When You Get Really Close to a Movie Screen, Film Emulsion Looks like…
Boiling Sand
“The Gang’s All HUH?!”

Where are the Screaming Ruby Reds and Aquamarines of Yesteryear??

Where are the Screaming Ruby Reds and Aquamarines of Yesteryear??


I’d like to add my name to the roster of cineastes who viewed the recent DVD release of Busby Berkeley’s classic 1943 Technicolor dementia THE GANG’S ALL HERE and afterwards asked, “Hey, where did all the colors go???”

Despite my advancing years, I wasn’t around for this film’s first release. But in the 1970s, when Camp was High and PostModernism was rearing its head, THE GANG’S ALL HERE was a pretty huge success as a re-release to the art-house cinemas. And Hollywood still had some of the old 3-strip Technicolor processors necessary for striking a good print with all the gaudiness intact.

If you’ve never seen an original Technicolor movie camera, they were about the size of a side-by-side refrigerator/freezer. Back then the color wasn’t in the film stock, the color was achieved by a prism inside the camera that broke up the light into beams. Inside the camera, 3 rolls of black-and-white film were simultaneously turning; each roll was positioned to capture one of the 3 primary colors being given off by the prism inside. Then each of these black-and-white rolls were put through a dye-saturation bath of the corresponding color and the three rolls of film were then printed onto the same strip of film to create full color resolution.

Whew!!

But, c’mon. I know the old machines aren’t around, but I’ve done a better job of saturating and punching up color from old files with the freebie software bundled with my DVD burner than Fox did with THE GANG’S ALL HERE‘s new release.

If you haven’t seen the DVD, the electric Technicolor is replaced by a muted pallette similar to the hues that Fuji film stock used to capture in the late 1970s (just look at a print of the old Mary Tyler Moore show and you’ll know what I mean). Maybe those colors are what the DVD colorist is used to.

And as for the ancient Technicolor system: what happened to those gigantic and cumbersome mechanical works of art? In film school my Film Lab teacher (where we learned the chemistry of film) had just returned from Iran where he had installed the last of the Technicolor machines in their studios. This was just before the Shah was ousted for the Ayatollah. And the rest of the Technicolor systems had been sold to China (during their Cultural Revolution), since nothing gives off a vibrant impression of the color Red like 3-strip Tech. [And the Chinese put it to great use: ever see movies like RAISE THE RED LANTERN or JU DOU projected on the big screen?]

THE GANG’S ALL HERE‘s DVD special features includes the most ghastly of ironies: a “restoration comparison.” In some cases, the ‘BEFORE’ looked a lot better than the ‘AFTER.’

What happened…?

Doug / PoMo Joan

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