Technicolor was born 100 years ago (more or less) - and movies have not been the same since

Ringmasters of the rainbow: Kalmuses were fiercely protective of their patent

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The Independent Culture

At this month’s 25th Dinard festival of British film in Brittany, there was  a special screening of the 1946 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger masterpiece A Matter of Life and Death to mark “100 years of the Technicolor process”.

It’s a moot point whether 2014 really does mark Technicolor’s centenary. The Massachusetts-born physicist and photography pioneer Dr Herbert Kalmus set up Technicolor in 1912. He incorporated the company officially in 1915 with his business partners Daniel Frost Comstock and W Burton Westcott and oversaw the production of the first Technicolor feature, The Gulf Between, in 1917. Nonetheless, it is still a timely moment to consider the impact of Technicolor on the movies.

You only need to read the adjectives in the publicity material and reviews of early Technicolor movies to understand the appeal of the process. Technicolor was invariably called “glorious,” “gorgeous,” and “vivid.” The three-strip process developed in the early 1930s by Kalmus didn’t just offer ordinary, everyday colour. Through some strange alchemy, Technicolor films seemed preternaturally rich and bright. In the Depression-era US of the 1930s or the austerity Britain of the postwar years, Technicolor offered a gateway to another world.

Robert Edmond Jones, the art director on Rouben Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp (1935), one of the first films to use the process, wrote in the New York Times, shortly after working on the film, that colour offered the prospect for motion pictures to become “incomparably more powerful than ever before”.

Kalmus and his first wife (and business partner) Natalie Kalmus remain shadowy figures in film history. Their interest wasn’t just in liberating film-makers like Mamoulian or cameramen like the great British cinematographer Jack Cardiff to add to the aesthetic possibilities of cinema. They wanted to make money. Herbert was a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He combined his scientific know-how with old-fashioned hucksterism. The Kalmuses were fiercely protective of their patent. It took them a long time to become established in Hollywood; only when Walt Disney committed to using the three-strip Technicolor system in the early 1930s did the big US studios finally began to take it seriously. Once they were established, the Kalmuses weren’t about to relinquish their role in guiding producers to make “the most tasteful and meaningful” use of their process.

Natalie, in particular, terrified film-makers. As Cardiff wrote in his autobiography: “She had complete control of the colours of sets, costumes and everything to do with the colour of the film.”

Before Technicolor’s monopoly was broken in 1947 with the arrival of Eastman Color, the Technicolor bosses were immensely powerful figures in Hollywood. Natalie Kalmus racked up hundreds of credits as Technicolor “color director” or supervisor on such major films as The Thief of Bagdad, The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, The Red Shoes and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.

One gets the impression that these films succeeded in spite of Natalie’s interference rather than because of it. Film history is littered with stories of disputes between her and the big-name directors she liked to scold. She was “ringmaster to the rainbow” as she put it. There are accounts of her at loggerheads with Vincente Minnelli during the making of Meet Me in St Louis (1944) and of her bossing Alfred Hitchcock around during the making of Rope (1948). The joke in Hollywood was that she was actually colour blind. However, she was part of the package; if the US studios wanted to rent Technicolor cameras, they had to take her on board too.

There is an obvious sexism in the way that Natalie has been demonised as a Rosa Klebb-like figure, preying on innocent directors. She was a senior executive and a pioneering figure in the use of colour-film technique at a time when few other females had such prominence behind the camera. “When film colors go blooey, they ask a woman to fix them,” an article in a US newspaper said in 1930,  calling her “the outstanding color expert in the film colony”.

The British press reported in 1951 that Herbert Kalmus, long since nicknamed “Mr Technicolor”, was making an astonishing £10m a year. By then, though, his influence was beginning to wane. There were other colour processes that film-makers could use and Technicolor’s grip on Hollywood was loosening. Kalmus tried to patent alternative processes, for example “Technirama,” a widescreen tool that was intended to compete with CinemaScope and VistaVision. He also became more active in the market for amateur photographers.

Kalmus died in 1963. Natalie (from whom he had divorced in 1922 although they remained business partners until an acrimonious lawsuit in the late 1940s) died two years later. Technicolor still exists as a brand today, “developing, creating and delivering immersive augmented digital life experiences that ignite our imaginations” (as it proclaims on its website).

The screening at Dinard served as a reminder of the long-gone glory days of the three-strip Technicolor camera – a device that was big and unwieldy in the extreme to use, but without which many of the greatest movies in cinema history would never have been made.

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