What? Color in the Movies Again?
Reprinted from Fortune Magazine, October, 1934
October, 1934, the nation, indeed the world, was strangling in the Great Depression. It was a time like no other since. President Roosevelt assumed the responsibility of bolstering the national morale. Prohibition had just been repealed and yet the nation was still gulping down almost 300% more bootleg liquor than legally sanctioned product. The average worker, if he could find a job, earned a few dollars a week. A copy of Popular Mechanics cost a dime and few could afford it. Fortune magazine cost a dollar and simultaneously printed Margaret Bourke White’s sobering photojournalism of the depression alongside ads for yachts and expensive liquors and articles of men and companies making millions of dollars. Technicolor, Inc. had existed for 19 years and had shown a profit in only two of them, (1929-1930), and was experiencing a low in demand from the studios. Yet Fortune dedicated a lot of coverage and expensive color printing to produce a story about this odd company. Their motivation? They had seen three-component Technicolor and were certain that the moguls that had been pouring money into the company for nearly two decades were about to reap their rewards.
What? Color in the Movies Again?
Technicolor’s first splurge (1929-30) was a fiasco. Then came the Three Little Pigs, a new process and a renaissance. Next year you will judge for yourself whether it is to succeed.
TECHNICOLOR is the Three Little Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf and all the Silly Symphonies that Walt Disney has released since November, 1932. It is also the next big thing in pictures, the coming revolution in the cinema world – maybe. Technicolor is a process for making moving pictures in color, and it is the only such process that can be considered a commercial success. (Paramount, working with Eastman Kodak, has announced another process which claims to equal Technicolor, but it has yet to pass the test of producing a picture.) Broadly speaking, Technicolor is synonymous with color in the movies, and when you are talking about Technicolor you inevitably get into an argument as to whether the innovation of color can be compared to the previous innovation of sound. But to those who believe in it there is no argument. Their answer is yes.
Technicolor, Inc. is the company that owns the Technicolor process. It is a little company with most of its 656,000 shares balanced by a big intangible item of patents and goodwill. It was started by a group of physicists who are graduates of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (hence the Tech in the name). But for many years it has been dominated by Dr. Herbert Thomas Kalmus, with its financial control centering in Dr. Kalmus and a small group of his friends. One of the more remarkable aspects of Dr. Kalmus’ accomplishment is the way he has nursed the company along without letting any bankers get their hands on it. But of course Technicolor, Inc. does not eat up money like a cinema-producing company. For it makes no pictures, but gets its money by selling, developing, and printing the color film and by leasing cameras and cameramen to expose the negatives. Its big neighbors can be colossal and stupendous, but Technicolor goes quietly along with a patented process that thus far has amounted almost to a patent monopoly.
It is still a young company. Its first commercial picture – Toll of the Sea, written by Frances Marion and starring Anna May Wong – was made in 1921. But Technicolor did not amount to much until 1928. Then Warner Bros., happy with its great success as introducer of the talking picture, took up Technicolor as the next great picture advance. Before, they claim, they had time to think, other producers had followed Warner Bros. into color, and their joint efforts produced a brief but glorious period in Technicolor’s history. But unfortunately Technicolor was at that time using a two-color process which was far from perfect in its color-producing function. So the early boom petered out in a series of disappointing pictures that left Technicolor with a distinct black eye.
Then Technicolor brought out a three-color process, infinitely superior to its two-color predecessor – it was 1932 news in its own world. Walt Disney saw a sample, liked it, and began using color in Silly Symphonies. One of the Silly Symphonies, the Three Little Pigs, stole the program from every “feature,” and everybody in Hollywood began talking about and thinking of color films again. Merian Caldwell Cooper, producer for RKO-Radio Pictures, saw one of the Symphonies and said he never wanted to make a black and white picture again. John Hay (Jock) Whitney, long nursing an itch to get into pictures, but needing some special advantage to make up for his late arrival, decided that color was the “edge” he was looking for. Ann Harding, who photographs most effectively in Technicolor (which is well designed to give blonds the gentlemen’s preference), will soon appear in a color picture (Peacock’s Feather) produced by Walter Wanger. Eddie Cantor is a color enthusiast, will have a color sequence in his forthcoming picture, Kid Millions. Darryl Zanuck saw a Symphony while he was making the House of Rothschild, liked it so well that a color finale to the House was immediately decided upon. Color has undoubtedly again shaken Hollywood to the depths of its cinematic being.
Whether color can make black and white pictures as obsolete as sound made silent pictures, is, as suggested, quite another question. The silent picture was slain overnight by the jawbone of Al Jolson, whose Jazz Singer threw a hitherto skeptical industry bodily into speaking likenesses. But color is not so pronounced a revolution as sound. Sound gave the pictures an appeal to the ear as well as the eye; it created dialogue; it established a whole new set of dramatic values.
