Is film art, or entertainment? The answer’s not exactly black and white.

I wasn’t able to see Topper, the delightful 1937 screwball comedy starring Cary Grant and Constance Bennett, when it was first released—for reasons I hope are obvious. But when the newly colorized version debuted in 1985 I was well into my movie-viewing years.

But that raises the question—why and how did colorization become “a thing?”

Topper was the first black-and-white film to be digitally colorized, by Colorization, Inc., and Hal Roach Studios.

No, not the original Hal Roach studio. That closed in the 1960s after more than 40 years of fantastic movie making. During his time Hal Roach converted his studio from silent to sound, and became one of the first significant producers to put his movies, in this case the Laurel and Hardy movies, into television syndication.

In 1971 a Canadian company purchased most of the Roach film library, retaining the studio name and keeping the movies in the public eye. The colorization of Topper was part of that effort.

Given his innovation and adaptation to technologies as they presented, Roach himself might not have objected to colorizing Topper. In fact, I was an early investor in digital colorization technologies myself, even though plenty in the film industry saw it as problematic.

“There’s a line there: You don’t color black-and-white Picassos,” Gene Allen, president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, said in a 1984 Christian Science Monitor article on the topic.

Color films, of course, had been around for decades. As the process of creating the images in color improved– Technicolor originally involved dye-baths- it looked like, by 1929, color could replace black and white. But the great depression hit, and color processing (and the bulky Technicolor camera) was expensive.

In the late 1930s color was reserved for blockbusters like The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. For 30 years, Hollywood went between color and black-and-white as economics, technology, and acceptance battled.

But, by the late 1960s, color was accepted—even expected. It was replaced by a new division—the competition between television and big screen.

Directors, particular those who considered film art, were as opposed to TV as they were to commercial, color, films.  

An article in The Guardian quotes Francois Truffaut as saying, “I think that colour has done as much damage to cinema as television… It is necessary to fight against too much realism in the cinema, otherwise it’s not an art…”

Truffaut even argued that, “When all films were in black and white, very few were ugly even when they were lacking in artistic ambition.”

Which is, of course, the crux of the argument against digital colorization. It’s not “art” if it is in opposition to the director’s “vision.”

But many movies aren’t made in order to move the needle on the art dial. They’re made to entertain. The original Laurel and Hardy movies aren’t lauded as social commentary (unlike Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin films) but as funny, pure comic genius at work.

So, if the point is not to always create glorious art, but to put movies in front of audiences that will enjoy the show, the ten-year bubble of digital colorization (by the early 1990s the trend had peaked and died down) certainly did that. It brought to life, in color, hundreds of movies that otherwise would have gone unseen by generations.