10 great Technicolor films

Classics from the time when colour on film glistened like wet paint.

Black Narcissus (1947)

The very word Technicolor conjures nostalgia for cinema’s bygone sense of majesty and occasion. This was the revolutionary three-strip colour system associated with Hollywood’s golden age, with the 1935 Vanity Fair adaptation Becky Sharp being the first feature to use the process throughout.

It was the fourth process introduced by Herbert Kalmus, whose company had spent two decades perfecting the beam splitter camera that sent light through colour filters onto black-and-white stock. Appropriate colours could then be applied in the laboratory through a dye transfer process. 

But only 29 of the bulky DF-24 cameras existed. And they were expensive, adding 25% to a picture’s budget. They required powerful arc lamps and came with their own crews and a specialist to advise set, costume and make-up designers on the shades that would register best in ‘Glorious Technicolor’. The most famous of these consultants was Natalie Kalmus, who described herself as “the ringmaster to the rainbow” in supervising some 385 films prior to her divorce from Dr Kalmus in the late 1940s. 

Initially, Technicolor was only used for prestige projects like Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz (both 1939). But three-strip began to be employed on more routine outings as the Hollywood studios sought to lure audiences away from their monochrome television sets. Ultimately, around 1,000 Technicolor features were produced into the mid-1950s before Eastman introduced a colour monopack that could be used in a conventional camera. 

Yet, the enduring nature of Technicolor’s dyes means that its sharp, saturated hues are as rich and vibrant as they ever were. They provide an unabashedly stylised contrast with colours achieved using light-on-emulsion celluloids and modern digital processes.

The River (1951)

In contrast to the many musicals and costume films that Technicolor was used for, Jean Renoir’s 1951 film The River could be considered cinema’s first work of Technicolor neorealism. Based on Rumer Godden’s 1946 novel about her own childhood in India, it was the great French director’s first film in colour, and when Technicolor decided not to send one of its notoriously intrusive consultants to Bengal, Renoir was able to discover the glories of the three-strip process as he went along. 

Cinematographer nephew Claude Renoir had attended a training course and could handle the cumbersome camera. But he was surprised that the Indian sun lacked the intensity to complement the giant klieg lights that boosted on-set temperatures to a stifling degree. Shooting was delayed while a more powerful generator was dispatched, and the Renoirs were further hindered by the 10-day wait to see their rushes, as the nearest Technicolor laboratory was in London. 

Yet, the results they achieved were exquisite, as Renoir intercut the domestic scenes with documentary footage of everyday life on the banks of the Ganges. On viewing the finished film, future director Eric Rohmer called it “the most beautiful colour we have ever seen on the screen.”

The River is out on Blu-ray on 30 August 2021.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Directors: Michael Curtiz and William Keighley

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)

Often taken for granted as rousing swashbuckling escapism, this celebration of Arcadian storybook pageantry is indisputably a work of cinematic art. Taking inspiration from Howard Pyle’s 1883 novel, The Merry Adventures of Robin Hood of Great Renown in Nottinghamshire, the Oscar-winning art direction conjured a Book of Hours authenticity – captured in all its plush magnificence by 11 Technicolor cameras. 

On location in Bidwell Park, Chico, California, the production team famously sprayed the autumn leaves with green vegetable dye. Director William Keighley was then fired for falling behind schedule, but he set the visual tone that his replacement Michael Curtiz then upheld in the thrillingly staged action sequences. No wonder Warner Bros launched the picture with the tagline, “Only a rainbow can duplicate its brilliance!”

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

Director: Victor Fleming

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

According to Hollywood folklore, it was future Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz’s idea for The Wizard of Oz to pass from the sepia of the Kansas sequences to a deep-saturated Technicolor for Dorothy Gale and Toto’s odyssey in Oz. Ever the iconoclasts, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger would go the opposite way in A Matter of Life and Death (1946), making the sequences in heaven black and white.

Everyone remembers the yellow brick road, the ruby slippers and the Emerald City, and due credit has been given to designers, costumiers and cinematographer Harold Rosson. But the hero of the hour was Technicolor consultant Henri Jaffa, who advised on over 150 features during a 20-year career, much of which was spent on secondment at MGM. This was only the studio’s second three-strip outing and no one afterwards came close to emulating the rich, vibrant colours that made the land over the rainbow so enchanting.

