I can’t believe how little I’ve talked about Technicolor on this blog. It is far and away my favorite subject. I’ve touched on it a few times here, but if you’ve ever met me in person and talked to me for more than 15 minutes, you know that I am absolutely passionate about film color history in general, and Technicolor in specific. So when I tell you that April 7th is a momentous day in the history of Technicolor, take my word for it. April 7th was the 136th birthday of the Queen of Technicolor, Natalie Kalmus.
You think you don’t know her, but you have no idea. Natalie Kalmus has no less than 364 credits to her name (on IMdB). You could watch a film she worked on every day one day at a time, and be just shy of a year of incredible movie watching. (Actually, that sounds like a fantastic project. Anybody up for it?) Natalie was as colorful and controversial as the company she represented. She was called everything from “unlikeable” to “color blind” to “a bitch,” but she also fostered a style of color design with high-quality results and long-reaching influence. As Chief Color Consultant, Natalie clashed with studio heads and directors at a time when most women in the industry were secretaries or starlets. Vilified in her own time and forgotten by history, Natalie was a fierce, opinionated, powerful woman, and I intend to give her the last word. Natalie once referred to herself as a ringmaster in a circus, but I prefer to call her by her other nickname, the Queen of Technicolor.
The early days of color might well be called a circus. They might also be called an absolute clusterf*ck. Imagine the race to invent the airplane, but instead of people strapping on wings and leaping off sheds or building jumping machines, folks were gluing strips of film together with rubber cement or inventing projectors that required operators with six hands and a degree in engineering. Even worse, these grand experiments produced terrible results. Filmmakers couldn’t figure out how their new technologies replicated color, so “cobalt blue photographs like black, a brighter magenta pink would reproduce as orange, and a very pale lemon yellow would become almost white.” Basically, it looked awful. Audiences complained of eyestrain and headaches, and one critic even called two-color film palettes “Spanish omelets drenched in ketchup.” Tasty, but not beautiful. If anybody wanted to conquer the color market, then they’d need two things: 1) A full color process and 2) quality control. Enter the Kalmuses
Natalie Dunfee was a beautiful young model and art student when she married FDR lookalike and mad scientist Herbert Kalmus in 1902. Herbert was an electrochemical engineer who had formed Technicolor with some college friends from MIT and was experimenting on a full color process. Natalie, with her red hair, blue eyes, and ivory skin, was a perfect model for them to photograph tests. (This set the stage for the later Technicolor beauty ideal: red hair, light eyes, and most importantly ivory skin. Technicolor was fiercely proud of the creamy skin tones it produced, and even based color timing on skin tone. Codified racism at its finest – but that is a post for another day.) Finally, following a series of experiments more rigorous and time-consuming than I have room to explain, in 1932 Herbert Kalmus developed Technicolor Process #4, a full-color process. Sure, it might take a camera the size of a small doghouse running three film strips simultaneously, but could you do better? Nobody else at the time could. Herbert designed a company model that looked an awful lot like a monopoly: Technicolor would rent out cameras, equipment, and personnel to studios, and manufacture all prints as well. It was a perfect business model.
Just one problem: nobody was buying. During the Depression nobody wanted to risk the extra money on an untried technology. Now, like I said before, the problem with color was actually two problems: 1) the problem of full color, which Herbert had solved through Technicolor Process #4, and 2) the poor quality of color design. Here’s where Natalie stepped in. She was an art student with an encyclopedic knowledge of fabrics, and since Herbert was not the kind of guy to leave work at the office, she also knew Technicolor intimately. Natalie was designated Chief Color Consultant, and her job was to help studios avoid abusing audience eyes by promoting the harmonious color palettes and advising them how colors would photograph onscreen. Natalie made the promotion and protection of Technicolor her top priority.
In 1934, two events occurred that would change the history of film color. First, Becky Sharp, the first feature length Technicolor movie was made, based on the book Vanity Fair (and available here. Don’t you love the internet?). Second, Natalie did some brilliant PR work and published “Color Consciousness,” a kind of how-to guide on the proper use of color in film. This little manifesto was the ideological basis for every Technicolor film design for the next two decades, so if you ever wonder why Technicolor films have a certain something to the color, look no further than this essay.
