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Festival of Preservation reintroduces screen gems

The UCLA Film and Television Archive festival is showcasing century-old shorts, as well as more recent films and TV dramas during March, including Robert Altman's 'That Cold Day in the Park,' a Laurel & Hardy program and Clara Bow in 'Mantrap.'

February 27, 2013|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • John Dall and Peggy Cummins star in "Gun Crazy."
John Dall and Peggy Cummins star in "Gun Crazy." (File Photo )

I love the smell of preservation in the morning. The rest of the day, too, if it comes to that. So it's a pleasure to announce that the UCLA Film and Television Archive's one-of-a-kind Festival of Preservation opens for business Friday night with a knockout new print of one of the killer classics of film noir, Joseph H. Lewis' "Gun Crazy."

It's too bad the concept of preservation has such a musty sound, because what it means in practice is that today's audiences can experience the most unusual, the most entertaining and exciting treasures from the entire range of cinema's past, all brought back to life by the archive's team of crack preservationists.

That's especially true of this year's 16th UCLA festival, held in the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. The films shown in the festival's 24 programs, which run through the entire month of March, include relatively recent work like Robert Altman's 1969 "That Cold Day in the Park" and television dramas on the order of 1976's charming "The Belle of Amherst," starring Julie Harris at her most memorable.

FULL COVERAGE: Film festival news

At the other end of the chronological spectrum are films that date from practically the dawn of the medium. Most fascinating is the March 9 program, which features a documentary on cinema progenitor Eadweard Muybridge as well as a selection from the Library of Congress' fascinating paper prints collection.

These tiny movies, made between 1900 and 1902 and just two or three minutes long, exist today because, for a brief period, companies wanting to copyright their work had to deposit a frame-by-frame photographic paper duplicate with the library in Washington. The shorts in this program emphasize the surreal tricks filmmakers were just discovering they could play with the medium.

In between the modern and the ancient, UCLA's festival showcases the most diverse films imaginable. Just scratching the surface uncovers programs devoted to Laurel & Hardy, Hearst Movietone newsreels, Clara Bow in her breakthrough "Mantrap," as well as "Anderes Als Die Anderen (Different From the Others)," a 1919 German silent with a homosexual theme.

When you add in documentaries by Shirley Clarke on Robert Frost and Ornette Coleman, a 1913 Balkan War doc "With the Greeks in the Firing Line" thought lost for decades, and Sam Peckinpah directing his version of Katherine Anne Porter's "Noon Wine" for ABC-TV, it's hard to know where to begin.

My personal preferences invariably go toward films from the 1930s and 1940s, either obscure efforts from the majors or lesser-known gems from Poverty Row studios such as Monogram, Republic and Eagle-Lion.

Among the close-to-unheard-of films that turned out to be unexpectedly charming, two of the best, "Thirty Day Princess" and "The Working Man," are double-billed on March 23.

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Starring Sylvia Sidney in a rare light comedy role, "Thirty Day Princess" posits that when the beautiful Princess of Taronia gets the mumps just ahead of a crucial American fundraising tour, her double, a struggling Manhattan actress, steps into the breach. Sidney gets to play both roles, falling in love with Cary Grant's newspaper publisher and handling co-writer Preston Sturges' clever dialogue with aplomb.

The equally blithe "Working Man" is a showcase for the great George Arliss, once a power in Hollywood and now largely forgotten. Here he plays a driven shoe tycoon who goes to work incognito for a rival firm in order to help a pair of half-spoiled young people, one of them played by a sprightly 26-year-old Bette Davis.

Truly unusual is "The Inside Story," playing on March 11 with the James Cagney-starring "Johnny Come Lately." "Inside" is an anti-hoarding political fable combined with a folksy comedy that shows how the same $1,000 makes the rounds of a small Vermont town, solving problems and doing no end of good as it is passed from hand to hand.

And a word should be said about the indescribable "International House," playing March 10. Set in Wu-Hu, China, this wacky enterprise features comic turns by W.C. Fields and a young George Burns and Gracie Allen, plus Cab Calloway singing "Reefer Man." Its racy dialogue led the Hays Office to huff that "the whole picture is vulgar and borders constantly on the salacious." You have been warned.

Just as memorable as these charmers are the series' considerably darker film noirs, including a March 10 double bill of films taken from tales by a pair of masters of pulp fiction.

"The Chase," adapted from Cornell Woolrich's "The Black Path of Fear," stars Robert Cummings as a down-on-his-luck World War II vet who takes a job as chauffeur for Steve Cochrane's psychotic gangster. Did I mention that the gangster has a neglected trophy wife (Michele Morgan) and employs a cold-eyed Peter Lorre as his right hand man? (Sadly, this was the last film worked on by the late Nancy Mysel, one of UCLA's veteran preservationists.)

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