Technicolor films go way back. The process was the world’s second color process when it was invented in 1916, after Kinemacolor had first hit England back in 1908.
From its introduction to the mid-fifties, Technicolor was the most widely used color process in Hollywood although the first three incarnations of the process, from 1916 to 1932, were based on a two color system only, until the fourth incarnation of the process (i.e. “Three-Strip” Technicolor, the first full-color variant) was introduced by a Walt Disney’s Silly Symphony called Flowers & Trees in 1932.
Seeing the enormous potential, Disney immediately negotiated an exclusive deal with Technicolor, which meant that from 1932 to 1935 they were the only studio allowed to use the new “three-strip” process, resulting in an explosion of Technicolor animated shorts during these years.
By 1935, the first full-color full-feature length film which used the process was released (RKO’s Becky Sharp) and when Walt Disney’s full-length animated feature Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs became the highest grossing film of 1938, Technicolor started its true rise to dominance in the color film industry and would remain there until the late fifties when competing systems like Eastmancolor by Kodak made color stock easier to develop and process.
The films on this list focus only on the fourth “Three-Strip” process, known for its eye-popping and heavily saturated colors. Whilst many films were produced using this process, the list focuses on either on genuine cinematic masterpieces or films which simply stand out due to their exceptional use of color and the process.
Whilst both Victor Fleming and Stanley Donen appear twice on the list (as these entries were not exclusively directed by them but are accredited to either various directors or co-directing duties), I have tried to avoid including various entries from the same filmmakers.
Whilst certain people really showed a knack at using Technicolor’s amazing palette and produced more than one stunning example in the process , I decided to highlight only one of their films when this was the case and to simply add the other titles as further recommendations to the description of that film. Apart from that, the films are simply ranked chronologically.
1. Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, 1939)
The third and most famous adaptation of the novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, The Wizard of Oz is directed by Victor Fleming (although parts are also credited to four other directors including George Cukor and King Vidor as Fleming was taken off set to take over the troubled production of Gone With The Wind that same year) and features a star-making and career-defining performance by Judy Garland.
Dorothy (Garland) and her dog Toto live on a Kansas farm with her aunt and uncle at the start of the twentieth century. When her evil neighbour wants to put down her dog, Dorothy decides to run away from home and meets the fake fortune teller Professor Marvel. He informs her that her aunt has fallen ill and as Dorothy and Toto rush back home they are caught in a freak tornado, which scoops them up and magically delivers them to the colorful and fantastical land of Oz.
Once there, Dorothy must find her way back home to Kansas by travelling to meet the great Wizard of Oz. On her way through the magic land, she meets and befriends the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and the Lion, all of whom join her on her quest as they all need the great Wizard to help them out too.
A flop upon its initial release, Wizard of Oz has over the years come to be regarded as one greatest Hollywood musicals and indeed films to have ever been made. With its winning soundtrack, production and costume design, star-making turn by Judy Garland, who proved she could also act and not just sing and dance, its colorful characters and its goundbreaking use of Technicolor as the movie transitions from sepia-toned Kansas to full-blown Technicolor Oz, the film slowly turned into the classic.
it is considered today as it was rediscovered on television in the 1950s despite the fact that it had been met with critical acclaim ever since its initial release in 1939. The Wizard of Oz was nominated for six Academy Awards, winning two for Best Score and Song (Somewhere Over The Rainbow), and was even in the running for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. An absolute Hollywood masterpiece, even though it took the general public a good ten years to catch on.
2. Gone With The Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
Adapted from the 1936 novel of the same name by Margaret Mitchell, Gone with the Wind is an epic romance/drama set against the backdrop of the American Civil War directed by Victor Fleming (although he replaced George Cukor fairly early in the production and was himself also briefly replaced by Sam Wood as Fleming suffered from exhaustion, having just come off directing The Wizard of Oz the very same year) and starring Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable.
The year is 1861 and Scarlett O’Hara (Leigh) is a self-centred and manipulative woman living on Tara, the cotton plantation owned by her family. Scarlett has been in love with Ashley Wilkes (Leslie Howard) but when she learns that he is about to marry Melanie Hamilton (Olivia de Havilland), she tries to plead with him to choose her instead, even though her father and servant both warn her not to interfere.
Ashley is non receptive to her plea but the conversation she has with him is overheard by Rhett Butler (Gable), who instantly falls her. But when the Civil War breaks out, all the men are enlisted in the Confederate Army and as the war rages Scarlett must fight for her estate’s survival whilst remaining in love with Ashley, marrying and being widowed twice and always being pursued by Rhett. They eventually marry although her love for Ashley, self-centred behaviour and further tragedy ensure that their union also isn’t meant to last.
