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The Story of the First Technicolor Film, and How It Went Horribly Wrong

A century ago, a fascinating experiment pushed the boundaries of moviemaking technology. It was a total disaster.

Richard Trenholm Former Movie and TV Senior Editor
Richard Trenholm was CNET's film and TV editor, covering the big screen, small screen and streaming. A member of the Film Critic's Circle, he's covered technology and culture from London's tech scene to Europe's refugee camps to the Sundance film festival.
Expertise Films, TV, Movies, Television, Technology
Richard Trenholm
7 min read

A hundred years ago, a group of scientists and silent-movie stars stepped off a train into the Florida sunshine. They'd brought with them some of the most advanced moviemaking technology in the industry, and they were there to shoot America's first feature-length motion picture in color.

The result was a 58-minute romantic comedy called The Gulf Between, which premiered on Sept. 13, 1917. But this first production from the Technicolor company was a long, long way from sumptuously colorful classics like 1939's Gone With the Wind and 1952's Singin' in the Rain that'll forever be synonymous with Hollywood's golden age. Like the recent trend for modern 3D movies, The Gulf Between was expensive for filmgoers, and hard on the eyes when watching. 

The Gulf Between was "meant to be a proof-of-concept," says Kelsey Eckert, a Technicolor project archivist at Rochester, New York's George Eastman Museum, home to some of the oldest surviving photography and film materials. "They wanted a film they could show to investors and bigwigs in New York to prove this whole Technicolor experiment was commercially viable. And it wasn't."

But the creators of Technicolor persevered.

"The men and women of Technicolor tried and failed over and again -- Technicolor 1 is radically different than Technicolor 4 -- and even after 'succeeding' they never stopped tweaking and perfecting," says Ken Fox, also a project archivist at the George Eastman Museum. "This quixotic determination to succeed against what, at the beginning especially, must have seemed like impossible odds, can serve as an important lesson for filmmakers and tech developers alike."

In living color

Even in the earliest days of cinema, moviegoing audiences saw some color on screen. Motion picture pioneers Thomas Edison and George Méliès, for example, had some of their films hand painted. The first system that captured natural color on film was Kinemacolor, which caused a sensation in Britain in 1908. The Kinemacolor company imploded amid patent disputes, but not before an intrigued American engineer named Herbert Kalmus brought a fragment of Kinemacolor film back to the US.

Herbert T. Kalmus Holding Lamp
Enlarge Image
Herbert T. Kalmus Holding Lamp

Herbert T. Kalmus, president and co-founder of Technicolor.


Kalmus showed the film to his business partners Daniel Frost Comstock and W. Burton Wescott. Kalmus and Wescott met at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and had only a passing interest in cinema as an art form. They were more interested in the technical challenges -- and the moneymaking opportunities.

The three men founded the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation in 1915. Comstock was the inventor, Wescott turned ideas into products, and Kalmus served as the businessman.

To create a color film that did away with the weird fringing and flicker that plagued existing color systems, the Technicolor team had to innovate the whole process from the treatment of the film to the design of the camera and projector.

Their first Technicolor process involved shooting on black-and-white film through a special beam-splitting prism and red and green filters. To play the film back, the system was then reversed, with a special projector that contained its own red and green filters. Like Kinemacolor, this was known as an "additive" color system.

The first tests made the Technicolor boys optimistic. Comstock and a team of engineers headed to Palm Beach, Florida, where natural light and colorful environments abounded. The resulting footage of sunsets, sailboats and fancy women's outfits delighted the engineers -- and their investors.

The next step: a feature film that could be shown to a mass audience. They chose The Gulf Between, though the plot was less notable than the innovation going on behind the scenes. Based on the story The Little Skipper by Anthony Kelly, The Gulf Between told of a young girl lost at sea and brought up by the family of a smuggler. Later, she falls in love with a wealthy boy, only for his parents to keep them apart until she rediscovers her own family.

This melodrama was "very typical of the kind of films of the time," Fox says. "I think [Technicolor] really hoped they had a hit on their hands. But it was the technical difficulties that undid them."

Lights, camera... accident

Technicolor's seasoned production manager, Carl Alfred "Doc" Willatt, brought in a relatively inexperienced -- and therefore easily supervised -- 27-year-old director, Wray Bartlett Physioc, to helm The Gulf Between. The cast was led by Vaudeville and Broadway actor Niles Welch, and Canadian actress Grace Darmond, who later became known for her affair with fellow actress Jean Acker.

