A glorious adventure: Colour Films in Britain

Sarah Street’s new book Colour Films in Britain traces the history of colour filmmaking in the UK, from early pioneers to the glories of the 1940s and 1950s.

Samuel Wigley
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1953 advertisement for Technicolor

1953 advertisement for Technicolor

The hunger for colour in early films was always inevitable in a medium with an innate capacity for spectacle. Though histories mark Hollywood’s 1935 period drama Becky Sharp as the first full-colour feature film, and 1937’s Wings of the Morning as its British equivalent, it’s increasingly understood that colour was there in more primitive form almost from the beginning of cinema.

In the UK, early 20th century pioneers such as G.A. Smith were already experimenting with means of reproducing the effect of colour on film, such as Smith’s colour-filter-based Kinemacolor process. Others added tones to their work by means of chemical tinting or hand-stencilling, delicately adding dyes to the images frame by frame.

As so often in early photographic histories, the move towards colour was motivated by a desire for ever greater naturalism, the impulse to represent the world exactly as the eye sees it. But anyone who watches the great 1940s films of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, or other classics of Britain’s Technicolor golden age such as Laurence Olivier’s Henry V (1944) or David Lean’s Blithe Spirit (1945), will discover that the first great wave of full-colour feature films were never quite the world as anybody sees it, but something richer, more expressive. It’s the world with a fresh lick of paint: reds are redder, greens greener, everything has an effulgent gleam.

Powell and Pressburger drew attention to this not-quite-real-ness in their 1946 film A Matter of Life and Death, a wartime fantasy perched between two worlds – a black and white heaven and a Technicolor earthbound reality. This was a counter-intuitive flip of Hollywood’s classic The Wizard of Oz (1939), which contrasted a dreary monochrome Kansas with the full-colour neverworld of Oz. Instead, Powell and Pressburger seemed to suggest that the afterlife was only a colourless adjunct to the real world.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946): A rose in black and white…

A Matter of Life and Death (1946): A rose in black and white…

…before its transformation into glorious Technicolor.

…before its transformation into glorious Technicolor.

“One is starved for Technicolor up there,” utters heavenly messenger Conductor 71 (Marius Goring) as he plucks a rose from a bush and looks around at an earthly paradise. Come to claim obliviously-dead fighter pilot Peter Carter (David Niven) for the hereafter, his remark is not just an endorsement of the tangible pleasures of real life, but a winking acknowledgement of a third world: the chromatic wonderland of colour film.

Professor of Film at the University of Bristol, Sarah Street’s new book Colour Films in Britain is the first to trace the story of colour filmmaking in the UK, from early experiments in tinting and stencilling to the mid-1950s, when Technicolor began to be supplanted by the cheaper Eastmancolor process.

Alongside analysis of how filmmakers used colour to create meaning in their films, Street’s history contains a wealth of colour film stills from the glories of fiction and nonfiction filmmaking of the first half of the 20th century. Here, together with extracts from the book, we present some of its visual highlights, proof that the period’s colour cinema – while tipping its hat to a notional reality – was often akin to walking into a rainbow.

The Glorious Adventure (1922)

Director J. Stuart Blackton
Director of Photography William T. Crespinel

A ravishing historical romance shot in the early Prizmacolor process.

The set of the Golden Swan ship provides another occasion for an establishing shot with the ship on the horizon framed with deep blue sea and red clouds. The almost translucent qualities of this shot are an example of the lantern-like, ‘stained-glass color effect’ criticised by art supervisor Walter Murton for being ‘unnatural’, but which stand out as visually striking and similar to Pathécolor stencilling.

Chapter 2: Colour Adventures with Prizma and Claude Friese-Greene in the 1920s

The Open Road (1926)

Director/Photography Claude Friese-Green

Pioneer Claude Friese-Green used an additive colour process called Biocolour for these films of his 1920s road trip from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

The Open Road’s inter-titles, such as ‘We had to stop to admire the view’, encouraged the spectator to adopt a contemplative attitude towards the images which involved little or no movement. Curious anticipation was encouraged as the viewer momentarily waited for the following shots which would then be studied closely. These were often presented as pictorial compositions, the emphasis being on high-angle shots presenting a view – slow movement or no movement at all, or a slow pan of the camera to show a complete vista of scenery.

