Are b&w film classics improved by `colorization'? Some viewers love it; entrepreneurs see a gold mine in it; critics call it desecration

BOGIE and Bacall in pastels? ``Horrors!'' shout a number of critics. The computer coloring of vintage black-and-white films -- long smoldering in quiet controversy -- ignited anew last week as the American Film Institute (AFI) formally denounced the process as ``tantamount to defacing the national art.''

Recently colored classics like Frank Capra's 1946 ``It's a Wonderful Life'' and the 1942 musical ``Yankee Doodle Dandy'' had already caused groups of British directors and the Director's Guild of America to protest the ``vulgarization'' of classic films. With commercial firms in Los Angeles and Toronto already proceeding with plans to color ``The Maltese Falcon,'' ``Casablanca,'' ``Citizen Kane'' and others, the AFI formally joined the protest with an emotional press conference on its campus here.

The move was also bolstered by increased criticism over the Turner Broadcasting System's decision to colorize 100 classics from its newly acquired MGM film library.

AFI chairman-elect Bonita Granville Wrather called for a national forum in early 1987 to include film artists, rights holders, archivists, scholars, critics, technical experts, computer colorists, and other concerned moving-image professionals to consider an agenda of action and to make the public aware of ``the issues of computer coloring our nation's film art.''

Among the issues: ethical responsibility of copyright holders, preservation of artistic vision, directors' rights of aesthetic choice -- the preservation of a national heritage.

``Colorization,'' as the process is called, begins by transfering the black and white film to videotape. Computers then assign colors to shades of gray consistently through each scene, frame by frame, at a cost of about $2,000 to $3,000 per minute of film.

One of the companies engaged in the new field, Colorization Inc., owned by Hal Roach Studios, colorized ``It's a Wonderful Life'' when it fell out of protection by copyright laws into the public domain last year. The company has already shipped 125,000 cassettes to video stores, and TV syndication sales are booming.

Since copyrights have expired on thousands of old movies, the firms can take out new copyrights on the colorized versions. Hal Roach Studio chairman Earl Glick estimated that a $30 million investment might yield $1 billion profit in 15 years. ``I could take 200 A-1 pictures, colorize them, and turn them into solid gold,'' he told an interviewer two years ago.

Condemning the process as an insult to a film's original creative team, Mrs. Wrather said the film institute ``considers it essential that black and white films be presented to the public only in black and white. To do otherwise is to destroy our national film history and the rich heritage it represents.''

AFI was set up in 1967 by the National Endowment for the Arts to advance and preserve the art of the moving image.

Actor Jimmy Stewart, dressed appropriately in black and white, said ``It's a Wonderful Life'' is ``a film that is seen every Christmas in America and no one should see it other than the way [director] Frank [Capra] and [cinematographer] Joe Walker wanted it to be seen.'' He added that when he tried to watch it last week, he couldn't finish. He found the color ``detrimental to the story and to the whole atmosphere.''

Executives from Hal Roach Studios defended the process on grounds that there is little TV syndication market for black and white. Coloring old films, the argument goes, makes them more attractive to programmers who will give films air time they otherwise would not have.

A group of angry directors that included Peter Hyams (``Outland''), Stanley Kramer (``The Defiant Ones''), Nicholas Meyer (``Star Trek II'') countered by saying play time is irrelevant. They said the issue is that the original films were intentionally made within the limitations of black and white. By adding colors, companies are imposing creative decisions on a piece of art that has already been completed.

Director Steven Spielberg released a statement saying directors like John Ford, Alfred Hitchcock, John Huston, Orson Welles, Akira Kurosawa did not choose to make black and white films for economic reasons but rather aesthetic choice.

``It is not the privilege of this generation to overrule our founding fathers because somebody in marketing research discovered that kids today will flip past anything in black and white with their TV remotes,'' he said. ``You cannot remake a movie simply by giving it a new paint job, but you can easily destroy one.''

``The issue comes down to whether or not you think film is commercial or artistic enterprise,'' says Prof. Mark Dintenfass of Lawrence University in Wisconsin, who teaches a course on film as art. ``If it's commercial, there's no problem changing the product to a new flavor like the new Coke. But if it's art, adding color to black and white is like adding adjectives to Hemingway, or crayon to Da Vinci.''

Mr. Dintenfass says he thinks part of the problem is commercial pressure exerted by an American public that doesn't value its art treasures like ``The Maltese Falcon,'' which he calls an ``American art classic the world over.'' The only way to educate the public, says Dintenfass, is for those who think differently to make a little noise and point out why. ``That's what the AFI's statements and 1987 forum are trying to do.''

The Directors Guild of America is expected to adopt a formal stand against colorization at its national board meeting Oct. 20.

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