Fantasia (1940)

Directors: Ben Sharpsteen, James Algar, Samuel Armstrong, Bill Roberts, Paul Satterfield, Hamilton Luske, Jim Handley, Ford Beebe Jr, T. Hee, Norman Ferguson and Wilfred Jackson 

Fantasia (1940)

Walt Disney quickly spotted the commercial and artistic potential of Technicolor, first employing it on the 1932 Silly Symphony short film, Flowers and Trees. He also entrusted his feature debut Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – dubbed “Disney’s folly” – to three-strip. But ‘folly’ might more accurately have been applied to his third full-length animation, 1940’s Fantasia, which sought to change the history of the medium by marrying high and low art, creating animated sequences to illustrate a succession of classical pieces.

The abstract accompaniment to J.S. Bach’s ‘Toccata and Fugue in D Minor’ lured the imagination into envisaging masses of colour, cloud forms, great landscapes, vague shadows and – in the words of on-screen master of ceremonies Deems Taylor – “geometrical objects floating in space”. Photographed in Technicolor, the images anticipated Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, yet avant-garde animator Oskar Fischinger, who had worked on the sequence, dismissed the entire project as “a conglomeration of tastelessness”. Since acquiring psychedelic kudos in the swinging 60s, however, it’s harder to resist Disney’s contention that Fantasia looks and sounds spectacular.

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

Director: Ernst Lubitsch

Heaven Can Wait (1943)

From the opening needlepoint credits, it’s clear we’re in the same Americana territory that Vincente Minnelli would visit a year later in another Technicolor marvel, Meet Me in St Louis. Spanning seven decades, Heaven Can Wait – based on Ladislas Bus-Fekete’s play, Birthday – was Ernst Lubitsch’s first three-strip feature, and the textured palette enabled him to refine his fabled elegant ‘touch’. 

Watch the deft changes to the décor, as the rich, heavy colours in the Fifth Avenue home of the young Henry Van Cleve (Don Ameche) give way to paler shades as his time ebbs away. The costumes are also sensitive to the passing years and the mournful notion that life in New York isn’t as much fun as it used to be. Gene Tierney plays Henry’s wife, Martha, who looks indulgently on the husband who only discovers he was a harmless nobody rather than a roguish rake in the red-columned halls of Hades.

Cobra Woman (1944)

Director: Robert Siodmak

Cobra Woman (1944)

Technicolor wasn’t solely the preserve of Hollywood highbrows. If it could bring grandeur to roadshow juggernauts like Gone with the Wind, it could also lend mystique to the kind of exotic fantasies in which Universal starred Jon Hall, Sabu and Maria Montez. Born in the Dominican Republic, the ‘Caribbean Cyclone’ was known for her inanimate acting and knowing narcissism (“When I look at myself, I am so beautiful I scream with joy!”). However, Montez became so luminous in front of a three-strip camera that the studio proclaimed her “the Queen of Technicolor”. 

She never looked more regal than she does in Cobra Woman in her scarlet robes and headdress, while standing before the cobra throne to receive tributes from her South Sea island subjects. Working in colour for the first time, director Robert Siodmak and his designers seemed to revel in giving the palace “the tongue-in-cheek ambience of a Tiki bar”.

Black Narcissus (1947)

Directors: Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger

Black Narcissus (1947)

A justifiable claim can be made that British director Michael Powell was the king of Technicolor. Having cut his teeth on The Thief of Bagdad (1940), he teamed with screenwriter Emeric Pressburger on a string of films, any one of which could have made this list. Yet, for all the excellence of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), The Red Shoes (1948), Gone to Earth (1950), The Tales of Hoffman (1951) and Oh…Rosalinda!! (1955), they are pipped by this studio-bound adaptation of Rumer Godden’s tale of inflamed passions in a Himalayan convent. 

