“The last time I checked, I owned the films that we’re in the process of colorizing,” a television executive said in 1986. “I can do whatever I want with them, and if they’re going to be shown on television, they’re going to be in color.”
That TV executive was Ted Turner, who had just paid $1.6 billion for the decaying Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studio – for the express purpose of acquiring a library of more than 3,000 movies, including all pre-1986 MGM and pre-1948 Warner Bros films, most RKO releases, and some United Artists titles. After enduring widespread condemnation, investigation and even lawsuits over his colorization efforts, Turner went on to use that library to launch Turner Classic Movies in 1994. For that alone, he’ll be remembered as the single most important figure in keeping classic film alive.
Yes, Ted Turner colorized CASABLANCA. But despite his boast that “once people start watching the colored version, they won’t bother with the original,” a gorgeous, black and white restoration of the film aired again today on the channel that bears his name. The color version has long since been forgotten.
I was reminded of this reading about tonight’s broadcast of two colorized episodes of I Love Lucy in primetime on CBS. At 8 p.m. CBS will air The ‘I Love Lucy’ Superstar Special which includes Hollywood at Last, a 1955 episode featuring guest star William Holden, and Lucy and Superman, a 1957 installment in which George Reeves (then starring in the The Adventures of Superman) appears in costume as Supes at Little Ricky’s birthday party.
As expected, purists are outraged over this bastardization of an iconic classic, much like they were in 2013 when CBS aired a colorized version of a lost Lucy Christmas special that had been re-discovered in 1989.
But, like Ted Turner in 1986, CBS owns the rights to I Love Lucy and can do what it wants with them. They could colorize every episode and make more money in syndication than they already have from the beloved series (which still airs regularly on numerous channels).
But they haven’t. In fact, CBS is about to release the second season of I Love Lucy on Blu-ray in black and white and, if the excellent Season 1 Blu is any indication, much time and expense has been invested in restoring the episodes to their original broadcast form. (The series has been syndicated for generations with non-original opening and closing titles that were actually created for reruns in 1959).
CBS’s 2013 broadcast of the I Love Lucy Christmas special drew 8.7 million viewers and was the highest-rated TV program of the night and the 16th most-watched show of the week. A few months later CBS released the Season 1 Blu-ray set. Perhaps the timing was coincidental, but more likely, CBS used the promotional platform of a heavily promoted, primetime network special to attract fans old and new to a definitive home video release. And the same thing is likely happening tonight, with the Season 2 Blu release set for July 17 (and already available on pre-order from Amazon).
Do I wish 8.7 million viewers would tune in to a primetime broadcast in black and white? Of course. But they won’t, due to unfortunate prejudices I cannot control. If CBS chooses to colorize a handful of episodes to serve the longterm viability of this iconic franchise, they have my complete support. And if, like me, you’d rather watch the show in its original form, Lucy and Superman is streaming at Hulu in glorious black and white (and high definition) and Hollywood at Last is available on CBS’s subscription VOD service CBS All Access. These shows are also available on DVD and eventually will be on Blu-ray. And, like the original version of CASABLANCA, they’re not going away.
Finally, if you really want to be indignant, direct that vitriol at TV Land and the Hallmark Channel, which routinely air I Love Lucy edited and/or time-compressed in order to squeeze in more commercials. As far as I can tell, only the classic TV digi-net MeTV offers Lucy unedited, every morning at 7:30 a.m. (ET). Because, in my book, editing Lucy is a sin far more unforgivable than colorizing her.
Update 5/20/15 – “The ‘I Love Lucy’ Superstar Special” was the highest rated scripted program of the night on broadcast TV with 6.4 million total viewers. The special had almost twice the number of live viewers as the highly promoted finale of “Mad Men” on AMC.