So, Toto pulled back the curtain, revealing to the horror of everyone who believed in him that the Wizard of Oz was not a wizard at all. It was Ted Turner turning the knobs and making all the noise.
It’s been a few months since Turner left the Emerald City, with the film libraries of MGM, RKO and early Warner Bros. in tow. He had come here not long before, saying he wanted to make movies like the old Hollywood classics.
What he apparently meant was that he’d like to reedit some of the old classics, specifically add color to the well-known black-and-white movies and trot them out--films of a different color--for new generations of viewers on his WTBS superstation.
Last week, Turner Broadcasting System released a list of more than 100 movies that it has commissioned Color Systems Technology to computer-colorize over the next few years, including such classics as “Casablanca,” “The Maltese Falcon,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “A Night at the Opera” and the 1946 “The Postman Always Rings Twice.”
This week, an angry committee of film directors reacted. In a strongly worded letter to Gilbert Cates, president of the Directors Guild of America, the 18 members of the president’s committee urged that the guild put itself on record against the “cultural butchery” of colorizing and that it should use “all resources at its disposal to stop this process in its path.”
Cates, reached in Vancouver where he is directing a film, said he agrees with the recommendation of his committee and will urge approval of it when the DGA national board meets next month.
“It (colorizing) is a process of dissembling the historical and artistic fabric of our landmarks,” Cates said. “Once you say you can add color, why can’t you add a different score, add shots, re-edit it, or do anything you want?”
Cates’ comment was mild compared to those of some colleagues.
Woody Allen: Determining the colors that people wear, or what colors the walls are and so on are major creative decisions. . . . To have a group of people from the outside making those decisions is criminal and ludicrous.
Billy Wilder: Those fools! Do they really think that colorization will make “ The Informer “ any better? Or “ Citizen Kane “ or “ Casablanca "? Or do they hope to palm off some of the old stinkers by dipping them in 31 flavors? Is there no end to their greed?”
Joe Dante: Black and white was an art form in the ‘40s. . . By changing them, they are tampering with history. It’s the death knell of an entire art form.
Elliot Silverstein, chairman of the DGA committee on colorizing, provided the most graphic opinion. When it was pointed out that the successful halting of colorizing might ultimately cost DGA members residuals from TV syndication and video sales, he said, “We’re dealing with moral and professional issues here, not a commercial one. These fellows are lifting their legs on people’s work.
“We certainly care about the directors’ feelings, but we are not going to change our plans,” said TBS Executive Vice President Bob Wussler. “That boat has left the harbor. The ship has sailed.”
There are two colorizing companies thriving in this new industry. Color Systems Technology, based in Marina del Rey, and Colorization Inc., a Toronto-based subsidiary of Hal Roach Studios. Their techniques differ, but both essentially use computers to assign predetermined colors to shades of gray in each scene.
Colorization has colored such films as Laurel and Hardy’s “Way Out West,” the 1937 “Topper,” with Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, and Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life.” CST started with “Miracle on 34th Street” and just completed “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” the first of 150 films that it will do, at an average cost of $183,000, for Ted Turner.
The directors opposed to coloring complain that: It changes the mood, subverts the original concepts, alters subtle lighting and shadowing techniques, redirects the viewer’s focus away from where the director intended it to be and presumes to add authenticity where a distorted reality may well have been the director’s intention.
But their major objection is that coloring is prima facie re-editing of an artist’s work, a form of mutilation that is no different from putting a fig leaf on Michelangelo’s David or rouging Mona Lisa’s cheeks.
“To change someone’s work without any regard to his wishes shows a total contempt for film, for the director and for the public,” said Woody Allen, one of the few directors with the clout to make his films in black and white when he chooses. “I think all of the guilds that have any regard for film as an art form should take major action to prevent it. That’s what guilds are for, to protect the integrity of the artist,” he said.
The colorizers cite several defenses for the process.
They say that black-and-white films are getting harder to syndicate on television, both at home and abroad, and that by colorizing the films, they are airing works that would otherwise not be seen.
They say that the booming video market is virtually shut off from black-and-white classics, that young VCR users won’t rent or buy anything that is not in color.
And they argue that most of the old films were done in black and white because color was either not available to the directors or the studios wouldn’t go the additional cost.
This hardly explains the presence of John Huston’s “The Maltese Falcon” and “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” on Turner’s list. Director John Huston is still around and he is on the record against having them colored. And it doesn’t explain the presence of films like Jacques Tourneur’s “Out of the Past,” a moody film noir that uses its black-and-white cinematography as a major character.
Nevertheless. . . .
“I have no artistic problem coloring black-and-white films,” said Charles Powell, executive vice president of Color Systems Technology. “We’re movie people, not carpetbaggers. We really care. And the contracts are pouring in.”
