Image by Ananya Khaitan

It’s been reported that when Dorothy first stepped out from her sepia, tornado-ravaged home into the multicolored wonderland of Munchkin Country, an audible gasp ran through movie theaters across America. In an instant, audiences were transported to a Technicolor world, never to look back. Hollywood, however, took its time to cross that threshold from grayscale to color—around thirty years, in fact. By all accounts, the motion picture industry entered the land of color kicking and screaming.

For a while, the resistance was due to technological deficiencies. Initially, films were painstakingly hand-colored—to charming effect, but nowhere close to depicting reality. Even with the advent of more advanced processes, color films were still dismissed as a “special attraction,” since they required specialized projectors, and were dim and glitchy. Through it all, color was only ever seen as a novel embellishment to a film, reserved for grand dances or dream sequences. It aimed at “sensual intensity” rather than realism.

It was the visionary Natalie Kalmus who rescued color from being understood as mere embellishment. She wove it into the very fabric of cinema. To understand her checkered tale, though, one first needs to appreciate the treacherous terrain into which she ventured. When her husband Herbert Kalmus’s revolutionary three-color Technicolor came along in 1932, it had decades of baggage to overcome. Herbert’s real challenge lay in convincing a skeptical industry—and indeed, film-going audience—that color could be integrated into the basic vocabulary of narrative filmmaking.

Promotional poster for Becky Sharp (1935). Wiki Commons

The first feature-length Technicolor film, Becky Sharp, established Technicolor as the truest color that had ever been seen on screen. However, while it was a persuasive showcase for the technology, the film did not make a compelling case for color being essential to the art of storytelling. Its wanton use of color drew ire. One reviewer complained, “Your eye is constantly pulled away from the people and to the flowers.” Another remarked, “When Rawdon casts Becky from him, you see not her so much as you see the dress she wears and the Aubusson carpet on which she sinks.”

Studios and audiences alike needed to be convinced that color could aid and enhance a narrative, rather than overwhelm it. Herbert Kalmus’s invention was on shaky ground. As Life magazine’s review of the film concluded, it remained “a question as to whether or not color can be kept in its place in the creation of a full-length film.”

That’s where Natalie came in.

Technicolor Color Director: Natalie Kalmus. Movie Title Stills Collection

“Now that she has brought color to the screen, she finds that most of her job consists in shooing it off again”

Natalie Dunfee, born in 1882, met Herbert Kalmus when they were both studying color at the University of Zurich, in Switzerland. In 1902, Dunfee married Kalmus, and over the next 10 years, the Kalmuses moved around a lot. Natalie studied art at various institutions across Europe and North America, and Herbert began experimenting in their basement with the newfangled notion of color film. Natalie, just as much of a color aficionado, joined in.

In 1915, Herbert Kalmus, along with Daniel Comstock and Burton Westcott (all of them alumni of MIT), started the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation. Over the next seven years while the Kalmuses experimented with color film technology, their marriage fell apart, resulting in a divorce in 1922. Despite this, they continued to live and work together, and set up their first film studio and laboratory in an abandoned train car. Here, Natalie became the world’s first Technicolor star. She acted in their test films, and also served as developer, cutter, and camera lady. Finally, around 1927, the little Technicolor company made its way to Hollywood.

Technicolor would go on to beat dozens of other jostling corporations, including the likes of Kinemacolor and Kodachrome, to become Hollywood’s reigning color company.  Initial Technicolor films were often tasteless and lurid, not least because studios, bristling at the high cost, insisted on getting their money’s worth in quantity—they wanted all of the colors, all of the time. Natalie, drawing upon her years of study, resolved to change this attitude. She wanted to nudge the industry from this blunt approach towards a sensitive ‘color consciousness.’ Kalmus believed cinema had been “steadily tending toward more complete realism,” and after the addition of sound, color was the final step towards perfection—if used correctly.

Kalmus argued in the now-seminal Color Consciousness treatise she published in 1935 that color must draw from nature and art. “If the color schemes of natural objects were used as guides, less flagrant mistakes in color would occur,” she wrote. She recommended that colors be used sensitively, as the human nervous system “experiences a shock when it is forced to adapt itself to any degree of unnaturalness in the reception of external stimuli.”

Kalmus set a few fundamental guidelines for the use of color in film. She believed color should act as supporting player to action and dialogue; it must be suggestive of mood rather than an equal partner in communication. She warned against a “superabundance of color,” in favor of more natural, neutral color schemes.  And she stressed “the law of emphasis,” decreeing that insignificant details in a picture should not be emphasized. 

