Douglas Sirk’s 1950s melodramas are very special in their application of Technicolor. As Thomas Elsaesse eleborated in his seminal paper “Tales of Sound and Fury. Observations of the Family Melodrama.” (in Monogram no. 4, 1972, pp. 2–15), Sirk’s style reflects the oppressed emotions and the societal conditions of their female protagonists.
ASKED about the colour in “Written on the Wind Douglas Sirk replied: ‘Almost throughout the picture I used deep-focus lenses which have the effect of giving a harshness to the objects and a kind of enamelled, hard surface to the colours, I wanted this to bring out the inner violence, the energy of the characters which is all inside them and can’t break through.’ It would be difficult to think of a better way of describing what this particular movie and indeed most of the best melodramas of the 50s and early 60s are about. Or for that matter, how closely, in this film, style and technique is related to theme. (Elsaesser 1972, 2)
While Elsaesser put a special emphasis on the use of color in Sirk’s films, he did not investigate the films in the context of the normative Technicolor system. A closer investigation shows that Sirk was following some of the Technicolor rules while violating others. For instance he used mood lighting to convey the emotional state of the protagonists by colored lights. Mood lighting is a technique that has been used in the earliest Three-strip Technicolor film “La Cucaracha” in 1934, but also in later films such as “Gone With the Wind” (1939) or “Leave Her to Heaven” (1945). However, he inverted the rule that protagonists had to be positioned at the center of attention as proposed by Technicolor color consultant Natalie M. Kalmus in “Color consciousness.” (Journal of the Society of Motion Picture Engineers, vol. 25, no. 2, 1935, pp. 139-147.).
For example, there must be enough difference in the colors of an actor’s face or costume and the walls of the set to make him stand out from the colors back of him; otherwise, he will blend into the background and become indistinguishable, as does a polar bear in the snow. (Kalmus 1935, 146)
To use Kalmus’ metaphor, Sirk’s female characters often blend into their environments like polar bears in the snow. For instance, they are wearing grey costumes in front of equally unsaturated backgrounds. When in “All That Heaven Allows” Cary Scott wears a red dress to visit the local country club, she becomes the talk of the town.
On the other hand, Sirk uses the conventional colors – such as red for passion – to attribute meaning to the characters, as with the red dress for Cary or recurring red objects for the nymphomaniac Marylee Hadley in “Written on the Wind”.
Given that color plays such an important part in Sirk’s movies, it is very regrettable that many DVDs do not depict the intense colors of the Technicolor dye-transfer prints. As shown in the comparison of the DVD from the Criterion Collection with a photograph I took of the dye-transfer print of “All That Heaven Allows” from the Harvard Film Archive, the intense blue mood lighting is completely lost in the DVD.
Many more photographs of Sirk’s films are available on the detail page for Technicolor No. V on Timeline of Historical Film Colors. In addition to the dye transfer prints from the Harvard Film Archive, there are new photographs of a dye-transfer print of “All That Heaven Allows” from the Academy Film Archive in Los Angeles.
It is one of the most important topics of Timeline of Historical Film Colors to raise awareness for the material properties of historical color films, as outlined in my paper “Material properties of historical film in the digital age” (In: Necsus, No. 2, Autumn 2012, online).
And a last remark: Many photographs of a beautiful Technicolor dye-transfer print of “Gone With the Wind” from the Academy Film Archive will be uploaded soon. Follow this blog to receive future updates.