Color adds no new sense, but it is one step closer to reality than black and white. Willy Pogany’s pronunciamento is that black and white pictures can appear altogether real only to color-blind observers. There is something in what he says. For although experience has taught us to take a flat, black and white picture and mentally endow it with color and a third dimension, pictures in color will make this transference easier and more convincing. If the public could be taught to depend on the help of color in creating its daily illusion, the cinema would move away from black and white, rapidly and inevitably. And it would never move back again because the moving-picture can afford the luxury if the public demands it. The result is that now the whole unwieldy, currently unprosperous, cinema whale has both its bloodshot eyes fixed on a relative minnow while it ponders upon intangibles. But before pondering with it, let us trace the minnow’s past and describe the minnow’s present.
LA CUCARACHA MEANS THE COCKROACH
. . . and is the name of John Hay Whitney’s first Technicolor movie. To the left and to the right (next page in this document. MBH): strips from its multicolored film. The gentleman is Paul Porcasi playing the impresario. When he becomes angry with the heroine, Technicolor shows you the color mounting to his apoplectic checks. The lady is Steffi Duna, as La Cucaracha herself. The producers took her from the Tingel-Tangel, an “intimate” theatre in Hollywood, and found a song for her in Carl Sandburg’s American Songbag . With the song came the title of the picture. The song was sung in part, you will remember, in MGM’s Viva Villa! this spring. There are no big names in La Cucaracha because the players who have big names are not willing to appear in shorts.
TECHNICOLOR work was started in 1914 by Dr. Herbert Thomas Kalmus, Dr. Daniel Frost Comstock, and Mr. W. Burton Wescott. Dr. Kalmus and Dr. Comstock graduated from the Massachusetts Institute of’ Technology with the class of 1904. Mr. Wescott was not a college graduate and was rather a junior member of the firm. He left in 1921, the present Wescott being his brother Ernest. Nearly everyone who has ever been connected with Technicolor is a Tech man and the corporate name is partly a bow to the Institute. After graduation, Dr. (then Mr.) Kalmus went to California, made his first West Coast appearance as head of a boys’ school in San Francisco. But the boys thought that his Boston accent was comic and he did not remain long on the Coast. Then Dr. Kalmus and Dr. Comstock went to Europe for their degrees. Dr. Kalmus took his from Zurich. Dr. Comstock took his from Basel and went to Cambridge, England, for another year. After returning to this country, both held teaching jobs at Tech. But in addition to giving instruction in chemistry and physics, they also had a sideline enterprise – the firm of Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott. This company functioned as an industrial research and development counsel, working on any industrial problem that had a scientific turn. Thus when a group of independent abrasive manufacturers discovered that the Carborundum Co. – the big abrasive manufacturer – had a process with which it was difficult to compete, they got Dr. Kalmus to go to work on their problem. He discovered for them a similar process which, like Carborundum’s produced silicon carbide; it was just as cheap as Carborundum’s method and did not interfere with Carborundum’s patents. Another client was the American Protein Corp., for which the consulting company worked on the extraction of albumin from animal blood. Sometimes Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott took cash for its services, sometimes stock in the companies it worked for. And since many of the researches were extremely successful – the present Exolon Co. of Blasdell, New York (abrasives), is the result of its silicon-carbide process – the young company soon had an excellent reputation.
To it in 1912 came William Coolidge, Boston corporation lawyer who took a hand in the formation of the United Shoe Machinery Co., the United States Coal & Oil Co. (later Island Creek Coal Co.), and many another large company created during the trust-forming era. An inventor had brought Mr. Coolidge a machine called the Vanoscope. The Vanoscope was designed to take the flicker out of motion pictures. Mr. Coolidge asked Kalmus et al. if the Vanoscope was any good and they replied with accuracy that it was not. But the inventor kept working on the invention and by and by Mr. Coolidge returned with it in an improved form. He was much interested in the Vanoscope, talked of putting a million dollars into it. This time the partners made a very exhaustive study of the device, and again they reported that it was not practical. However, by now the Kalmus-Comstock-Wescott group were themselves interested in motion pictures. They were not, however, concerned with taking the flicker out of the movies. They wanted to put color in. So they told Mr. Coolidge that movies would always flicker, but that if he wanted to sink a million dollars in the picture business, financing them in developing color movies was a more reasonable speculation. So Mr. Coolidge told them to go ahead, and Technicolor was the result. But even after the incorporation of Technicolor in 1915, with Dr. Kalmus as President and Dr. Comstock as Vice President, the Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott firm continued to carry on, Technicolor merely becoming one of its several clients. The Technicolor process is a story in itself (told in an Appendix on page 168). From a corporate standpoint it is significant chiefly because of the length of time it took to achieve even imperfect color. The company operated for six years before producing its first commercial picture (at that time it was, from necessity, its own producing agent). So for six years there was a lot of money going out and virtually no money coming in. During this period the company was held together largely by the business ability of Dr. Kalmus, an ability that showed itself not only in the way of making his money last but in keeping new money coming in. From an inventing standpoint, most of the basic early patents were taken out by Dr. Comstock (and the remainder by Mr. Wescott). But from a promoting and directing standpoint, Dr. Kalmus is unquestionably the man who put Technicolor over.
