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Shelter From the Blockbuster Heat

June 23, 1996|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

With its focus on rarities and treasures from cinema's attic, the UCLA Festival of Preservation is always a welcome treat. Usually held around Oscar time, its eighth edition begins Thursday, and that switch to Hollywood's silly season is especially pleasing to everyone drowning in the studios' ideas of summer fun.

The new date also puts the event roughly in sync with the fourth Film Preservation Festival on American Movie Classics, which runs June 30-July 5 and focuses on dozens of examples of the American musical.

AMC is in fact hosting the opening night of the UCLA event, which showcases a fine restoration of the Rita Hayworth-starring 1946 "Gilda," made from the original camera negative refurbished by nitrate material from England. This was Hayworth's most famous film, so potent that she later noted poignantly that her personal life suffered because "men fell in love with Gilda and woke up with me."

The highlight of this year's festival, however, will be closing night on July 20, when another 1946 film, the Howard Hawks-directed "The Big Sleep," starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, will be shown in a rare alternate version that is as involving as it is unusual.

When a studio reshoots and re-edits a film, a great howl is usually heard about the virtues of the original. What is so provocative about the two cuts of "The Big Sleep," both made with Hawks' approval, is that most viewers would likely consider the newer one superior.

"The Big Sleep" finished shooting in January 1945, and was ready for release soon after. But since World War II was winding to a close, studio head Jack Warner decided to shelve it and give priority to films that referred to the war and would consequently date.

In the interim, Lauren Bacall's ability to sass Bogart in "To Have and Have Not"--plus her marriage to him--made the actress a major star. As related in memos published in Rudy Behlmer's "Inside Warner Bros.," agent Charles K. Feldman wrote Warner suggesting Bacall's part be beefed up to take advantage of her new celebrity. If he didn't do this, Feldman warned, "you might lose one of your most important assets."

Warner agreed, and in early 1946, one year after the film was finished, new material was shot and edited into "The Big Sleep," which was finally released in August 1946. The additions include two of the best-remembered scenes in the movie, including the classic encounter when Bogart and Bacall discuss each other's romantic potential in horse-racing terminology. (According to Todd McCarthy, whose authoritative biography of Hawks will be published early next year, the swell new scenes were written by Philip G. Epstein, best known for partnering with his brother Julius on "Casablanca.")

To make room for the changed scenes, which totaled 18 minutes, a comparable amount of footage had to be cut, including a key exposition scene in the Los Angeles district attorney's office that recaps who killed whom up to that point. So, paradoxically, the very things that make "The Big Sleep" so perennially popular also helped create its reputation as a film with a borderline incomprehensible plot.

The festival will screen the initial 1945 version in full, and then UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt will introduce the scenes from the 1946 version that were added as well as those from the 1945 version that were cut out, plus the original theatrical trailer and two short sets of outtakes.

Organized by the UCLA Film and Television Archive, the Preservation Festival pays tribute this year to one of its counterparts on the East Coast, the George Eastman House in Rochester, N.Y., which has especially strong holdings in silent films.

These include a double bill of 1928 German silents with Robert Israel musical accompaniment. "I Kiss Your Hand, Madam" is considered one of Marlene Dietrich's best, and "The Wonderful Lie of Nina Petrowna" is a chance to see the striking Brigitte Helm and co-star Franz Lederer outside their legendary roles in "Metropolis."

Helm, who died only two weeks ago at the age of 90, was considered the most beautiful woman in German film and in fact was Josef von Sternberg's first choice, before Dietrich, for the career-making "Blue Angel."

Set in czarist Russia and drenched in both opulent furnishings and continental sophistication, "Nina Petrowna" stars Helm as a kept woman with a gorgeous mansion to prove it. But jaded roues are no match for an impoverished lieutenant, "an unspoiled son of the people," who falls in love with her. With a classic face and a sensual, tousle-haired presence, Helm looks terrific in the film's elaborate costumes and furs.

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