Monday, August 24, 2009

To colorize or not?

It feels good to be back in business after a vacation in the tropics. I direct a heartfelt thanks to Raquelle who wrote a nice guestpost on The Trial Of Mary Dugan, Norma Shearer's first talkie during my absence. Thank you Raquelle!

Let's stay a while in 1929. This week it will be 80 years since one of the biggest hits of 1929 opened. Gold Diggers Of Broadway, the second all color talkie ever made. Now more or less a lost film as only the two last reels or about 15 minutes of it still exists. During the spring and summer of 1929 color became an indispensable ingredient for all major studios starting in july when the first all color talkie On With The Show opened to mixed reviews. Color quickly became the next big thing after sound had come to stay. At the end of 1929 this ad was published in many movie related magazines to further emphasize the importance of adding color to the movies:

(Click on image for a larger view)

Sadly, no color prints have survived of On With The Show but bits and pieces are found here and there from time to time. The latest find from it was a 20 second snippet found in a toy projector when it was sold at an auction. Luckily someone recognized the strip of film and turned it in to the UCLA. Here's a frame from the color snippet found of On With The Show

Isn't it sad the first talking picture ever made in color only exists in black and white save for a 20 second snippet? The second all color talkie doesn't even exist in black and white!
Let's have a look at one of those fragments from Gold Diggers Of Broadway, an absolutely charming number, make way for Nick Lucas singing his signature tune Tip Toe Through The Tulips:



The third all color talkie was Warner's giant revue The Show Of Shows which I have discussed and shown a number from earlier. Only about 10 minutes of its over two hours still exists in color.

Let's move on to the fourth, Sally, opening in December of 1929 starring Marilyn Miller, a true superstar of the 1920's who was given the opportunity to turn her legendary stage performance of 1920 into a big budget movie in both sound and Technicolor. Miller's movie career was short, Sally was her first movie of three and the olnly one shot in color. Unfortunately only four minutes of Sally's all color splendor is left for us to enjoy but those four minutes are fabulous. In this clip the color fragment has been spliced in in the otherwise black and white print. Another interesting detail is that the original soundtrack disks have been used for the color footage but not for the rest of the movie. I don't know if this was done to further enhance the magnigifence of the fragment or if the old optical soundtrack from the 1950's transfer had to stick around for economical reasons. In either case here is The Wild Rose with music by Jerome Kern. This particular scene was the largest indoor set ever built in 1929



The oldest all color talkie that has survived is the fifth, The Vagabond King, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Dennis King. It has been restored but is very rarely shown.

This leads to a question which is more of a dilemma really.
We are all familiar with digital colorization of classic movies. This was a quite popular fad in the late 80’s when a lot of old movies were colorized this way. I didn't like it then and don't like it now. I will always prefer the original black and white versions of these movies no matter what.

Colorized Stooges

But what about movies originally made in color where the no color prints have survived to our days? Like On With The Show or Sally. Would it be completely wrong to colorize them? I’m not sure I think so. If proper research was carried out it might actually work. Maybe the results could turn out just fine.

Let’s say there is also surviving color fragments of the movie in question, like with Sally for instance. Would it be blasphemy to colorize the rest of it in the same hues and style? I think not. A movie shot in two-strip Technicolor should naturally be colorized in the limited spectrum two-strip color offered. Every measure should of course be taken to do the colorization as close as possible to the original.

When releasing colorized movies on DVD a choice should naturally always be an option for those who prefer watching the "original" version. I'm not interested in any color if the movie originally was shot in black and white. Like Casablanca for instance, I know a colorized version was made of it 20 years ago. I still don't want to see it colorized. Two-strip Technicolor movies made "full color" isn't better. It's trying to make it something it never was.

My question is simply if the movie originally was made in color, like On With The Show or Sally, and where no color prints has survived to our times, could a computerized colorization be seen as some sort of restoration? I my opinion it could, if it was done with a great sense for what the original could have looked like. What do you think?
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