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Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond at MoMA

Monday, July 6th, 2015

The Museum of Modern Art is running a stunning retrospective of 100 years of Technicolor.

As Ben Kenigsberg writes in The New York Times, “this year [Technicolor] turns 100. The breadth and variety of American films that used Technicolor processes between 1922 and 1955 are apparent in a recent book, The Dawn of Technicolor, 1915-1935 by James Layton and David Pierce, and a continuing series at the Museum of Modern Art running through Aug. 5 . . . [after early experiments with a variety of processes, the company created "three-strip Technicolor," used extensively during the Golden Age of Hollywood, and] with a refined combination of cyan, magenta and yellow on its prints, the company unveiled that process in Flowers and Trees, a 1932 Disney short (showing in the MoMA series Glorious Technicolor: From George Eastman House and Beyond, on July 31 and Aug. 3).

A three-color Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp (Sunday), followed in 1935. The film series presents Technicolor as more than a novelty and tries to convey what the MoMA curator Joshua Siegel calls a ‘misunderstood’ story. He added, ‘I think we have these associations with Technicolor as this kind of garish, highly saturated, candy-color look, which was certainly true of a certain period of filmmaking.’” But that’s just a small part of the story.

As The Museum of Modern Art’s website adds, “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.”

Organized by Joshua Siegel, Curator of Film at the Museum of Modern Art, the series runs from June 5 through August 5, 2015, and is an absolute must for all cineastes, even if you’ve seen these films before. The chance to see them projected in their original format- 35mm film as opposed to digital prints – is becoming increasingly rare, and the work and effort that went into this amazing series is really quite amazing. As Kenigsberg notes, “in a sense, digital work can’t compare to the artistry represented by the company’s heyday. ‘Technicolor is not just about color,’ Mr. Siegel said. ‘It’s about light and shadow, and it’s about depth and molding.’ These qualities are lost, he added, ‘in digital projections of contemporary films.’”

This is a must-see exhibition for everyone who loves cinema.

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions. To contact Prof. Dixon for an interview, reach him at wdixon1@unl.edu or wheelerwinstondixon.com

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