I’ve read a lot about the birth of color movies, but little about the reverse transition: the near death of black and white. (I say “near death” because, thankfully, a few films are still made in shades of gray.)
Until the late 1930’s, almost every Hollywood film was in black and white. A decade later, color was still an exception, but no longer a rare one. Without statistics in front of me, I’d hazard a guess that the percentage of color Hollywood movies shot in 1949 was equivalent to the number of 3D ones in 2011. And they fell into the same genres and markets: children’s fare, animation, and big crowd pleasers.
The scales tipped in the 1950s. By the end of that decade—at least for titles financed by the major American studios—color was the norm and black and white the not-so-rare-exception. Technology had a lot to do with that change. Eastmancolor negative film replaced the cumbersome (and monopoly-controlled) Technicolor three-strip process. The new emphasis on wide screens and large formats complimented color. And Hollywood was competing with a new entertainment medium, television, then still largely in black and white. (I’m limiting this discussion to Hollywood product. Other countries and American independents continued to use black and white a bit longer.)
In 1961, it was still still possible for Disney to make a black-and-white children’s comedy (The Absent Minded Professor), but that wouldn’t last. Within a few years, black and white was exclusively reserved for adult fare—serious dramas and mature comedies of the sort that would today be released by Focus Films or the Weinstein Company. Black and white films from that era include To Kill a Mockingbird, Dr. Strangelove, The Apartment, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and The Americanization of Emily.
To my knowledge, In Cold Blood (1967) was the last black and white Hollywood film of the 1960s. And it was with the 1967 Oscars that the Academy dropped separate Color and Black and White Cinematography awards.
Black and white was reborn, as an occasional artistic option in a color world, with The Last Picture Show in 1971. In his Criterion commentary track, director Peter Bogdanovich explains that he wanted black and white to make deep-focus photography practical, and because he felt it was a better medium for capturing an actor’s face. But he sold the studio on it as a way to better evoke the early 1950’s setting.
And that became the primary reason why any Hollywood movie has been shot in black-and-white since—to evoke a period when that was the norm. Pictures as different as Young Frankenstein, Raging Bull, Pleasantville, Good Night and Good Luck, and Sin City were either set at a time when movies (or television) was predominately black and white, or paying homage to the cinema of such a time.
Of course, black and white has other advantages, especially in gruesomely violent films like Raging Bull and Schindler’s List. When we watch filmed violence in color, we react to the spectacle—the spouting red blood grosses us out. But black and white drains away the spectacle, leaving us with only the emotional horror of the incident we’ve just seen.
We’ve lived in a nearly all-color cinematic world for a long time now. That’s not going to change. But I hope that there will always be filmmakers wanting to work in black and white, studio executives willing to finance them, and an audience that wants to watch them.