The Smithsonian Channel’s new series, America in Color, chronicles the nation’s history, from the 1920s through the 1960s, via digitally colorized footage. The effect is revelatory, even allowing for the sometimes strange-looking color tones (there is no way for viewers to know if the colors are “right”; we have to trust the technologists, as with so many other things today). I haven’t caught up yet with the episodes on the 1930s and 1940s, but I have seen the opening installment, on the 1920s—and I can’t imagine any of the sequels having quite the same impact. That’s because the nearer we get in time, decade by decade, the color images will seem less surprising; most of us have seen color footage of the 1940s by now, and maybe even from the 1930s—but the 1920s? That fabled decade, with its bootleggers and flappers and Model T’s—and, eventually, its despairing stockbrokers—has always been pictured in black and white.
To see it roll out now in color works a dreamlike effect. Here is Warren G. Harding, that staid figure from high school history textbooks, in color! Here is President Harding meeting with Henry Ford and Thomas Edison, in color! To see the inside of speakeasies, with people drinking and dancing; to get a better look at the men’s suits and the women’s fashions; to witness the chaos of foot and street traffic in the emerging automobile age; watching the 1920s episode had me muttering and exclaiming in wonder. The color made it seem almost as if these people were still around, as if the events were transpiring in an eternal present, the way they do in memory (or in dreams).
The color’s effect is deepened by the producers’ choice of footage, which largely avoids familiar stock images of the 1920s (and even when it doesn’t, seeing Charles Lindbergh take off for Paris, in color, won’t get old anytime soon). They unearth U.S. Army Signal Corps footage of the Mississippi flood in 1927 and rare images of the aftermath of the grisly Tulsa race riot in 1921; they take us to 1920s Miami, years in which the city’s population grew from 30,000 to more than 100,000; and they amaze us with shots of the brave “roughnecks” who built New York’s skyscrapers, a job so dangerous that two out of five fell to their deaths or suffered disabling injuries. We watch as the men install one of the Chrysler Building’s ornamental eagles and catch burning-hot rivets on the fly.
The freshness of perspective also applies to sports. Babe Ruth makes a memorable appearance, but the documentary gives more attention to the man who, in the 1920s at least, was the Babe’s only real rival for fame and glory: Jack Dempsey, the heavyweight champion from 1919 to 1926. Dempsey’s name has faded in American memory in a way that Ruth’s has not, but the decade’s greatest sporting spectacles belonged to him: championship fights in huge outdoor arenas or stadiums, with attendance ranging from 80,000 to 120,000, with the results streamed across the front pages of major newspapers, including the New York Times, and in the international press. (In 1921, when Dempsey fought a French champion in a bout followed around the world, the French government prioritized fight updates over diplomatic cables and arranged for military planes to flash the final result over Paris.)
The documentary gives us a few clips of Dempsey training—hitting the bag, doing sit-ups, and bridging—and offers some close-ups, in which his face looks so vivid that it’s hard to believe that the images are nearly 100 years old. Best of all, we see a few colorized seconds of famous Dempsey fights, especially his 1927 bout with Gene Tunney in Chicago’s Soldier Field, the most dramatic moment in a career filled with them. In what became known as the Long Count, Dempsey, by now an ex-champion trying to regain his title from Tunney, knocked his opponent down in the seventh round but failed to heed the rule requiring that he move away to the farthest corner while the referee counted. Instead, he hovered over Tunney, and the referee began counting only after forcing Dempsey away, an effort that cost several seconds. Thus, the Long Count: Tunney rose at the referee’s “nine” and went on to win, but he was on the canvas for about 14 seconds, triggering a controversy that even now can get lively on the Internet.
What’s precious in the Smithsonian footage of the 1927 bout is not just the shock of seeing the colors—Dempsey’s dark trunks were trimmed in red, which I never would have guessed—but getting a better look at the climactic combination that puts Tunney down, in what seems higher resolution than the black and white version, allowing for a better look at both the punches and the men’s expressions. (The eternal question of the Long Count controversy is whether Tunney could have gotten up in time without the extra seconds.) Here again, the color seems to break down the distance in time between us and what we’re seeing.
And that is the enduring effect of the documentary: to remind us, through the immediacy that color brings, that people in the past didn’t live in the past. They lived in the present, just like we do, making it up as they went. Jack Dempsey, whose boxing career was marked by passion and instinct, not all of it working out as he would have liked, knew better than anyone that life is a one-take proposition.
Colorized version of the image of flamboyant former actress Texas Guinan, who ran New York’s 300 Club. © Granger Historical Picture Archive / Alamy Stock Photo