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Music, Color and Magic: The Musicals of Technicolor 

October 3, 2022

As a little girl growing up in Los Angeles, I experienced my first “magic moments” when I sat in front of our now-archaic color television set. I, being all of four, would put down my Steiff bears and dolls and watch in amazement as a girl in a gingham dress or a temptress in a sequined body suit followed a tap-dancing sailor in duo with an animated mouse. I would gaze at a ballerina tormented by her magic red ballet shoes or see an astonishing young Puerto Rican woman in a lilac dress dancing with amigas in bright red and pink sing about “America” – the screen awash in stunning, transcending colors that created magic. I had great American cinema musicals right in my living room on local television – sometimes 5 showings in a row of the same enchanting movie! It was heaven, and my experience of these formative moments inspired me to dream of stories, songs, and travel in time and space. What could this magic be? Simple…it was movies in Technicolor. 

Whether sitting in my parent’s living room or in a movie theatre, I could revel in the beauty of these transforming and brilliant films because Technicolor empowered the artistic vision of the movie. Technicolor touched all aspects of the creative team – director, cinematographer, costume and makeup designers, art directors and production designers, working in unison to create what we now consider to be cinematic enchantment, which continues to shape our lives and dreams. Technicolor movies have inspired and entertained hundreds of millions of people over the decades and around the world so let’s explore some of their benchmark musicals – get ready to get up and dance! 

Paul Whiteman’s King of Jazz, 1930 starts our cavalcade of significant Technicolor musicals as the one representative 2-color films handled by the company in advance of the more well-known 3-strip dye-transfer process represented by the following films. 

 The Cat and Fiddle, 1934 with Roman Navarro and Jeanette MacDonald, had only one color-song sequence in this full-length feature film — a harbinger of what was about to rain down upon movie audiences…radiant Technicolor movies. 

It was, however, Dorothy’s journey to Oz, the mythical place in her dreams that was Technicolor’s first full-length movie musical, The Wizard of Oz, 1939, that cemented the company’s hard-earned achievement.  Up to that point, no one had witnessed anything like it on the big screen and it presaged a revolution in movie color as well as spellbinding musicals. 

Taking his cue from the “Ozian” fantasy element was one of the greatest song and dance men of the 20th Century, Gene Kelly. Kelly, likely more than anyone else, embraced the huge Technicolor camera making it his dance partner. Right away, he had a novel idea of how to expand and innovate the movie musical by creating brilliant song and dance mischief in the 1945 film, directed by George Sidney, Anchors Aweigh. Joining him were his pal, Frank Sinatra and his most unusual dancing partner, Jerry, an animated mouse. Even today, watching Gene Kelly and Jerry tap dance with precision, charm, and humor, it’s so fresh and vibrant it’s hard to believe it was done nearly 80 years ago. To get this bit of cinema magic the team at Technicolor used their traveling matte technology.   

A few years down the road, Jerry the mouse was replaced by the lovely Leslie Caron (no matte needed for her) as Gene Kelly’s dance partner in director Vincent Minnelli’s visually breathtaking An American in Paris, 1951 – inspired by George Gershwin’s composition An American in Paris.  Paris never looked or sounded more magical especially the astonishing 18-½ minute ballet dream sequence between Kelly and Caron. The ballet was rehearsed for 6 months, took a month to shoot and cost 1 million dollars and it worked. DOP John Alton shot the ballet while Alfred Gilks shot the rest of the film (winning the Oscar).  Academy members clearly loved the film as it garnered 8 Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and a special honorary Oscar for Gene Kelly.  

American musicals in Technicolor had a huge influence on emerging filmmaking around the world – but it can also be stated that Kelly and his collaborators were themselves influenced by the bravura talents of The Archers…director Michael Powell and producer/writer Emeric Pressburger and their stunning success, The Red Shoes, 1948. 

The Archers produced 24 films between 1939 and 1972. For The Red Shoes, they worked with the brilliant cinematographer, Jack Cardiff, and production designer Heim Heckroth, a dream team that produced the most astonishing dance film ever made. The film explores the price paid by artists consumed by their passion. It is based on the tragic, mad children’s tale by Hans Christian Andersen. In the film, a young woman, Victoria Paige, performed by dancer Moira Shearer, is obsessed with being a great dancer and puts on a pair of enchanted red ballet slippers that leads to her demise. The film’s penultimate ballet is an impressionistic extraordinary visual feat celebrated for its choreography, cinematography, and art direction. (It’s been argued that the film’s finale served as inspiration for Gene Kelly when contemplating the ballet for An American in Paris.)  

