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Submitted by Tracey Brown
The Marvelous Age of I.B. Technicolor
It was called "I.B. Tech" by aficionados and "glorious Technicolor" by everyone else who worshiped its breathtaking colorful brilliance until it faded from use in the mid-1970s.
Now Technicolor has brought back its vaunted imbibition (or I.B.) printing process, more appropriately called "dye-transfer," at least on a sporadic basis. Even today, when it's more of a novelty, we're still wowed by new Technicolor dye-transfer prints of "Any Given Sunday," "Toy Story 2" and the restored "Rear Window."
In honor of its high-tech revival, the American Cinematheque will showcase the industry's most celebrated printing process from Thursday through Feb. 13 with a festival of 16 film classics and rarities at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. It's a must for anyone who's wild about color.
"Technicolor Dreams: The Marvelous Age of I.B. Technicolor at the Movies" gives us a glimpse of Herbert T. Kalmus' wondrous invention, which achieved a 3D-like glow on the silver screen, whatever the movie's style or genre, from the lush pageantry of "The Adventures of Robin Hood" (the definitive 1938 version with Errol Flynn, screening Saturday) to the multicolored spectacle of "Ben-Hur" (the Oscar-winning 1959 version with Charlton Heston, screening Thursday).
The subject matter depicted in Technicolor films is vast, from heaven on earth in "A Matter of Life and Death" (1946, screening Friday) to the garish invasion from Mars in "The War of the Worlds" (1953, screening Feb. 12) or the almost hallucinatory Carmen Miranda in "The Gang's All Here" (1943, screening Feb. 13) to the beguiling Maria Montez in "Cobra Woman" (screening Saturday in a nitrate 1944 print) or the surrealism of Vincente Minnelli's "The Band Wagon" (1953) to the Impressionism of his "Gigi" (both screening Feb. 11, the latter in an ultra-rare British print from 1958).
Technicolor was more than just a colorful alternative to the chiaroscuro poetry of black-and-white. It inhabited an imaginative world reminiscent of oil painting. Technicolor was renowned for its richly saturated hues, which radiated a powerful sensuality, along with warm flesh tones and creamy textures. In a sense, color was often the true star of these films.
"That light, that color, is reflected on the screen and, arriving on you, it changes your metabolism, it changes your blood pressure," says cinematographer Vittorio Storaro in the Turner Classic Movies documentary "Glorious Technicolor."
However, for those expecting everything to be eye-popping, be forewarned: The early limitations of dye-transfer and the fear of overwhelming viewers conspired to restrict the full photographic potential of color in the 1930s.
Also, depending on the period and preference, the look varied over the years. The British tended to use Technicolor with more subtlety and restraint than most of their American counterparts.
Speaking of the famous Technicolor "look," it actually entailed two processes, one photographic and the other print manufacture. (You can learn more about this in a Feb. 9 seminar featuring special clips.)
In the early '30s, the company designed a unique camera for photographing the full color spectrum to accompany dye-transfer printing. This bulky camera (which director Michael Powell called "the Enchanted Cottage") simultaneously ran three strips of black-and-white film, one sensitive to green light, one to red light and one to blue light.
These discrete black-and-white records were processed separately in special optical film matrices with complementary dyes and transferred to a blank piece of film. That the colors weren't added until the last stage of printing accounted for Technicolor's vibrant qualities.
With the introduction of the color negative in the mid-'50s and the demise of the three-strip camera, Technicolor modified dye-transfer printing to accommodate a changing industry. It still achieved breathtaking color, but much depended on the quality of the Eastman Kodak negative, which Technicolor did not control.
In looking at "Ben-Hur" and "The King and I" (1956, screening Feb. 13), for instance, it's very clear that dye-transfer could work wonders with Kodak negatives, particularly in reducing large formats such as these. The extraordinary sharpness of these two films only enhances their opulent atmospheres.
"Charade" (screening Feb. 12) benefits from the process as well, making Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn look all the more stunning and glamorous in this Pop art comedy thriller from 1963.
But the real highlight of the series is experiencing three-strip at its finest. The simulated red dusk during John Wayne's visit to his wife's grave is hauntingly poetic in John Ford's "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon" (1949, screening Sunday). By contrast, the eerie thunderstorm over Monument Valley strikes an image of dark foreboding. Interestingly, cinematographer Winton Hoch worked under protest because of the dangerous conditions, yet he earned an Oscar for his remarkable achievement.
In "A Matter of Life and Death," director Michael Powell and cinematographer Jack Cardiff achieve new aesthetic heights. The opening encounter between David Niven and Kim Hunter, who fall in love via radio contact while his plane crashes, is filled with delicious stylistic contrasts. He appears mythic in his fiery setting, while she looks angelic down below in a ray of white light. And there's the wonderful crack about the absence of Technicolor in the film's black-and-white afterlife.
"The Band Wagon" celebrates the individual spirit in neon. Fred Astaire brightens a dull arcade in the magical "Shine on Your Shoes" number. Later, he and Cyd Charisse explode in an orgy of primary colors in the climactic "Girl Chase" ballet.
But you won't find anything else quite so electric as the sight of Miranda surrounded by waves of bananas in "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat" number from "The Gang's All Here," or the magenta-hued Montez in a tropical paradise in "Cobra Woman."
"Phantom of the Opera" (screening Saturday), meanwhile, which won an Oscar for its moody and desaturated color cinematography, lies at the other end of the stylistic spectrum: midnight-blue Paris nights, black uniforms, dark and dreary catacombs with green ivy beneath the grand opera house, and rows of books in deep burgundy. Ornamental, yes, but not ostentatious.
That's the beauty of Technicolor: There's something indelible for everyone.
"Technicolor Dreams: The Marvelous Age of I.B. Technicolor at the Movies," sponsored by the American Cinematheque. Lloyd E. Rigler Theatre at the Egyptian, 6712 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. Thursday through Feb. 13 2000. $5-$7. (323) 466-FILM. -- Bill Desowitz