Like most children growing up in the last half of the 20th century, I dreamed of a 64-count box of Crayola crayons. In school we had eight-count boxes. I wanted 64—all the myriad colors including bittersweet, sky blue, and raw umber. The 64-count box also had a built-in sharpener. A virtual Technicolor assortment of waxy goodness and a sharpener to keep them in ready condition! What more could a child have wanted? I drew all kinds of pictures and shapes, some more recognizable than others. I liked coloring books and would often give the illustration of a flower a different color for each of its petals. Mother Nature, who is the most creative color genius, had nothing on me when I was inspired by the 64 pack! Of course I was fond of the bright cheerful colors, but was also very intrigued by the monochromatic moody tones like charcoal grey, blue grey, and black. These darker colors gave my drawings attitude, shape, and depth. This fondness for the black-and-white toned crayons got me thinking about the black-and-white films that are some of my favorites.
I can’t recall the first black-and-white movie I ever saw, but it must have been on television because we had a black-and-white tv for most of my childhood. My favorite television shows were shot in black and white, like The Munsters, F Troop, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. The moody grey/black tones were perfect for these three programs and the various others that made up the network seasons in the mid-1960s before the shift to color production and the mass retailing of color television sets.
Among my favorite black-and-white films in MoMA’s collection are Dodsworth (1936), Skeleton Dance (1929), Little Fugitive (1953), and How Green Was My Valley (1941). Such a disparate group of films with almost nothing in common except for the fact that all were shot in black and white. Dodsworth is a sophisticated drama about the dissolution of a marriage, based on the Sinclair Lewis novel. Skeleton Dance is a cheeky musical short animated by Ub Iwerks and directed by Walt Disney with creepy goings-on taking place at the stroke of midnight in a cemetery. Little Fugitive by the New York–based independent filmmakers Morris Engel, Ruth Orkin, and Ray Ashley follows a seven-year-old boy on the lam in Coney Island. Finally, How Green Was My Valley—about the lives of coal mining families in Wales—seems to me to be a quintessential black-and-white film, given the dark mines, coal-streaked faces, and the pervasive cast of soot everywhere.Black-and-white films allow one’s imagination to color in the pictures. They permit the viewer to be the color advisor, no matter how random or fanciful the choices may be. Our visual world is chock-full of its own multihued aspects, so why not indulge in a black-and-white pictorial zone and color in your own domain? Black-and-white films lend themselves to this facet of creativity. Also, did you know that the wardrobes worn by the actors in black-and-white films were rarely black, white, or grey? On screen, color tonalities for black-and-white films often made the choices of fabric colors quite important in the overall look. For example, when Clara Bow wears a pantsuit with a cream-colored top and what appear to be grey/black pants in Hoo-pla (1933), the actual costume consisted of emerald green pants. The green fabric was not selected for its tangible color, but rather how it would appear on black-and-white film. The filmmakers were probably aiming for a shade of grey and the cream-colored shirt made an even more subtle shade of grey. How do I know this—MoMA has Bow’s actual ivory and green pantsuit in the Special Collections of the Film Department.
There is a great complexity to tone, depth, hue, and shade when considering the practice of black-and-white filmmaking. Oftentimes you will see myriad tints of grey, cream, sometimes brown, and of course black. Author Frank Viva demonstrates the limitless attributes of black-and-white films in his new children’s book Young Charlotte Filmmaker. The bespectacled Charlotte prefers black-and-white everything and even tries using a straw to “drink all the color right out of the air.” On a visit to MoMA, Charlotte meets a kindly film curator named Scarlet who shares the child’s preference for black-and-white films. Scarlet says to her new friend, “I like how black and white clear away the clutter.” Scarlet encouraged Charlotte to make a movie and the girl returns to the Museum with a film about her cat Smudge. At a MoMA screening of the movie, the audience applauds the film and embraces Charlotte’s offbeat black-and-white world. Frank Viva concludes the book with “the next day, the whole colorful city is talking about Charlotte’s film. Even the kids at her school show up and embrace Charlotte in all her black and whiteness.” Contrary to the old adage of black and white being a concept of certainty, we are now also able to consider black and white—and black-and-white movies—as ideas of enchanting ambiguity!
Catch early classics of black-and-white cinema from MoMA’s collection in the program Modern Matinees featuring upcoming screenings of How Green Was My Valley. Mark your calendar for a special Family Films presentation of silent films on December 5, and share your love of black-and-white film with a new generation—buy a copy of Young Charlotte, Filmmaker by Frank Viva for someone special today.