Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi Over the Rainbow

By Devin D. O'Leary

DECEMBER 7, 1998:  With the recent theatrical re-releases of 1939's twin towers--Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz--moviegoers, whether they realize it or not, are witnessing the revival of a technical process that changed Hollywood. Without the magic of Technicolor, we'd have been following the gray brick road to Oz; and, somehow, I just don't think it would have been the same.

Turner Classic Movies' latest documentary, hosted by Angela Lansbury, follows the birth of color film from its earliest experimental stages to its near total saturation in the mid-'60s. What most people don't realize--and what "Glorious Technicolor" makes vividly clear--is that color films have always been around. Many of the earliest silent films were hand-painted frame-by-frame to achieve a stunning watercolor effect. Another simpler process was to provide a single sepia wash over an entire scene. Most black-and-white films contained such tinted sequences. Scenes set during a fire, for example, would be tinted red; scenes set underwater would be tinted blue.

It wasn't until 1917, however, that a humble scientist by the name of Herbert T. Kalmus invented a workable process to overlap two colored film strips--one red, one blue--thereby creating a rudimentary multicolored palate. For some 15 years, various films (such as The Mystery of the Wax Museum and The Black Pirate) were filmed in a variation of Kalmus' two-strip Technicolor. "Glorious Technicolor" spends much time on developments and refinements of the Kalmus process. Although casual movie fans may be bored by such technical details, there's simply no excuse for missing the indescribable painterly hues of films like The Black Pirate--financed at one million 1926 dollars out of star Douglas Fairbanks' own pocket!

Certain backstage politics provide interest for the less technically inclined. Kalmus' ex-wife, for example, held a tight grip on her former hubby's company. Whenever a studio hired the use of a Technicolor camera, Natalie Kalmus came along as part of the package deal. As a "Technicolor Advisor," Natalie appeared in more movie credits than just about any other person in Hollywood. Her domineering manner and old-fashioned taste brought her into conflict with many of Hollywood's biggest directors.

But what's most important here is not technical details or personality conflicts--it is the films that Technicolor produced. Stars like Esther Williams and Arlene Dahl share remembrances of their days working on lavish Technicolor epics. Seeing the luminous glow of films like The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Red Shoes (1948) and An American in Paris (1951) gives new meaning to the term "Golden Age."

"Glorious Technicolor" premieres Dec. 7 at 6 p.m. with encores Dec. 8 at 6 p.m. and Dec. 11 at 2:30 a.m. Dec. 7-11 is Technicolor Week on TCM featuring 21 colorful movies from Ben Hur (1926) to King Solomon's Mines (1950).


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