Britain’s wonderful worlds of colour

1st December 2012

While I have been reading (and enjoying) Colour Films in Britain: The Negotiation of Innovation 1900-55, a major new book by Sarah Street from BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, two key posts have appeared that render a touch redundant what I might have written. Samuel Wigley posted at the BFI an introduction to the book, A glorious adventure: colour films in Britain – with wonderful images (including the one above from the wartime docudrama Western Approaches, 1944). Then earlier this week Luke McKernan drew together numerous strands of scholarship about colour film in a major post, How colour works, with a cornucopia of additional links. So before you go any further, look up those two pieces.

What I can offer here are complementary clips culled from YouTube of eighteen British films made in colour between 1925 and 1955. These are embedded below, annotated with quotes from and thoughts about Sarah Street’s book. Read on for some vividly colourful treasures… (and wait a moment – or refresh – if the clips do not immediately appear).

The Open Road (1925)

Claude Friese-Greene developed the ‘Natural Colour’ process in the 1920s and used it to make a series of twenty-six short films of a motor tour round Britain, from which this is a substantial (mute) extract filmed in London. The full series is available on DVD from the BFI. Sarah Street writes

The Open Road‘s inter-titles, such as ‘We had to stop to admire the view’, encouraged the spectator to adopt a a contemplative attitude towards the images which involved little or no movement [which was difficult for the red-and-green colour process to render accurately]. Curious anticipation was encouraged as the viewer momentarily waited for the following shots which would then be studied closely.

Rainbow Dance (1936)

Sarah Street: Experimentation took place on several fronts [in the 1930s], and the advertising sector became an important outlet for colour films… [Len Lye’s Rainbow Dance, made in Gasparcolor] is an advertisement for the Post Office Savings Bank, but… is endlessly inventive and dazzling. The dancer’s silhouette progresses across frames and through colours, mostly moving but with the occasional moment of stasis. It is a wonderful example of how colour was used by such artists in a playful spirit of extending the colour box beyond notions of restraint and narrative cinema.

Making Fashion (1938)

Originally titled Design for Spring, this short (from which an extract is included here) was made in Dufaycolor by director Humphrey Jennings. Jennings was interested in the process and shot two other films using it. As Sarah Street explains,

It was a showcase for fashion designer Norman Hartnell’s spring collection, as well as for the colour film. Although Jennings did not seek to deploy colour overtly for its own sake, its appearance nevertheless constituted a visual sensation experienced by contemporary audiences as spectacular, particularly since screen colour was still relatively rare.

The Mikado (1939)

The American Technicolor process gradually came to dominate commercial film-making, and this first screen adaptation of the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, is one of the earliest films to use the process in Britain. The film has been released in the United States in an immaculate edition by The Criterion Collection (from which this is an extract); see also Geoffrey O”Brien’s informative essay Celluloid Savoy.

Sarah Street: 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.

The Thief of Baghdad (1940)

Michael Powell astonishing Technicolor fantasy is also available in the United States from The Criterion Collection, and Andrew Moor’s essay Arabian Fantasies is a complement to this release. Sarah Street writes that, ‘Rather than eschewing the idea that colour might be the star of the film. The Thief of Baghdad positively relishes this approach. Colour is used for spectacle many times in the film.’

The Four Feathers (1939)

Another major film from producer Alexander Korda brothers that was shot in Technicolor is The Drum (1938), and a fine print of this in its entirety is currently available on YouTube. And a third was The Four Feathers (1939), which is yet another Criterion Collection release, of which the clip below is the opening.

Sarah Street: … by the time three-strip Technicolor features were being made in the mid- to late-thirties, it seemed obvious to producers such as Alexander Korda to use colour for conquest/adventure films set in far and distant lands… [The Four Feathers] is an interesting example of how colour has no particular role in instilling patriotism through overt displays of military regalia and pageantry. Instead, the more subtle differentiation of skin tones and the symbolism of the white feathers are more significant.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943)

The Archers, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, are by far the most inventive creative team to have worked with colour in  mid-century British cinema, and Colonel Blimp (from which the dulling scene is embedded below) is one of their greatest films. Sarah Street is particularly good in analysing the film’s comparatively restrained colour design and she concludes that ‘far from being “a black and white film coloured” [Michael Powell’s own description], there is play with Technicolor which revises the notion that films which err on a “restrained” appraoch lack chromatic density, contrast or design.’

This Happy Breed (1944)

Noel Coward and David Lean’s ‘story of an ordinary London family from 1919 to 1939’ was shot in muted tones by cinematographer Ronald Neame. The trailer below is for the recent Network DVD and Blu-ray of a fine restoration.

Sarah Street: The association of British colour with realist codes gave it a gravitas that took advantage of high-brow, modernist thinking on the aesthetic superiority of monotone. On the other hand, as was the case with Colonel Blimp, realist colour was a specific style that used colour in a particular way, rather than rendering it unnoticeable… there are many instances of striking colour in the film which are all the more noticeable for their placement within a mise en scene otherwise dominated by less saturated and toned-down, pastel shades.