The first crisis was not long coming. Mr. Coolidge’s money-or at least such money as he was willing to put into Technicolor, which ran into $300,000 or $400,000 before he got a nickel back-was exhausted. So new capital was enlisted, particularly in the persons of the late William Travers Jerome, the late William Hamlin Childs, A. W. Erickson, Eversley Childs, and, much later, A. W. Hawkes and John McHugh. Mr. Jerome was of course the famed district attorney who prosecuted Harry Kendall Thaw for the killing of Stanford White. He was Technicolor’s Board Chairman for many years and to some extent succeeded Mr. Coolidge as Technicolor’s backer. Mr. Erickson is the Erickson of McCann-Erickson, Manhattan advertising agency (Canadian National Railways, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Beech-Nut, United Aircraft, et al.). At the time he became interested in Technicolor, however, Mr. Erickson had his own agency, the merger with McCann not coming until 1930. Mr. Erickson is also the Board Chairman of Congoleum-Nairn, which for years has been one of Advertising Agent Erickson’s good accounts. Mr. Hawkes is the President of Congoleum-Nairn and Mr. Childs is the Board Chairman of Bon Ami, another Erickson customer. So both presumably got into Technicolor through their association with Mr. Erickson. Mr. McHugh is onetime Executive Committee Chairman of Chase National Bank, and now holds the same position with the Discount Corp. of New York.
These men, along with Dr. Kalmus, are the dominating factors in Technicolor’s stock control. Mr. Erickson and Dr. Kalmus together could almost certainly command a majority of the stock in the highly unlikely event of anything in the nature of a proxy battle. And the group just mentioned holds roughly 50 per cent of Technicolor’s outstanding 656,000 shares. The other 50 per cent is held chiefly by the public, which got much excited about Technicolor in 1929. Lately another large interest in Technicolor has been developing in the persons of John Hay Whitney and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. Their entrance into Technicolor would however bring us down almost to the present time and so we shall hold them in the wings for a moment. At this point it is sufficient to say that if and when the Whitneys exercise various options they will have about 15 per cent interest in Technicolor.
In 1925 a rift developed in the Kalmus-Comstock lute and resulted in Dr. Kalmus’ getting out of Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott and Dr. Comstock’s getting out of Technicolor. There are a many versions as to exactly what happened. Technicolor backers are said to have felt that Dr. Kalmus and Dr. Comstock were spending too much time on their engineering business and not enough on Technicolor. And the color company had certainly reached a point at which it was nobody’s part-time job. Once given a split between Technicolor and Kalmus, Comstock & Wescott, it was obvious that the separation would be personal as well as corporate. Dr. Kalmus is more likely to think of people working for him than with him, and his relations with Dr. Comstock had become distinctly strained. So Dr. Comstock got out of Technicolor.
In his departure, Technicolor lost a physicist of national standing. Dr. Comstock was one of the first men in this country to accept and to spread Einstein’s theory of relativity. His name is also associated with the World War development of devices for detecting the presence of submarines. He has also come in for considerable unwelcome publicity because of his interest in psychic research – an interest erroneously identified with a belief in spiritualism. Dr. Comstock believes that it is possible for an object such as a block of wood to be moved by a person who is not touching it, and moved without recourse to any of the three acknowledged forces that would do the job – electrical, magnetic, and gravitational. There may, he feels, be a fourth force, which can be described only as psychic. It is a force originating in the individual and linked up with his nervous system. Notice that Dr. Comstock is interested in a physical result of this psychic force in the actual and measurable movement of the wood. And to him this psychic force is simply another frontier of knowledge, a phenomenon to be investigated by men of science and in a scientific spirit.
Meanwhile Dr. Kalmus went along with Technicolor, taking with him from Comstock & Wescott Dr. Leonard Troland (who died in 1932) and Mr. Joseph Arthur Ball, now head of Technicolor’s technicalities, while E. A. Weaver and W. E. Whitney, two other Technicolor inventors, stayed with the firm. As we have been so specific in crediting Dr. Comstock with the earlier inventive genius in Technicolor, it is only fair to the present regime to notice that in 1925 Technicolor was still in the two-component stage. The three-element process is a post-1925 development. It was not, indeed, perfect until 1932, which is what makes all past performances of Technicolor so misleading. For the present process we must again refer you to the Appendix (page 168). The old process was a two-component affair in which only two colors were registered, red and green. It is not possible to get an accurate reproduction of all the colors in the spectrum when only red and green are used. A certain shade of blue is, for instance, impossible to capture. (And blue is the third color in the three-component job.) So Mr. Ball and his associates have been responsible for a vital part in the Technicolor operation.
