The Great Colorization Debate

Tonight, CBS airs newly colorized episodes of “I Love Lucy,” a long-anticipated event that has reignited the debate over whether or not colorization of historical film sources is an acceptable alternative to the black-and-white original. As time removes us further and further from the era from which many of these sources come, the inevitable question must now be considered: how do we interest this new generation of viewers, for whom a night of entertainment often consists of alcohol, smartphones, and an episode of the Kardashians, in entertainment like “I Love Lucy” or My Man Godfrey?

My Man Godfrey (1936), colorized.

The question is a valid one, and colorization of a few episodes of “I Love Lucy” might draw new audience members who may not have otherwise tuned in, but to many it seems like putting a band-aid on the problem. In my generation, there is a distinct lack of interest in educating the public about history. Instead, distributors like to appeal to as broad an audience as possible, and all too often this means a previously uninterested one. I applaud efforts to get Generation Y back on track by trying to make black-and-white material appealing. But as a member of Generation Y myself (albeit a bit of an anomaly), the proposed solutions are all too often off-target. Colorizing a movie to appeal to a mass audience might be a quick fix, but in order to capture and retain interest, it is necessary to educate the public about the where, the when, and the why of a black-and-white movie. The color of the film stock isn’t the problem. The lack of historical understanding is.

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The colorized version of The Miracle on 34th Street (1947) airs on television every year, presumably to attract viewers of a younger generation.

With that said, colorization of film stock is nothing new. Starting in the earliest days of film, the public wanted color and experimental hand-tinting of footage occurred often, probably most notably in scenes of The Great Train Robbery (1903) and Le Voyage dans la Lune  (1902).

Le Voyage dans la Lune, diligently hand-colored in the Meliès lab.

One of my favorite hand-colored tints is “Annabelle Serpentine Dance,” from the Edison studio in 1895. It is considered the earliest hand-tinted movie, and shows a young woman dancing in a long flowing skirt, and each time the skirt billows, a new color appears. It is a beautiful idea, beautifully executed by the Edison studio.

The advent of Technicolor in the late 1920s was a wonder, but by no means eradicated the use of black-and-white film. It wasn’t even truly until the 1980s that color film became standard industry-wide standard, but by the 1970s black-and-white film was a novelty and rarely used. The public expected color, and now, 40 years hence, anything black-and-white is considered “old” by the current generation and is therefore expendable. In that sense, colorization serves its purpose, to make the print appear newer, and therefore accentuate the immortality of the material.

But by its very colorization, we are perpetuating the idea that black-and-white is lesser and must be updated in order to be appealing. Is this what we want to be telling this generation? It’s a complex question and a complex situation to work out, a burden that we have inherited due to lack of desire or motivation to inform and educate the public. I would love to hear your input. What is your opinion of colorization? Leave your comments below, and I look forward to hearing from you!

San Francisco Silent Film Festival, 2015!

Hello dear readers, my goodness, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. I’ve been so busy with various projects that I feel that Backlots has been relegated to the back burner. I still owe you the post about my final day at the TCMFF, but I’m here to announce another festival–the San Francisco Silent Film Festival that Backlots has attended for the past several years will return at the end of this month, and I will be there covering all the action!

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This year’s lineup is spectacular. Featuring such films as Flesh and the Devil, All Quiet on the Western Front, Speedy, and their signature smorgasbord of silent films from around the globe, the 2015 festival promises to be one to remember. Join me the last weekend in May as we go to the historic Castro Theater in San Francisco to celebrate the silents once more.

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Greta Garbo and John Gilbert smolder in Flesh and the Devil.

If you are in the San Francisco area, you may get the details about this year’s festival by visiting the San Francisco Silent Film Festival website and downloading the full schedule. This festival remains one of my favorites due to its perfect combination of quality films, world-class speakers, and cozy local atmosphere. If you’ve never been before, it’s a true experience.

