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Picks From Cinema's Formative Years

January 14, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Until 1915, movies could only be copyrighted as still photographs, printed on rolls of photographic paper and sent off to the Library of Congress. It's tragic that this curious law wasn't revoked until the advent of safety film, for hundreds of films shot on nitrate and now lost would have been otherwise retrievable. Even so, we can be grateful we have as much access to the American cinema's formative years as we do.

Wednesday night's program in UCLA's monumental Archives Preservations series--at 7:30 in Melnitz Theater--has been put together almost entirely from movies copied from paper prints. And what a delightful array of vintage Americana it is!

Appropriately, it begins with D. W. Griffith's very first film, a 1908 one-reeler called "The Adventures of Dollie," a little girl kidnaped by Gypsies. It's primitive, yet exciting, and reveals that from frame one Griffith instinctively knew how to tell a story with a camera. It's followed by another one-reeler, Keystone's "Mabel's Wilful (sic) Way" (1915), featuring the slapstick antics of vivacious Mabel Normand and roly-poly Fatty Arbuckle.

Of greatest interest, however, are two five-reelers, "On the Night Stage" (1915), one of the earliest William S. Hart Westerns, and "Young Romance" (1915), a sweet, breezy romantic comedy starring Edith Taliaferro and Tom Forman, a quite irresistible young couple. Interestingly, both films are fully realized genre pieces, containing elements that were to reappear in scores of films for decades to come.

The second collaboration of Hart, director Reginald Barker and writer C. Gardner Sullivan for producer Thomas Ince, "On the Night Stage" casts the wistful Hart as a classic good badman, a stagecoach robber. He rescues the woman he loves, a dance-hall-girl-turned-preacher's wife (Rhea Mitchell), to prevent her straying back to her former life--and ends up, quite literally, kissing his faithful horse. Born in 1870, Hart grew up near a Sioux reservation in the Dakotas and insisted on meticulous re-creations of the Old West in his films.

William C. DeMille today is known as the elder brother of the more flamboyant Cecil and the father of Agnes, the famed choreographer. An established playwright when his younger brother was just starting out, William wrote more than he directed, but his "Young Romance" is a gem, characterized by a light touch that for the most part eluded Cecil. Wednesday's Berlin Exiles double feature at the County Museum of Art at 8 p.m. is a mixed blessing. "Farewell" (1932) is a wonderfully expressive film, directed by Robert Siodmak and co-written by Emerich Pressburger (and Irma von Cube), that tells of a pair of young lovers (Brigitte Horney, Aribert Mog) inadvertently estranged by their well-meaning but nosy, gossipy landlady and fellow boarders in the Pension Splendide, an establishment that clearly hasn't lived up to its name in quite some time. "Farewell" seems a remarkable film, directed by a man who in his Hollywood years would be restricted mainly to suspense. However, without English subtitles it leaves you with the feeling that you've missed nuances for which no synopsis could be an adequate substitute.

"The Last Company" (1930), on the other hand, is being presented in an English-language version so stilted that it only underlines its hopeless staginess. The time is 1806, during the Napoleonic Wars, but the film is a thinly veiled plea for Germany's rearmament in the "disgraceful" wake of World War I's Treaty of Versailles. Conrad Veidt is the steely commander of 12 men facing certain death defending a mill in order to cover their comrades' retreat. When Veidt is told that "Prussia has ceased to exist," he replies that "Where we stand there is Prussia!" Ironically, considering the film's patriotic and militarist sentiments, Veidt, producer Joe May, director Kurt (Curtis) Bernhardt, writers Ludwig von Wohl and Heinz Goldberg and cinematographer Guenther Krampf all eventually fled their homeland, most of them ending up in Hollywood.

Also disappointing is "L'Opium et le Baton" (UCLA Melnitz, Sunday at 2 p.m.), this week's offering in the otherwise provocative Arab Film series. Made in 1970, this Franco-Algerian co-production is of interest only because, as a drama of the Algerian war, it was written and directed by an Algerian, Ahmed Rachedi. Grueling and overly long (2 hours, 20 minutes), it tells of brave mountain villagers whose hard-fought overthrow of their merciless French oppressors proves a pivotal moment in Algeria's struggle for independence.

"Le Petit Soldat," Jean-Luc Godard's 1960 musing on the Algerian war in the form of a thriller, is the most rarely seen film in the Fox International's seven-film, seven-day retrospective in honor of Godard's 25th anniversary as a film maker. The schedule: "Breathless" (Friday), "Le Petit Soldat" (Saturday), "Passion" (Sunday), "Band of Outsiders" (next Monday), "Masculin/Feminin" (Jan. 22), "Alphaville" (Jan. 23), "Weekend" (Jan. 24). For show times: 396-4215.

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