Tonight at 7 PM Northwest Chicago Film Society kicks off its first repertory series in more than a year at The Auditorium at Northeastern Illinois University (3701 West Bryn Mawr Avenue). The main attraction this evening is Follow Thru, a lesser-known musical from 1930 that’s screening from a recently restored 35-millimeter print. Likely one of the few musicals ever made about golf (and also one of the raciest—it’s a pre-Code production in the best sense), Follow Thru also has the distinction of being among the first feature films produced in Technicolor. In 1930 the format was still something of a work in progress—it would be another few years before movies started getting made in the “three-strip” process, which captured a wider range of colors than early Technicolor did. The “two-strip” process on display in Follow Thru is still rather vibrant, and the filmmakers take full advantage of it during a musical number set in a vaudeville version of hell.
Introducing the film will be David Pierce, coauthor of a lavishly illustrated and painstakingly researched new book called The Dawn of Technicolor: 1915-1935. I spoke briefly with Pierce the other day to learn about Follow Thru‘s place in Hollywood history. He should have more lessons to impart this evening.
Ben Sachs: What was the state of Technicolor in 1930, when Follow Thru was produced?
David Pierce: Musicals became very popular in 1929, and musicals in Technicolor were huge hits. By modern standards, these movies were basically filmed stage shows. In 1930, there were three or four absolutely terrific Technicolor musicals released by Hollywood—this was when the Technicolor process had been mastered, along with sound recording, the way they staged musical numbers. The filmmaking shifted from a sort of Broadway style to the more modern musical style that we’re familiar with. Follow Thru was the most delightful of these.
You say that the studios didn’t master Technicolor by 1930. What were some of the last bugs that needed to be worked out of the process before then?
There were challenges in creating the right sharpness. In 1929 it wasn’t all that good, but by the time of Follow Thru, there were improved lenses and the color resolution was much better. So when you’re watching the two-strip Technicolor of Follow Thru, it doesn’t take long before you don’t notice that the movie doesn’t contain all the colors of the rainbow, that it’s primarily in green, orange, and red. It plays so much like a modern film.
It’s designed almost like a Sunday comic strip, the way it sticks to a very specific color palette.
Yes, the production design was focused on the colors that the two-strip process could reproduce. So when it came to the costumes and the sets, you won’t see any blues or yellows.
Why did two-strip Technicolor reproduce certain colors and not others?
The people who developed the process had the goal of creating a satisfactory caucasian flesh tone, which you achieve better with a mix of green and red. The third color, which gave you your yellows and blues, wasn’t necessary for getting that flesh tone. Pretty much they built the system for that purpose, and then all the other colors sort of fell out where they would.
How would you describe the appeal of Follow Thru to audiences less familiar with this era of film history?
There’s a naturalness to it, which isn’t so much the case for movies made after the Production Code was introduced. I think that filmmaking and acting styles became standardized after 1933, but here there’s a casual feel among the players. You almost feel like they’re making up the dialogue as they’re going along. That’s really appealing. In spring of 1930, when this was made, sound movies were still pretty new. No one really knew what the best techniques [for making them] was, so there was a lot of experimentation going on.