Celebrating Color Technicolor Lights Up the Berlinale

Thirty movies made in the legendary color process are showing to audiences in packed theaters at Berlin's international film festival.
"The Wizard of Oz" is considered by many to be Hollywood's most influential film.

This article was originally published on February 12, 2015, and republished without changes in February 2018.

One hundred years ago, the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation introduced a revolutionary technique for adding color to films that previously reeled in black and white. The move represented a huge shift in onscreen storytelling – even bigger than the introduction of sound years earlier.

This year’s Retrospective section at the Berlinale, which celebrates film history, is dedicated to the pioneer of color film, Technicolor, on the occasion of its 100th anniversary.

The selection of films dates from the company’s heyday in the early 1930s up to the mid-1950s, when it was largely replaced by Eastman Kodak’s less costly color negative film.

The line-up of color compositions is a mix of genres, from the exaggerated use of color in musicals such as Victor Flemming’s “The Wizard of Oz” to the natural, earthy tones in John Ford’s Western “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,” all the way to the near documentary qualities of King Vidor’s “An American Romance,” the Retrospective’s organizer, Rainer Rother, wrote in an introduction to the featured series.

We need to keep these titles alive and preserve them for future generations as best we can. Martin Körber, Director of Archives, Deutsche Kinemathek

The films in the section were selected by Deutsche Kinemathek, in collaboration with the George Eastman House in Rochester and the Museum of Modern Art in New York as well as the Austrian Film Museum in Vienna.

“We need to keep these titles alive and preserve them for future generations as best we can,” said Martin Körber, director of the archive at Deutsche Kinemathek. And there are plenty worth preserving.

 

Video: The Wizard of Oz Movie clip, If I Only Had a Brain.

 

"The Wizard of Oz" was a milestone in the history of color film, conceived as the MGM studio’s answer to Disney’s “Snow White.” The film gives Technicolor a classic introduction when it shifts from sepia to color to distinguish Dorothy’s real world in Nebraska from her dream. The color scheme is as unreal as the fantasy story, with the yellow brick road, the red poppy field, the green of the Emerald City and the wicked witch’s skin filling the screen with color.

A restored 35-millimeter version of the 1939 film classic was shown in Berlin. At the screening, David Pierce, a film historian and archivist, pointed to some of the challenges in adding color to the film. Color exposures, he said, required a tremendous amount of light, but MGM “wanted to see everything on the set” and used a “floodlight style” to produce even more, resulting in famously hot movie sets. The heavily made-up actors in costumes often worked in temperatures exceeding 100 degrees Fahrenheit.

Money was another issue. “Making a color film at the time cost two and half times more than a black and white production,” Pierce said. “And that didn’t even include the costs of costumes and sets.” Technicolor also required filmmakers to hire a company consultant to ensure that all costumes, sets and lighting were right for the process, adding to costs.

Making a color film at the time cost two and half times more than a black and white production. David Pierce,, Film historian and archivist

Technicolor filmmakers were deeply interested in the capacity of color to induce emotion. Some films, like Richard Boleslawski’s “The Garden of Allah” filmed in 1936, achieved a dreamy, escapist quality. The movie’s subtle use of color and consciously soft contrast transformed the Mojave Desert scenes into a spiritual landscape onscreen. The film won the first Oscar ever given for color cinematography.

 

Video: "The Garden of Allah" by Richard Boleslawski, starring Marlene Dietrich.

 

By comparison, Technicolor films, like “Broken Arrow,” sought a real-world look and feel. To present an authentic view of the Apaches, director Delmer Daves dispensed with colorful preening, anchoring the film instead in natural greens and browns. He used red, yellow and blue almost exclusively to highlight ceremonial scenes.

A similar approach was taken by Victor Schertzinger with his 1929 classic “Redskin,” also featured at the Berlin film festival. The film, shot on location, offers an authentic picture of Native American life. The colorful images of sand paintings and the Pueblo tribe bring the Indian villages alive.

We have to be careful about what people think Technicolor should look like and about falling into the trap of having a DVD look. Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at the George Eastman House

Despite earlier efforts by the French with their Pathechrome color process and the British with Kinemacolor, it was the Americans Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Comstock and W. Burton Wescott who captured the nascent color market with Technicolor, which became the most widely used color process in Hollywood up to 1955 when Kodachrome took over. The last movie made in Technicolor was Francis Ford Cappola's “The Godfather: Part II” in 1974.

Many of the Technicolor films being shown in Berlin have been laboriously restored. That is a science in itself.

One of the challenges in restoring films is finding an original reference, according to Barbara Flückinger, a professor of film studies at the University of Zurich.

“The major studios destroyed many of the negative originals, leaving only single strips to be copied,” she told Handelsblatt Global Edition, adding that many of the copies in circulation don’t provide an authentic impression of early Technicolor aesthetics.

 

Video: "Broken Arrow" by Delmer Daves.

 

There is also heated debated among restoration experts about using advanced digital technology to restore analog films made of chemically-based materials. “We have to be careful about what people think Technicolor should look like and about falling into the trap of having a DVD look,” said Paolo Cherchi Usai, senior curator at the George Eastman House of International Museum of Photography and Film.

“Technicolor was never a stable technology,” he said. “It gave different results because of the different dyes and their batches and the cameras.”

 

John Blau is a senior editor at Handelsblatt. He grew up watching "The Wizard of Oz" as an annual tradition on American commercial television. To contact the author: [email protected]