Given how many treasures the Festival of Preservation has unearthed in the past, the question with each new edition becomes, can they top themselves this time around? In 2002, at least, there's no need to worry, with pride of place going to a once-in-a-lifetime Aug. 15 program called "Charles Laughton Directs 'The Night of the Hunter': A Presentation of Outtakes From the Film."
Eager to save time and keep his cast in the mood, Laughton, contrary to typical Hollywood practice, kept the camera running as he instructed actors Robert Mitchum, Shelley Winters and Lillian Gish between takes of his memorable 1955 film. Eight hours of these rushes, which also include different line readings and alternate camera angles, survive, and they are the basis for the program in which UCLA's Gitt, who masterminded the restoration, walks us through two hours of the best of the trims.
To watch these outtakes is to feel almost present at the creation of a classic motion picture. We hear Laughton reading off-screen lines for his actors, calming them down when they flub things, being incredibly patient with child performers Billy Chapin and Sally Jane Bruce, and best of all, giving simple but incisive advice like "a little more lyrical, more personal" and "darling, it's a little too firm" in his soothing voice. As an intimate portrait of a director fully on his game, these sequences are unmatched.
That these outtakes survived at all is something of a miracle. They sat untended for years, likely in a garage, until Laughton's widow, Elsa Lanchester, decided she wanted the space. She donated the film to the American Film Institute's Greystone campus in 1974, where students, not realizing what they were, began cutting them up for use as blank leader in their productions.
This was immediately stopped and the rushes eventually wound up at the UCLA archive, where Gitt and his team worked on and off for almost 20 years assembling, splicing and sound-syncing the footage, making it possible, as Gitt says, to view scenes "unseen since Laughton and editor Robert Golden left them on the cutting-room floor 47 years ago."
For those who have never seen the finished film, called by the director "a nightmarish sort of Mother Goose tale," or even for those who have, UCLA's stunning new print (screening on Aug. 10) showcases cinematographer Stanley Cortez's expressive visuals, including some of the most artistic black-and-white scenes ever recorded. As Francois Truffaut, writing in Cahiers du Cinema, accurately said, "it makes one fall in love with an experimental cinema that really experiments and a cinema of discovery that actually discovers."
If "Night of the Hunter" whets your appetite for more Laughton, he can be seen in two other extremely different projects, "The Man on the Eiffel Tower" (1949), and "Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd" (1952). The latter film has Laughton looking as if he's having great fun coping with the lunatics of the title. "When the guys get through with him," the trailer boasts, "he's the only pirate ever to have a nervous breakdown."
"Tower" is an early example of American independent filmmaking. Star Franchot Tone bought the rights to a Simenon novel and enlisted two friends to appear: Laughton, as phlegmatic Inspector Maigret; and Burgess Meredith (who also directed) as a prime suspect.
What "Tower" is most noted for today is its position as the first American color film shot entirely in Paris. Photographed by Cortez (who met his future "Hunter" director on this project), the city gets prominent fifth billing in the credits. It is charming to see how Paris looked just after the war, complete with ancient buses and massive Renault taxis, and the scenes of the actors clambering on the tower's superstructure for the film's climax are still remarkable.
Bogart also makes a second appearance in the festival, starring in "Knock on Any Door" (1949), only the third feature for director Nicholas Ray, already in possession of his gift for socially conscious melodramas that were character-driven as well as atmospheric. A passionate attack on the social causes of delinquency, "Knock" features Bogart as a top lawyer who fought his way out of the old neighborhood but ends up defending a young delinquent accused of murder.
Also in "Knock," John Derek gets his first featured role as the delinquent, Nick "Pretty Boy" Romano, "the Skid Row Romeo" whose motto actually was "Live fast, die young and leave a good-looking corpse." Variety called Derek, later to be the husband of Bo, "a new bobby-soxer dream and a persona who will click with the femmes, motherly or otherwise."