The Adventures of Robin Hood
seen on TV @ TCM
There's something about Old Hollywood movies shot in Technicolor, aside from the obvious fact of them being in color in a black-and-white medium. The coloring process gives those movies a heightened sense of realism, but they tend to look realer than reality, if that makes any sense. The colors pop in a way that they usually don't in most modern color movies, and the effect is startling, to say the least. I suspect it was part of the effort to make movies larger than life, to give the audience more bang for their buck, so to speak.
Would The Adventures of Robin Hood, for example, still be as well-remembered as it is if it were in black and white? I suspect not. As good and as fun a movie as it is, I think one could make the argument that Technicolor made a big difference.
It was Warner Brothers' first color film that used the 3-strip Technicolor camera, the go-to technology for color films throughout much of the 30s. There had been numerous forays into color before, but with the 1935 film Becky Sharp, the Technicolor look had been mastered for live-action, feature-length movies. The following year, The Trail of the Lonesome Pine took Technicolor outdoors for the first time, and the year after that, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, animated in Technicolor, briefly became the highest-grossing sound film. Robin Hood, therefore, was made at just the right time for feature-length color movies to take off in America. It was the highest-grossing film of 1938 and it won three Oscars, including Best Art Direction, Color.
While Technicolor was used for dramas and comedies as well as action films, it seems particularly appropriate for a period piece based on one of the greatest legends of all time. Part of the reason why may have to do with the overall mood: even though it's technically a movie about class warfare, abuse of power and a people's revolution, it is 100% angst-free. While it has its serious moments, it never gets thematically dark, and while there's danger, it never feels hopeless.
Credit Errol Flynn's flawless performance in the title role for that. As I watched him play a de facto superhero, I was reminded of other superheroes known for laughing in the face of danger, like Spider-Man or Captain Marvel. It may seem odd to modern audiences used to the "cooler" brooding of Batman or the soap opera angst of the X-Men (the comics much more so than the movies), but if the current wave of Marvel movies are good for anything, it's for attempting to bring back the spirit of movies like Robin Hood, updated for the 21st century, of course. The Iron Man movies and especially Guardians of the Galaxy share a little bit of that same swashbuckler spirit...
...but Robin Hood is distinct. I watched a few clips of the Russell Crowe Robin Hood movie from 2010, by way of comparison. While I'm sure it has its merits, from what I saw, it looked little different from watching Crowe in Gladiator: huge armies engaged in big battles, passionate speeches to rally the troops, and yes, the desaturated color. In 1938 it would've been revolutionary, but in 2010, and even now in 2015, it looks like what we've come to expect from "epic" action movies post-Lord of the Rings.
I'm not even saying this is necessarily bad, but it's such a marked contrast to Flynn's version as to be a completely different movie. And the proof is in the pudding: Crowe's Robin Hood, only five years old, is barely remembered now, despite all the hype and money that was no doubt spent on it (a 43 score on Rotten Tomatoes and it only made $105 million on a budget that was almost twice that). Flynn's Robin Hood, meanwhile, continues to endure over seventy years later: a biopic on Flynn released last year, starring Kevin Kline, was called The Last of Robin Hood. Nuff said.