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by Brian R. Johnson, Ph.D.


More than half the films selected for Classic Cinema were made in black and white. Today some like Casablanca and It’s A Wonderful Life have been colorized. I encourage you, if given a choice, to see these films as they were originally created in black and white.

I often hear friends complain that the problem with older movies is that they are shot in black and white. "It’s 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 rooms.

What these people (and others who think like them) don’t 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 talking heads.

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 it’s 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 Cinematography).

It’s a different experience seeing a movie made for the big screen on t.v. With some films it doesn’t 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 don’t realize is that films like Citizen Kane, It’s 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 before.

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 Hitchcock’s 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 Schindler’s 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.

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Last modified: 21 July, 1998