Sony's Columbia TriStar home-video unit is releasing two Three Stooges DVDs that allow viewers to watch the original black-and-white or digitally colorized versions.
Purists consider it desecration, while Sony executives say the process can help introduce Hollywood classics to young audiences reluctant to watch anything in black and white.
The Stooges discs coming out Tuesday also give die-hard fans better black-and-white versions, the studio insists.
To prepare for the colorization process, Sony did a more extensive restoration than it had with previous black-and-white-only Stooges DVD, said Bob Simmons, a technical specialist who worked on the project.
"The best thing about this DVD release is it gives the consumer the ultimate choice," said Suzanne White, vice president of marketing for Columbia TriStar home entertainment. "They can watch the very best, the finest restored image of the black-and-white version, or watch the new colorized version and switch instantaneously between the two."
The new Stooges DVDs, "Goofs on the Loose" and "Stooged and Confoosed," contain four shorts each featuring Moe and Curly Howard and Larry Fine.
Offering a choice does not appease colorization critics, who include Sam Raimi, director of Sony's "Spider-Man" blockbusters.
"I don't think they should mess with black and white," said Raimi, who is such a Stooges fan that credits on some of his movies label extras as "fake Shemps," a reference to doubles used to complete Stooges shorts after the death of Shemp Howard, who replaced brother Curly after his stroke in the 1940s.
"I think they should just leave it as they are and try to preserve them as best they can. I feel like it's an artistic interpretation that's not anybody's right to make except the director's."
In the 1980s, media magnate Ted Turner enraged film-lovers when he colorized "Casablanca," "The Maltese Falcon" and other classic black-and-white films from the MGM library he had acquired.
Those 1980s dye jobs often tinted actors' faces an unnatural, pasty hue, while colors of clothing, sets and props were arbitrary.
The new digital process allows greater range of colors that give people, objects and backgrounds a more natural look, Simmons said. Researchers also mined Sony's archives and prop warehouses to more accurately recreate colors, he said.
For example, they found the actual stove used in "An Ache in Every Stake," in which the Stooges play ice-delivery men caught up in preparing a fancy birthday meal that climaxes with an exploding cake. The stove was yellow, so that's the hue it has in the colorized version, Simmons said.
Yet critics say it's bogus to match colors to studio props, whose tints were chosen for the way they photographed in black and white. Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert, responding to a reader's question last month, wrote that for consistency, colorized versions would paint the actors' faces light green, the color of makeup that was applied so they would photograph better in black and white.
"Colorization is a form of vandalism," Ebert wrote.
Columbia TriStar's White says colorization is just another tool to make old movies more palatable to modern audiences, like converting analog sound to 5.1 digital audio.
The studio hopes to use the colorization process on some black-and-white feature films. If coloring the images raises consumer interest in old titles, "it may be a way of getting more black-and-white films released" that otherwise would not have been economically feasible, White said.
"Star Wars" creator George Lucas, who testified with Steven Spielberg before Congress in the 1980s against colorization and other forms of alteration, said the process yanks such slapstick performers as the Stooges out of the black-and-white universe they belong in.
"Would color distract from their comedy and make it not as funny anymore?" Lucas said. "Maybe just the fact that they're in black and white makes it funny, because their humor is dated. But by putting it in black and white, it puts it in a context where you can appreciate it for what it was.
"But you try to make it in full living color and try to compare it to a Jim Carrey movie, then it's hard for young people to understand. Because you're then thinking you're comparing apples to apples, when you're not. You're comparing apples to oranges. I'm saying it's not fair to the artist."
By David Germain