Despite all the sunshine, or maybe because of it, Los Angeles tends to be a hidden city, a place whose great treasures are not always the obvious ones. So it is that the city's most surprising, most stimulating, most invigorating film event is not the Oscars, not even one of L.A.'s sprightly film festivals, but the UCLA Film and Television Archive's splendid and irreplaceable Festival of Preservation.
This year's festival, the 11th, kicks off tonight with a gala screening at the Directors Guild of a luscious three-strip Technicolor restoration of Joseph Mankiewicz's "The Barefoot Contessa" (1954), starring Humphrey Bogart and an intoxicatingly beautiful Ava Gardner.
It's the first of more than 40 features, television and newsreel programs to be shown at UCLA's Melnitz Hall in a monthlong festival that runs through Aug. 24 and showcases spectacular new prints of classic films like John Cassavetes' "Shadows" (1959), Max Ophuls' "Letter From an Unknown Woman" (1948), the Cary Grant-Irene Dunne "The Awful Truth" (1937) and Kirk Douglas' unforgettable "Champion" (1949).
As impressive are the festival's lesser-known lustrous gems, which involve stars ranging from Charles Laughton to Roy Rogers, featuring them as we're not used to seeing them.
When the Festival of Preservation began life in 1988, it was not so grand an affair. In fact, then-archive director (now dean of the School of Theater, Film and Television) Robert Rosen remembers that "when I decided to call it the Festival of Preservation, everyone said I was out of my mind. Call it classics, treasures, anything. Preservation smells like dust."
Dust, in fact, was more or less what a surprisingly large percentage of feature-length films (fully half of those produced before 1951, including 90% of silent films) were threatening to turn into. As the largest university archive in the country (second in size only to the Library of Congress) UCLA had taken the lead in restoration, in bringing films back to the way they were originally seen, without scratches, fading or discoloration. A festival seemed the ideal way to showcase what the archive--a 56-person organization that has preserved 346 features since 1977--had accomplished.
Key to making the UCLA fest as extraordinary as it's become is the remarkably wide range of films it has put on display. No other event in the country has so consistently illuminated the irresistible hidden treasures of America's movie history, putting a spotlight on drop-dead-fascinating items unseen in decades and difficult to see after the festival.
In years past, these have included:
An all-but-unknown alternate version of Howard Hawks' "The Big Sleep" (1946), based on the Raymond Chandler novel and starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. Though few people were aware of it, much of the Bogart-Bacall byplay that is "Sleep's" best-loved feature was added so late that 18 minutes of key exposition--recovered and preserved by UCLA--had to be cut, leading to the film's famously confused plot, which even Chandler said he couldn't follow.
A spectacular restoration of Budd Boetticher's laconic western "Seven Men From Now" (1956), starring the granite-faced Randolph Scott and Lee Marvin as his outlaw nemesis and all-around leering miscreant. The film's vivid color and lean story line made it the surprise success of the 2000 New York Film Festival, but the preservation fest had it months before.
A rare 1933 melodrama, "The Sin of Nora Moran," that boasts one of the most unusual structures in American film, featuring an opium-induced dream state in which the past and the present are so intertwined that the heroine bargains with characters in her dream so certain real-life events won't take place. To see "Nora Moran" on the big screen, where she belongs, you had to be at UCLA.
Some of the films UCLA has preserved have had as much of a story behind the screen as on it. That is especially true with one of the archive's most significant restorations, a 1926 Vitaphone short--unseen in public for 70 years, and thought to be intentionally destroyed--in which a relaxed and confident Al Jolson says his trademark "You ain't heard nothin' yet" a full year before he used it in "The Jazz Singer."
Once "The Jazz Singer" became a sensation, the earlier, livelier short was withdrawn and made to disappear. Or so it was thought until the Library of Congress found a copy in a mislabeled can. Just as difficult to locate was the Vitaphone disc holding the soundtrack. Only one could be turned up, but it had been broken into four pieces and awkwardly glued back together. A record collector in the Pacific Northwest spent months dissolving the glue and refitting the pieces. Then UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt transferred the contents to tape with the help of a tilted turntable and strategic blowing on the tone arm.