Now comes my favorite part of this blog, when I get to show you an abundance of shots from my favorite Technicolor films. In brief, Natalie required the following:
THE JUDICIOUS USE OF NEUTRALS:
SPLASHES OF COLOR:
THE LAW OF EMPHASIS
The Law of Emphasis was probably Natalie’s most important rule, and the one that has endured while the more artificial requirements have faded. It states that individual colors should be narratively motivated. Basically, Natalie was pushing for color to be more than just decorative. She wanted it to be thematically valuable. Because this is such an important rule, here are a few more cases of narratively important color:
Of course, as we all know Natalie’s pushing and Herbert’s technology worked, because in 1939 two of the most influential Technicolor films ever made were produced: Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz. However, Natalie was already gaining a bad reputation. High on prescription drugs, producer David O. Selznick dictated long, rambling memos against her during Gone With The Wind. At one point, he threatened to shoot the film in black and white rather than put up with her interference. His voice was soon joined by a chorus of others who didn’t like deferring to the lady behind the desk.
By the 1940s, Natalie was what one (one being I) would refer to as an HBIC: she was overseeing a 30 person department, giving interviews to celebrity magazines, writing articles on everything from Technicolor to home furnishings, and still overseeing the designs of hundreds of films. (Seriously, just peruse her IMdB sometime for a crash course in Hollywood’s Golden Age.) The Color Consultants had become an enormously influential part of Technicolor. Contractually, no film could be shot without them. Every costume, set piece, and lighting decision had to approved by a color consultant. If this sounds megalomaniacal (or completely nuts), remember that this was less than 10 years past Spanish omelets with ketchup. Technicolor, while beautiful, was also flawed, and didn’t record colors with 100% accuracy.. So color consultants, Natalie in particular, were trained in how individual colors photographed to prevent colors from being film improperly.
Despite Natalie’s interference, or maybe (definitely) because of it, Technicolor was doing very well. After the smashing success of Gone With The Wind and The Wizard Of Oz, Technicolor was on top. Even with wartime belt-tightening, major studios were still willing to add the extra $100,000 for the full Technicolor package. In August of 1944, The Rotarian reported that all of Technicolor’s 30 cameras (26 in America and 4 in Britain) were currently in production. In 1952, Technicolor’s peak production year, over 100 films could boast that they too were shot “In Technicolor!”
Of course, Natalie’s constant supervision chafed. She wasn’t sweet or soft-spoken, and she had a fiery temper to match her fiery hair. This earned her a reputation for hysterics that would come back to bite her in a terrible way later. Here are a smattering of the accusations laid against Natalie (notice the contradictions): Vincente Minnelli and Henry Hathaway accused her of being color-blind. Minnelli said she hated bright colors (more on that in a minute), while Hathaway said she eschewed neutrals. Hitchcock accused her of altering the color timing on Rope to produce garish colors, and Arthur Laurents sarcastically dubbed her the “High Priestess of Technicolor.” The really depressing part is that during all of my research, I couldn’t find one person with a positive thing to say about her. There was also a lot of hat-snarking going around, which I don’t entirely understand because every picture I find of her, she and her hats look gorgeous:
Probably the most infamous story about Natalie pits her against Vincente Minnelli on the set of Meet Me In St. Louis in 1944. According to the story, Natalie got into a verbal brawl with Minnelli over the contrasting colors of Judy Garland and Lucille Bremers’ gowns for the Christmas Ball. Minnelli had ordered gowns of brilliant green and scarlet red. Natalie refused to allow two such strong colors to stand next to each other. (Have to say: I agree with Minnelli on this one.) Natalie put her foot down – and was booted off set.
This was actually part of a cyclical pattern that would gain momentum as Natalie’s power dwindled in the mid-to-late 1940s. Natalie would start antagonizing the wrong people – Selznick, Minnelli, Arthur Freed – so Herbert would pack her off to Britain to oversee the overseas production. Of course, Britain was smack dab in the middle of its own Technicolor Renaissance, so Natalie was well-placed. The first time she arrived in England (after bothering Selznick on Gone With The Wind too many times), she was introduced to Michael Powell and Zoltan Korda as they made The Thief of Bagdad. The second time, post-Minnelli-meltdown, she came to Britain just in time for the production of the two greatest Technicolor films of all time: Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes.
