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 be appreciated—then the task would be to cultivate the audience back to some level of maturity rather than to doctor the film artificially to keep up with lowered tastes. Not only do the colorizers have contempt for the American public but also for the artist. A large number of American movies are classics both at home and all over the world. Thinking they were making popular entertainment, American filmmakers have produced numerous motion pictures that are considered genuine works of art comparable to fine works of literature, painting, and music. But the colorizers have no regard for the men who made these movies, and when a great American director like John Huston says he doesn’t want his superb mystery The Maltese Falcon made into a color movie because that makes this hard-boiled Bogart film silly looking, they couldn’t care less what Huston wants. The colorizers also tell us that a viewer can simply turn off the color and see the film in black and white. The fact that the man who made the film wants no one at all to see it in color means nothing to them. Finally, they say we live in a democracy and the public wants these films in color, but if members of the public had the right to demand alterations to suit their taste the world would have no real art. Nothing would be safe. Picasso would have been changed years ago, and James Joyce and Stravinsky and the list goes on.

The example of John Huston, incidentally, is particularly meaningful to me because the aesthetic differences between color and black and white are a subject that hits home in my own work. In an era of almost exclusively color films, I have chosen on a number of occasions, even fought for the privilege, to tell stories with black and white photography. Indeed, the different effect between color and black and white is often so wide it alters the meaning of scenes. If I had portrayed New York City in color rather than black and white in my movie Manhattan, all the nostalgic connotations would have vanished. All the evocation of the city from old photographs and films would have been impossible to achieve in technicolor. Whereas if I had filmed Annie Hall in black and white, all the scenes that now come off amusingly would take a giant step toward grim seriousness by mere virtue of their suddenly being grittier and less cartoonlike.


One has only to think of a film like The Bicycle Thief and imagine the life-and-death search through postwar Rome for the precious bicycle being in reds and yellows and blues rather than the hot whites and dirty blacks and grays to see how absurd the whole thing is. And it’s not just drama—musicals, just because they are bouncy, are not helped by the addition of color where it doesn’t belong either. Part of the artistic experience of seeing old Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire films is the period quality: the black and white photography gives it its entire feel. When Astaire made color musicals in a later period they took on a totally different quality that reflects beautifully their particular era. They are not better or worse—but completely different and true to themselves.

And what of the other insults—the editing, the artificial panning, the cuts made to accommodate the commercial sale of dog food and roach spray? Only in America are films so degraded. In other countries the artist is often protected by the government. No one can change a French director’s film without his consent. They have too much respect for people who contribute to the society by doing creative work to allow anyone to subvert their creations at random. My personal belief is of course that no one should ever be able to tamper with any artist’s work in any medium against the artist’s will, and this principle can be argued justly by any citizen. It does not need a directly involved artist.

The colorizers may think they have a legal loophole, but the morality of what they are doing is atrocious. For directors with enough clout to make self-protecting contracts this is no problem. But for those less fortunate and, of course, the deceased ones, protection must be guaranteed.

If a producer insists on color and if a helpless director is forced to make a film the studio’s way, despite his own feelings that it should be black and white—well, a deal’s a deal. But once a film exists in black and white and has been thrilling audiences for years, then to suddenly color it seems too great an insult—even for a society that is so often more in awe of its business executives than of its creative talents.

Ultimately, of course, the colorizers will lose this battle. If not immediately then future generations will surely discard these cheesy, artificial symbols of one society’s greed. They will, of course, go back to the great originals. And if we are foolish enough to permit this monstrous practice to continue one can easily picture young men and women someday discussing us with disgust and saying, “They did this and nobody stopped them?”

“Well, there was a lot of money involved.”

“But surely the people could see the deeper value to America of its film treasury, of its image among civilizations. Surely they understood the immorality of defacing an artist’s work against his will. Don’t tell me it was the kind of nation that adored profit at any cost and humiliation.”

Here I finish because it’s too early to know how it turns out, but I hope dearly that I will not be part of a culture that is one day ridiculed and reviled.

What appears above is a statement given on May 12 to the Subcommittee on Technology and the Law of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Since then there have been a few new developments. On the plus side Representative Richard Gephardt introduced a bill concerning the integrity of films that goes a long way to protect a film artist’s moral rights. It specifically prohibits colorization without the permission of the director and writer (the guilds representing both are strongly allied on this question) and gives them the right to pass on this right to protect their work to their families in perpetuity. According to the bill, any colorization that takes place must be done under the guidance of a competent director. In mid-July Robert Kastenmeier, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Copyrights, will hold hearings on whether the United States should accept the rules of the Berne Convention, a treaty which, among other things, would affirm the moral rights of artists, including film artists.


A less heartening, but by no means fatal, development is that the existing copyright law has been recently interpreted by the US Copyright Office to mean that a colorized film can meet the standards for authorizing a new copyright. The standard does not necessarily require uniqueness or artistic merit on the part of the colorizer; it requires only a minimum amount of creative expression “by a human being.” This means, for example, that one could take Citizen Kane, have someone colorize it, and then copyright it as one’s own new creation—obviously a ridiculous notion, but it tells you something about whose rights come first in this country. The Copyright Office’s interpretation is not a new law or a final decision in the battle for moral rights, but merely an application of the existing copyright law to a new process, colorization. It is the existing law itself that we are currently fighting to change.

The President, though once an actor, has not reacted to these issues with the same outrage as the members of the Screen Actor’s Guild. The guild is strongly against colorization. The President, for his part, has found merit in the new process. When asked about the issue he spoke vaguely about new life (meaning new bucks?) for old black and white films, and he has so far failed to grasp the moral issues involved. No surprise.

It would help if people who care about these issues would write Congress and make their feelings known, not only about colorization, but about the moral rights of creative artists to their work. Senator Gephardt’s bill is an excellent one and should be supported, but Congressman Kastenmeier should hear from citizens who believe that the moral rights of artists must be protected. It is a position that must be adopted by this country if we are ever to mature as a society.

This Issue

August 13, 1987