The late 1920s, when cinema learned to talk, is one of the most compelling eras in film history. But not only was film developing a voice, but color, too. True, movies had possessed color since the earliest days, either hand-painted or color-tinted. It wasn't until the 1920s that color that looked lifelike was able to be used (though it was what was known as "two-strip" Technicolor, which could capture most, but not all, of the color spectrum; "three-strip" Technicolor, which captured all colors, wouldn't be perfected until the mid-thirties). It was an expensive process used rarely in silents, and then only in select scenes. Mack Sennett had brief color sequences in several Lombard two-reelers, such as "Matchmaking Mama," below.
When talkies came around, some producers got the idea of merging sound and color, resulting in full-length Technicolor musicals which must have wowed audiences at the time. We can only guess, though, because unfortunately, both "On With The Show" and "Gold Diggers Of Broadway" do not exist in their full-length Technicolor form. Nor do three subsequent all-color musicals.
But earlier this year, a movie long believed lost for nearly eight decades was found, and it's now the oldest surviving all-Technicolor feature film. However, it doesn't come from one of "the usual suspects" (Warners, Fox, Paramount, MGM), nor is it a musical. Instead, it's from a studio familiar to only a few film historians, and it's a drama. The film I'm referring to is called...
It's "Mamba," from Tiffany, a minor studio trying to take a page out of the Warner Brothers playbook and vault from Poverty Row to prominence with a cinematic innovation -- though an all-Technicolor drama didn't really equate to hearing Al Jolson, already an entertainment legend, sing in towns far removed from Broadway. This was more along the lines of Warners' first all-talking film, the stodgy, bloated featurette "The Lights Of New York." Unlike "Lights," Tiffany had some legit star power on board...on loan, of course. As a tyrannical German landowner in Africa when the World War breaks out, you have Jean Hersholt -- yep, the same guy for whom the Motion Picture Academy's humanitarian award is named:
His wife was played by Eleanor Boardman, who had won praise as the wife in "The Crowd" in 1928 (directed by King Vidor, her husband at the time), while Ralph Forbes plays a Prussian officer:
The color is surprisingly well-preserved for a film released nearly 80 years ago (it premiered March 10, 1930). So where was it? Australia, which along with neighboring New Zealand was usually the end of the line for film distribution. (Many movies feared lost have resurfaced there.) For some reason, this copy of "Mamba" was never returned to the U.S., and thus just sat there in its original cans, all nine reels' worth.
That's the good news. The bad news is that only four of the nine soundtrack disks accompanied it. (Several studios utilized the sound-on-disc format pioneered by Warners, which was soon supplanted by the more efficient sound-on-film.) But this setback was initially overcome, as other collectors had the remaining five discs.
Tiffany pulled out all the stops (even assuring potential customers that despite its title, it was not an animal picture) to make this a prestige production, and it not only won excellent reviews, but did record box office at the small theaters that showed Tiffany product. Here's how Photoplay reviewed it in May 1930:
Unfortunately, unlike Warners, Tiffany had chosen its breakthrough at the wrong time. When the weakened economy of 1930 became the full-blown Depression of 1931, Tiffany couldn't cope and went under in 1932. (Reportedly some of its negative footage was lit to bolster the burning of Atlanta in "Gone With The Wind.")
You can learn more about this fascinating find -- and even see two brief segments of the film -- by going to http://talkieking.blogspot.com/search/label/Mamba. The people behind the movie's restoration hope to complete their work and make it available at film festivals as well as on DVD.
It's stories like this that provide hope for fans of classic Hollywood, hope that similar miracles will take place for other films believed lost. Somewhere, there has to be a print of "Marriage In Transit"...