Technicolor sets the scene

Editor's note: Worn by 16-year-old Judy Garland during the filming of The Wizard of Oz, the Ruby Slippers are one of the most popular and treasured artifacts at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. They will be off view October 9 through November 20 in order to be part of a special exhibition on Hollywood at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, England. The Ruby Slippers will be home for the holidays and return to public view November 21. In the meantime, we explore how the slippers got their ruby color.

"Within a short time she was walking briskly toward the Emerald City, her silver shoes tinkling merrily on the hard, yellow roadbed. The sun shone bright and the birds sang sweet and Dorothy…"

In the original book, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, author L. Frank Baum gave the Wicked Witch of the East a pair of powerful silver shoes that became Dorothy's when her Kansas farmhouse dropped out of the sky and landed squarely on the witch. Whether or not Baum meant those silver shoes skipping down a golden road as a commentary on the late-19th-century debate over basing American currency on a gold or silver standard (more on the book's political context here), his vision of silver shoes remained intact in early versions of the screenplay for the classic 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. Yet the shoes were certainly not silver in the final film. While we may never be certain why Baum chose silver, we do know exactly why Dorothy's shoes became a pair of sequin-covered, iridescent ruby slippers in the movie. The answer: Technicolor.

Technicolor Camera, around 1938.
Technicolor Camera, around 1938

Inventors and MIT graduates Herbert Kalmus and Daniel Comstock, and the technically adept W. Burton Wescott founded Technicolor in 1915 (the "Tech" in Technicolor was a nod to Kalmus and Comstock’s alma mater). In 1938, Kalmus spoke about the beginnings of the company: "The earliest Technicolor laboratory was built within a railway car. This car was completely equipped with a photochemical laboratory, darkrooms, fireproof safes, power plant, offices, and all the machinery and apparatus necessary for continuously carrying on the following processes on a small commercial scale; sensitizing, testing, perforating, developing, washing, fixing and drying positive; printing, developing, washing, and conditioning air; filtering and cooling wash water; examining and splicing film; and making control measurements and tests."

Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers, 1938
Dorothy's Ruby Slippers, 1938

Herbert Kalmus and his team continued to tweak the invention through several iterations before it reached its full glory in the 1930s. Technicolor Process Number Four, or 3-strip Technicolor, used in The Wizard of Oz, wasn’t a type of film, though. Instead, the action was filmed with a modified motion-picture camera that contained a prism and colored filters that, in turn, separated the scene onto three different strips of black-and-white negative film. Each strip correlated to the filtered colors and was used to create an intermediary strip called a matrix. In a method similar to lithography, the matrices were then used to print the final movies that were distributed to theaters. Making a Technicolor feature film was such a complex undertaking that movie studios were required to hire specially trained Technicolor staff to oversee production. These included color consultants, under the direction of Natalie Kalmus, Herbert's ex-wife.

A former art student, Natalie became the ultimate mediator between the lab and the silver screen, unwavering in her commitment to make Technicolor shine. She made decisions about makeup, costumes, sets, and lighting, and even went behind the camera as a cinematographer a few times. She controlled (some say with an iron fist) the aura of Technicolor, describing her role as "playing ringmaster to the rainbow."

Natalie Kalmus was the Technicolor consultant on The Wizard of Oz set. We don't know if she played a part in transforming Baum's silver shoes into ruby slippers or if costume designer Gilbert Adrian and screenwriter Noel Langley came to the decision independent of her influence. But with one seemingly simple change, an American icon was born.

The museum's collections are rich in artifacts from The Wizard of Oz and the Technicolor era, and the Ruby Slippers are among our most visited treasures. The image of Dorothy clicking those sequined heels together three times, repeating, "There’s no place like home," is part of our shared memory. Would the Ruby Slippers have attained such star status if they had remained silver?

Joyce Bedi is Senior Historian for the Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. This post first appeared on the Center’s blog, Bright Ideas.

Posted at 5:12 am EDT in From the Collections,Invention & Innovation