- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 31, 2009

The evolution of color cinematography is a consistently diverting and revealing topic, in part because every fresh discussion tends to uncover examples seldom seen or fading from memory.

The principles of color photography were well understood at the time movies began to attract a following in the late 1890s. Numerous video editions of early motion pictures now restore or simulate the look of hand-painted frames or tinted sequences, regarded as desirable enhancements since the medium became a popular form of entertainment.

Perfecting cameras, film stocks, dyes and projection equipment required another 40 years of trial and error and persistence, much of it sustained by the still active Technicolor Corp. Organized and often staffed by graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the company originated in Boston, circa 1915, and located its first laboratory in a converted railroad car.

Technicolor found it prudent to construct Hollywood satellites in the 1920s. Test footage and early production efforts aroused interest throughout the film business. The company seemed to be on the verge of breakthroughs that kept falling short for one reason or another. For example, a collaboration with Douglas Fairbanks on “The Black Pirate” proved auspicious in major markets but ran into trouble when Technicolor prints developed buckling tendencies after repeated use.

Eventually, there were decisive breakthroughs with a component three-color system in the early and middle 1930s, leading to Technicolor’s industrial and esthetic dominance for at least a generation. The company’s success at this juncture coincided with the so-called Golden Age of the major Hollywood studios. As a result, Technicolor remains the optimum brand name when people discuss quality cinematography. Though sometimes disparaged as a confectionary illustrative tool, Technicolor actually facilitated a versatile range of pictorial sensation, from eye-popping richness to admirable subtlety and delicacy.

A free film-and-lecture series at the National Gallery of Art, “A Short History of Color,” returns to the subject on Sunday afternoons in June. The programs begin with an illustrated lecture about color movies prior to 1928, when a kind of false dawn beckoned, encouraged by the advent of talking pictures and the first surge of popularity for musical features. During 1929 and 1930, the demand for Technicolor cameras and technicians increased along with the demand for singing and dancing. One of those period pieces, a two-color Technicolor musical called “Follow Thru,” starring Nancy Carroll and Buddy Rogers, will be revived on June 14. This is a rare sighting, and the movie is not available on home video.

The busiest programming day is June 14, which begins with a lecture, continues with “Follow Thru” and then concludes with Henry Hathaway’s 1935 remake of “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” the second feature released in three-strip Technicolor. A proven property, filmed three times during the silent era, this parable of backwoods clannishness phased out by industry and prosperity starred Sylvia Sidney, Henry Fonda and Fred MacMurray, all of them durably endearing.

“Lonesome Pine” may have done more for the new Technicolor system than its predecessor, “Becky Sharp,” which showcased the vibrant potential in its spectrum. Illustrating the low-key, naturalistic merits of the same process, “Lonesome Pine” seemed to persuade critics that Technicolor could blend in with natural surroundings (the Big Bear region of California, doubling for the Blue Ridge Mountains) and down-home characters.

A good deal of the spectrum had been attractively reflected in the two-color system, which incorporated negatives sensitive to red and green, but the elusive blue was finally integrated into a beam-splitting Technicolor camera in 1932. Company co-founder Herbert T. Kalmus found an initial showcase when he persuaded Walt Disney to add their improved color process to his cartoons. Soon after the live-action case was clinched by the 1934 musical short “La Cucaracha,” which demonstrated that Technicolor had an enviably dynamic and dreamy grip on blue.

“La Cucaracha” shares a screening June 21 with the only color musical that starred Deanna Durbin, “Can’t Help Singing.” A Western musical, it did not find songwriters Jerome Kern and E.Y. Harburg at their best, and Miss Durbin was not aging irresistibly at 23.

Utah’s pine forests and national parks are a scenic feast in Technicolor, and the camera crew exhibits wonderful control during tracking shots that take the performers through fluctuating light levels. “Can’t Help Singing” is unlikely to re-emerge as a threat to the celebrated Technicolor musicals of the World War II years.

The final program in the series revives a Michael Powell movie of 1950, “Gone to Earth,” that recruited Jennifer Jones as a strange country lass surrounded by British cast members. A few years earlier, Technicolor helped immortalize her as a bad girl in “Duel in the Sun.” This successor was severely cut in American release and retitled “The Wild Heart.”

This series restores a “lost” color feature of the same period. It’s also a rare opportunity for the catch-up crowd, since “Gone to Earth” hasn’t resurfaced on home video in the U.S.

SERIES: “A Short History of Color”

WHERE: East Building Auditorium, National Gallery of Art

WHEN: Sunday afternoons June 7 to 28

CONTENT: Lectures and screenings

ADMISSION: Free, but an early arrival is advisable

PHONE: 202/842-6799

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov/programs/film


June 7: Illustrated lecture, “Film Color Before 1928” by Charles O’Brien, 2 p.m.

June 14: Illustrated lecture, “Technicolor on Location,” by David Pierce, 2 p.m.; 1930 musical “Follow Thru” at 3 p.m.; 1935 melodrama “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine” at 5 p.m.

June 21: 1934 musical short “La Cucaracha” and 1944 feature “Can’t Help Singing” at 2 p.m.

June 28: Restored print of Michael Powell’s 1950 feature “Gone to Earth” at 4 p.m.

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