Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow

Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s

SCOTT HIGGINS
Copyright Date: 2007
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7560/716278
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  • Book Info
    Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow
    Book Description:

    Like Dorothy waking up over the rainbow in the Land of Oz, Hollywood discovered a vivid new world of color in the 1930s. The introduction of three-color Technicolor technology in 1932 gave filmmakers a powerful tool with which to guide viewers' attention, punctuate turning points, and express emotional subtext. Although many producers and filmmakers initially resisted the use of color, Technicolor designers, led by the legendary Natalie Kalmus, developed an aesthetic that complemented the classical Hollywood filmmaking style while still offering innovative novelty. By the end of the 1930s, color in film was thoroughly harnessed to narrative, and it became elegantly expressive without threatening the coherence of the film's imaginary world.

    Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbowis the first scholarly history of Technicolor aesthetics and technology, as well as a thoroughgoing analysis of how color works in film. Scott Higgins draws on extensive primary research and close analysis of well-known movies, includingBecky Sharp,A Star Is Born,Adventures of Robin Hood, andGone with the Wind, to show how the Technicolor films of the 1930s forged enduring conventions for handling color in popular cinema. He argues that filmmakers and designers rapidly worked through a series of stylistic modes based on the demonstration, restraint, and integration of color-and shows how the color conventions developed in the 1930s have continued to influence filmmaking to the present day. Higgins also formulates a new vocabulary and a method of analysis for capturing the often-elusive functions and effects of color that, in turn, open new avenues for the study of film form and lay a foundation for new work on color in cinema.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79490-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. ONE Introduction: The Challenge of Technicolor
    (pp. 1-21)

    Watching a Technicolor film from the classical era is a perceptual luxury. We are impressed with the abundance of color, and we sense that it has been carefully organized, shaped into compositions that feel complete, polished, and dramatically nuanced. Compared to our contemporary experience of color as a necessary, automatic, and all-too-often mundane aspect of the moving image, a Technicolor production engages us in the unfolding of a complex and determined design. Color is an active and significant visual element, ebbing and flowing across the film.Yet the system of color design, though sensed, remains just out of reach. Immersed as...

  5. TWO Forging a New Aesthetic: From Opera to Color Consciousness
    (pp. 22-47)

    The first three-color films, and early arguments about color aesthetics, trumpeted color to the Hollywood studios. The first live-action three-color short,La Cucaracha, and the first feature,Becky Sharp(considered in the next chapter), demonstrated color’s formal possibilities to a skeptical industry by way of an aesthetic that I call the demonstration mode of color design. As prototypes, they used color forcefully, displaying three-color’s chromatic range and drawing attention to its potential for underscoring drama. In retrospect, it seems inevitable that this approach would pass from favor quickly.The very goal of demonstrating color style is ultimately at odds with the...

  6. THREE A Feature-Length Demonstration: Becky Sharp
    (pp. 48-75)

    Becky Sharpoffered the first practical test of three-color’s aesthetic and dramatic potential for feature production. Herbert Kalmus declared, “As a laboratory of the new process,Beckyturned out to be an expensive proving-ground” (Figure 3.1).¹ The production cost nearly $1,000,000 and grossed only $672,000 domestically.² Pioneer’s first feature was plagued by setbacks. The original director, Lowell Sherman, died of pneumonia a month into production, and when Rouben Mamoulian took over, he opted to reshoot Sherman’s material.³ Miriam Hopkins also fell ill with pneumonia, causing further delays. A work print for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball sequence, the film’s color...

  7. FOUR Unobtrusive Design: Introducing Three-Color to Conventional Production
    (pp. 76-108)

    Though Technicolor has become synonymous with garishness in our contemporary lexicon, classical Hollywood’s approach to three-color was founded on a subdued, restrained mode that flourished between 1936 and 1938. This type of design developed as a direct response to technological, commercial, and aesthetic currents in 1930s cinema.A close look at 1930s designs illustrates how color aesthetics were shaped by a web of institutional pressures and how modes of design eased color’s integration into the classical style. The restrained mode is the linchpin to an understanding of Hollywood’s use of color.

    The Technicolor look and the company’s market strategy entered a...

  8. FIVE Delicate Expansions: Designing in the Restrained Mode
    (pp. 109-136)

    In initiating the restrained mode,The Trail of the Lonesome Pinepresented the style in its most austere form. During the mid to late 1930s, producers extended and deepened the mode, stretching it to accommodate different genres and dramatic situations. These films laid the foundation for subsequent Technicolor color design, making color functional without overemphasizing it.Working with narrow palettes and tight harmonies in films likeRamona, God’s Country and the Woman, Vogues of 1938, Dodge City, Nothing Sacred, andJesse James, filmmakers successfully forged a viable system for integrating color into feature films.When designers expanded the Technicolor palette toward the...

  9. Color section
    (pp. None)
  10. SIX Broadening the Palette: The Adventures of Robin Hood
    (pp. 137-171)

    The Adventures Robin Hoodis a turning point in Technicolor design. For the first time in a three-color feature, the palette is opened wide and intricately organized. Far from returning to demonstration,Robin Hood’s assertive design modulates color to effectively direct attention and underscore drama. Indeed, the film draws on the methods forged in the restrained mode and brings them to a system in which hue, rather than tone, is the dominant variable. In so promoting hue, this assertive mode of design limits the power of subtle variations to punctuate, underscore, or ornament. When color is “always on,” it may...

  11. SEVEN A Fully Integrated Design: Light and Color in Gone with the Wind
    (pp. 172-207)

    Nineteen thirty-nine was a breakthrough year for the Technicolor Corporation. Confidence in the three-color process was such that Technicolor embarked on a $1,000,000 expansion program that included the opening of a new laboratory and office building, nearly doubling the plant’s capacity.¹ And in an even more meaningful development, the company’s profits finally overtook its losses.² The acceptance of three-color was confirmed when theHollywood Reporter’s annual exhibitor poll named three Technicolor features (Jesse James, The Wizard of Oz, andDodge City) as the most lucrative releases in 1939.³ But the year’s crowning achievement came in December with the premiere of...

  12. EIGHT Beyond the 1930s: The Legacies of Three-Color Aesthetics
    (pp. 208-224)

    This book has argued that the 1930s were crucial in the development of color film aesthetics. Though fewer than forty live-action three-color features were produced during the decade, filmmakers and designers rapidly developed a series of formal solutions to the problem of color. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of their work has been its longevity. These methods for handling color formed a powerful baseline for subsequent Technicolor design. In our own time, at a much further historical remove, we can see that contemporary film artists seeking to integrate new digital techniques for manipulating color find themselves repeating strategies from the...

  13. APPENDIX 1 Types of Prints Consulted and Variables in Color Reproduction
    (pp. 225-228)
  14. APPENDIX 2 Chronological Filmography: Three-Color Features of the 1930s
    (pp. 229-236)
  15. APPENDIX 3 Pantone Numbers for Color Names
    (pp. 237-240)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 241-264)
  17. Works Cited
    (pp. 265-274)
  18. Index
    (pp. 275-292)