In Glorious Technicolor

Ever since pictures started to move, filmmakers have attempted to realize them in color. “Two strip” Technicolor existed as early as World War I, but it was an uncertain science, yielding lunar-pale skin tones and reds indistinguishable from browns. By 1932, this technique was amplified to include three strips, or layers, of film, which, when printed using a “dye transfer process,” made for a rich palette of bold colors more dreamlike than lifelike. While the more nuanced technologies of the past four decades have allowed for subtler, even more expressive harmonies, the old three-strip elements tend not to fade with age the way more recent stocks do: They give off a perpetually fresh, powerful glow of fantasy, nostalgia and charm. The American Cinematheque series “Technicolor’s 90th Anniversary: A Tribute to Dye Transfer Printing” covers the technology’s peak years, from the late 1930s to the mid ’60s, and will screen many original dye transfer prints publicly for the last time. There’s a sweet, funny simplicity to the way Errol Flynn and his merry men dress in bright-tan tunics and apple-green leotards in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) — the pleasure is akin to re-reading a classic comic from one’s childhood. When Katharine Hepburn and Humphrey Bogart rollicked down the Congo over a decade later in The African Queen (1951), color was less of a novelty, but cinematographer Jack Cardiff (who will appear at the December 3 screening) found durable beauty in the contrasts between the greasy, sunburnt Bogart and the regal, rosy-skinned Hepburn. By then, audiences distracted by television were demanding spectacle of movies, and John Huston delivered it in the form of live murals of the real Africa. Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) upped the ante by circumnavigating the entire planet — literally. Most of the film was shot on location with David Niven, Shirley MacLaine and Cantinflas romping in a grand tour based on the Jules Verne novel. Bullfights, Balinese temples, California gold rushes and Indian attacks are all encompassed by the Herculean sweep of the film, directed by Michael Anderson but orchestrated by superproducer Mike Todd. (Edward R. Murrow, in a brief introduction which adds its own layer of unplanned nostalgia, twirls a globe under his fingertips and informs us that very soon, human beings will be able to orbit the earth in 80 minutes.) Two of the greatest masters of the “spectacular,” which Technicolor transformed into a virtual genre, were directors Cecil B. De Mille and Anthony Mann. For De Mille, an old-school master from the silent era, wide screen and Technicolor were ideal for re-creating the grand moral fables on which he cut his teeth as a craftsman. His The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) gives us Charlton Heston as a circus foreman choosing between love (Betty Hutton) and lust (Gloria Grahame), while The Ten Commandments (1956) effectively raises that theme to biblical (or is that divine comic book?) proportions by casting Heston as a Moses who tussles — Ben-Hur style — with his boyhood chum Ramses (Yul Brynner) and again finds himself torn between two women, a simple herdsman’s daughter (Yvonne De Carlo) and a magnetic Egyptian queen (Anne Baxter).“A big American heroic type” is how Orson Welles once lovingly described Heston, and the actor’s jut-jawed superhero looks distill how America envisioned itself at the peak of its power. Technicolor may even have promoted Heston to a stardom he wouldn’t have fully realized in old black-and-white. Stripped of color, he ceases to be a star and becomes an actor, disappearing into the character lead of Welles’ Touch of Evil (1958). Drenched in dye transfer luminosity as the seemingly indestructible knight in Mann’s El Cid (1961), he does his finest work in the epic form. Equipped with a more nuanced intellect than De Mille, Mann dramatizes with startling simplicity the notion that our heroes are mostly made up of the hopes of those around them — that it’s a hero’s job to keep a single idea alive, even at the expense of his own life, and that it is this undying idea which makes him (or her) immortal.What’s undying about these wonderful films is their robust optimism. For those like this writer, who grew up seeing The Music Man (1962) over and over on black-and-white television, but never in a theater (much less in color), this festival not only offers an opportunity for cheap time travel, but a chance to appreciate the riches of the past more fully than one was able to the first time around. Musicals are optimistic by nature — they invite us, quite persuasively, to imagine that the universe can be ordered, even transfigured, by song. Yet the feeling applies, mysteriously, even to the straight dramas and adventures in this bright grouping. Technicolor at its most dynamic is melody made visible. TECHNICOLOR’S 90th ANNIVERSARY: A TRIBUTE TO DYE TRANSFER PRINTING | American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theater and American Cinematheque at the Aero Theater | Fri.-Sun., Dec. 2-11 | See Film & Video Events for more information


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