I am guessing that, like the revelation that happens when winter snows melt away to expose all that was hidden through the season, when the piles of stuff that are slowly but surely consuming my so-called studio are finally deconstructed and put in proper places, my first DVD copy of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ will emerge- a little bit dustier, but still playable. When all the obvious piles of where the disc might have been had been rummaged through on a recent search, though, this effort yielded nothing. So on the chance that it was one of the dogs who decided that the disc and case needed to go out into the yard for some recreational chewing, and having missed the screening up at the theatre, I decided to order a new copy. It arrived days later and I sat down for a viewing, only to find that when the disc began whirling in its tray, it turned out that what I had mistakenly ordered was a colorized version of this seasonal classic. I was slightly disturbed when the opening title cards had reds and greens instead of what had been the usual shades of gray of any old black and white film. My thoughts then turned to turning this off, but curiosity and the immediate desire to see this film prevailed- I watched on.
I remember when the colorization process was just coming out, and how, at the time, I was a bit horrified at the thought of what I had known in shades of gray, white and black, being transformed into semblances of what might be called living color. My first few months working at the International Museum of Photography at the George Eastman House back in 1975 had been spent cleaning the Dryden Theatre by day (among other things) and then coming back at night to see a wide array of classic films from the European masters. Antonioni, Bergman, Bunuel, DeSica, Fellini- all of them in basic black and white and all with subtitles. Dubbing of these wonders was bad enough, but adding colors seemed to be sacrilegious. As it was, I don’t know that any of these were actually to be threatened with the digital coloring set. But it was the American black and white classics that were most likely to get the cinematic Crayola treatment, since the distributors and perhaps the studios felt that “modern” audiences were more likely to flock to the formerly colorless classics in droves if any kind of colorization would now be a part of the viewing experience.
In reviewing my viewings list over the years, I would have to say that it was a screening of a brand new 35mm print of ‘Casablanca’ at the Dryden, on a New Year’s Eve in the later seventies, would have to rank as the highpoint of my film watching throughout the eons. First of all, it was the first time I had ever seen it. Secondly, its newness meant there were no scratches or splices or any flaws at all. And thirdly, it was and still is simply an amazing film. What I remember most were the night shots with the rich, dark night sky and whatever else stood in well lit, stark contrast to it. In truth, I am not recalling whether or not I saw this before or after being at Penland and having my favorite instructor there, Evon Streetman, exclaim whenever one of us produced a worthy print that she just wanted to lick it. Everything about that showing of Casablanca was lickable and certainly was in no need of any type of pigmentation to make me like it any more than I already did.
The only color that was added to Woody Allen’s opening to his black and white classic, ‘Manhattan’, was George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, and that was all that was needed. More recently, Alexander Payne’s black and white meditation on getting old in the middle of the country, ‘Nebraska’, had amazing daytime skies and Bruce Dern and Stacy Keach and a great story that was anything but colorless. In looking up Nebraska on the Imdb I see that Payne did produce an alternate version that was in color to appease the studio’s concerns- I did not know that, but can’t see how it could hold a candle to the one in black and white. It got an airing on the teevee, the colored version- or the version that was in color, but as far as I know did not get to the theaters. In googling David Lynch’s ‘Eraserhead’, I was a bit shocked to see a headline that stated that Lynch had just released a colorized version- until I saw that the article referenced was in the Onion. In 1979 I rode the subway to nearly its last stop out of Toronto because I saw an ad in the paper that simply said “Eraserhead- Bizarre”. Nothing but black and white would have made that possible. And a few years later, Francis Ford Coppola made ‘Rumble Fish’ mostly in black and white with isolated flecks of masked colored objects within- it would not have had the impact it did with any more color than that.
But getting back to Wonderful Life, I did wind up watching it through to the end without convulsions or vomitation. Even though I have since opted for a dry January and points beyond, I was having a few movie beverages at the time of this viewing, so my recollection of its entirety is perhaps not as it should be. I do remember cringing as Harry Bailey headed towards his icy, almost grave on that shovel, and thinking that the pastel colorings of skin tone and stage set flora made the whole thing look a bit Hallmark card-ish. It made me wonder if this film had originally come out in color, if its box office would have been better, and if it might not have achieved its same status as a Christmas classic that it eventually worked itself around to attaining. Apparently, according to the Wikipedia thing, Frank Capra was originally on board with having it colorized until the people who were doing it figured out, with Wonderful Life now a public domain property, that they could just color it and cut Capra out of any royalties. This for some reason turned Capra into an anti-colorist.
A couple other scenes I am recollecting are, first of all, the whole sequence where George slowly figures out why no one in town knows who he is, thanks to Clarence’s never-been-born hocus pocus. Perhaps the most obvious undoing of George’s madness that was wrought by the added color was the scene where George is cast out by his no-longer mother at the Bailey Boarding house. With the coloring on his face, the crazed look George sweeps past the camera in wide angle and close range, almost comes to look like an out of time and place, somewhat goofy selfie, rather than expressing the frenzied madness of having one’s secure and safe world become a hostile and unforgiving nightmare for no apparent reason. All of this in the original is enhanced by the light and shadow of the black and white. The other scene that comes to mind is George’s bloodied mouth after the fight in what was no longer Martini’s place. For some reason seeing it as red was further confirmation for me that it did not need to be seen as red to get the point across.
As it was, Wonderful Life was not a Christmas “thing” when I was growing up. The main movies I recall seeing at the time were the Alistair Sim version of ‘a Christmas Carol’ which originally was called just ‘Scrooge’, and the 1934 Laurel and Hardy classic, ‘March of the Wooden Soldiers’, both of which have since been colorized, although I’ve never seen those versions. Both of these have dark elements of ghosts and boogie men, which in some ways should call into question one of the main reasons given as to why Wonderful Life never took off at the box office when it was originally released in 1946, that is was too dark a vision for the holiday season. According to the wiki however, the FBI put out a memo about Wonderful Life, saying that because it portrayed Barrymore’s Potter the Banker as a scrooge type, and supposedly suggesting therefore that the rich class was mean and despicable, that the film had Communist influences and leanings. Apparently, when it did go to public domain in 1976 it was grabbed by teevee stations to show as something for Christmas because it was now royalty free and cheaper to broadcast.
As I go to add another log to the fire, I do note the oranges and reds of the glowing bits of logs that fortunately have not burned to ash whilst pondering my next set of sentences here. In looking out the window I see that our late-to-the-party, white Christmas weather has turned everything to a mostly black and white scene all around, except for that patch of ochre and brown on the Madrona in the distance that is briefly being lit and highlighted in the late afternoon sun. As of now, everything out there is a colder shade of wonderful, and without an apparent Capra narrative to carry us on we look for color where we can find it.