I will get that final TCM post up shortly, but be sure to check back between May 28 and June 1 for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3: WHY BE GOOD? 42nd STREET, EARTHQUAKE!

Day 3 was one filled with favorites and laughs. I started off the day with Why Be Good? (1929), a movie I had seen a few months ago when a new restoration was screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. This same restoration was shown here, and I loved the movie so much the first time that I had to see it again.

 

The plot of the movie centers around a young girl who falls in love with a wealthy banker’s son, but has to prove that she’s a “good girl” before his father will allow him to date her. The premise sounds contrived, but in reality the film is unique and refreshingly feminist in many spots, with lines that resonate with much of feminist thought today. Colleen Moore is as cute as can be, with big, expressive eyes and movements that radiate the jazz age. It was great fun to see it screened at the festival, and I’m happy that this sweet film is getting the attention it deserves.

Next up was 42nd Street (1933), a personal favorite. Featuring much of the same cast as the seminal Golddiggers of 1933, what this movie lacks in originality it makes up for tenfold with a spectacular cast and Busby Berkeley’s creative musical numbers. Ruby Keeler is a delight as always, and the title number is one of the first real ballet sequences within a film that tells its own story within the film. The famous ballet sequences in An American in Paris and Singin’ In the Rain followed 42nd Street‘s lead in creating a veritable “show within a show,” but 42nd Street takes it one step further–the title number is indeed a story within a story within a story. Take a look:

42nd Street and Golddiggers of 1933 are hallmarks of the pre-Code era, and are extremely popular with the TCM Festival crowd, yet pre-Codes are often put in the smaller theaters and easily sell out. My dream is to one day see a pre-Code programmed at Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where it will not only look beautiful but also bring a lot of excitement to the festival-going crowd. I would have loved to have seen Ruby Keeler on that giant screen!

I had a large break in my schedule on Day 3, during which I relaxed with friends and got ready for the evening screening, Earthquake!, poolside at the Roosevelt Hotel. A Q&A with Richard Roundtree preceded the film, and then we were treated to one of the most fabulously low-budget movies I have ever seen. The inspiration for future disaster films such as the Airport movies and the spoof Airplane!Earthquake! stars Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner (who hilariously insisted on doing her own stunts) and focuses on a disastrous earthquake in Los Angeles, ultimately destroying the city. Its low-budget special effects left the audience in stitches, and satisfied my frequent craving for camp film. I left with a pain in my stomach from laughing so hard. Thanks, Earthquake!

Day 4 tomorrow. See you then!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: The Dawn of Technicolor, STEAMBOAT BILL JR., REBECCA, BOOM!

Dear readers, I’m usually so good about posting right after festival events, but after several late nights, I needed some sleep. The festival is now over, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. I apologize for the delay!

Day 2 was a jam-packed one at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the first day of the festival with a full docket of programming. I started off the day with a beautiful presentation called The Dawn of Technicolor, based on the new book by David Pierce and James Layton. Pierce and Layton were there discussing the facets of early Technicolor, and the differences between the two-strip Technicolor process and the much better-known three-strip process, as seen in movies like The Wizard of Oz. It was a fascinating discussion, touching on such concepts as lighting techniques for early Technicolor and difficulties in getting certain colors to register (blue was especially difficult), and Pierce and Layton showed the audience clips of very early Technicolor musicals that were a delight.

Since many of the early Technicolor clips that the audience saw yesterday are extremely rare, I will instead post here two clips that demonstrate the two-strip process and the three-strip process, respectively.

This is the “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” number from The Florodora Girl. Pierce and Layton noted that, in addition to the difficulty in photographing blue tints, yellow tints were next to non-existent in the two-strip Technicolor process. The focus was on reds and greens, which came out in beautiful shades and this lends itself to the signature look of two-strip Technicolor.