Henry V (1944)

There are few more audacious openings to a movie than the Prologue to Laurence Olivier’s wartime adaptation of Shakespeare’s play. In writing about the film Sarah Street teases out aspects of the links between propaganda and colour and she details the film’s ‘vibrant, visually pleasing palette’. ‘Yet this is never over-gaudy,’ she continues, ‘and for all its historical detail the film nevertheless subscribes to generally restrained Technicolor norms with accents on ceremonial attire and painted scenic backdrops.’

Blithe Spirit (1945)

While the earlier chapters of Colour Films in Britain tend to be somewhat drily technical (and are at times repetitive), the later considerations of films made during the war and after are packed with richly interesting cultural analysis. Sarah Street makes a particularly good case for the cinematic interest of David Lean’s film version (of which the trailer is below) drawn from Noel Coward’s astonishingly successful play.

 Sarah Street: Blithe Spirit is extrememly significant as a wartime colour feature in terms of its relation with other films of the period about spirituality, death, the uncanny, character doubling and questions of point of view. Its colour is distinctive and an essential part of the film’s address, with many examples of changing hues, deep saturation and obtrusive design through colour… [It] deserves to be related not as a poor relation to British social realist drama, but as an example of the ‘lost continent’ of British films which eschewed realism in favour of horror, gothic fantasy and the uncanny.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

Shot by the master cinematographer Jack Cardiff, Michael Powell’s film set out, as the director recalled, ‘to play with Technicolor on the screen in a way that nobody had ever played before’. (Part 1 is below, with the rest easily discoverable from YouTube.) There are seven colour sequences and six in monochrome, which were in fact filmed in three-strip Technicolor with the colour printed out. It remains an astoundingly bold film, and its colour strategies are discussed in detail and with considerable insight in Colour Films in Britain.

London Town (1946)

Sarah Street: Inspired by the optimism around colour at the end of World War II the Rank Organisation hired Wesley Ruggles, an American director best known for black and white comedies, for London Town (1946), the first major British musical in Technicolor (there is a brief clip below)… The cinematographer on London Town was Erwin Hillier, who described his first experience with Technicolor on the film as ‘one of the worst mistakes I made in my life’. Ruggles was apparently colour-blind… The film was a box office flop and severely criticised by the press as over-long.

Scott of the Antarctic (1948)

Chapter eight of Colour Films in Britain considers the relationship between colour and genre in post-war cinema, including films considered to be of national importance, especially involving royalty, and how this was then extended to ‘patriotic’ biopics like Scott of the Antarctic. The critic Roger Manvell enthused at the moment of the film’s release:

the Antarctic is a region of colour with the black shining sea breaking through the ice-packs, the blue sky seen through the clean air against the blue-white snowscapes, a place where dawns and sunsets can turn glaciers into incredible scenes of red and gold, the crevassed ice glistening like great frozen ribs or burnished tree-roots.. The colour is a revelation.

The Red Shoes (1948)

Sarah Street is very good on the connections between dance and colour film, and she offers an exemplary discussion of Jack Cardiff’s wonderful work on Michael Powell’s thrilling drama.

Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1950)

Sarah Street: It is still the case that particular films are cited more often than othersat the expense of interesting examples of colour experimentation that go relatively unnoticed because they were not associated with great directors or were box office and/or critical failures. One such film in relation to [cinematographer] Jack Cardiff is Pandora and the Flying Dutchman which has been overshadowed by his work with Powell and Pressburger.

This trailer gives a sense of the remarkable qualities of this Albert Lewin-directed update of the legend of the Flying Dutchman.

Festival in London (1951)

Made by the Crown Film Unit, this is a striking colour documentary in which colour is often privileged for dramatic effect.

Genevieve (1953)

 Sarah Street: [Genevieve] was one of the most popular British comedies of the 1950s, filmed largely on location by Chris Challis. This was fairly unusual for a Technicolor film since the varying light conditions on location created technical difficulties.

The Ladykillers (1955)

Below is the American trailer for this Ealing classic with the ‘hilariously villainous’ Alec Guinness. Again, Sarah Street provides a precise analysis of the colour design:

For a film which is marked for much of the time by low-key lighting, primary colours are nevertheless outstanding and work to accentuate contrast. Red is a key colour throughout the fil, both within the house and outside… Additional details accumulate to form a palette which is visually arresting for colour contrast, repetition and surprise.

One last thing to say about Colour Films in Britain… in an appendix of forty-seven pages, the book lists all of the colour films released in Britain, at least as according to the Kinematograph Year Books. This in itself is an invaluable piece of research.

And by way of a conclusion, one last quote…

The many films referenced in this book have indeed shown that British technicians experimented with colour in exciting ways, and were at the forefront of exploring the potential of colour aesthetics and designs for the screen. What will also have emerged clearly is that there was a national investment in making a case for a specifically British deployment of colour…

The legacy of British colour films is their imaginative exploration of colour restraint, expressive play with colour design with genre cinema, and the production of some of the most significant short and avant garde colour films in the first half of the twentieth century.


  1. Sarah Street says:

    Thanks John – so glad you like the book and the clips embedded here are wonderful. I most certainly am also a ‘colour enthusiast’ and I have loved looking at all those amazing colour films over the past few years.

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