We have seen that Technicolor first came into prominence just after the transition from silent to talking pictures. And that among its first sponsors was the same Jack Warner whose brilliant experiment with talking pictures turned Warner Bros. from a company that made $30,000 in 1927 into one that made $17,271,000 in 1929. (And also lost $6,291,000 in 1933.) Naturally receptive to another new cinema idea, Mr. Warner was the first man to contract for a regular series of feature pictures in color. In 1929 he used color in some sequences of the Desert Song and then made an all-color picture, On With the Show, the first all-talking, all-color picture. This was followed by Gold Diggers of Broadway, which has grossed $3,500,000, ranks among the first half-dozen of all-time outstanding box-office attractions.* And just as the Warner experiment with sound led the other producers into the noisy cinema, so On With the Show resulted in a color vogue. Producers swarmed down upon Dr. Kalmus, waving cash and demanding footage. They put up more than $1,500,000 as down payment on future contracts. But as the French Marshal is quoted as remarking about the Charge of the Light Brigade, “it is magnificent, but it is not war.” Technicolor laboratories were not equipped to handle one-tenth of the volume they actually turned out. (In 1929 and 1930 – 76,700,000 feet.) At one time the extremely delicate process of printing the film was being carried on in a building of which one wall had been torn away to make room for enlarging the structure. A job that requires virtually laboratory conditions was being performed amid the debris of falling bricks and the roar of the riveters’ gun. And it was not being well performed.
*Three highest all-timers are the Singing Fool (Warner-1928), $5,000,000; Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Metro-192I), $4,500,000; Ben Hur (Metro-1926), $4,000,000.
The good early pictures were succeeded by mediocre and bad. Not that the fault was entirely Technicolor’s. The producers themselves had very little color sense, either from the standpoint of getting esthetic compositions or from the standpoint of acquiring a color-picture technique. A color picture is not a black and white in color; the whole staging and shooting job has to be designed from the beginning with reference to its colored nature. But everybody on the sets had grown up in a black and white universe and did things in a black and white way. It was like a color-blind man trying to stage a Radio City spectacle. Actors and actresses put on their regular heavy makeup without realizing that the proper Technicolor makeup calls for rather less artificiality than the more extreme street makeups. And all the time the two-component process was struggling bravely but unsuccessfully to handle all the colors in the spectrum.
So finally the producers decided that Technicolor was not worth playing with any more. Contracts were canceled, guarantee money refunded, the enlarged capacity fell idle, and Technicolor dwindled again to a few shorts. In 1932 sales were only $500,000, one-tenth of their 1929 top. Deficit was $235,000. In 1933 sales climbed to $630,000, but expenditures also increased and the deficit was $250,000. And color pictures had fallen into extremely ill repute.
THEN – like the cowboy bursting into the cabin just as the heroine has thrown the last flowerpot at the Mexican – came the three-color process to the rescue. There was nothing so radically new – at least in theory – in the introduction of the third component. Indeed, the Technicolor technicians had at least visualized a three-color future even as far back as 1924. The mystery is not why three components came, it is why they came so late.
The difference between the three- and two-component results is truly extraordinary. There are now rich, deep blues and it is no longer necessary to avoid or to regret the existence of blue skies, blue water, and blue costumes. The old process presented blurred outlines which were even harder on the eyes than its imperfect colors. No color process will ever duplicate the sharp outline of black and white, any more than a three-color magazine illustration will ever have the perfect registration of a black and white page. Color producers today may again mishandle their medium. But at least they will have good colors, well focused, to abuse.
With his three-color process in his hand, Dr. Kalmus set out to find a buyer for it. But the burned children were still dreading the fire and wanted no color no matter how many components it might have. Finally Dr. Kalmus went to Walt Disney (on whom FORTUNE will write in an early issue). Mr. Disney thought that color might make some sense in his Silly Symphonies, which were light, fantastic, colorful creations. Also, although he had never used the two-color process at any time, he was very favorably impressed with the three-color at first sight. So he went to United Artists, his distributor, and said he was going to do the Symphonies in color. United Artists said that Mr. Disney was maybe a little crazy and it would not advance him any money on colored cartoons, although it had no objections to distributing one if Mr. Disney could produce it. First colored Symphony, released late in 1932, were Flowers and Trees. In the spring of 1934 Mr. Disney signed a contract to produce both the Symphonies and Mickey Mouse in Technicolor and is therefore operating on an all-color basis. Dr. Kalmus well expresses Mr. Disney’s service to Technicolor by saying that if he could now turn up a feature-making Disney, all the troubles of Technicolor would be things of the past.
In return for Disney’s taking his chances with Technicolor, Dr. Kalmus gave him the exclusive cartooning rights to the process. Once the success of color cartoons had been proved, the other producers again came around to Dr. Kalmus to get film-for their cartoons. Dr. Kalmus said he was sorry but he did not have any film for them. This made the producers angry and left Dr. Kalmus in a difficult position. For if he would not let Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, for instance, use Technicolor in cartoons, Mr. Mayer would naturally have no goodwill for Technicolor in anything else. And, after all, Dr. Kalmus was thinking of features, not cartoons, as the ultimate Technicolor good. So finally, with Mr. Disney’s consent, it was agreed that the other cartoonists could use Technicolor, but that for one year they could use only the two-color process. Which was a fine deal for Dr. Kalmus because he had on hand thirty two-color cameras, which the three-color process had apparently made obsolete. Some of these cameras are now being used by Mr. Disney’s competitors and will therefore live an extra year.
BUT although picture producers admitted that they had been wrong about color in cartoons they were still sure they were right about color in features. At this point, however, Technicolor received unexpected help from two outside sources – Merian Caldwell Cooper and John Hay (Jock) Whitney. One is an expert cinema director, producer, executive; the other is commonly credited with the possession of $100,000,000; both are enthusiastic about the possibilities of the color picture.
