Colorization: A Mutilation of History?

May 05, 2018

Filmmakers have been experimenting with the use of artificial color since the inception of movies themselves. Although the 1980s saw a resurgence of the colorization of classic black and white motion pictures, the process has been around a lot longer than you might think. By the 1890s, people were using translucent dyes to color individual frames of film by hand with tiny, delicate brushes. Soon after, processes such as the two-color Technicolor system, as showcased in films like Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), were used. And although the use of color is a choice that has been available to directors for decades, the majority actually preferred the use of black and white, as did their audiences at the time.

Image result for my man godfrey colorized
My Man Godfrey (1936)  colorized

By the 1980s, it became an attempt to revive beloved films of the golden age of Hollywood and present them to a newer audience who were dismissive of the original format. In 1985, a colorized version of the classic Miracle on 34th Street (1947) was aired on television and received higher ratings than the original unedited version shown in previous years.

As decades and technology progressed, black and white films were gradually replaced with vibrant colors. No one option was better or worse, as the pictures created during each decade reflected the artistic decisions of the directors and the advancement of techniques. Some studios even resorted to shot for shot carbon copies of original classics to appeal to a modern audience. 1998 would see Hitchcock's legendary Psycho (1960) remade scene for scene, a project that ultimately ended up flopping.

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Miracle on 34th Street (1947) colorized. From ginger-peachy.com

In 1987, Ginger Rogers, among several other members of the entertainment industry, even joined forces to testify before the Senate Subcommittee on Technology and Law against the colorizations of authentic black and white films. Witnesses argued that coloring a film is a way of defacing an artist's work. Their goal was simply to protect the basic rights of the artist, who are in this case the directors, and prevent their works from becoming victim to the dreaded "Easter egg dye" without their consent.

Director John Huston was mortified at the colorized fate of one of his most celebrated works, The Maltese Falcon (1941). In 1986, he stated: "I think it's a desecration. It's an absurdity. It's a demonstration of the will to corrupt the taste of the multitude."

"Why would anyone wanna turn these great looking films into color? Simple. To make money. People have loved great looking films like Casablanca just the way they are for more than 40 years. I don't think they're going to love them any more in color." -Leonard Maltin, 1986

Of the over 70 films that Ginger Rogers completed throughout her expansive career, only 7 of them were made in color. At the 1987 hearing, she testified, "I would like to tell you how it feels as an actor to see yourself painted up like a birthday cake on a television screen. It feels terrible. It hurts. It's embarrassing and insulting. As actors we are very concerned about our appearance on the screen. Our appearance and expressions are the tools we use to create a character on the screen. It is a subtle and sensitive art that is completely obliterated by computer coloring."

At the hearing, Ginger also read aloud a letter from respected actor Jimmy Stewart, in which he stated: "Why do it? Except to make some quick money on someone else's work. The colorized version [of It's A Wonderful Life (1946)] was shown on TV last year. I watched half of it and had to turn it off.  I couldn't get through it. The artificial color was detrimental to the story, to the whole atmosphere and artistry of the film. When I think of Frank Capra's fine cameraman, Joe Walker, and the time he spent on the delicate lighting and built in shadow of It's A Wonderful Life, and to have that work wiped out by computerized color, which destroys the delicate shadows and depths of each scene, it makes me mad."


Ginger at the 1987 hearing
As a result of the hearings, the National Film Preservation Act of 1988 was formed the following year. This act established the National Film Preservation Board and the National Film Registry, a board that could add up to 25 films each year that met the criteria for deserving preservation. The act's influence, though limited, became the first written law addressing colorization.

So, what's your view on the coloring of black and white films? Do they offer a new way to introduce future generations to the classics, or are they simply an insult to that era of Hollywood artistry itself? Take into consideration this quote from Ginger Rogers during the 1987 hearing, "Our black and white films ain't broke, and they don't need fixin'."

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2 comments

  1. They don't need to add color to classic films. They are perfect just the way they are!!!

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  2. Please don't color classic films. I grew up watching black and white tv. I love the classic films just the way they are. I just hated the color verison of,Miracle on 34th Street. When it comes on tv now i don't watch it. I wait untill they show the original black & white verison. Please don't mess with the classic films.

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