Film Studies: You don't just <b>see</b> 'Gone With The Wind' in Technicolor - you <b>feel</b> it

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The Independent Culture

The forthcoming DVD re-release of Gone With The Wind is welcome for so many reasons. For one thing, it includes a fascinating interview with Olivia de Havilland (now 88). Of course, she played Melanie in the original picture, and was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar (she lost to Hattie McDaniel whose Mamie won the prize, the first by a black performer). The actress has now told her story, with special emphasis on the chaos of it all as directors and writers came and went and on the steadfast, rather terrifying way in which two people insisted on the project: its producer, David O Selznick, and our Scarlett O'Hara, Vivien Leigh.

But this is not the most remarkable or touching achievement of the DVD. What really makes this version of the film, which is also re-issued at selected cinemas this week, so vital and gorgeous is the unimpeded attempt to get back to the quality of the original Technicolor.

Perhaps the first thing to say is that Technicolor was never, simply, another word for any kind of colour film. In the years when film was essentially black-and-white, but in which there was a great deal of colour-tinting of individual sequences, there was ongoing competition to develop economical and practical colour systems. It should be remembered that the innovation of sound arrived at nearly the worst moment historically for the picture business. For sound on film became virtually obligatory at exactly the moment when the Depression struck down the size and loyalty of the regular audience. And sound involved massive new investment: not just sound-recording equipment, but blimped (that is, quieter) cameras, sound-proof studios, a new generation of actors who could talk, and writers to put words in their mouths.

Then consider that the other innovation - colour - was becoming available at about the same time. The Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation was established by its inventor, Dr Herbert Kalmus, in 1915. For nearly 20 years, that corporation struggled to develop colour systems that were all imperfect and too expensive. It was in 1932 that "Technicolor Process Number Four" was at last delivered. This was a three-colour imbibition process. To put it simply, a prism in the lens separated blue, green and red light so that each fell on a separate strip of film. Hence the name, three-strip Technicolor. Those three strips were then printed and married as one positive strip of film in a process that required extraordinary, painterly skill from the timers (the men who made the prints). Thus the prints of Technicolor films often varied. The timers worked with their arms exposed to the dyes, striving to get just the right tone required by the cameraman, the director and the Technicolor consultant who, by contract, had to be on every film using the process.

There was a romance to that colour work, as well as a great deal of acquired craft and experience. But it was expensive, and in the early days of filming it required a great deal of extra lighting on sets. All of which left some film-makers and studios resistant: and, indeed, whereas sound took over in a couple of years, colour required 30 years.

But Technicolor's breakthrough was crucial, and, as everyone conceded, intensely beautiful. The first short film in Technicolor, La Cucaracha, was made in 1934. A year later came the first feature film, Becky Sharp - still a sight to behold, in which you can see the angry blush on actress Miriam Hopkins' face as well as dresses as green as grass (green was always the problem colour in early ventures). La Cucaracha had been made by the Pioneer Company, spearheaded by John Hay Whitney, an Eastern heir who slipped into movies to meet actresses. He made friends with David O Selznick and converted him to colour, the two of them setting up Selznick International in 1935.

Several of their first films were in Technicolor - The Garden of Allah, Nothing Sacred, A Star is Born. But in 1938, only 15 films risked Technicolor, including the still radiant The Adventures of Robin Hood and Disney's feature-length debut, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.

As in so many respects, Gone With The Wind was to be the test. It was a film about the red earth of Georgia, about the green fields of Tara, about the burning of Atlanta, the blue and the grey, blood, flowers and pretty faces. And it was going to be bigger and better than anything. The picture was shot by Ernest Haller and Ray Rennahan, but the colour scheme was established in the designs by William Cameron Menzies and Walter Plunkett. And here's the point. Technicolor was never what you'd call true-to-life. It was warm, emotional, full of feeling and dye. I don't think there's any doubt but that the original impact of Gone With The Wind in 1939 had to do with the melodrama in the colour scheme. And it wasn't just the cameramen and Menzies who got Oscars - there was a special award to Technicolor itself for having achieved colour movies.

Technicolor reigned until the mid 1950s. It is the medium of films like Fantasia, For Whom the Bell Tolls, Meet Me in St Louis, Leave Her to Heaven, Henry V, Black Narcissus (and the other coloured films by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger like The Red Shoes), Duel in the Sun, On the Town, Samson and Delilah, The African Queen, The River, The Crimson Pirate, The Quiet Man, Shane, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Some of the most ravishing things ever put up on a screen, and some of the movies where the colour is like poetry or music.

And then tastes slowly changed. Other colour schemes were said to be cooler or more accurate. They began to rival Technicolor - and they were simpler to make - and then to take over. Technicolor, it was said, was old-fashioned, over-emotional. In time Technicolor died away. And so in 1989, when GWTW was restored, every effort to get back to the original was resisted by marketing forces who claimed that the public couldn't take that early colour. And so it is that the DVD, for the first time, has the screen's original.

How do we know this? Because the earliest Technicolor prints have still not faded or deteriorated. And in this, Technicolor differs from all other colour systems - indeed, colour films, from the Sixties and Seventies, taken out of the archive, are often now discovered to be all pink or brown. What is the lesson? That idiots have often run the business. In many modern films - from Taylor Hackford's Ray to Martin Scorsese's The Aviator - you see directors using computer images trying to get back to that mad glory of unnatural but expressive movie colour.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

The restored 'Gone with the Wind' (Warner DVD £24.99) is out on 7 February and at selected cinemas from Friday

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