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Musicals of Scope : The fourth annual WideScreen Film Festival spotlights musicals 'Porgy and Bess,' 'Lady and the Tramp' and 'A Star Is Born.'

October 22, 1998|BILL DESOWITZ | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Three fascinating musicals, "Porgy and Bess," "Lady and the Tramp" and "A Star Is Born," highlight the fourth annual WideScreen Film Festival, held over the next two weekends at Cal State Long Beach's Carpenter Performing Arts Center. All three films, rarely screened, will be shown Saturday, with "Porgy and Bess" being the real find.

The controversial 1959 adaptation of George Gershwin's cherished opera has been out of circulation for 38 years, mostly owing to political correctness. Although the Otto Preminger film boasted three popular black entertainers from that era--Sidney Poitier, Dorothy Dandridge and Sammy Davis Jr.--its racial depictions were vilified during the civil rights struggle of the '60s.

There's also been a supposed rift between the Gershwins and the Goldwyns (it was producer Sam Goldwyn's final film), but special permission has been granted to screen a print in honor of the Gershwin centenary. (This particular print was previously screened at UCLA, and will be shown next month at the Institute for Studies in American Music at Brooklyn College in New York.)

The film was far from a critical success in its day, and didn't exactly inspire greatness from Preminger. Still, this is "Porgy and Bess," with its overpowering Gershwin score. With such cultural significance at stake, this film certainly cries out for reassessment and another viewing.

"Lady and the Tramp," on the other hand, has only risen in its critical standing among the Disney animated classics. This 1955 CinemaScope gem, which still retains all of its considerable romantic charms, has been absent from the big screen for a decade. A collector's print was screened at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art a few months back, but the WideScreen Festival will be showing a sparkling new print from Disney.

What's interesting is that "Lady and the Tramp" was actually filmed twice: in CinemaScope and in a "flat" version for the majority of theaters. According to Disney preservationist Scott MacQueen, the film was originally planned as a flat feature, but when CinemaScope became the rage, the new version took shape.

"Each one feels correct for its format, even though they have different shot compositions," MacQueen says. "The animators preferred the flat version, because filling the extra space was a real challenge. But you never feel like you're seeing anything wasted in the 'Scope version, and you never feel like you're missing anything in the flat version."

The differences are subtle in this warm-looking film. "In the 'Scope version, the camera moves in for a close-up on one of the dogs to emphasize intimacy. There is no such movement in the flat version because the intimacy is already present in the composition."

"A Star Is Born," a CinemaScope film from 1954, was lovingly restored by the late Ron Haver in 1983. However, the festival screening would not be possible without the graciousness of collector Ken Kramer, who owns one of the few existing restored prints.

Featuring memorable songs by Harold Arlen and Ira Gershwin (George's brother), George Cukor's melancholy remake stars Judy Garland and James Mason as the doomed Hollywood lovers. In fact, the best thing about the restoration was that it reminded us how great Mason was, and how precious he and Garland were together.

On a lighter note, the festival features two very different comedies. There's Woody Allen's "Manhattan," his black-and-white ode to Gershwin and New York City, which he idealizes all out of proportion (screening Sunday), and "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," Stanley Kramer's ode to burlesque, an acquired taste that does everything all out of proportion (a 35th-anniversary screening will be held Nov. 1).

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Israel, the festival will screen Preminger's "Exodus" (along with "Manhattan") in association with the Jewish Federation of Greater Long Beach and West Orange County.

And what would the WideScreen Festival be without a horror tribute? This year things kick off Friday night with an advance screening of "John Carpenter's Vampires," along with Robert Wise's 1963 cult classic "The Haunting." Both directors will be on hand to discuss their chilling wide-screen tricks. Carpenter will return, appropriately enough, on Oct. 31, for a 20th-anniversary screening of his legendary "Halloween" (and a reunion with members of the cast and crew).

But it's his western-influenced "Vampires," starring James Woods as an obsessive slayer of those scary creatures of the night, that Carpenter naturally wants to discuss these days. "I love vampire movies, but this is the closest I've ever come to doing a western," the outspoken director says.

As for his wide-screen favorites, the USC film school graduate cites Wise and John Sturges ("The Great Escape" and "Bad Day at Black Rock").

"Wise is really different in the way he handles space, and Sturges deserves a lot more recognition than he gets. His compositions were so economical, yet he crammed so much into them."

Founder Gary Prebula finds it difficult to cram so much into one festival. "I've learned that it helps to be democratic so you can have an eclectic mix of films."

Prebula also remains committed to free seminars that pay tribute to cinema craftsmen. This year's afternoon lineups will be devoted to writing and digital editing (Saturday), cinematography (Sunday), directing and special effects (Oct. 31) and art direction (Nov. 1).

BE THERE

Fourth Annual WideScreen Film Festival, Friday-Sunday and Oct. 30-Nov. 1, Carpenter Performing Arts Center, 6200 Atherton St., Long Beach, (562) 985-7000.

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