What's with the overwhelming "brown-ness" of early 1970s films?

A few months ago, I watched Harold and Maude (1971) for the first time. I thought it was a nice enough movie, not really all that fantastic, but…good. However what really struck me about the movie was the sheer overpowering amounts of brown and beige in the film. Harold’s clothes all tend to be shades of brown, Maude drives a beige car, Harold’s mother’s house has an immense amount of wooden furnishings. Brown, brown, beige and BROWN! At the time, I assumed this was a deliberate stylistic choice - a way of visually representing how drab and boring Harold’s life was, and how Maude brought color and vivacity into it.

Last night however, I watched the Abominable Dr. Phibes (also 1971), and again there was an unusual amount of brown - clothing, props, background and backdrops tended to be overwhelmingly brown or beige.

On a hunch, I began to randomly check out youtube clips from other 1971 era films - Straw Dogs, the Hospital, Countess Dracula and The French Connection. Is it just me, or does it just jump out at you? The massive amount of brown / beige in everything - even down to the predominance in hair color (lots of actors with brownish auburn/brunette hair coloring.) And I noticed that location scenes (such as in H & M and TFC) had the least amount of the coloring, which kind of suggests to me that it wasn’t society at large liking browns, but the scenic designers and costumers of the films that made a point of featuring shades of brown everywhere.

Am I imagining this? Was there some kind of reason for this? Perhaps it’s just my own personal taste but as I mentioned above, that much of the same coloring just looks drab and just ugly. Why in the world was it popular in that specific time?

Hopefully someone with expertise will chime in, but I believe it’s artifact of the Kodak film stock that was used at the time. The dyes tend to fade as they age.

Brown, beige and orange were fashionable colours in the 1970s.

Indeed. You could get cars and appliances in these colors.

I think its a perfect storm of all the factors mentioned.

Such colors were in fashion. Not only that but vibrant colors weren’t as common either.

It often was a choice by movie makers.

Color film wasn’t as good a picking up what colors WERE there in the first place, much less the fading aspect. I recall the days of film photography where you needed GOOD (and slowish) film and bright light to really pick up the colors, which is kinda hard to do with movie filming out in the real world.

As an aside, I know someone who toured the Soviet Union by way of Finland (via chartered bus) shortly before the fall. They said it was almost like the place was literally black and white.

I have sort of a skewed image of the 70s because I wasn’t really old enough to remember it directly, but I cannot forget a photograph of my grandparents from the 70s. They both had brown hair. He wore a medium-brown leather jacket with a tan shirt and dark brown slacks. She wore a dress patterned in orange, tan and dark brown. They were standing on a dark brown shag carpet, next to a brown leather couch. He even had a pair of sunglasses with brown frames and brown-tinted lenses. At least the walls were white.

Even though it wasn’t in the picture, my brain always throws their Cadillac into the equation, which was brown paint, brown leather, brown carpet.

At least the 70s had some avocado-green appliances to leaven the brown-ness of everything else. :slight_smile:

Harvest Gold and Avocado Green were very popular colors.

It’s brown… it’s brown… it’s brown…

That thing at the end is a sock-puppet mole, which was a recurring gag through the episode

Ahh yes, reminds me of the renovation my parents did in the early/mid 1970s.

It is a little known fact that due to all of the tobacco smoke suspended in the troposphere due to generations of chain smoking left the atmosphere opaque to most blue and and higher frequency green hues, leaving everything tinged in an orange/yellow color scheme. In addition, the tars (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons) from tobacco smoke adhered to camera lenses which also created a dim brownish filtering effect. This, combined with the low power available due to the energy embargos resulted in the early to mid 'Seventies looking particularly brown. Reductions in smoking and newer cleaning technology in the 'Eightes cleared this up rapidly, making the film and television of the era look bright white and fluorescent in color, which production designers later learned to tone down somewhat. The addition of plaid patterns in the 'Nineties helped subdue the color saturation and directly led to an easing of Cold War tensions, causing the Warsaw Pact to collapse and China to open up trade barriers.

Also, Harold and Maude is one seriously fucked up film, even by 'Seventies standards.


It’s true that movies go through color fads. Some people have commented that blue and orange are very popular right now in scifi and action films.

It was all about the earth tones back then. My mother’s house was built in the late 60’s and it’s a brown overload. The woodwork, the furniture, the carpet, the kitchen appliances, the kitchen cabinets, kitchen floor, the car, even the tub, sink and toilet in one of the bathrooms…every last bit of it was some sort of brown, tan or gold.

I always tough brown, beige and orange were the go to colors of the seventies. In everything.

It was also a continued rejection of old Hollywood and their bright, saturated, technicolor-driven saccharine-sweet innocence. In the 1960s when avant-garde, independent cinema first started it was always shot on B&W out of financial necessity. By the 1970s this type of film making was creeping into the mainstream with directors like Coppola, Scorsese, Cassavetes etc. so now they could afford (and often studios would insist on) color film. Shooting on color but with dull, muted, brown earth-tones was having their artistic cake & eating it too…

Sometimes it’s the film stock. Old non-remastered films from the early sixties often appear to have been soaked in beer, for all the brownish yellow haze.

Harold and Maude was shot in Technicolor, which means its negatives can’t fade. Technicolor is (was?) a process in which red, green and blue are separated onto three black-and-white negatives. They would make prints with a complex dye-transfer process. Since the negatives are black-and-white, there are no colors to fade. A Technicolor print can fade, so if you’re watching an old print of a Technicolor movie the colors may be skewed or muted.

A director or cinematographer often decides on a color palette for a movie to set a mood. Harold and Maude is about a kid overcoming an obsession with death, so the director probably didn’t want it to be full of bright and cheery colors. Straw Dogs is a gritty and violent movie, as is The French Connection - the yellowish-brown colors helped set the mood. I don’t know the other movies, so I can’t say whether the color choices were appropriate.

Also, different eras have their own styles and fads. Just as clothing styles and car designs go in and out of style, so do moviemaking techniques. A movie from the 80s doesn’t look like one from the 70s. It’s not just changing technology (although that’s part of it) - it’s changing aesthetics.

The generation of filmmakers who came to prominence in the 1970s (Coppola, Spielberg, Scorsese et al) were kind of reacting against the films of their youth with freakishly bright primary colors (think Treasure Island to Mary Poppins). The only direction to go was Earth tones. Initially, they kind of overdid it.

No joke.

IIRC blue eye shadow was big

Ah whew! I thought you were racist, but then I read the OP.