From the Collections: Technicolor Sets the Scene

Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City, her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed. The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweet and Dorothy . . .

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author L. Frank Baum gave the Wicked Witch of the East a pair of powerful silver shoes that became Dorothy’s when her Kansas farmhouse dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on the witch. Whether or not Baum meant those silver shoes skipping down a golden road as a commentary on the late-19th-century debate over basing American currency on a gold or silver standard, his vision of silver shoes remained intact in early versions of the screenplay for the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Yet the shoes were certainly not silver in the final film. While we may never be certain why Baum chose silver, we do know exactly why Dorothy’s shoes became a pair of sequin-covered, iridescent ruby slippers in the movie. The answer: Technicolor.

Photo: Only the Oz portion of the movie was filmed in Technicolor; the Kansas scenes were shot in black-and-white and toned sepia.

Inventors and MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, and the technically adept W. Burton Wescottfounded Technicolor in 1915  (the “Tech” in Technicolor was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock’s alma mater). In 1938, Kalmus spoke about the beginnings of the company:

“The earliest Technicolor laboratory was built within a railway car. This car was completely equipped with a photochemical laboratory, darkrooms, fireproof safes, power plant, offices, and all the machinery and apparatus necessary for continuously carrying on the following processes on a small commercial scale; sensitizing, testing, perforating, developing, washing, fixing and drying positive; printing, developing, washing, and conditioning air; filtering and cooling wash water; examining and splicing film; and making control measurements and tests.”

Photo: One of Daniel Comstock’s former students at MIT, Joseph Arthur Ball, was primarily responsible for developing the three-strip motion picture camera that was used until the 1950s when color negative motion picture film was introduced. The camera was large, heavy, and loud. It was attached to a dolly to help move it around the set, and an outer box was called a “blimp” surrounded the camera mechanism to muffle the noise.

The Technicolor team continued to tweak the invention through several iterations before it reached its full glory in the 1930s. Technicolor Process Number Four, or 3-strip Technicolor, used in The Wizard of Oz, wasn’t a type of film, though. Instead, the action was filmed with a modified motion-picture camera that contained a prism and colored filters that, in turn, separated the scene onto three different strips of black-and-white negative film. Each strip correlated to the filtered colors and was used to create an intermediary strip called a matrix. In a method similar to lithography, the matrices were then used to print the final movies that were distributed to theaters. Making a Technicolor feature film was such a complex undertaking that movie studios were required to hire specially trained Technicolor staff to oversee production. These included color consultants, under the direction of Natalie Kalmus, Herbert’s ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie became the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor, describing her role as “playing ringmaster to the rainbow.”


Photo: Natalie Kalmus wrote, “We must constantly practice color restraint.” Did that philosophy influence Adrian’s choice of muted colors for the Scarecrow’s costume?

Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor consultant on The Wizard of Oz set. We don’t know if she played a part in transforming Baum’s silver shoes into ruby slippers or if costume designer Gilbert Adrian and screenwriter Noel Langley came to the decision independent of her influence. But with one seemingly simple change, an American icon was born.


Photo: Several pairs of ruby slippers were made for the film. The Museum’s pair have felt soles, suggesting that they were worn by Judy Garland in dance scenes.

The Museum’s collections are rich in artifacts from The Wizard of Oz and the Technicolor era, and the ruby slippers are among our most visited treasures. The image of Dorothy clicking those sequined heels together three times, repeating “There’s no place like home,” is part of our shared memory. Would the ruby slippers have attained such star status if they had remained silver?

Sources:

  1. Google Books digitized version of L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1899), p. 33, https://play.google.com/store/books/details?id=qbV65PabTEYC. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  2. Richard Haines, Technicolor Movies: The History of Dye Transfer Printing (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1993).
  3. Herbert T. Kalmus, “Technicolor Adventures in Cinemaland,” reprinted at http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/oldcolor/kalmus.htm. Accessed August 13, 2012.
  4. Natalie M. Kalmus, “Color Consciousness,” Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers 25, no. 2 (August 1935): 139–47.
  5. “Natalie M. Kalmus Dies at 87; A Co-Developer of Technicolor,” New York Times, November 18, 1965, p. 47.

