This 1922 Kodachrome Test Footage is Strangely Bewitching

The Vault
Historical Treasures, Oddities, And Delights
Feb. 8 2013 1:00 PM

This 1922 Kodachrome Test Footage is Strangely Bewitching

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This clip is a very early, full-color Kodachrome film made by Kodak in 1922 to test new film stock and color processing. It is a lovely little four-and-a-half minutes of pretty actresses gesturing for the camera. The color and lighting are exquisite—all warm reds with flattering highlights—making it a purely enjoyable thing to watch.

In 1922, for all its technical achievements, Kodak hadn’t yet done away with the flicker that gave movies one of their earliest and most enduring nicknames: the “flicks.” The flicker resulted from variations in film speed produced by the slow, hand-cranked cameras of the time and by variations in the density of the film itself (as you can read in the post about this film clip on Kodak’s blog, A Thousand Words).

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Even more interesting to a modern viewer are the women’s gestures. They act out fluttery, innocent modesty; warm maternal love; and in the longest sequence, sexy, puckered-lip vamping. Their open expressions of feeling and the particular way they move their hands and tilt their heads, even more than the fashions of their clothes and makeup, immediately mark them as women of the interwar period. Recently a Russian film scholar, Oksana Bulgakowa, has shown how various feelings and meanings were coded in the gestures of early film actors. Some of these are so unfamiliar now, they seem like a foreign language. 

Today, when we watch a TV show or a movie, we see a wide range of acting styles and behaviors. A hundred years from now, which ones will be seen as defining our age?

Joan Neuberger is Professor of History at the University of Texas at Austin, author of Ivan the Terrible: The Film Companion, and editor of the public history website, Not Even Past.

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