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The Trail of the Lonesome Pine

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine(1936)

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For its first 3-color Technicolor feature, Paramount in 1936 chose a known and popular story: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine. The 1908 novel by John Fox, Jr., had already been turned into a play and three films (in 1914, 1916 and 1923), but this is the best-known movie version. Trail holds an important place in film history as the first 3-color Technicolor feature to be filmed outdoors. While that may not on the face of it sound like a huge deal today, the picture not only showed that the enormous color cameras were usable outside but also demonstrated an intriguing new way of using 3-strip color: by using it with great restraint.

Becky Sharp (1935), released eight months earlier and well-known as the first 3-color feature, had a plodding story in service to its bright, even garish color. Trail uses naturalistic color in service to its interesting story and characters and is all the more effective for it. The story concerns two rural Kentucky families who have been feuding for generations and a railroad engineer (Fred MacMurray) who arrives to mine for coal and bring a railroad through their properties. The daughter in one of the families (Sylvia Sidney) is supposed to marry her cousin (Henry Fonda) but falls for MacMurray and his educated urban charms, setting up a love triangle that meshes well with the feud and mining plots.

Rounding out the very good cast are an unlikely Nigel Bruce as MacMurray's business partner, Beulah Bondi, Samuel Hinds, "Spanky" McFarland (of "Our Gang" fame), and Fuzzy Knight, who wanders through the story observing and commenting on all the action and singing songs, including the Oscar-nominated "A Melody From the Sky." McFarland plays Sylvia Sidney's little brother in a pivotal role, and he is terrific. This is a very rare appearance for the tyke outside the "Our Gang" films during the time he was making them. Bondi and Hinds, incidentally, later played James Stewart's parents in It's a Wonderful Life (1946).

The actors, under Henry Hathaway's direction, do an admirable job in making these characters more than mere hillbillies. That word implies clich├ęd characters, but these are more dignified and three-dimensionally drawn. They have real feelings -- hurts, ambitions and enthusiasms -- that are well portrayed by a cast that is more impressive than the material itself.

But the real story here is the color. Most shots are dominated by muted browns, greens, golds and yellows. Instead of filling the frame with colorful objects, as Becky Sharp and other Technicolor short subjects had done, the makers of Trail were going for naturalism. One writer has noted that even red-and-black checkered shirts were not allowed on the characters for fear they would be seen as simply there to show off their color. There are some brief reds and oranges in sunset shots and in the abundant autumn leaves, sometimes reflected in a lake, and there are muted reds in an indoor wooden bar, but mainly Trail saves its most intense color for two sequences: a fire scene that is stretched out via editing to let the massive orange flames serve to powerful emotional effect, and a delirious little sequence involving colored pencils and a black-and-white photo of Sylvia Sidney. (It makes sense, sort of, when you see it.) By using more natural color the rest of the time, the film makes these moments stand out potently.

Film historian Scott Higgins, in his essential recent book Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s, writes that in Trail, "Manipulation of light, rather than color, proves the primary tool." Because the colors are muted, Higgins says, the distinctions between light and dark have more power here than in Becky Sharp. And, Higgins continues, critics took notice of the way Trail "properly integrated the new technology into a solid dramatic context." As Variety noted in 1936: "What Becky Sharp's significance was supposed to portray is actually promulgated by Lonesome Pine. It is evidence that color can be utilized as a forceful complement to cinematic entertainment providing the basic story ingredients are sturdy. Pine doesn't permit the color appeal to subjugate the primary phase of any film entertainment."

Higgins also writes that Paramount promoted the film with "unprecedented full-page color advertisements in the nation's leading newspapers." The result was "the first truly successful three-color feature." Indeed, Trail of the Lonesome Pine was among the top five box-office draws of 1936, and its success led to a spate of outdoor Technicolor films like Ramona (1936), God's Country and the Woman (1937) and Valley of the Giants (1938).

The Trail of the Lonesome Pine is newly out on DVD as part of Universal's Backlot Series of catalogue titles. There are no extras, but the picture quality is sublime thanks to a fine restoration. Serious movie fans will definitely want to look at this title for its landmark use of color; more casual fans will still enjoy it.

A final note: The Trail of the Lonesome Pine makes for an interesting comparison with Track of the Cat, William Wellman's eerie 1954 film that was shot in color but in which very little color can be found. That picture, too, is concerned with dysfunctional family dynamics, is set in the wilderness, and even features Beulah Bondi (in one of her most memorable performances). Wellman shot it essentially as a black-and-white film on color stock, with very limited use of reds. Track, which is available on DVD, is far more stylized than Trail, however. While Trail tones down the color for purposes of realism, Track fades it out almost completely for purposes of abstract metaphor.

For more information about The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, visit Universal Home Entertainment. To order The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, go to TCM Shopping.

by Jeremy Arnold