Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Bitch of Technicolor

In the early days of Hollywood's budding love affair with Technicolor, studios and producers were chomping at the bit to use the process.  Filming in Technicolor wasn't as simple as slapping a cassette of color film in the camera and filming much like we Luddites swap out Black and White Film for Color film in our 35mm SLR's.  The early Technicolor process used special cameras, loaded rolls of film that were shot and then processed into a finished product.

As part of the agreement that enabled studios and producers to use the Technicolor process, the contracts stipulated that a Technicolor specialist was required to advise the production on "color" and its correct use.  That job was held by one Natalie Kalmus, the ex-wife of Herbert Kalmus, one of the developers of the Technicolor process.  Every Technicolor film made until 1948 was subjected to her "advice" and they all include her name in the rolling credits.

Natalie's job was at advising producers and studio on set colors, wardrobe and lighting requirements, the idea being that Technicolor did not want a dull or harsh film to sully its fine reputation.  However, Natalie took her role to the extremes, and frequently meddled in production decisions, overruled wardrobe decisions and set decorations.  Obsessed with minutia, and the possessor of very profound personal tastes, Kalmus was known to interject her own sensibilities and preferences, Technicolor's limitations be damned.  She hated complicated color pallets, and dispised tertiary colors often outlawing "mulberry" and "teal" in favor of "lavender" and "green".

She fought with William Cameron Menzies on set designs, haggled with casting offices over the color of extras hair that they were sending over.  She fought with David O. Selznick on the Gone With the Wind set designs and the use of mustard yellow gimp trim in the confederate soldiers uniforms.  When Selznick provided her with the pallet provided by leading historians, she scoffed and insisted that the color, which she hated, would be distractive on screen (he over ruled her). 

Said one director of Natalie's meddling: "Had (Walt) Disney been forced to follow her direction, Snow White's pale pink lips would have bit into a sea foam green apple."

According to Wikipedia, "Director Vincente Minnelli recalled of making Meet Me in St. Louis, 'My juxtaposition of color had been highly praised on the stage, but I couldn't do anything right in Mrs. Kalmus's eyes.' " 

Director Allan Dwan was more blunt: 'Natalie Kalmus was a bitch.'

She was also known to show up on the sound studio, and after harrassing the production crew on lighting, and her special brand of sunshine to the actors giving acting direction to leading ladies and gentleman, as well as critiques on their skills. 

A real charmer, that Natalie.

That she ruled with an iron fist did her no good when push came to shove.  She was terminated from Technicolor when she sued the company in 1948.  Upon hearing that her reign of terror was over, one Hollywood producer sent a flood of Red Roses to the company offices in a celebratory gesture. She built few bridges in Hollywood and could muster no sympathy for involuntary termination. Natalie went onto design furniture and interiors, but her contribution to film is largely ignored.

So when you see any Technicolor film made between the early 1930s and 1948, watch for the credits and wait for Natalie's name to appear, and think about her contributions to early "color" motion pictures, and the royal headache that she was on set.


  1. You can understand why ol' Herbert dumped her!

  2. It always amazes me how sometimes the seemingly all powerful studio heads and producers had their hands tied in the strangest ways, by the strangest people.

    Wonderful essay, Cookie.

  3. Great story. Years ago I went to an exhibition at MOMA and they had a lot of her work, little cards with her notes and everything. It was fascinating.

  4. i don't recall if we discussed the TV she designed, did we?

  5. The asymetical cases. They do have a nice shape. I did find the article below on the challenges of color, but Natalie is oddly missing