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Well-Preserved, Not Mummified

No Los Angeles film showcase can equal UCLA's biannual Festival of Preservation.

July 26, 1998|Kenneth Turan | Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Other festivals pretend, but the UCLA Festival of Preservation delivers. Other festivals talk and dream about being the preeminent film event in the world's movie capital, but it's only talk. Packed as it is with an impressive range of features in a slew of genres, the UCLA festival is the only can't-miss occasion on the local cinema calendar.

Starting Saturday night with a showing of 1948's Ingrid Bergman-starring "Joan of Arc," the preservation event extends for a full month and showcases more than 35 features restored by UCLA's protean Film and Television Archive. Now held every other year, the Festival of Preservation specializes in one-of-a-kind gems not to be seen elsewhere while serving as a showcase for a surprising variety of on-screen material.

Animation fans can attend a night of rare cartoons featuring Toby the Pup, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and the durable Betty Boop. Couch potatoes can luxuriate in extensive clips from "Dinah Shore: The NBC Years." People passionate about foreign films can witness the astonishing movie debut of Berta Singerman, a legend of Spanish-language theater. And for those who need personal appearances to make a festival a festival, the venerable Rose Hobart is scheduled to attend the Aug. 13 screening of "Liliom," a film she starred in back in 1930.

Because the archive houses the Hearst Metrotone News collection, the UCLA event is always strong on newsreels, especially so this year. One program, entitled "The 1930s in America," includes footage of lettuce-strikers battling police in Salinas and the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. More out of the ordinary is UCLA's Aug. 27 evening devoted to Marian Anderson's celebrated 1939 Washington concert given to 75,000 gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Using unreleased vault footage as well as newsreels, the archive is aiming to re-create the experience of being at the most famous musical event ever in the nation's capital.

As always, the Festival of Preservation has its share of oddities and curiosities. Where else can you watch Warner Oland, who became famous as righteous Chinese detective Charlie Chan, play a celebrated Oriental villain in "The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu." Or see "Can't Help Singing," Deanna Durbin's only film in Technicolor. Or admire George Arliss in "The Green Goddess" as he re-creates the stage role that, yes, apparently inspired the celebrated salad dressing.

UCLA preserves classics as well, and this year's festival is especially strong on beautiful new copies of beloved films ranging from John Ford's "Stagecoach" to Sam Fuller's "Shock Corridor" to comedies like the Harold Lloyd starring "The Freshman" and the screwball treat "Ball of Fire."

(Playing with 1939's "Stagecoach" is 1940's "Dark Command," a handsomely mounted Raoul Walsh western that also starred John Wayne, this time as an aphorism-quoting Texan who gets caught up in "bleeding Kansas" on his way to California. It's notable for a celebrated horses-off-a-cliff stunt engineered by Yakima Canutt and an irresistible performance by the greatest comic cowboy of them all, George "Gabby" Hayes.)

Closing the festival on Aug. 29 is a new print that UCLA is especially proud of: documentarian Robert Flaherty's beloved 1948 look at Cajun culture, "Louisiana Story." Restored from the original camera negative, this print and its Pulitzer-winning Virgil Thomson score apparently look and sound every bit as good as they did half a century ago.

Sometimes, the UCLA archivists need to do more than restore a film--they need to put it back together from pieces scattered around the world. This year they've done that with Orson Welles' 1948 "Macbeth" as well as 1937's famously chopped up "Lost Horizon," which exists in lengths of 108, 110 and 118 minutes.

The archive has reconstituted the film's original 132-minute version, using stills to re-create seven minutes that still haven't been found. UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt will introduce the Aug. 26 program, which includes an alternate ending that played only during the first three weeks of "Lost Horizon's" run.

Even more of a restoration challenge (and also to be introduced by Gitt) is the opening-night look at "Joan of Arc." Originally released at 145 minutes, the film took home three Oscars and was nominated for five more. Yet, in the wake of the moral fuss over married star Ingrid Bergman's affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini ("in certain quarters," notes the UCLA program, "her cinematic interpretation of the virgin saint was considered an act of blasphemy"), the film suffered the loss of 45 minutes and the addition of some suspect new material. Now, for the first time in half a century, audiences can see what the original excitement was about.

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