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The Rise of Technicolor Is Colorful Hollywood History

Television. The Turner Classic Movies documentary recalls the tortuous path the process took to its triumph.

December 04, 1998|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With the phenomenal success of the Al Jolson musical "The Jazz Singer" in 1927, Hollywood quickly made the transition from silents to talkies. However, injecting color into movies was a much harder sell. In fact, it took the founder of Technicolor more than two decades to convince movie makers about the viability of color.

The new Turner Classic Movies documentary "Glorious Technicolor," premiering Monday, examines the tangled history of color movies, as well as the life and career of Herbert T. Kalmus, the "father" of Technicolor.

Narrated by Angela Lansbury, who appeared in such Technicolor classics as "National Velvet," the documentary features interviews with Technicolor stars Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl, as well as the never-before-seen Technicolor screen tests of Ingrid Bergman for "Intermezzo" and Vivien Leigh and Leslie Howard for "Gone With the Wind."

The documentary also kicks off the cable network's weeklong, 21-movie Technicolor festival featuring such breathtakingly beautiful color films as 1937's "A Star Is Born," 1938's "The Adventures of Robin Hood" and 1951's "An American in Paris."

"It took Kalmus 23 years to get the process right," says "Glorious Technicolor" producer Peter Jones. "Finally, 'Gone With the Wind' really turned it around for Technicolor. He was really working off the kindness of investors for many years."

Kalmus' first Technicolor system required two projectors running simultaneously that created severe synchronization problems. The only film produced with this early technique was 1917's "The Gulf Between," of which just one frame of footage still exists.

In 1922, Kalmus developed a two-color photographic process that used a single projector that produced two dyed strips of film cemented together. The film industry failed to get behind Kalmus, so he received development money from, of all places, the Bon Ami cleanser manufacturers. A few films were made with this process including 1922's "The Toll of the Sea" and Douglas Fairbanks' 1926 classic "The Black Pirate."

However, problems ensued with the projecting of the film. Because two strips were glued together, it made the thick film warp and scratch. Fairbanks, who invested $1 million of his own money in "Black Pirate," vowed to never make a color film again. He never did. By 1932, Kalmus introduced a new camera that could film three colors at once--blue, green and red. Because Technicolor Inc. owned all the cameras, studios had to rent them from the company and use Technicolor film's processing plant.

Walt Disney took a chance on the three-strip Technicolor process and used it for his 1932 Oscar-winning animated short "Flowers and Trees."

"Only after Kalmus showed Disney the test in three color, Disney--against his brother Roy's advice--said, 'Let's try it,' " Jones says. "He was the guy who kept the company going by taking a chance."

The documentary also discusses the power Kalmus' ex-wife, Natalie, wielded over the studios. As head of the Technicolor Advisory Service, she had to be hired as color advisor for each film. She insisted every film use a palette of muted colors.

But before long, Hollywood rebelled. For 1938's "Adventures of Robin Hood," Warner Bros. demanded brighter colors based on medieval art. Natalie Kalmus especially provoked the ire of producer David O. Selznick when she kept changing the furniture and wardrobe on "Gone With the Wind" without his permission.

Numerous film actresses balked at doing a Technicolor movie. "Claudette Colbert didn't like her appearance in 'Drums Along the Mohawk' and didn't make another color film for about 20 years," Jones says.

These actresses, Jones explains, were used to being photographed by the likes of George Hurrell, "who did beautiful black-and-white photographs with shadow and light. And then suddenly, they were on the set where they were shooting color and the lights were just unbelievable."

But new stars came along. Swimmer Esther Williams was one of the actresses--along with Betty Grable, Maureen O'Hara, Lucille Ball and Arlene Dahl--who became queens of Technicolor films in the '40s. Williams' first Technicolor picture was "Bathing Beauty," released in 1944. "It was the second grosser to 'Gone With the Wind' [for MGM]," she says. "The reason was it was the first swimming movie in Technicolor."

Shooting a Technicolor film in and under water was a headache. "The water is such an unsteady medium, you can't make a mark in the water and hit it every time," Williams says.

Most performer's skin went pale when they were shot underwater in Technicolor because water filters out the red rays from the sun. To make matters worse, there was no waterproof makeup in the '40s. Because it was easy for Williams to tan, "the solution for me was to stay tan all year round."

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