Vol. 40, no. 2 (Winter 1986-87): 2–3.
Whatever gamuts American movies have had to run during production, once made they are supposed to be secure. This, naturally, has not been the case. Circulating prints of Chaplin, Keaton, and Laurel and Hardy silent comedies have been corrupted with cutesy, moronic noises. TV stations concoct pan-and-scan prints of wide-screen films, destroying their compositions. Color negatives of the past three decades are subject to fading.
Now our film heritage has a new nemesis: "colorization." Using computers, such entrepreneurs as Ted Turner (who now owns the MGM film library, which he bought as fodder for his Atlanta "super station"), the Hal Roach Company, and Color Systems Technology produce new prints of black-and-white movies with color added.
Various rationales have been advanced for this disgusting cultural vandalism: black-and-white films can't draw huge TV audiences; many video store customers turn up their noses at them; "the kids" aren't interested. Shrugging "philosophically," some apologists point out that the original black-and-white negatives remain untouched. Others would protect the "classics" (these sensitive souls know all the classics intimately, of course) but let the colorizers have, say, Republic Pictures potboiler Westerns or Abbott and Costello comedies. Besides, one defense of colorization runs, most American studio pictures were shot in black-and-white only because color was too expensive. The clear implication is that black-and-white is a primitive form of cinematography which "lacks" color, and now these technocrat/hustlers will correct that deficiency. One of them, Earl Glick, the board chairman of Hal Roach Studios, has even had the gall to state that his colorizers have improved Joseph Walker and Joseph Biroc's black-and-white work on It's a Wonderful Life .
Color may have been too costly for most American studio movies during the 1930s and 1940s, but once black-and-white photography was chosen, the movies were designed, costumed, and lit accordingly. However, even bothering to refute arguments like these grants them undeserved dignity when in fact
they are just contemptuous coverups for the one and only motive behind this rush to colorization: raw greed.
And a rush it is. Already, colorized cassettes of, for example, Yankee Doodle Dandy, The Maltese Falcon, Topper , and It's a Wonderful Life are not only flooding video stores, they are also inexorably driving the black-and-white originals into the ghettos of occasional museum or revival theater screenings in cities where such forums exist. If this situation is not reversed, no American black-and-white motion picture may ever again live in regular showings as its makers intended.
Defenders of black-and-white movies are not sitting idle. The Directors Guild has decried colorization on artistic and cultural grounds and has gone to court over the issue of copyright infringement. RKO has done the same in an effort to protect the films produced under its own name. Numerous directors, among them Billy Wilder, John Huston, Fred Zinnemann, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Bertrand Tavernier, Nicholas Meyer, Peter Hyams, Martha Coolidge, and Frank Capra, have expressed outrage. James Stewart has eloquently described the grief he felt when he tried and failed to watch a colorized print of It's a Wonderful Life to the end. Having seen a colorized effigy of this movie's climax, I can testify that if this is how the picture is going to be presented from now on, then It's a Wonderful Life , in effect, no longer exists; the added color annihilates the mood of elation and reconciliation that Frank Capra and his collaborators originally sought and achieved.
But talking to the colorizers about things like moods of elation and reconciliation is pointless. Whether you are an individual viewer or a more influential person (say, a buyer or a programmer for television), the urgent message is the same: don't screen or broadcast colorized films, don't rent them, don't buy them, don't watch them. We are dealing with people who are unreachable by cultural, artistic, or social appeals because they don't care about anything except money. Therefore, let us hurt them in the way most painful to their shriveled sensibilities, by depriving them of every dollar that we can. If we do not, their bottomless avarice will deprive us and future generations of infinitely more.
[The above views are passionately endorsed by the Film Quarterly editorial board.]