There were color movies from the earliest days of cinema, including Edison’s 1895 short Annabelle’s Dance and George Méliès famous 1902 A Trip to the Moon which he sold in black and white and in color (for an additional fee, of course). They were hand-colored, however, not shot in color. The French film studio Pathé used a stenciling system starting in 1905. The process cut out sections from the film which would then be run through dye rollers of up to 6 different colors. It would remain popular for two and a half decades and would employ hundreds of women as stencilers.
Tinted film was also widely used. It was cheap and easy and filmmakers could match a scene to one of the pre-dyed color reels, so for instance, a fire scene would be shot on red tinted film. Hollywood kept using tinted film for effect well into the 50s.
Eastman Kodak started testing a new method which would bring naturalistic color to film, the Two-Color Kodachrome Process, in 1914. Two-Color Kodachrome was first used in a fiction film in a 1916 short called Concerning One Thousand Dollars. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival presented a restored version of that film in 2000 and here’s a clip of it:
Shot with a dual-lens camera, the process recorded filtered images on black-and-white negative stock, then made black-and-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.
Earlier this year, the George Eastman House’s Motion Picture Department restored some of those 1922 test films used to pitch the Kodachrome process to the studio bosses.
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.
Fox eventually bought it, but it turned out to be a pig in a poke. In 1930, Fox spent huge amounts on special labs on each coast, plus special tens of 35mm and 70mm cameras for shooting using the Two-Color Kodachrome Process. By then one of Kodak’s competitors Technicolor had become the industry standard and expensive, complicated Kodachrome was over before it really began. Fox never got to use any of those specialty cameras for Kodachrome, although a few of the 35mm would be repurposed over 2 decades later for the widescreen, high resolution VistaVision process.