Why Do I Love Old Black and White TV Shows and Movies?

by James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Normally I watch the latest hit TV shows, usually on Netflix, HBO, or Amazon Prime. Generally, I watch these shows with friends. I’ve gotten so I don’t like watching TV alone. However, when I do, it’s because I’m too tired to do anything else and it’s too early to go to bed. When I’m alone I’m drawn to old black and white television shows, movie westerns from the 1950s and old Hollywood movies from the 1930s. Why do I prefer black and white shows? Why do I save shows in color for when I’m with friends?

MeTV got me hooked on two old TV series this month, The Fugitive and The Outer Limits. Both shows premiered in 1963. As a kid, I discovered The Outer Limits when the first episode aired. It ran on Monday nights at 7 on ABC. My father loved The Fugitive which came out on Tuesdays on ABC at 10 pm. I watched it some back then but didn’t really care for it. I generally hated the TV my folks loved. I don’t know if that was rebellion or I was just too young for the content.

I have a hard time remembering my dad being home, but he loved TV, and he liked it best when us kids weren’t around. There was nothing on Tuesdays at 10 my sister Becky and I wanted to see, so we left him alone to watch The Fugitive in peace. A half-century later, I’m staying up late watching The Fugitive alone like he did. I wonder if that gives me any kind of psychic connection to how my father felt?

Fugitive

Becky and I were horrible TV hogs. We’d have huge shouting matches with our dad on Sunday nights during the 1966/67 season when we pleaded to watch The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and he fought to see Bonanza, his favorite western. I loved westerns too, but not Bonanza or The Virginian, my mother’s favorite cowboy show. Gunsmoke was my TV shoot-em-up. I don’t think Becky ever liked westerns, but I should ask her the next time she calls.

This year I’ve also bought the first seasons of Gunsmoke, Have Gun Will Travel, Route 66, and Cheyenne. I bought the complete series of The Twilight Zone on Blu-ray and The Fugitive on DVD. I’m thinking about buying Perry Mason and Maverick.

Route 66

I used to hate Perry Mason, which was my mother’s all-time favorite TV show. She also loved to read the Perry Mason mysteries. But for some reason this year, I started watching them on MeTV. I liked that it was in black and white and sometimes featured street scenes of the early 1960s. That’s why I bought Route 66 because it was filmed on location, viewing 1963 America in contrasty black and white.

 

At the start of the 1963 TV season, we were living on Homestead Air Force Base. I started the seventh grade at Redlands Junior High in South Florida, when I was eleven. After a few weeks, we moved back to Hollywood, Florida, and I attended my second 7th-grade school, but I forgot its name. I thought it was Broward Junior High, but I can’t verify that on the internet. I was in class at that school when they announced over the PA that JFK had been shot. Three days later I turned twelve. After that, we moved to South Carolina, where I went to my third 7th-grade school, John F. Kennedy Junior High.

The Outer Limits

Memories of 1963 represent living in two states and three schools, and for some reason the 1963/64 television season also vividly sticks in my mind. I started regularly listening to rock music at the end of 1962 when I got an AM clock radio for Christmas. I became much more aware of the world around this time. It was during that time period I became a bookworm, rock & roll fan, addicted to the boob tube, and started going to the movie theater on my own.

High Barbaree

I remember watching TV since I was four or five, probably with the 1956/57 television season. My family didn’t get a color television set until 1965, so my first decade of TV was in glorious black and white. All my life I’ve loved old black and white movies from the 1930s and 1940s. I wonder if that’s because I spent my formative years viewing a B&W TV screen? My earliest memory of my father is waking up in the middle of the night when I was four, and walking out to the living room to find my dad watching an old movie on television. He let me stay up and watch it with him. This is my first memory of television and the first movie I ever remember seeing. I didn’t discover until years later it was High Barbaree (1947) with June Allyson and Van Johnson.

Why now? Why has my mind started craving old black and white TV shows again, ones from long ago? Is it just nostalgia? Is it a way of communing with my dead parents. And isn’t it odd that I’m not watching the shows I loved as a kid but prefer seeing the ones my parents watched when I wasn’t around?  I still can’t stand Bonanza or The Virginia. Both of those shows insult my sense of what a western should be.

The other night my friends and I watched The Solid Gold Cadilac and I found it immensely pleasurable it was in wide-screen black and white. I can only remember a couple wide-screen black and white films at the moment, The Apartment and The Big Trail, both of which I have on Blu-ray. It’s a shame B&W wide-screen didn’t catch on back in 1930.

Am I drawn to the black and white, or to the period content? I don’t know. I’m not sure I would like The Fugitive as much if it had been in color for its first three seasons. For some reason, I’ve never liked the remakes of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits which were made in color. And the only horror movies I enjoy are the classics from the 1930s which were in black and white.

I wonder if nostalgia comes in black and white and modernity in technicolor? The 1950s were definitely a black and white decade to me, even though I have some personal photographs to prove it was indeed in color. I wonder if kids who have always lived with color TV ever think of the past in black and white? Were my formative years corrupted by black and white TV sets? Will children today remember the world in LCD/OLED imagery? How would my consciousness of the past be today if I had never seen a TV, movie or computer screen, or photograph of any kind? Would I even conceive of black and white?

The world does turn black and white in low light, or when you’ve had way too much to drink. But now that we preserve the past digitally in color, will that eventually eliminate an appreciation of viewing reality in grayscale?

JWH

 

 

 

3 thoughts on “Why Do I Love Old Black and White TV Shows and Movies?”

  1. I think B&W requires a certain subtlety on the part of the observer, be it photos or artworks or movies, (the good ones anyway) that colour doesn’t require of us. We have to see into the shadows to understand what’s really going on. 🙂

  2. I prefer B & W since I find that, at least on TVs, the colors are often simply wrong — too bright, too neon, too gaudy. In short, just as unrealistic as B & W, but and a lot more annoying.

  3. Hi James

    An interesting discussion of B&W vs colour, but also an interesting memoir in general.
    I am glad you are enjoying watching the old shows, I find as I get older I do tend to reflect on my own past and that of my family from a very different perspective. I also find a certain comfort in mixing new experiences with some of the familiar cultural tropes from my past.

    All the best.
    Guy

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