Now, the deli comparison might’ve been uncalled for, but Orson Welles had a point. Color film was not always kind to actors, especially in the era when Welles was most prolific. For reference, the director’s career spanned from the early ’40s to the ’70s, though he arguably made most of his best works prior to the mid ’50s. During this period, Technicolor’s color-film reigned supreme.
Unfortunately, while Technicolor might’ve had a catchy slogan (“Technicolor is natural color”), a quick glance at your favorite ’40s movie proves just how dubious the claim was. Generally speaking, Technicolor films were incredibly saturated and appeared brighter than real life. This hyper vivid look had its uses (“The Wizard of Oz” dialed up its saturation even further, which helped the eponymous fantasy world feel a little more magical), but the bright colors didn’t always lend themselves to realism.
Of course, as color movies became increasingly common, other companies tried to cash in on Technicolor’s success. Kodak’s Eastman Color film — which was used to shoot “Rebel Without a Cause,” “2001: A Space Odyssey,” and “A Clockwork Orange” — led the pack (via Live About). Still, this development didn’t improve the film industry’s skin tone accuracy: Eastman Color was almost as saturated as Technicolor.
To make matters worse, Kodak had a long history of ignoring non-white skin tones when creating their film stocks. As a result, Eastman Color heavily distorted many actors of color’s appearances. In time, color film would become more accurate, but it took a long time to do so. Until then, the increasingly unpopular black-and-white film created less jarring representations of actors’ skin tones.