Photography and cinema both started in black and white yet these media successfully captured the "colorful life" of earlier eras. Do you agree?
As a combined product of science and art, cinema started out like its still photo ancestor; it captured life devoid of other hues from the color spectrum. All dark areas were rendered in black, light ones in white, and those in between fell within various shades of gray. Yet audiences never complained of this new technological wonder since it was able to present dynamic stories and scenes that the literary arts and the performance arts couldn't readily deliver.
Storytelling became a visual challenge with narrative experimentation for early filmmakers. Various artistic movements in cinema followed their respective styles and aesthetics. Directors and screenwriters created character types and storylines that will be best told through these shades.
And what's the result of these efforts? A treasure trove of classic black-and-white movies from the silent film and the early sound film eras. Many of these movies pioneered innovations that are still being used in filmmaking today, from the technical aspects to characterization and plot structures. That's why it's fun to revisit them once in a while and see how things were done back then. Let's appreciate these timeless classics that paved the way for our current cinematic options.
Can you identify some of these black and white classics? Roll cam and see what happens. Good luck!
Director-producer-actor Orson Welles co-wrote "Citizen Kane" with Herman J. Mankiewicz. The film opens with a yet unknown character uttering that classic mysterious line, "Rosebud." This film is noted for the narrative and technical storytelling innovations it contributed to Hollywood filmmaking.
Stars of the silent film era had a hard time transitioning into sound films so many of them simply faded into oblivion. This was the background story of "Sunset Boulevard" where a young screenwriter encounters a silent era has-been. Andrew Lloyd Webber adapted the film into a musical in the '90s.
Mystery film maestro Alfred Hitchcock already had the option to shoot a color film in 1960. However, he still chose to shoot his thriller, "Psycho," in black and white. He revealed in interviews that the murder scene might appear too gruesome if audiences during that era saw it in full color.
"Casablanca," the 1942 World War II movie with Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman, was adapted from a Murray Burnett and Joan Alison play. They wrote the 1940 play, "Everybody Comes to Rick's," which became the basis of this film. They later sued Warner Bros for allegedly shortchanging them.
No classic black-and-white film list will be complete without the contributions of Charlie Chaplin. His iconic silent film era character, the Little Tramp, is portrayed as a factory worker in 1936's "Modern Times." Chaplin was reportedly hesitant to transition to full sound with this film.
A film is often made in "reel time" to condense the time lapses in a narrative. Editing makes it possible for us to see a day or month's worth of events presented in a few minutes. "High Noon" wasn't like that because the film showed us what was happening in "real time," from beginning to end.
The name Atticus Finch became synonymous with upholding the law and defending the innocent, but in this film, Robert Duvall played the outcast named Boo Radley. These characters were showcased in the 1962 film adaptation of Harper Lee's novel, "To Kill a Mockingbird."
Cross-dressing narratives became an early comedy trope in Hollywood. This was the strength of "Some Like It Hot" where Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon disguised themselves as women to run away from gangsters.
"It's a Wonderful Life" is now considered a Christmas movie line-up staple that critics always include in "best films" lists. Initially, however, director Frank Capra wasn't ho-ho-ho-ing all the way to the bank when this film debuted in 1946. It was a flop at the box office.
"A Streetcar Named Desire" is a classic example of a stage play getting adapted into a film by the same core people. Elia Kazan directed this Tennessee Williams play on Broadway and he also directed the film version. Marlon Brando played both the stage and film versions of Stanley Kowalski.
Filming in traditional black and white in a world that can already be captured in color is one of the rebellious streaks of the French New Wave film movement of the '50s and '60s François Truffaut exhibited this kind of defiance in his iconic 1959 film, "The 400 Blows."
Its actual title is "Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror" but the film world generally refers to this silent film classic as "Nosferatu." This 1922 film is an example of the German Expressionist film movement wherein filmmakers showcased a stylistic rejection of realism and simple or happy storylines.
Rita Hayworth was one of the pivotal actresses who embodied the femme fatale in early black-and-white films. This character type features a strong-willed woman who often uses her sensuality to get away with things. Hayworth's most notable femme fatale character can be seen in the 1946 film, "Gilda."
"From Here To Eternity" contains one of the most iconic kissing scenes. The 1953 film featured Burt Lancaster in black trunks and Deborah Kerr in a non-bikini cut halter neck swimsuit kissing away on a Hawaiian beach. Kerr also delivered this iconic line: "No one ever kissed me the way you do."
It's just proper that "Roman Holiday" got a screening at the 1953 Venice Film Festival. After all, it's about a princess who secretly escaped her entourage to go around Rome, Italy, on her own. Audrey Hepburn played the roaming royalty and Gregory Peck played the American reporter she encounters.
When you're in Salinas, California, visit the National Steinbeck Center which is a museum and interactive exhibit featuring John Steinbeck's works. There you'll find an area that highlights the films based on his novels, such as 1940's "The Grapes of Wrath" starring Henry Fonda.
"The Magnificent Seven" may have been in color when it was shown in 1960 but its "original" was in black and white. That film, "Seven Samurai," was made by renowned Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. This 1954 classic contributed shooting and editing innovations in world cinema history.
Ol' Blue Eyes didn't just sing his heart out, he acted it out a lot, too. One of his most memorable films is the 1962 mystery, "The Manchurian Candidate." Manchurian candidate has come to mean a politician who's being manipulated or paid by powerful wealthy people to be their puppet.
