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Ruckus over coloring old movies reaches halls of Congress

Of all the issues lawmakers visit each year, few are as black and white as this. Or so say a gaggle of Hollywood types that descended on Capitol Hill this week to decry the ``colorization'' of black-and-white movies. Now they've found their voice in Congress. Yesterday, Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri introduced a bill that would prohibit the alteration of films without the consent of the director and screenwriter.

``Classic feature films are a vital part of America's living heritage,'' declared Representative Gephardt, a contender for the Democratic Party's 1988 presidential nomination. ``But now these voices are in danger of being muffled.''

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Behind the controversy is a computerized process that advocates say broadens the appeal of older movies to a generation weaned on Technicolor. Use of the process is spreading rapidly, in part because cable-TV magnate Ted Turner bought the lion's share of MGM's movie library with the aim of broadcasting colorized renditions of the films.

But the practice makes film artists see red. Colorizing a film, they say, is the moral equivalent of reorchestrating Beethoven to a disco beat. Tuesday, in a congressional hearing on the matter, Academy Award-winning director Woody Allen labeled the practice ``sinful,'' said that he ``fought for the privilege'' to shoot movies like ``Manhattan'' and ``Stardust Memories'' in black and white, and claimed that colorizing was favored by those who assume that the American public is made up of ``idiots'' who have ``no taste.'' Milos Forman, director of ``Amadeus,'' compared colorization to repainting the Sistine Chapel.

It's just as bad for those appearing in front of the camera, complained former movie idol Ginger Rogers. She says she never would have appeared in the movie ``42nd Street'' dressed as she was if the film had been shot in color instead of in black and white. ``I would like to tell you how it feels as an actor to see yourself painted up like a birthday cake on the television screen,'' she said. In that movie's colorized version, she said, the actors ``looked as if we had all been spray-painted or doused with dye. ... It feels terrible. It hurts. It's embarrassing and insulting.''

Gephardt says he does not know the prospects for his bill's passage, adding that hearings will be held later this fall. But it is certain to run into stiff opposition from some parts of the film and broadcast industry, who say they are also interested in preserving America's cultural and artistic heritage on film and suggest that the legislation would violate their constitutional rights.

``This is not a contest between art and commerce,'' says Roger Mayer, president of Turner Entertainment Company, which has embarked on a program of colorizing MGM, RKO, and Warner Brothers classics. ``When anticolorists deny the right to color black-and-white pictures they are calling for censorship.''

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