You can see the difference between two-strip and three-strip Technicolor by looking at this beautiful clip, in which all the colors of the rainbow are represented as Dorothy goes over it. By 1939, three-strip Technicolor had all but replaced two-strip as the color standard in film, though color wouldn’t become industry standard until several decades later.

A wonderful and informative presentation, that I would recommend to anyone interested in film!

Next I went to Club TCM to hear legendary film historian Jeanine Basinger speak about portrayals of history in the movies. Professor Basinger is the head of the film department at Wesleyan University, and founder of the renowned film library there, as well as one of the most respected figures in the world of film studies. She discussed the way history has been portrayed in Hollywood and what devices filmmakers use when trying to depict events for which we may not have all the information, or when trying to make history interesting and screen-worthy. One thing she talked about was what she calls the “letters of transit” device, referring to the plot of Casablanca that hinges on Victor Laszlo getting letters of transit out of Morocco when letters of transit did not exist in reality. The filmmakers used this device to add spice to the story, and it worked brilliantly. No one seems to care that letters of transit did not exist in reality, they existed in Casablanca and that seems to be enough. It was a great discussion, and hearing Professor Basinger speak is something that all students and scholars of film should be able to do.

A scene about “letters of transit” in Casablanca (1942).

Next up was the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill, Jr., complete with a new score by silent composer Carl Davis, who also conducted the orchestra. It was a brilliant score and great fun to watch. Buster Keaton is typically hilarious and, naturally, gets into some real shenanigans. This is the movie with what is probably Buster Keaton’s most famous scene:

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was made in 1928, when Buster Keaton was at the peak of his career. Unfortunately, it was also right before his downfall, with contract switches and the coming of sound essentially putting a halt to what was one of the most glorious careers of the silent era. It was interesting to watch it in this context, as one of the great silent comedians was at the top of the world…only to fall off shortly thereafter.

A personal favorite, Rebecca, came next. I have written about this movie many times before, but it’s such a masterpiece of lighting, cinematography, and acting that I see something new every time. This time, I noticed that director Alfred Hitchcock uses very long lines in his camerawork, perhaps to emphasize the tallness of the estate Manderley. Nearly all the doorways and windows are structured to draw the eyes upward, and even the furniture and shadows are designed to guide the eyes up. Take a look at this scene, and notice the narrow, vertical light on the wall from the window, as well as the narrow structure of the window itself:

It is said that nothing in Hitchcock is accidental. If that adage holds true, this is a genius work of subtlety on his part.

The festival this year features an unusually high number of films that one can read through a queer lens–and Rebecca is certainly one of them. The relationship between the evil Mrs. Danvers and the late Rebecca de Winter can be inferred very clearly in this movie, as evidenced by this scene. Though filmmakers were kept from stating the relationship explicitly, the eerie scenes with Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s room do more for a queer reading of the film than anything that could have been stated explicitly.

The next movie, Boom!, is one that I have seen before on the big screen and it is a movie so bad that it’s a lot of fun to watch. I can barely tell you the plot, except that it takes place on a Greek island and Elizabeth Taylor is a drug addict who is visited by death, played by Richard Burton. It features monstrously terrible and nonsensical dialogue, and my friends and I were laughing the whole time. It’s the perfect midnight screening.

I’ll update about Day 3 tomorrow!

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: Meet TCM, So You Think You Know Movies?, QUEEN CHRISTINA, My Man Godfrey

Exhausted but beyond excited, I arrived in Los Angeles last night for the kickoff of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, taking place in Hollywood this weekend for its sixth year. The theme this year is “History According to the Movies,” which leaves plenty of room for interpretation…and controversial programming. When the full schedule of the TCM Classic Film Festival was announced several weeks ago, the internet started buzzing. Bloggers and film fans began asking questions–why were there so many modern movies scheduled?  Is TCM changing direction? Today at the annual Meet TCM panel prior to the official start of the festival, a film fan brought the question to the attention of Charlie Tabesh, head of programming at the channel. Tabesh answered that the modern programming of this year’s festival fits into the theme of “History According to the Movies,” and TCM has always operated according to themes. If the channel were paying tribute to the career of Katharine Hepburn, Tabesh continued, they would show not only Hepburn’s admired early work, but also her last film, Love Affair, made in the 1990s and generally acknowledged to be far from great.