From the Director: The Colorful, Kinetic World of Charles and Ray Eames

When it comes to inventive uses of color, there is hardly a more inspiring example than the contributions of the late husband-and-wife design team of Charles (1907–1978) and Ray Eames (this year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Ray Kaiser Eames [1912–1988]). Working primarily as a painter before their marriage, Ray Kaiser Eames did much to infuse their shared creations, and through them our everyday lives, with color. For Ray, color was not only an aesthetic technique, but also a communications device, a means of conveying information about objects, spaces, and volumes. She had learned this from her teacher Hans Hofmann, the German-born American abstract expressionist, known for his brightly hued canvases.

Chair Designed by Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen for the "Organic Design in Home Furnishings" Competition, designed 1940, molded plywood, wood, foam rubber, and fabric. Courtesy of Vitra Design Museum

While we owe a great deal to the Eameses for brightening and enlivening our everyday lives, they were especially influential in the world of museums. The collections of many art and design museums, including the Museum of Modern Art, boast not only of vibrantly colored plastic and fiberglass Eames chairs, but also of incredibly innovative seating like the “potato chip” chair. Its unique shape depended on new molding techniques that the Eameses developed during World War II for producing plywood splints for wounded soldiers. Lesser-known, though, are the many exhibitions that they designed for museums and world’s fairs.

The Eameses were really all about communication and information, employing design primarily as a public-education tool. In their hands, exhibitions evolved into powerful informational and educational vehicles. Their famous Mathematica exhibit, on the art of mathematics, was sponsored by IBM and debuted in 1961 at the California Museum of Science and Industry. Parts of it are still on display in science museums today, and IBM released an iPad app based on the exhibition last year. The Eameses were also instrumental in introducing films into exhibitions, regarding motion pictures as an indispensable educational technology. Their long and close relationship with IBM produced films for IBM’s pavilions at the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair and the New York World’s Fair of 1964.

ay and Charles Working on a Conceptual Model for the Exhibition Mathematica, 1960, photograph. Image from Eames Office.

The Smithsonian benefited from Charles and Ray’s talents, too. One of my first encounters with the creative work of these geniuses was in the 1970s at the National Museum of History and Technology (now the National Museum of American History). Despite the passage of several decades, I still have vivid memories of an exhibition on historic toys designed by Barbara Charles from the Eames office. It was fun, whimsical, and a visual feast in its use of color. Especially memorable, however, was the accompanying short film, Toccata for Toy Trains, originally produced in 1957 by the couple themselves (Ray was given top billing). Lushly colorful, particularly in the seductive use of reds, and with a musical score by renowned film composer Elmer Bernstein, the movie was shot from the intimate perspective of real toy trains (and not scale-model trains—a significant difference). It drew you completely into the world of toys, long before Pixar came on the scene.

S. Dillon Ripley, eighth Smithsonian Secretary (1964-1984), standing in the Secretary's Parlor in the Smithsonian Institution Building in front of the portrait of Joseph Henry, first Secretary of the Smithsonian (1846-1878). Image from Smithsonian Institution Archives.

But the Eameses’ relationship with the Smithsonian was even more fundamental. According to Benjamin Lawless, the longtime design head of the National Museum of History and Technology, Charles Eames was a favorite of then–Smithsonian Secretary S. Dillon Ripley. Ripley persuaded Eames to produce an hour-long film about the Institution, and, in the early 1970s, Eames in turn convinced Ripley to establish a film unit at the Smithsonian. The Eames office even sent an experienced staff member to the Smithsonian for a year to help get the unit off the ground. It became a pioneering museum film studio, known for such productions as the Emmy Award–winning film for the Smithsonian’s 1876 exhibit, designed by Bill Miner, another veteran of the Eames office.

Charles and Ray Eames and their associates brought color, motion, and life to Smithsonian exhibition halls, and helped museums in general become modern educational organizations. In all of their projects, color was a strategic tool; never did they apply hues indiscriminately. Rather, their brilliant palette spotlighted salient points of information that they wanted to convey, capturing both the eyes and minds of viewers.

To learn more about the Eameses’ style, you can visit the Eames house and studio in Los Angeles, a symphony of color and colorful objects that they collected or used in their varied projects. Their papers reside at the Library of Congress, which produced a lively online exhibit, The Work of Charles and Ray Eames: A Legacy of Invention. The accompanying catalog under the same title (Harry N. Abrams, 1997) includes insightful essays about their design philosophy and widespread influence.