The second major technological revolution in cinema history, the arrival of color, was neither as abrupt nor as immediately ubiquitous as the rise of talkies: there was a certain mistrust of the artistic validity of the technology that lingered for years after Technicolor introduced Process No. IV, its legendary three-strip color system that permitted for the most vividly saturated, luminous colors that have ever been known; The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind came out four years after the first three-strip Technicolor feature, RKO's Becky Sharp from 1935. And as late as the early 1960s, there was still a certain division between black and white as the medium for serious dramatic filmmaking, with color used mostly for broad entertainment, historical epics and musicals and the like (for example, it wasn't until 1967 that there was an all-color slate of Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards).

Still and all, the technology continued to develop and grow and prove itself long before color film ever became as standard as sound. And we are arrived now at one of the most important single steps in that development, with 1936's The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the first three-strip Technicolor film shot outside of the reliable, easily-controlled environment of a studio; it was filmed entirely on location in the vicinity of Big Bear Lake in the San Bernadino Mountains, far east of Hollywood and the Los Angeles metropolitan area. It was the film that demonstrated the flexibility and utility of the Technicolor process, while also proving that the natural world could benefit from the realer-than-real depth of color that process provided to the vibrantly rich sets and colors of a studio production.

That was, anyway, the intention: I cannot begin to say if the fault lies more with cinematographers Howard Greene (the pioneering Technicolor expert making only his second film) and Robert C. Bruce, or more with a deficient DVD transfer released by Universal (the film was among the glut of Paramount titles acquired by Universal for TV and, ultimately, video distribution in the 1950s), who clearly have no real incentive to sink much money for a major restoration into a backwoods melodrama with a minuscule contemporary audience of historically-inclined cinematography buffs. But however it happened, the version of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine we have to watch now is a perversely muted affair, for something whose position in Technicolor history is so profoundly important: it is heavily brown across the board, with brown forests housing brown cabins in which brown clothes are worn by people with pasty, wan faces that haven't been lit anywhere near right (the absence of brown skin is, unfortunately, not remotely surprising).

So whether the fault lies in the filmmakers or their later archivists, the fact remains that The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is not so pretty to look at, circa 2014. And as the obvious point of entry for the film is its visual style, the fact that it's conspicuously lacking on that front makes it awfully hard to feel good about anything else in the movie, which is not, if we are going to be mercilessly honest, such a unique and special butterfly that it's worth fighting for above and beyond its unquestionable historic importance. The source novel, by John Fox, Jr, was adapted four times in the silent era - thrice between 1913 and 1916! - so something about it must have struck an intense chord with audiences back then, but the evidence as to why that should have been the case isn't easy to see onscreen.

Basically, this is a drab romantic melodrama that keeps acting like it's an action epic about a pair of warring families, with its secret heart set on being an historical docudrama about coal mining in the Virginia mountains in the early 20th Century. The families, whose feud is one of those "started so long ago that nobody knows the reason" jobs, are the Tollivers and the Falins; we are to be primarily concerned with the Tollivers, including patriarch Judd (Fred Stone), a fiercely reactionary man, and his sensible, long-suffering wife Melissa (Beulah Bondi); their near-adult daughter June (Sylvia Sydney) and little boy Buddie (George McFarland, "Spanky" from Hal Roach's Our Gang series); and cousin Dave (Henry Fonda), widely expected to be June's future husband. But what hunky outsider comes? Why, 'tis Jack Hale (Fred MacMurray), who hopes to buy the mining rights from the Tollivers and the Falins and whoever else owns coal-producing lands in those hills. June falls for him instantly, though it takes a little while for anyone else to notice it. It takes longest of all for Jack to notice himself, largely because he is a massive tit.

If The Trail of the Lonesome Pine had absolutely nothing else that was dramaturgically crippling, that would be enough: Jack Hale is a shit, so breezily assured of his objective superiority to all of the undereducated rural folk he meets that there's not, anywhere in the film's opening hour, even the merest sense of tenderness or charm to his bearing. It doesn't help that MacMurray was extraordinarily good at playing a peremptory, bossy asshole, and commits so hard to that version of the character that it's whiplash-inducing in the second half when he starts to be nice, or basically human. At any rate, it certainly makes the film's romance plot hard to swallow, since the only way to buy that June would be so infatuated with this man is if we take her for a complete and utter doormat, and while the Asshole/Doormat dynamic is hardly unknown in life or the movies, it's not the sort thing that you should really be expected to root for.

The other massive, crippling flaw: the stupefying dialogue all throughout Grover Jones's screenplay, which puts into the mouths of the Tollivers alarmingly colorful phrases that, one hopes, no human beings throughout history have ever actually said, at least in such volume. Particularly in the opening act, it feels less like a family drama than a peek backstage at a Yosemite Sam impersonators' convention.

What this all means, of course, is that the film's conspicuous flaws are front-loaded, and the back half (if you can make it that far) is a considerably more nuanced and thoughtful affair in which the corrosive effect of violence is explored with a bitterness and clarity that's suggested by none of the redneck cartoon shenanigans that open the film. Even at its worst, though, there's a kind of thoughtful gloominess to much of the film that primes us for this eventual drift from tepid romantic movie to morality play. It is a film aware of the harsh effects of violent living even when the plot and the characters are not (outside of Dave, and that owes mostly to how brutish Fonda could be when he wasn't constrained by the star system to play a Sensible Average Joe - his is the best performance in the film by at least a couple of laps). This was an early film in the career of director Henry Hathway, who'd end up making several key Westerns in the '50s and '60s ("key" not meaning "great"; he's responsible for the most turgid portions of the wearisome Cinerama epic How the West Was Won), and his later films, in that genre and others, all suggest a keen sense for how exterior locations can place certain emphases on the drama. That skill is in a nascent form in The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, but there is certainly a clear relationship between the hushed, shadowy forests of the mountains and the closed-in, paranoiac lives that are lived there. It's not quite compelling enough to make up for how bland it is as a groundbreaking work of color (in fact, it almost certainly suggests that the film would be better in black and white), but at least there's a consistent visual scheme to the film. Dramatically, the film is at least half a washout, but as an atmosphere piece and visual expression of mental states, it has some skill to it that makes all the hootin' and hollerin' and widespread mugging in the cast (how much mugging? Spanky is comparatively sedate), if not forgiven, then at least relatively tolerable while we wait for the good stuff.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1936
-William Wyler's criminally underseen Dodsworth is released by United Artists
-Universal's 13-part serial Flash Gordon is one of the biggest hits in the history of the form
-The proto-noir The Petrified Forest from Warner Bros. makes a star of Humphrey Bogart

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1936
-Japanese master Mizoguchi Kenji has a banner year in Japan, directing the early triumphs Osaka Elegy and Sisters of the Gion, his oldest films that remain broadly available
-The Marathi-language Sant Tukaram is the first Indian film to find international success
-Hollywood production designer William Cameron Menzies goes to Great Britain to direct the science-fiction milestone Things to Come