Year in review: in January, we released the William S. Hart western Wagon Tracks on DVD and Blu-ray.

PAUSE IT: What do you see? Cardshark Donald Washburn (Robert McKim) shoots a menacing expression our way in director Lambert Hillyer’s Wagon Tracks (1919). What we notice is the expressive use of light and color that gives Washburn the look of a silent era heavy. Note the orange atmospheric hue used to lend the scene a certain dramatic flavor. The look of this still may surprise some, as it is sometimes incorrectly thought that the use of color in the film did not occur until the late 1930s. Not true. Many of the early pioneers of cinema had been experimenting with rudimentary colorization techniques for four decades by the time color began to be more widely employed. The truth is that both monochrome and color formats have, throughout cinema’s long history, existed concurrently with one another. While it is true that each has taken its turn as the dominant form, even today, certain filmmakers in certain situations will choose to use techniques that are no longer in vogue to tell their stories. But how is color being used here? Color tinting — a process whereby each individual frame of film had to be hand dipped in dye and uniformly tinted its desired hue — has been around since the early days of silent cinema. Here, in Wagon Tracks, the color effect helps to underscore the heightened emotions of the scene. This is especially important in the nonverbal context of silent films, where every visual means available had to be employed to gain an audience’s favor. 

Director: Lambert Hillyer
Cast: William S. Hart, Jane Novak, Robert McKim
Cinematography by: Joseph H. August
Available from Olive Films on DVD and Blu-ray.