Labor Makes Magic

Frame scan from nitrate film print of Les Tulipes (Het Tovertoneel), 1907, from Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, 2015. Published by Eye / Amsterdam University Press. Courtesy of publishers and the Eye Collection.
Frame scan from nitrate film print of Les Tulipes (Het Tovertoneel), 1907, from Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema, 2015

The first time I saw Alice Guy-Blache’s hand tinted film when we covered early film innovations in class, I was intrigued and fascinated. It is amazing that she was able to produce even a short film in color over twenty years before the first true technicolor film, The Toll of the Sea, was released. At the time, it was revolutionary. No one had ever seen color captured in film; it was a dream of film makers.

Although hand tinted film is not true color, color is not actually captured by the film but meticulously added to the film with paint and dyes- in

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A still from Alice Guy-Blache’s Pierrette’s Escapades (1896-1900)

some ways it may even be better. The dyes used provide brilliantly vivid color, an effect which at the time was impossible any other way. It didn’t matter what color outfit the actors wore. With the use of hand tinted film, film makers could express to audiences the brilliance of what costuming could be. If

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A still from The Last Days of Pompeii (1926)

willing to put forth the time, this technique brought a whole new dimension to film making. With this innovation, film makers could express to audiences audiences the vibrant colors of a jester or the extravagantly bold colored robes of Roman politicians. 

The whole process of hand tinting film is extremely labor intensive. So much so that hand tinted films were normally shorts, or only select scenes from full length films were colored. The process involved hand dyeing each each single frame. This is what makes this technology so impressive to me. Everything from the shadowing and the creases in fabrics were hand colored frame by frame. The technique exhibits an absurd amount of patience and skill. But the desire to place color in motion was so strong it inspired film makers to expend this extraordinary effort. This desire led to the process being adapted to “mass produce” hand colored films. Film makers would cut out portions of a film to use it as a stencil for an underlying film.

“The image at left is a print of the film with portions of the image cut out to use as a stencil for a print placed beneath it. A separate stencil film was used for each color that would be applied. Each and every frame had to be cut in this manner.”

When we learned about this innovative technology in class, I had the idea that since it is so time intensive to color the entire film you could color only one thing across the film or in specific scenes to draw to audiences eyes or convey importance. Also it would just be a neat effect. While learning more about hand tinting I found that a film did just this in a very interesting and effective way. Vie et Passion du Christ (Life and Passion of the Christ) is a silent film released in 1903. The majority of the movie was in black and white but holy symbols and objects such as halos, angels wings, and Jesus and disciples’ robes were colored.

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The whole film available:

Upon doing more research of this topic, I found out that, although when most people hear “early film” they think black and white, an estimated 80 percent of early films were made in color- tinted or painted by hand. Because this technology required meticulous artistic detail on a very small working surface, most of the dyeing was done by women as well. I was able to find some incredibly innovative uses of this technology that resulted in visual effects that could not have been achieved by any other method until decades later. Animated GIF

A short film produced by the Lumiere Brothers – The Serpentine Dance circa 1899 ( 


Works Cited

Perch of the Devil (But Actually Black Oxen)

After renting Perch of the Devil on Amazon Prime Video for $1.99, I was very confused when the voice of a narrator began telling me about the miners of Butte, Montana. It was at this point that I learned the original Perch of the Devil, the silent film adapted from Gertrude Atherton’s novel of the same name, is one of the thousands of silent films lost to time. I had mistakenly rented Perch of the Devil, the 1960 documentary about the copper miner strike of ’59 and the hardships of the Western Rockies mining camps but that has nothing to do with the subject of this blog. I was very disappointed to learn this because the novel got such shining reviews. But even with the original film, possibly but hopefully not, gone forever we still know nearly everything about it. Strange how that works with these lost films. We can know everyone involved in writing and directing it, every actor that appeared, what studio funded the whole project, when it was released; we can read the reviews but can never lay eyes on the product ourselves.

The film of Perch of the Devil may be lost but at least the names involved are remembered. The original novel was written by Gertrude Atherton in 1914. Come 1919 her writings began being adapted to film in a joint effort with Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation. Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation was an ambitious studio project that put out very well received films but only lasted a few years due to creative disputes between the writers (who were all best selling novelists at the time) and the directors. Studios continued to adapt Atherton’s novels.

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In 1927, Universal Pictures released Perch of the Devil adapted to screenplay by Mary O’Hara, directed by (his heiness) King Baggot, and produced by Carl Laemmle. The film stared Mae Busch as Ida Hook, Pat O’Malley as Gregory Compton, and Jane Winton as Ora Blake. It was disappointed to find out the film was lost not only because the novel received great reviews, but just from the summary the film sounds like a wild ride. You can read it on IMDB ( but i’ll summarize the summary. Ida, an uneducated hick, is married to Montana prospector, Gregory Compton. She is bored with her life so she convinces her wealthy, worldly friend Ora to take her on a trip to Europe. Ida lives the high life, attracting many wishful suitors, but she grows weary of the pleasantries and carefreeness and wants to return home to her true love, Gregory. Meanwhile, Gregory has been busy striking gold. He telegraphs to Ida of his luck but Ora, a conniving bitch, has been secretly in love with Gregory the whole time. She sabotages Ida’s response by rewriting it saying that Ida will only return for a share in the gold. Gregory sees the evils and backstabbing that comes with great wealth and only wants his old life with his true love again. Ida and the bitch return to Montana and Ida figures about about the backstabbing. Ida and Ora duke it out in the mine, but unaware of their duking, the now disillusioned Gregory intends on blowing up the mine at the same time. Fucking. Wild.

