Nowadays, colourising black and white films are normally encountered in programmes with names like “The Second World War in Colour,” or “Hitler in Colour,” but the first time I encountered this practice was a VHS copy of a Laurel & Hardy - a version of their feature film “Way Out West,” the one where they sing “The Trail of the Lonesome Pine.” Now I have a DVD that includes both this and the original black & white version, I will watch the original, because I am older, and know better.
Unless you were actually there as these films were being made, or if you have done exhaustive research on the production design, looking for sources that may no longer exist, your choices for how a black & white film would look in colour may as well be informed guesswork.
Regardless of the original claims made in the 1980s, when this act was prevalent, of providing films that young people were more likely to watch or, even worse, that they would have been made in colour if the option was available at the time, wilfully changing the work of someone else to make money is very circumspect. The worst example I can think of is that 1941’s “The Maltese Falcon” was colourised without the input of its director, John Huston, who was still alive at the time: when interviewed for “Entertainment Tonight” in 1986, Huston said, “I think it is a desecration, it’s an absurdity, it’s a demonstration of the will to corrupt the taste of the multitude.” If you’re going to be pissed off, do it properly.
Turner Entertainment owned many of the films that were colourised in the 1980s - Ted Turner himself stated, "The last time I checked, I owned the films that we're in the process of colourising… I can do whatever I want with them, and if they're going to be shown on television, they're going to be in colour.” Turner Entertainment would actually colourise the last reel of “Citizen Kane” as a test, mainly as a result of the outcry when Ted Turner said he was considering it – “It’s a Wonderful Life” had already been “done” by then. Thankfully taste, and probably also the estate of Orson Welles, stopped the experiment – a fragment of this was shown by the BBC in 1991, as part of the “Arena” documentary “The World of Orson Welles,” and it is a pastel-coloured nightmare.
The worst example of colourising that I have come across was a situation that left you unable to see the original film. Turner owned the original black & white “Popeye” shorts made by Max & Dave Fleischer’s studio for Paramount, and did appear to be the only cartoons I could find that were colourised, until I found out that some early Merrie Melodies cartoons were also colourised, and even some Mickey Mouse films were “done” by Disney. In the case of “Popeye,” Turner sent the films to South Korea, where the film was traced by hand, inked, and coloured. This meant the three-dimensional backgrounds used by the Fleischers were no longer seen. Even worse, the films were originally animated “on ones,” with a drawing every frame for more fluid moment, especially in the limbs of Olive Oyl – the tracing was only made on every other frame, or “on twos,” rendering the action jerky and like a flip book, the resulting twelve frames a second being right on the point where the persistence of vision in your eye turns stationary objects into moving ones.
[This looks like a piss-take at how badly these were redrawn, but this is just one example.]
|[From "A Clean Shaven Man" - I watched the remake to check this was actually true. Wow.]|
Fortunately, what came out of this was a mandatory disclaimer stating the film you were watching was modified from its original version. Unbelievably, Frank Capra did sign a deal for “It’s a Wonderful Life” to be colourised, but because the film was then believed to be in the public domain, Capra’s original investment in the process was returned to him, and he joined John Huston’s side. Luckily, this all appears as ancient history now, because once I realised I was not watching “Way Out West” as originally intended, I lost all interest, and found the original version instead.