Horse of a Different Color” number, in which the horse constantly changes color. Also of great delight for the visually-oriented are the painted scene backdrops, which are clearly influenced by the American painter Thomas Hart Benton. Cinematographer: Harold Rosson, who later shot Singin’ in the Rain.
The long-running argument in our family has been about the politics of Gone With the Wind (1939). But this is not the dinner table at our house and I’m not arguing with daughters who love the romance and sweep of this film, while I can’t set aside the sympathetic portrayal of slave owners. Here’s what you look for in this film: Technicolor at its apex, especially in the sequence of the burning of Atlanta. Color—specifically the color orange— has rarely been more comprehensively displayed on film than this. And notice how orange is used in the sequence afterwards when the bright and frightening orange of the fires the night before give way to the dull and sandy oranges of the field hospital filled with injured soldiers. The Oscar-winning cinematography is by Ernest Haller.
Los Angeles has never looked better than it did in the 1937 version of A Star is Born. This was the original take on the classic story of a Midwestern farm girl coming to Hollywood to make her career. It starred Janet Gaynor and Fredric March. My favorite Technicolor moment of this movie is the scene in which producer Oliver Niles (Adolphe Menjou) takes a call from his enormous bed while wearing the most spectacular purple pajamas you’ve ever seen. I swear the horse head scene in the producer’s bed in The Godfather (1972) directly quotes this scene. Cinematography by William Howard Greene.
When you think of American movie musicals, the one that immediately comes to mind is An American in Paris (1951). Pay special attention to the 17-minute ballet sequence which visually references paintings by Renoir, Utrillo, Dufy, Rousseau, and Toulouse Lautrec. The cinematography was by Alfred Gilks, although the ballet sequence was shot by John Alton.
By 1974, Technicolor had largely been abandoned because of cost. It was used in one final, astonishing bow—The Godfather, Part II. Many critics have argued that this is the greatest American film of all time, and I agree. Next time you watch it—and that should be soon—pay particular attention to the cinematography of Gordon Willis. This is one of the most richly-shot films ever made. I think I have watched the New Year’s Eve sequence in Havana more than fifty times. Each frame is like a painting. It doesn’t get much better than this.
David Raether is a veteran TV writer and essayist. He worked for 12 years as a television sitcom writer/producer, including a 111-episode run on the ground-breaking ABC comedy “Roseanne.” His essays have been published by Salon.com, The Times of London, and Longforms.org, and have been lauded by The Atlantic Magazine and the BBC World Service. His memoir, Homeless: A Picaresque Memoir from Our Times, is awaiting publication.