Chapter 2: Colour Adventures with Prizma and Claude Friese-Greene in the 1920s

Wings of the Morning (1937)

Director Harold D. Schuster
Director of Photography Ray Rennahan

The first Technicolor film made in the British Isles is the story of a love affair between a horse trader (Henry Fonda) and Marie (Annabella), a young gypsy girl.

Costumes are also used to display colour, since when young Marie first visits Clontarf castle her dress is distinguished by a daisy pattern which is differentiated from the less decorative costumes worn by the non-gypsy women. One of the gypsy dancers has an orange underskirt which is shown as her outer dress swirls up as she dances for the guests, emphasising the spectacle of the dance as well as the revelation of colour.

Chapter 4: Glorious Technicolor Comes to Britain

The Mikado (1939)

Director Victor Schertzinger
Director of Photography William V. Skall

An Anglo-American screen version of the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta.

The subject’s theatrical origins were highly appropriate for colour cinematography, and care was taken with sets and costumes to display shades that were praised for being ‘exquisitely lovely’. The lavish advertising campaign highlighted the film as a ‘screen event’, which was all the more notable for its Technicolor. […] The film features many sets which were similar to how they would have been planned for stage performances. However, when shot in Technicolor opportunities were clearly taken to display colour effects such as shots of lanterns throwing warm shades of yellow and orange to provide strategically located illumination within the frame. Although the film featured a variety of such colour effects it was praised for its ‘pastel’ approach, and this was taken to be evidence of British cinema developing a particular palette in the deployment of colour.

Chapter 3: Debating Colour in the 1930s

The Thief of Bagdad (1940)

Directors Michael Powell, Ludwig Berger and Tim Whelan
Director of Photography George Perinal

This sumptuous Arabian Nights fantasy begins when Ahmed (John Justin), the Sultan of Bagdad, is tricked into prison by his evil adviser Jaffar (Conrad Veidt). There he meets the boy thief Abu (Sabu), who helps him to escape.

When [Abu and Ahmed] both look into the red eye they observe the Princess who is about to smell a blue rose which will make her forget her hatred of Jaffar. Here the colour blue is ‘cool’ (as in Kalmus’s strictures), since it makes her forget her anger and hatred of Jaffar, but as this film shows, the meanings that are often attributed to colours are indeed variable and fluid. Here, red is the route to insight for Ahmed and Abu while at the same time for the Princess blue signals magic that should not be trusted and danger, more usually associated with red.

Chapter 4: Glorious Technicolor Comes to Britain

Western Approaches (1944)

Director Pat Jackson
Director of Photography Jack Cardiff

Shot in hazardous wartime conditions, this naval drama is the story of the survivors of a torpedoed merchant ship adrift on the Atlantic.

The colour is significant in Western Approaches, not least for the different shades of blue for the sea, which was recognised at the time as adding depth and visual relief to what might otherwise have been dull black-and-white images. […] The scenes at sea dominate the film, using colour contrasts sparingly; but, when evident, they appear as striking – for example, a shot of a wounded sailor with a bloodied bandage on his head, the blue sea contrasted with a sailor’s buff coat, the red on the ship’s flag and a red fire hydrant. A spectacular sunset is also a feature marked by its red colour, which is followed by a succession of blue-bathed night shots which created a visually stunning contrast.

Chapter 6: British Colour Feature Films in Wartime

Genevieve (1953)

Director Henry Cornelius
Director of Photography Christopher Challis

The classic story of vintage car hobbyists competing in the London-Brighton car race.

When Alan’s car breaks down the driver of a modern, red sports car happily offers to tow him. He is as proud of his new car as Alan is of ‘Genevieve’; when the latter runs into the back of the sports car the owner is devastated. The shiny, red paint is scratched, and the boot is dented. While this might appear to be an insignificant detail the spectacle of state-of-the art, aerodynamic technology being damaged relates to more than the impossibility of keeping cars in perfect condition. It constitutes an example of comic suspense by building something up to be knocked down; colour is an essential element of the moment we know is somewhat inevitable when the two cars will collide. The car’s red appearance, made all the more spectacular because of its highly polished surface, is ruined in an instant as a close-up of the damage completes the ‘joke’.

Chapter 10: Colour Genres in Postwar Cinema 3: Musicals and Comedies

Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-1955 by Sarah Street is out now.

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