Early Technicolor Films: Part 1

Somewhere offscreen Natalie Kalmus is chain-smoking nuclear clouds of angstBack in July, Universal released Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936). The film is an important stepping stone in the history of colour cinema because it marked the first time a feature-length movie was shot on location with Technicolor’s new (and very big) 3-strip cameras.

Apparently the company wasn’t crazy about the idea, but much like Fox’ pioneering widescreen process (Grandeur), if placed in the hands of gifted technicians trained to make a product on a studio budget (in other words, with bean counters watching every penny), the new technology would prove itself quite well in the field.

Grandeur, impressive as it was in The Big Trail (1930), didn’t last for a number of reasons, but like Trail, the new gear was more than functional outdoors, so it’s no surprise more films ended up being shot outdoors in full Technicolor.

In his autobiography, Magic Hour, British cinematographer Jack Cardiff recalled Technicolor being quite pissed in the way their cameras were being used in shooting a wartime sea sequence, as well as Cardiff’s own experimentation beyond the rigidly enforced Technicolor colour template. The company, quite frankly, owes its success not just to the brilliance of its eggheads and engineers, but to the creative rebels who wanted to see exactly how far one could push the new cameras in lighting and locations.

I had seen bits of Trail years ago on Elwy Yost’s Saturday Night at the Movies. The show’s producers were able to secure an actual colour print of the film. Now, this sounds like mere trivia, but back in the late eighties and early nineties, a lot of classic films on TV were still derived from 16mm and 35mm prints, and it was exciting when a vintage colour film was actually in colour.

Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), for example, was an early 2-strip Technicolor feature, and prior to that film’s restoration and appearance on laserdisc, Mystery was mostly shown on TV in black & white, although the print I saw on PBS had color.

Sort of.

That experience was surreal, because it was a faded color print, which meant vestiges of colour would waver, saturate and wash out throughout scenes, but for some reason, that viewing felt exciting, even though there was barely any colour pigment left. It was glimpse into film history on a completely lo-fi format, which is why Yost’s airing of Trail in full colour was notable.

Universal’s DVD is taken from a surprisingly clean print, but the disc lacks any extras, which is unfortunate, given the film’s importance. Moreover, the DVD is an import in Canada, mostly likely because Trail was part of the Paramount film library that was sold to MCA in the fifties for TV airings, and perhaps Universal’s home video rights don’t extend to Canada. Who knows – but the disc is worth snapping up, and here’s why.

As a companion review, I’ve also added Becky Sharp (1935), the first feature-length 3-strip Technicolor film, which was restored in 1992 by UCLA.

It may well have been on the same night that Yost aired Trail, but there was a news item on that show regarding Becky Sharp’s restoration, and during the Q&A, a technician played footage on a Steenbeck, and every so often there were split screen comparisons between the restored footage and how it’s looked – pale and wonky – for fifty years.

I’m still waiting to see the restored version on home video or TV – it’s going on 17 years now – but being a fan of director Rouben Mamoulian, I had to see this colour first, albeit as a poor Alpha Video edition. There are some related links embedded into the review that are worth checking out, but here’s hoping that as Blu-ray is pushing labels to give the deluxe treatment to their classic crown jewels, maybe this ignored classic will finally get a second life in the commercial realm (and with Criterion-like extras to explain the film’s importance to newer film buffs).

Seventeen years, people. Come on.



Copyright © mondomark