Scarlet Nails, Seduction, and a Game of Chess: Chromatic Subversion in Blood and Sand (1941)

Curator's Note

These images mark a pivotal seduction scene in Blood and Sand (1941), as Doña Sol (Rita Hayworth) attempts to capture the heart—or, at least, the lustful eyes—of Juan (Tyrone Power), a married bullfighter. The relationship between Doña Sol and Juan faced scrutiny from the Hollywood Production Code Administration (PCA) and tempering the portrayal of an “illicit sex affair”[1] was of tantamount importance to the organization. While lessening her sexuality to conform to PCA strictures might be accomplished through script adjustments, Doña Sol’s aesthetic representation could (and would) be used to magnify her onscreen sensuality.

In this sequence, red is clearly used to articulate Doña Sol’s sexuality through thoughtfully organized mise-en-scène. In broad terms, as Doña Sol and Juan converse alone on the patio, the juxtaposition of her whitened gown with her startlingly scarlet nails and game pieces provocatively emphasizes her erotic intentions towards Juan. Yet, the use of red is also more nuanced—as the crimson flowers on the table next to Doña Sol’s chess pieces appear to lunge towards Juan as he sits opposite her. Doña Sol actually holds one of these red chess pieces in her hands, mimicking the way she clutched a ring from her ex-lover in the preceding sequence. The color palette of this shot heatedly illustrates and amplifies Doña Sol’s seduction as she stands over Juan, playfully ready to make her move against a man who does not “know how to play chess.”

Analyzing this selection of hues with an understanding of Technicolor’s approach to chromatic application suggests that this use of red was intentional and used to heighten impact of Doña Sol’s sexuality. Technicolor’s Color Control Service, also known as the Color Advisory Service,[2] employed strategies to effectively “control” the use of color onscreen through advice from its staff, individuals placed on various Technicolor productions in Hollywood.[3] Color Control’s director, Natalie Kalmus, was one such figure, head of this department and “Technicolor Director” of Blood and Sand.

In addition to her more general ideas about film color, Kalmus maintained a rather formulaic understanding of the visceral relationship between the viewer and color. She noted that there are specific associations with each color, with red calling “to mind a feeling of danger, a warning…suggest[ing] blood, life, love…different shades of red can suggest various phases of life,”[4] that warmer colors, including red, yellows, and oranges, would “call forth sensations of excitement, activity and heat.”[5] Given the significance of Natalie Kalmus’ status, it is thus possible to read the use of red in this sequence as, potentially, a purposeful attempt by Technicolor to heighten the sexuality of Doña Sol. This is supported by documentation about Blood and Sand in an article for Popular Photography in 1942, written by Ray Dannenbaum with the assistance of Technicolor’s Natalie Kalmus (with her name in the byline). In describing Technicolor’s choice of colors for various scenes in Blood and Sand, Dannenbaum referenced Doña Sol’s “gown in feminine cool tones with design providing allure” and “color symbolism in red chessmen on table and red flowers.”[6] Rather than down-playing Doña Sol’s sensuality, this sequence thus wields red to amplify the effects of the content deemed problematic by the PCA, emphasizing Doña Sol’s “allure” and further suggesting, according to Kalmus’ color categorizations, “love” and “excitement, activity and heat.”

The actual success of Technicolor’s efforts to manipulate the viewer’s emotions is impossible to substantiate, yet the company’s attempts to magnify narrative content through color was important to Technicolor in Blood and Sand. The film did garner a positive final review from the PCA and received the official seal of approval from the administration.[7] Though narratives may have been subject to the organization’s direct adjustments, clearly, in this case, the more abstract realm of color escaped the PCA’s scissors.

***The images above include stills from Blood and Sand (1941), including a title card from the opening credits, and an excerpt of the Production Code in Gerald C. Gardner’s The Censorship Papers: Movie Censorship Letters from the Hays Office, 1934 to 1968 (p. 209).


[1] Joseph Breen to Jason Joy, January 17, 1941, Blood and Sand, Motion Picture Directors and Producers Association (MPAA) Production Code Administration (PCA) Collection, Margaret Herrick Library (MHL).

[2] Scott Higgins, Harnessing the Technicolor Rainbow: Color Design in the 1930s (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2007), 39.

[3] “Color Control Service (Technicolor Motion Picture Corporation),” Natalie Kalmus Papers, MHL.

[4] Natalie Kalmus, “The Importance of the Correct Use of Color,” Natalie Kalmus Papers, MHL.

[5] Kalmus, “The Importance of the Correct Use of Color,” Natalie Kalmus Papers, MHL.

[6] Ray Dannenbaum, "Suggested Captions for Stills," May 28, 1942, Natalie Kalmus Papers, MHL.

[7] Letter from Joseph Breen to Jason Joy, April 22, 1941, Blood and Sand, MPAA PCA Collection, MHL. Blood and Sand received its Seal on April 22, 1941. However, this approval was contingent upon adjustments in editing to eliminate three shots with breast exposure.

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