Registering the Registry 2019: Becky Sharp (1935)
Welcome back to Registering the Registry, where we consider and review the films inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry by merit of their cultural, historical, and aesthetic qualities! As we continue with the 2019 class, we turn our attention to the very first feature-length film produced entirely in three-strip Technicolor: Becky Sharp!
(Originally published August 23rd, 2020)
(Before we start, a big thanks to commenter CineCraft, whose email correspondence on the history of Technicolor and early color film in general helped solidify my thoughts and casual research into the unwieldy paragraphs you see below.)
You make choices, you deal with the consequences. For example: during the National Film Registry’s first year of operations, the Technicolor marvels Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Gone with the Wind, and The Wizard of Oz were all amongst the initial class of 25 inductees, while six years later, perennial audience favorite The Adventures of Robin Hood was similarly honored. Each represented a major step in getting audiences to embrace the wonders of the three-strip process, respectively expanding Disney’s short bursts of animated color into a fully blossomed hand-drawn world, bringing an enormously popular historical novel and its lurid portrayal of the Lost Cause to life with painterly vistas of Southern living and a burning of Atlanta, transporting viewers to a fantastically vibrant fantasy land the likes of which few could replicate for decades to come, and popularizing the format with a high-flying Errol Flynn adventure amidst all colors of English royalty and verdant forests. Had I felt like beginning this project at the start of the Registry’s life rather than with last year’s class, we might’ve discussed each of these films in greater depth, and exulted in all their myriad greatnesses or their far-reaching effects on American AND global culture beyond just their technological importance. I’ve plunked us down in 2019, though, and in 2019, discussing Technicolor means discussing a film important more for what it represents than what it actually IS. Becky Sharp made it across the finish line as the first feature-length production filmed entirely in three-strip Technicolor in 1935, but considering you’ve likely never heard of the film unless you’re big on color film’s history or Oscar trivia, it should tell you we’re in somewhat slighter territory this week. My own fault!
Course, joke lamentations aside, I’ve still plenty to say on the film’s historical importance and content. It’d be inaccurate to call Becky Sharp important as the first color film, for color experiments via stenciling and hand-painting individual frames stretch back to the birth of commercial cinema in the 1890s, alongside the popular dye-tinting and nitrate toning techniques for rendering the lighter and darker parts of the image respectively a particular shade. We’d also make a mistake in referring to it as the first to achieve practical automated colors, given numerous early experiments with additive color via rapidly cycling filters, as with George Albert Smith’s Kinemacolor system from the early century, employed at length in With Our King and Queen Through India. Can’t say it’s the first achieved through a subtractive process, being a variety of methods requiring specially chemical formulations in the film stock to only absorb certain values of light across multiple strips that were later printed as one — Kodak and Prizma got there first. It’s not the first Technicolor film, because Technicolor used a two film-strip process capable of capturing red and green light as far back as 1916 — although the first process of running both strips simultaneously failed as a technical nightmare, while 1924’s second of printing the two strips into one doubly-thick strip (seen in such films as The Ten Commandments and The Phantom of the Opera) was plagued by in-projector heat-borne distortions. Nowhere near the first to go with the all-important dye imbibing printing that produced a single, stable strip of normal thickness, as this third process came about in 1928 and represented a large swath of partly or fully-color features for the next four years. Becky can’t even claim first place for using the inordinately Process 4, with the three strips running at once and the beam-splitting double prism behind the lens and the red and blue strips double layered on one another for simplified use. Good ol’ Walt Disney snatched up exclusive rights to use the process in cartoons three years earlier with the short Flowers and Trees!
