When Ted Turner Tried to Colorize Citizen Kane: See the Only Surviving Scene from the Great Act of Cinematic Sacrilege

Could there be a greater act of cin­e­mat­ic sac­ri­lege than col­oriz­ing Cit­i­zen Kane? For most of the past 78 years since its pre­miere, Orson Welles’ debut fea­ture has been wide­ly con­sid­ered the great­est motion pic­ture ever made: wit­ness, for instance, its dom­i­na­tion of Sight & Sound mag­a­zine’s crit­ics poll from 1962 until its slip to sec­ond place under Alfred Hitch­cock­’s Ver­ti­go in 2012. Artis­ti­cal­ly inno­v­a­tive in ways that still influ­ence movies today, it would seem that Cit­i­zen Kane requires no help from sub­se­quent gen­er­a­tions. But that did­n’t stop Ted Turn­er, the media mogul whose pre­vi­ous col­oriza­tions of Casablan­caKing Kong, and The Philadel­phia Sto­ry had already dis­heart­ened not just lovers of clas­sic Hol­ly­wood films but those films’ sur­viv­ing mak­ers as well.

“Turn­er Enter­tain­ment Com­pa­ny, which had obtained the home video rights to Cit­i­zen Kane in 1986, announced with much fan­fare on Jan­u­ary 29, 1989 its plans to col­orize Welles’ first Hol­ly­wood movie,” writes Ray Kel­ly at Wellesnet. “There was an imme­di­ate back­lash with the Welles estate and Direc­tors Guild of Amer­i­ca threat­en­ing legal action.”

Welles him­self had died in 1985, but the film­mak­er Hen­ry Jaglom quot­ed the direc­tor of Cit­i­zen Kane as impor­tun­ing him not to “let Ted Turn­er deface my movie with his crayons.” Ulti­mate­ly Turn­er’s crayons were indeed stayed, but for legal rea­sons: a review of Welles’ ini­tial con­tract with RKO “revealed he had been giv­en absolute artis­tic con­trol over his first Hol­ly­wood film, which it spec­i­fied would be a black-and-white pic­ture” — an odd spec­i­fi­ca­tion to declare back in 1940, but declared nonethe­less.

Before that dis­cov­ery, “a team at Col­or Sys­tems Tech­nol­o­gy Inc. in Mari­na del Rey, Cal­i­for­nia” had already “secret­ly col­orized a por­tion of Orson Welles’ land­mark black and white film”: its final ten min­utes, Rose­bud and all. The only known sur­viv­ing footage of this project — which took Cit­i­zen Kane and not just col­orized it but also, of course, reduced it to the res­o­lu­tion and aspect ratio of 1980s tele­vi­sion — is includ­ed in the BBC Are­na doc­u­men­tary The Com­plete Cit­i­zen Kane, the rel­e­vant clip of which appears at the top of the post. Kel­ly quotes William Scha­ef­fer, assis­tant art direc­tor at CST at the time, as remem­ber­ing the results fond­ly: “I thought it looked fine.” Then again, Scha­ef­fer had nev­er actu­al­ly seen the real Cit­i­zen Kane — and as for the rest of us, we per­haps breathe a lit­tle eas­i­er know­ing that Ver­ti­go is already in col­or.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Orson Welles Explains Why Igno­rance Was His Major “Gift” to Cit­i­zen Kane

Jorge Luis Borges Reviews Cit­i­zen Kane — and Gets a Response from Orson Welles

Don­ald Decon­structs Cit­i­zen Kane

Watch the New Trail­er for Orson Welles’ Lost Film, The Oth­er Side of the Wind: A Glimpse of Footage from the Final­ly Com­plet­ed Film

Metrop­o­lis Remixed: Fritz Lang’s Ger­man Expres­sion­ist Sci-Fi Clas­sic Gets Ful­ly Col­orized and Dubbed

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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Comments (3)
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  • wds says:

    Would actu­al­ly be nice to see/hear the clip with­out the dread­ful nar­ra­tion … SMH

  • Dave C. Alexander says:

    Please col­orize the 1940s movie Brigham Young with the cast Dean Jag­ger, Vin­cent Price, John Car­ra­dine, Tyrone Pow­er, Lin­da Par­nel. The new Gen­er­a­tion prefers col­or to Black and white and this col­or ver­sion would be a big com­mod­i­ty for hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple glob­al­ly. Please Make these Black and white films pop­u­lar again. But please do Brigham Young first. Mem­bers of the Church of Jesus Christ of lat­ter day Saints glob­al­ly would recoup your invest­ment eas­i­ly. Thank you, Dave C. Alexan­der. My address is 3408 Hum­boldt Way, Sacra­men­to, 95864–3820 , My cell­phone num­ber is 916 952 8021

  • Mark says:

    “Could there be a greater act of cin­e­mat­ic sac­ri­lege than col­oriz­ing Cit­i­zen Kane?” I used a machine learn­ing algo­rithm to make Cit­i­zen Kane 3D and screen it on the Big Screen beta VR app. I kept it black & white though. The cin­e­matog­ra­phy does look real nice in 3D and it does­n’t ruin the light­ing and style in the way that a col­oriza­tion would.

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