Life & Liberty: Color Me Blue


For the first time since motion pictures flickered into existence more than 90 years ago, a government agency is likely to be empowered to decide which Hollywood films have artistic merit and deserve at least limited Federal protection.
—The New York Times

Nobody who cares about the cinema likes colorized movies. They look bad. The original black-and-white versions capture an infinitely broader range of light values and textures. They have an ambiance, a historical dint. They draw the viewer into a monochromatic world of shadows and illumination, inviting fantastic flights of pastel imagination. They have character. Why would anyone want to watch a blotchily colored version of The Maltese Falcon? or Adam's Rib? or any "classic" from the pretechnicolor age? It's like listening to those nauseating disco records that set the Beatles or Beethoven to an inexorable 4/4 thump.

And since black-and-white films are better, and those who don't think so should think so, fervent cinéastes yelp, we need legislation to outlaw colorized movies. Someone's got to put an end to the senseless slaughter of endangered celluloid. Not only should we not watch these inferior counterfeits, they shouldn't be allowed to infect our screens. It's high time an informed, responsible ruling body—like our federal government—warned millions of hapless television viewers that the rosy noirs they see on Ted Turner's Superstation are patently fake, that Cary Grant's suit was originally gray, not blue. Better yet, as lawmakers like Democratic also-ran and movie lover Richard Gephardt (Mo.) propose, filmmakers should be able to prohibit coloring of their product, and copyrights should be denied to altered versions. The tastes of countless Americans, however low-brow, should be dictated.

This no-preservatives, no-additives approach presupposes a movie's artistic sanctity, according it the respect usually reserved for Christopher Wren and Rembrandt van Rijn. The anticoloring forces go so far as to articulate their struggle as one of "moral rights." They are cinematic Samsons battling the feculent Philistines.

Calling films "art" is reasonable, though defining and assigning the label proves difficult. While most of Hollywood's pabulum is certainly rubbish, the film industry has churned out a fair number of masterpieces, too. But one man's masterpiece is another's Big Top Pee Wee. If legislation were passed, who would decide what works make the grade? A "knowledgeable" panel of stuffy, Eisenstein-obsessed academics? Legislators fond of The Seduction of Joe Tynan and The Guns of Navarone? Arguing which films qualify and which don't might make for some lively gamesmanship on the Senate floor—sentiment would no doubt be heatedly divided along party lines on Knute Rockne—All American. Could Jesse Helms vote in good conscience for Renoir's Grand Illusion and continue to support SDI?

Great films—by anybody's standards—can and should be considered works of art. But coloring foes are mistaken to assume that a colorized print is a perversion of the filmmaker's artwork, that somehow such a print demolishes the creator's original (black-and-white) vision.

The fact is, the filmmaker's original vision remains intact but momentarily unseen. Coloring films does not destroy the monochrome negative; on the contrary, coloring requires the creation of a new black-and-white print, preserving movies that, given their nitroglycerine base, might otherwise be left to self-destruct. This fortuitous necessity indirectly advances the anticolorists' pristine cause and casts doubt on their high-minded motive. Is their purpose artistic preservation or artistic hegemony?

Perhaps colored films rankle purists because they seem to abnegate history. Black-and-white connotes oldness, an earlier, technologically modest era of good manners and clear speech. Color connotes modernity. It means progress, moral laxity, and, most disturbing, decidedly unrefined method acting. Until 1951, when Marlon Brando revolutionized screen acting with his legendary Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, American black-and-white movies had mostly been free of unsightly realism and palpable sensuality. For old-timers, to apply color to beloved artifacts is to vulgarize them; it's an anachronistic blight on our memories (and imaginings) of an earlier time.

But while coloring might tarnish our associations with an old film or the era it represents, it doesn't destroy the original. It merely presents a new (and worse) way of looking at the artist's work.

Of course, you don't have to look if you don't like what you see. And if you do want to look but are repelled by Katharine Hepburn's hair color or John Garfield's complexion, simply turn the color off on the television set. Voila! Instant authenticity, if not political correctness. This shamelessly practical solution, anticolorists argue, treats the symptom but ignores the cause. It's the principle.

