Published: December 8, 2011
Three cheers to NBC for not succumbing to generations of people who are repulsed by black-and-white movies!
The network symbolized by a colorful peacock airs “It’s a Wonderful Life” twice each Christmas season in the original glorious black-and-white intended by director Frank Capra.
On the night of Dec. 3, James Stewart and Donna Reed once again lit up the small screen and crusty Lionel Barrymore, confined to a wheelchair by crippling arthritis, delivered his tour-de-force performance as Mr. Potter, the Scrooge of Bedford Falls.
Earlier that day, a local Nashville station aired a colorized version of another Capra classic with a Christmas closing, “Meet John Doe.”
Headline-hungry Barbara Stanwyck props up The Everyman, Gary Cooper, as the leader of a national movement until he realizes he’s been suckered down the wrong road by the 1941 equivalent of the Koch brothers (played by Edward Arnold and James Gleason).
Perhaps it’s appropriate that two motion pictures that hold up democracy and egalitarianism as the highest of all ideals should be in the public domain.
Unfortunately, the lack of ownership means there’s no one to fight the bastardization of Capra’s work.
Capra was ready to sign a deal to pay half the cost of colorizing “Doe,” “Life,” and another movie, “Lady for a Day.”
But the company asserted that the films were in the public domain and returned Capra’s investment, denying him creative control over his own artistry.
That’s what propelled Capra and Stewart into the fight against colorization. Stewart urged a Congressional committee to stop it.
Those dusty, muted hues in “Doe” are especially inappropriate for a movie about a down-on-his-luck fellow who was riding the rails with his friend and fellow hobo until Stanwyck and company started manipulating him.
And, without revealing too much for those of you who haven’t seen “Meet John Doe,” the computerized colors make it harder to buy into the final scene.
All of a sudden, you’re in a Hollywood studio instead of on top of City Hall.
It’s not that I need my heroes to be black and white in order to believe them.
Nor do I need black-and-white clarity at Christmas more than at any other time of the year.
The problem is the following ugly irony – two classic all-American films that have integrity, authenticity and a concern for the common good at their very cores have been tainted by the ultimate all-American sin.
Capitalism works so well until it morphs into rabies.
First, we’re bitten.
Then, we drool.
Then, we suffer and die.
Colorizing Capra against his will is analogous to the Gilded Age, as Mark Twain referred to that era of the late 1800s when railroad and industrial magnates turned the American government into an oligarchy while they worked women and children into early graves.
By calling the period the Gilded Age, Twain was saying the gold on the outside of the American Dream covered an all-too common interior.
So if you watch “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Meet John Doe,” or both over the holidays, please watch them as Frank Capra intended.
If you do, you’ll see two timeless feature-length metaphors of the American experience through the eyes of a Sicilian immigrant who came to this country in steerage and whose celluloid legacy reminds us of what the words “public domain” should really mean.