It’s a Pastel Life

This year, due to circumstances beyond my control, we had the colorized version of It’s a Wonderful Life for our yearly viewing. I’d never actually seen that version before (which James Stewart famously said he couldn’t stand even to watch), so it was at least instructive.

Well, I didn’t find it unwatchable, since with a film this good, that would be practically impossible (to be clear: I consider this the single best American film ever made).

And to be fair, the color allowed me to notice even more of the innumerable details that fill out the screen and which I hadn’t caught before (like, how after both Harry’s party and George’s wedding, you can see a set of chairs set out on the lawn where the photographer – cousin Eustace – had stood a minute before, and the coffee on the table during George’s final conversation with his father is steaming. Something that isn’t often mentioned about this film is just how richly detailed it is. Watching the corners and backgrounds of the scene is often hugely rewarding).

But overall, the effect is a very definite downgrade, and not just because of the filled-in, water-color look that colorized film often has. In the first place, the color pallet chosen is often pretty ugly. There is way too much yellow and light green, giving it a rather sickly tone. There are very few solid colors (contrast Miracle on 34th Street, which was colorized in a far more successful fashion and actually benefited from a vibrant color scheme): almost everything is pastel, giving the movie a faded, half-hearted look.

Worse, though, is that the colorization plays havoc with the lighting, especially during the Pottersville sequence. Watching this version brought home just how gorgeous the lighting and cinematography in this film really are. Look at the misty atmosphere during the bank run (wrecked here by the stark green grass), and especially the dead-black shadows in Pottersville. At times the movie almost looks Noir-ish, like the scene where George finds his house is still a ruin in this world. And it’s here that the colorization makes its presence most known; it fades out the shadows and adds a lot of distracting nonsense filling out the screen. When Bert and Ernie are framed in shadow in the doorway, we have yellow highlights surrounding the black shadow and Ernie’s bright yellow cab sitting in the corner of the scene.

On that note, the colorization is overall very distracting, even in ordinary scenes: George’s now-red-and-blue tie tugs at the eye every time it’s on screen. Or when George is talking with the angry tree owner about his car there are bright multicolored Christmas lights off to one side (this is another scene full of gorgeous shadows).

This is one of the big problems with colorization: a film that is shot and lit in black-and-white usually doesn’t look good in color because black-and-white cinematography is a very different visual style and approach. It isn’t ‘inadequate’ color; it’s an art form all to itself. In a film like Miracle on 34th Street, which is not very distinct in its lighting, it can work fine. In the finest film of one of America’s finest directors, it’s like taking a set of paints to the Pieta.

The only reason to watch the colorized version would be if it’s the only one available or if you want to truly appreciate just how good the black-and-white cinematography of this film really is.

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