Although his former position as production head of’ RKO-Radio Pictures makes Mr. Cooper one of’ Hollywood’s important figures, his career has been very different from that of the usual picture executive. He has been more familiar with bullet holes than with buttonholes, having served in the U. S. aviation forces during the War and having organized the Kosciusko Squadron to fight for Poland in post-War troubles along the Polish-Russian border. He was captured by the Germans after a battle in which Cooper’s squadron of seven planes (led by Sidney Howard) was attacked by twenty German ships. He was also shot down in the Russian fighting and might have been executed by the Bolsheviks who did not at all approve of his flying Foreign Legion, except that he was fortunately mistaken for somebody else against whom the Russians had no special grudge. With Europe peaceful, Cooper returned to this country, wrote for the New York Times, heard of an expedition bound for the Dutch East Indies and Abyssinia, joined it. It was on this expedition that he saw his first pictures made and met traveler Ernest Schoedsack, with whom he later teamed up in the making of Grass – a picture showing the migratory habits of’ the Bakhtiari tribe of northeastern Persia.
Grass was only a travel picture, minus plot, sex, and leading roles, but Paramount’s Jesse Lasky took a chance with it and registered a considerable sensation plus a small profit. Then Paramount financed Cooper in the production of Chang – the famed elephant picture that is still remembered among the many animal films. At Paramount he met David Selznick, and when Selznick became Radio-Keith-Orpheum’s production head, Cooper joined him as his assistant. When Selznick then went to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Cooper offered to go along with him preferring a job with Selznick to being boss at RKO. But Selznick persuaded him to stay with the Radio Corp.’s unhappy child and there he has done an excellent job and also has made a rumored $500,000 a year, what with a percentage of the picture gross added to his salary. Then came a nervous breakdown, a leave of absence, and a contract to make two more RKO pictures.
This new hero of Technicolor invariably wears gray flannel pants, brown tweed coat, black tie, and carries a pipe and a tin of Prince Albert tobacco. He has dozens of’ duplicates of the pants-coat-tie-pipe-and-tobacco combinations. Whenever he puts down a pipe he is likely to leave it behind, so he may run through a half-dozen pipes a day. He likes fried chicken, southern style (he comes from Jacksonville, Florida), and used to like mint juleps. But he has not done any drinking since he started King Kong – the spectacle-melodrama in which the mechanical ape carried Fay Wray all over the jungle island. He never drank from the time he started a picture to the time it was finished; not from any fear of being unable to function properly but because he had a superstition that liquor would jinx the job. And King Kong took so long to finish that Mr. Cooper apparently got out of the drinking habit and has not yet got back.
Mr. Cooper is filled with energy and inexhaustible vitality. He frequently greets a girl by picking her up in his arms and giving her an airplane spin. He has his own chart system for playing the stock market, and is supposed to do very well with it. In 1933 he married petite Cinemactress Dorothy Jordan, whom he calls Chicken. Last spring they went to Hawaii where Mrs. Cooper had a baby girl. The Coopers have just returned from Europe, where Mr. Cooper was looking over the ruins of Pompeii with the idea of Technicoloring its Last Days. After he has finished his two pictures for RKO, he should then be free to make Technicolor features for Pioneer Pictures, Inc.
PIONEER Pictures brings us back to the other unexpected help, for Pioneer Pictures is John Hay Whitney.* Mr. Whitney, at the age of thirty, has so many interests it is difficult to sort them out, although horses are perhaps his major occupation. In 1929 he just missed winning England’s Grand National when his horse, Easter Hero, twisted a plate and was nosed out by a 100-to-1 shot after losing an apparently safe lead. Mr. Whitney has tried for the Grand National every year since, but never came so close again. He has a $60,000 Sikorsky amphibian which he calls Pegasus (to Mr. Whitney even the sky is equine). In 1932 his hangar at Roosevelt Field caught fire. The Sikorsky was not damaged, neither was a plane belonging to Mr. Whitney’s valet. Mr. Whitney has a four-goal handicap at polo.
In 1929, three years after his graduation from Yale, Mr. Whitney took a $65-a-month clerical job at Lee, Higginson. Another young man trying to get along at Lee, Higginson’s was Langbourne Meade Williams Jr. whose father helped found Freeport Texas Co., one of the two U.S. producers of sulphur. (Freeport produces about one-third of U.S. sulphur, and Texas Gulf Sulphur two-thirds, and sulphur always costs $18 a ton.) Young Mr. Williams did not like the way his family company was being run by Eric P. Swenson, onetime National City Bank Chairman. So he and some friends, including Mr. Whitney, began buying Freeport Texas, and soon Mr. Whitney was its largest stockholder. In 1930 Mr. Williams ousted the Swenson management and in 1933 became Freeport’s President. This year Mr. Whitney became its Board Chairman, so now Freeport Texas has a Chairman who is just thirty and a President who is two years over. Mr. Whitney also backed Peter Arno’s Here Goes the Bride, a revue that failed to please Manhattanites in 1931 and cost Mr. Whitney some hundred thousand dollars.