For our modern minds and eyes, born into a world filmed exclusively in color, it’s easy to think of these guidelines as intuitive. Back then, though, they were truly groundbreaking. Crucially, they were also the reason color film survived in a hostile environment. Natalie’s approach to color achieved two things simultaneously—on the one hand, she offered a fairly literal approach to color that could be easily grasped by potential Technicolor customers, and on the other hand, she designed her guidelines to check the kind of color excesses that had turned audiences off of early Technicolor.

Natalie Kalmus at her desk

In order to help films hew to her guidelines, Natalie proposed a Technicolor Color Advisory Service that would help implement established aesthetic norms. She packaged this service as an attractive investment for studios. For a flat fee, the producers of a film would get not just the Technicolor cameras and equipment (which were not available on the open market), but also the benefit of the Advisory Service’s expertise, saving them major money on pre-production planning and color testing. 

And it worked. For close to two decades, Kalmus and her army of color consultants oversaw the color design of every major studio Technicolor production. The department would meet with producers, review scripts, advise the costume, set and prop departments, and generate a color chart for the entire production that accounted for each scene, sequence, set, and character. Its goal was to produce something of a “color score,” like a musical score, that would amplify the picture and enhanced its dramatic value by matching color to the “dominant mood or emotion”.

Kalmus worked on more than 400 films, but it was her work as color director on The Wizard. of Oz that finally grabbed the world’s attention. Cinema was forever changed when the film transitioned from sepia to full-color. From Dorothy’s ruby shoes to the use of multicolored lights in the wizard’s chambers, the film is an ode to the magic of Technicolor. (Incidentally, the sepia wasn’t a post-production trick. The house was actually painted sepia, and Judy Garland’s double was dressed in sepia.) 

Natalie also acted as an ambassador for Technicolor off the set. She regularly gave interviews to the press. The New York Times carried a particularly colorful description of her work: “The most delightful colors will display the most detestable tendencies given the opportunity. Most distressing of these is cannibalism, which is latent in every tint. If one is incautious enough to place pink next to red, the red will eat the pink alive, draining all the color out of it. The expert in the care of feeding of colors sets a blue pink in juxtaposition to the cannibalistic red. Blue pink is spinach to red’s palate, and so escapes uneaten.”

Kalmus’ name became a staple in the gossip columns, as they gushed about her parties and vacations with the Hollywood crowd. People from all walks of life wrote to Kalmus to send praise, offer unsolicited advice, obtain autographs, or request color stills. She was a bonafide Hollywood celebrity, despite her role behind the scenes. A 1932 article from film fan magazine Photoplay announced that “All Hollywood Has Now Gone Color Conscious,” featuring a color chart by Natalie breaking down the emotional meanings of color. Readers were urged to use the chart to curate their wardrobe, for the right colors could push them further along “the road to success and happiness.” In 1944, A. Harris & Co, a high-end department store, launched a collection with “Natalie Kalmus Colors.” They also made copies of her Color Consciousness manifesto available to customers. Such forms of publicity exposed an important group of people to her ideas, beyond producers, studios, and critics—the general public.

In linking “color consciousness,” already a term in common parlance, to Technicolor, Kalmus pulled off an impressive advertising coup. She established the company, and herself, as the ultimate authority on color. In 1939, the Technicolor company was honored with an honorary Oscar for their contributions to film.

The Kalmuses’s meteoric rise to the highest echelons of the film industry is a true Hollywood tale. Natalie’s path, however, was riddled with a host of discourtesies that have hounded women throughout history, especially those in the public eye.

Article from Photoplay, 1932; Natalie Kalmus (inset) on the bottom-left


“America’s Prettiest Chemist”

In the 1930s, women’s off-screen involvement in films was limited, far more so than during the silent era. And it’s little coincidence that the domain in which a woman attained such rarefied heights was that of color. At the time, color was deemed a female province. Women were considered “more susceptible” to the affective, sensual impact of color. While such gendered notions no doubt aided Kalmus’ mission to expand Technicolor’s brand in some arenas like fashion, they more often became obstacles to her getting her due credit.

It was said that Herbert was the “Techni” of Technicolor, with Natalie being the “color.” While she was indeed a color expert, this exclusion from all things “Techni” undermined the granular, involved role she actually performed. It perpetuated the notion that the more technical aspects of filmmaking are decidedly “masculine.”

 A 1930 magazine feature chronicling the rise of Technicolor reduced her to the “titian-haired wife” of “a brilliant scientist.” On occasions when her substantial contributions did receive coverage, much was made of her gender. “Expert in Color Photography, Woman Is Paid $65,000 A Year” declared one newspaper. Another ran with the headline, “When Film Colors Go Blooey, They Ask A Woman To Fix Them.” It remarked that Kalmus did “not in the least measure up to the general conception of a business or professional woman,” as she was “decidedly feminine, small in stature, mild-mannered but confident that she knows whereof she speaks.” 

