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Jack Smith

A Fossilized Filmdom Amid the Dinosaurs

January 28, 1988|Jack Smith

It seems ironic to me that the nostalgic exhibit "Hollywood: Legend and Reality" should be lodged in the Natural History Museum among all those dinosaur bones.

Thanks to film, the creatures who have made the movies will always be visible to us in full flesh. We will never have to reconstruct Carole Lombard from fossils; she will always be on screen for us, full-bodied, animated, seductive, talkative, alive.

I drove out to Exposition Park the other day to see the exhibit and climbed to the grand foyer in which, as usual, the skeletons of a rampant Allosaurus and a duckbill dinosaur arose from a gravel island. But against the walls were studio portraits and life-size cutouts of such other denizens of American life as Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman, Jack Nicholson, Diane Keaton, Woody Allen and Miss Piggy.

These were teasers for the movie show that was around a corner and down the hall just in front of the giant Cretaceous sea serpent.

The first thing I saw was two women contemplating Adrian's costume for Greta Garbo as Queen Christina. "She wasn't very big around," one said. "And not so tall," said the other. (They always look bigger than life on screen.)

In a glass case, lighted as if by heaven, hung Tom Mix's pale gray hat--a symbol of the good guys. A scale model of HMS Bounty, sails furled, stood under a backdrop of thunderclouds in a dark sky. Beside it sat Mr. Laughton's canvas chair.

A garish poster showed a robed and hooded knight of the Ku Klux Klan on horseback, a torch in his upraised arm. It was an ad for D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," which it epithetized farsightedly as "The supreme picture of all time!"

In a tall glass box hung first the black hat, then the black gun belt, and then the black boots of Gary Cooper as the sheriff in "High Noon." These mythical objects seemed to be in levitation.

Some memorable lines appeared in print: Mae West in "She Done Him Wrong," (1933)--"When women go wrong, men go right after them."

Robert Montgomery in "Private Lives," (1931)--"Certain women should be struck regularly, like gongs."

Edward G. Robinson in "Little Caesar," (1930)--"When I get in a tight spot I shoot my way out of it. Why, sure! Shoot first and argue afterwards. . . ."

But it was the film clips showing continuously on television-sized screens that held me fast. A clip from "Scarface" (1932) with gangsters firing a machine gun from a moving phaeton, cars crashing into stores, men dying in doorways . . . Garbo and John Gilbert in voluptuous embrace in "Flesh and the Devil" (1927) . . . King Kong shot by Army airplanes as he clings bewildered to the spire of the Empire State Building. . . .

Cecil B. DeMille, we are reminded, compromised with the morals and tastes of his day by showing depravity and high living for nine reels, then tacking on "a swift dose of repentance and retribution" in the end.

I stood next to a tiny Asian woman to watch a clip from "It Happened One Night." Gable isn't having any luck hitching a ride for himself and Claudette Colbert. "You mind if I try?" she asks. "You!" he scoffs. "Don't make me laugh." "I'll stop a car and I won't use my thumb," she says. She steps out on the road and pulls her skirt halfway up her thigh.

The woman at my side giggled in delight. "You haven't seen that before?" I asked her.

"I've heard of it," she said, "but I've never seen it."

Suddenly I saw a small orange upright piano with flowers stenciled on the front. It stood in front of a Moroccan screen before a backdrop of Rick's Cafe in "Casablanca." It was indeed the piano on which Dooley Wilson had played "As Time Goes By."

Two framed letters revealed a critical point in that film's making. One, from Jack Warner to producer Hal Wallis: "What do you think of using Raft in 'Casablanca'?" Wallis to Warner: "I have thought over very carefully the matter of George Raft in 'Casablanca,' and I have discussed this with Mike (director Michael Curtiz), and we both feel that he should not be in this picture. Bogart is ideal for it."

What Rick said, by the way, was "Play it."

And Sam said, "Yes, boss."

And played it again.

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