Whenever Academy Award-winning art director Gene Allen speaks about Hollywood on the club luncheon circuit these days, one highly emotional topic crops up--the colorizing of vintage black-and-white movies.
The reason is simple: Allen served as consultant for three years to Color Systems Technology, the company that has computer-colorized "Yankee Doodle Dandy" and other classics for Turner Broadcasting System.
Since Allen's own Hollywood career began in the 1930s, the heyday of black-and-white movies, the assumption is that he might have some uneasy feelings about this latest technology.
"Sure, I have mixed feelings," the 69-year-old Allen said Wednesday after speaking to fellow members of the Balboa Yacht Club in Corona del Mar. "But we shouldn't be too quick to judge. It's really a miraculous concept.
"Nearly all these films are languishing on shelves. If they're seen at all, it's in art houses or on late-night television.
"This new process is a way to bring these films to millions of new viewers--a generation that has grown up on nothing but color. I see nothing wrong with that."
Allen's remarks are decidedly serene, contrasted with the impassioned attacks on colorization from such directors as Woody Allen, Billy Wilder and the late John Huston (whose 1941 "The Maltese Falcon" has been colorized by Color Systems Technology).
In their eyes, colorization is nothing less than "cultural butchery"--a massive, brutal distortion of the original director's style and emphases in the black-and-white version.
Among the more than 100 black-and-white movies now owned by Ted Turner's broadcasting corporation and slated for the computerized palette are Huston's 1948 "The Treasure of Sierra Madre," the 1935 "A Night at the Opera" and the 1946 "The Postman Always Rings Twice."
(The other major colorizing company, Colorization Inc., a Toronto-based subsidiary of Hal Roach Studios, has reworked "It's a Wonderful Life," "Topper" and "Way Out West.")
Despite his support for the process, Allen tends to downplay his own involvement with it. He said he didn't work with Color Systems Technology "directly on any one film, like a 'Casablanca' or a 'Dark Victory,' or on the technology itself. My advice was very general, only about color basics, such as the differences in blueness of a sky in England and in the Caribbean."
He added that he hasn't worked for the company at all for a year.
He agreed that "there really should be a list of (black-and-white) films that should never be colorized--you know, a work like 'The Grapes of Wrath.' But then, which ones should be on the list, which ones off? I'd sure hate to be the guy who had to make that decision."
Retired from active moviemaking since 1970, Allen is now a senior spokesman for the industry. He has been a member of the board of governors of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences since 1973 and has served two terms as president. He also has been executive director of the Society of Motion Picture and Television Art Directors since 1973.
He denies having had any "confrontations" with Hollywood colleagues who are bitter opponents of colorization. "I suppose some people weren't too happy that I was working for them (Color Systems Technology)," he said. "But most people respect my views and know where I stand. We just don't get into those kinds of (arguments)."
Allen said he got into colorization four years ago when, "to see what all the fuss was about," he visited Color Systems Technology in Marina del Rey.
"One of the films they were working on was 'Camille,' the (1936) Garbo version that George Cukor made for MGM. As you know, I have more than a passing interest in anything that Mr. Cukor directed," Allen said.
Allen was art director on several Technicolor films that Cukor directed in the 1950s and 1960s--not only "My Fair Lady," for which Cukor and Allen both won Oscars, but also "A Star Is Born," "Les Girls" and "Let's Make Love." Cukor died in 1983.
Colorization "is still brand new, and it's hardly perfect, still in its very earliest stages," Allen said. But he feels that it has "improved greatly" since such initial efforts as the colorized "Miracle on 34th Street." And in any case, "it's here to stay."