In Praise of Black & White

Several years ago, my daughter was having a sleepover party for her birthday. She had the whole evening planned. Pizza, board games, cake, a game of Twister, and a movie.

Not just any movie, but, a classic: The Naughty Nineties, starring my personal favorite duo, Abbott and Costello. Who can forget the baseball routine, “Who’s on first?” This iconic comedy bit debuted in their 1945 film, “The Naughty Nineties.” Here’s a clip:

So, my daughter’s plan was to screen the movie. She couldn’t wait to introduce her friends to this comedic duo, who had given us hours and hours of laughs and guffaws. But, no sooner did the opening credits start rolling, when one of her friends said this:

“Black and white!?? This movie better be so good I forget it’s in black and white.”

And with that, my daughter’s excitement in sharing with her friends something she found thoroughly enjoyable was unceremoniously deflated, like a pin, pricked into a prized balloon.

Which makes me wonder, have black and white films become a relic of the past?  Today’s kids, accustomed to movies in color being the norm, not to mention 3D, and out-of-this-world special effects and graphics, seem to have little tolerance for the cinematic gems of the past. Or what I call, the golden age of the silver screen.

Yet, there’s so much these films still have to offer. Granted, they may look dated, but many of the story lines still resonate. Why else would today’s Hollywood moguls pore through the vaults of MGM, Paramount, and United Artists in search of movies to remake?

Films like, The Shop Around the Corner, 1940, which was remade into You’ve Got Mail, 1998; The Big Clock, 1948, became No Way Out, 1987; The Mummy, 1932 and 1999; The Day the Earth Stood Still, 1951 and 2008;  King Kong, 1933 and 2005; Cape Fear, 1962 and 1991; and Father of the Bride, 1950 and 1991. And, that’s just naming a few. In fact, plans are underway for a remake of one of my favorites, The Thin Man, which will star Johnny Depp. Yet, when all is said and done, there’s nothing like the original.

Black and white dramas have timeless morals, and the comedies, wit and snappy banter that inevitably leads to a happy ending. The horror films are all the more exciting because they leave much to the imagination, and the singing and dancing are pure delight. It’s not for naught that the American Film Institute’s Top 100 films feature black and white movies in the top two spots: Citizen Kane and Casablanca.

If black and white cinema is a dying art (and thank heavens for The Artist for its attempt to revive it), then it’s up to us to take a second look at the legacy these classics leave us, and share them with the youth in our lives.

So, the next time you have movie night with your family, consider staying home and watching a black and white film. Trust me, you watch them long enough and, frankly, you do end up forgetting they’re in black and white. My kids started watching these films at a young age, and, as a result, black and white is second nature to them.

I have gathered a list of some of my favorites. They are in no particular order, and represent a smattering of the films my kids were raised on. Quite a few of these are Cary Grant films. (Hint: Look for the “CG.”)

Drama:

A Patch of Blue, a 1965 poignant drama about race relations and love, starring Sidney Poitier and Elizabeth Hartman.

To Kill a Mockingbird

A Patch of Blue

All About Eve (Bette Davis at her best!)

Mr. Lucky (CG as a bad guy with a heart)

Jezebel

The Miracle Worker

Film Noir:

Laura

The Big Clock

The Postman Always Rings Twice

Double Indemnity

The Lost Weekend

Alfred Hitchcock (He’s in a genre all by himself!):

Lifeboat

Rebecca

Suspicion (CG)

Notorious (CG)

Shadow of a Doubt

Mystery & Crime:

Myrna Loy, “Asta,” and William Powell star in the original, “The Thin Man,” based on the novel by Dashiell Hammet. Together, they made an additional five films for the series.

The Thin Man (see the entire series before you see the Johnny Depp version)

The Roaring Twenties

The Spiral Staircase

Angels with Dirty Faces

White Heat

Some Like it Hot (gangsters and comedy)

Comedy:

Harvey

Duck Soup

Here Comes Mr. Jordan (remade into Heaven Can Wait, starring Warren Beatty)

His Girl Friday (CG)

The Awful Truth (CG)

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House (CG)

The Time of their Lives

Arsenic and Old Lace (CG)

Cheaper by the Dozen

I Was a Male War Bride (you guessed it, CG)

Father of the Bride

Bringing Up Baby (CG)

So, are there any black and white films you recommend? Please add your favorites to the comment section below.

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48 thoughts on “In Praise of Black & White

  1. I love old black and white films, they are of an era when everything was slower, people had more time for each other and the films had a plot and were mostly skilfully written and performed, and Alfred Hitchcock was the master.

    War films for example never seem the same if they are in colour, they should be in black and white. A classic of that of course is The Longest Day, it is a superb film in my opinion and would not be the same if it was in colour.

    Another good example is Scrooge with Alistair Sim, it was made in black and white and is regarded by many as the best of all the versions of the story filmed. I have a colourised version of it and it’s just not right. the original is far better.

