Advance Review: THE DAWN OF TECHNICOLOR, 1915 – 1935

The Toll of the Sea (1922)

The Dawn of Technicolor: (1915-1935)
By James Layton and David Pierce
Page count: 498
Publisher: George Eastman House
List price: $65

The brilliant team of men and women knew exactly what they wanted. On paper, it was easy; beautiful scientific perfection. Bringing lifelike color to the big screen was, in theory at least, as easy as 1-2-3 … or that is to say, red green and blue.  The problem? The year was 1915, and moving pictures had only been a daily part of the human experience for less than a decade. Motion pictures were crude, still in their infancy, and to call the available technology “primitive” is an exorbitant embellishment. The simple, hard fact of the matter: there was no technology to speak of. In order to achieve the miracle of rendering lifelike color in motion pictures, this think tank spearheaded by MIT alums Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Comstock and engineer W. Burton Wescott, were going to have to invent their way to the finish line. Think of this ambitious group of pioneers as a 1910s version of the Houston command base during the Apollo 13 mission: given only the resources known to them, they were challenged with a do-or-die task of manifesting highly advanced ideas into technical possibilities using nothing but archaic tools.

That journey, seemingly insurmountable in 1915, is even more miraculous 100 years later as we are now able to follow the genesis of what became synonymous with movie color — The Technicolor Company — in the new book The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935.  Published by the George Eastman House in honor of Technicolor’s centenary, The Dawn of Technicolor is a vivid, 498 page Odyssey that chronicles in exhaustive detail every roadblock, success, pitfall, triumph, setback, ad infinitum, that plagued the Technicolor minds during their relentless struggle to create living, breathing color.

The lavish illustrations balance the meaty, academic nature of the text, resulting in a surprisingly accessible achievement 100 years in the making. Historians James Layton and David Pierce have crafted a staggering resource, pulling from production files, unpublished interviews, internal documents and more, to trace Technicolor’s progression to becoming biggest name in the color game.


Silent superstar and IT Girl Clara Bow in the lost silent film RED HAIR (1928). A Technicolor sequence was discovered in 2011, featuring Bow in stunning two-color.

Gone with the Wind and the Wizard of Oz may be Technicolor’s crowning achievements, but their stunning color was a process 25 years in the making. This under-evaluated chapter in film history, the formative years of Technicolor, is the thrust of this expansive new book.  Layton explains that the strategy for development of color “was not to try and achieve a finished product all at once.” That was a technological impossibility. Instead, they pursued a “progressive step development” approach, with each step designed to accomplish a set goal in the ongoing marathon of achieving “convincing [color] pictures on screen.”

The itemization of building blocks and technical challenges are overwhelming, and we read over and over again the words “no known way of this” or “no known way of that”. Color photography required high film speed, but black and white film stock was very slow. Engineers could project a successful two-color print, but commercial projection was a resounding failure making wide-release impossible. The list goes on.

But these roadblocks were indeed tackled, one step at a time; technical development was broken down into planned stages, making each step towards “the ultimate goal” of three color photography.

Ah …. “three color photography”. Not to worry: even for non-technical minds (like mine) the book does an admirable job of breaking down the color processes into easy-to-follow logic. Once you are able to get a photographic record in the three primary colors– red, green, and blue (RGB)–you can record them onto a black and white negative. The resulting prints were dyed in corresponding colors, that is, cyan magenta and yellow (CMYK).  And when you superimpose those three color postitives onto each other? Voila! A fully lifelike color image.

As Layton writes, “these principles were thoroughly understood in the photographic world”. Indeed, color photography was being hotly experimented early 20th century, and the results were highly promising. This striking 1909 photograph from Russian pioneer Sergei Mikhailovish Prokudin-Gorskii illustrates just how well the science worked:


Of course … the above is a still photograph. Three color images such as this were practically impossible for moving images.

You have to learn to crawl before you can walk, and a “two color” process fell in line with Technicolor’s highly sensible “step” development strategy.  The primitive procedure was to, literally, bathe film matrices in dye and then physically cement them, back to back, for printing. The results were limited, meaning that certain colors were more faithfully rendered. (Flesh tones and hair were warm and human, whereas forests and greenery were far from lifelike.) Color choices in costume design and production design needed to be very specific in order to compensate for this and register as realistically as possible. For example, when Clara Bow was photographed for a Technicolor sequence in the lost silent film Red Hair, her hair was bleached and then dyed with henna to make it the bright, fiery red that audiences would expect.

It was definitely a trial-and-error learning process if ever there was one. But as the 1920s progressed, so did the adventurous nature of filmmakers. Dipping their toe first with color sequences, feature-length color films began to appear with much critical acclaim, notably the game changing MGM film The Toll of the Sea (1922).  Layton and Pierce provide incredible detail to the behind-the-scenes production of these early color experiments.

Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the two-color epic adventure THE BLACK PIRATE (1926).
Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the two-color epic pirate adventure THE BLACK PIRATE (1926).Fairbanks was intrigued by the Technicolor process and insisted his next pirate picture be in color since color was “the very theme and flavor of piracy”.

My personal favorite is Douglas Fairbanks’ The Black Pirate (1926). The adventurous, ever-curious Fairbanks, an under-appreciated craftsman if ever there was one, conducted scientific tests to see what the effects of prolonged exposure to color moving images would have on an audience (this was highly prudent of him; color flickering in earlier color films resulted in nausea for some.) Fairbanks even chose the palette for the film, after studying the Dutch Masters at art galleries; the worn, muted brown tones of the film is entirely intentional. (It is little wonder Fairbanks would go on to be a founding member of the USC School of Cinematic Arts and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.)

Perhaps the book’s greatest achievement, however, is its annotated filmography of every single known two-color Technicolor films produced between 1917 and 1937; 371 total.  Cast, crew, synopsis, release dates, and archival holdings are painstakingly recorded for all 371 films, along with representative images from the film. The films without images, Layton writes, is due to the fact that “50 percent of the 371 titles documented no longer exist in color in any form.”

It is also worth noting, that the film cells reprinted in the book are, for the most part, taken from the original nitrate– meaning that for many of these films, which are housed in archives worldwide, these images are the closest you’re going to be able to get to the real thing.

Exhaustive and vastly entertaining, The Dawn of Technicolor is a copious compendium that will surely serve well film students and scholars everywhere.

The Dawn of Technicolor (1915-1935) hits on February 1st and is available for pre-order from the George Eastman House. 

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