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'Casablanca' gets colorized, but don't play it again, Ted

It's still the same old story,

A fight for love and glory. . .

On the night of Nov. 9, Ted Turner will present a colorized version of "Casablanca" on cable television. And that will be one of the saddest days in the history of the movies. It is sad because it demonstrates that there is no movie that Turner will spare, no classic however great that is safe from the vulgarity of his computerized graffiti gangs.

Ingrid Bergman: Do you remember Paris?

Humphrey Bogart: I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray. You wore blue."

And so they will know to color her dress blue, and also her eyes, and probably the wallpaper behind her and maybe a few other items here and there. And what will Bogart wear? Brown? That wouldn't show up very well against the grays of the clothing in the original picture. Maybe he'll wear blue, too. Jimmy Cagney did, in the colorized version of "Yankee Doodle Dandy." A bright sky blue, which we all know was probably the basic color in George M. Cohan's wardrobe.

There are few issues in the area of film preservation that arouse more anger than the issue of colorization. That is because it is an issue involving taste, and, to put it bluntly, anyone who can accept the idea of the colorization of black and white films has bad taste. The issue involved is so clear, and the artistic sin of colorization is so fundamentally wrong, that colorization provides a pass-fail examination. If you "like" colorized movies, it is doubtful that you know why movies are made, or why you watch them.

All of this is beyond Turner, who owns "Casablanca" lock, stock and barrel, having purchased the rights to it and hundreds of other films with the money of his stockholders. Now he deems it his responsibility to colorize old black and white movies in order to maximize the profits of those stockholders, just as other corporations have made their stockholders happy by polluting the environment in other ways.

There is no use trying to convince Turner that colorization is evil - that he is polluting the imaginations of countless young people who will see "Casablanca" for the first time in a colorized version. You can only see a movie for the first time once. And if your first viewing is colorized, you will never be able to experience the full original impact of the real film. Turner would not understand that. Apparently he has never sat in the darkness of a movie theater and felt in his bones the perfection of black and white photography, its absolute appropriateness for stories like "Casablanca." When Turner was challenged at a press conference some months ago on the issue of colorization, he said he planned to "colorize `Casablanca' just to p- - - everybody off." This statement reflects the subtlety of his thinking on the issue.

I have no doubt there are sincere people who believe that colorization "improves" a movie, that a black and white movie is somehow missing something. These people are sincere, but they are not thoughtful. They have never looked inside to ask themselves what their standards are, why they enjoy what they enjoy, why certain movies work for them. Everyone has seen many black and white movies. Were they not enjoyable? Did they not seem appropriate in black and white? Were they missing something? Were they, for example, missing an ugly overcoat of "colors" slapped on top of the blacks and white and grays, to provide a tarted-up imitation of color, like cosmetics on a corpse?

There are basic aesthetic issues here. Colors have emotional resonance for us. Reds have passion, yellows speak of hope, green is sickly. On a properly controlled palate, a color movie can be a thing of wonder - although many of the earliest Technicolor movies look silly today because such an effort was made to throw in lots of bright colors to get the studio's money's worth.

Black and white movies present the deliberate absence of color. This makes them less realistic than color films (for the real world is in color). They are more dreamlike, more pure, composed of shapes and forms and movements and light and shadow. Color films can simply be illuminated. Black and white films have to be lighted. With color, you can throw light in everywhere, and the colors will help the viewer determine one shape from another, and the foreground from the background. With black and white, everything would tend toward a shapeless blur if it were not for meticulous attention to light and shadow, which can actually create a world in which the lighting creates a heirarchy of moral values.

In Hitchcock's "Notorious," there is a moment when Bergman walks slowly through a doorway toward Cary Grant. He is listening to a record of secret testimony, which proves she is not a Nazi spy. At the beginning of the shot, Grant thinks she is guilty. In the middle, he does not know. At the end, he thinks she is innocent. Hitchcock begins with Bergman seen in backlit silhouette. As she steps forward, she is half light, half shadow. As the testimony clears her, she is fully lighted. The lighting makes the moral judgments. To add color to the scene would clarify nothing, would add additional emotional information that might be confusing, and would destroy the purity of the classical lighting.