MORNING GLORY (top), which won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, would get equal attention with LOVE AFFAIR (bottom) on TCM in a tribute to Hepburn’s career.

Much of the discussion centered around the fact that the festival is screening Out of Sight, a film from 1998 edited by Anne V. Coates. Having edited Lawrence of Arabia, Murder on the Orient Express, and several other noteworthy titles that firmly establish her in the landscape of classic Hollywood, Coates is a deserved honoree at the festival this year for her achievements in editing and, Tabesh said, she requested that the festival screen Out of Sight for a look into what editing looks like today. A look into editing from a woman in the business for over 50 years is a remarkable gift to festival goers. As there is no set definition of “classic,” TCM is obligated to identify and adhere to what they as a channel and a brand consider to be classic cinema, and for Tabesh, classic film has no expiration date. This is clear in TCM’s choice of programming on the channel as well as at the festival–for an in-depth discussion of TCM’s programming choices and what makes a classic, see my article TCM Programming and the Definition of Classic Film. After a short break for lunch, which I spent with my friend Spencer and fellow blogger Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film, festivalgoers convened again at Club TCM for an exciting round of So You Think You Know Movies?, TCM’s difficult and rapid-fire trivia competition. So You Think You Know Movies? is designed for the trivia master, with extremely obscure questions about film history and culture. Trivia is my strong suit, and our team did well, but ultimately a team of 8 called The Flickers won the grand prize, and deservedly so. When quizzed on the spot after the game, they knew almost all the answers to the supplementary questions, which were just as difficult as in the regular game. As those with high-level passes got ready for the big opening night screening of The Sound of Music, those of us with lowly press credentials had a few hours to relax. I caught up on some preliminary blogging until 5:30, when I decided it was time to get in line for Queen Christina. A word about lines at the festival–passholders must line up in order to gain entrance to a movie, and entrance is first come, first served. Needless to say, lines queue up quickly. As I deduced that Queen Christina, a hugely popular movie with two hugely popular stars (Greta Garbo and John Gilbert), I gave myself an hour to play it safe in case it sold out. The movie began at 6:30, and the audience was treated to two wonderful things–first, an introduction by noted film historian Cari Beauchamp, and then a rare lighting test that showed Greta Garbo acting in a casual manner.  Cari Beauchamp’s talk included details about Greta Garbo’s personal life (“Ernst Lubitsch said that Greta Garbo was the most uninhibited people he knew,” she related), and about her acting in general, in this film and beyond. It was a great introduction to a fascinating film. Queen Christina is one of the last great hurrahs of the days before the full implementation of the Production Code. It tells the true story of Sweden’s queen Christina, who lived in the mid-1600s and who many historians now believe was either transgender or intersex. The film hints gingerly at these subjects, though even in the days before the Production Code, the industry was bound by what it thought the public would accept, so a full examination of a transgender person was out of the question. However, in scenes like these, director Rouben Mamoulian gives the audience an idea of what it is he’s trying to get across. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZVP9WA07tJg http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5r_gC-CcvYU For a full analysis of the LGBT implications of Queen Christina, feel free to check out my post on the subject for the Queer Film Blogathon in 2011. Next up was one of my favorites, a showing of the screwball classic My Man Godfrey in a theater that was packed to the gills with enthusiastic fans. This is one that I have seen on the big screen several times, but always seem to come back for more whenever it is showing. One of the zaniest screwball comedies of all time, it is a masterpiece of ensemble acting and director Gregory La Cava directs Carole Lombard and William Powell to perfection. Alice Brady, playing the eccentric and off-the-wall mother, was robbed of an Oscar  in 1936, though the film itself received 6 Oscar nominations including Alice Brady for Best Supporting Actress, and remains one of the best-loved screwballs among devotees of classic cinema. We have a big day tomorrow, so I’d better get to bed. See you tomorrow night!

