1915: The Beginning
MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus, Daniel Frost Comstock and W. Burton Westcott used the success of their first business venture – the chemical process development firm Kalmus, Comstock and Westcott – to build upon Kalmus’ prediction that color film was the future of cinema, and on Nov. 19, 1915, Technicolor was incorporated in Maine. The next year, they moved their operations to Jacksonville, Fla., and began production on their first project in their unusual laboratory space.
From Weekly Variety, Dec. 1, 1916: “Kalmus, Comstock & Westcott have bought outright and fitted up as a complete laboratory plant a 72-foot Pullman car. It left Boston Sunday morning for Jacksonville, Fla. There the promised picture, a 7-reeI dramatic subject, will be filmed, developed and made into positives, the railroad car plant doing the work.”
That proposed picture, “The Little Skipper,” would never come to light, but in 1917 Technicolor released its first film, “The Gulf Between.”
1939: The Oscar
Technicolor developed a string of new two-color (red and green) processes for color film for the next 20 years. Color was seen as a novelty, and as the country entered the Great Depression, the extra expense of color films along with the lack of lifelike quality of the two-color process meant that studios began to produce fewer and fewer of them. In 1932, Technicolor completed work on a new three-color (red, green and blue) camera and process (its fourth) that allowed for a full range of colors. Kalmus convinced up-and-coming animator Walt Disney to use the process in his “Silly Symphonies” cartoon shorts, and in 1932, “Flowers and Trees” was the first commercially released film in the new three-color process.
1955: The First Reinvention
The three-color process was not an instant smash success. An exclusive contract with Disney beginning with “Flowers and Trees” and running through the end of 1935 meant that for the first half of the decade, any non-Disney color cartoons by in Technicolor could only be made using previous inferior two-color processes. The strategy worked well for Disney, whose Technicolor “Silly Symphonies” shorts grew in popularity to the point that he began using it for his “Mickey Mouse” shorts, but it delayed the use of the three-color process in other studios. The first full-length, live-action film in the process, “Becky Sharp,” came in 1935 from RKO Pictures, and Hollywood was skeptical.
1996: Setting the Standard
The watershed moment for Technicolor would come in 1937 with the release of Disney’s first full length-animated film, “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” in Technicolor, which would go on to become the most successful sound film of all time. Decades before Pixar, Dreamworks and others would perfect the animated art of giving all ages of moviegoers the sniffles at the theater, the animation and color of “Snow White” would bring a tear to the eye of one film critic.
From the review in Daily Variety, Dec. 22, 1937: “Walt Disney’s animation of Grimm’s fable, ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ sets a milestone in the art of picture making. It is completely a thing of beauty and charm. … ‘Snow White’ is the genius of craftsmanship which can make an endless series of line drawings and color washes so eloquent in human expression and trouble and antic joy, so potent in evoking audience emotion, laughter, excitement, suspense, tears. Yes, indeed — tears!”
2000: The Acquisition
When Technicolor signed its exclusive contract with Disney, some projects in development with other animators were put out to pasture. One such film from Ted Eshbaugh was an animated story of a Kansas farm girl who is swept up in a tornado and transported to a colorful and magical land – “The Wizard of Oz.” This 1933 short film, which was made in Technicolor but did not receive licensing, would preview its more famous predecessor in a conspicuous way; though the film was released at the time in black and white, it originally only began in black in white, and transitioned to Technicolor as Dorothy finds herself in Oz. Though only two prints of the film were made at the time and the cartoon was likely never seen by MGM producers of the later live-action classic, the technique would prove itself memorable by the end of the decade.
After the runaway success of “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,” studios jumped to produce their own three-color films, and in 1939, “The Wizard of Oz” and “Gone with the Wind” were both released in the new process, the latter claiming the all-time box office title from “Snow White” and winning Technicolor its first Oscar for color cinematography, an award it would win for all but three of the following 28 years, cementing Technicolor as the defining look of the Golden Age of Hollywood.