At the time of its release Gone with the Wind was the most expensive production ever made and when adjusted for inflation, it, to this day, remains the world’s highest grossing movie ever with the most tickets sold in the United States in the history of cinema.
Epic in the truest sense of the word, the film had the highest production budget up until that time, a running time of four hours, highly detailed costume and set design which were brought to life in truly lush Technicolor and some grand-scale setpieces like the Burning of Atlanta.
Gone with the Wind went on receive thirteen Academy Award nominations, winning ten for Best Film, Director, Adapted Screenplay, Actress and Supporting Actress (for Hattie McDaniel, making her the first African-American to ever win an Oscar), Cinematography, Editing and Art Direction, in addition to two honorary awards.
One of Hollywood’s all-time greatest films from a year which is often considered the pinnacle of classical Hollywood cinema (as other all-time classics The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Ninotchka were also released that year), Gone with the Wind remains the film to which all other Hollywood period epics will be compared.
3. Fantasia (Various Directors, 1940)
What started as the animated short “Silly Symphony” The Sorcerer’s Apprentice soon grew into Walt Disney’s undisputed masterpiece and third full length animated feature: Fantasia. Released in 1940, the film features eight individual segments, all set to pieces of classical music conducted by Leopold Stokowski, has no clear narrative, virtually no dialogue and, to this day, remains an unique entry within the studio’s animated filmography (although a disappointing sequel called Fantasia 2000 was released in 1999).
The film consists of seven pieces of classical music set to varied styles of animation and also includes an “Intermission”, in which an animation explains how sound is added to film.
The seven segments consist of:
Toccata and Fugue in D Minor by Johann Sebastian Bach, in which the music is accompanied by abstract animation. The Nutcracker Suite by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, in which a variety of objects dance as they highlight the four seasons. The Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Paul Dukas, in which Mickey Mouse makes trouble as the young apprentice of a sorcerer. Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, in which the history of the earth and the rise and extinction of the dinosaurs are represented.
The Pastoral Symphony by Ludwig van Beethoven, which features various creatures from Greco-Roman mythology. Dance of the Hours by Amilcare Ponchielli, which features a ballet performed by Ostriches, Hippos, Elephants and Alligators. Night on Bald Mountain by Modest Mussorgsky and Ave Maria by Franz Schubert, in which a demon summons dead spirits to the mountain during the night whilst the morning sees monks chant as they make their way through the forest underneath.
Another flop upon its initial release, as audiences did not know what to make of an animated feature film which only featured classical music and no dialogue nor straight narrative throughout the film, Fantasia took its studio decades to recoup its costs. But by the time the psychedelic sixties hit, young audiences rediscovered the film and slowly but surely the movie was re-evaluated until it became the true masterpiece it is considered today.
Shot in stunning Technicolor, featuring various animations methods, all of which have their own distinct flavour and are all of very high quality, and a unique concept for a feature animated film, Fantasia arguably remains Walt Disney’s greatest achievement in film and an undisputed tour de force of animation. The film received two honorary Academy Awards for the use of sound in film and for widening the scope of cinema, whilst it also won a Special Award from the New York Film Critics Circle Awards.
Other noteworthy feature animated films by Walt Disney in Technicolor: Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Alice in Wonderland.
4. The Red Shoes (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1948)
Written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, also know as “The Archers”, The Red Shoes is a romantic musical tragedy starring Moira Shearer, Anton Walbrook and Marius Goring.
Julian Craster (Goring) is a brilliant young student composer who is surprised to hear his own compositions when he attends a new piece by the Lermontov Ballet Company, which are attributed to his teacher who, in fact, has obviously stolen his work. When he goes to Boris Lermontov (Walbrook) to complain about this, he is offered a job at the company. The very same day, Vicky Page (Shearer), a young ballerina, is also hired by Lermontov, after having met her at a party.
As Victoria is a very talented dancer, she is soon offered the lead ballerina role after the previous ballerina decides to leave the company. With the talents of Vicky and Julian, the company experiences a revival, especially after the success of The Red Shoes, composed by Craster. But when Julian and Vicky fall in love, Boris, himself also in love with Victoria, fires Julian in a fit of jealousy, which causes Vicky to leave with him.
Owning the rights to The Red Shoes, Boris refuses to stage the show any longer and when years later he convinces Vicky to return to her star-making role, tragedy ensues.
Obviously shot is lush Technicolor and with a stunning 15-minute performance of The Red Shoes ballet as the film’s centrepiece, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s tragedy became one of the most successful British films to have ever been released in the United States.