*Along with his cousin, Cornelius (Sonny) Vanderbilt Whitney
It was Mr. Cooper’s enthusiasm for Technicolor that got Mr. Whitney into the color-picture business. (Although Dr. Kalmus, who likes to bet on horses, also knew Mr. Whitney, their first meeting having taken place at the Saratoga Springs track.) Cooper got Jock into the color-picture mood and Jock got Sonny to go in with him, and the result was Pioneer Pictures, organized in the spring of 1933, distributing through RKO. There is no corporate connection between Technicolor and Pioneer Pictures. Pioneer will get its film from Technicolor on the same basis as any other producer. But a personal connection between the two companies is established by a large block of Technicolor stock bought by the two Whitneys.
We have already mentioned the Whitney & Co. interest in Technicolor, and estimated it at an eventual 15 per cent of the company. This interest has an important bearing on the probable permanence of Pioneer Pictures. It is altogether likely that Pioneer Pictures will lose money on its early productions, particularly since Mr. Whitney is determined to turn out pictures slowly, carefully, and expensively. But should Pioneer Pictures be sufficiently successful to inspire a color vogue among the standard producers, Technicolor stock would undoubtedly zoom. If we estimate that the Whitneys have 100,000 shares of Technicolor, and if we assume a rise of from $13 to $20 a share (and a real color splurge would result in considerably more elevation), it is obvious that a loss in Pioneer would be more than made up for by a gain in Technicolor. This is an important item, because although Mr. Whitney does many things for fun he also does them for money and has never been interested in putting portions of the Whitney fortune down any sewers. But with two horses in the color-picture stakes, he can afford to use one as a pacemaker for the other.
Pioneer has not yet produced any full-length pictures, but in the already mentioned La Cucaracha it has turned out a two-reeler which represents the furthest north that color has yet achieved. Except for hiring Robert Edmond Jones (at $1,000 a week) as art director and borrowing Kenneth (Little Women) MacGowan as “producer,” Pioneer put no big names into La Cucaracha, and both plot and cast are adequate rather than impressive. Much of the work on the set was done by an able newcomer, Mrs. Carolin Bumiller Wharton (Mr. Wharton is Pioneer’s lawyer). But the colors are clear and true: when a gentleman in a close-up turns red with anger you can see the color mounting in his cheeks; and there is no question that color has made of La Cucaracha an outstanding short. At times it has a very slow tempo, almost suggesting a series of still pictures rather than a continuous flow of illustrated action. And the whole picture is played in an extremely subdued light, which is at least one remove from nature. Neither of these defects, however, is inherent in Technicolor, and both are present in La Cucaracha because Mr. Jones, in his use of lights, is symbolist first and realist second. La Cucaracha used 82,000 feet of film and cost about $65,000. The usual short costs little more than $15,000, but most shorts are cheaply made, whereas La Cucaracha was made like a short feature.
Full-length three-color pictures are still in the future. The first of Mr. Cooper’s remaining RKO pictures, the Last Days of Pompeii, as noted above, may be done in color. At the same time Pioneer will go ahead, under the supervision of Kenneth MacGowan, with the first of the nine pictures it has contracted to produce in 1934, 1935, and 1936. Picture No. 1 will be Becky Sharp, which is the screen title for a screen version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair. Then there is Peacock’s Feather, the picture that Walter Wanger will do with Ann Harding, and some talk of Warner Bros’. doing a color version of The Miracle. And there will definitely be a color sequence in Kid Millions, the new Cantor picture, with Willy Pogany designing the sets. With so many possibilities to pick from, it seems altogether likely that the cinema public will soon get another chance to see color pictures, and to see them in a greatly improved state.
BUT what will all this mean to Dr. Kalmus and his company? From these figures, the answer can be drawn:
Suppose that there are 8,000 feet of film in a feature picture. That is, 8,000 feet that the public actually sees. To get this 8,000 feet of finished product, the producer may shoot 80,000 feet of film. And because Technicolor uses three separate strips of negative it uses three times as much negative as black and white. Therefore Technicolor would require 240,000 feet of negative. For this negative, Technicolor gets seven and one-half cents a foot and therefore takes in $18,000.
These 240,000 feet of film are developed at two cents a foot. So from developing, Technicolor would get $4,800. But not all of this developed negative is made into a positive print, because there are many scenes in which things have gone so badly that the director knows there is no use in printing them up. But possibly 120,000 feet of the negative would survive this first process of elimination, and Technicolor would “rush” print these 120,000 feet at twelve cents a foot, get $14,400 more.
But its major receipts come from the final 8,000 feet of film that are actually distributed. Not that 8,000 feet is so much, but that it is customary to make 200 duplicates so that the picture may be simultaneously released throughout the country. And 8,000 times 200 makes 1,600,000 feet. For its printing job, Technicolor gets five and one-half cents a foot, which would come to $88,000. So there would be:
- $18,000 from negative
- $4,800 from developing
- $14,400 from “rush” prints
- $88,000 from all other prints
- making a total of $125,200 photographic income.
