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SPECIAL SCREEENINGS

'Elizabeth': For Those With Bette Davis Eyes

September 09, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

Even had the freshly restored 1939 "Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex" (Sunday only at the Nuart) been shot in black and white instead of Technicolor at its most glorious, it would be enjoyable. Seen today, this swift, vigorous adaptation of the romantic Maxwell Anderson play about Elizabeth I torn between love and duty reverberates with personal implications for its star Bette Davis, who was no more successful in reconciling her career and an enduring relationship with a man than the queen she plays to the gratifying hilt. Tempestuous, earthy, shrewd, humorous, courageous but lonely, Davis' Elizabeth, in her corkscrew curls, elaborate ruffs and collars, does the House of Tudor proud, but what the New York Times' Frank S. Nugent said of Errol Flynn's Essex (a rank male chauvinist if ever there was one) still applies: "His speeches ring with insincerity; his avowals of love are declaimed with all the conviction of a high school debater's support of the proposition that homework is ennobling." However, the effect of the handsome Flynn's callowness ironically heightens the sense of paranoia that ever threatens to engulf Davis' Elizabeth. Michael Curtiz directed this rich but never ponderous period piece with tremendous vitality. Second feature in this Sunday Bette Davis series is another of her cherished hits, "All This and Heaven Too" (1940) with Charles Boyer. Phones: (213) 478-6379, 479-5269.

This is a great week for Technicolor, for the County Museum of Art screens Friday at 1 p.m. and again at 8 "The Crimson Pirate" (1952) as part of its Burt Lancaster tribute. This joyous pirate picture remains among his fans' all-time favorites and with good reason: It's pure fun from start to finish. Directed with much style by Robert Siodmak, it is tongue-in-cheek rather than camp, and gives full rein to the acrobatic skills of Lancaster and Nick Cravat, his partner in their circus days. The throwaway plot has Lancaster siding with the freedom-seeking rebels on an island colony. Playing with it is "Jim Thorpe--All American" (1951). Saturday: "Come Back, Little Sheba" (1952) and "Ten Tall Men" (1951). Phone: (213) 857-6201.

The Nuart starts its Silent Masters series with F. W. Murnau's "Nosferatu" (1922) and "Sunrise" (1927). Never mind that much of the story of the first important screen version of the Dracula legend seems corny and dated, for what counts is "Nosferatu's" images and atmosphere, which are timeless in their power. Its most memorable moment is the shot of the cadaverous, claw-nailed Count Dracula (Max Schreck) standing at the prow of his ship, resembling, in film historian Ivan Butler's apt phrase, "a combination of a vulture and the Flying Dutchman." What "Nosferatu" evokes is not so much terror but an infinite loneliness.

Designed by Rochus Gliese and luminously photographed by Karl Struss and Charles Rosher Sr., "Sunrise" is intensely stylized and was shot on an immense city set and in a vaguely European village constructed on Fox's back lot. Adapted by Carl Mayer, Germany's leading screenwriter, it tells of a farmer (George O'Brien) torn between a brunette vamp (Margaret Livingston) and his prim blond wife (Janet Gaynor). Film becomes poetry in "Sunrise," which has one of the first synchronized Movietone scores, an evocative composition by Hugo Riesenfeld. Every frame of this timeless masterpiece is visually awesome, with its frenetic montages of urban life, a terrifying storm sequence and lush vistas of rural beauty, all of which is expressed with the utmost rhythmic grace. "Sunrise" forever reminds us that the silent film was reaching its artistic heights just as it was destroyed by the arrival of sound.

The James Whale-Tod Browning series at UCLA, which has been such a summer treat, concludes Thursday (in Melnitz Theater at 8 p.m.) with Browning's "The Iron Man" (1931) and Whale's "Remember Last Night?" (1935). The first is a routine tale about a boxer (Lew Ayres) and his wife (Jean Harlow, all platinum and no bra) who can't handle success, is pleasant Art Deco nostalgia but is also a typically static early talkie that suggests that Browning really needed bizarre material to be effective. The second is another matter, an amusingly giddy comedy-mystery in the grand '30s manner, which means everyone is in sleek formal dress, drinking copiously and exchanging brittle repartee. Robert Young and Constance Cummings head a group of smart, rich young Long Island couples whose progressive dinner--the courses seem entirely liquid--ends up in a murder. The key setting is a Greek Moderne mansion, presided over by Arthur Treacher in the first of his famous butler roles. Phones: (213) 825-2581, 825-2953.

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