The film is a masterwork of all the film crafts showing Powell at the zenith of his prodigious talent and imagination. The Archer’s later Technicolor musical from 1951, The Tales of Hoffmann, showcased Powell’s desire to completely merge opera with photographic imagery, into a spectacular exploration of cinematic form and style, with no formal dialogue, as we cycle through multiple stories, by way of singing. Powell continually challenged all the conventions of cinema, and he remains one of the most beloved filmmakers of the 20th Century who along with his creative team established a very British approach to movies presented in Technicolor. 

Kelly would respond and wow film audiences with another musical masterpiece, Singin’ in the Rain, 1952, co-directing for the second time with the fantastically talented director, Stanley Donen creating a love letter to the silent era of movies and the birth of sound…how fitting as the songs from the film are beloved to this day, especially the title song. The film’s iconic number took three days to shoot where two city blocks of tarp covered the backlot street.  DP Harold Rosson and team put milk in the rainwater so the camera would pick up the raindrops. And Gene Kelly…he was sick and danced with a 103• fever! If that wasn’t challenging enough, DP Rosson and crew captured Donald O’Conner in his own jaw-dropping performance, Make ‘em Laugh, as he takes off in perpetual motion.  

Donen also directed a series of Technicolor musicals with actor, dancer extraordinaire Fred Astaire beginning with Royal Wedding, 1951. Donen and DP Robert Planck, along with their crew, created one of the most magical dance sequences ever produced when Astaire dances on the walls and ceiling of his room. It is a brilliant sequence which necessitated building his room on a gimbal frame with a huge crank, bolting or gluing everything on the set, while the camera operator and camera were strapped onto an ironing board, filming as the room rotated! Then there’s Astaire’s workout of a dance with a hat rack (specially made it cost $900) – seeing is believing!  

Stanley Donen teamed with Fred Astaire again (requested by Audrey Hepburn) and turned his sights to Paris with Funny Face, 1957, where he collaborated with DP Ray June. The great fashion photographer, Richard Avedon was along on the film staging the fashion sequences. Together they created the glamour of Paris at the height of the Haute craze explosion allowing the ravishing Audrey Hepburn to entrance the audience in the brilliant Givenchy gowns. (Givenchy and Hepburn were joined at the hip for much of her career). Avedon’s stills of Hepburn go from negative to black and white, tinted with colors in magical ways as she poses on The Champs Elysees with balloons or rushes past Venus on the steps of The Louvre!  

Capturing another star was director George Cukor in A Star is Born, 1954, with the iconic Judy Garland. The film became Cukor’s masterpiece. Taking the plot and characters of the original 1937 film, Moss Hart, Harold Arlen and lyricist, Ira Gershwin created the perfect musical. Cukor and DP Sam Leavitt captured the glitter, humor, the plasticity of Hollywood and most of all the greatest “one woman show” ever by an actress. From Cukor’s brilliant opening with the dizzying, freakish flashbulbs and blinding flood lights that herald in the insanity of Hollywood he quickly shows us its dehumanizing business practices and the tragic cost on the talent. Judy Garland was barely able to manage on the set, but her trust of Cukor, with his Herculean patience and great direction, pulled the project to completion. Despite her mental and physical state, Garland and Cukor saw the film through with show stopping numbers: The Man that Got Away, Get Happy, and Lose That Long Face that are musical creations for the ages.  Garland (a severe addict) went deep into her soul to play the healthy one, the caretaker to an addict, a complete role reversal.  

Garland gave her all in the role but lost the Oscar to Grace Kelly (The Country Girl) and neither the film nor director were nominated (at the time Warner’s was in a dispute with the Academy, so their film was “punished”.) The worst blow for Cukor was when Warner Brother’s cut thirty minutes, (including two numbers) out of the film without telling Cukor and then never saved a master print (and negative) of the original cut. Through a miracle, the film was nearly 100% restored in 1983 thanks to the efforts of film preservationist Ronald Haver who assembled a nearly complete version of Cukor’s masterpiece.  

Two other ground-breaking Technicolor musicals, Porgy and Bess and West Side Story, broke color barriers in Hollywood just years before the Civil Rights Bill of 1965.  Porgy and Bess, 1959 was directed by Otto Preminger, with music by George and Ira Gershwin, the first all-black cast musical from Gershwin’s “American Folk Opera” staged in 1935. The world’s most recorded song, in the history of popular music to this day, “Summertime,” opens the film with aching lyric beauty. Preminger captured the heartache and hope of the song.  The production was a creative juggernaut of talent: actors Sidney Portier, Pearl Bailey, Dorothy Dandridge, Leontyne Price, Diahann Carroll, Sammy Davis Jr., with cinematography from Technicolor’s famed DP, Leon Shamroy, Art Direction from Oliver Smith, and music conducted by Andre Previn, all who deliver their best in the striking tour de force. The story of Catfish Row, in South Carolina was embraced by some and criticized by others, but the tragic mournful tale is considered now to be a classic — with a color palette and dramatic vitality along with its brilliant songbook that rips at your heart.  