Powell and Color Systems Technology consultant Gene Allen, the Oscar-winning art director of “My Fair Lady,” say they use great care in determining colors for everything from flesh tones to room colors. The dissenting directors say that the art director on “My Fair Lady” might not have been director Michael Curtiz’s first choice for “Casablanca” and that it’s an outrageous presumption for him to think he can translate the film to color without destroying the intended mood.
“They keep saying they care and that they want to consult,” Silverstein said. “Consult with whom? Most of the film makers are dead. It doesn’t seem right for people whose main interests are archeological to roll right over their works.”
Powell said the directors do not own their films and that the public should determine whether films are colorized or not.
“The choice lies with the public,” Powell said. “The public loudly and clearly indicates a preference for color.”
Hal Gaba, vice chairman of Colorization Inc. said the directors are promoting “the grossest form of censorship” by trying to take away the public’s right to view these films in color.
“To tell the public that they can’t watch it in color, to have the audacity to try to legislate this form of censorship is really shocking,” Gaba said. “To carry their thinking out logically, they shouldn’t allow color films to be shown on black-and-white television or films made for the big screen to be shown on television at all.”
Powell said that the directors should take a look at the process before complaining about it and said he thinks people are getting Color Systems Technology’s work mixed up with that of its competitor’s. The directors quoted here said the quality of colorization is irrelevant. The point is that the films were made in black and white by a team of film makers working in a specific medium, with its limitations and its advantages.
“I might see a colorized film and not be offended by it,” said Milos Forman, who won an Oscar last year for “Amadeus.” “That’s not the point. The point is creative rights. Coloring films is like putting aluminum siding on a 17th-Century castle.”
“I have no quarrel with the mechanics,” Woody Allen said. “That has nothing to do with it. If a director is around and says he’d like to have it colorized, fine. If not, no one should be allowed to change it, in any way, ever.”
Allen now has it in his contract that his films cannot be altered without his permission, and he refuses to let his moves be “panned and scanned” (trimmed at the top and sides to adapt to the shape of a TV screen). He said he would rather lose money on sales of tapes and TV syndication than have people watch a different movie from the one he made.
The commercial rationale that people won’t watch black-and-white films or rent black-and-white tapes may be a self-fulfilling prophecy now that they can play the computer keyboard game and magically convert them. It’s all a bit condescending, Allen said.
“What they are really saying is that the public are morons, brainless people who can’t enjoy a film if it’s in black and white. They need colors because they don’t have the brains to respond to content. . . . It is not true. The world has responded to ‘Citizen Kane’ and will continue to respond to it.
“They don’t care about the public or the films. They will argue you deaf, dumb and blind with philosophical reasons for doing it. In the end, what they’re saying is, ‘We’ll tell you anything, but we want the money.’ ”
While Color Systems Technology keeps busy with its TBS orders, Colorization Inc. is keeping busy with films taken from the Hal Roach Studios library, or from the public library. There are an estimated 17,000 black-and-white films in the public domain and Colorization Inc. is helping itself. By colorizing them and copyrighting the color version, it plans to build its own library, a scheme that the DGA’s Cates says adds insult to the injury.
Among the titles in Colorization’s young library are “Angel and the Badman,” starring John Wayne, “Suddenly,” with Frank Sinatra, and George Romero’s “The Night of the Living Dead,” a 1968 horror film that slipped into the public domain because someone failed to copyright it.
It may be hard to get the Rainbow Ship back in the harbor. Television, with its Cuisinart style of editing, has provided plenty of precedence for third-party interference. And the public may be hard to rouse. Colorizing is a far more seductive abuse.
The truth is that the quality of computer color is not as aesthetically awful as we might expect, and it will get better. Whether they actually get Sydney Greenstreet’s hair color right in “The Maltese Falcon” will go unnoticed by most of us.
But no matter how much care goes into the selection of colors, there will always be the overriding commercial concerns. Wilson Markle, head of Colorization Inc., tells the story of a client who rejected a Western that his company had colored using authentic desert brown for the backdrop. Markle’s colorizers changed the brown to green and sent it back and all was well.
“They didn’t say anything about the desert,” Markle said, “but that’s the only thing we changed. . . . They said, ‘That’s great.’ ”
Green deserts may become the norm in old Westerns, green being so much more entertaining than brown. Who knows what colorful thoughts lurk in the minds of computer keyboard artists?
In the colorized version of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the wardrobe of Gloria Grahame’s Violet, the budding vamp of Bedford Falls, was colored violet, turning her into a visual pun that director Frank Capra may or may not have found amusing.
No one could deny that that was art direction, nearly 40 years after the fact. And no one can guarantee that it won’t be done again. That’s entertainment.
One of the films on Turner’s to-be-colored list is “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” a 1964 biographical movie about country singer Hank Williams. One of its stars is Red Buttons. If even one of his buttons is red. . . .
John Voland contributed to this story.