If you don't know what "All About Eve" is all about, heed Ms. Bette Davis' advice before viewing it: "Fasten your seat belts; it's going to be a bumpy night!" Its catty plot is about an adoring fan who usurps her Broadway idol's fame and influence. Marilyn Monroe was also in this 1950 classic.
The mystery angle of "The Maltese Falcon" was played up in its trailer, as it said, "He makes crime a career and ladies a hobby!" The man to which this line refers was played by Humphrey Bogart and his main lady is Mary Astor in the 1941 film adaptation of the novel, "The Maltese Falcon." Peter Lorre co-starred here.
Marlon Brando is one Hollywood actor who delivered many great lines in his career. One of the most legendary came from "On The Waterfront" where he said, "I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody instead of a bum which is what I am." He played a former boxer in this classic film.
Italian neorealism is a film movement where filmmakers chose non-professional actors to act in their films. They also preferred shooting on location outdoors instead of indoor studio sets. "The Bicycle Thief" (1948) is one of the most critically acclaimed films to come out of that movement.
Unlike today, it was rare in early Hollywood for TV material to get adapted into movies. But this is what happened with "12 Angry Men," which was originally a 1954 legal drama on the CBS television network. Sidney Lumet directed this 1957 black-and-white film adaptation with Henry Fonda in the lead.
The award-winning 1940 Alfred Hitchcock film, "Rebecca," featured one of the most memorable house helpers in cinematic history. That would be Mrs. Danvers, the dedicated but dark housekeeper keeping her loyalty to her departed female boss and psychologically scaring the new female boss in the process.
Claudette Colbert sure knew how to hail a car in "It Happened One Night," beating out Clark Gable's style. It was a bit risqué during 1934 but she hiked up her skirt and showed a leg. This Frank Capra film was a huge winner at the Oscars and showed rom-coms can indeed be award contenders.
No black-and-white film listing would be complete without featuring the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers dancing tandem. One of their most memorable pairings can be seen in "The Gay Divorcee." This 1934 film was an adaptation of a Broadway musical but its title was originally "The Gay Divorce."
One of Italy's greatest filmmakers is Federico Fellini. His films featured stylized storytelling full of symbolism and comments on politics, society, religion and culture in general. This style is evident in his 1960 classic, "La Dolce Vita," which translates to "the sweet life."
Cinema also capitalized on Beatlemania in the '60s. One of the movies that came out of that era was "A Hard Day's Night," a black-and-white film featuring the Beatles and endlessly screaming fans. You'll also hear Fab Four songs featured in their album of the same name.
Black-and-white cinema's stylistic look played well for the 1933 monster film, "King Kong." The gigantic ape's dark shadowy feature seen against the clear New York sky heightened the Empire State Building "fight scene" tension.
As the trailer said, the 1960 film, "The Apartment," had a "very special kind of problem" enacted by its leads Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine. Lemmon's character opened up his New York apartment as a temporary love nest for his adulterous officemates. Oh, and he's also in love with the mistress of his boss.
Though "Bringing Up Baby" was in black-and-white, its colorful story and dialogue won the hearts of fans during its rerelease and in subsequent decades. Even with Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn in the leads, this 1938 Howard Hawks film was a box-office flop when it first came out.
Child actors turned teen idols, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland were partnered in movies. They always had musical numbers in their films, like in the 1939 musical, "Babes in Arms." The song, "Good Morning," was first heard here and was popularized more in 1952's, "Singin' in the Rain."
Humphrey Bogart worked on mystery films based on crime novels like "The Big Sleep." This 1946 film adaptation of Raymond Chandler's novel co-starred Lauren Bacall. Her stylish screen presence here is what the musical, "Evita," referred to in the lyric that said "So Lauren Bacall me" in "Rainbow High."
The 1932 film, "Shanghai Express," starred Marlene Dietrich as the feisty foreigner named Shanghai Lily roaming around war-torn China. The successful hit film also featured Anna May Wong, one of the earliest Chinese-American actresses to appear onscreen in Hollywood.
James Stewart joined the Cary Grant-Katharine Hepburn tandem in the 1940 film, "The Philadelphia Story," as the third wheel of their off again-on again love story. After appearing in a string of flops, the tandem hit it big again with this film.
Early sci-fi films intersected humanity and technology issues with powerfully artistic visuals. One such work is the 1927 German Expressionist film, "Metropolis," by Fritz Lang. This film was important enough to be included in the UNESCO archival initiative called Memory of the World Programme.
Spike Lee paid tribute to "Night of the Hunter" in a recreated a scene in his 1989 film, "Do The Right Thing," The old film had the lead character tattoo "love" and "hate" in each hand to tell the story of life. Lee's version had his character wear rings bearing these words in each hand.
Today, the term "girl Friday" is an offensive way of calling a female assistant, even though it originally had a counterpart term of "man Friday." It's only OK to use when referring to the 1940 comedy hit film, "His Girl Friday," which is about a female reporter working as the reluctant assistant of an editor.
Classic movies from the '50s reflected hot issues in society, even fears and worries of the changing times. "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" is considered one of such films by film critics and historians. They said it used the sci-fi alien element as an allegory to the "communist scare" during that era.
Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman gave world cinema one of its greatest masterpieces as often touted by film critics and film historians: "The Seventh Seal." Its unforgettable black-and-white images feature actor Max von Sydow as a knight who played chess with Death to buy him more time to live.