It's back. Like it or not, colorization is coming back in a big way. Two DVD collections featuring the Three Stooges are due out shortly and, as it turns out, the 1962 Steve McQueen movie The War Lover is next in line in Sony's first wave of titles using a newly-refined colorization process. If these titles prove as successful as they appear they might, a flood of colorized movies may be on the horizon (two other studios have bought into the process), one potentially much larger than the colorizing boom of the 1980s.
Most of the Stooge shorts in The Three Stooges: Stooged & Confoosed (sic) are new to DVD, though Violent is the Word for Curly was part of a previously released collection, All the World's a Stooge. Nevertheless, it's the colorization that's the main focus of these releases.
First, the shorts:
Violent is the Word for Curly (1938)
This is the classic short where the Three Stooges -- at this point Moe Howard, Larry Fine, and Moe's kid brother, Jerome "Curly" Howard -- sing "Swingin' the Alphabet" ("B-A-Bay, B-E-Be, B-I bicky-by, B-O Bo bicky-bi-bo...") to a group of bemused and amused schoolgirls. Directed by music-loving silent comedian Charley Chase, this short presents the trio at the peak of their talents, a funny two-reeler that finds them mistaken for esteemed college professors.
You Nazty Spy! (1940)
This atypical short, released 10 months prior to Chaplin's The Great Dictator (though put into production well after that film and surely made to capitalize on its pre-release publicity) finds Moe a paper-hanger turned all-powerful ruler of Moronica. The script, by Felix Adler and Clyde Bruckman, is more in tune with the archaic satire of Duck Soup (1933) than Chaplin's polemic, though played in the usual Stooge manner. Quite funny.
No Census, No Feeling (1940)
Coinciding with the national 1940 census ("Will Hays?" ask the confused Stooges), Moe, Larry, and Curly rum amok as census takers, eventually joining a college football game hoping to nab the team between plays. Directed by Del Lord, whose more story-driven shorts contrast the violent mayhem of the Jules White ones, this two-reeler features that old standby of short-form comedy, the accidental consumption of alum, which in this case wreaks havoc on a bridge party, with everyone trying to bid with super-puckered lips.
An Ache in Every Stake (1941)
Another classic short with an especially funny Curly performance, this one casts the Stooges as icemen, trying to deliver blocks of ice up the same steps that confronted deliverymen Laurel & Hardy in The Music Box eight years earlier. (Update: Reader Glen "The Fox" writes that while both set of steps are located in Silver Lake, near downtown Los Angeles, they are in fact different. The steps used in this short can be found here.) Later, the Stooges are last-minute cooks for Vernon Dent's birthday party. This short has an unusually good supporting cast. In addition to veteran foil Dent, it features such familiar faces as Bess Flowers, Symona Boniface, Gino Corrado, and Bud Jamison.
With regard to the Three Stooges, Columbia TriStar continues to gouge and alienate the Stooges' biggest supporters with DVD releases that steadily offer less for more. The Three Stooges: Stooged & Confoosed offers just three shorts new to DVD, while companion release Three Stooges: Goofs on the Loose has just two. Additionally, viewers are tiring of the same 30-odd shorts turning up again and again on home video and syndicated on television (what about the other 160?). What fans really seem to want are collections like Universal's Abbott & Costello releases, or maybe something along the lines of Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes sets. Using the Universal model, Columbia TriStar could and should pack 35 Stooge shorts on two double-sided discs, compiling the team's 190-short run at the studio in six chronological volumes.
Video & Audio / Extras
The colorization of black and white movies using modern computer technology is, needless to say, a volatile issue. Sony and partner West Wing Studios go to some length to head off several key arguments against the process and, in some ways, they succeed. The DVD includes a 16:9 featurette, Colorizing the Classics, where Sony project manager Bob Simmons and West Wing Studios art director Jane Parks make their case in favor of the process.
Technically, the process used here is far superior to anything that has come before it. Gone is the limited pallet and the ghostly smearing effect that would occur when characters or objects move abruptly. (This reviewer remembers the earliest colorized films having to delete some shots that were too action-filled to color.) Once the process is applied to films less familiar than these Stooge shorts, it's easy to imagine viewers mistakenly assuming that a movie shot in black and white had been originally produced in color. Overall, the Stooge shorts have a color scheme that resembles hand-colored lobby cards from the same era rather than, say, a three-color Technicolor process. The effect is, well, weird, particularly on such overly familiar comedies as An Ache in Every Stake, one of the most frequently shown Stooge shorts. But, to its credit, it's never distracting and technically very impressive.
