10 silent films with amazing colour

Silents by numbers

This is a guest post for Silent London by Nina Giacomo from Brazil, who blogs at Primeiro Cinema. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.

The great majority of the films made between the origins of cinema and the 1910s had colour in some way. People often don’t know that because a lot of films from the 1920s were actually released in black and white and so the evolutionary view of film history makes us think that silent cinema was deprived of colour. But, since the beginnings of cinema, a lot of research was done into colour film and two tendencies were explored: the colourisation after the film had been shot and the capture of “natural colours” while shooting.

This is not a “top 10” list … It is a selection of 10 films that show a variety of ways of giving colour to the moving image. It is my list of 10 must-watch silent colour films!

Annabelle Serpentine Dance (Edison, 1895)

The first of many films dedicated to the “serpentine dance” created by the american dancer Loïe Fuller in 1889. The hand colourisation, frame by frame, represents Fuller’s spectacular stage effects, which combined the constant flow of the dress’s movement with the projection of electrical lights.

Pierrette’s Escapades (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1900)

A vibrant example of hand-colouring made by Gaumont.

Untitled experiments (Edward Turner, 1901/02)

Theses pictures, recently discovered, are actually a series of tests for a new invention. They show how early the attempts to reproduce “natural colours” began.

A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)

The colour version of this film was unknown until 1993, when it was found in Barcelona in a terrible condition. Not until 2010 could the restoration could be released and it transformed the image we have of this most iconic of all silent films.

The Lonedale Operator (DW Griffith, 1911)

Here we have an interesting use of colour in silent cinema. The young lady can only trick the bandits (making them believe that she has a gun, when actually it is a wrench) because the scene takes place at night. The blue tinting suggests the time of day.

A Day with John Burroughs (1919)

I saw this film last year at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. I was enchanted by the life lessons from this old man. The colours, made with the Prizma Color system, create such a delicate atmosphere.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (Robert Wiene, 1920)

This classic has just been restored and the new version will be shown in February at the Berlin International Film Festival with its original tinting and toning … I can’t wait to see it.

Virginian Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (1926)

An amazing example of Pathécolor, just recently discovered. It shows us a late use of this method that was pioneered by Pathé in France during 1905. Stencils were used to automate the hand-colouring of films.

Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)

A hybrid in many ways: this is a silent, talkie, black-and-white and colour motion picture. The colour scenes are just marvellous.

The Love Charm (Howard Mitchell, 1928)

And here is a little known example of the two-colour Technicolor process. A weird love story in amazing colours.

Nina Giacomo

Do you agree with Nina’s choices? Share your suggestions below

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15 thoughts on “10 silent films with amazing colour”

  1. Such a delicate list!
    The colours are really amazing!
    And this “evolutionary view of film history” is something really important to think about!
    Congratulations and hoping to see Caligari’s restoration soon!

  2. A lovely list. The only thing missing (for me) is The Phantom of the Opera. Seeing the 1929 version for the first time took me back to the moment in The Wizard of Oz where Dorothy steps into the Technicolor world of Oz for the first time.

  3. I am amazed that the first commercial feature film, The Toll of the Sea is not on the list. Made in 1922, it was also the first starring role for a 17 year old Anna May Wong. Her natural acting style is remarkable for the time and the so-called two strip Technicolor is beautiful. This film was thought to have been lost for many years but was restored in 1985 from the original camera negative in 1985.

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