Principle? There live not three good men uncompromised in Hollywood, and one of them made a movie called The Color of Money. Movies are undoubtedly the most commercial of the arts; they are inextricably dependent on mass distribution and consumption. Unlike a painter or a musician, the film artist cannot practice his craft without a wealthy benefactor—a studio—who intends to exhibit his product for profit.

Stuck in an unequivocally commercial workplace, directors such as Elliot Silverstein, a quondam Twilight Zone auteur and vocal anticolorist, want to prevent changes of any type, forgetting that they've sold their product—and with it the right of exhibition—even before it is completed. Legislation prohibiting the production and distribution of colored films would, in effect, eradicate the property and ownership rights of studios and investors, who risk millions of dollars to make a product that, according to Variety's statistics, will in all likelihood lose money. If colored movies garner large audiences (as the Turner company claims), it is the owner's prerogative to court them and increase profits.

Ownership, for better or worse, denotes authority. It is troublesome that the properties in question are not hog bellies or wheat futures but ostensible art. Still, painters whose works have been purchased by a museum or private collector have little or no say over how they are exhibited—if they are exhibited at all. Composers cannot ban inexperienced musicians from playing their scores badly. And filmmakers cannot dictate how a copy of their product is viewed.

And that's essentially what a color print of a black-and-white film is—an altered reproduction of the original. When Marcel Duchamp drew a mustache on a print of Leonardo's Mona Lisa, it was an irreverent, conceptual comment on highly prized art. When Peter Sellars set Mozart's Don Giovanni in Spanish Harlem and Wagner's Tannhäuser in an airport, it was bold rethinking of cultural icons. When Joseph Papp's New York Shakespeare Festival cast a black actor as a cardinal in King John, it was egalitarianism. But when It's a Wonderful Life is rendered in color, it's blasphemy.

A popular invocation with anticolorists is "integrity." To them, altering old movies is to plunge them into ontological chaos, as if the purity of Miracle on 34th Street were dependent on its grayness. Ironically, those contemporary members of the Directors Guild who call for moral-rights legislation have in many instances made their fortunes by altering other works of art.

How many times have you come out of a movie saying, "It was nothing like the book," or "How could they do that to such a great work?" Easily. They just purchase the rights and shoot as they please. Ken Kesey is reportedly still bitter over Milos Forman's butcher-job on One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which many consider a fine film, and John Updike claims to have no interest in seeing the movie version of The Witches of Eastwick. After selling the rights, the Pulitzer-winning author resigned himself to a schlock job; he did the deal and it was out of his hands. Filmmakers feel no moral obligation to realize a novel word for word, setting for setting. Their artistic license allows for changes—sometimes wholesale revisions—of the original text, no matter how antithetical to the author's intent.

Next time Mr. Allen goes to Washington to plead for "a law protecting the rights of all artists to prevent changes of any type whatsoever to their work without consent," he might recall that his first big hit, What's Up, Tiger Lily?, was a Japanese movie that Allen dubbed with American voices. Besides, such stringent legislation might encourage a lawsuit against him for attempting neurotic remakes of Ingmar Bergman classics.

Even a casual student of art knows that our temples of genius are built on the pillars of history: nothing in creation is devoid of antecedents. As John Berger observed in Ways of Seeing, the ability to view great art works in coffee-table books or posters distorts, if not diminishes, their singular impact; yet more people—people who, for example, cannot travel to the Louvre to see the Venus de Milo—may vicariously experience the splendor of human achievement, if only in photos. To see the Venus in a manufactured copy is to miss the aura of originality. But we get the idea—and if we want to see her in France, we can.

It is sad every time an editor hacks up a nice essay. It is sad when "I've Got a Crush on You" is performed as a synthesized rap number. And it will be sad when someone decides to color any of our favorite oldies. But the original remains; we don't have to watch an inferior copy if we don't want to. Now there s a moral right. To deny the sanctity of property is myopic; to legislate taste is absurd. Anticolorists must realize that coloring old movies, while troubling, is not, alas, a black-and-white issue.

Michael Konik is a journalist based in New York City.