14 March 2019

The controversy of colourising classic films

During the 1980's, a number of famous classic black-and-white films started to appear on television in a completely colourised version. As most audiences (especially younger ones) were not really interested in watching black-and-white films, studios and copyright holders had turned to colourising classics in order to still make money from them. (Television stations paid far less for black-and-white films than they would for colour films and videos of black-and-white films were rarely sold.) One of the most important proponents of film colourisation was media mogul Ted Turner, who had acquired the film libraries of MGM, RKO and early Warner Bros. and thus became copyright holder of an enormous collection of films. Realising there was money to be made from 'dusting off' the black-and-white films in his collection, Turner commissioned the colourisation of numerous classics including Dark Victory (1939), The Maltese Falcon (1941) and Casablanca (1942). 

Needless to say, filmmakers were not at all happy with said development. Frank Capra protested the colourisation of his It's a Wonderful Life (1946)a film that was in the public domain at the time and, like other public domain films, had become fair game for colourisers. Other opponents of film colourisation were filmmakers such as Fred Zinnemann, Stanley Kubrick, Elia Kazan and Orson Welles, the latter having said weeks before his death: "Don't let Ted Turner deface my movie with his crayons." (While Turner did have plans to colourise Citizen Kane, in the end he left Welles' film alone.)

Above: While black-and-white photography is essential to film noir, even noirs like John Huston's The Asphalt Jungle (1950) couldn't escape colourisation. In 1988, Turner Entertainment had the film colourised, much to the horror of Anjelica Huston whose father had died the previous year. Huston started a law suit in France to stop the broadcast of the colourised version on French television and the French Supreme Court eventually ruled in her favour. Below: Humphrey Bogart and Peter Lorre colourised in Casablanca.

Of course the main objection from filmmakers to colourisation was that it violated their artistic integrity and that people would see their films not like they had been intended. "These pictures were conceived in black-and-white, and by adding colour one betrays the intentions of the maker, which should not be done, because it damages or destroys the style of the films", said Fred Zinnemann. Proponents of colourisation didn't see the problem as the original black-and-white print would still be available alongside the colour version. Opponents disagreed saying that people watched classic films mainly on television or on video remember, we're talking the late 1980s hereso if the films were offered in colour, people wouldn't even be able to see the black-and-white version. A film would thus be seen in colour for the first time, basically ruining people's "first viewing".

The colourisation debate eventually died down in the mid-1990s, mainly because film colourisation was a very expensive process. Costs could amount to $300,000 for a feature film and since the demand for colourised films had decreased over the years, it was no longer lucrative for Ted Turner and others to continue. Nevertheless, a lot of films ended up being colourised (click here for a list), but fortunately we can still watch and enjoy them in black-and-white, just as they were intended.

Above and below: James Stewart in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life, a film that has been colourised three times,  i.e. in 1986, 1989 and 2007. The colour photos are from the latest Blue-Ray release from 2007.

Here is a letter from James Stewart (one of the people who fiercely opposed the colourisation of classic films and even went to Washington to testify before Congress) to a fellow opponent, written on 15 January 1987


Source: reddit


Dear Mary Phillips:

I want you to know that I'm very grateful to you for your kind and encouraging letter. I think you have expressed your disapproval of colorization of movies better than anyone I have heard so far.

I have been against it from the time I first heard about it and have been on television several times arguing with the colorization people. However, the jury is still out on who is going to win in this mishmash. The coloring process is very expensive and inasmuch as the whole idea of colorization is based on making money, a lot of us are hoping that the colorized pictures don't bring in the "dough"and this may slow the whole thing up and we can sit back and see the films that were originally made in black and white still remain in black and white.

It's wonderful that you have taken this interest and it's very encouraging to read your thoughts on it. You certainly are very articulate on the subject, which I think is of great value to us non-colorization people.

Thank you for your help and I send my best wishes to you for a Happy New Year.


James Stewart (signed)


According to Wikipedia, Frank Capra was initially not against the colourisation of It's a Wonderful Life. Following Cary Grant's enthusiastic reaction to the colourisation of Topper (1937), Capra signed an agreement with Colorization Inc. to have his film colourised, however wishing full artistic control over the colourisation. When it became clear that It's a Wonderful Life had entered the public domain and the film could also be colourised without Capra's approval, Colorization Inc. returned Capra's investment and the director subsequently joined the protest against colourisation.


  1. Thankfully, colorization died its deserved death - and Ted Turner turned his attentions elsewhere, e.g., conceiving and launching Turner Classic Movies.