Whilst the film might be a bit on the melodramatic side for some, it’s the musical score, art direction, costumes and stunning cinematography and use of color which really make it stand out, whilst Anton Walbrook is fiendishly great in his performance as the ruthless and snobbish company director. The Red Shoes was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two for Best Art Direction and Music, whilst it was nominated for the Grand International Award at the Venice Film Festival.
Other noteworthy films by the Archers in Technicolor: The Thief of Baghdad, Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death (a.k.a. Stairway to Heaven).
5. Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1952)
Choreographed and directed by Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, Singin’ in the Rain is often considered one of the best musicals to ever come out of Hollywood, and even simply one of the greatest American films ever made. Starring Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor and Debbie Reynolds, Singin’ in the Rain is without a doubt the most famous of all MGM musicals under the guidance of the highly successful Arthur Freed unit at the studio, which was created after he did uncredited work on The Wizard of Oz, found earlier on this list.
Don Lockwood (Kelly) and Lina Lamont (Jean Hagen) are both huge stars during Hollywood’s silent era and the two have made many a romantic hit film together. Whilst Don is a charming fellow with some real talent, Lina is nothing but an egocentric shrew who actually believes the two are an item in real life. But when Don meets chorus girl Kathy Selden (Reynolds), the two start falling in love, just as sound hits the Hollywood film industry by storm.
When Don and Lina’s latest vehicle, The Duelling Cavalier, turns out to be a disaster during a test screening, after having been quickly transformed from a silent film into a “talkie”, Don, Kathy and Don’s best friend, Cosmo, come up with the idea to turn the movie into a musical called The Dancing Cavalier instead and start working on their own adaptation.
The only problem remains Lina’s terrible voice and the friends decide to have her dubbed by Kathy in order to circumvent the issue. But the jealous Lina refuses to give Kathy any credit when the film is finally released until she is put on the spot just after the film’s premiere when she’s asked to sing in front of a live audience.
Whilst Singin’ in the Rain was only a minor hit when it was first released in 1951, it has since come to be regarded as one of the greatest films to have ever come out of Hollywood’s Golden Era. All three leads are delightful (as is Jean Hagen as the very unlikeable and annoying Lia Lamont), the production values are top-notch and presented in vivid Technicolor and the film’s song and dance routines are of course of the highest quality.
The film’s title song remains one of the most recognised songs and scenes of the era whilst most other songs included in the soundtrack are also highly memorable and have stood the test of time very well. Lastly, the fact that this is a musical which pokes fun at Hollywood and the film making process itself, only adds further to the enjoyment.
The film won Best Written American Musical from the Writers Guild of America, a Golden Globe for Best Actor for Donald O’Connor and was nominated for two Academy Awards for Best Supporting Actress and Musical Score. Perhaps the most famous musical ever made, Singin’ in the Rain is the true definition of a golden age Hollywood classic.
6. Niagara (Henry Hathaway, 1953)
1953 was without a doubt the year of Marilyn Monroe. It’s the year she finally became a full blown star and Niagara was the first film out of three to be released that year to do it. Giving her first billing for the first time in her life, Niagara is a tense film noir uncharacteristically shot in fully saturated Technicolor. It is the closest Monroe has ever been to a Hitchcock-like thriller in her career and also proved to be one of 20th Century Fox’s biggest box-office draws that year.
The film tells the story of two couples. Polly (Jean Peters) and Ray Cutler (Casey Adams) are on their honeymoon and arrive at Niagara Falls, only to find their cottage occupied by another couple, George Loomis (Joseph Cotten) and his wife Rose (Monroe). Soon enough Polly finds out that Rose is having an affair with Patrick (Richard Allan) and that she seems to flaunt her sexuality constantly, causing her husband to have violent episodes.
It’s all part of the plan though as Rose and Patrick intend to kill George and want people to consequently think that his violent temper might have been the cause of some sort of accident. But things don’t go as planned as George outwits the lovers and ends up killing Patrick instead.
From there on in things go from bad to worse as George also wants to kill his wife in revenge for her cheating and conniving ways. But before he is able to do so, Polly runs into him, discovering that he is still very much alive and informing the police of what’s going on.
Niagara wasn’t a critical darling at the time but that didn’t stop the audience from turning up in droves. The film is also noteworthy as it allowed Marilyn got to extend her acting chops a bit since her role here required her to be a scheming femme fatale instead of the vulnerable dumb blonde she had basically always been asked to play before.
Unfortunately for her, the critics didn’t praise her for her performance and the audience ultimately did not come to see her act. They just came to see the gorgeous natural beauty in the film in full color, both Niagara’s and Monroe’s.