This Day in Jewish History

1935: Two Musicians Invent Film That Makes Color Pop

Leopold Godowsky, Jr. and Leopold Mannes, both born to musical families, were disappointed with the quality of color film available a century ago. The product they developed for Kodak remained in use until 2009.

A Kodachrome photo of Shaftesbury Avenue from Piccadilly Circus, in the West End of London, c. 1949.
Chalmers Butterfield / Wikimedia Commons

On April 15, 1935, Eastman Kodak introduced its revolutionary new Kodachrome color film to the public, a product that had been developed over a period of 18 years not by a team of engineers, but by two professional musicians – Leopold Godowsky, Jr., and Leopold Mannes. 

Godowsky (1900-1983) and Mannes (1899-1964) met when they were students at Riverdale Country School, a prep school in the Bronx. Both boys were from families of distinguished musicians, both Jewish. 

Godowsky’s namesake father was a top-rank pianist and composer, born in Lithuania, who had come to the United States in 1885 to begin his concert career, and remained. The son too was a talented violinist, who after studying music at the University of California, Los Angeles, played both as a soloist and with the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic orchestras. 

Mannes was the son of David Mannes, a violinist, and the former Clara Damrosch, whose father and brothers were all well-known conductors. David and Clara had founded what became the Mannes School of Music, in New York in 1915. Leopold received his B.A. in music from Harvard University in 1920, after which he went to Italy to study composition.

While they were still at Riverdale, in 1916, however, the two Leopolds attended a screening of a short color film called “Our Navy.” Both were disappointed with the quality of the color reproduction, and as amateur photographers themselves, began considering what would be required to create a color film that gave more natural results. They got permission to use the school’s physics lab, and also worked at their respective homes, beginning by building a camera with three lenses, and filters for each of the primary colors. 

They remained friends when they went off to college, and continued their joint effort after graduating, when back in New York, until they ran out of money. A physicist whom Mannes met on the beach in 1920 introduced the young men to the head of research at Kodak, C.E. Kenneth Mees. Mees was so impressed by their progress that he offered to provide them with all the equipment and supplies they needed to press on with their research. 

Two years later, another chance meeting of Mannes’ led to a visit from Lewis L. Strauss, a partner at the investment bank Kuhn, Loeb & Co. to inspect their work. Strauss knew something about science (three decades later he was appointed chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission), and he prevailed upon Kuhn, Loeb to offer them funding for a regular lab, allowing their respective families to reclaim their home bathtubs. 

All the while, both men continued playing music, which they found was a good way to punctuate lengthy work sessions in the lab. Finally, in 1930, Mees proposed that they move to Rochester, Eastman Kodak’s home base, and go on salary. Once the Depression kicked in at Kodak, Mees also gave them a deadline to finish development of the product. 

A Kodachrome packages.
Wikimedia Commons

In the meantime, both men also married – Godowsky to Frances Gershwin, the sister of George and Ira, and herself a painter and sculptor, and Mannes to Evelyn Sabin, a dancer. 

One of the biggest challenges in creating a high-quality color film was the complex and equipment-heavy developing procedure that would be required to process it. Mannes and Godowsky solved that problem by proposing that all processing be done at Kodak labs, which also made for a highly profitable product, until a federal court ruled in 1954 that this was a monopolistic practice.

On April 15, 1935, Kodak unveiled Kodachrome film (they took the name from an unsuccessful, 1913 version of color film) for 16-mm motion pictures, and not long after that, began marketing film for still cameras and 8 mm movie cameras. 

Godowsky continued working with Kodak, and lived to age 82. Mannes returned to music, as both a performer and composer, and in 1940 became head of the music college started by his parents, which today is part of The New School, in New York. He lived until the age of 64.

Kodachrome, for its part, survived until 2009, when Kodak ceased manufacturing it, having been made obsolete by digital photography.