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!

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6 responses to “The Great Colorization Debate

  1. Judy Javorsky

    I love the black and white!!!!

  2. Me too! I get what they’re doing, but I don’t like the silent social commentary that comes along with it.

  3. It all has to do with exposure to the classics. If you do not bring a horse to the water… That said, with all the distractions of today, FB, twitter, gaming, kids do not plop in front of the tube to catch a movie, or programming geared to their afternoons anymore. I do not see how faux color adds anything to the intrinsic brilliance of the timeless and original b/w I Love Lucy. It started with the writing and the casting. If people cannot see past the b/w, pity, they are really missing.

    Just as I loathe what digital colorizing does to the fine Hurrell, same for movies and t.v. Leave it be.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly, Donna. As for my own future children, I always say they’re going to learn to read by reading title cards.

  5. As unfortunate as it may be, there exist young people who will NOT have anything to do with a movie or TV show that is black and white, ; of course TOTALLY ridiculous, BUT Colorization can gradually win these “die- hards” over..You put them in front of a colorized ITS A WONDERFUL LIFE, and even the coldest heart cannot help but be moved by that..That may be what is needed to then educate these folks towards the “Glory of Black and WHite” too! This is an effective way to introduce the Great Classics to the next generations..Also if a colorized version of your favorite like CASABLANCA shows up on TV all you need to do is TURN THE COLOR DOWN..( Everybody Wins!)
    Everything possible must be done to safeguard the classics of the past for Generations to come.Colorizing can help significantly towards that end.

  6. You write: “The color of the film stock isn’t the problem. The lack of historical understanding is…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.” And to that I say “HERE! HERE!” I want to see a movie the way it was originally intended ( I did not watch the “I Love Lucy” episodes. ) What DOES that teach a new generation about films. It makes me think of the scene in “Gentleman’s Agreement” where McGuire comforts young Dean Stockwell for some playground teasing he got at school, and how upset Peck was with her method ( or message. ) I also don’t espouse the idea of getting a kid into classic film by showing him/her something current made 20 years ago. Sure, show the kid “Indiana Jones…” but then show him the genesis OF that idea, a Buster Crabbe “Flash Gordon” movie serial. Great article Lara. Education is the key.

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