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SCREENING ROOM

Silent Movie Pays Tribute to Valentino

August 20, 1996|KEVIN THOMAS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Preceding the Silent Movie's sixth annual film festival, which commences Friday, the theater will mark the 70th anniversary of the death of Rudolph Valentino Wednesday at 8 p.m. with "Cobra" (1925). This silent, after an awkward start, affords a rare opportunity to see Valentino in a modern-dress film that allows him to act in a more natural style.

He's well-cast as an impoverished Italian count employed by a leading Manhattan antiques dealer only to become the target of ruthless vamp Nita Naldi--the Cobra of the film's title. "Cobra" is not nearly as good as "Blood and Sand," which also teamed Valentino and the witty, exotic Naldi, but is likewise fascinating for its parallels with Valentino's own anguished personal life.

The annual public memorial for Valentino, meanwhile, moves this year from the Hollywood Memorial Cemetery, where he is buried, to the Silent Movie, Friday at 12:30 p.m.

This year's festival gets off to a great start Friday at 8 p.m. with "Stage Struck" (1925), one of Gloria Swanson and director Allan Dwan's zesty, timeless collaborations.

Swanson glows as a naive but plucky waitress in a rowdy river-town restaurant, dreaming of becoming an actress--and of being noticed by the cafe's handsome flapjack flipper (Lawrence Grey). Her life and hopes are turned upside down with the arrival of a showboat and its comically vampy leading lady (the peerless Gertrude Astor).

"Stage Struck" opens with an eye-popping two-strip Technicolor daydream in which the waitress envisions herself being acclaimed the greatest actress in the world. Ironically, it could serve as the perfect expression of Norma Desmond's exalted memory of her stardom--right down to playing Salome.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923), one of the most familiar silents, screens Saturday at 8 p.m. with a rousing score and a new print that shows off its meticulous production design. Actually, Lon Chaney's celebrated Quasimodo, the grotesquely deformed bell ringer of Notre Dame, is far too peripheral, leaving an unduly complicated plot without a true protagonist.

Even so, the finish is one for the anthologies, involving Quasimodo's dire act to save his beloved Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) from burning at the stake.

Each year the Silent Movie includes a couple of talkies, and Sunday's 8 p.m. double feature is composed of "Tonight or Never" (1931), starring Gloria Swanson, and "The Locked Door" (1929), Barbara Stanwyck's second movie and the one that launched her career.

Gowned by Chanel, photographed by "Citizen Kane's" Gregg Toland amid Willy Pogany's Venetian sets, Swanson is radiant in "Tonight or Never." She plays a love-starved opera star, but it's a tedious, relentlessly talky filmed play that needed the Lubitsch touch but instead got Mervyn LeRoy fresh off directing the gangster classic "Little Caesar." There's a glowing seduction scene with Melvyn Douglas, witty turns by Alison Skipworth and Boris Karloff, but it's a tough go.

"The Locked Door" is flat-out terrible, an example of the early talkie at its stiffest. It is an adaptation of a hopelessly dated melodrama in which Stanwyck's working girl's rise to riches and happiness is menaced by bad guy Rod La Rocque, whom Swanson considered the handsomest man in silents but was a disaster in talkies.

Amid this tony dreck in which everyone either enunciates or plays as if on stage, the vibrant Stanwyck alone intuitively knows how to act for the sound camera, leaving everyone else in the past.

Information: (213) 653-2389.

*

'Short' Story: Mike Kaplan and John Dorr's illuminating and incisive 90-minute "Luck, Trust & Ketchup: Robert Altman in Carver Country" (at the Sunset 5, Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m.) is as much about the director himself as the making of "Short Cuts," which Altman and co-writer Frank Barhydt wove so effectively from nine of Raymond Carver's celebrated short stories centering on lives of ordinary desperation.

Altman creates a warm, low-key atmosphere on the set, inviting contributions from one and all. Chris Penn puts his finger on it when he says that, although it "sounds contradictory," Altman is "very spontaneous--and he knows exactly what he wants." "Trust" and "luck" are two words that are uttered repeatedly throughout this engaging documentary.

Information: (213) 848-3500.

More Altman: In connection with the current release of "Kansas City," the Monica 4-Plex presents a 10-program retrospective of Altman films screening Saturdays and Sundays at 11 a.m. and starting with "Nashville."

Information: (310) 394-9741.

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