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March 2, 2022

Kodak 1922 Kodachrome Film Test, the Earliest Color Motion Picture Film You Will See

George Eastman House is the repository for many of the early tests made by the Eastman Kodak Company of their various motion picture film stocks and color processes. The Two-Color Kodachrome Process was an attempt to bring natural lifelike colors to the screen through the photochemical method in a subtractive color system. First tests on the Two-Color Kodachrome Process were begun in late 1914. Shot with a dual-lens camera, the process recorded filtered images on black/white negative stock, then made black/white separation positives. The final prints were actually produced by bleaching and tanning a double-coated duplicate negative (made from the positive separations), then dyeing the emulsion green/blue on one side and red on the other. Combined they created a rather ethereal palette of hues. Kodak introduced Two-Color Kodachrome to the industry in 1922 through a series of private screenings, first in New York City and subsequently at venues across the country. That first test reel contained shots of actress Hope Hampton, but it has not been determined if that reel is still extant.

In these newly preserved tests, made in 1922 at the Paragon Studios in Fort Lee, New Jersey, actress Mae Murray appears almost translucent, her flesh a pale white that is reminiscent of perfectly sculpted marble, enhanced with touches of color to her lips, eyes, and hair. She is joined by actress Hope Hampton modeling costumes from The Light in the Dark (1922), which contained the first commercial use of Two-Color Kodachrome in a feature film. Ziegfeld Follies actress Mary Eaton and an unidentified woman and child also appear. Finally, the film includes panoramic scenes of homes in the Los Angeles area shot by Capstaff in July of the same year.

Two-Color Kodachrome had numerous competitors in the field, including Prizmacolor, Kellycolor, and Multicolor, all vying to secure the potentially lucrative position of offering a viable naturalistic color process to the motion picture industry. Companies offering subtractive processes were also in competition with those that were developing additive mechanical systems, which created color with the use of red, green, and/or blue filters (Kinemacolor, Kodacolor).

Kodak worked simultaneously on both fronts, and the Two-Color Kodachrome Process was tested by the Fox Film Corp. from 1929 to 1930. Fox went so far as to build two laboratories, one on each coast,  with the intention of producing color films. The Los Angeles laboratory is now Deluxe, and the New York lab was part of Fox’s main office. In 1930, anticipating the use of Two-Color Kodachrome on a large scale, Fox ordered twenty-one 35mm cameras and ten 70mm Grandeur cameras from W. P. Stein & Co. of Rochester, New York. The main competitor was Technicolor, a process used by virtually every other studio in Hollywood. In the end, Two-Color Kodachrome was both too complicated and too expensive to be viable. None of the cameras Fox purchased were ever used as intended, but some of the 35mm cameras were repurposed for VistaVision.

Kodachrome as we know it today is a completely different process from the one described above. Kodak simply reused the name for its 16mm motion picture film introduced in 1935, and for the 35mm slide and 8mm home movie formats unveiled in 1936.


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