Color and monochrome in Wizard of Oz

Friend told me something that he says he’s fairly sure is an urban legend, but that he wants me to check out anyway. Someone told him that the monochrome/color changeover was a last minute decision. Supposedly, MGM decided, after the Kansas scenes had been shot but the Oz sequence hadn’t begun, to use “this new Technicolor”, and the monochrome Kansas scenes were used to spare the expense of reshoots. I don’t think I believe it either, but I said I’d ask.

Actually the whole film is in color, and the opening and closing sequences are in sepia tones. There isn’t any monochrome in the film. This was indeed the intent all along.

Um, I think that the sepia sequences count as monchrome. If they were printed in shades of pink, that would still be monchromatic, surely. Well to an english teacher if not to a cameraman.

Yep! always was going to have that magic transition. Well, from pretty early in the planning anyway.

A similar effect was used in an early sixties pop movie, “Summer Holiday”, starring Cliff Richard. From memory, the opening credits are superimposed over black and white shots of London (before it was swinging). Then just as the fillum proper begins, a double decker bus is infused with red, and colour fills the screen. Makes you think, doesn’t it?


Right. I knew about the sepia tones, but I typed the second half of my post three times and still couldn’t make it coherent. The 50th anniversary edition was released with the Kansas scenes in that format, but I wasn’t sure if that was the original style, or an update that was added in the nature of colorization.

It does sound more effective, if that’s the word, to put the sepia wash over color than over monochrome. But that gives rise to another question: how did the TV version end up black-and-white? Bad video transfer?

The original was not done in sepia. That was only added years later, when the assumption was that audiences wouldn’t stand for watching black and white. If you go back far enough, you may remember the host of the movie on TV (and it used to have a host) would warn everyone with color TVs that the beginning of the film was in black and white and not to worry.

It wouldn’t have made any sense to shoot in sepia in 1939, since that would have required expensive color film. (Personally, I detest sepia and prefer a nice clean B&W print.)

Technicolor was not “new” in 1939 – versions of it had been available in the silent days. The same year they shot GWTW in Technicolor, and a year or two earlier, they did “Jezebel” with Bette Davis. The black and white version may have been to save money, but that decision was made before the movie was shot.

The original was done in sepia, but the sepia tones were lost until the film was restored.

“Jezebel” was shot in b&w. Everyone thinks it’s color because of the red dress being such a plot point but it’s b&w.

I’d like to thank the Gutenberg Project for putting the book version of the Wizard of Oz online so I could paste this quote:

“When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached to the edge of the sky in all directions. The sun had baked the plowed land into a gray mass, with little cracks running through it. Even the grass was not green, for the sun had burned the tops of the long blades until they were the same gray color to be seen everywhere. Once the house had been painted, but the sun blistered the paint and the rains washed it away, and now the house was as dull and gray as everything else.”

Sounds like putting the Kansas scenes in gray would have been a cinematographer’s logical choice, all the more to show Dorothy’s amazement when everything turned into color.

Becky Sharp (1935) was the first full color feature film, so Technicolor wasn’t exactly “new,” it had been around a few years.

There is a similar mix of colour and black-and-white footage in Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968).

This led to much critical speculation regarding the reason as to why this was done.

After listening to various theories on the subject, Anderson informed the movie-going world that he ran out of money near the end of the shoot and could not afford to buy any more colour stock.

So there.

Well, my head is spinning. But none of this supports what Friend’s cow-orker told him, so we can be satisfied that he was wrong.

Nostradamus: Well, I’ll be a monkey’s grandmother! When I was at school, another friend and I watched If… multiple times. We racked our brains and shook out everything we knew about film theory, psychology, sexual identity*, art technique, and so on. But we could never find any consistency in the monochrome/color pattern! Thank you for solving at least one of life’s mysteries.

*We were also highly frustrated by some of the content. We originally rented it because we both loved McDowell, and we thought the film was only about conformity, rebellion and insurrection. It was, mostly, but every time we started to get into it, there was a break for some homoerotic fantasy! No offense, but that wasn’t what we thought we would get.

From the IMDB:

The Kansas sequences weren’t shot in sepia, they were shot on black and white. The sepia was added in the film finishing process, and this was the way it was originally shown. The tones were lost over time and had to be restored later.

Being an English teacher, I’d have to disagree with you there. Monochrome=one color; in this case shades of gray. When you tint it pink or sepia, you add a second color, so it is no longer mono.

Also, addressing the OP, the full color sections were shot first, so what your friend said cannot be true.

And if you watch it while playing Dark Side of the…

Oh nevermind!

Six: He didn’t say it, his cow-orker did.

I read a book about the making of Wizard and they printed one of the early screenplays. Dorothy was to remain B/W for the first few Oz scenes. Glinda was to look at her, say, “This will never do,” wave her wand, and Dorothy would become Technicolor.

Unfortunately, the writer didn’t know it was impossible to do this kind of visual effect in 1938 and the idea had to be scrapped. Today, of course, with CGI, it’s relatively easy. (See Pleasantville.)

Woulda been cool, though!

RHPS Was supposed to start like that too. Although the final release didn’t have it, it is on the 25th anniversary DVD.

When was bluescreen/greenscreen technology developed?

Where do I get one of those? My cow needs some orking.

Nice story, but the movie does show sepia tone and color at the same time. In the TV documentary “Memories of Oz”, it was revealed how they made the transition from sepia to color. The entire scene, including Dorothy and the interior of the Kansas home, was filmed in color. A stand-in wearing a special sepia-toned dress opened the door. A simiar process could easily have been used to have Dorothy exit the house wearing the same sepia-toned dress and meet Glinda. There must be some other reason the sequence was not included.

All I have to say is On DVD the colours and Sepia Are absolutely brilliant! God I love my new Toy… Now if I can convince my wife to Spend $3000 on a 54" Widescreen HDTV set…