Actress Grace Darmond with Hands on Hips

Silent-movie actress Grace Darmond, star of The Gulf Between.

John Springer Collection

Filming in those days required strong natural light, so the production headed for Jacksonville, Florida, in December 1916. Hollywood in California was already a moviemaking hub, but Jacksonville was a popular filming location for the burgeoning motion picture industry because it had clear skies most of the year. Even the film's interior scenes were shot on open-air stages to capture as much light as possible.

Jacksonville was also a mere 30 hours by train from New York. The Technicolor team traveled to Jacksonville in style, gutting a Boston and Maine sleeper railroad car and outfitting it with a cutting-edge film processing lab, power plant and office, complete with a fireproof safe for storing highly flammable film. It was like the souped-up train car from The Wild Wild West having a wacky adventure across the new frontier of color filmmaking. 

The first problem quickly emerged.

The film had to be dyed before use to make it more sensitive to light, but the train car's lab produced clouded and unusable film. Comstock was dispatched to Florida with two weeks to fix the problem -- or the backers would pull the plug. According to the book The Dawn of Technicolor by James Layton and David Pierce, Comstock found one engineer continually asleep on the floor, while Burton Wescott was already "a wreck."

With only a day left until Comstock's deadline, the team identified tainted hydrogen peroxide as the source of their woes. But shooting dragged on with problems like repeated power outages and interminable reshoots. The new method of shooting in color required lots of experimenting. For example, they started with exaggerated makeup on the actors but found light makeup worked better. 

Filming was extended through March 1917, and then April. Ultimately it would be late May before stars Darmond and Welch returned to New York.

Sinking below the horizon

The Gulf Between premiered at a Baptist church in Technicolor's hometown of Boston. Then came the crunch: a screening for press and industry on Sept. 21 in New York City to prove Technicolor was commercially viable. For this crucial demonstration, Comstock himself operated the projector.

One reviewer noted "the fluffy golden hair of the heroine" and "a gorgeous sunset actually photographed at long last in all its actual glow, a ruby orb sinking below the horizon." But Billboard's critic noted red and green flashes on the screen, as well as random scarlet objects showing up too bright, plus irritating eyestrain.

After years of work, the all-important preview screening showed Technicolor simply wasn't ready for market.

Technicolor set off traveling again in February 1918, this time taking The Gulf Between on a roadshow tour. A florid ad in the Buffalo Courier promised "a masterful achievement" that "glorified the motion picture ... faithfully reproduced in nature's own colors." You might expect to pay a little more for such a spectacle, like when you see a 3D film today -- but at Buffalo's Majestic theater, seats were 25, 50 or 75 cents for a box, roughly the same as for other presentations.

Unfortunately, there was no getting around the difficulties created by the special projector required to show the film. It was temperamental and had to be brought into each theater in a portable fireproof booth. Kalmus despaired that it required an operator who was "a cross between a college professor and an acrobat."

Even at this early stage of the industry, Thomas Edison and other film innovators had already worked out how to make money from movies: standardized equipment. When every theater had the same projector, you could show your film anywhere. Technicolor Process 1 was the opposite of that. And like 3D today, after the initial novelty wore off, customers weren't prepared to pay a premium.

After some 15 engagements, the roadshow ground to a halt.

Depths of despair

The movie spanned six or seven reels of film, roughly twice as many reels as other flicks of the time, because there was a red frame and a green frame for every moment. Sadly, none of the film survives today. The only remaining traces of this grand filmmaking experiment are a couple of restored frames and some behind-the-scenes photos in the George Eastman Museum, the Smithsonian Institute and the Motion Picture Academy's library.

"It wasn't like the industry as we know it today -- there was no wide distribution, no TV or home video," Fox says. "They weren't of the mindset to preserve these films, even a successful film, let alone a film that flopped."

After the disastrous New York screening, Kalmus and Comstock were reportedly "in the depths of despair." Fortunately their work as a research and development outfit on other photography and cinematic projects kept them afloat. After a break when the US entered World War I -- Comstock went off to develop submarine detection gear -- they carried the lessons of Technicolor Process 1 into researching Technicolor Process 2.

The first lesson they learned was switching from a problem-plagued additive color system to subtractive color, the basis of modern color filmmaking, which captured a more natural range of color and didn't require a special projector.

The company ultimately went through five Technicolor processes. They cracked it with Process 4, the version of Technicolor used for The Wizard of Oz.

"You don't want Oz to look real," Fox says. "You want it to be in Technicolor."

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