West Side Story, 1961 was conceived for stage by Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Leonard Bernstein, and Stephen Sondheim. The original musical about turf wars between rival white and Puerto Rican gangs in New York was groundbreaking, but the times made it next to impossible to cast Puerto Rican actors in the Puerto Rican roles. Only Rita Moreno, from Puerto Rico, was cast in the major supporting female role of Anita – and she rightly blew the lid off with her performance. West Side Story shocked audiences with its multi-racial storyline using the Romeo and Juliet plot borrowed from Shakespeare.  

West Side Story

Two masterpieces from Bob Fosse, the great choreographer-director, who started on Broadway and created and directed Chicago, took dance to the next level of expression — one set in Berlin, with Weimar Germany on the brink of demise, and the other the rehearsal rooms of Broadway. His second musical film, Cabaret, 1972, made him one of the most honored directors in Hollywood and made Judy Garland’s daughter, Liza Minnelli, a full-fledged star of her own. The supporting cast of Michael York and the show stopping Joel Grey, as the Kit Kat Club’s M.C., combined with the stunning visuals of the club pulled you into the juxtaposition of Germany melting down into Nazi chaos. The atmosphere consumes the audience visually as the club is the safe haven for the “fringe people” of Berlin.  Minnelli’s performance, her character’s manic desperation is beautifully captured by Fosse and famed British DoP Geoffrey Unsworth and together their creation makes Sally Bowles raw and unforgettable.  

Cabaret, 1972

A different point of view is Bob Fosse’s mesmerizing and brilliant fantasy, All That Jazz, 1975 – an autobiographical account of his breakdown and heart attack after filming Lenny while preparing Chicago for Broadway. The frenetic, vibrant, riveting pace suddenly takes a turn when the protagonist’s heart attack triggers otherworldly talks with the Angel of Death played by Jessica Lange, as he travels through the five stages of grief.  The amazing staging, the brilliant dance numbers, the dreamy, heavenly sets, and the stellar cast led by Roy Scheider, and featuring Jessica Lange, Ann Reinking, and Ben Vereen, to name a few all come together in an out-of-body variety show with breathtaking number where Bye, Bye Love – is parodied as Bye, Bye Life. The seductive and spellbinding editing, lighting, and camera work of the brilliant Guiseppe Rotunno made All That Jazz a truly captivating film toggling the see-saw between life and death, with the intensity of a driven artist at his peak, which Fosse certainly was when he made this personal film… that won four Oscars.  

A great musical comedy that continues to resonate with audiences today was Victor/Victoria, 1982. Blake Edwards adapted his American transgender film from a 1933 German musical, to star his stupendously brilliant wife, Julie Andrews Everything about Edwards’s film, from the brilliant score and songs by Henry Mancini and Leslie Bricusse to the brilliant sets, staging and the sheer perfect performance by Andrews – showed the genius of every artist in absolute harmony. The fabulously clever numbers have a sparkling and sophisticated shine that draws in the audience. The songs, presented as nightclub numbers, especially the hilarious The Shady Dame for Seville when sung by Robert Preston in drag, are some of the most fun numbers ever in a movie musical.  DP Dick Bush’s lush cinematography and the eye-popping colors create a magic that heightens the comedy and music. 

Music and gangsters merged in the hot Harlem jazz world of 1929 New York City in director Francis Ford Coppola’s, Cotton Club, 1984 and The Cotton Club Encore, 2019. Just before release in ’84, Coppola was forced to re-edit his film by producer Robert Evans and executives of Orion Pictures. In 2019, Coppola partnered with Technicolor, fully restoring the film, putting back full sequences (27 minutes all told) into his new edition to present the film the way he originally envisioned.  

The story brilliantly tells two love stories on each side of the racial divide. Richard Gere’s romance with Diane Lane and Gregory Hines’s romance with Lonette McKee take very honest account of the impact of racial inequality. Triggering the drama in the film are the territorial battles between Jewish and Irish gangs played out in the club, and around New York City. Coppola ratchets the tension with his exquisite touch and Richard Sylbert’s art direction and production design make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time. The movie’s moody ambiance of the clubs, the intensity of the gangster wars juxtaposed by the bright, lush colors of Hollywood where our leading man ends-up are masterfully photographed by the brilliant cinematographer, Stephen Goldblatt.  

The power of these films, the marriage of camera, art direction, performances, movement, and music celebrate one of the greatest art forms we have – a gift from the 20th Century…and Technicolor was there from the beginning as it is now. Whether you’re singin’ in the rain or chasing a rainbow, dancing up a wall onto the ceiling or tap dancing with a mouse, the magic of music and color in movies is unmistakable. 

Janet Dulin Jones is a London-based playwright and screenwriter. Ms. Jones produces a cinema podcast Cinema Sounds & Secrets.

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