Beyond the Blue Horizon

MAY IS EARLY 3-STRIP TECHNICOLOR MONTH

To celebrate the dawn of perfected Technicolor, we’ve chosen the colorful month of May to herald the release of a handful of mid-Thirties’ titles filmed in the then-new process, and recently released on Blu-Ray and DVD.

First up is the incredibly obscure, but historically important 1936 release, DANCING PIRATE, the first three-strip Technicolor musical (or, more precisely, “dancing musical,” as it was lauded), now available from The Film Detective.

Even while two-strip briefly flourished (in highlighted sequences and rare full-length features throughout the silent and early talkie era), Technicolor head Herbert Kalmus was forever tinkering around to further improve the process. Two-strip went through various evocations, including the actual cementing of two strips of film (magenta and yellow) before imbibition allowed the printing to be done on a single strand of 35MM stock. Still, the results varied – from pleasing to strange and bizarre (which is why it was usually reserved for musical numbers once sound arrived, or, more famously, for horror like Dr. X and Mystery of the Wax Museum). As far back as the mid-1920’s, Kalmus was experimenting with three-strip, usually hampered by his not winning over enough backers to make his vision a reality.

Indeed, the Technicolor story is a fascinating one, and would make a great movie in and of itself, with as much nasty corporate intrigue as Wall Street, The Hucksters, Executive Suite, Glengarry Glen Ross, The Wolf of Wall Street, or an entire season of Mad Men…yeah, it’s that mysterious, double-dealing and shady (the behind-the-scenes Disney stuff alone…oh, never mind).

By the beginning of the 1930s, Technicolor took a dive when audiences tired of musicals, and producers tired of the expense (not helped by the Great Depression); but three-strip was on the way, and the initial tests looked gorgeous. The biggest problem had been solved: rendering the color “blue,” or “cyan,” as the IB folks chose to call it. This also enabled the process to fully encompass day and night photography – the latter always previously a particularly difficult chore.

Once lawsuits had been resolved (did I mention “Disney”?), Kalmus interested Sam Goldwyn, who filmed the final sequence of the Eddie Cantor musical Kid Millions in three-strip. It took place in an ice-cream factory, and the nervous “yes men” in the screening room could barely look at the mogul – until they heard him audibly drooling “Mmmmmm, strawberry!”

Movie producers, explorers and entrepreneurs Merian C. Cooper and John Hay Whitney went further by contracting Technicolor to film the first full-length feature in three-strip, Becky Sharp, an adaptation of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, starring Miriam Hopkins and directed by Rouben Mamoulian. While critics were divided as to the movie’s worth as pure screen drama, everyone was ga-ga over its physical presence. Perfected Technicolor had exploded in a rainbow tsunami. Under their banner Pioneer Pictures, Cooper, Whitney, and John Speaks searched for a follow-up (Paramount had already decided to shoot a remake of Trail of the Lonesome Pine on-location – the first outdoor movie in IB). Long story short, Pioneer’s second feature had to be a first (they had already done a mini-musical short, La Cucuracha). Since they were operating through RKO (Cooper’s old haunt, the one from where he made King Kong, and, equally relevant, a studio where he subsequently, albeit briefly, had been head of production), Fred Astaire seemed like a good Technicolor bet. So, the first dancing three-strip musical, brilliantly entitled DANCING PIRATE, would be the second Pioneer IB feature. They immediately hit a snag when Astaire took one look at the script (by Ray Harris and Francis Edward Faragoh, adapted by Jack Wagner and Boris Ingster – from Emma Lindsay Squier’s 1930 story Glorious Buccaneer) and promptly refused. Undaunted, Pioneer combed the theater stages and music halls and scooped up Charles Collins. He would be supported by Steffi Duna, Frank Morgan, Luis Alberni, Victor Varconi, Cy Kendall, Jack La Rue, and Marjorie Reynolds; also in the cast were the Royal Cansino Dancers, featuring Rita Cansino before her last name was changed to Hayworth.

The screenplay quality (concerning a shanghaied Boston dance instructor ending up in old California, ca. 1820) certainly mirrored another major creative choice; instead of an A-list director, like Mamoulian, the producers sought to save a dime by hiring competent Lloyd Corrigan, better known as a jovial character actor. The rest of the credits, however, were non-negotiable. Soon-to-be Technicolor expert (and nine-time Oscar nominee) William V. Skall (The Little Princess, Reap the Wild Wind, Rope, Joan of Arc, the latter winning him an Academy Award) won the coveted position of d.p., working closely with Ray Rennahan, (who had been with Technicolor since 1923); art/set, and costume design by Wiard Ihnen and Eugene Joseff, and choreography by Russell Lewis (who was Oscar-nominated) appended the visuals. The all-important music, under direction of Alfred Newman, comprised a Rodgers and Hart score, truthfully, not their finest moment – as colorless a contrast as the movie is colorful.

Almost immediately, it’s easy to see why Astaire bolted. The fact that Collins, aka Jonathan Pride, becomes the title character by default doesn’t stop the local gentry from wanting to hang him. He is saved by his Terpsichore skills – ample proof he ain’t no pirate; sadly, unlike Astaire, he ain’t no movie star either (even with a pasted-on Douglas Fairbanks mustache). There’s a B-movie subplot where corrupt Spanish military officials attempt to ravage the community and female costar Duna. You can pretty much figure out what happens, and how it all ends.

To paraphrase Gold Hat in Treasure of Sierra Madre, “we dunt need no stinkin’ screenplay. We’ve got three-strip Technicolor!” And, yesiree, the hues and tones were the authentic stars of this saga. Falling in love with the capabilities of three-strip IB might have been a mistake, though; there’s way too much footage devoted to nighttime shenanigans. But, again, in 1936, it didn’t seem to matter; the oohs and aahs had ’em lining up around the block.

For the most part, the Film Detective restoration of DANCING PIRATE is clean, sharp and (when daylight allows) ebullient. Previously only available in black-and-white or murky CineColor 16MM prints, the three-strip materials were long-thought lost until a 35MM nitrate print was discovered in 2015. A few jump cuts (nicely digitally-cleansed) are evident where the footage no longer exists; not a prob, these tally up to mere seconds. Extras include audio commentary by Jennifer Churchill and two mini-documentaries: Glorious Pioneers: The Birth of Technicolor of and Ambushed by Mediocrity: Remembering The Dancing Pirate.

For me, the best part of the picture encompasses the opening sequences where Collins/Pride teaches untalented pupils how to waltz; it’s the most Astaire (and grownup) moment, and also beautifully lit and shot (it should be noted that one of the young would-be twinkletoes is Pat Nixon!).

By the following year, all the majors were planning three-strip endeavors, and Kalmus & Co. never had to look back.

At 83 minutes, this is an interesting way to spend a movie night; for Technicolor fans and classic cinema buffs, however, it’s a MUST.

DANCING PIRATE. Color. Full frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition]; 2.0 DTS-HD MA. The Film Detective. CAT # FB1018. SRP: $24.95.

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