Skip to content

Former mayor calls for recognition of Thorold movie pioneer

If you like colour film you should know the name Herbert Kalmus
Don McMillan thinks Herbert Kalmus deserves more recognition in Thorold. Photo: Ludvig Drevfjall/ Montage)

Chances are that even the most hardcore movie buff would not immediately connect the name Herbert Kalmus with the big screen.

That is something former long-time mayor Don McMillan thinks is a shame.

The veteran Thoroldite, now 95 years old and who held the city's top job between 1972 and 1985, was among the first to hear about the engineer from Massachusetts and his experiments, conducted at the old Exolon facility in Thorold that many years down the line would result in the development of the first colour film.

McMillan's connection to Herbert Kalmus, a physics professor from Massachusetts, came through his father.

“He studied at Queens University in Kingston, where Kalmus was teaching as his physics professor. I don’t know how, but they got together when Kalmus had started working for Exolon and my father had a medical practice”, said McMillan in an interview with Thorold news from his home, just outside the city core.

At that point, in 1920, Kalmus had moved on from Queens and eventually ended up in Thorold, where he worked as president of Exolon, and would conduct electrochemical experiments to figure out a way to fuse colour onto the then exclusively black- and white motion pictures.

This caught the attention of Don McMillan's father, he too a doctor who had returned from overseas where he performed military surgery on gangrene-stricken soldiers, dragged out of the trenches of World War 1.

“Dad was most impressed and made many visits to the facility to see Kalmus progress. I remember how he talked about it”, McMillan recounts.

Kalmus many experiments would eventually lead to the first Hollywood feature-film shot entirely in three-strip Technicolor based on his technology in 1935.

His wife Natalie, with whom he was married during his time in Thorold, got equally enamoured with the endeavour and embarked on a career as colour consultant for legacy films like “Gone With The Wind”.

But despite the Thorold connection to these then groundbreaking advancements in film, not much is to be found around town that tell of the early discoveries that resulted in colour film.

“He should be honoured more than Kalmus Street, which is little more than a dirt track off Beaverdams Road. We should have a historical plaque”, Don McMillan said, as he looks back on his parents encounters with the less-known professor who made an appearance in his parents' life in a crucial time of their lives.

“They both studied at Queens when he was teaching there. In some way I owe my existence to Queens, because that was where my parents met. I studied there too, and so did my children. Most of them, anyway”.

McMillan's fascination with Kalmus has been kept alive for decades - but when Thorold News visited him he had never seen a picture of the engineer that he has spent so much time thinking about.

When shown a picture of the movie-pioneer, McMillan squints as he studies the portrait of his father's old professor.

“So that is Kalmus, huh? He is a good looking fellow!”