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'Bigger Than Life: James Mason on Film' at LACMA

July 16, 2009|Susan King

Nobody could play the brooding antihero better than James Mason.

Tall and dark, with a voice so sonorous it could melt butter, the British actor came to fame in his native country in such films as Carol Reed's 1947 thriller "Odd Man Out," in which he played a mortally wounded Irish revolutionary.

America soon beckoned and Mason quickly became a leading man with an edge, excelling in flawed, often dangerous, characters.

"These European guys came to Hollywood and were positioned as matinee idols, but they are sort of dark and a little bit sinister and eventually they ended up playing villains. He played a kind of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in a number of things," said Ian Birnie, film director for the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which is holding a two-week retrospective of the actor's work -- "Bigger Than Life: James Mason on Film" -- starting Friday.

The opening film will be 1956's "Bigger Than Life," in which Mason, who died in 1984, plays a well-respected teacher, husband and father whose rare medical condition is treated with cortisone. Continued ingestion of the hormone, though, turns him into a sort of domestic Mr. Hyde in the Nicholas Ray psychological thriller.

Saturday brings a trio of Mason films, beginning in the afternoon with Disney's lavish 1954 fantasy adventure "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea," in which he plays Captain Nemo. Saturday's late-night program is the rarely seen 1969 "Age of Consent," in which Mason is cast as an aging artist. "Age" marks director Michael Powell's last feature and costars a young Helen Mirren.

The festival also features the L.A. premiere of the newly restored 1951 Technicolor fantasy "Pandora and the Flying Dutchman," which screens in the middle slot on Saturday. Shot by Jack Cardiff ("The Red Shoes"), the romance revolves around a 17th century mariner who is doomed to sail the seas in search of a woman who would die for him. Ava Gardner plays a singer who falls for him.

Ed Stratmann, associate curator of George Eastman House, which restored the film, says that the camera negative of "Pandora" doesn't exist. But Eastman House did have some nitrate 35mm masters that had been made from the camera negative. "We also double-checked with the copyright holder, the Douris UK Limited, and they had a 1958 duplicate negative that we asked to be sent out," Stratmann said. "A lot of materials were stored in and around Europe and London. We called in all of these materials including a soundtrack negative that was missing on one reel."

Eastman also acquired three vintage Technicolor prints, including one from Martin Scorsese's collection, that were used as color guide for the restoration, which was funded by Scorsese's The Film Foundation and the Franco-American Cultural Fund.



James Mason retrospective

Where: Leo S. Bing Theater, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd.

When: Friday-Saturday evenings through Aug. 1

Price: $10 for a double bill; $5 for just the second feature

Contact: For the full schedule, call (323) 857-6010 or go to

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