By CINDY KIDD
Movies give people the ability to push the pause button on life and lose themselves for a couple of hours. In 2011 alone, more than $10 billion went to box office sales, according to the Motion Picture Association of America. With Hollywood’s Ultrascreen images and Dolby-digital surround sound, movie lovers may not see the value of spending their time or money on old black-and-white classics, but “the classics” carry that title for a reason.
It’s no mistake that The American Film Institute ranks “Citizen Kane” at the top of its “100 Greatest American Movies of All Time” list, along with dozens of other movies also dramatically shot in black-and-white. Ranked number 16 on AFI’s list, the 1950 film “All About Eve” captures Betty Davis in one of her best-loved performances. In the famous cocktail party scene, an elegantly dressed Davis throws back a martini, drops an uneaten olive back into her glass, heads for the staircase, pauses, turns back to her guests and delivers her infamous snarky line, “Fasten your seat belts — it’s going to be a bumpy night.” Regardless of its black-and-white format, this movie’s powerful images and voices still captivate audiences willing to take a chance on a classic.
“People probably prefer color movies over black-and-white because part of the power of the moving image is how close it is to reality,” said Dr. James Colon, philosophy professor and instructor of Mount Mary College’s Philosophy in Film course. “Color is the way we experience the world so color films seem more real or natural.”
As video chain stores like Blockbuster close, customers looking to rent a specific black-and-white movie face some challenges. Mount Mary’s Haggerty Library, however, holds many black-and-white films in its collection, making it a resource for classic movie buffs.
“I personally wouldn’t pick up a black-and-white movie,” said Jana Zeman, a senior and communication major at Mount Mary. “But if someone else is watching it, it might take a few minutes, but I could get into it. ‘Schindler’s List’ is one of those movies that comes to mind.”
Winning five Oscars, including Best Picture for 2012, “The Artist” demonstrates that black-and-white filming enjoys respect as an art form, even if it does not translate into dollars at the box office.
“We just saw ‘The Artist’— it’s truly amazing,” said Mark Luedtke, a semi-retired art teacher who holds a BFA in film and video from University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. “It really showed me the differences between a digital black-and-white movie and older films. The sound is better; the lenses on cameras are better. You can get so much more than from lenses in the past. There’s a bigger depth of field.”
Conlon acknowledges that black-and-white movies are not popular with youth, but he believes there are compelling reasons to watch the old classics.
“The same reasons we look at paintings that were done 100 years ago or some of humanity’s efforts to understand itself, they are captured in these places,” Conlon said. “In some ways the reasons you’d want to see a Rembrandt are the same reasons you would want to see ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’”
With each new generation, some forms of art or entertainment fall into obscurity, but if movie buffs continue to enjoy these films, black-and-white movies may stand the test of time.
- “The Bad Seed” (1956). Starring Nancy Kelly and Patty McCormack. A caring mother begins to suspect her angelic daughter may be a calculating killer.
- Gaslight” (1944). Starring Charles Boyer and Ingrid Bergman. A traumatized woman is coaxed by her new husband to move back into the apartment where her aunt was murdered. While discouraging his wife from ever leaving the apartment, the husband mysteriously leaves at night on unknown business.
- “Mildred Pierce” (1945). Starring Joan Crawford and Jack Carson. After her husband leaves her for another woman, hard-working Mildred builds up and runs her own restaurant chain. But spoiling her teenage daughter leads to grave consequences.
- “Night of the Hunter” (1955). Starring Robert Mitchum and Shelley Winters. A phony preacher moves into town and preys on a gullible widow and her children. After learning the children have a secret, he determines to find out where their father hid stolen money from a bank robbery.