Nature in an Acid Bath: Early Color Films of National Park Vistas

"Seeing Yosemite from a Saddle" (1932) (GIF via US National Archives/YouTube)
“Seeing Yosemite from a Saddle” (1932) (GIF via US National Archives/YouTube)

In the 1930s the National Park Service created silent films, hand-tinted and toned with vibrant color, to promote outdoor oases to American travelers. Recently, the US National Archives shared a couple of examples on YouTube, including “Seeing Yosemite from a Saddle” from 1932 that follows a horseback tour of California’s Sierra Nevada mountains, and a 1934 film of travelogues on Glacier National Park in Montana, and California’s Lassen Volcanic National Park and Sequoia National Park.

Both films recently underwent preservation work by the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation Lab. As illustrated in the Fantasia of Color in Early Cinema book, released this June by Amsterdam University Press, color film goes back to the 1890s, although hues were often added individually to each film frame. Motion Picture Preservation Specialist Heidi Holmstrom, in a post on the Unwritten Record blog of the National Archives, explained the tinting and toning processes:

Tinted films were immersed in baths of acidic dye that bonded to the gelatin in the emulsion. In a tinted film, the emulsion remains black, but the tinting is visible in areas that would otherwise appear grey or white. In toned films, a chemical reaction replaces the dark silver in the image with colored metal compounds. For example, if Prussian blue was used, the dark parts of the image would have a blue tint. Sometimes tinting and toning are found together in the same film.

The 1932 film of Yosemite is tinted in yellow and toned in blue, with a resulting blue-green wash over the natural vistas. Men on horseback, “raring to go,” as a text frame proclaims, ride by Yosemite sites like the sheer granite vertical rock of El Capitan, and the tranquil surface of a reflective lake. The reels on Glacier National Park, Lassen National Park, and Sequoia National Park are tinted yellow. In sunlit color, old timey cars jauntily cruise the steep curves of unpaved roads, a trout fisherman casually smokes a pipe, and even a bear stalks into a frame before a visit to the giant sequoia General Sherman tree. While these reels are beautiful examples of early film processing, they also reveal the natural allure protected in these landscapes since the National Parks Service was established in 1916.

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