Blessay 19: Tinting and Toning for the Silents?

Should we colour tint or tone silent films? Or just leave them alone in good b & w prints? I’m not an academic. I can’t bring erudite film scholarship to bear down on this question. If you want that then go to the online sights devoted to early cinema and visit the extensive Reuben Library at the BFI Southbank. This piece is simply some observations of a cineaste who has watched a fair amount of silents.

Daniel Blum’s ‘The Pictorial History of the Silent Screen’ was a large book of photographs of the silents (Over 80% of which were lost or missing films.) As a teenager I would flick through its pages wishing they could be restored to life on my bedroom wall. Theda Bara, Zasu Pitts and Tom Mix needed to be animated. Any colouring of their bodies and surroundings didn’t matter. When I did get to see them move it was in a time when you watched silent films without any colour. No tinting. No toning. Just b & w prints in bad condition (Long before the 1980’s when Kevin Brownlow and David Gill restored films for Channel 4 TV)

In the mid sixties I sat through murky 16mm copies of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Intolerance and Tol’able David. As a schoolboy I watched 8mm clips of silents on a friend’s tiny home projector. One was a reel from the 1925 The Phantom of the Opera. Lon Chaney played the organ in the sewer under the opera house. Then his scary skeletal presence would have been far less effective if tinged green or blue.

The first silent I saw, that was tinted, was Griffith’s Orphans of the Storm. It was at the Everyman Cinema in the early eighties. I remenber the film suddenly turning blue in a night scene, green in a country scene and sometimes yellow or violet indoors. It was a shock, a novelty and quite disconcerting. The drama of a b & w world had been ruptured. Initially the ‘charm’ of colouring a film didn’t work for me. It stood in the aisle of my idea of cinema; a little hesitant and unsure. For re-assurance, that this was permissable, I went to the library and researched the business of tinting.

Even today it’s difficult to determine if this is what the director wanted. And if he or she did was it been done according to how they wished it to be done? Many studios, each competiting with one another, rushed out their films utilising tinting and toning as part of a commercial imperative. Sometimes a careful colour continuity had been prepared. Sometimes not. There are films that look as if the celluloid has simply been crudely dipped into a chemical dye. Whilst other movies have a painterly elegance about them.

Things are more problematic in our computer age. Digital restorations of silent films are to be applauded. Yes, clean up the print. But add the colour with subtlety (The recent superb restoration of Intolerance is blighted by a toning that’s intensely fierce. Blu-Ray exacerbates its forbidding dazzle, so much that you want you play it in black and white. In an otherwise enthusiastic, and sensitive review, of the restored film in Sight & Sound, critic Pamela Hutchinson completely fails to even mention the tinting.)

Another recent restoration has been Hitchcock’s The Lodger. Did anyone find any colour continuity notes when they were working on this? The story concerns Jack the Ripper and a mysterious lodger who is suspected of being the infamous killer. Mostly the film consists of night scenes set in a foggy London. For this the restorers chose a horrible, browny orange tint that dominates the screen for over two thirds of the film’s running time. An occasional blue came as a relief. Surely more variation of colour was possible? Did Hitchcock intend it to be like this? Did he have any say in the matter then? Is the chosen offending colour just what the BFI thought would be appropriate because they’d no information on the toning used in the twenties? And was it released toned and tinted in 1926? For me that ‘foggy colour effect’ gave the film an undue heaviness (Fog turned into a sickly blanket instead of curling sinister in the frame.) The Lodger dragged horribly making it a tedious experience for what is normally (untinted) the most exciting of Hitchcock’s silents.

Yet there are successes. Take Griffith’s wonderful Broken Blossoms. And especialy the famous closet scene where the furious father (Donald Crisp) attacks his daughter (Lilian Gish). The tintinting/toning is of a brownish hue that feels just right for the dinginess of her home. As the father takes an axe to the closet door, Lilian Gish (an unforgettable performance) writhes, claws at the air and moves as a terrified creature. This is briefly intercut with blue street shots of the gentle Chinese man (Richard Barthelmess) running to save her. Blue breaks up the tension and ‘horror’ of the brown. It’s as if the instrumental colours of a symphonic tone poem cut, or conducted, by Griffith’s exact editing where at play here. The whole film is so intelligently coloured; adding greatly to the poignancy of the melodrama.

And finally Edwin S.Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903). Last night I saw for the first time a beautiful hand-tinted print. This was done at Pathe, by the women employed as colourists, in its factory at Vincenees. At the end of the film, the robber points his gun at the camera and fires it. A reddish brown smoke appears. If the film had suddenly added a subversive inter-title, or broken into speech, the robber might have said, ‘Look out audience were comin’ to get yer and we aim to colour your world proper one day!’


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