Thursday, February 4, 2010

London in Technicolor ! (1927)

Two-strip technicolor footage of London from 1927, courtesy of a friend who sent me this link today from The British Film Institute. Despite the rather corny intertitles between shots, this to me is remarkable footage.

The earliest technicolor feature films I know of came out of Hollywood around 1922, and were few and far between. The most famous pre-sound color film was Douglas Fairbanks' "The Black Pirate" from 1925.

In America, Technicolor company that created similar technology only possible to shoot short films like this as novelty items. The British company that shot this footage was using very expensive equipment for its time. (Credit is given here to Claude Friese-Greene for the photography--I would guess he was the son of early cinema pioneer William Friese Greene whose attempts to be creditted for the invention of moving picture stock was the subject of the excellent 1951 film "The Magic Box" with Robert Donat.) Whether Mr. Friese Greene was working with the American Technicolor Company, which patented its two-strip process in 1922, is something I'm not certain of as yet.

Since it was only a two strip process--mostly highlighting reds and blues--the green colors are often muddy. Better results had to wait for the three strip color Technicolor process from 1933 on. Because of The Great Depression, color films remained limited in number for many more years to come.


  1. From The British Film Institute Website:

    In 1924 Claude Friese-Greene (cinematographer and son of moving-image pioneer William) embarked on an intrepid road trip from Land's End to John O'Groats. He recorded his journey on film, using an experimental colour process. Entitled The Open Road, this remarkable travelogue was conceived as a series of 26 short episodes, to be shown weekly at the cinema.

    When first exhibited at trade shows in 1925, Claude's colour process attracted the following comment: 'The Open Road, as the excellent series of English, Scottish and Welsh beauty spots and industrial glimpses is called, represents a big advance... it is easily the best approximation to natural hues yet seen here, many of the examples attaining what is surely perfection... in some respects the greatest British contribution to screen progress for years.'

    The 'New All British Friese-Greene Natural Colour Process' represented the culmination of experiments in the development of colour film begun by Claude's father, William Friese-Greene. The enthusiastic reviews did not lead to success in persuading others to use the system - there were inherent flaws. This was a two-colour successive frame process, with alternative frames tinted red and blue-green. When projected at 24 frames per second, the two colours combined to create the illusion of natural colour through persistence of vision. The major problems were flicker and fringing of the colour during rapid movements within a scene. Although seen as a technological achievement, no further development took place.

    The original negatives of The Open Road were deposited with the BFI for preservation in the late 1950s. The nature of the colour process presented a considerable challenge in terms of preserving the original nitrate negatives and creating viewable material. In addition, the content (some three hours in total) was unedited and when viewed did not follow any chronological order. The transfer of the film onto tape enabled the content to be logged and reassembled in a coherent form so that the journey could be recreated.

    Following the BBC's three-part documentary, co-produced with the BFI The Lost World of Friese-Greene, the BFI National Archive has restored a special 65-minute compilation of highlights from the journey, using digital intermediate technology to remove the technical defects of the original.

    We hope that a whole new generation of film-goers will now be able to experience and enjoy this remarkable footage on the big screen, and that the original publicity from 1925 still holds true:

    'These beautiful novelties will make your audience gasp with wonder and keep your patrons talking about them for weeks.'

    Jan Faull, Archive Producer, BFI

    With thanks to the Eric-Anker Petersen Charity
    Sight & Sound

  2. I liked that Doug very much, thank you....................Mike..

  3. Don't you adore those little old cars, Austins Morris, Fords? A friend of mine collects them and now they are getting rather pricey. Getting hold of spare parts from other old wrecks is almost impossible, but he does make a few bits and pieces himself.

    What lovely delicate colouring Doug. The Thames from the Embankment is a particular love of mine and the glorious run of old bridges. How they cope with modern day traffic can only be a testament to the way they were built. But there must also be a good slap on the back for those who keep up the restoration, a kind of stitch in time saves nine, principle!

    Thank you, I enjoyed that video. Dear old London Town...


  4. Glad you enjoyed it. Thanks for stopping in, Mike.

  5. I had a friend in California who was restoring an original Austin Mini for awhile---he would have killed to get his hands on these little gems. I love those little cars--they'd be great for parking in a big city.

    Delicate is a good word for two-strip technicolor, Cassandra. There's a rare beauty to seeing these long-ago outdoor shots---makes the formally monochromatic world of other footage seem to come to life in a way that is surprising---you realize a connection to the past and the people in color tat isn't quite the same in black and white. Glad you enjoyed this--and congrats to the BFI for saving rare treats like this!

