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Colour in Film: Meet Me in St. Louis in a ‘glorious Technicolor’ vintage print

As part of the public lecture series This is Film! Film Heritage in Practice, devoted to remarkable projects in the fields of film restoration and film heritage, a vintage Technicolor print of Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) will be screened at Eye Filmmuseum on 3 April. Giovanna Fossati, Chief Curator at Eye and Professor Film Heritage at UvA, will talk with special guest Céline Ruivo, Curator of the Film Collection at Cinémathèque Française and Head of the Technical Committee of the International Federation of Film Archives, about the magnificent world of colour in film, and more specifically about Technicolor.

By Paulina Reizi09 November 2020

Technicolor is the brand name of a series of motion picture technologies that became eventually known and celebrated for their highly saturated colours. Ruivo has done extensive research on the Technicolor process for her PhD and has recently uncovered this exceptional film print of Minnelli’s classic in the collection of Cinémathèque Française. The 35mm vintage print that will be screened at Eye provides a glimpse into how the movie could have looked like originally, as it is the closest existing material created by the producers in the 1950s for theatrical distribution. In this interview, Ruivo provides some insights about this unique film print and her experience with Technicolor.

Film poster of Meet Me in St. Luis

Upon its 1944 release, Time magazine called Meet me in St. Louis “one of the year's prettiest pictures”. Can you tell us how important this film was in the Technicolor history?

This was the first film that Vincente Minnelli shot in Technicolor. For my research on Technicolor, Meet Me in St. Louis was very interesting, because Minnelli tried to make the design and the settings in his own way, building upon his expertise from his work on Broadway. In his memoir, Minnelli said that he believed in the Technicolor system but that he did not always follow the advice of Natalie Kalmus, the famous Technicolor consultant. Meet Me in St. Louis was revolutionary, because Minnelli together with his director of photography, George Folsey, played with the blurry effect that Technicolor would evoke. I remember a beautiful sequence with a snow landscape and many characters in the background, which reminded me of a Bruegel painting. The characters are dressed purposefully in peculiar colours and as they seem indistinct, it helps the viewer to perceive the depth in the image.

Critics would say that the three-colour Technicolor system cannot provide a good, sharp focus. Especially for distant scenes, the system gives indeed a blurry effect. This is because the image was captured simultaneously by three film negatives which were then printed together to provide the colour film for cinema viewing (also known as the 'Technicolor imbibition process'). However, Minnelli and his director of photography played with this, creating absolutely gorgeous sequences.

Still from Meet Me in St. Louis
Still from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

What is the uniqueness of the Technicolor print that will be projected? Is there any particularity in this print by the Cinémathèque Française compared to other existing ones?

We found this Meet Me in St. Louis print two years ago in our vaults. It was part of a collection deposited by MGM in 1963. The previous curator of the Cinémathèque informed me about the existence of some original Technicolor prints in our collection. I started to train my team to recognise real Technicolor prints; when you see films with a grey frame line and colours that have not faded, you can be almost sure that it’s a Technicolor. For example, we also found the original Vertigo (1958), a deposit made by Hitchcock himself, and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953) with Marilyn Monroe.

The Meet Me in St. Louis print is an original Technicolor imbibition print that was made by the rightsholders for theatrical release in the 1950s. It is difficult to know the exact date of the print, because there are no edge-marks that could help us identify the year. Yet, we know that during this period, several classical Hollywood films were reprinted in safety film for further theatrical distribution. The emulsions of Technicolor in the 1950s were highly performant and sensitive, using different dyes compared to the early days of this system. In France, we were not used to search for such films because there was not a culture of Technicolor as there was in the USA. However, now this archival print has a great significance and we do not loan it easily. We restrict the access only to institutions that guarantee a safe projection of the print. Therefore, this projection at Eye Filmmuseum is rather unique. If you are interested in how the original movie could have looked like in the 1940s, this vintage print screened at Eye is the closest thing existing, much closer than prints made later, new analogue prints or digitised versions.

“This projection at Eye Filmmuseum is rather unique. If you are interested in how the original movie could have looked like in the 1940s, this vintage print screened at Eye is the closest thing existing, much closer than prints made later, new analogue prints or digitised versions.”

Céline Ruivo, Curator of the Film Collection at Cinémathèque Française and Head of the Technical Committee of the International Federation of Film Archives

For the production of ‘Meet me in St. Louis’, the ‘three-strip’ Technicolor camera was rented, which implied that a crew of technicians and a colour consultant from the Technicolor company were permanently supervising the shooting. What was the influence of this unusual contractual set-up on the film production?

Technicolor manufactured 29 ‘three-strip’ cameras – the number 13 doesn’t exist for superstitious reasons. If you wanted to rent a Technicolor camera, you were contractually obliged to also hire a Technicolor advisory team. This team implied the presence of the technical consultant, Natalie Kalmus, who received additional support from her technicians. There was also a director of photography provided by Technicolor who was working on the set together with the film’s director of photography. This complexity created conflicts between the studio team and the Technicolor team. Often, studio teams didn’t find Technicolor support necessary. Articles appearing on the press at that time reflect hostile views against the Technicolor technicians, who were portrayed as theoreticians of colour without any knowledge of the reality of a film set. With time, the expertise of Technicolor people was respected amongst the film industry. Moreover, in the case of Natalie Kalmus, we have to consider that a film set was a male-dominated environment. For a woman who was not even a cinematographer, telling technicians to do this and that, must have not been easy either. Several people would say that she was not easy at all, but eventually some recognised that her advice and coordinating role were necessary for technical parameters such as photo sensitivity, brightness, and the eventual colour print. For Minnelli’s film, it is often mentioned that he tried to work independently from the Technicolor consultant. However, for those interested in Technicolor, it is very interesting to make some further research into the collaboration with his cameraman, the set designer and the technicians and to find out how he used the available technology to achieve such impressive results.

Longevity and preservation of technicolor films

Does the Technicolor printing process, known as the imbibition process, contribute to the longevity of the archival print?

The colours in Technicolor prints do not easily change with time as other colour techniques. If they start to change, it means that they were either projected several times and the projector’s lamp may have affected the dyes or that the safety prints may have been impacted by the vinegar syndrome. Unfortunately, they stopped printing with the Technicolor imbibition method in the 1970s. Several filmmakers, most notably Scorsese, fought to revive this printing method because Eastmancolor prints faded after a couple of years. Comparisons between Eastmancolor prints and Technicolor imbibition prints demonstrated that the colours in the latter process were neither fading nor moving. Finally, they managed to revive this process in the 1990s, however, this lasted only for a few years and it was completely abandoned in 2002.

What are the best archival practices and storage conditions to preserve Technicolor films, in order to avoid fading and to ensure the overall good condition of the material?

To my knowledge, there is no study with regard to the dyes and their resistance to cold archival conditions. The recommendation for tri-acetate prints is to store them in very low temperature to avoid the vinegar syndrome. In terms of dyes, if they are stored in 2°C, in an optimal environment with good climatization, there is no issue, I think. In terms of preserving colour films, there are also questions about whether we should clean the Technicolor films with the regular machines using perchlorate, as we don’t know how the film will react later. We now refuse, for example, to clean Meliès movies with perchlorate. Whether films have organic dyes or synthetic dyes, like Technicolor, you need to study the film itself and its reaction to the cleaning process to avoid any long-term issues.

Still from Meet Me in St. Louis
Still from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Presenting archival films to contemporary audiences

Meet me in St. Louis was a box-office hit, grossing more money than any prior MGM release in 20 years, with the exception of Gone with the Wind (1939). Do you think that this vintage archival print can attract the contemporary audience’s interest too? What is the policy and practice of showing vintage archival prints at Cinémathèque Française?

We have no such policy, but I’m shaping it at the moment. When programmers at the Cinémathèque want to show this type of archival print, which has a restricted access for preservation purposes, they have to respond to a set of questions. For example, ‘which type of screening will you do?’, ‘what kind of audience is it?’ and so on. The film Meet Me in St. Louis fits very well with a young audience, but if the Education department requests the vintage print for projection, it will not be approved, because the audience will not realise how important the print is. These archival prints are sometimes very fragile and they are rarely screened. This print has only been shown at the Cinémathèque in Paris, at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna and now, at Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. For a prestigious screening like at Eye, the audience will appreciate that this is a very unique print. We believe that people who are interested in this type of vintage print because it recreates the initial experience, will go to see the movie.

“This print has only been shown at the Cinémathèque in Paris, at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna and now, at Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam. For a prestigious screening like at Eye, the audience will appreciate that this is a very unique print.”

