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Technicolor, VistaVision, and the Widescreen Visual Experience

ATTENTION! SPOILER ALERT!

Not only did John Ford film the 1956 movie, The Searchers, in brilliant Technicolor, but he filmed it in VistaVision, providing the audience with an enhanced widescreen visual experience.

http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/vistavision.htm

Movies made in VistaVision were intended to be viewed in theaters with large screens, both in height and width. VistaVision technology created an “optical reduction from a large negative image to the standard release print image . . . [that improved] the front and side seat viewing” (American WideScreen Museum) in widescreen formats.

John Ford’s spectacular landscape shots of Monument Valley (cinematographer Winton C. Hoch) were perfect for both Technicolor and widescreen viewing. Here are some examples:

In this wide angle long shot, the audience sees the renegade Comanches attacking the search party from two sides and chasing them through the valley. The landscape is open and wide, giving the impression of an unlimited environment with no place to hide. Will the search party survive this attack?

In this long shot, the searchers forge ahead with the search for the lost child, Debbie, in spite of a desolate desert landscape, storms, and few provisions. It is a dramatic scene which highlights the grim determination of the men involved.

In the final long shot, John Wayne walks away, after reuniting Debbie with her adopted brother, in order to avoid being arrested for murder. He is framed in black, indicating that this is the end of the story, and he will probably never return. He is a loner who got his revenge, found personal redemption, and saved his family. He is the hero of the story— but he is also a broken man who does not fit into civilized society. He has not necessarily overcome his bitterness and racism. He merely decided that saving one of the last members of his family was more important than killing her.

If John Ford’s intention was to highlight spectacular landscapes and provide the audience with an incredible widescreen experience, Technicolor and VistaVision were the right film stock and technology to use.

But if it was his intention to tell a dramatic and tension-filled story, he might have done better to use black and white film stock. The bright colors and wide angle screen shots detract from the story. It is easy to get caught up in the visual spectacle and miss what’s happening in the story. Barsam and Monahan describe The Searchers as “a psychological western that is concerned less with the traditional western’s struggle between good and evil than with the lead character’s struggle against personal demons” (Barsam and Monahan 216). They conclude that the movie “might have been even more powerful shot in black and white instead of color.  Doing so might have produced a visual mood, as in film noir, that complemented the darkness at the heart of the movie’s narrative” (Barsam and Monahan 216).

John Ford was not striving for accuracy and authenticity in The Searchers, and the use of color highlights the movie’s many flaws. Viewers in the 1950s were not as familiar with the Southwest as they are today. In 2017, John Ford could not get away with filming a western in Monument Valley (which is located in Northern Arizona and Utah), and slapping on an intertitle identifying the location as Texas. The viewers would not accept it. Neither would they accept a white actor with gray or hazel eyes masquerading as a full-blooded Comanche wearing all-too-bright red and yellow war paint. The women in Scar’s tribe of renegade Comanches are attired in traditional Navajo clothing – including John Wayne’s lost niece, Debbie (Natalie Wood). Today’s Navajos watch movies and would eagerly point out this historical inaccuracy. (Monument Valley is Navajo country, and it is obvious from the movie that Ford employed local natives to masquerade as Comanches. As part of my job, I worked with members of the Navajo, Hopi, and Apache tribes. I found the inaccuracies in The Searchers to be jarring, even though I first saw the movie on TV many years ago as a child.) Black and white film might have minimized the obvious flaws.

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

Ford, John, Dir. The Searchers. Perf. John Wayne. Warner Bros., 1956.

Ryder, Loren L. “The Story of VistaVision.” The American WideScreen Museum. 2006.

       <http://www.widescreenmuseum.com/widescreen/vistavision.htm.

Dawn Pisturino

Thomas Edison State University

January 1, 2018

Copyright 2018-2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

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Colorful Moments in Early Black-and-White Horror

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, 1925, black-and-white masked ball scene.

Most people think of the silent film version of Phantom of the Opera as a black-and-white film but, in reality, there were a number of color scenes in the movie.

As early as 1895, methods had been invented to inject color into scenes, but these “additive color systems” used processes that were tedious and time-consuming: hand-coloring, stenciling, tinting, and toning. They were only used on a limited basis. Tinting and toning gave the best results and were used by D.W. Griffith. Prismacolor and the Handschiegel Process fall into this category.

In 1915, the Technicolor Corporation invented a two-strip process, and this was incorporated into select scenes in Phantom of the Opera, 1925.

Lon Chaney in Phantom of the Opera, 1925, in technicolor.

Whether the black-and-white scenes or the color scenes are more frightening depends on the individual viewer. I personally like the light and dark contrasts of black-and-white film in horror movies because it feels moodier, creepier, and more akin to the darkness of evil. (Think about the original Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and The Wolfman and how different they would look in color.)

Color films, in fact, did not really take off until the late 1930s due to the expense. And producers expected big returns on their money. It wasn’t until the 1960s that color became the norm. Now, watching a black-and-white film seems to be a treat reserved for film buffs alone!

The Unmasking Scene, Phantom of the Opera, 1925, in black-and-white.
Masked Ball Scene, Phantom of the Opera, 1925, in early technicolor.

Which do YOU prefer?

Dawn Pisturino

October 5, 2021

Copyright 2021 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.

Barsam, Richard, and Dave Monahan. Looking at Movies, 5th ed. New York: Norton, 2016.

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