What makes Becky Sharp historically important is its status as the first time anybody thought it worthwhile to take a chance on this fancy and stunning (but very, VERY expensive) new method for an entire feature. Sure, the major studio players dipped their toes every now and again for individual sequences, usually musical numbers as in MGM’s 1934 feature The Cat and the Fiddle, but Technicolor’s third two-strip process has proven monumentally costy right as the Great Depression hit and couldn’t capture a full range of color without the blue strip, and the new three-strip process would prove even costlier still. The good folks at Technicolor were incredibly protective of their process, and in wanting to ensure any film with their name on it looked good as possible, they made their cameras available only through rental, mandated strict control over on-set color choices through supervisor Natalie Kalmus, and charged massive fees to cover the high-quality printing process. It’s enough to spook any spendthrift producer, and so it took two investors absurdly flush with cash to convince anyone the approach worth it for a long one. Specifically it took some Vanderbilts and Whitneys — John Hay Whitney and Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, founders of Pioneer Pictures, and early supporters of color features, eager to make their distinctive, multicolored mark on the silver screen. After a few false starts, aborted projects, and the successful short comedy La Cucaracha in 1934, 1935 finally saw the pair tap Rouben Mamoulian and Francis Edward Faragoh of D.r Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and Little Caesar respectively to adapt William Makepeace Thackeray’s popular Victorian novel Vanity Fair for the sixth time, and give the people what they REALLY want!
Becky Sharp, everyone’s favorite anti-heroine, waltzes onto the screen in 1935, and history is made. Technicolor is arrived in glorious feature-length, the door is open, the Rubicon is crossed, the precedent set, and the film proceeds to do kinda crap at the box office and sink into public domain obscurity.
Yeah. Having never read Vanity Fair myself, I still feel I can understand why this production didn’t exactly light the world on fire. Compared against even choppy summary of the sprawling satire of then-contemporary English society, Becky Sharp seems less Vanity Fair brought to the screen than it does The Becky Sharp Highlight Reel. In adaptation, we’ve chopped out everything unrelated to the highs and lows of Becky’s years-long scrounging upward through high-class romances and sordid affairs and all man’s vices, and then further extracted everything except the bits best suited for showy, pitchy overacting. The film’s at its best in the early going, when Miriam Hopkins’ Becky is put opposite a succession of new characters, each with their own variation on how to get attention by acting as loud and self-centered as possible. There’s good fun in seeing her handle George Hassell’s overly-jocular Sir Pitt Crawley or Alison Skipworth’s chair-bound, impossibly shrill Aunt Crawley in their only scenes, particularly in the latter instance, where her avoiding destitution with an overly-weepy story about why her mother raised her as a damned dirty commoner before switching to an impish grin when alone and secure stands as the best part of the picture. As we go on, though, and as the film settles into its core cast with few new characters to introduce as novelties, the experience takes on an air of unwanted repetition. Becky’s here, Becky’s there, Becky’s here, Becky’s there, Becky’s close to getting found out, Becky pulls a last minute save, Becky gets knocked down real hard, springs back up before scene’s end, or at the start of the next if we’re real cheeky. We never get much time to settle into a location and appreciate the surroundings and folks within, and so I suspect the core audience is folks who just want to see Hopkins cover the hits without additional context.
It’s not the best-judged decision, really. Though I understand the script is drawn from a Langdom Mitchell play and not the original Thackery text, and though Vanity Fair was well-mined for screens over the preceding twenty years, Becky Sharp still plays as a little trashy without the bigger satirical drive or other, ostensibly-more virtuous characters as a contrast. Dump a succession of scenes in which Becky does her thing over and over and over again to about the same effect each time, and the pandering to the cheap seats in a medium where everyone gets roughly the same audio-visual experience grows tiresome. Granted, I find it hard to claim the gaudiness lacks appeal — even at the low points, it’s fun to watch Hopkins swap between extremes and occasionally spit venom when she’s comfortable enough to show her true self, and I’m entertained by how the pompous twits around her just eat it up. My personal satisfaction with something designed as easily digestible and demanding little thought to enjoy doesn’t speak highly to the actual quality, though. Most of the cast outside Hopkins is one-note as you can get without the story ever doing much with how simple they are other than encouraging surface-level laughs (I’m disappointed the movie does pretty much nothing with Frances Dee as Amelia opposite Hopkins), unless you want to squint and claim the squawking character of the performances carrying on to scenes where Becky’s working in a lowly tavern is some clever insight into the commonality of vice across all classes, which… I mean, I see it? I certainly wouldn’t blast anyone for making the argument, but at the same time it’s a very late-game idea and doesn’t get much screentime before we’re back with the rich idiots, and even so is a bit unpleasant on the ears in the same way as much of the prior film. Again, it’s trashy, trash I like in some respects, but lowbrow all the same, hardly anything I’d single for a Best Actress performance unless I were already set to let Bette Davis win for practically anything after the uproar over her lack of a nomination last year and wanted to see what a competition on that front would do in the Davis-Hopkins rivalry. Just my postulatin’, tho.
