Sizzle and Pop: The Brilliant Magic of Technicolor

Judy Garland glows as much as the landscape in the classic The Wizard of Oz

You know the moment. You’re stuck in Kansas with Dorothy and holy shit this place is boring. Yes there’s hogs and chicks and the local busybody who just wants to stuff Toto in a basket and ride away, and you can even sing if you want. But it’s all so drab, so mundane, so black-and-white. And then a tornado whips the house up into the air and plunks it back down again (and here’s to those old building standards for keeping that farmhouse intact) and BAM!, you and Dot are in a whole new magical realm. And what’s this? It’s in colour! Like the colour we see with our eyes. But better, vibrant, popping right off the screen. That magic was a film innovation, a little process called Technicolor. It brought heightened realism to the movies, and an iconic look to the films of the forties and fifties. TIFF’s halfway through a brilliant retrospective of Technicolor movies, and there’s still some gems to be seen.

Jimmy Stewart is rumpled and wry next to a luminous Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s superb thriller Rear Window

Technicolor movies weren’t the first colour films. Various dye processes had been used in the teens and 1920s, including early versions of Technicolor, but they tended to a limited palette of reds and greens. (Almost all those early colour films have been lost, sadly. The studios didn’t want the expense of warehousing the colour negatives, and with the advent of black-and-white television, saw no need to keep those versions. You can always count on the short-sightedness of commerce.)

Martin Sheen and Francis Ford Coppola show how war can make people a wee bit insane in Apocalypse Now Redux

There were a pile of Technicolor movies made at the end of the 20s, but when the Great Depression hit, studios had to cut back on the expensive process. A few technical innovations later, Walt Disney saw the potential, and negotiated an exclusive with Technicolor to 1935. With animated shorts like Flowers and Trees (1932) and Three Little Pigs (1933), Disney wowed audiences, and the studios began to see the rather colourful light.

Jean Renoir’s sumptuous The River follows three women growing up on the banks of the Ganges.

By the mid-thirties, the studios were experimenting with Technicolor shorts and features. Once again Disney led the way, with the huge hit Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937). By the time The Wizard of Oz (1939) was released, colour films had been appearing regularly. Director Victor Fleming (with some help from the likes of George Cukor and King Vidor) took the ebullient style to a new level, with the vibrant intensity of Oz contrasting wonderfully with the film’s drab sepia opening minutes.

Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn can’t get free of each other in the barbed comic adventure The African Queen

The forties, fifties and sixties saw slews of Technicolor films released. Coupled with the widescreen innovation of Cinemascope, movies became glorious vistas of colour and light. Technicolor classics included the likes of Lawrence of Arabia (1962), Singin’ in the Rain (1952), Gone With the Wind (1939), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Shane (1953) and Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Really, practically every movie from the fifties and sixties seems to be shot in Technicolor. But when they get it right, the results are breathtaking.

Marlon Brando takes care of the family business in Francis Ford Coppola’s masterpiece The Godfather

Technicolor began to fall out of favour in the late sixties. The dye transfer process was slow compared to newer colour processes. The number of theatres in America was expanding dramatically, and the two-hundred-odd prints the Technicolor lab would put out for a movie were no longer enough. The last American film released before Technicolor closed its U.S. lab was The Godfather, Part II (1974). In 1977, Dario Argento was the last director to use the Technicolor lab in Rome, for his horror classic Suspiria. But all was not completely lost. Eventually, Technicolor brought back their classic process with some modern streamlining, reviving those sumptuous visuals for the likes of Toy Story (1995) and Pearl Harbor (2001). In 2002, Technicolor folded up its colour tent again, with the advent of digital imaging processes.

The films pictured above are all coming up as part of TIFF’s Dreaming in Technicolor program, starting with Rear Window on Saturday, July 25th. Seeing these babies on the big screen is highly recommended.

Many of the films have had digital restorations or are showing with brilliant archival prints. Your eyes will thank you.

For the full schedule and ticket info, see here.

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