With that love and conspiracy fueled roller-coaster lost to time, I decided to watch a different film adapted from Gertrude Atheron’s best selling Black Oxen, a fantasy drama described as “subtle science fiction”.

Image result for black oxen movie posterBlack Oxen is a silent film released in 1924 starring Corinne Griffith, Conway Tearle, and Clara Bow, and directed by Frank Lloyd. The original is long lost, thanks to Default Name, you can watch  the 60 minute version on YouTube. However it is incomplete, missing the full ending, cut short almost 20 minutes. The film is still enjoyable but inevitably in this state, a bit of an unsatisfying ending.

To be completely honest, I was expecting watching an hour long silent film to be a grueling task. But early on in the film, I found myself captivated by the drama, expressive performances, and sprinkled in humor. Spaces between dialogue frames were never too short or too long; they were never unnecessary and often witty.  The film used basic still shots, but had very good use of medium and closeup shots to establish emphasis on a character and their expression. Cuts and perspective change were frequent enough that no single still shot became stale.

The film is built with extremely relevant relationships of the time- the traditionalist, conservative matriarch and her frequent scolding and disapproval of her flapper granddaughter (Janet Oglethorpe played by Clara Bow). X-rays were still considered a new technology. Gertrude Atherton elevates this new technology to the science fiction level of x-ray surgery being used to reverse aging, to set up an interesting and extraordinary twist. The main themes explored are love and age, and how the two relate. Do they go hand in hand, or are they enemies? Is love only for the youthful? Can an older woman who never married still find love with her diminished looks? Is love only visual? Black Oxen explores these questions but without a proper ending, it’s difficult to know how the film would answer them. It’s difficult to know how anyone would answer as these have been the questions of dramas and love stories for hundreds of years. The technology we use to pose questions of life has advanced dramatically but the nature of love and aging, or even the bickering between generations will never change.



The Novelist, Gertrude Atherton

Gertrude Atherton, born January 14, 1858 in San Francisco, California, published Perch of the Devil in 1914 through A.L. Burt Company, a New York Publishing company and copy written by Frederick A. Stokes Company. She had written over twenty books previously through various publishers. The popular novel was adapted for film in 1927 and was produced by Universal Pictures. The novel was adapted to a screenplay by Mary O’Hara, was directed by King Baggot, and produced by Carl Laemmle. Although Gertrude Atherton tried her hand at writing an original screenplay, Don’t Neglect Your Wife, and the film was well received she was more comfortable and more successful as a novelist. Over her life Atherton worked with several publishers. Her first publication, “The Randolphs of Redwood: A Romance,” was published in the March 1882 edition of The Argonaut, a political journal based in San Francisco, California. In her early writing career, Atherton published under different pseudonyms for fear of her family discovering that she was trying to become an author and their disapproval of her choice. These pseudonyms were Asmodeus and Frank Lin.  She was right to be cautious because when she revealed to her family that she was an author, they ostracized her, causing Atherton to leave for New York in 1888. It did not matter to them that at this time she had already had a novel, and several stories published. Perhaps the move was for the better, as Gertrude Atherton would go on to be a best selling fiction author. In 1889 she traveled to Paris. That year, while in London, she was contacted by the British publishing company G. Routledge and Sons. With them, Gertrude Atherton published her first two books. Her works of fiction received high praises from critics and magazine reviewers. While Perch of the Devil did not win any awards,  the novel and film were very well received by audiences and critics. The novel was even awaited by reviewers as Gertrude Atherton’s “much heralded” American Western story, as stated in The Literary Digest in 1915. The novels unconventional take on wealth and romance mixed with classic western tropes did not leave audiences disappointed. In 1919, Gertrude Atherton along with six other best selling fiction authors were the first authors singed by the Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation, a film organization that owned exclusive picture rights to the works of its signed authors.  In exchange for this deal, the film company claimed that “authors will have authority” in an article found in The Moving Picture World magazine. Each author was given supervision over the motion pictures adapted from their source material. This practice sounds great in theory but in practice that’s not the way it generally worked. The studio’s creative personnel held resentment for the authors. Although Samuel Goldwyn, the founder of Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation, held the authors in high esteem, the staff regarded them as “cultural carpetbaggers.” Author’s found their ideas routinely vetoed by producers and directors. This friction may have been what inspired Gertrude Atherton to try her hand at an original screenplay. In 1921, Atherton wrote and opened her first original screenplay, Don’t Neglect Your Wife, which may have been inspired by personal experience reasoned by her dislike and dismissal of her late husband (1887). She was quoted to calling him the “second rate offspring of the Athertons” after his passing. Eminent Authors Pictures Corporation ended up succumbing to the lack of cooperation between creative personnel which explains why Perch of the Devil was produced by Universal Pictures. By the end of her life, Gertrude Atherton had published over thirty four novels, several of them best selling, and made herself a well known fiction author of the early twentieth century.


The Cinema Century – June 7, 1919



Gertrude Atherton

Atherton, G. (1914). Perch of the devil. 1st ed. New York: A.L. Burt Company.

“Gertrude Atherton.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 7 September 2019,

“Review of New Books.” The Literary Digest, January 16, 1915, pg. 106.


Welcome to the #1102wtfa course blog!

On this blog, students in ENGL 1102: Women, Technology, and Film Adaptation will practice writing about film and literature in a multimodal online environment.

Alice Guy-Blache gif via Giphy.

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