Is 'It's a Wonderful Life' better in black and white or color? Stars of the Christmas classic debate

With the purpose of launching the United Photo Press book for the celebration of 30 years of black and white projects, scheduled for Christmas 2020 for members, the films during the holiday season always come to the subject whether they should be in color or in black and White.

Frank Capra’s beloved 1946 classic It’s a Wonderful Life airs like clockwork — and sometimes around the clock — every Christmas season, typically in its original black and white form.

Still, sometimes that controversial colorized version rears its head, like on a new Steelbook Blu-ray of the film released in November, which includes both a remastered black and white version in 4K Ultra HD and as well as a colorized one.

Everyone agrees that the original black and white version of the film is superior, though, right?

Not co-star Karolyn Grimes, who memorably played that “little gingersnap” Zuzu, the youngest daughter of George Bailey (Jimmie Stewart), the downtrodden Bedford Falls fellow who receives a fateful Christmas Eve visit from his guardian angel (Henry Travers), revealing all the good he’s done in his life.

“I know that’ll kill a lot of people, but I love the color,” Grimes says laughing during a recent interview 

It's a Wonderful Life colorized version. (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

From her vantage point, Grimes, 80, has perfectly valid reasoning for her preference. “You know, when I filmed it, it was in color. It was real life,” said the former child star, who stopped acting in the early 1950s. “And that's how I remember my memories of making a film. It was real, not black and white. So for me, a color gives it more reality.”

Co-star Jimmy Hawkins, who played Tommy Bailey, memorable burper and youngest son of George and Mary (Donna Reed), is more of a traditionalist. “I like the black and white version, because that's the way it was shot and meant to be. The depths of the black and the white, a lot of work went into getting that look.”

But Hawkins, who has also authored five books about the film, doesn’t harbor hard feelings for anyone on Team Color.

“A lot of people are purists and they don't want to see the colorized version,” says Hawkins, 79, who also appeared on Leave It to Beaver and The Donna Reed Show. “But I must say I went to San Diego and took my siblings down there to where they colorized the picture. It was brilliant. It really looks like it was shot in color, it isn’t phony. … They did a fabulous job.

“And the kids today aren't really into black and white. So they have this version. I've told people, I don't care if they Polka dot it. If it gets them to watch the movie and gets the message [across], that we're all important, I'm all for it.”

Another reason Grimes prefers the colorized version is the smaller details it helps bring to light. “You watch it so many times that you start looking at things behind the [actors], you look in the background, and you see so many more things in the color version than you do in the black and white, because everything just stands out more. I've had people write to me and want to know what George Bailey and his father had at that last meal before his father died. People like to dissect the film, and it's just really much easier to do in color.” (As for what Grimes says George and his father ate that night? “About the only thing I could see was rolls and salad,” she laughs.)

Both Grimes and Hawkins will tell you, however, that neither Capra nor Stewart approved of the color.

Stewart “wasn’t a big fan,” Hawkins recalls of his conversations with the late actor. “He said it looked like Walt Disney threw up on it.”

“Frank Capra said they bastardized the film,” Grimes remembers.

But both former actors point out that Capra (who died in 1991) and Stewart (who died in 1997) were reacting to the earlier colorizations of the film from Hal Roach Studios in 1986 and Republic Pictures in 1989. The third colorization, by Legend Films in 2007 — the upgrade Hawkins and his siblings saw transferred in San Diego and is included on the new Blu-ray release — has generally been far better received.

Regardless of its coloring, there’s no debate over the enduring legacy of It’s a Wonderful Life.

“It’s the message of the movie,” Hawkins replies when asked what’s made the film still so popular nearly 75 years later. “Each man’s life touches so many others. If they weren’t around, they’d leave an awful hole.”

“It applies to yesterday, today and tomorrow,” Grimes adds. “Every year at Christmas we have this opportunity to reflect on our lives and realize that yes, after we watch George Bailey go through his life, we realize that we really do matter. People care. It’s something that’s important to feel in your life, that you make a difference.”

Kevin Polowy