    One colour classic I must mention is The Glenn Miller story, with James Stewart an other great actor. Where he discovers his “Sound” and June Allyson who played his wife rubs the hairs on the back of her neck and gives that smile that is a classic moment.

    Cary Grant of course was English and born in Bristol, quite ironic really as many thousands of people started in ships from the great port of Bristol to make a new life in America over the years. I think from his era many Americans looked on him as a quintessential English Gentleman. He was certainly a great actor, he was so laid back, in fact if he had been any more laid back he would have been horizontal.

    Great list of films Monica, I have seen many of them but you have tempted me to delve into Amazon and see which are available on DVD.

    • Oh, I’m quite familiar with the Glenn Miller Story, Robert. Another enjoyable film. And Alfred Hitchcock was also British, no? Of course, Cary Grant spent so much time here in the US, its easy to think of him as American. So debonair. I never saw anything like him again until Pierce Brosnan came upon the scene, though no one can hold a candle to Cary. Let me know which ones you end up seeing!

      • Yes I will have a delve on Amazon when I get a few minutes and see what’s there. I did order a couple of DVD’s in US format from American companies, and they are playable on the computer, so another source there.
        Although I have to be careful with value or we end up paying import duty and commission to the UK Post Office for collecting it.

      • Yes Amazon on demand is an option, though I do like to have a physical copy of films as well so we can watch them on TV or any of the computers.
        Though as I have a fast internet connection and unlimited bandwidth something to think about certainly, thanks for the idea Monica.

  2. Thanks Monica, what a great idea! I never thought of this. I think this would be a fun summer plan to watch one per week or something! I am going to try this!

  3. Love love black and white movies, both American and Russian it’s something very innocent about them. I wonder if some of the current movies we would watch in black and white, would it have the same affect on us?

    • Ariana, I’m so glad you do. They’re wonderful, so I hope you watch some with your family. Don’t know about the current films, but Woody Allen has been known to make a couple of his flicks in B&W.

  4. There’s something about the way light and shadows look in black and white films (and photos, too). There’s an atmosphere and a feeling that color film just can’t capture. I’ve seen a lot of the ones you listed, but some are new to me. Can’t wait to watch them!

  5. ~~~~Monica,
    Most of my all time fave movies are in black & white. & Your list is great.

    I loved Patch of Blue, To Kill a Mockingbird, Lillies of the Field, The Lost Weekend, Raisin in the Sun, Wuthering Heights (with Olivier)! Lifeboat, Laura, & ALL of the Alfed Hichcocks! …so many more….

    Such Depth. Xxx

    • Not too many people of even heard of Patch of Blue. Do you know that it was made in a period when color was already popular, but their budget was low, so they had to shoot it in B&W. I think, though, it’s better because of it.

  6. What a movie buff you are. Thanks for the list. Earlier this year, I found myself watching Alfred Hitchcock clips on Youtube and the black and white was part of the mystery to me. I couldn’t see them done any other way, even for a remake. To Kill a Mockingbird is a favorite. I had to own it. I’m going to bookmark this for when I return to the U.S. Thanks.

    • I’m the BIGGEST movie buff I know! Totsy, we didn’t have VHS, let alone DVD’s. We watched whatever movies were on TV. I remember staying up all night just to see a Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers marathon. Now, those two could dance!

  7. Ditto on To Kill a Mockingbird, but I also loved Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, White Christmas and It’s a Wonderful Life, the latter two of which our family watched every year on Christmas Eve til the kids went off to college. And there’s also the first part of The Wizard of Oz. Magical films and magical memories; thanks Monica!

    • Susan, I remember going to Radio City Music Hall to see To Kill a Mockingbird when it was released. I still remember the opening. Of course, being a kid I didn’t understand it too well, and my favorite scenes were the ones with the kids. Oh, and what a soundtrack! I love that music. It takes me back to my youth.

  8. This is a great list, Monica. I, honestly, haven’t seen a black and white film in ages. I don’t know why more aren’t made these day–and why some black and white are now being “colorized.” (Is that the term?) I need to curl up with a good black and white movie this evening. Thanks for the reminder.
    Hugs,
    Kathy

  9. B/W also reveals much about the mind set of people of those times. What I am trying to say is that you can feel a bit 1930ish in seeing it in 1930ish improving the connection to the film’s message and contents. o

    • I know what you mean, Carl. I’ve seen movies from the forties that have a call to action at the end, asking you to buy war bonds. Seeing those has made me want to go out and get a few. ;)

  10. I’ve seen all the movies on your list, not once or twice, in some cases dozens. I’ve told you before, this is my guilty pleasure. I feel your daughter’s pain, truly. We have ‘Watch a Classic’ once a month. We started with Harvey (James Stewart), years ago. My son had a mild panic when it started because it was in B&W, but once it started rolling he was gone. He even watched Hatri (John Wayne and not his best) with me one New Year’s Eve.. My father gifted me with the love of motion pictures, and I have paid forward. I hope my two pass it along. Wonderful memories, Monica. Side note, you don’t want to sit next to me when I am watching Bringing Up Baby… I die every time I watch that movie. The best.

