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'Lucy' special puts colorization back in spotlight

Thursday - 12/19/2013, 9:22pm  ET

This image released by CBS shows Lucille Ball, center, dressed as Santa Claus in a colorized "I Love Lucy Christmas Special" airing on Friday, Dec. 20, on CBS. (AP Photo/CBS)

AP National Writer

You look at them, and somehow it's not how they're supposed to look: Lucy and Ricky, Fred and Ethel, moving around familiar sets doing their familiar "I Love Lucy" thing. And yet they seem more substantial, more real. Because this time, they are rendered in color.

Fred looks stylish in light-brown tweed. Ethel is resplendent in a purple Christmas dress. The furniture and carpeting in the Ricardos' apartment is not gray and grayer but blue and subtly mauve. And Lucy -- well, Lucy is her usual ball of chaos, with one key difference: Her red hair, implied over and over during the show's 1951-57 run, is inevitably, assertively, undeniably, out-of-a-bottle red.

With the "I Love Lucy Christmas Special" (8 p.m. ET Friday), CBS ventures into the world of colorizing two vintage episodes of an Eisenhower-era TV show that, perhaps more than any other from that period, sent a message down through the years of what life in the 1950s (or, at least, the sitcom version) might have looked like. The episodes, CBS says, "were colorized with a vintage look, a nod to the 1950s period in which the shows were filmed."

Which, of course, raises the questions that tend to come about when technology allows us to inject color into the once black-and-white mists of our cultural history: Does it make things better? And should we?

Colorization of one sort or another has been around since the earliest photography and the earliest movies, but never has it been so sophisticated. Today, through digital algorithms, chunks of yesterday's monochromatic pop culture are presented in entirely new ways to both fanfare and scorn.

Inevitably, that does two things to the imagery: It looks more vibrant, and it takes a step away from the original.

"In colorizing the 'I Love Lucys,' there's an effort to kind of recreate this bright, brilliant, tail-finned polychrome world of the 1950s which existed in part but is kind of romanticized in memory," says Regina Lee Blaszczyk, author of "The Color Revolution," a look at how color was marketed to Americans in the 19th and 20th centuries.

"We're trying to re-create this visual culture that never really existed," she says.

All kinds of things that never really existed have entered the realm of the visual in these recent years of technological fast-forward. We exist today in an era when old images can become new images, and vice versa.

For each colorized old photograph of an early 20th-century Russian or dust-bowl worker that goes viral on the Internet and makes the past look more like right now, there are thousands of digitally faded, scratch-filtered images on photo-sharing services like Instagram that make right now look exactly like the past. Figuring it all out -- developing a visual literacy for a culture of digital manipulation -- can boggle the mind.

Dana Keller, a colorizer who specializes in historical photos, adds hues to images of Lincoln, Amelia Earhart and the Hindenburg crash, among others. The results are compelling. His colorization forces us to think of the subjects as more tangible and, somehow, less distant.

"When it's in color, it's easier to say, 'Oh those are real people. They're living lives like I am,'" Keller says. "It's an opportunity for other people to see it in a new way and feel a bit closer to it. It's just adding onto it, not replacing it."

Indeed, if you grew up watching "I Love Lucy" during its original run or in perpetual UHF and basic-cable reruns through the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, watching the two colorized "Lucy" episodes is a singular experience. It's the TV equivalent of adjusting your eyes to Oz after Dorothy lands there from Kansas.

Unexpected things "pop" and catch the eye. Ricky's striped tie, with its bursts of red, makes him even more the dandy. The colored furniture reminds you of something that could be in your own house, not in a TV studio on some distant planet called the past. And when Lucy stomps grapes in a vineyard in the classic episode "Lucy's Italian Movie," the juxtaposition of the purple mash with her red hair makes her character seem even zanier than she already was.

The late movie critics Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel didn't like colorization. In a 1986 show about it called "Hollywood's New Vandalism," they lamented deals that colorized such classics as "It's a Wonderful Life," ''High Sierra" and "The Maltese Falcon" over the objections of the Directors Guild of America.

"The colorizers seem to feel that there's something missing from a black-and-white film, as if the film were somehow handicapped by not being in color," Ebert said.

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