  6. By coincidence I had a link to that video sent to me yesterday Doug. It is great to see these images from 1927, I was struck by the low level facade of central London, still on a human scale and wondered how much of the built environment was later lost in the blitz?
    This humanization of history will of course steadily grow in fascination as time goes on and the times these films capture become ever more remote, but to see our forebears going about their day-to-day business in a completely different world is an incredible insight into the present as well as the past I think.

  7. Lmao @ "more than one American has offered to buy up our tower and erect it on Palm Beach as a bungalow"!

    My mother was born in 1921. I'm remembering her telling me that once her school went down to London on the train for the day. I'm thinking this is the world she would have seen.

  8. Yes, AA, how much has changed--how lost many Londoners or New Yorkers for that matter would be in a world eight decades old--no laptop computers, no mobile phones, no giant television screens with ubiquitous advertising. And yet so much is recognizable (people still going about their business, as you say. ) Plus the magnificent Thames: still the heart of a great metropolis; the Tower still standing as parts of it did from early Norman times and so on.
    Beautiful film like this, of no great narrative, stirs many I hope to remind us where our world has been and appreciate the contrasts to save what is still here.

  9. I was struck by that "Palm Beach bungalow" reference as well, Iri Ani. Gauche Americans like the reactionary publisher William Randolph Hearst did haul whole castles from Spain and France to add to his disiplays of conspicuous consumption. All that money and collecting didn't buy him a decent reputation, however.

    I think I know what you mean about glimpsing your mother's world as a child. I found a site that had old photos of where my dad grew up (in Portland, Oregon) and I was fascinated to see old streetcars and pictures of the ballpark he used to go to as a kid, and the newspaper where he worked after school seperating papers for morning delivery. I imagine seeing those color moving images only heightens the sense that we are seeing the world the way they did.

  10. Yes. I don't think there is much film of olde worlde Aotearoa/ New Zealand - when you do see something you find yourself fascinated. I was once watching a really old piece of film of Maori singing outside a marae and all around me were old Moari Kuia (grandmothers) and they were all going - oh look there's Auntie Queenie etc. And all these stories were tumbling from their lips.

  11. You had an even more amazing moment there--- to see older people seeing old films and viewing those adults that raised them as children. Those older ladies watching their parents come back to life in a way. Very special experience I'll bet.

    A lot of film and images of a "travel" nature is now more precious than ever because so much of that "western progress" that overwhelmed other cultures. I alos think of the pre-film work of people like George Catlin, a 19th Century German-American who painted Native Americans in the 1830's and 40's when they were still living on the open Great Plains of the West as they had for centuries, before the railroads, mass Euro-American migration and the near-extinction of the buffalo ended that way of life forever.

  12. I hope your friend took you for a spin in one of the old cars?

    The colour certainly suits the film, any garish tones many have ruined it. Besides the architecture, the thing one notices are the clothes worn, mainly suited for town. What hasn't changed are the number of trees in London, it's a very green city.

    Haha, the jay walkers are ever present. I can't count the times I've taken a taxi through Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens to get to, Knightsbridge., it's a beautiful ride.

    Remember we were talking about hats the other day, look at all the caps worn it that film!

    The Embankment doesn't change, apart from the new walkway bridge. I was surprised when I first saw it on a visit to town. It was jam packed with people walking four abreast. I don't know if you remember when it was first opened, it swayed alarmingly and they had to close it to make adjustments, but that's our modern London. What a joy that old film is, thanks again Doug.

  13. This is true Cassandra, but it is Birmingham that claims to be the city with most trees in Europe, more it is claimed than Germany's Black Forest, it is also where most of the cars in the film were probably made :-)

  14. Actually, he was working on the Austin when I was down there, but sold it before I had a chance to get a ride. :- ( My brother had an MG sports car back in the Seventies and I did enjoy zipping about when he took me on rides. )

    Yes ,hats were the thing in America too. A man was not properly dressed without a hat in those days.

    I thought the same thing when I saw the Thames Embankment at the Tower and Westminster Bridges---it really hasn't changed much here from when I saw it in '85! ( Loved standing on the bridges and seeing the all the ships and boats agains that great diverse skyline!) . I've seen that Pedestrian Bridge in movies a lot recently --seems a good idea. Didn't know about the swaying troubles though.

    What do you think of that fairly new Millenneum Wheel/London Eye site? I imagine some Londoners and those who visit regularly might not have taken to it right away.

  15. Didn't know that, AA. Your civic pride is showing, but its all in a good cause :-)

  16. I think it is an inferiority complex myself Doug, Birmingham is traditionally one of the least sexy places in the entire British Isles, so when there is a chance to publicise its claims to anything at all really.... I suppose I just have to jump at it.

  17. I know the feeling some what I think...not unlike growing up in rather dull San Jose when the whole country was watching events taking place in San Francisco and Berkeley.