Jimmy Stewart Stars in Bid to Protect Old Movies : House Panel OKs Film Commission

Times Staff Writer

With actor Jimmy Stewart starring as a lobbyist, the House Appropriations Committee Thursday endorsed a controversial proposal to create a National Film Commission to designate great American motion pictures of the past and discourage “colorization” of classics photographed in black and white.

In a scenario that a Hollywood director might envy, the panel defied its powerful chairman and produced a happy ending for a three-term congressman and lifelong movie buff who thought up the commission idea.

Stewart watched happily from a front-row seat as the committee refused by a vote of 25 to 20 to heed the wishes of Chairman Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), the dean of the House, and kept the Film Commission in a $9.6-billion money bill for the Interior Department and related agencies.

Surprise Victory


“My God! I didn’t expect it to turn out that way,” said a startled but delighted Rep. Robert J. Mrazek (D-N.Y.), the author of the plan, after his upset victory.

Although his proposal overcame a major obstacle in the committee, it still faces other hurdles in the House Rules Committee, on the House floor and in the Senate, causing Stewart to comment:

“It certainly isn’t over yet. The bill has a tough row to hoe but we’re going to give it our best.” Jack Valenti, president of the Motion Picture Assn. of America, led the lobbying battle against Mrazek’s plan on behalf of film producers who charge that it would set a dangerous precedent by allowing a government commission to decide questions of artistic merit.

Under the proposal, the nine-member commission would designate American films that form “an enduring part of our national cultural heritage” in a national registry.

If originally photographed in black and white, films on the list could not be “colorized” without an on-screen notice to viewers that the original was made in black and white. Films that are colorized would not be allowed to retain their original title under the proposal. Similarly, the bill would require that if any film on the list was altered substantially, viewers must be informed and told how it had been edited or cut.

Enlisted Help of Stars

The Directors Guild of America, which enthusiastically supported the idea, enlisted such well-known stars as Katharine Hepburn and Clint Eastwood to telephone the 50 members of the Appropriations Committee and ask for their support. Stewart showed up personally to aid the unique lobbying campaign.

Even the debate in the Appropriations Committee took on a show-biz flavor.

Observing Stewart’s presence, Rep. Sidney R. Yates (D-Ill.) said the event reminded him of a sequel to “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” when Stewart portrayed an upright citizen who went to Congress to do the right thing.

“Jimmy Stewart is playing his part again,” Yates said. “I don’t know what part Jack Valenti is playing . . . “

On a more serious note, Yates said film was the quintessential American art form and should be protected just as Congress preserves historic landmarks and distinguished examples of architecture.

Truth in Labeling

“We are trying to protect the greatest motion pictures of the past,” Yates said. “We don’t ban colorization but we do come out for truth in labeling.”

Rep. Vic Fazio (D-Sacramento), however, said the Appropriations Committee was the wrong place to resolve difficult issues of copyright law that are now being examined by the House Judiciary Committee.

“This fight should continue in a proper forum,” Fazio pleaded in asking his colleagues to delete Mrazek’s plan from the bill.

He also contended that the proposed commission, with required representation from the directors’ guild, the screenwriters’ guild and the national society of film critics, would be biased from the outset.

“This is the first attempt to have a government commission decide what is art,” Fazio said.

Melodramatic Lines

It was Mrazek, however, who had the melodramatic lines in the mini-drama.

“I do feel very passionately about this,” he began. “Some films have molded my life.”

He referred to “Best Years of Our Lives,” a 1946 classic about the return of soldiers from World War II, and said: “I’d rather see the scene when Frederic March comes home to his family than a roomful of Renoirs.”

Mrazek also mentioned “High Noon,” “From Here to Eternity” and “Grapes of Wrath” as examples of films that deserve protection. And he concluded with a telegram from Frank Capra, the director of “It’s a Wonderful Life” starring Jimmy Stewart, that described his reaction to the “colorizing” of that film.

“They ruined it--splashed Easter egg colors all over and ruined it,” Capra wrote to the committee.

A comic note was introduced by Rep. Bill Green (R-N.Y.), who said the proposed requirement to change the names of “colorized” black and white films could lead to some strange results.

“What are they going to call it: ‘Low Noon’?” he asked. “Or will it be ‘High Midnight’?”

Mrazek, however, had the last laugh when the committee gave him a majority on the showdown vote.