Indeed, making reference to her appearance was common at the time. One article noted her “honey-colored hair and honey-and-waffle Dixieland patois.” Another christened her “America’s prettiest chemist,” and yet another assured the reader that while she was “petite and utterly feminine” she was “nevertheless, the supreme dictator of color technique in Hollywood.”

The Southeast Missourian, April 16, 1930. Google Newspaper Archive

Kalmus didn’t have an easy time on film sets either. The men rankled at having to defer to a woman. While directing An American in Paris, Vincente Minnelli grumbled that he “couldn’t do anything right in Mrs. Kalmus’s eyes.” In response to Kalmus’ rule about clashing colors, Cecil DeMille fumed “Well it’s too bad the good Lord up in heaven didn’t have a Technicolor consultant when he made apples and oranges!” Arthur Laurents wrote in his memoir, “Natalie Kalmus might have to be killed off-camera.” (And, as one of Hitchcock’s writers, he knew a thing or two about killing.) On British film sets—where she faced resistance for both her gender and nationality—she was often the subject of slights about her appearance, clothes, and hats (seemingly to discredit her aesthetic judgment). The general sentiment towards Kalmus, as harbored by the boys’ club of Hollywood, was perhaps best summed up by Alan Dwan, one of the most important directors of the silent era. “Natalie Kalmus was a bitch,” he said, in a 1980 interview.

By the late 1930s, as directors and technicians grew familiar with Technicolor technology, they started to play around with its possibilities. Kalmus, however, stuck to her tried-and-true methods. She insisted to Michael Curtiz, director of The Adventures of Robin Hood, that the colors be toned down, lest the film look like a comic book. “But Natalie, that’s what we’re going for,” he replied. Indeed, the film went on to be lauded for its striking use of color.

Famed producer David O. Selznick had already worked with Technicolor by the time he was making Gone With the Wind, and had zero patience for Kalmus. “The Technicolor experts have been up to their old tricks of putting all sorts of obstacles in the way of real beauty,” he wrote in a memo. The final straw was an unpleasant dispute over the wallpaper in Scarlett O’Hara’s bedroom, following which Selznick forced Technicolor to remove Kalmus from the film (she was still credited).

It’s possible that Kalmus, having reigned in color for so long, was resistant to experimentation. It’s also possible that eventually she would have adapted to the changing tides of Hollywood preferences. Unfortunately, there’s no way of knowing which way she would have gone, because all too soon, her reign as “ringmaster to the rainbow” came to an abrupt end.

“Won’t any court dare give me justice?”

In 1944, Herbert and Natalie’s relationship was in shambles. His affairs, in particular his relationship with Eleanore King, whom he went on to marry, led to Natalie filing a lawsuit in 1948. She claimed that she was entitled to half his assets in Technicolor because their divorce in 1922 was invalid, on the grounds that they had lived as man and wife subsequently. Given their shared Bel Air residence and decades of close collaboration, any notion of a valid divorce did seem dubious. However, the court declared their divorce legal, and Natalie did not receive her share of the empire she had devoted her life to building. Following the bitter court case, she was forced out of her job at Technicolor in 1948.

Kalmus went on to travel the world, conducting courses on the color process, but she never worked in movies again. A year before her death in 1965, Kalmus’ birthday celebration was in a hospital near Boston. It was a sad affair, with no one on hand to share her birthday cake except the corps of sympathetic nurses who presented it to her. She wept when the cake was wheeled in. There were no cards, no messages, no calls from her many friends and associates in the film business.

The sensationalized press coverage of the court proceedings (“Court Setback for Mrs. Kalmus Brings Hysteria”) in the 1940s had ruined her public image. And it was only made worse by the release of Herbert’s autobiography, Mr. Technicolor, published after his death and with commentary by Eleanore King. It portrayed Natalie as an increasingly unstable and destructive presence, in stark contrast to Herbert’s technical brilliance and business acumen. 

Natalie died with a tainted legacy. In fact, even today (as of the publishing date of this article), the primary image on her IMDb page is a news article that declares her “the industry’s foremost example of the wife who is interested in her husband’s work and business.”

Movies have a seismic effect on our collective visual vocabulary. Those who create the grammar of movies—how they’re lit, framed, composed, shot, and indeed, colored—are key influencers of visual culture. As the “high priestess of Technicolor,” Kalmus needs no qualifier of gender to be considered an all-time great. That said, she was a woman, one who handheld the movie business through one of its toughest transitions, facing resistance and skepticism every step of the way. How’d she do it? “If you are properly devoted toward a career of any sort, you won’t have to seek advice about it,” she said. “No one is going to be able to stop you anyway.”