Some thoughts about, Robin Hood, Technicolor and costume, inspired by The Language of Hollywood: Storytelling, Sound and Colour.
Warner Bros. invested 2 million dollars in Michael Curtiz and William Keighley’s The Adventures of Robin Hood, an unprecedented sum in the late 1930s. The studio hoped that the film would be a hit with audiences who were showing an increasing appetite for the fairytale and fantasy genre following the success of Captain Blood, a 1935 swashbuckling adventure film directed by Michael Curtiz, and Disney’s first feature-length animation film Snow White (released in 1937). Viewed through the lens of contemporary cinema, Robin Hood remains a celluloid landmark, a glorious adventure that cemented the dominance of Technicolor whilst telling a compelling story. It was the first time that Warner Bros. had shot a film using the original three-strip Technicolor process, and the resultant palette was dynamic, warm and rich, an advert for the technology, if one were needed.
A tale as epic and heroic as Robin Hood demanded to be told in broad brushstrokes, and that made the colour compositions just as important as the casting and the direction. As Robin Hood, Errol Flynn launched himself onto horseback, scaled castle walls and leaps into battle – it’s almost impossible to imagine that his zest, energy and enthusiasm would have been communicated so successfully in a black and white offering. The colour lends depth and reality to both indoor and outdoor locations; scenes shot in ‘Sherwood Forest’ are simultaneously real and contrived, the audience recognises that this is the outdoors, but the colour saturation shades it with beauty and mystery.
Another key aspect of the visual richness of Robin Hood were the costumes, designed by a variety of (uncredited) costumes designers. There are lots of costume changes; leading lady Olivia de Havilland (as Maid Marian) had nine costume changes and Basil Rathbone (Sir Guy of Grisbourne) had a not insignificant seven. In fact, it was almost unheard of for a male character to have almost as many ‘looks’ as the leading lady. Each costume was designed with eye-pleasing ostentation in mind and, although the period was taken as a reference point, each costume was subtly modernised. Of course, in keeping with the Technicolor tradition, they were never allowed to overshadow a scene, rather reinforce and aid storytelling. Many scenes – both interior and exterior – contained a large number of characters, and the costume was used as a visual tool to tie elements together or draw the audience’s eye in a certain direction.
Maid Marian falls in love with Robin gradually and it’s possible to chart her increasing attachment scene-by-scene. As she realises that she must escape her arranged marriage to Grisbourne, her costumes become lighter, more romantic and harmonise with Robin’s; connecting their characters visually on screen they represent a barometer of her romance. Theirs is a simple and pure love, accentuated by the absence of overt sentimentality or romantic demonstrance. The audience is aware of the inevitability of their love from the outset, if not from plot familiarity then through these visual clues: for example in the the opening banquet the emeralds that decorate the clasp of Maid Marian’s cape echo the green of Robin’s outfit. Of course, she’s also tied to Grisbourne and Prince John (Claude Rains) so the other hues (purple and gold) align her character with them.
It’s during these ‘busy’ scenes that costume (and by extension, colour) is used most successfully, and the costume designers and cinematographers worked hard to make a specific colour stand out during pivotal moments. There isn’t room for the subtle colour motifs that characterised earlier colour pictures, such as The Trail of The Lonesome Pine, and of course, audiences had become used to the colour technology so cinematographers had to work harder to capture their attention subtly yet effectively. In the opening scenes (including the aforementioned banquet), colour is used assertively. The Normans express their position through rich tones, accented with gold and gems, in contrast to the more ‘natural’ hues of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. When Robin Hood captures, amongst others, Grisbourne and the Sheriff of Nottingham (Melville Cooper) he forces them out of their everyday garb and into simpler, plainer clothes, removing visual elements of authority and prestige with one simple action.
Although Robin Hood is primarily associated with green, during a rousing, preparing-for-battle speech, it’s revealed that his cape is lined with red. The timing of the reveal is carefully considered; as the speech reaches the crescendo it adds a frisson of drama.
The Adventures of Robin Hood was such a successful film because it was able to use Technicolor to ground fantasy in reality. Much of the movie – from the stunts to the sets – are exciting because they are real; although designed to impress the audience they never stray too far from the everyday, retain a pure and easy simplicity, and never distract from the primary aim of film: a visual story that’s wrapped up in human emotion.
Further reading: Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow by Scott Higgins