Viewers select which version they want to see, or can bounce between versions via the William Castle-esque named "ChromaChoice," and can "toggle" between both versions using the angle button on their remote. This reviewer has no idea how all this is encoded onto the disc, but the black and white versions don't suffer appreciably. That is, they don't look simply like the colorized versions with the color turned off (which always looked bad on early colorized movies; you couldn't just turn the color off). However, there is some obvious edge enhancement-type artifacting that may be generated by the myriad mattes required by the process. Generally though, both versions are very sharp (you can even see the freckles on Moe's face, something this reviewer never noticed before), and the colorization is very good for what it is. One interesting note: The colorized versions have new copyright notices supered in under the opening titles.
In the featurette, Simmons and Parks discuss the exhaustive research that goes into the colorization of each film. They talk about referencing photographs of antiques they find on eBay, and conferring with war veterans/plane buffs on the B-17s seen in The War Lover (in colorized, 16:9 enhanced clips).
Finally, Parks make the case that, thanks to colorization, "time and money" is going "into restoring the black and white versions, which could have been lost." Simmons, representing Sony, promises colorized versions of Sony releases will be issued "alongside" the original black and whites.
These latter comments raise some interesting issues. While it's true that the Stooge releases offer both versions of each short, the DVDs themselves carry high price tags: SRPs of $24.95 for just four two-reel comedies, running little over an hour. By contrast, Kino's The Harold Lloyd Collection is just $4 more yet includes seven shorts plus a feature film. Universal's The Best of Abbott and Costello sets include eight films for the same price -- and we're talking eight 80-minute features! Obviously, consumers are footing the bill for this doubtlessly expensive process, yet most will watch only the black and white shorts and skip the colorized ones, or vice versa, thus essentially pay for versions of movies they don't want.
Once the process is applied to longer features (say, for example, Sidney Lumet's 1965 film The Hill, one of the first colorized films during the first boom), studios will run into bit rate issues and other problems cramming both movies on a single-sided disc. Already, one can see the impact here. Unlike previous Stooge releases, this disc has no subtitle options and no alternate audio tracks, presumably to make room for the color versions. Conversely, if these shorts were packaged separately, it's not unreasonable to assume that renters and retailers might favor one version over another.
This reviewer was enormously turned off by Parks' assertion that colorization is some sort of savior to films that would otherwise might be lost. Colorization is a market-driven process, nothing more. High-Def transfers, negative preservation, etc., may be a byproduct of colorization, but a magnanimous gesture it's not. Indeed, the process so far serves mainly to double-dip on perennial sellers, not preserve titles languishing in vaults most in need of attention. From a preservationist standpoint, this is a lot of money better spent elsewhere.
And while a considerable amount of time (and yet more money) have been spent researching these initial projects, will the same care be given down the road? Will lesser catalog titles be given the same attention as higher-profile ones? And how far will this research extend? It's one thing to accurately reproduce the color of a 1940 Maxwell House Coffee can, but what about the lighting and pictorial design of the cinematographer? Ultimately, a staff born long after most of these movies were made will be sitting at computers making hundreds of artistic choices (should that dress be blue or pink?) in choosing colors for props, costumes, eye colors, and a thousand other details.
Twenty years ago, when the process was new, filmmakers old and frail, such as John Huston and Frank Capra, made impassioned pleas against colorizing their movies. Of course, virtually everyone associated with the Three Stooges shorts and the 42-year-old The War Lover is dead and buried, but there's no shortage of film historians, critics, and archivists who strongly dislike the process, however technically good it might be.
In the end, colorization is a pointless exercise. The case can be made against letterboxing, which is a trade-off for many consumers (insofar as, for example, an epic like Ben-Hur loses its "bigness" on standard sets, despite the aesthetically-pleasing restoration of the original aspect ratio), but colorization simply feeds off an illogical dislike. Book publishers aren't clamoring to colorize the black and white photographs of Ansel Adams and Diane Arbus. There's simply no logical, aesthetic reasoning behind an aversion to black and white movies. Confoosed is right.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. His new book, Cinema Nippon will be published by Taschen in 2005.