The Toll of the Sea (1922)
Directed by Chester M. Franklin
54 min.; U.S.A.; Color; Silent
There are various ways of looking at the development of color in motion pictures. One way is to see the drive to color as a logical step in the evolution of cinema toward enhanced realism. Another way is to see color as necessary in the development toward full mechanization. Still another way of looking at color is through a solely economic interpretation. Any film history textbook worth its salt will contain a long and detailed section on the technical development of color motion pictures so I'll avoid one here. What matters to a chronological look at filmmaking is a recognition that the drive to develop a perfect color system that will stand the test of time has been around since almost the advent of cinema and continues today. We can see and read about examples of hand coloring in some of the earliest motion pictures. The Pathécolor labor-intensive stencil process was promoted by the company in its advertising and helped Pathé gain the preeminent position in world markets before World War I. Tinting and toning the film base replaced more expensive and time consuming hand coloring and was used on the vast majority of all films produced in the silent era (much of this has faded which is why we typically see these films in black and white today). Kinemacolor, Chronochrome, Prizma and other systems competed to perfect a standard, cost-efficient, reliable and fast color process. By 1922, Technicolor perfected a two-strip subtractive color process which, though lacking in the blue part of the spectrum, produced natural looking color that could be projected without costly new exhibition equipment. This major step toward the perfection of a standard color system was demonstrated to the public with the release ofThe Toll of the Sea (1922).
What might seem to us as a major event in film history—the first Technicolor feature film—was apparently less impressive to the major stars of the era because none appear in the film. Perhaps Mary Pickford, Rudolph Valentino, Gloria Swanson, Lillian Gish, and others were wary of the extra time involved in experimenting with a new color system. Besides there was no guarantee of profitable or flattering results from yet another color test. On the other hand, the picture was produced by Technicolor and movie stars of the aforementioned caliber may have been beyond the company's means (according to the company's own corporate history the film's director and Anna May Wong were provided free of charge). Too bad because it'd be something to see these stars in what ads touted as "natural color" back in the day. That being said, the film does star Anna May Wong, previously unknown to me, who makes the most of this opportunity; it's for her sympathetic performance and the beautiful Technicolor images that we keep watching.
Lotus Flower reads a letter from Little Allen's (Priscilla Moran) estranged father in The Toll of the Sea
Okay, so what happens in the flick? The sea washes up an injured American man (Kenneth Harlan) onto the coast of China where he is discovered by Lotus Flower (Anna May Wong) and nursed back to health. Ignoring predictions of doom, the pair begin a love affair and are married in the Chinese tradition. He turns out to be a weak-willed cad who can be peer-pressured into thinking he should find an American wife, and when he returns to the U.S. he indeed marries another young lady (Beatrice Bentley). Everything points to a confrontation between the man, his two wives and a surprise waiting for him back in China. Sound familiar? It should because this stale story is merely a retooling of Madame Butterfly by Frances Marion. Though she was the highest paid screenwriter working in Hollywood at the time, Marion fails to live up her rep and crafts some uninspired scenes here. She attempts to redeem the unoriginal story with poetic interitles but it's not enough. Meanwhile, we get the feeling that director Chester M. Franklin is a little uninterested in the project because he sometimes relies on those intertitles instead of images to tell the story (how much, if any, of that is due to limitations of budget however is open to speculation); it's the moving and delicate acting by Wong that really carries the film. The cinematography captures contrasting elements to great effect (I wish I'd made a screen cap of Lotus Flower in multicolor silks perched atop rocks facing the sea but, alas) and these are employed to show off the range of colors available in the (then) new color technology. Ultimately sparse mise-en-scene, serviceable direction, a retread story and flat (other than Wong's) performances combine to remind us that The Toll of the Sea is really a beautiful looking feature-length color test film.
The Toll of the Sea was a moderate financial success drawing in a quarter of a million dollars at the box office. The Times review praised the film, especially the Technicolor images: "they are enjoyable in themselves and promise the further and furthering development of chromatic cinematography" ("The Screen," New York Times 27 November 1922, 22) as well as naming the film to its year-end list of top pictures. Since the movie was not produced by a major studio and didn't feature major stars, audiences were most likely drawn to the picture simply because of its color novelty. But regardless of the reasons why, the fact is audiences were drawn to the picture and it's success is significant becauseTechnicolor began to be recognized as a leader in color technology by critics, major Hollywood names and audiences alike. Today we can marvel at these gorgeous color images thanks to an excellent preservation of an original camera negative by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.