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Famous cache of vintage films headed to homes and screens

The Rohauer Library, spanning 75 years of cinema, is now the Cohen Film Collection. Holdings are being restored for the theatrical and home markets.

February 14, 2013|By Susan King, Los Angeles Times
  • Buster Keaton in "The General."
Buster Keaton in "The General." (The Silent Movie Theatre )

The Rohauer Library has been legendary among cinephiles for decades. The collection of more than 700 titles, acquired by the late film archivist-producer-distributor Raymond Rohauer, is a treasure trove containing the classic silent comedies of Buster Keaton, the shorts and epics of D.W. Griffith, experimental films from such directors as Man Ray, Rudolph Valentino's final film, Lon Chaney's 1925 version of "The Phantom of the Opera" and even a Joan Crawford film noir.

Though many of the films in the library have been released on DVD and shown at festivals and revival theaters, countless others have had little to no exposure.

But that's all changing. The library's new owner, Charles S. Cohen, chairman and chief executive of the Cohen Media Group, has ambitious plans for the newly titled Cohen Film Collection: The Rohauer Library. Cohen bought the collection from Douris U.K. Ltd. in 2011, explaining in an email interview that "it's a world-class collection that needs to be respected and restored and re-released."

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"We plan to strategically restore and release all of the films in this important library and are working with a number of fine labs," said Tim Lanza, an archivist who has worked with the Rohauer Library for two decades. "We are also working on arranging partnerships with major archives such as the Library of Congress" and the British Film Institute.

An unabashed love of movies prompted Rohauer to leave his home in Buffalo, N.Y., as a teenager in the early 1940s and move to Los Angeles, where he started the Film Society of Cinema Arts and screened classic, experimental and foreign films at the Coronet Theatre and the Riviera-Capri Theatre.

Rohauer was already acquiring films when Buster Keaton offered him prints of his pre-MGM silent comedies in 1954. Not only did the two become partners, but Rohauer also is credited with sparking a renewed interest in Keaton's films by staging festivals of his classic features and shorts around the world in the 1960s.

Rohauer also formed partnerships with Douglas Fairbanks Jr., the widow of silent film comedian Harry Langdon and others. By the time Rohauer died in 1987 at age 63, he had acquired an expansive, eclectic collection of films spanning 75 years of cinema.

The collection includes original nitrate camera negatives, prints and other materials that are unavailable elsewhere. Through licenses and contracts, the collection holds rights to the movies.

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The Cohen Film Collection's first Blu-ray release, set for Valentine's Day, is a digital restoration of the lavish 1924 fantasy adventure "The Thief of Bagdad," with Douglas Fairbanks defying gravity in the lead role. Three days later, its new digital restoration of Luis Buñuel's 1970 Spanish drama, "Tristana," will open theatrically in Los Angeles.

Lanza said "Thief" was chosen to be the first Blu-ray release because "we feel that it shows our commitment to make these treasures available again to a new audience. We chose this title in part due to our close relation with our friends Turner Classic Movies, who wanted to premiere our new restoration at their annual film festival [last year].This is a partnership we look forward to continue well into the future."

What Lanza described as a "truly deluxe version" of "Tristana" will be released March 13 on Blu-ray and DVD. But there is no set schedule for future releases.

"The rate of our releases will be in part dictated by our painstaking restoration, but you can be assured that we will have many films coming out for the next year," he said.

Among the highlights of the Cohen Film Collection:

"The General" (1926): The collection, which has the original camera negative of Buster Keaton's Civil War comedy masterpiece, is working with the Library of Congress on its digital restoration. Other Keaton classics in the library include 1924"s "Sherlock Jr." and dozens of his shorts.

"Intolerance" (1916): D.W. Griffith's epic is currently being restored.

"Son of the Sheik" (1926): Rudolph Valentino's last film is being restored from nitrate material housed at the Library of Congress.

"Jamaica Inn" (1939): Alfred Hitchcock's last British film before he came to Hollywood.

"The Strong Man" (1926): Frank Capra directed this silent classic starring Langdon. It's one of 14 films starring Langdon that is in the collection.

"Sudden Fear" (1952): David Miller's film noir for which Joan Crawford and Jack Palance earned Oscar nominations is currently being restored.

Douglas Fairbanks: Besides "Thief of Bagdad," the collection features two of his earliest films, 1915's "The Lamb" and "Double Trouble," as well as his 1920s swashbucklers such as "The Black Pirate" and "Robin Hood."

"Fire Over England" (1937): The first on-screen pairing of Vivien Leigh and Laurence Olivier is being restored for the centenary of the actress' birth. "Fire" is one of four of Leigh's British films in the collection.

Comedy shorts starring W.C. Fields, George Burns and Gracie Allen, Robert Benchley and Milton Berle.

Musical shorts featuring performances by Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Bing Crosby, Louis Armstrong and Hoagy Carmichael

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susan.king@latimes.com

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