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Academy parties like it's 1906

December 03, 2006|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

THE Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is in a celebratory mode this week, paying tribute to the movies of a century ago as well as honoring famed Mexican actress Lupita Tovar.

"A Century Ago: The Films of 1906," set for Wednesday at the Linwood Dunn Theater, is the fourth in a series that looks at the developments in cinema 100 years ago through a program of films.

As it turns out, 1906 was the year of the nickelodeon, says programmer Randy Haberkamp. Before nickelodeons -- crude, storefront theaters that charged a nickel for admission -- films were shown as part of a vaudeville lineup, at fairs or in machines called kinetoscopes.

"The first nickelodeons opened in 1905, but there were only a couple of them by the end of the year," says Haberkamp. But by the end of 1906, they were in 35 states.

"It was the first time when movies were sold strictly as movies," he says. "It was also the year a lot of the guys who became movie moguls -- Carl Laemmle, William Fox, Adolph Zukor -- all started nickelodeons. It was definitely a big year."

Though history is sketchy as to exactly how programming worked at the theaters, says Haberkamp, "it is thought you would get an hour or two hours of films, which would repeat throughout the day. You could see as much as you wanted for a nickel and leave. You would have a piano or a narrator." As for refreshments, people would buy peanuts outside and bring them in.

Films that year were becoming more ambitious -- 1906 marked the premiere of the earliest-known American frame-by-frame animation -- "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" by J. Stuart Blackton of Vitagraph, a quick-draw sketch artist.

France's seminal director Georges Melies, known for his fanciful "trick" films such "A Trip to the Moon," was also influencing American directors.

"Billy Bitzer did a film called 'The Impossible Convicts,' and I really don't know how he did it," says Haberkamp. "The whole thing looks like it's shot in reverse. Another film, 'Dream of a Rarebit Fiend,' used a lot of double exposures."

The evening's program will include hand-tinted films from Paris, a Danish film and reconstructed fragments of a feature from Australia called "The Story of the Kelly Gang." There will also be films from the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the George Eastman House, the UCLA Film and Television Archive and the academy.

Michael Mortilla will supply the live musical accompaniment.

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The star from Oaxaca

LUPITA TOVAR was just a teenager in the late 1920s when she moved from Oaxaca, Mexico, to Hollywood to pursue a career in acting. Now 96, she'll be feted Thursday at the academy with a screening of the landmark 1932 Mexican sound film "Santa," in which she played a small-town girl whose life is ruined when she is abandoned by her soldier boyfriend.

Tovar is scheduled to participate in a conversation with historian Bob Dickson after the screening.

"Santa" was the first talkie made in Mexico, says Tovar, who sounds strong over the phone despite suffering from a chest cold. "It was done with great love from everybody. It was like a family. We were going to make history. And they had absolutely no means. My mother, all of those years later, complained that they borrowed a rocking chair from her house and they never got it back. We had no props. Everybody loaned something."

Tovar was discovered at her school by filmmaker Robert Flaherty ("Nanook of the North") of Fox Film Studios.

"It was very funny because I bumped into Mr. Flaherty and the principal of the school rushing down to change into my big black bloomers and sailor top" for physical education class, she says. "We ran into this big yard and the gymnastics teacher said, 'Ladies, we have visitors.' We do our best. Every time I passed by [Flaherty], he smiled at me. I didn't know who it was."

Not long after, Tovar's father got a call that they wanted her to do a screen test.

"I came here with my grandmother because they had big plans for me," she says. "Then the talkies came. So I was just in two silent films."

She went to Universal, where they were dubbing movies in different languages. She made $15 a night to dub movies into Spanish. "I said, 'This won't do.' I was ready to go home. "

Then, producer Paul Kohner, who later married Tovar, came up with the idea of doing Spanish-language versions of American films that were in production. Tovar starred opposite her "Santa" director, Antonio Moreno, in "La Voluntad del Muerto," the Spanish version of the mystery "The Cat Creeps," in 1930, and then starred in the Spanish-language version of "Dracula," which came out in 1931.

"The American cast would come [and shoot] in the day, and the Spanish cast would come at night. We worked from 7 p.m. to 7 in the morning," says Tovar.

She continued to make movies both here and in Mexico until the mid-1940s. When her son, producer Pancho Kohner, developed asthma, she quit acting to be a full-time mother.

Her daughter, Susan Kohner, was nominated for a supporting actress Oscar in 1959 for "Imitation of Life" and retired in 1964 to marry. Tovar's grandchildren, writer-directors Chris and Paul Weitz, have had their own successful careers with such films as "American Pie" and "About a Boy."

As for Thursday's tribute, Tovar exclaims, "Listen, I never dreamed it would happen!"

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susan.king@latimes.com

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'A Century Ago: The Films of 1906'

Where: Linwood Dunn Theater, 1313 N. Vine St., Hollywood

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday

Price: $3 to $5

Contact: (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org.

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'A Salute to Lupita Tovar'

Where: Samuel Goldwyn Theater at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, 8949 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Price: $3 to $5

Contact: (310) 247-3600 or go to www.oscars.org

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