Some time ago I had to sit through a lecture by an ‘expert’ on colour cinema, who began by showing a YouTube clip of the colourised version of It’s a Wonderful Life. “What’s that?” he asked. “It’s a Wonderful Life,” we said. “No,” he said in his best Jeremy Clarkson voice, “it’s an abomination.”
He then showed a YouTube clip of the black-and-white It’s a Wonderful Life — a clip that was horizontally stretched, pixelated and whose sound and image was all but destroyed by the low-quality upload — and proceeded to talk about that as if it wasn’t an abomination.
But I would like to offer a few words in defence.
I was fortunate to chat a while ago to the man who was responsible for buying films for the BBC in the 1980s. He told me that he once got his hands on a colourised version of a forgotten old Errol Flynn movie with the intention of filling up a 90 minute slot with it on a Bank Holiday afternoon. However, once the word was out he was shouted down by a rabble of cinema ‘purists’ and forced to abandon the screening.
The result was that that old Errol Flynn flick remains largely unseen by anyone under about 70, and probably forgotten by those older; the couple of hundred thousand children who might have been entertained by it that rainy Bank Holiday probably ended up having to sit through Carve Her Name with Pride instead, or pass the afternoon chewing on an old piece of Lego. And while they did, those self-righteous cinema purists — who’d no doubt never seen the Errol Flynn movie in question, either in black and white or colour — remained oblivious, probably chatting about Jim Jarmusch over broccoli quiche at their lunch parties.
Of course, I’m not one to rally for the colourisation of timeless classics like Casablanca or Bringing Up Baby or His Girl Friday or even It’s a Wonderful Life. But this story brought home to me the fact that there’s a mountain of old black-and-white naterial out there for which colourisation might help delay the inevitable consignment to cinema landfill.
This isn’t a new argument. Back in the mid-80s, when techniques for computer colourisation were standardized and the process could first be applied with something like industrial efficiency, the same claims were rolled out — colourisation could help to introduce a new generation to a canon of films that they otherwise wouldn’t get to see (or bother seeing).
But the launch of the process with high profile colourisation jobs on Topper (1937) and Laurel and Hardy’s Way Out West (1937) did not do much to help the cause, given that these were acknowledged classics whose reputations were doing all right as it was, thank-you-very-much. Directors and cineastes were outraged, and colourisation’s plight at this time was not helped by Orson Welles imploring ‘Please don’t deface Citizen Kane’ from his deathbed, or John Huston taking a break from his oxygen tank to cry mercy for The Maltese Falcon.
But the argument remains, for early thirties cartoons, old sci-fi serials, family programmers, antiquated special effects films and what not, colourisation can inject some new life. What better example could we have than the Ray Harryhausen Box Set, whose vintage black-and-white B-movies such as 20 Million Miles to Earth don’t get much of an airing any more. This particular release brings me to another point: colourisation has improved a lot in the last 25 years. Indeed, West Wing Studios’ colourisation a number of old Three Stooges shorts has turned it into an art form. OK, for close-up ‘human dramas’ it’s still not ideal — skin tones still tend to look like they do on 3D ultrasound scans. But the colourisation job on these recent efforts is great.
Of course, without denigrating the craft of their black and white cinematographers, it goes without saying that if colour had been an affordable commodity for Harryhausen in the 50s or the Three Stooges in the forties then it would have been the process of choice. We can all get a bit uppity about artistic intention, but as far as these crowd pleasers are concerned the intention was to be seen by as many people as possible.
Back to Laurel & Hardy: as a huge fan of their Hal Roach-produced shorts and features, I wasn’t exactly thrilled myself when these started turning up in colour versions. But if a child of mine ever expresses a preference for the colourised version of Laughing Gravy over the black-and-white one, I’m not going to bore them with a lecture on artistic intention. Even in fake colour you can marvel at Stan and Ollie’s sublime timing, at their non-sequiturs, at their brilliant comic interplay. (OK, we should probably leave Sons of the Desert, Our Relations and Way Out West alone, but you could argue that Babes in Toyland was crying out for colour.)
The 1951 version of Scrooge, admittedly, occupies fairly thin ice as far as the colourisation argument is concerned. It is a classic in its own right, perhaps the best screen version of the Dickens tale. The original black-and-white cinematography by C. Pennington Richards is exquisite and atmospheric. But in the pantheon of great family films, great Christmas films, it’s edging towards the forgotten, the overlooked. And anyway I imagine for anyone under 10 these days, sitting through a black-and-white costume drama, however festive, is probably akin to a prolonged stare at a faded chess board.
Of course, you can make your own choice about showing your children or grandchildren Scrooge and The Pickwick Papers in colour (the black and white versions are also available). But nobody’s going to die if you do. Maybe take a punt on the colourised It’s a Wonderful Life too (included as an extra on the current DVD and Blu-ray or streamable below). You never know, they might turn out to be the most entertaining abominations you see this Christmas.
Julian's new book - Offbeat: British Cinema's Curiosities, Obscurities and Forgotten Gems - is available to pre-order from MovieMail