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?


Raquel Stecher said...

You're welcome Jonas! You're very welcome!

Great post as usual. Being an enthusiast of movies in this particular era is sort of being like a treasure hunter isn't it? I think the story you related about the 20 second color snippet of On With the Show found in a toy projector is fascinating! I can only imagine all the bits and pieces of early movie history that are just spread across the globe just waiting to be discovered.

Just thinking of the bastardized version of Bachelor Mother (1939) which was colorized makes me want to puke. I think there is a difference between restoring and messing with something. Restoring a color movie to it's original state. That's good. Making a black & white film into something it isn't. That's bad.

Terence Towles Canote said...

I'm with you on the colourisation of black and white classics. To me it would be like taking a classic novel and rewriting it to appeal to more modern audiences (no longer does Wuthering Heights take place on the moors of England, but now the deserts of California....). But in the case of films that are originally in colour where the colour print, or much of it, no longer exists, I have no objection. To me it would simply be restoring the film at least close to how it was!

Casey said...

Wonderful post, Jonas! I think you are totally right about these newly colorized films. It's the same concept as changing the film format from letterbox to full screen. These modern meddlings are practically redirecting or reinventing the classics! And that, to me, is simply sacrilege. I shall never understand why so many people of today are obsessed with trying to "improve" films that are already perfect.

For the films that were intended to be color but those prints have been lost, I have no problem at all with them being recolored. I look at that as a process of the restoration, just like erasing scratches or removing dust from the film. Imagine if it were The Wizard of Oz that survived only as a b&w print. We'd all be missing so much not being able to see in vivid technicolor as the producers intended!

KING OF JAZZ said...

The ON WITH THE SHOW color clip looks amazing. If one can funnel over $200 million of innovative fx into AVATAR, today's technology can certainly replicate SHOW's color spectrum to perfection. Of course the commercial aspects are another story! But for film history I can see it, just like a two-stripe film like THE KING OF JAZZ could probably be transformed back to glory with enough time and money. Right now it's serviceable but mostly ragged and faded.

Read Leonard Maltin's latest column regarding how a problematic print of a silent 1928 film from Frank Capra was recently brought back to astonishing life through today's technology.

I agree that colorization of b&w films are not what we need. What we need is restoring lost color to its original intention.

Once again, your site is a splendid meeting place, Jonas!

Eric Stott said...

What I love about the SALLY fragment is it's authenticity. No overdubbing- Miller is singing as she dances and the chorus boys are singing as THEY dance: such a ragged effect would soon be unacceptable. I'm pretty certain that the orchestra in the background is actually playing the music we hear.

Caitlin said...

Glad to see you back, Jonas! Whether and when to colorize is a very interesting question, but I agree with you; it depends on whether the intent is to restore or to completely recreate.

Alexis said...

I would love to know how those others were lost. Weren't there a ton of films lost in fires? I know some were lost due to deterioration of the chemicals...but if somehow we could find out how they met there demise-- it would be incredibly interesting-- and maybe some nice closure.
Nice post!

Jonas Nordin said...

Thank you all for your splendid comments!

It's indeed sad that som many nitrate films went up in accidental fires like the 1937 fire that took almost all Fox films made before that year. Another notable Hollywood fire and not accidental at all was the burning of Atlanta sequence in Gone With The Wind where almost all the big studios took the opportunity to clear out what they had in stock of silent movies and early talkies with no commercial potential at the time. That particular sequence is one of the saddest in movie history. Out with the old! In with the new!


Let me tell you about a groundbreaking Mexican film called "Asi Se Quiere En Jalisco". It was shot and released in 1942 in Cinecolor, and was the first full-length color feature produced in Mexico. You can find the film on DVD today, but only in a grainy black-and-white print. There is also a wonderful Mexican film from 1958 called "Mexico Lindo y Querido" that was shot entirely in Eastmancolor. Years ago, I saw it in color on VHS tape. Now on DVD, it appears in a horribly dull black-and-white print. Ditto for "Yambao", a 1957 film starring the legendary cabaretera, Ninon Sevilla. This kind of thing happens all the time with vintage Mexican color films. There is nothing worse than a monochrome print of a movie originally released in color! I can't stand to watch them. If color prints are lost, by all means, there should be colorization. And I hasten to add, I don't hate all colorized black and white movies; I think vintage movie buffs go overboard when they vilify the technology in every case. With me, it all depends on how the finished product looks, and whether or not the original black and white version is also available for comparison. I adore the colorized version of "Reefer Madness"! I consider it a quite enjoyable alternate version of a classic cult film. I also think the 1940 Mark of Zorro benefits from colorization; but again, I look upon it as an alternate version.

Anonymous said...

You don't know what you're missing I believe that film colorization is an art-form that has been unjustly met with disdain (reminds me of what they said about sound films when they first came out), but fortunately not abandoned. I only wish that they keep perfecting this process so that we can continue enjoying and seeing classics in color. All the various colors (never noticed some of the items due to drabness of black and white) the color versions are brighter and much clearer. I loved seeing the beautiful costumes...I really think that color enhances film...but never gets in the way of the story line, or the great performances

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