Most of us do not consciously look at movies in the way that I've looked at the scene from "Notorious." But in our subconscious, that's how we see them. In almost all serious black and white movies, bands of light and shadow are thrown across the faces and bodies of the characters from time to time, to involve them in a visually complex web. In "Night and the City," Richard Widmark, as a cornered rat, seems trapped by the bars of darkness that fall on him. If you colorize the underlying image of his face and clothing, you lose the contrast of the lighting. Since the shadows are pure and the colorization is not, you get an oil and water effect, visually disturbing.

In "Casablanca," the Bogart character is developed through the use of lighting. At the beginning of the film, he seems to be a cynical man who cares only about the profits of his nightclub. When he sees Bergman again after a long time, he is short and cruel with her, because he thinks she betrayed him. Then he learns more about her marriage to the Paul Henreid character, the Resistance hero, and by the end of the film Bogart has turned from a cynic into an idealist.

This change in his character is mirrored by the development in his lighting. In early scenes he is often harshly lit, or lit from beneath by the light of a lamp or a match, so his facial structure looks sinister. His face is rarely completely lighted. Henreid, by contrast, is usually well-lighted. Bergman's face seems shadowed when we doubt her motives, and becomes more clearly seen as we understand her. If you slap the pinks and tans of the colorizer's paintbrush onto their faces, you add a distracting dimension and you reduce the contrasts between lighter and darker areas. You make the movie look bland, less dramatic. You wash out the drama of the lighting.

Last night I was looking once again at another great black and white movie, "It's a Wonderful Life." This is the movie that Frank Capra thinks is the greatest he has ever directed, and Jimmy Stewart thinks is the best he has acted in. Stewart went to Washington to testify against the colorizing of the movie, and Capra, from his sickbed, made a plea that the film not be colorized. But because the copyrights had expired, the film was fair game - and a sickening colorized version has appeared on television and in the video stores.

The movie, once again, is about a moral transformation. In the early scenes the Stewart character is a bright young man who can't seem to stop helping people, until he becomes the moral backbone of the little town of Bedford Falls. In later scenes, after a series of setbacks, he has a long night of despair. He loses hope. He turns bitter. He stands on a bridge and considers suicide.

Stewart's face is one of the most open and trustworthy faces in the history of the movies. In early scenes, it is fully lighted - and the light of his moral character almost seems to shine through his skin. In the shocking later scenes, as he despairs, Capra shoots him in shadow, and seems to have even used makeup to darken him, make him look more ravaged by the night after he has walked out into it. Do we need to know, as he stands on the bridge, that his face is pink and his coat is brown and heaven knows what color his shirt is?

There are two arguments here, one positive, one negative:

1. Black and white is a legitimate and beautiful artistic choice in motion pictures, creating feelings and effects that cannot be obtained any other way.

2. "Colorization" does not produce color movies, but only sad and sickening travesties of black and white movies, their lighting destroyed, their atmospheres polluted, their moods altered almost at random by the addition of an artificial layer of coloring that is little more than legalized vandalism.

Some small steps of progress have been made in the struggle against colorization. Recently the National Film Preservation Act was passed by Congress, in the face of expensive lobbying by Turner and the Hollywood studios. It would authorize a panel of experts to designate 35 films a year as "national treasures," and anyone colorizing or otherwise materially altering them would have to add a warning on the film and on any cassette boxes that their work had been done without the consent of the original filmmakers. This warning is likely to be about as effective as the health warnings on cigarette packages - but it is a step in the right direction.

Does Turner care that Congress has stated that what he does to movies is a form of artistic desecration? I am sure he does, because additional legislation may someday prevent colorization altogether. In the meantime, the Film Preservation Act is a moral victory. And there is a way that you, dear reader, can share in that victory. Do not support the colorized version of "Casablanca."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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