Kalmus, Natalie (1892–1965)

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Kalmus, Natalie (1892–1965)

American entrepreneur who, with her husband, perfected the process of Technicolor for movies. Born Natalie Dunfee in 1892; died in 1965; graduated from Boston Art School and the Curry School of Expression; married Herbert T. Kalmus (an inventor and film pioneer), around 1912 (divorced).

Natalie Kalmus, who alluded to herself as "ringmaster to the rainbow," was instrumental in perfecting and marketing the film process known as Technicolor, which was initially invented by her husband Herbert T. Kalmus. The couple met and married around 1912, when Natalie was a young art student and Herbert was a college professor just starting to experiment with film color processing. Later he joined with Daniel Comstock and W.B. Westcott to develop an additive color motion-picture process which was eventually refined into the three-color process that is now used. In 1915, in order to exploit their invention, Herbert and his associates founded the Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation, for which Natalie Kalmus served as color consultant.

In 1917, the company produced the first Technicolor film, The Gulf Between, a one-reeler made by superimposing red and green colored images on the screen at the same time through a special projector. Although most reviewers agreed that it was the finest natural color ever produced on film, the process was far from ideal. It was also highly expensive and was initially used only in selected sequences rather than in an entire film. The process was eventually improved into a true two-process color technique that was successfully used in The Black Prince (1926), starring Douglas Fairbanks. Rouben Mamoulian's Becky Sharp (1935) was the first feature film to use the more sophisticated three-color printing process.

While Technicolor was still in its infancy, Natalie Kalmus recognized its potential and took it upon herself to spread the word. She traveled extensively in the United States and Europe, conducting courses for art directors and technicians interested in learning the new color process. In 1932, she put together the first business package designed to "sell" color to the Hollywood studios. The package was intended to take the studio from preto post-production and included everything from equipment to personnel, all overseen by Kalmus on site. After laying out the color plan for a movie, she then provided an entire color consulting service, including the camera designed to handle the color process, a trained camera operator, set and wardrobe designers, makeup artists, lighting designers, and lab processing. "Until 1948," writes Marc Wanamaker, "her name was required to appear as 'Color Consultant' on every motion picture made by the company."

Kalmus also developed several techniques to make Technicolor seem more realistic. "Natural colors and lights do not tax the eye nearly as much as man-made colors and artificial lights," she explained. "Even when nature indulges in a riot of beautiful colors, there are subtle harmonies which justify these colors." To achieve this natural blend, Kalmus perfected a method of "color separation," in which differences in hues would be separated out from one another photographically. She also discovered that under the strong Technicolor lights the color white tended to reflect surrounding colors and become muddy, while a neutral gray always appeared white on the film.

During her career, Kalmus supervised the Technicolor process on some of the great film classics, including Robin Hood (1938), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Gone With the Wind (1939). In her heyday, she commanded a salary of $65,000 a year, an almost unheard of sum for a woman in those days. As color became a more standard procedure, however, Kalmus' presence on the set was unnecessary and became intrusive. In 1950, now divorced from Herbert but retaining her position as a prime stockholder of the company, Kalmus formed her own television production company. She returned to film in 1956 to consult on The Ten Commandments.


Aker, Ally. Reel Women: Pioneers of the Cinema 1896 to the Present. NY: Continuum 1991.

Katz, Ephraim. The Film Encyclopedia. NY: Harper-Collins, 1994.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts