Some thoughts about early colour films, Henry Hathaway and Sylvia Sidney, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.
In 1936, Paramount Pictures released The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the second full-length feature film to be shot in three-strip Technicolor and the first to be filmed almost entirely outdoors. Paramount were hoping to build on the success of RKO’s Becky Sharp, which had been directed by Rouben Mamoulian the previous year. Although critics were quick to praise the potential of colour, Becky Sharp treated the new technology as a novelty, and the intense, stylised hues were somewhat distracting for the audience. The film performed badly at the box office. If Mamoulian’s Becky Sharp was a divisive as her namesake in Thackeray’s 1848 novel, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is surely William Dobbin, a true gentleman who never imposes, is always courteous, restrained and modest.
Frank Nugent, movie critic for the New York Times, dedicated the first five paragraphs of his nine-paragraph review of the film to discuss how it used colour. He reserved effuse for Natalie Kalmus, who supervised the colour photography and director Henry Hathaway who, Nuget observed, “adhered steadfastly, in the face of what must have been great temptation, to his avowed intention of keeping colour under control.” His verdict: the film imprisoned the rainbow by focusing on sober browns, black sand deep greens; making the case for ‘colour’ without lessening it. This was, in part, due to the influence of Kalmus who, in her role in Technicolor’s Color Advisory Service, was tasked with making colour support narrative expression.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, is an exercise in restraint – colour supports and enhances the general mood of a scene, and is never obtrusive; this allows small deviations to create powerful punctuation points. In fact, the use of colour impacted the film in a variety of ways. The characters never wear the traditional lumberjack shirts that were the staple uniform of mountain dwellers, lest the bright checks draw too much attention in each frame. The film utilises a controlled palette of neutrals, and shades of grey and brown dominate. Most of the hues are at a similar level of saturation so when showy colours are introduced – the pinks and reds of Dave Tolliver’s (Henry Fonda) bedspread for example – they remain controlled. In exterior shots, bright patches of blue sky are used to guide the audience’s attention to the action
This practised restraint ensures that small changes take on greater importance. June Tolliver (played by Sylvia Sidney) wears a remarkably restrained wardrobe for a leading lady (and one usually known for her glamour). During most of the film she is seen in one dress, an austre navy number that she dresses up with a white lace collar. It’s not until she makes the decision to go to Louisville that her style becomes noticeably more feminine, a transition that is recognised in attire and surroundings. The pink and pastel hues of her temporary home could not be further from the stark brown of the log cabin she has left behind, it represents changes in her life and character developments and gives them a visual reference. The audience cannot fail to misinterpret the director’s meaning.
Other motifs that run throughout the film include Tater (played by Fuzzy Knight) a ‘local’ character who’s not affiliated with either the Tolliver or Falin clan and is used to provide comic relief. He wanders through the forest singing; associated with the wilderness, his romanticised character lends human feelings to the forest and woods. As a narrative device, Tater also allows the audience to appreciate and experience the beauty and importance of the natural surrounds.
The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is a such an important film within the context of film history because it proved that, when used with thought and restraint, colour could be an asset not a distraction. It allowed for the development of characters, heightened the visual intensity plot turning points and was used as an additional motif. If further proof of the film’s importance were needed, consider that according the 1944 edition of the Motion Picture Almanac, only 59 films grossed more than $1,500,00 between 1914 and 1943, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine amongst them. A not-inconsiderable feat when it’s revealed that during this period, Hollywood churned out an average of 500 films a year. Topping the list was Gone With the Wind and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, (much) further down the list Hathaway’s colour effort held its own against other, later classics including Philadelphia Story, State Fair and To the Shores of Tripoli.