Here’s the part of the story that doesn’t gel with the unflattering portrait painted of her: if Natalie really was a rigid, color-blind bitch, there is no way Black Narcissus or The Red Shoes could have had the striking, significant color palettes we all know and love. (If you haven’t seen either of these movies, stop reading this and watch them right now. RIGHT NOW. It’s okay, I’ll wait. Bookmark this page and get back to me… Done? Great. Continuing on.) Cinematographer Jack Cardiff, who partially owes his start to her, remembers arguing with Natalie over camera filters (she didn’t want anything obscuring the color), but after Natalie saw the final result, she withdrew her objections.
An inflexible control-freak obsessed with muted tones wouldn’t call The Red Shoes her favorite Technicolor film. There is nary a muted tone to be found in The Red Shoes! But remember that Natalie’s Most Important Rule in “Color Consciousness” was the Law Of Emphasis, the narrative use of color in film. There is no film that gives color more narrative focus than The Red Shoes. Will you just look at this?
(If you still haven’t watched this film, will you please go do it now??)
In their mutual obsession with color-as-narrative, Natalie and the Archer filmmakers actually seem pretty well matched.
But despite Natalie’s contributions to these films, her influence was definitely fading. Natalie had angered too many powerful men too many times, and midcentury Hollywood just did not put up with outspoken women (see: Bette Davis vs. Warner Brothers). And it wasn’t just Natalie’s professional life that was crumbling. In 1948. Herbert decided to remarry, and the subsequent court case would cost Natalie everything.
Did I forget to mention the Kalmus’s 1922 divorce? Well, so did they. In fact, after divorcing in 1922 Herbert and Natalie continued to live together for the next two decades. By all accounts, their initial divorce was amicable (I mean, they did keep living together), but she was driven over the edge when Herbert decided to marry Eleanor King (fun fact: she was the mother of Bonnie Blue Butler in Gone With The Wind). In 1948, Natalie sued for alimony including half of Technicolor Inc., claiming that she and Herbert had secretly remarried after their divorce. But she couldn’t produce a marriage certificate, so the case was thrown out of court. She appealed in 1949, claiming that since they’d continued to live together they were in a common law marriage. Remember her reputation for hysterics? This is when it reared its ugly head:
The press loves a good show, and the distraught former Mrs. Kalmus fit the bill. According to reports, Natalie wept loudly during the appeal, and begged the judge to give her justice. Apparently he had about as much sympathy for her as Selznick had, because the judge again threw her case out of court, after ordering her to shut her trap. Though Natalie continued to appeal until the mid-1950s, Herbert remarried happily and removed her from Technicolor Inc. To add insult to injury, Natalie’s lawyer sued her for unpaid legal fees. Natalie lost her job, her husband, and her money.
Meanwhile, Technicolor’s decline was imminent. A 1947 anti-trust ruling forced the company to give up its patents. Then in 1952 Eastman Kodak premiered Eastmancolor, color on one strip of film that could be used in any camera and processed in any lab. It was cheaper, looked better, and could be used with widescreen lenses. Technicolor’s death was quick. In 1954 it discontinued the Technicolor camera. In the 1960s, Eastman Kodak bought Technicolor. By the 1970s, the once-powerful monopoly existed in name only.
Natalie didn’t fare much better. She tried to cash in on her role as arbiter of good taste by attaching her name to a furniture line, but it failed. She died in 1964 in relative obscurity, and her papers were donated to the Margaret Herrick Library. She has remained a controversial character even in death. But while many people have had many things to say about her, Natalie never had the opportunity to rise to her own defense. She was smeared in newspapers and posthumously in memoirs, but her motives are mostly unknown. Clearly she was hotheaded and strongwilled, but the court case shows how deeply she felt the loss of her husband, and how precarious her position in the company was. She knew that, so she fought.
Despite her (very public) trials, Natalie Kalmus’s influence on color design in film is irrefutable. She literally wrote the book on it. Hopefully someday somebody (like me) will be able to give her the memorial she deserves. Until then, this week watch your favorite Technicolor movie, and thank the film gods for the Queen of Technicolor.
In this admittedly long blog post, I’ve only just scratched the surface of the history and influence of Technicolor. If you want more Technicolor posts, or if you any recommendations on some great Technicolor films, let me know in the comments below!