    • I know what you mean, Brenda. I’ve seen most of these films multiple times. Plus more that I didn’t put on this list! There are just so many! Bringing up Baby, and His Girl Friday are so much fun to watch. I just love the fast-paced banter between Cary and his leading lady. So fantastic!

  11. Here’s one you will thank me for recommending, “Children of Paradise.” It will stay with you for years. Black and white films have a mystique, an aura, which would be lost if they were colorized; the black and white are colors in themselves, creating drama, contrast, heightened moments, and so on. I have a friend who has attended the Turner Classic Films four-day classic film festival in Hollywood in late April or early May. Films are held in various venues and the theatres are jammed packed with devotees of classic films. Can you imagine the scene from “Casablanca” where Humphrey Bogart’s character of Rick is first introduced? Audiences go crazy when they see that wonderful scene. That sizzling atmosphere surrounding Rick would be lost were it in color. And Bette Davis is “Now Voyager” – those romantic scenes between her character and Paul Henreid’s are like fireworks and give so much to the imagination. And think about those half-hour “Twilight Zone” episodes in beautiful black and white. And it goes on and on.

    • Children of Paradise sounds very interesting. I didn’t know that Turner Classic did a film festival. Sounds like it would be fun. Casablanca is really a great one. I’m not crazy about Now Voyager, but I do like the ending. Very romantic, cigarettes and all. ;)

  12. Monica, you’re going to think I’m a film Neanderthal but the only film from your list that I’ve seen is “To Kill a Mockingbird.” I’m not a fan. The crowd hisses and snarls. Perhaps now that I have your recommendations I can try one out. Baby steps, my friend, baby steps. :)

    • Bella, I’ll forgive you if you promise to see one of the films on my list this summer. Trust me, you can’t go wrong. Start with one of Cary Grant’s flicks. And that is a big baby step!

  13. I was thrilled when “The Artist” came out. It took me back to a time where we used our imagination more – we got to paint in the movie anyway we wanted. I hope we see more of them.

    • Elizabeth, that’s a great way to sum up the films of yore: They left so much to the imagination. I don’t know if The Artist marks a comeback for them, but I hope it’s bringing a resurgence of interest in them. ;)

  14. Hi Monica, I remember a few years back my hubby was anxious to show my daughter the 3 stooges, thinking she loves slapstick and would find it hysterical. Well they sat down to watch and she couldn’t get past the opening credits because it was in black and white. It was just such a foreign concept to her. As she’s gotten older she’s become more tolerant of black and white. And, I for one, just LOVE the Who’s on First routine, it is classic, timeless, hysterical funny!!!

    • I have to tell you, Lisa. I never liked the Three Stooges. They were too over the top violent for me. But I do remember how popular they were. Abbott and Costello had their moments of Abbott giving a slap to Costello. But overall, they were just funny and Costello was a man with a little child inside. He was just adorable, innocent and childlike.

  15. I *love* black and white.

    I think “A Streetcar Named Desire” was black and white. Loved that. I also loved – and was glued for three hours to – the original “Das Boot”, a German film (with subtitles) about life on a German submarine during WWII. Excellent…

  16. And think all those wonderful Fred Astaire movies, he so suave and debonair, dancing across the screen in vivid myriad shades of black and white. And “On the Waterfront” and “To Have & Have Not” (almost anything with Humphrey Bogart), and “Citizen Kane.”

  17. Looks like you’ve mentioned the best B/W films, Monica! I love so many on your list, particularly To Kill a Mockingbird. That one’s satisfying on so many levels!

    • I tried to fit them all in without making the list too long and scaring folks away. But, I did leave one or two out, like The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (Cary Grant, Myrna Loy and Shirley Temple in her teenage years). Also, The Philadelphia Story!

  18. Wow. A great list. I think kids today are so sensory-shocked that B&W simply requires too much concentration for them. It’s a Wonderful Life – that was B&W wasn’t it? And Casablanca? Two of my all time favourites. I still love that The Wizard of Oz starts off in B&W and then moves to colour in the land of Oz. The birth of cinematography! Next groovy movie night here, we’re doing B&W for sure :)

  19. I love this post, and love the list you’ve compiled, which includes some of my all-time favorites, though I would have to add ‘My Man Godfrey’ and Preston Sturges films like ‘Sullivan’s Travels’ and ‘The Great McGinty.’ I would even venture to say there’s an intimacy to black and white films, which I’ve long had a fondness for watching late at night, in bed.

  20. I grew up on black & white as my parents did not buy a color television set until long after I left home. As for films, one of my favorites not on your list is “Gaslight” with Ingrid Bergman. I also loved all of the Ma & Pa Kettle films, or were they just TV shows?

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