The same picture could be photographed in black and white for about $40,000, making an excess photographic color charge of, about $85,000.
Technicolor also supplies two cameras rented at $90 a week, each; a part-time color director at $125 a week; and two or three cameramen, one at $200, one at $100, and one at $50. Figuring six weeks as the average picture-taking time would run these items into a total of $3,930. But this is a comparatively small figure and besides is not an added cost to the producer. For of course the producer does not have to use his black and white camera or pay his black and white cameramen. The rental of equipment is only a minor item of Technicolor’s income.
If we take $125,000 as a round number for what a feature picture would bring Technicolor and remember that in 1933 the company took in only $630,000, we see that one feature picture is equal to about 20 per cent of the whole 1933 income. And as the average annual cinema output is about 350 features, a very small percentage of the potential volume would make a very large increase in Technicolor sales. At present, and without any feature business, Technicolor is getting about one-third of its volume from Walt Disney, about one-tenth from other cartoonists, and about one-half from various color shorts (the rest is miscellaneous). It is handling about 1,500,000 feet a month, has 1935 contracts for 2,000,000 a month, and hopes to go into 1936 at 3,000,000. There is certainly no question that Technicolor has brilliant potentialities.
TO Dr. Kalmus the future of Technicolor is hardly debatable. One of the few examples of the professor in business, Dr. Kalmus has guided Technicolor through a long series of lean years in which 1929 and 1930 have been virtually the only money-making period. Tall (six-feet plus), straight, vigorous3⁄4he is only fifty-two – the Doctor talks Technicolor with a great deal of confidence, although also with considerable restraint. He has a square jaw and thin lips and a steady, penetration gaze along with the reputation of being an extremely shrewd trader. Equally devoted to Technicolor is Mrs. Natalie Kalmus, who is the company’s color director and works with the producer to see that he gets the best color effects. Inasmuch as the producers also have their own art directors and since they are importing outside artists like Mr. Jones, there is bound to be friction between Mrs. Kalmus and the local artistic lights. But as long as Technicolor is the one-man show it is, with Dr. Kalmus the man, Mrs. Kalmus will no doubt continue to run its color department. Dr. Kalmus is a pleasant and genial person when he is not crossed, but he does not like contradiction or interference and he can set his square jaw in a very determined fashion. The Kalmuses live in Beverly Hills, although they also have an estate near Hyannis, Massachusetts, where they spend as much of the summer as their business permits. The Doctor shaves with a Gillette razor, likes his fried eggs done on one side only, reads a great deal of biography and physics but very little fiction. He feels that people who wear colored clothing and live in a colored world will not accept black and white pictures any longer than it takes them to realize the merit of Technicolor’s present process. Businessmen regard Dr. Kalmus as a scientist and scientists regard him as a businessman, which gives him rather an edge with both. For he is always an expert in one field in which the other man is a novice. He has done an admirable promoting and managing job on Technicolor. There are those who think that the direction of the company is too entirely concentrated in Dr. Kalmus and that goodwill for the company is one of the few items that he has not successfully promoted. However, Technicolor will stand or fall on the merits of its process and not on whatever Beverly Hills may think of its President.
IT IS difficult to go the whole way with Dr. Kalmus on the topic of color versus black and white pictures. Most of the picture producers are staggering along under very heavy fixed charges and with little or no profit at the year’s end. To the $85,000 added photographic cost of color there might be added another $50,000 increased expense in the way of lost time and wasted effort in handling a new medium. This second element would be only temporary, for after you learn how to handle color the higher photographic cost should be its only extra charge, and with greater volume, Technicolor expects to reduce its rates. But $135,000 is a formidable sum to the current cinema, which is making very few pictures that cost over $500,000 and a good many between the $200,000 and $250,000 levels (although distributing – as distinct from producing – costs another $200,000). Many companies would prefer to spend the extra $135,000, if necessary, in order to get big names in the cast. For they know that names have a box-office draw and they are not at all sure about color.
On the other hand, the excellence of the three-color process plus the general Hollywood interest in color argue well for Technicolor’s future. There are hazards, even from within, but they are not insurmountable. Color experimenters are apt to go arty and prevent even natural colors from producing natural illusions. Producers still associate color with musical comedies or costume pictures. These tendencies the industry must outgrow if it is really to revolutionize the world’s amusement. Eventually, however, a color producer will turn out a good picture with a conventional plot, and with color experts restricted to their proper technical sphere. Let such a picture appear, and the issue will be settled in a single week on Broadway.
How Technicolor Works
The first point to grasp about color is that all the colors in the rainbow are present in a ray of sunlight. What we call white light is really made up, of course, of many combined colors. From the standpoint of motion pictures in color, however, we may consider white light as composed of only a red, a green, and a blue element. For from these three major color sensations all the others are produced in the eye.
But forget, for the moment, the eye of the camera and consider your own eye. What makes the red stripes in the U.S. flag look red to you? Simply the fact that the red surface has the property of absorbing the green and the blue portions of white light. Therefore, the red surface can reflect to your eye only the red element. And so from the red stripe your eye receives only the sensation of red. It is a matter of subtracting all the colors except the essential color, of transmitting to you only the particular color sensation that the colored object is designed to register. The Technicolor process works on the same principle of subtraction. Its proper description is indeed a “Subtractive process.”
