Extremely Rare Technicolor Film Footage from the 1920s Discovered: Features Louise Brooks Dancing in Her First Feature Film

In brief sur­veys of film his­to­ry, the eye-pop­ping process known as Tech­ni­col­or seems to emerge ful­ly-formed in the 1930s and 40s with clas­sics like Gone with the Wind and The Wiz­ard of Oz, movies so vivid they almost exem­pli­fy the phrase “eye can­dy” with a “rich­er, col­or-flood­ed ver­sion of the real world,” writes Adri­enne LaFrance at The Atlantic. This gold­en age of Tech­ni­col­or, with its “super­sat­u­rat­ed aes­thet­ic… cre­at­ed films punc­tu­at­ed by col­ors so elec­tric they were sur­re­al.”

But like any new tech­nol­o­gy, col­or film, and the Tech­ni­col­or process in par­tic­u­lar, fol­lowed a long tra­jec­to­ry of tri­al and error involv­ing many an ambi­tious fail­ure and many ear­ly attempts now lost to his­to­ry. One such film, 1917’s The Gulf Between, con­sid­ered the first Tech­ni­col­or film, employed one of the ear­li­est, two-col­or ver­sions of the process. Sur­viv­ing now only in very short frag­ments, the 58-minute pro­duc­tion was “expen­sive and hard on the eyes,” notes Richard Tren­holm at Cnet, “a crit­i­cal and artis­tic flop” and “a com­mer­cial one, too.”

Tech­ni­col­or sci­en­tists and film­mak­ers refused to give up on the process, labor­ing might­i­ly through­out the 1920s to fig­ure out the exact ele­ments need­ed to con­nect with movie­go­ers. Most prob­lem­at­i­cal­ly, the two-col­or process could not repro­duce believ­able blues, pur­ples, or yel­lows. As James Lay­ton, co-author of The Dawn of Tech­ni­col­or, tells The Atlantic, “skies would nev­er repro­duce accu­rate­ly, and water wouldn’t…. There are some great exam­ples. A beach scene… where the sky is this very vivid green, it’s very unnat­ur­al.”

One her­culean effort to make Tech­ni­col­or a hit came from Dou­glas Fair­banks, whose painstak­ing 1926 film The Black Pirate made artis­tic use of the process’s lim­i­ta­tions, tak­ing inspi­ra­tion from the Dutch mas­ters to achieve a sense of depth. In 1970, the British Nation­al Film Archive began a restora­tion (see some clips above, with a 70s-sound­ing sound­track over­laid).

Fair­banks’ film remains one of only a hand­ful of Tech­ni­col­or films from the peri­od that has sur­vived in full into the present, like­ly because it rep­re­sents one of the few com­mer­cial suc­cess­es. But just last month, Jane Fer­nan­des, a British Film Insti­tute (BFI) con­ser­va­tion­ist, dis­cov­ered sev­er­al snip­pets of many more 1920s Tech­ni­col­or films taped to the begin­nings and ends of reels from a copy of The Black Pirate donat­ed to BFI in 1959.

These frag­ments include a very brief shot of silent icon Louise Brooks in col­or (at the 1:11 mark), from the lost 1926 film The Amer­i­can Venus, her first fea­ture. Also includ­ed in the find are short clips from oth­er Tech­ni­col­or films made that same year, The Far Cry, The Fire Brigade, and Dance Mad­ness, as well as a test shot from the his­tor­i­cal dra­ma Mona Lisa, star­ring L.A. Times gos­sip colum­nist Hed­da Hop­per as Leonar­do da Vinci’s enig­mat­ic mod­el.

You can see these prized snip­pets in the video at the top of the post, with nar­ra­tion from BFI cura­tor Bry­ony Dixon. “Anoth­er batch of extracts,” reports Smithsonian.com, “was found taped to ads for a North Lon­don tele­vi­sion shop that ran before and between movies in the 1950s. They include scenes from ear­ly Tech­ni­col­or musi­cals that came out in 1929 includ­ing Sal­lyGold Dig­gers of Broad­way, Show of Shows and On with the Show!

In BFI’s April 30 press release announc­ing these rare finds, Dixon com­pares them to “an Egypt­ian vase shat­tered into pieces and the shards scat­tered across muse­ums all over the world…. For now we have the shards but we can dream of see­ing Louise Brooks’s first film or a lost Hed­da Hop­per in colour.” Future dis­cov­er­ies, as well as the lat­est restora­tion tech­niques, may soon return an expand­ed his­to­ry of 1920s two-col­or Tech­ni­col­or to schol­ars and film fans of the 21st cen­tu­ry.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ear­ly Exper­i­ments in Col­or Film (1895–1935)

How Tech­ni­col­or Rev­o­lu­tion­ized Cin­e­ma with Sur­re­al, Elec­tric Col­ors & Changed How We See Our World

The Col­or Palettes of Your Favorite Films: The Roy­al Tenen­baums, Reser­voir Dogs, A Clock­work Orange, Blade Run­ner & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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