Early Technicolor

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I recently had the opportunity to view the 1930 Eddie Cantor musical comedy Whoopee!, and while I cannot recommend watching it in its entirety (due to its not being a fine example of the genre and its extensive racism), I must say that there is something very interesting about the way it was filmed. I am talking about the two-strip Technicolor process that it and more than 35 other full-length feature films employed between the years of 1929 and 1931, when Hollywood was aggressively experimenting with techniques to maintain and bolster movie attendance in the early days of sound film.

During this period, musicals were the novelty of the moment, and Hollywood produced them in abundance, although audiences quickly overdosed on them.  Whoopee! boasts a number of still-recognizable songs, such as Eddie Cantor’s performances of the suggestive “Makin’ Whoopee” and the tamer “My Baby Just Cares for Me.”  There is also dancing, with a chorus of cowboys and cowgirls shuffling on a wide ranch house set.  Part of the strategy of Whoopee!, however, like that of so many other two-strip feature films, is to wow its audience not just with sound but with a spectacular display of color.  Yet the world of two-strip color is very curious.  The two-strip Technicolor process involves, as the name would imply, two strips of film, one green and one red, that are both run simultaneously in a specially equipped camera.  The color emphasis of the two strips results in a limited spectrum for the finished film: a two-strip film like Whoopee! offers turquoises and rosy reds, but not many other colors.  Skin tones can be decently reproduced in this process, and there are shades of grey as well.  However, many colors never photograph realistically—yellow, for example.  The result is a film that looks as if it has been tinted by someone with a red-green predilection, which is strange and, I suppose, beautiful in its own way.

Still, I do not think that audiences were looking for something strange when they purchased their tickets for two-strip films.  They probably were hoping for what they eventually got with the three-strip process invented later.  Overall, studios were disappointed with ticket sales from two-strip films, especially given the expense of using two-strip cameras, of the added film development process, and of designing sets and costumes to maximize the new color phenomenon.  After 1931, Technicolor introduced the aforementioned three-strip process, which was able to reproduce a much broader range of color. Eventually, the two most successful films of the entire 1930s would be filmed in three-strip Technicolor: Snow White and the Seven Dwarves (1937) and Gone with the Wind (1939).  Still, even with the three-strip process, in the Golden Age color was reserved largely for cartoons and special segments of longer features (e.g., the Technicolor fashion show in The Women, 1939), or for feature-length period pieces and musicals.  It was mainly the desire to compete with black-and-white television in the 1950s that caused the major studios to make color for full-length features the norm across the board.

In retrospect, I am not certain as to why the studios thought that adding color was a surefire way to increase ticket sales.  I understand that it must have appeared to be a novelty.  I can see color, however, any time I go to the playhouse or the art museum and any time I look around me at home. Color does not single out the motion picture as a unique art form or give it a competitive advantage over other media.  The black-and-white mode, on the other hand, largely belongs to the world of film, be it the still film of photography or the moving film of motion pictures.  Black and white film uniquely conveys the idea that the story we watch is occurring in a special place that is not of the world that we know in our everyday lives.  Black and white speaks to our desire to see something special and other, a creative mode that acknowledges through its shading a useful difference between life and art.  So many of the filmmakers over the last sixty years who had color available to them but opted for black and white instead must have understood and valued that distinction, but I am afraid that once color took over the mainstream, it became a distinction that was not long for this world.

One final note: it is always wise to tread cautiously when exploring this period in film history, lest we heap praise too readily on the so-called innovations and discoveries of the sound period at the expense of earlier periods in which film also underwent radical changes.  When I think of the pinnacle of silent film making, which occurred only a few years prior to Whoopee!, I hesitate to say that the innovation in early sound and two-strip films was necessarily any more interesting or legitimate than what the late silents achieved.  Consider for example the elegant, folkloric Sunrise, a silent film from 1928, and its exceptional use of the camera. I think, as did Roger Ebert, particularly of one scene where the camera lithely and thoughtfully explores the muddy, reedy banks of a lake set.  In contrast, the camera in Whoopee! tends to sit in a static position using a wide-angled shot to encompass the large set and the varied human movement that occurs on it, a film technique that was very typical of early sound pictures.  The mobile camera—the breakthrough of one era—did not translate to the next so readily; developments in camera movement were particularly quashed by the early three-strip Technicolor technology that appeared after 1931, a process that required an enormous stationary camera to manage all three strips of film.   The transition to color and sound opened up new possibilities for film but also resulted in some great ideas being temporarily left behind.

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