From about 1914 on, you can almost feel colour film trying to make itself happen. Any list of early colour feature films has the same air to it of frustration and heartbreak: “technicolor inserts” in this movie or that, which is also listed as “Lost Film” or “Extant only in Black and White.” Three band technicolor was what was needed, but until it arrived, the medium continued to writhe in its sack, maddened and blind.
Here are three short musical excerpts that did survive the winnowing of time. The first is a tremendous memorial to the heroes and heroines of the silent cinema: the Hollywood Revue of 1929, which climaxed in this glorious colour rendition of Singing in the Rain. It’s the world’s most cheering song. In the background, Noah’s Ark looms, marvellously sarcastic and huge. See how many faces you can recognise:
Our second clip features the great band leader Paul Whiteman. It falls into two parts. The silly voodoo drum sequence at the beginning is of art deco interest only. But what follows is a spectacular presentation of the piece Whiteman commissioned from George Gershwin only six years earlier: Rhapsody in Blue. A surprising number of early renditions of Rhapsody are wincingly poor – a fate it shared with many of Gershwin’s ordinary songs as well as Cole Porter’s. But there is little wrong with this one:
Our final clip is this strange beast from 1929, filmed not in Technicolor but Multicolor, a rival early process which rendered human skin with great naturalism but which couldn’t handle green. It’s worthless, in musical terms, but really does encapsulate that idea of colour film struggling to be born – it’s so frustratingly close here: the eye keeps expecting the blurring to clear and leave the whole scene free there in front of you. Despite being called Red Hot Rhythm, it’s not really a hot number at all, and then there’s the disappointing front man, who distinguishes himself only by reprising John Cleese’s funny walks fifty years early towards the clip’s pointless conclusion. The dancers are good, and there’s a fair piece of deco design there somewhere in the background. A frustrating almost: