More than half the films selected for Classic
Cinema were made in black and white. Today some like
Casablanca and Its A Wonderful Life have
been colorized. I encourage you, if given a choice, to
see these films as they were originally created in black
I often hear friends complain that the problem with older
movies is that they are shot in black and white.
"Its a distraction." These tend to be
people who have mostly watched t.v. and most of the
movies they see are on the small screen in their living
What these people (and others who think like them)
dont realize is that more often than not with these
classics, choosing to film in black and white was an
aesthetic decision. Color was an option. The film makers
knew that motion pictures present the viewer with
impressions, not literal presentations of the real world.
Black and white and the various shades of gray create
illusions that color in its literalness cannot duplicate.
Let me digress. Movies represent a distinct art form that
may be similar in ways to other performing arts but has
evolved into something unique. Syd Fields writes, "
Film is a visual medium---moving pictures---and a
screenplay is a story told in pictures." Live
theater, which was a forerunner of movies, is told in
dialogue (even pantomime is a form of dialogue), and
television, an offshoot of movies and radio, is basically
Whereas radio through talking and sound forms mental
pictures, movies create an illusion and tell a story
through pictures. Film makers, as artists, use a number
of different techniques to present a visual story. Sound,
dialogue and music are used to move the story foreword.
Choosing black and white represented more than deciding
on which film stock to shoot, but numerous other key
decisions including lighting techniques, makeup, lenses,
etc---decisions that give a movie not only its look
but its feel and nuance. There is actually a lot more
creativity involved when filming in black and white than
in color. (To learn more about this subject check out the
documentary video Visions of Light: The Art Of
Its a different experience seeing a movie made for
the big screen on t.v. With some films it doesnt
seem to make much difference but with most it does. It
would be obvious that Gone With The Wind,
Lawrence of Arabia, and Ben Hur are going to
lose a lot of their magic being viewed on the small
screen, even on a six foot projective t.v. screen. What a
lot of people dont realize is that films like Citizen
Kane, Its A Wonderful Life, and Casablanca
are not going to have the same impact when viewed on a
home set. These old black and white movies were made for
viewing on a big silver screen.
I had seen the 1942 Casablanca numerous times on
t.v. and on video. I had even seen a 16 mm screening.
When I finally saw the film in a regular theater shown
with new 35 mm prints I could not get over the
difference. It was like I had never seen the movie
During the first half of the twentieth century movies
were made in black and white because either that was all
there was available or shooting in color was too
expensive. The decision became an artistic one by the
1950's. Alfred Hitchcocks Psycho was made in
black and white after a decade in which he made color
masterpieces including Rear Window, Vertigo
and North By Northwest. Steven Spielberg made Schindlers
List in black and white, and Woody Allen did
Manhattan and Zalig in black and white. Even
in 1940 when Orson Wells filmed Citizen Kane he
had carte blanc from the studio and could have filmed in
color if he chose.
Color became the standard in the late 1960's because of
television. It was a commercial decision on the part of
the movie companies. Those too young would not remember
what a big deal color t.v. was and how most of us wanted
to dump our black and white sets. When just about
everything on t.v. became color, film makers realized
that their movies would have limited appeal on t.v. if
they were in black and white.
The reason that just about every motion picture today is
made in color is that the expertise is not what it was
forty years ago and the technology to process and print
black and white film stock is limited. Black and white
movies represent different techniques and many in the
film industry do not have the experience.
When watching these black and white classics, remember
that much of what promotes your reaction to these films
is the manipulation of light to create these sometimes
stark, more often gray images.