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Did they have color film in 1920?

The short answer is yes, color film did exist in 1920 but it was not yet widely used. Color photography goes back to the 1860s but it took decades of innovation for color film to become mainstream.

The Early History of Color Film

The first color photograph was taken by physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1861 using three separate black and white photographs taken through red, green and blue filters. This process, known as additive color, relied on the eye to combine the three monochrome images into one color image.

In 1889, the first practical color film process, known as Autochrome, was invented by the Lumière brothers in France. This was an early example of subtractive color, where color is reproduced by filtering white light through color filters. Autochrome relied on a mosaic of red, green and blue dyed potato starch grains coated on glass plates. When the plate was developed, the silver grains formed a negative image that appeared in color due to the color filters. Autochrome required long exposure times and was an expensive, fragile medium but it introduced the world to color photography.

During the 1910s, several new color film processes emerged and began to capture public interest. In 1913, brothers Rudolph and Albert Kühn developed Agfacolor Neu, one of the first color film processes that could create positive color images from negatives. This allowed for the mass production of color film reels for motion pictures and slides. However, Agfacolor Neu required careful exposure calculations and special projectors equipped for color, limiting its adoption at the time.

The Introduction of Kodachrome

The first successfully mass-marketed color film was Kodachrome, introduced by Kodak in 1935. Kodachrome was based on a subtractive color process using three emulsion layers sensitive to red, green and blue light. During development, dyes were produced in the emulsion layers to create a full-color transparency slide or movie film.

Kodachrome had several advantages over earlier color films:

  • It captured a wide, realistic color palette with dark, rich colors.
  • Processing could be done using standardized chemical solutions, making it easy to develop.
  • The images were reasonably sharp and fine-grained compared to earlier color processes.
  • Kodachrome slides retained their color accuracy for decades with minimal fading.

National Geographic magazine began using Kodachrome for its color photos in 1936, helping to popularize the film among professional photographers. Eastman Kodak heavily marketed Kodachrome to mainstream consumers with the tagline “it gives those Kodachrome colors.”

The Uptake of Color Film in the 1920s

While color film processes like Autochrome and Agfacolor existed in the 1920s, they were not widely adopted by the film industry or amateur photographers at the time. There were a few key challenges holding color back:

  • Color film was expensive – a single 8×10″ Autochrome plate cost over $2 in the 1920s, equivalent to around $30 today.
  • Cameras required adjustments to account for the lower light sensitivity of early color films.
  • Projectors with color filters were needed to properly view color transparencies and movies.
  • Black and white films remained superior in terms of light sensitivity and resolution.

As a result, while a few color films were produced in the 1920s, the vast majority of photographs and movies were monochrome. Color was primarily a novelty restricted to short films, travelogues, fashion and advertising. Mainstream filmmakers and consumers did not have an easy, affordable way to work with color at the time.

Color Film Use by Decade

Decade Color Film Use and Adoption
1900s Autochrome color plates commercially sold; very few color photos and film taken.
1910s New color film processes introduced but not widely adopted; primarily monochrome film used.
1920s Color novelty films produced but black & white dominates; color mainly used in advertising and fashion.
1930s Kodachrome makes color photography practical for amateurs and professionals.
1940s Kodacolor negative film makes color prints from negatives feasible.
1950s First color television broadcasts; color films become dominant by end of decade.

This table summarizes some of the key events in the adoption of color film by decade. While invented in the 1860s, widespread use of color film only occurred after simplifications in color processing and the introduction of Kodachrome and negative color films in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Use of Color in Silent Films (1894-1929)

During the silent film era, from the 1890s to late 1920s, color was used sparingly due to the limitations of color film and the added costs. The first feature film with color sequences was The Gulf Between, released in 1917. It used a complex color process that filmed black and white behind color filters, then tinted and toned the prints. The results were unsatisfying with distorted colors.

More successful was Technicolor Process 2, introduced in 1922. It used a beam-splitting camera that recorded red and green filtered images on two strips of black and white film. The film strips were dyed, printed on top of each other and cemented to create a color print. This produced vibrant color but the cameras were bulky and it was expensive.

Some notable silent films with color sequences include:

  • The Toll of the Sea (1922) – one of the earliest color features; used Technicolor Process 2.
  • The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – featured a color ball sequence.
  • Ben-Hur (1925) – had a two-color Technicolor chariot race sequence.

Color was used to accent key scenes but only about 10% of silent films had color portions. The limitations and costs meant color was not viable for entire feature films.

The Rise of Color Films (1930s and 1940s)

After the introduction of Kodachrome in 1935, color slowly became more common in films during the 1930s, though the majority were still monochrome. MGM’s Sweethearts in 1938 and Warner Bros.’ The Wizard of Oz in 1939 were early examples of color being used for entire feature films. However, three-strip Technicolor cameras were massive and difícult to work with and the use of color was not standardized in the industry.

In the 1940s, color cinematography advanced rapidly:

  • Eastman Kodak introduced negative color film stocks like Kodacolor that simplified movie color processing.
  • Three-strip Technicolor cameras were replaced with faster, smaller cameras by the mid 1940s.
  • Lighting techniques improved to compensate for color film’s limitations.
  • The percentage of color films increased from 11% in 1940 to 50% in 1949.

Prestigious films like Gone with the Wind (1939), The Wizard of Oz (1939), and Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) demonstrated the artistic potential of color cinematography. By the 1950s, color had become the new standard for feature films.


In summary, color film was invented in the 1860s but was not widely adopted until the mid 1930s with Kodak’s Kodachrome film and improved color processing methods. In the 1920s, color films existed but were novelties primarily used for advertising and short films. The few color features made used complex, expensive processes with poor color quality. It was not until the late 1930s and 1940s that consistent, realistic color cinematography became feasible for major feature films, marking the true beginnings of color films.