Céline Ruivo, Curator of the Film Collection at Cinémathèque Française and Head of the Technical Committee of the International Federation of Film Archives

In a previous interview, you mentioned that the first Technicolor films were not appreciated by the audience, because they were considered unrealistic. Especially when thinking about today’s contradictory trend in colouring black and white movies as a way to bring old films to contemporary audiences, how do you explain the evolution of Technicolor culture amongst the filmmakers and the audience?

For French people, the Technicolor technique was mostly seen as a special effect. When Technicolor was launched in the USA, some filmmakers like John Ford were also sceptical. Initially, Technicolor was considered an unrealistic effect that disturbs the narration. The filmmakers and the audience had to get used to that but the method eventually became a success.

Still from Meet Me in St. Louis
Still from Meet Me in St. Louis (1944)

Technicolor flourished in the USA and in the UK in the 1930s. However, France didn’t follow this colour technique at all. Then, World War II came and many of those foreign Technicolor films didn’t even arrive in France. After the war, France and the USA made some sort of financial agreement so that all American cultural products would come to France at better prices. This deal made many people unhappy in the French cinema industry, which reinforced a general anti-American feeling linked to the presence of American troops in several military bases in the country. Due to this context and the lack of tradition in Technicolor, the comments one can find about Technicolor in articles of the post-war period are that “it’s an American thing” and “it’s so fake”. Eventually, a Technicolor France lab opened in 1955, but it did not work very well and it ceased operations within three years. Even during the Technicolor France operations, if prestigious films were produced in France, they were still sending them to the UK for printing, because the British lab had the work experience since 1937. Moreover, it was a very expensive process and the producers were not easily willing to invest in it. Then, the technologies of competitors, Agfacolor and Eastmancolor, arrived. Jean Renoir was one of the rare examples of French filmmakers who worked with Technicolor in the 1950s, because he brought this tradition from the USA where he had previously worked. It was not only until the 1960s, that Technicolor was really used in the French film industry.

I had the opportunity to work on the restoration of Renoir’s film French Cancan (1954), which was filmed with the ‘three-strip’ camera. During my lab work, I had many questions about the Technicolor process. However, even the technicians at the Eclair lab in France, the best graders, were not used to look at Technicolor prints, because this system was not widespread in France. The negatives and the original Technicolor prints were beautiful but they were saying that the prints did not have a high contrast. In fact, Renoir decided to make the images very soft and beautiful without high saturation and contrast. It is wrong to think that all Technicolor films have high saturation. Some Technicolor films are bright and garish, but it depends on the design and choice of each film production. In the case of the vintage print Meet Me in St. Louis that will be projected at Eye, the colours reflect the reputation of saturated Technicolor.

Technicolor technology and aesthetics

Are there any efforts by cinematographers to replicate the ‘Glorious Technicolor’ aesthetics? What is the heritage of Technicolor’s success in today’s digital-dominated film technology?

A few films were made during the revival period of the imbibition printing process between 1997 and 2002, but they mostly did not come to Europe. For example, Pixar was one of the proponents of Technicolor and their Finding Nemo (2003) was also printed in Technicolor. Some new imbibition prints of classical films were also created in that period, such as Vertigo (1958). However, the hues of the modern prints are considered to be much more saturated than how they would have looked like in the 1940s. Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998) was also printed in Technicolor and it’s interesting to see why he chose this expensive printing method. I think that Malick wanted to recreate the atmosphere of World War II and the colour system of that time.

When a movie takes place in the 1930s or 1940s, sometimes filmmakers depict also the history of colour in film. For example, Scorsese’s The Aviator (2004) starts with a two-colour Technicolor effect and then, simulates the three-colour system. Another good example is Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven (2002), which is, for me, a film greatly influenced by the Technicolor era. The movie takes place in the 1950s and Haynes tried to recreate the Technicolor aesthetics. There are many examples of filmmakers and their cinematographers who tried to document the colour process of the time. It is interesting to see how the depiction of a bygone period can influence the form of the film nowadays.

Is there a lost Technicolor film print that you would like to find?

One of my dreams is to find the Technicolor version of Godard’s Le Mépris (1963). There was a double distribution of Le Mépris in Eastmancolor and Technicolor. On the film set, you can see people with the Technicolor logo on their clothes. Also, Raoul Coutard, the famous cinematographer, confirmed in an interview that some Technicolor prints of Le Mépris were made. I believe that Cinecittà must have carried out this work, so probably a print could be found there. It would be wonderful to retrace this Technicolor print and do a screening one day.