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Preserve, Protect, No Need to Defend : UCLA's fifth Festival of Preservation opens Friday with its biggest gun--'Navarone'--and closes with a Ronald Reagan curiosity

April 04, 1993|KENNETH TURAN | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

No, it's not the most exciting title on the face of the Earth, and Robert Rosen knows it. "When I decided to call it the Festival of Preservation, everyone said I was out of my mind," recalls the director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive. "Call it classics, treasures, anything. Preservation smells like dust."

But titles, as well as smells, can be deceptive, and while UCLA's fifth annual Festival of Preservation (which opens a monthlong run Friday night with "The Guns of Navarone") may not sound like the acme of excitement, it is just that, the most surprising, stimulating and invigorating celebration imaginable. If you like films, that is.

For if you are a movie fan, the idea of seeing a whole range of motion pictures in as close to pristine condition as modern technology can provide is the keenest of thrills. Viewing vintage films the way they were supposed to be seen, without scratches, fading or discoloration, is a revelation. To experience how crisp and bright a print can be, to understand how much subtlety of shading and tone can go into black and white, how much unimaginable richness color can provide, is to weep for the sad condition most of our movie heritage has fallen into.

The uncomfortable truth is that fully half of the 21,000 feature-length films produced in this country before 1951, including 90% of all silent films, have been either lost, destroyed or deteriorated beyond repair. And since UCLA, the largest film archive west of the Library of Congress, is one of the world leaders in restoration and preservation (an elaborate business that can involve delicate technical skills plus painstaking detective work), one of the purposes of this festival is to call attention both to how much needs to be done and how wonderful the results can be.

And given that film is the most populist of the arts, preservation is done not only to rarefied classics but also to rousing audience pleasers. "The Guns of Navarone," 1961's box-office champion and a sprawling action-adventure epic that is Friday night's 7:30 opener at the Directors Guild Theater, is a case in point.

A kind of forebearer of "The Dirty Dozen," "Navarone" (a joint restoration project of UCLA and Sony/Columbia) follows six surly and reluctant heroes as they attempt to silence a pair of the biggest pieces of artillery the dread Nazi war machine ever dreamed up.

Starring Gregory Peck, Anthony Quinn, David Niven and the best special effects money could then buy, "Navarone" manages to fit men who pull out hand-grenade pins with their teeth, women who kill without mercy, sadistic Nazis and an elaborate Greek wedding and village sing-along into its bombastic 2-hour, 37-minute length. Time magazine called it "the most enjoyable consignment of baloney in months," and no one seeing it Friday with its soundtrack remastered, its colors restored and brought back into balance, and negative damage repaired, will have any less of a good time.

Equally enjoyable is "To Each His Own" (May 1), a quintessential weepie that won Olivia de Havilland a best actress Oscar in 1946 for a performance in which she ages 30 years, from a love-struck ingenue to a cranky middle-aged battle-ax, before our tear-filled eyes. An epic of self-sacrifice and unrequited mother love, "To Each His Own" combines the most improbable elements of "Stella Dallas" and "Random Harvest" and ends up as a monument to kitsch emotionalism. They certainly don't make them like this anymore.

Among the other well-known films showcased in the festival (taking place at UCLA's Melnitz Hall, except for "Navarone" and a May 7 DGA screening of Jacques Tati's 70-millimeter "Playtime") are Howard Hawks' "His Girl Friday" (April 15), the Ronald Colman-starring "A Double Life" (April 16) and Josef von Sternberg's "Shanghai Express" (May 6).

One of the festival's sharpest prints belongs to 1941's celebrated "That Hamilton Woman" (April 24). The story of Lord Nelson and his beloved Emma, this film, reportedly the favorite of the unlikely troika of Winston Churchill, critic Andrew Sarris and Joseph Stalin, features Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier at the height of their physical attractiveness and taking an obvious delight in playing off each other.

With a series this broad, however, there is much more to do than merely revisit acknowledged classics. One can, for example, enter a cinematic time machine, reliving bygone and often forgotten periods of moviegoing just the way the original audiences experienced them.

Those who want to sample the good old days of Saturday matinees, for example, can spend the afternoon of April 24 watching not only a 1929 early talkie version of "The Virginian" but a totally winning 1936 Western mixture of comedy, action and romance called "The Last Outlaw."

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