It is sometimes said that The Wizard of Oz was the first color film. It wasn’t, of course. Early ‘pre-cinematographic’ animations go back to 1877, and in the 1900s motion pictures were produced which had been laboriously hand-colored, frame by frame. In France, the Pathé brothers produced La Vie et la Passion de Jésus-Christ in 1903 which had some scenes in color, using ‘Pathéchrome’. This too involved coloring a black & white film after shooting.
The first proper ‘film process’ to make color a reality was Kinemacolor, developed in England in 1906 and used commercially from 1908 to 1914. It was using this system that the first color Western (that we know of) was made, in 1911.
It was a 19-minute short called Fate and it told of an Englishman who becomes chief of a tribe of Indians. It was directed by an early pioneer, Theo Frenkel (1871 – 1956), who often used his mother’s name, Bouwmeester, a Dutchman from Rotterdam who made films in England (in Hove, Sussex), Germany and the Netherlands. Tragically, this film is now lost.
The first feature-length Western in color, Wanderer of the Wasteland, was made in the United States, by Paramount. It was one of the silent movies the studio made using Zane Grey stories (Jesse Lasky had bought the rights from Grey) and it starred Jack Holt and Noah Beery Sr. It was a six-reel (60-minute) picture and was directed by Irving Willat. It used an early Technicolor, the so-called two-strip process, which employed green and red filters. I don’t know if this film exists for viewing but I can’t find it, more’s the pity.
Western-lovers were able to see another color Western at the end of the decade, this time a talkie, when Paramount released Redskin, directed by Victor Schertzinger and starring Richard Dix. This movie is available, and in fact will be the subject of our next review – so come back soon!
Color would take a great leap forward in 1932 with the introduction the ‘three-strip’ process, also known as Process 4, first shown in Walt Disney’s Flowers and Trees. Westerns were not given first crack of the whip, partly because during the 1930s the genre was largely relegated to low-budget second features, especially for the juvenile market, and it wasn’t until 1938 that the first oater in this format appeared: Warners’ Gold is Where You Find It, a gold-lust yarn “hurled from the screen with the force and fire and fury of a new land”, as the trailer promised, directed by Michael Curtiz, shot by Sol Polito and starring Olivia de Havilland with George Brent.
The following year, in April, Warners would release a big-budget picture featuring the studio’s new big star Errol Flynn, who had done a color Adventures of Robin Hood in ‘38. It was another color Western, again helmed by Curtiz, the big, noisy and energetic Dodge City, once more co-starring de Havilland. It was a huge hit.
Fox had started the ball rolling in January that year by releasing the Technicolor Jesse James, headlining its own hot property Tyrone Power. Color Westerns were here to stay.
Of course the black& white Western continued on its merry way for years to come yet. Even a big star like Flynn, for example, found that several of his post-Dodge City oaters were in monochrome, including his last, Rocky Mountain. Series Westerns, serials and second features were unlikely to splash out on color, given their budgets, and there were some major Westerns through the 1950s that were not in color, such as The Gunfighter and Winchester ’73 (1950), The Big Sky and High Noon (1952) and more. In 1954 at Warners, William A Wellman insisted on color for Track of the Cat, shot by William Clothier, and proceeded to film almost entirely in black & white with the occasional vivid splash of red for dramatic effect. Jack Warner was furious, and said “I’m spending five hundred thousand dollars more for color and there’s no color in the damn thing!” Wellman replied tersely, “If he doesn’t like it he can go shit in his hat.” If for nothing else, Warner’s comment is interesting to know the extra cost of color.
Cost was certainly a major factor in the continuance of black a white. Color cameras were very expensive and even a big studio might own only one or two as against maybe thirty black & white ones. Film stock, developing, and printing all the reels necessary for a countrywide release were all much more costly.
A 1957 Western all the better for black & white was 3:10 to Yuma, directed by Delmer Daves and shot by Charles Lawton Jr, a real artist. The monochrome enhanced the harsh sunlight in the town and the claustrophobia and the noirish feel of the interiors, much as Floyd Crosby’s fine photography had done in High Noon. André De Toth’s Day of the Outlaw, 1959, a snowy-north Western shot by the great Russell Harlan, who had done such fine black & white work on Red River, is absolutely superb in black & white.
Other cinematographers were masters of monochrome. Though he shot some good pictures in color, James Wong Howe, for example, was a real artist in black & white. A picture like Pursued (1947), directed by Raoul Walsh, is a visual masterpiece. Gregg Toland (The Westerner) was another master, so were Edward Cronjager (Cimarron) and Ted McCord (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre). These and others were several times nominated for black & white photography at the Oscars.
And indeed well into the 1960s, when color had become pretty much the norm, some directors and cinematographers actively preferred black & white, especially, for example, if they were going for a somber or noir vibe, or if they were actively going for a ‘historical’ feel. Fine late pictures like Hud or The Misfits or Lonely Are the Brave eschewed color, for artistic reasons. John Ford insisted (against the advice of his director of photography Bill Clothier) on black & white for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. As late as 1995 Jim Jarmusch chose to make Dead Man in black & white.
Despite this, Westerns – most Westerns anyway – rely much on landscape and setting, the great outdoors of the American West. Color generally was a huge plus when shooting such pictures. Whether it was the frozen north or the broiling south, verdant Missouri fields (DP George Barnes in Jesse James) or that wonderful pink light of New Mexico (photographic master John Bailey in Silverado), the washed-out desert terrain of Cable Hogue or The Wild Bunch (both the great Lucien Ballard) or the Sawtooth National Recreation Area in Idaho shot by Bruce Surtees in Pale Rider, the list is endless. The color of all those Westerns set among the pink and orange rocks of Sedona, Arizona, the vividness of the pictures Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott made up at Lone Pine (the best of them shot by Charles Lawton again), wherever it was, color enhanced those films and made them somehow more ‘Western’.
Technicolor was not the only game in town. Eastmancolor, from Kodak, was introduced in the 1950s and made rapid headway; it was cheaper and conventional cameras could be used. As studios adopted it, the process got different names, such as Warnercolor, Metrocolor, Columbiacolor and others. Warner’s Carson City, a Randolph Scott Western directed by André De Toth and shot by John W Boyle, was an early example.
Republic developed its own process, Trucolor, and used it especially for its Westerns. I like the look of Trucolor pictures: as they age the hues are suffused and become almost pastel shades, and the blues are highlighted.
When a Trucolor film is restored, the results are remarkable. Look at a good print of Johnny Guitar, for example, of 1954, directed by Nicholas Ray and shot by Harry Stradling Sr. The startlingly vivid primary colors of the character’s clothes, especially lemon yellow and bloody scarlet, are set against the deep orange Arizona earth and the washed greens of much of the scenery and set. You get the idea that primary colors were almost the raison d’être of the film. One look at Joan Crawford with her chalk-white face slashed with the brightest red lipstick you ever saw will tell you that color is key.
Well, well, color or black & white, a well-photographed Western is worth its weight in gold.