One of the most enduring and perhaps contentious debates among film fans is whether or not a truly classic movie MUST be in black and white.

We don’t think so, although we may exhibit from time to time a real bias AGAINST technicolor. (Why do we think that director Martin Scorsese secretly shares our view, and would love make all his movies in black and white?)

Hi everybody, Joe Morella and Frank Segers, your Classic Movie guys, back again to note that during the early 1950s — when the big Hollywood studios were floundering in the wake of TV’s great success — there were many small black and white films released and immediately forgotten.

The studios were banking on gimmicks such as Cinemascope and 3D  to get people back into movie theaters. AND, boy, films had to be in color.  The thinking was, after all, that since TV was in black and white, why would any sane consumer pay a fee to see a movie that was also in black and white?

But studio executives often missed the point that some of their “small” black and white films are real gems.

A few weeks ago we ran a column on Jose Ferrer.  One of our savvy readers, Patricia Nolan-Hall, responding to our blog (Jose who?) published on Sept. 12, wrote:

“Some of my favorite highlights from (Ferrer’s) impressive career include ‘A Midnight’s Sex Comedy,’ guesting often as Arthur Vanderkellen on ‘Newhart,’ and the scene in ‘Deep In My Heart’ where, as Sigmond Romberg, he enacts an entire new Broadway show written for Al Jolson.

“Sadly, I have never seen ‘The Shrike.’ It is a movie and performance highly touted to me by friends I trust.  Also, I don’t think ‘The Great Man’ is as well known as it should be. Joe directed and starred in this movie which uncovers unpleasant truths about a recently deceased beloved television star.”

We agree, Patricia. 

Through the years Ferrer did some excellent work both in front of, and behind the cameras. Ferrer had produced, directed and starred in”The Shrike” on Broadway. The play won the Pulitzer Prize for author Joseph Kramm in 1952.  Judith Evelyn portrayed his wife.

But for the film version, which was to be the first film directed by Ferrer, the studio demanded a box office name, and the wife was portrayed by June Allyson.

Although this seemed a clever bit of casting (the wife preys on her husband, and has driven him to suicide while appearing sweet and loving to all others), Allyson does not help the film.  The actress must portray an underlying evil, which is in the script. Allyson, alas, could not project that.  The film suffers, but it is definitely worth seeing for Ferrer’s performance, and because the script is so well written.

Ferrer also directed and starred in “The Great Man.” It’s a sort of low budget “Citizen Kane,” revealing the true character of a beloved radio star after his death. Universal released the  the movie in 1956.  It  deserves disinterment (are you listening, Turner Classic Movies?). The cast is excellent, and includes Dean Jagger and Keenan Wynn.

For the record, the beloved media personality that Ferrer’s character unmasks in “The Great Man” as a cynical swine was a fictitious national radio commentator identified as one Herb Fuller.  In 1956, television had not yet achieved the mass penetration of radio. The Fuller character if depicted today would, of course, would be a tv personality.

The Fuller character was supposedly a portrait of radio and TV personality Arthur Godfrey (that’s Arthur in the above photo).  A giant of CBS Radio (and later television) for 11 years beginning in 1948, Godfrey’s on-air presentation of himself was as a ukulele-playing good guy (he called himself “the old redhead”).

His Achilles heel was his insistence on total offstage control of the careers of aspiring performers that appeared on his “Talent Scouts” show.  His popularity took a hit when he unctuously fired — while on the air — rising young singer, Julius LaRosa, because he had the temerity to hire an agent. If indeed “The Great Man” was inspired by Godfrey (he died at 82 in 1983), the old redhead was a lot less genial than he appeared.

Another great black and white “small” film from the period is “These Wilder Years,” which costars James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck in a tale of a business tycoon trying to track down the son he gave up for adoption.

See all three of these.  They’re well worth it.

Did you like this? Share it: