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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Rationing the Rainbow, Part 2 (originally published 10/98)

A few years ago a wickedly barbed little comedy called "The Big Picture" poked fun at the Machiavellian world of Hollywood filmmaking. In one scene a recent film school graduate is pitching an idea to a roomful of minor moguls. He enthusiastically tells them that his idea is to shoot the film in black and white. Instantly a pall falls over the room. One of the executives patiently explains to the neophyte that this would be impractical since "most theaters don't even have black and white projectors anymore."

This scene may exaggerate the ignorance of movie executives - most of them do know enough to realize that it's the film, not the projector, that is in black and white or color - but it is scarcely possible to exaggerate the visceral opposition to even considering a black and white production in contemporary Hollywood. That's what makes a film like "Pleasantville" so remarkable. By using the contrast between black and white and color as a thematic device, the producers of this very creative picture managed the impressive feat of getting a black and white image on the screen in 1998 - at least part of the time.

Last week we looked at some films from the silent era that used this same device of shooting only part of the film in color. I mentioned that this trend sharply diminished after the conversion to sound. Talkies, by an large, were shot entirely in color or entirely in black and white. There were, however, exceptions. For a sampling of part-color movies of the sound era, look for these titles on home video.

"The Secret Garden" (1949). Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic children's tale of despair and redemption at an English manor house has been adapted for film a number of times. The most recent version, released in 1993, was a fine rendering, but the 1949 film featuring Margaret O'Brien in the lead role remains the definitive movie version. When the orphaned Mary Lennox (O'Brien) is sent to live with her uncle, she finds his large estate in ruins. Since the death of his wife, he has allowed the place to go utterly untended, including a once lush garden that has been left to wither. Finding a way into this hidden garden, Mary sets about the task of restoring it. Director Fred Wilcox dramatized the beauty of the resurrected garden by shooting it in bright Technicolor while shooting all other scenes in black and white.

"Jack and the Beanstalk" (1952). The classic fairy tale is reworked here as a vehicle for the comedy team of Abbott and Costello. It represents a departure for the duo on several levels. First, although they had attempted fantasy before, in "The Time of Their Lives" (1946), this was their first direct attempt at targeting the children's market. Also, they made a conscious decision not to rely on their tried and true radio and stage routines of the "Who's on first?" variety. In addition, it was their first film in color. They were eager to try a color production, but, perhaps mindful of the successful gimmick used in "The Wizard of Oz" (1939), they chose to begin and end the film with a black and white sequence rendered in sepia tones.

"If..." (1968). As student riots at Berkeley were making headlines in the United States, British director Lindsay Anderson released this timely tale of student unrest at an English boarding school. This was a time when British filmmakers were much influenced by the French New Wave style, which emphasized flashy camera techniques. Rather than allowing the viewer to settle into the narrative and forget the camera, this style of filmmaking seeks to keep the viewer reminded that they are watching a movie, thereby enlisting them in a sense as co-creators of the film. Proponents of this offbeat but fascinating style believed that such eccentricities of technique made the movie viewing experience more stimulating and aesthetically rewarding. One of the devices used by Anderson in "If..." was that of switching back and forth from black and white to color.

There are lots more examples of part-color movies, but, regrettably, many of them have not been released on video. That's probably because it requires extra effort to make a high quality video transfer when the image must be optimized for both black and white and color. But don't lose hope. Somewhere over the rainbow we'll see them all some day.

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