Since by that process it registers a single color on a single film, it follows that Technicolor must also split white light into its major components and take not one but three pictures of the scene before it. That is why Technicolor uses three times as much negative as black and white, because it actually does employ three strips of negative film. Imagine a beam of light passing through the lens of the camera. Now imagine it passing through a prism which splits it into three parts. If one of these parts strikes a piece of red gelatin, the red in the gelatin will permit the passage of only the red in the light. If another part is sent against a piece of’ green gelatin, only the green element will get through. And if the third part runs into a piece of blue gelatin, only the blue element can continue its journey. The three pieces of gelatin are called filters, because the light is filtered through them to the negatives.
Only the red elements in the photographed scene reach the negative back of the red filter. So also the negative back of the green filter registers only the green and the negative back of the blue filter only the blue. Suppose we are taking a picture of a red barn on green grass against a blue sky. Since the barn reflects only red light, the barn must register itself on the red negative. In the same way, the green grass sends its light to the green negative arid the blue sky leaves its impression on the blue negative. But although it is convenient to speak of the red the green, and the blue negatives, it must be remembered that these negatives are not actually colored. The red negative, for instance, has no capacity for turning red when the light strikes it. It gives merely a black and white record of the red element; it is an orthodox photograph of the red portions in the camera’s field.
The red, green, and blue negatives do however embody the intensity of the light that strikes them. And the next step is to preserve these values in a special positive that will absorb and print the dyes. This positive is a special gelatin-coated film. Light is sent through the negative to the positive. Then, through a special chemical process, the gelatin of the positive is hardened in proportion to the light that strikes it.
For illustrative purposes let us follow the process from here on the red negative. Wherever the object photographed is reddest, the hardening of the gelatin is thinnest. Because, of course, the red light blackened the negative and now keeps the light from the gelatin. When the red positive is taken out and washed, the soft gelatin is washed away. And the remaining hard gelatin forms a relief of the red record. In this relief, the red portions of the scene are represented by valleys and the blue and green portions are represented by hills. The positive, with the hardened gelatin, is called a matrix. Remember that on this red matrix the high spots occur where there was the least red in the photographed scene and the low spots where there was the most red.
The next step is to dye the matrices. The red matrix is brought into contact with a blue-green dye called cyan. This blue-green dye is the opposite (or complementary) color to red. The green matrix is dyed with a magenta dye – which is complementary to green and the blue matrix with a yellow dye – which is complementary to blue. So each matrix is dyed with its opposite color. But when the red matrix is brought into contact with the blue-green dye, the dye is absorbed only in proportion to the thickness of the matrix Thus the hills on the matrix, which act like type in printing, get a great deal of dye and the valleys get little or none. Since the red barn is a valley on the red matrix, the spot where the barn registered does not get any blue-green color. But the low place on the red matrix must necessarily be a high place on the other two. So on the blue matrix and the green matrix the places where the barn did not register must be hills and must have received plenty of the yellow and the magenta dyes.
The final step is to print the dyed matrices on the final positive film – print in the printer’s sense of the word, not photographer’s. First the red matrix which, you remember, has been dyed blue-green, is pressed against the positive film. But, as we have just seen, the red matrix has no color in the place representing the red barn, so as far as the red matrix is concerned this place remains uncolored on the positive film.
Then the green matrix is pressed against the same strip of positive film. On this matrix, the spot corresponding to the red barn is a thick spot, so now the positive film gets a coating of magenta dye on the place that the red matrix missed. Then this same positive is pressed against the blue matrix. Here again the spot corresponding to the barn is a thick spot, so that over the coating of magenta dye there is added a coating of yellow dye. In the end the spot corresponding to the barn is stained with both magenta and yellow.
Now the positive print is finished and the film is ready to be shown. The white light in the projecting camera has the same red, green, and blue elements that we have already noticed in sunlight. But as it shines through the colored film, the magenta holds up the green element and the yellow holds up the blue element. The only element that can get through is the red element, just as red was the only element that the red barn reflected. Once more, the barn spot on the film was stained with magenta and with yellow, hence only the red can pass through this portion of the film. Therefore your eye receives only a red sensation and on the screen you see a red barn. The dyes on the positive subtract the nonessential elements just as in nature the surface of the original object went through the same subtractive process.
There are many other color processes, including the three-color Keller-Dorian process that Paramount and Eastman Kodak have brought to the point of commercial use. But until this Paramount process has actually appeared before the cinema public, Technicolor remains as the only process that has had enough commercial experience to establish itself as unquestionably practical. The Technicolor process gives clear, natural colors in all their blends and variations. It is theoretically a perfect process; that is, the results achieved may be improved as the operating technique becomes more firmly established, but the three-component, imbibition (dye absorption) principle will always remain as Technicolor’s basis. If there ever should be a purple cow, the Technicolor camera could bring it accurately and vividly before your eye.
Editors Note: Grateful credit is given to a director who lent me his Fortune magazine, October, 1934 issue from his library.