The glory of black and white cinema

Posted by David Konow

Put this on your list of things that make you feel old - there are young people in this generation that have never seen a black and white movie.

It's amazing that The Artist got made, a silent movie in black and white no less, which by today's standards is a pretty bold thing to do.

The glory of black and white cinemaBlack and white films were stigmatized for a long time. Studios would argue making a film in black and white would confuse people into thinking it was already an old movie, and if I recall correctly, at one point it was also harder to sell black and white movies to television once the medium went over to full blown color.

Still, it's dumbfounding to think some people of this generation haven't seen a black and white movie. What about the classics like Casablanca and Citizen Kane?

What about the classic Universal horror movies with Bela and Boris? What about the "New Hollywood" classics like Raging Bull and The Last Picture Show? Classic horror like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead? Not to mention classic TV like The Honeymooners, and The Twilight Zone?

Even the Coen Brothers and Tim Burton have made black and white movies, and Burton even took Ed Wood away from Sony because the studio wouldn't let him make it in black and white. And as seen with many of the movies I mentioned above, instead of outdating them, black and white gave them a timeless quality. With the Universal horror films, as well as with film noir, the black and white heightened the scares, making the shadows loom larger, and giving great textures to the dark.

So if you haven't seen a black and white movie yet, where should you start? I asked Joseph McBride, biographer of Orson Welles, Steven Spielberg and John Ford for his expert opinion.

"Citizen Kane would be a good place to start," he says. "Film noir would be another. The great virtues of black-and-white are obvious in such work. Kane cinematographer Gregg Toland's masterful black-and-white in John Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (which looks like a documentary) and The Long Voyage Home (one of the most highly expressionistic and stylized movies ever made in Hollywood), two films released in 1940, the year Kane was shot, are both stunning.
"Learning to appreciate black-and-white is a matter of education, and parents have the responsibility as well as film teachers," McBride continues. "I convinced my young son to watch black-and-white Disney and Popeye cartoons from the 1930s, and he gradually got into them and said he preferred them to color cartoons. It's just a matter of convincing, or making, kids sit there and watch b&w and talk to them about why it requires more artistry than shooting in color, as John Ford liked to say. You have to put in the shadows, and the colors don't automatically separate - you have to layer in the grays and other shades."