Let us just say that a very rich man has purchased all the films ever made in Hollywood. He calls together his staff and says, “Take all the black and white ones and turn them into color using our new computer.” The technicians get right to work implementing this because they are used to following orders.
One man among them, however, is puzzled, and says to his employer, “I don’t understand—why paint them over with color?”
The boss says, “Because more people will watch them.”
“Really?” the underling asks.
“Yes,” the boss answers. “The American public is very stupid, very infantile. In fact they’re idiots. They can’t enjoy a film unless it’s full of bright colors and rock music. The story means nothing—the plot, the acting—just give the fools reds and yellows and they’ll smile.”
The worker is confused and tells his boss that for generations people have been watching and adoring films in black and white. He points to It’s a Wonderful Life, viewed by millions every Christmas on television. He points to Yankee Doodle Dandy and Sergeant York and Citizen Kane and The Maltese Falcon and On the Waterfront.
“They’re great films,” the boss says. “But I’m going to improve them. They’ll be greater when I’m finished with them.”
“But the director of Citizen Kane is dead. Who’ll tell you what colors it should be?”
“We have men to do that. It’s true—they’ve never directed films and know nothing about it, but they sure can work computers and between you and me—does it really make a difference if James Cagney’s jacket is green or yellow when he shoots Humphrey Bogart in Public Enemy?”
The poor underling is losing his resolve. “By the way,” he asks, “you mentioned adding rock music?”
“Oh, that’s in the future,” the boss says. “First color, then maybe we replace the score of Gone With the Wind with rock. I have lots of ideas.”
Now, you might get the impression from all this that I am against “colorization”* of black and white films, but you’d be wrong. If a movie director wishes his film to be “colorized,” then I say, by all means, let him color it. If he prefers it to remain in black and white then it is sinful to force him to change it. If the director is not alive and his work has been historically established in black and white it should remain true to its origin. The presumption that the colorizers are doing him a favor and improving his movie is a transparent attempt to justify the mutilation of art for a few extra dollars.
The colorizers will tell you that it’s proved no one wants black and white, but this is not true and if it were—if audiences who have grown up on mindless television were so desensitized that a movie like It Happened One Night, which has been delighting people in black and white for generations now, had to be viewed in color to…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.