The Dawn of Technicolor: The Filmography

Submitted by Crystal Kui,

The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935, a new book by James Layton and David Pierce, is now available for purchase from George Eastman House and other online retailers. In addition to a historical account of Technicolor’s formative years, the publication features a comprehensive filmography of all two-color Technicolor films from 1917 to 1937. The filmography was compiled by myself and James Layton, with the help of a team of dedicated researchers including Daisuke Kawahara, Almudena Escobar Lopez, and Catherine A. Surowiec. I was constantly surprised by the collections we uncovered while researching this underdocumented subject. In this blog post I will share some of our findings, which are presented in the book as a resource for students, scholars, and anyone interested in early Technicolor films.

Just glancing at the illustrations in the filmography will give you a sense of the subjects frequently photographed in the two-color palette. Frame enlargement from The Doll Shop (M-G-M, 1929). Image: George Eastman House. Just glancing at the illustrations in the filmography will give you a sense of the subjects frequently photographed in the two-color palette. Frame enlargement from The Doll Shop (M-G-M, 1929). Image: George Eastman House.

 

What You’ll Find in the Filmography The filmography is a detailed catalog of feature-length films, films with color sequences, advertisements, cartoons, travelogues, live-action shorts, tests, and abandoned productions shot in two-color Technicolor during the silent and sound eras. The films are listed in chronological order by premier date, but an index at the back allows you to search by title, personnel, color process, film studio, and production type (all-color features, all-color shorts, and feature inserts).

Sample entry from The Dawn of Technicolor filmography. Sample entry from The Dawn of Technicolor filmography.

 

Each entry in the filmography includes a synopsis, cast and crew list, release dates, select bibliography, notes on the use of color, and archival holdings information for surviving Technicolor film elements. Inventories from the Technicolor Corporate Archive provided internal documentation on the lengths of color footage and number of prints ordered by producers. These resources gave us insight into Technicolor’s output, its clients, and the growing acceptance of color in the film industry.

Release shipments indicate that 1,029 feet of Technicolor was printed for Ben-Hur (M-G-M,1925). During the film’s extended release 1,531 prints were shipped to theatres nationally and abroad. In total, 1.5 million feet was printed in Technicolor. Document: Technicolor Corporate Archive at George Eastman House. Release shipments indicate that 1,029 feet of Technicolor was printed for Ben-Hur (M-G-M,1925). During the film’s extended release 1,531 prints were shipped to theatres nationally and abroad. In total, 1.5 million feet was printed in Technicolor. Document: Technicolor Corporate Archive at George Eastman House.

 

New Discoveries During our research we identified a significant number of films that were overlooked in other filmographies. Two years ago we started with a list of 141 two-color Technicolor films compiled from various published sources. In its complete form the filmography now accounts for the existence of 371 features and shorts, in addition to fourteen abandoned productions and tests for which color footage was shot but never shown to the public. Supplementing our research from the Technicolor angle were archival collections at other institutions, which provided valuable context on the production and reception of the films. We looked at studio contracts and legal files to study Technicolor’s business and finances. We reviewed production reports and schedules to understand the demands of filming in color. Among the most revealing documents were personal interviews with Technicolor cameramen who described working on set with enormous lights and film equipment. These individuals were remarkable for constantly pushing the limits of two-color Technicolor artistically and technically.

Left: Paul Whiteman and his band pose for the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence from King of Jazz (Universal, 1930). Right: Although the two-color Technicolor process could not reproduce blues or yellows, the resulting color scheme conveyed the essence of the musical number. Image: George Eastman House. Left: Paul Whiteman and his band pose for the “Rhapsody in Blue” sequence from King of Jazz (Universal, 1930). Right: Although the two-color Technicolor process could not reproduce blues or yellows, the resulting color scheme conveyed the essence of the musical number. Image: George Eastman House.

 

Preserving Film Heritage When possible, entries in the filmography are illustrated with frames scanned directly from nitrate and safety prints. For some films only fragments and clippings remain, whereas others survive in varying states of completeness due to physical deterioration and the dispersal of prints over time. We were fortunate to work with many colleagues in the field who opened up their collections and shared their knowledge with us. The illustrations are a fascinating window onto the world’s film archives and private collections.

Clara Bow made her first and only appearance in color in Red Hair (Paramount, 1928). Image: Library of Congress. Clara Bow made her first and only appearance in color in Red Hair (Paramount, 1928). Image: Library of Congress.

 

The production of films in two-color Technicolor spanned a twenty-year period between the first film, The Gulf Between (1917), and the last, Kliou the Killer (1937). No color prints exist for either film—a few nitrate frame clippings remain of The Gulf Between and Kliou survives only as a black and white 16mm print. Fifty percent of the 371 titles documented in the filmography no longer survive in color in any form. It is our hope that the filmography will create a better understanding of what elements survive across the world’s film archives, and will better inform others and enable further preservation work. Interesting Stories from the Filmography We encountered so many surprising finds throughout the course of our research. Below is a sampling of some anecdotes included in the filmography:

On With the Show (1929). This film was the first all-Technicolor all-talking picture but unfortunately it only survives complete in black and white prints. Bit-by-bit, however, more and more color footage keeps turning up. Approximately fifteen to twenty minutes of the film now exists in color.
Sports of Many Lands (1929). The benefits of filming outdoors are evident in this travelogue shot in Argentina, England, Hawaii, and Martinique. This short was produced by Colorart Pictures, a company founded in 1926 to make films exclusively in Technicolor. Although its output was previously poorly documented, we discovered that Colorart made more than 50 films in Technicolor over four years.
White Pants Willie (1927). During this period, Technicolor had contracts with studios to produce color sequences in black and white films. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find any information about the color sequence in this Johnny Hines comedy.
Wanderer of the Wasteland (1924). This western was the first all-color feature produced by a Hollywood studio. According to reports, the director Irvin Willat used color very creatively. This film is lost except for a few nitrate frame clippings which are illustrated in the book. After Willat’s death, a print was found in his home, but it had already decomposed.

Explore Technicolor's history at eastmanhouse.org/technicolor100!