Rainbow Road: Technicolor’s Journey to Dominating the Silver Screen

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By Jake Fauske

New developments in film, as in many veins of technology, take time to build momentum. The moving picture itself first wowed small audiences at the tail end of the 1800’s, and yet not till the early 1900’s did audiences receive grand, edited story pieces such as The Great Train Robbery. It took time for this new form of entertainment to gain its foothold, just as it subsequently took time to ease audiences into the dialogue of a “talkie” and inevitably, as discussed here today, bringing the rainbow into the movies. 

Today we take for granted how movies give us a realistic view into an untold story. Though the characters, places, and plot points may be unfamiliar, because of the color provided on screen, the movie could be a window into real events. Everything on screen COULD be real, though it is almost always movie magic. Life isn’t black and white, and it is through the introduction of Technicolor that film finally began to take strides forward towards truly recapturing reality. Of course, the process took time to perfect, and needed to be pitched to the industry.

The three-strip technology highlighted here was the fourth process from the company, and their first attempt at using three colors instead of two. The previous two-strip process involved only a red-orange component and a blue-green component, to mixed results (Higgins, 23). In 1932, with the creation of the three-color camera, James Arthur Ball cemented the full range of color reproduction by allowing for that final third color component to be added.  The addition of the third color took an already complex process and magnified it tenfold, yet, “The three-color dye-transfer process would dominate color film pro­duction in Hollywood until the 1950s” (Higgins, 25). But where did they start?

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Let’s begin with the first film to be theatrically released using the three-strip technicolor process, Walt Disney Productions’ Flowers and Trees. Released in 1932, Flowers and Trees was Disney’s 29th Silly Symphony, a series of animated shorts set to music with a comedic general tone. In true Disney fashion, Walt Disney recognized the potential in full color animation and negotiated with Technicolor President Herbert Kalmus for an exclusive contract for use of the three-strip process through 1935, shutting out competing animation producers such as Fleischer Studios and, Disney rival, Ub Iwerks Studios. Ask yourself, what would your first thought have been if you walked into the theater expecting another black and white cartoon and suddenly you were seeing the colors of the flowers and leaves?

As Higgins mentions, Disney’s Silly Symphonies presented an excellent platform from which to promote the use of three-strip technicolor, as the series of shorts already had a successful following and could be used display a wide range of colors. Not only was Flowers and Trees a financial success, but it also won the inaugural Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, garnering even more attention for Technicolor’s new process. Kalmus, stated, “Producers were willing to admit they had been wrong about color car­toons now that the color cartoons were being held over for weeks, or even months and earning several times their costs” (Higgins, 26). However, as always when new technology involved, there was still a question of prohibiting costs. Most studios were hesitant to throw money at technicolor while black and white films still drew crowds. To this, Kalmus said,

“Do you remem­ber the huge rainbow in Disney’s Funny Little Bunnies? Do you remem­ber the bunnies drawing the colors of the rainbow into their pails and splashing their paints on the Easter eggs? Don’t you agree that it was marvelous entertainment? Now I will ask you this: How much more did it cost Mr. Disney to produce that entertainment than it would have in black and white ? The answer, of course, was that it could not have been done in black-and-white at any cost” (Higgins, 26).

I loved this quote, and to me any amount would have been a small price to pay for the addition of color. What do you all think? What is the rainbow worth to you?

Now Disney’s success with color was merely a start for Technicolor, a foot hold to continue the march. To truly win over audiences, color needed to be brought to live action. Without delving fully into the time and financial burdens of a feature length endeavor, the newly formed Pioneer Pictures (created by two of Technicolor’s biggest investors) chose to make La Cucaracha, as a true test of color’s performance on the big screen. La Cucaracha, directed by Lloyd Corrigan, was the first three-strip project of talented production designer Robert Jones, who was hired by Pioneer to showcase the full range of three-strip. Jones would go on to design Becky Sharp as well, the first full length feature to use three-strip color (Higgins, 23). It should be noted that although this was shown to audiences, La Cucaracha was an experiment, a lab rat of a sort. Risks were taken and at times it feels more akin to an LSD trip than a full color movie attempting to capture reality. But the point was to prove it was feasible. According to Higgins, “The two-reel short was a low-risk way for Pioneer and Technicolor to gain experience with studio production” (Higgins, 27). Take a quick look for yourselves, what do you think of color’s use in La Cucaracha? Would you have wanted to see more films like this?

La Cucaracha cost the studio $65,000 to make, relatively expensive for a short film of the time, yet raked in $250,000 while promoting the technology to wide spread audiences and to the rest of Hollywood (Higgins, 27). With the positive attention also game the 1934 Academy Award for Best Comedy Short Subject, adding fuel to the color fire that would sweep the film industry.

The final point I’ll bring up for discussion today is on La Cucaracha‘s, and Robert Jones’ use of color itself in the film. Jones used the film as his canvas, almost over-saturating scenes with color at points, seemingly just because he now could. Color was a gift and he was determined to not let it go to waste. As Jones put it, “As a matter of fact, the difference between a black­ and-white film and a Technicolor film is very like the difference between a play and an opera… Color enlarges the drama, supports it, enhances it, actually impels it; becomes an organic part of it…” (Higgins, 28).

In the opinion of some, Jones went overboard with the color of La Cucaracha. Yet what he succeeded in was pushing the limits of color’s use. Higgins describes more:

“Through tinted lighting, Jones sought a one-to-one correspondence of color and emotion. The diegetic motivation (moonlight, dawn) for this light is a thin contrivance for the expressive, “emotional” effect. Admittedly, these were only tests; they were not subject to the limitations and demands of style in a feature-length film.Yet in them and in La Cucaracha, Jones exercised a peculiarly obvious approach to color. His solution to the challenge of blending color with story and drama was to foreground color and link it in a mechanistic manner to discrete developments in the scene” (Higgins, 32).

Whether the vibrant blue of the male dancer’s capes and sombreros, the “purple orchid blouses, banana yellow skirts… and poppy red shoes,” of the female dancers, or even the green of Mr. Martinez’s cape, the color is constant, bold, in the viewers face. A line of purple dancers breaks through a solid wall of strong blue capes, assaulting the eye with a neon rainbow. And it is nearly impossible to look away. La Cucaracha can be described in many ways, the least of which includes having a complex story. But it does its job for Technicolor and does it well. Would this film have convinced you that color film was the future? Would you be willing to go back to black and white after seeing this? I know where I stand, in a world where we owe La Cucaracha and Mr. Jones for getting the ball rolling.

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