Natalie Kalmus was a pioneering colourist in the early days of Hollywood, following the introduction of Technicolour. She was in some respects a celebrity of the time, given that she was the only colourist in film working with the new technology; all the big name US newspapers wanted to speak with her.
Mrs Kalmus is Technicolor’s dynamo–only don’t call her Mrs Kalmus, she prefers to be known as Natalie Kalmus, for she has a reputation as a color expert in her own right. Technicolor wasn’t making much progress in Hollywood until she packed her bags and came ot the West Coast. It was she who put Technicolor over in movieland..
Boston Globe 20 March 1936
Technicolour Colour Director
From an interview Ms Kalmus gave in 1929 to the Pennyslvania The Morning Call, Ms Kalmus explained the role:
The color director’s task is to guide producers in making the most tasteful and intelligent use of the technicolor process. The photographic values of colors are different than they appear to the naked eye …. varying according to lighting, different color and combinations, the texture of materials used and scores of other details. Backgrounds and costumes can be chosen … which will intensify the most dramatic action. In the past … directors have not employed the technicolor process purposefully, especially in the making of the spectacular scenes where many prettily costumed girls appear. The unjudicious selection of color by inexperienced people has caused technicolor to suffer unfavourable criticism but these mistakes will be eliminated in the future by the color director.
Further, Kalmus used her recently-completed work for the 1930 film The Vagabond King to illustrate:
In one scene, an interesting use was made of the conflicting qualities of red hues. Mortal enemies, Dennis King and Warner Oland fight a duel. To heighten the dramatic effect of the conflict, Mrs Kalmus and director Berger decided to costume them for the climatic scene in violently antagonistic shades of red. One wore a low key red, and other an outfit of vivid key red, the result being that he colors themselves clash so decidedly that they give the impression of actually fighting each other.
Developing the profession
Kalmus developed a dedicated department in Hollywood and had a small number of artists in training. After giving this interview, Ms Kalmus headed to Europe to scour for additional talent and bring them back to study under her.
Natalie Kalmus became executive head of the Technicolor art department, whose function was to cooperate with the art and wardrobe departments of the studios during the preparation and making of Technicolor productions. As part of their color advisory service, Kalmus and her staff prepared color charts for each scene in a film. Thus, she was credited as color consultant on all Technicolor films from 1933 to 1949. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, retrieved 2019.
In 1935 Kalmus wrote, published and presented to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences what would become her opus and legacy – a guidebook for technicians in the psychology and use of colour on screen. Titled Color Consciousness, it is an academic as well as artistic read on colour theory – for students as well as practitioners.
As a student of art herself, Kalmus could well appreciate and foresee how existing filming practices needed to change to facilitate the technicolour process. It is well documented, the friction Kalmus caused with directors on set when they persisted in shooting overly saturated set and costume pieces – impacting the colour process in post production.
Color Consciousness suggested a procedural manual for colourists from the moment a script was delivered – beginning by curating a colour chart for the film – to capture the mood and emotion coming across to the audience in each scene. Even down to the actor’s costuming:
We plan the colors of the actor’s costumes with special care. Whenever possible, we prefer to clothe the actor in colors that build up his or her screen personality. In a picture which we recently completed, two young girls play the parts of sisters. One is vivacious, affectionate, and gay. The other is studious, quiet, and reserved. For the first we planned costumes of pink, red, warm browns, tan, and orange; for the second, blue, green, black, and grey. In this way the colors were kept in unison with their film characters.
The output of Kalmus’ work is what is astonishing here. Using data from IMDB, Kalmus is recorded as having worked on a staggering 400 films; her most prolific period being 1948, with a total of 51 films.
Kalmus contributed to some of the biggest films of the 20th Century:
Gone With the Wind, US gross box office : $US199m
Wizard of Oz, US gross box office : $US24m
Ziegfield Follies, US gross box office : $US7.9m
Duel in the Sun, US gross box office : $US20m
Forever Amber, US gross box office : $US16m
Joan of Arc, US gross box office : $US5.8m
The Three Musketeers, US gross box office : $US9m
Samson and Delilah, US gross box office : $US29m
A further eleven films Kalmus coloured are listed in the same 1929 article listed above – the Pennsylvania The Morning Call – for which Kalmus is uncredited on IMDB.com. During these early days it was common practice that not all members of the crew would be credited:
On With the Show – first talking and singing film in technicolour
The Hollywood Revue
The Dance of Life
Gold Diggers of Broadway
Footlights and Fools
It’s a Great Life / Cotton and Silk
General CrackView newly discovered technicolour footage for On With the Show and Gold Diggers of Broadway:
Under a Texas Moon
The Vagabond King
Kalmus’ passion for colour and film is undeniable. She must surely be acknowledged as one of the hardest working people in the medium’s history. Yet to date, Kalmus has had no industry recognition for her work, perseverance or foresight in Hollywood, and filmmaking as a whole.