The colors here too are problematic, and work to diminish the film’s impact further. I shan’t BLAME Mamoulian for failing to bring the same visual flair he found in Queen Christina, nor cinematographer Ray Rennahan for not finding the perfect use of the bulky Technicolor camera on its first full-length outing. I SHALL, however, note the film suffers the same issue as many early Technicolor productions I’ve watched, i.e. the camera’s really goddamned big and hard to move around, so we’ll conduct most of the movie in samey level shots to save ourselves some hassle, and make our movie look less interesting as a result. The largely static visuals compound with the enormous amounts of light necessary to properly expose all three strips running inside the camera, which, without the advances in knowledge and technical workarounds to produce a richer, deeper image, results in a very flat-looking picture. This might work out for the best, if it weren’t for the addition of some fairly unimaginative cutting, which results in moments like a hypothetically exciting sequence wherein a fancy party is interrupted by the Battle of Waterloo happening across the way rendered as a slow, plodding affair with repetitive views on the same drab-looking angles. As to the color choices themselves, I don’t think them very loud or offensive as critics noted on release, though some of this may come down to how the film’s readily available streaming versions are all drawn from inferior multi-generation copies of a degraded public domain print, something that could easily wash excess vibrancy from the frame. It is interesting to note how excessively the production employs solid fields of blue (and later purple) in the set dressing, as well as integrating these into many of Becky’s outfits, as such colors were completely impossible in their pure, distinct forms under the old processes. Might’ve made a good marketing tactic back in the day, assuming your average theater patron paid enough attention to the range of the rainbow they got to notice they were getting cheated on teals and azures until 1935. Either way, they only do so much to help the visuals of a film chained by technological limitations.
So it is that Becky Sharp passes into history. The Whitneys would fund one more film through Pioneer Pictures (Dancing Pirate) before merging the company with the burgeoning Selznick International Pictures to pursue further color ventures like A Star is Born, Nothing Sacred, and eventually Gone with the Wind. Technicolor would find greater success as the major studios gradually ticked off more and more full-color features throughout the decade (and as aggressive business practices drove most competitors from the market) until the four mentioned in our first paragraph ensured the floodgates stayed open throughout the 40s and 50s. At least, until their business partner and material supplier Eastman-Kodak released the monopack-based Eastmancolor technique in 1950 — a far cheaper and quicker process prone to quicker decay and fading, yet one the studios gladly jumped on to save money and get around the Technicolor middleman. And Becky Sharp, failing to win audience’s hearts or Hopkins’ Oscar, faded into obscurity, a trivia night answer for eternity, no glory for making it first across the line. Don’t think the film worth passing over or ignoring for the shortcomings I’ve outlined here, however: shrill and pitchy though it be, I’d think there’s an evening’s distraction in stopping by ol’ Hollywood Londontown to gawp at the good garbage while enjoying a historical footnote. Just cause it’s a lil’ bad don’t mean ya can’t have fun with it! I certainly did in parts, so don’t knock it too hard without trying.
Now if only I could block out enough time to actually READ the blasted book…
Next week, the Registry brings us surviving, silent footage of the agricultural scientist George Washington Carver at and around the environs of the Tuskgee Institute, appropriately titled “George Washington Carver at Tuskgee Institute”. The short documentary is a quick YouTube search away, so lemme hear your thoughts on this week’s picture down below, and I’ll catch y’all for another discussion next time!