After logistical issues had prevented shooting on the subcontinent, Powell and Pressburger established basecamp at Pinewood and relied on cinematographer Jack Cardiff to give the production design, model work and matte paintings an ethereal authenticity. Rarely had colour, light and shadow been used so viscerally to convey emotion. Cardiff and designer Alfred Junge deservedly received Academy Awards for performing a cinematic miracle.

An American in Paris (1951)

Director: Vincente Minnelli

An American in Paris (1951)

Between games of poker and pool, MGM producer Arthur Freed persuaded lyricist Ira Gershwin to let him mark Paris’s bimillennium by making a musical based on his brother George’s eponymous 1928 piece for orchestra. Inspired by Powell and Pressburger’s The Red Shoes, Gene Kelly convinced director Vincente Minnelli to let him choreograph a ‘dream ballet’ that would enable him to popularise dance by switching between classical and modern ballet, tap, jitterbugging and gymnastic swagger. 

The resulting sequence – shot by John Alton, a monochrome specialist shooting his first Technicolor picture – is 16 minutes and 37 seconds of magic. Taking its cues from great French painters, it sweeps viewers from Dufy’s Place de la Concorde to Toulouse-Lautrec’s Montmartre via Renoir’s Madeleine flower market, an Utrillo street carnival, Rousseau’s Jardin des Plantes, and Van Gogh’s Place de l’Opéra.

Niagara (1953)

Director: Henry Hathaway

Niagara (1953)

There was a vogue in the 1980s for colourising black-and-white films to make them more attractive to modern audiences. While the process is aesthetically reprehensible, it would be tempting to reverse it to see how Henry Hathaway’s Technicolor noir might look draped in the form’s more familiar monochrome shadows. Indeed, Hathaway toyed with the idea himself by originally limiting the colour in the morgue scene to the femme fatale’s blonde hair and blue eyes. 

Some of the views of Niagara Falls have a travelogue feel, but Hathaway continually employs them as psychologically revealing backdrops to deep-focus long shots of Rose Loomis (Marilyn Monroe) and her shell-shocked Korean vet husband, George (Joseph Cotten). Hathaway also utilises the blinds in cabin B to block out Niagara’s beauty and power. Their sudden shutting silhouettes Monroe in the darkness in a way that’s every bit as visually arresting as the reds of her lipstick, jacket and the flashing warning light in the Rainbow Tower.

Vertigo (1958)

Director: Alfred Hitchcock

Vertigo (1958)

According to the strapline for this masterly adaptation of Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac’s bestseller, D’entre les morts, “Alfred Hitchcock engulfs you in a whirlpool of terror and tension!” The publicists could also have added ‘Technicolor’, as Hitchcock set out to make the various shades of red, yellow and green the traffic light indicators of the characters they represent: Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart), Midge Wood (Barbara Bel Geddes) and Madeleine Elster/Judy Barton (Kim Novak). 

Hitch had spent a decade experimenting with three-strip after first utilising it on Rope (1948), and he teases the audience with a monochrome Paramount logo before Saul Bass’s credits become suffused with red. Thenceforth, each colour in the décor and costumes has a psychological significance. This carries into the spirals created by pioneering animator John Whitney and the nightmare sequence devised by Abstract Expressionist John Ferren, as Stewart’s traumatised San Francisco cop finds himself increasingly caught between acrophobia and necrophilia.

Amarcord (1973)

Director: Federico Fellini

Amarcord (1973)

Technicolor Italiana opened a laboratory in Rome in 1960, just as Federico Fellini was edging away from neorealism with opulent satires like La dolce vita (1960) and 8½ (1963). Having experimented with Technicolor in Juliet of the Spirits (1965), he joined forces with cinematographer Giuseppe Rotunno on Satyricon (1969), Roma (1972) and this teasing flashback from the world of Fellini’s memory, whose title came from a cod dialect term for “I remember.” 

Given the colourful nature of the characters in this scrapbook of reminiscences from his 1930s Rimini childhood, Fellini had no option but to use Technicolor to do justice to the sets constructed at Cinecittà and the modish costumes. Seen through the eyes of adolescent Titta Biondi (Bruno Zanin), the impressionistic vignettes are full of indelible images, most notably the giant red cut-out of Il Duce’s face and the blue peacock train rattling in the snow.

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