Technicolor is truly the stuff that dreams are made on. “My first memories of movies are in Technicolor,” Martin Scorsese said. “Duel in the Sun was the first picture I ever saw, and it’s never left me—reds, blues, greens, yellows, deep blacks, lustrous golds. There doesn’t appear to be any blending of color in that picture—everything is primary, and everything is alive. It may be garish, it’s certainly unreal, and it’s far from subtle, but it’s alive. Alive…. To me, that’s Technicolor.”
This 100th-anniversary celebration of Technicolor, initiated by George Eastman House and presented in collaboration with the Berlinale, Deutsche Kinemathek – Museum für Film und Fernsehen, and Austrian Film Museum, presents more than 60 feature films, along with a rich selection of cartoons, short subjects, industrials, and screen tests. MoMA’s exhibition focuses exclusively on American films made between 1922 and 1955 (the year that Hollywood studios stopped using Technicolor three-strip cameras), with a delirious range of musicals, melodramas, swashbuckling and seafaring adventures, sword-and-sandal Biblical epics, Orientalist fantasies, Westerns, literary adaptations, homespun Americana, and even rare instances of film noir and 3-D.
The exhibition honors Technicolor’s most immortal achievements, presenting rare 35mm dye-transfer prints of The Wizard of Oz, Gone with the Wind, and Singin’ in the Rain. It also deepens and complicates our appreciation of Technicolor’s history—and our nostalgic memories of movie-palace dreams—by revisiting some of the more muted and delicate, even diaphanous, uses of Technicolor in films like The Toll of the Sea and The Garden of Allah. Even as period advertisements for Technicolor heralded the process as uniquely “natural,” and “truer to life”—a reflection of the painstaking efforts of the company’s technicians and color supervisors to achieve greater verisimilitude—filmmakers like Vincente Minnelli and Rouben Mamoulian were working closely with their cinematographers, production designers, costumers, and makeup artists to explore the expressive, fanciful, and even psychological uses of color by experimenting with light and shadow, chiaroscuro and sfumato, in emulation of Old Masters like El Greco, Titian and Zurburán, or with the brash, electric colors and bold contours of Fauvists like Raoul Dufy.
In tracing the development of Technicolor as both a technology and an art form, we have aspired to remain faithful to the look of these films at the time they were made. Consequently, everything is shown on celluloid—mirable dictu!—and many of the original dye-transfer prints and modern reprints are drawn from the extensive collection of George Eastman House, the unique repository of the Technicolor Corporate Archive. On June 6, James Layton and David Pierce, authors of the definitive new publication The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915–1935 (George Eastman House, 2015), present two lectures illustrated with rare and delightful film clips. The first lecture examines the early history of Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation from its founding in 1915 through the 1920s, the period in which the company faced immense scientific, industrial, and marketing challenges, yet achieved landmark technological breakthroughs that made it the first commercially viable color process. The second lecture illustrates Technicolor’s turning point during the coming of sound, and the sudden demand for musicals using its early two-color process. As the summer months at MoMA will vividly show, few experiences in the history of cinema are as transporting as Technicolor.
Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator, Department of Film.