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL UPDATE: Get well soon, Robert Osborne!

The TCM Classic Film Festival, going on its sixth consecutive year later this month, is known for its devoted following and a large, dedicated staff that keeps a monumental event running seamlessly from start to finish. Classic Hollywood guests, behind-the-scenes film programmers and prominent on-air talent bring life to the festival, giving it the vitality that has come to define this event over these past six years. This year, a major component of past festivals will be missing. The legendary Robert Osborne, the face of TCM and a tour-de-force within the film industry, is undergoing surgery the week of the festival and will be unable to appear at the event.

Osborne, approaching his 83rd birthday, still plays an essential and active role in turning the wheels that keep TCM operating. Though he has increasingly delegated hosting duties to Ben Mankiewicz in recent months, he remains a veritable powerhouse on the channel and has achieved the status of a near-deity within the community of classic film aficionados. He will be greatly missed at the festival this year, and Backlots certainly wishes him a speedy recovery.

I have met Robert Osborne a number of times, but I must say that my favorite moment with him was when he asked about my favorite film at the festival. This was a year when they had shown Cover Girl, a movie that I knew was a mutual favorite. We discussed Cover Girl and Rita Hayworth for several minutes, and I walked away thinking “I just talked to Robert Osborne about Rita Hayworth. What a story I have!” So Robert, here’s to your successful surgery–and make way for tomorrow!

The TCM Festival Schedule is Here!

A few days ago TCM released the final schedule of the TCM Classic Film Festival, and there has been a lot of chatter about it already. Much of the discussion has centered around an idea that I have often brought up on this blog, a point of contention among classic film fans–the definition of “classic film” and what constitutes a classic.

This year’s festival features an unusually large number of films from the 1970s and beyond, and for some die-hard TCM fans this has proven a bitter pill to swallow. Many are devoted to films made in the “classical Hollywood era” (an academic designation for films made between 1927 and 1963) and purport that a classic film festival should prioritize films made between the birth of sound on film and the final waning years of the Production Code in order to truly be considered a “classic film festival.”

As I have mentioned before, there is no singular definition for what makes a classic. The term “classic film” is as diverse as the movies themselves, and the vast majority of film fans would not be able to give you a clear-cut definition of what the term means to them–“I know a classic when I see one” is commonly heard among film devotees, perpetuating the enigma of the concept. For me, though I am unabashedly a devotee of the classical Hollywood era, I am familiar with the difficulty of programming a classic film festival that is unbiased and fair to people with varied definitions of “classic,” and trying to make as many attendees happy as possible.

On my part, I have grown to truly love the TCM Festival schedule this year and have already mapped out my timetable. Go to filmfestival.tcm.com for the full schedule, but here is what you may expect from Backlots this year:

THURSDAY:

QUEEN CHRISTINA

MY MAN GODFREY

Friday:

INHERIT THE WIND

THE PROUD REBEL/THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (I’m loyal to my Olivia, but man, Purple Rose of Cairo…and on the big screen…I’m torn on this one.)

LIMELIGHT

STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.

REBECCA

BOOM! (I’ll have to leave Rebecca early, but there is no freaking way I’m missing the camp factor that is Boom!)

Saturday:

WHY BE GOOD? (I saw this a few months ago and it is so fantastic. Viva Colleen Moore!)

42nd STREET

THE MIRACLE WORKER

Hollywood Home Movies

ADAM’S RIB

Sunday:

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

GUNGA DIN/THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (I’ll probably decide the day of)

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY/THE CHILDREN’S HOUR/JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG

KISS ME, KATE