Natalie Kalmus Technicolor Supervisor Wiard of Oz.jpg
Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor dream in The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939)
Stories & Ideas

Tue 05 Jan 2021

Natalie Kalmus: ringmaster of the Technicolor rainbow

Craft Film History Representation
Maria Lewis
Maria Lewis

Assistant Film Curator

In early Hollywood, if you wanted to use the Technicolor system, you needed to hire Natalie Kalmus too. The pioneering colour supervisor defined how films looked forever.

She has more credits to her name than Steven Spielberg, has worked on more movies than Martin Scorsese, and contributed to iconic cinematic masterpieces like The Wizard of Oz (1939), A Star Is Born (1937) and Gone With The Wind (1939). Yet the name Natalie Kalmus is one few movie buffs know and even fewer acknowledge, with her contributions to the moving image largely written out of cinema history … or attributed to her husband.

She married Herbert T. Kalmus in 1902, the scientist and engineer who was the founder of Technicolor along with two other academics in the 1910s. As the demand for colour pictures increased dramatically, Natalie Kalmus became the company’s presence in the field. In order to hire Technicolor equipment and use the Technicolor system, studios needed to hire Kalmus who understood intimately not just how the process worked but what it needed to be used for.

In her book Color Consciousness (1935), Kalmus explained that it wasn’t just about having colour for colour’s sake: it was about the why as much as the how. “We see that all the colors in the spectrum speak their particular language,” she said, detailing the visual poetry behind the methodology. “The flush of anger, the vigor of a sun-tanned skin, the richness of gold velvet, the violet mystery of distant mountains, the serenity of blue sky – these colors alone speak with more eloquence than could be described by words.”

One of the most famous examples of this was in The Wizard of Oz, which saw Dorothy’s shoes changed from shiny, glittery silver to their now iconic bright red. And not just any red, that specific ruby shade to conjure key emotions associated with joy, fun, and energy, not to mention juxtapose with the Wicked Witch of The West’s green skin. She and Dorothy are polar opposites in their actions, yes, but also in the visual language.

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Technicolor is the process that brought iconic cinema moments to vibrant life. The Wizard of Oz (Victor Fleming, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1939)

Credited as the Technicolor director on more than 400 titles, it was Kalmus’ job to make sure filmmakers understood the best ways to make use of the technology.

“The modification of a positive color by the introduction of another hue modifies the mental reaction to the degree of the intensity of that hue which is introduced,” she wrote in Color Consciousness. “For example, a positive blue is a cool color, but to the extent in which a red hue is introduced, the coolness of the blue will be altered by the warmth of red. However, these complexities do not alter the basic principles of color or the general reactions which we have outlined.”

The purpose of her role was twofold: it meant Technicolor became the industry standard over some of its competitors (like Kinemacolor, for instance) and ensured the longevity of Technicolor as a company. While much of film history glosses over her contributions to so many of the movies that she consulted – she is often called a director ‘in name only’ – it’s clear this was a position she took extremely seriously, both in the pre-production stages of a film and on set during its actual creation.

“In the preparation of a picture we read the script and prepare a colour chart for the entire production, each scene, sequence, set, and character being considered,” Kalmus outlined in her book, along with the importance of “colour separation”. “This chart may be compared to a musical score and amplifies the picture in a similar manner. The preparation of this chart calls for careful and judicious work. Subtle effects of beauty and feeling are not attained through haphazard methods, but through application of the rules of art and the physical laws of light and colour in relation to literary laws and story values.”

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It meant that as a consultant for Technicolor, she had the power to make sweeping changes to productions: something that was often resented by not just the filmmakers themselves, but studios as well. Producers on Gone with the Wind considered making the film in black and white because they considered the Technicolor experts – including Kalmus – too demanding and “dominating the creative side” according to David O. Selznick. A Perfect Crime (1921) and Bound in Morocco (1918) director Allan Dwan called her “a b**tch”, while memos from filmmaker Vincente Minnelli said he “couldn't do anything right in Mrs. Kalmus' eyes” during the production of Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). Unafraid to go toe-to-toe with her male colleagues in the industry, she was labelled hysterical and troublesome by those in charge. Eventually, they won.

Despite the fact she and her husband split up in the 1920s, they continued to live and work together right up until the 1940s when Herbert decided to remarry. This resulted in a contentious lawsuit that was heavily documented in tabloids at the time, with Kalmus attempting to pursue alimony from her ex-husband and some of the Technicolor profits she believed she was entitled to by law. She lost the case and her job, with Kalmus not working in Hollywood again before her death in 1965.

Natalie Kalmus

Natalie Kalmus. Courtesy RGR Collection / Alamy.

Technicolor also lost its monopoly on the industry, with Kodak’s colour stock becoming dominant in the 1950s. In her New York Times obituary, she was quoted as describing her work as "playing ringmaster to the rainbow”. Traditional Hollywood was not a welcoming environment for women, especially those as outspoken and confrontational as Kalmus. Her position at Technicolor and the demand for the technology gave her power in showbusiness that few – if not zero – women had. Yet her contributions helped lay the foundation for what visual storytelling could look like in years to come.

“When we receive the script for a new film, we carefully analyse each sequence and scene to ascertain what dominant mood or emotion is to be expressed,” she said in Color Consciousness. “When this is decided, we plan to use the appropriate colour or set of colours which will suggest that mood, thus actually fitting the colour to the scene and augmenting its dramatic value. We plan the colours of the actor's costumes with especial care. Whenever possible, we prefer to clothe the actor in colours that build up his or her screen personality.”

– Maria Lewis

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A snippet of film from a restoration of Becky Sharp (1935), undertaken by UCLA Library Film and Television Archive

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