A Pictorial History of the Movies: 1922 – The Toll of the Sea

Until about a month ago, the choice for 1922 was not this, but was instead, Nosferatu. But then I started writing up The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari for 1920, and I went, “Wait, I’m basically just going to say the same stuff for Nosferatu as I am for this.” The only difference being I’d talk about some framing stuff Murnau does with the arches and stuff. So I looked at what else I could possibly use, knowing that I could always default to, “Well, that Nosferatu shot is iconic, and nothing else was able to top it, so…”

But I quickly found this movie. The Toll of the Sea. And that immediately became the choice because I had stuff to talk about with it. Sure, Nosferatu is the most famous film of 1922, but, since I want stuff to talk about, I’ve decided to make this the film that defines 1922 for this list’s purposes. This is arguably the most important film of 1922, even if you probably haven’t heard of it.

This film is the second movie ever shot in Technicolor. (The first film, The Gulf Between, is considered lost.) It was the first Technicolor feature made in Hollywood. So essentially the first Technicolor feature.

It was shot back when Technicolor was just two-strip Technicolor. Three-strip Technicolor wouldn’t come around until 1934, with La Cucaracha, a short film, and 1935 with Becky Sharp, the first three-strip Technicolor feature.

Two-strip Technicolor was only reds and greens. That’s all it was. (Ever see The Aviator? The entire first reel of that movie is shot to emulate two-strip Technicolor. The entire thing has red and green hues on all of its colors to look like that. Until they get to Kate Hepburn’s house and the wonderful blue skies and green grass kicks in. Just in case you’ve never noticed.) How they did it was, two strips of negative were exposed to the camera lens at the same time, one through a red filter, and one through a green filter. And there was a special prism that aligned the two images, creating a single image. And what they did was tone each strip of film the opposite color of the filter it was going through. So the green film was projected through the red filter and vice versa. And toning, if you remember, toning replaces the darker portions of the frame with a wash of color. And then they put those two strips together, and projected them. And the result was what you get in this movie. (And also that a special projector wasn’t required to show the film, which was inhibitive at the time.)

You also see two-strip Technicolor in movies like Hell’s Angels, The Phantom of the Opera (that Bal Masque sequence is one of the most famous instances of two-strip Technicolor), Mystery of the Wax Museum, Doctor X (one of my favorites). There are a lot of reds and greens present, and tll the whites end up as a sort of sepia tone, giving the films a very distinct look.

But, as you can see from the Pic of the Day, the films do a surprisingly good job of representing color, which heretofore was something film couldn’t do. The two biggest hurdles to film in the early era were color and sound. Before color and sound, film couldn’t reach its full potential for storytelling. (Special effects were probably the third part of this triangle, but those would come later, and were more about refining more than anything. Though I guess one could argue the other two were also about refining as well.) And humorously enough, some people thought color and sound were the worst things to ever happen to cinema. They thought it was perfect as it was when it was silent and black and white. Go figure.

Anyway, the great thing about Toll of the Sea is that it’s essentially Madame Butterfly. So you know the story. And you don’t have to focus on that. You can watch how they use color to tell the story.

So, as the first Technicolor feature ever made, I’m considering that the defining film of 1922, even though one might say the other film was the choice they’d have went with. But this is my list, and I already talked about horror films. I want to talk about Technicolor. So I did. And I like not making the easy choices. So take that, douchebags.

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One response

  1. Good choice. I need to rewatch this (I remember thinking it was incredibly boring, except for Anna May Wong’s performance), but as someone who’s fascinated by early color cinema, it’s a canonical work.

    August 28, 2014 at 5:36 pm

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