Have a look at any colour film from between 1922 and 1952, and you’re almost sure to see ‘In Technicolor’ proudly written across the title screen. There’s a very good reason for this - Technicolor was a proprietary process for adding dye to the film strip, resulting in arresting colour, and there was nothing else like it at the time. Although it might seem quaint today, it was revolutionary in several ways.
No Place Like Home
The scene in The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy opens the door of her tornado-transported house onto the dazzling Munchkin village is striking now, but must have been positively jaw-dropping when it was first shown in 1939. For the shot, the first segment was filmed in sepia-dyed black and white, but for the moment when Dorothy steps to the door, the film is actually in Technicolor.
Judy Garland’s body double, Bobie Koshay, was outfitted with a sepia dress and covered in sepia-toned makeup. Garland then stepped through the door and the camera turns back to her, resulting in a flawless transition, just one of the film’s many iconic moments. Henri Jaffa, Technicolor’s on-set technician, and Natalie Kalmus both worked to create the memorable scene. Director Victor Fleming and Producer Mervyn LeRoy chose to use the process not only to ensure public interest, but to provide a link to the source material, in which L. Frank Baum describes Dorothy’s native Kansas as dreary and monochromatic. It drove home the point in the story that Oz was totally fantastic and unlike anything Dorothy (or in fact the audience) had ever seen.
Technicolor wasn't the first process to render films into colour, and its inventors weren't the originators of the idea, either - it must have been on everyone's minds from the moment the earliest black and white films were first shown. First invented in 1916 and refined over the following years by Americans Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Frost Comstock, and W. Burton Wescott, the process had the advantage of being simple to achieve and easy to display. Since the colour was dyed onto the film negative itself, any projector could show it without the need for additional equipment, which meant that cinema owners and studios could guarantee a greater return on their investment by luring audiences in with the promise of colour at a time when most films could only be produced in black and white.
Kalmus, as the executive of the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, ensured that they kept firm control of the process and that they were involved in every use of the technique. As part of this strategy, his partner (and ex-wife) Natalie Kalmus was employed as ‘colour supervisor’ on most of the early productions using the technology. Kalmus, a notoriously difficult and disliked figure among directors, producers, and cinematographers, provided direction on the use of technicolor and composed the palettes used for films such as 'Gone With the Wind' as well as the aforementioned 'The Wizard of Oz' (both 1939).
'Gone With The Wind' 1939 turning up the Technicolor at dusk
While it may look a bit dated now, Technicolor was cheap, easily achieved in any cinema with any projector, and resulted in films being shown in brilliant colour at a time when any innovation in cinematography was enough to cause a public stir, let alone one so memorable and striking.
Genuine technicolour film showing how the dyed frames were combined to create the effect
The Black Shield of Falworth (1954). Probably one of the worst films ever made and making a real Hollywood hash of history in the process. The colour, however, is truly remarkable!