UCLA Festival of Preservation 2019 Recap
February 27, 2019
And just like that, UCLA Film and Television Archive’s Festival of Preservation is over. Attendees were treated to a marathon of 23 blocks of programming across a three-day span, and while my body generally rebels against epic day-long film events like this, I was pleased to attend nine screenings. Below are my highlights from the fest.
My pass from the 2019 Festival of Preservation.
Wings Over Mt. Everest (1935)
This short’s narration was super dramatic, but it didn’t have to be; the first glimpses of Everest on film were awe-inspiring enough. Not to mention, to think that the pilots were in open cockpits 30,000 feet up—and the photographer was pointing a camera (bundled up due to the cold temperatures) down was mind-blowing! My favorite moment was when one pilot was asked how the flight went upon their return: “Alright,” was his reply. Just making history, no big deal.
What a love triangle: Margaret Sullavan, Jimmy Stewart, and Robert Young in The Mortal Storm.
The Mortal Storm (1940)
When UCLA Film and Television Director Jan-Christopher Horak mentioned this movie and None Shall Escape (1944) were the only war pictures to mention atrocities committed against Jewish people, I knew it would be a rough go—and it was. The Mortal Storm portrays characters and events that are heartbreaking, devastating and touching all the same, and the way Hitler’s rise to power divided and destroyed the family at the center of the film is heart-wrenching and infuriating. Like None Shall Escape, The Mortal Storm captured issues still pertinent to today’s world, which gives movies like this an extra layer of sadness and lament (though I rate that ending 1% hopeful). While watching, I also pondered what American audiences thought, as this film was released in 1940 but portrays events from seven years prior. With war looming on the horizon, did they question how bad things had gotten in those intervening years? I wonder.
Shout out to the two kids who watched The Mortal Storm and Trapped. If they could stay awake for this late-night pic, I can too, I figured. As is the case with many fast-paced low budget B-movies, I found these characters’ slight twists and turns fun to see unfold. The ending in the car barn was also quite electrifying—in more ways than one. To be honest, it wasn’t quite the finale I was expecting, as the main character (Lloyd Bridges) already met his rather anticlimactic conclusion earlier, but that said, the ending surely sufficed. Oh, and the opening scenes in the Treasury Department were fascinating, making me curious as to exactly how new currency is introduced into circulation… Yes, these are the things I ponder when watching films noir.
Preserved Silent Shorts and Fragments
This two-hour program was comprised of shorts from the 1910s and a ‘fragment,’ basically a hodgepodge of scenes from the 1928 feature Beware of Married Men. Two short standouts were The Frame-up on Dad (1915) and Captain Jinks’ Evolution (1916). In the former, a man whose family has arranged his marriage heads home to meet his fiancée… with the woman he secretly just married in tow, disguised as his Best Man. Of course, there’s a scene in which his mother walks in on them kissing, obviously surprised; the title card read something to the effect of, “You two really are close!” which got a big laugh. Captain Jinks’ Evolution was over the top in its stereotypes of men—one husband is tough and abusive, his neighbor more effeminate and soft… and of course both wives prefer the abusive guy, at first. Cue audience sighs. Stuff gets fantastically crazy when shy hubby needs a blood transfusion from a strong man (questionable science #1), and afterwards, the two neighbors switch personalities (questionable science #2). Sorry, it doesn’t work that way, fellas.
As for Beware of Married Men, despite about only half the footage surviving, it was a pleasurable ride. To add to the excitement, we were the first audience to see any of this picture in 91 years! Co-star Myrna Loy was in the full throes of her vamp period, and while she played a pissed-off wife here, she certainly looked like a siren. On the opposite end of the spectrum, the fantastic, warm Irene Rich turned in a strong nuanced performance. Stuart Holmes was adequate as the cheating husband, but nothing to write home about; this was definitely the ladies’ showcase!
This Mexican melodrama shifted from full-on drama (a rebel leader casually killing villagers) to awkward rom-com (said revolutionary wooing an opinionated lady with a band of serenaders). The tonal swing was interesting, but it worked, propelled by solid acting and thoughtful cinematography. One element I wasn’t expecting was the widespread abuse—between men and women—which could be hard to take because it’s mostly done in a comical, flirtatious way; star María Félix (Beatriz), whose dynamic eyes and staunch arched eyebrows read, “I will cut you,” is an outspoken woman who slaps, kicks, and even throws a bomb under revolutionary Pedro Armendáriz (General Reyes). The movie also lightly introduces discussions on class and race, especially as Beatriz, engaged to a foreigner, initially looks down upon Pedro and his men but joins them in the end. The film doesn’t push these topics too far, but the fact that it brings them up is noteworthy.
Smouldering Fires (1925)
Hands down, Smouldering Fires was my favorite film of the festival. The movie’s billing as the predecessor to Female (1933) reeled me in, but the two pictures actually share only a few similarities aside from the female boss angle. For instance, I don’t recall another woman in Female—here, that’s younger sister Dorothy (Laura La Plante), who falls for her brother-in-law, Robert (Malcom McGregor)—nor did Jane (Pauline Frederick) consistently bed other male employees; Ruth Chatterton was more sexually ruthless in Female, while Jane was more exacting and sexless at the beginning of Smouldering Fires. However, once Jane falls for the younger Robert her demeanor softens significantly, and we actually don’t see much of the office after that. It’s almost like two different movies and characters, but the change in tone, like Enamorada, was balanced well, complemented by strong performances all around. The love triangle was painted with such poignancy and subtlety that it was easy to identify with all parties, providing enough room for everyone to understand their circumstances and actions without hitting the audience over the head. The last few frames in particular are striking—we see love, heartbreak, uncertainty and a million other emotions cycle through the three main characters; we think we know the move Jane will make, but we never see it, which left me content but also still wondering…
I incorrectly assumed Alibi was silent—it was shot as both a silent and talkie—but we saw the sound version! There were highs and lows to this gangster feature: I was impressed by the camera work, for one. Very early sound entries can feel stagnant and stationary as crew members grappled with the new technology, but as far as cinematography goes, Alibi appeared more polished and ambitious than other 1929 offerings. What still posed problems were the pacing and story. Though I enjoyed some of the little twists, the action moved slow and the characters lacked much depth or purpose; one moment in particular that inspired unintentional laughter at the most inopportune time was a death scene that ran almost a minute long. Those issues aside, I enjoyed Alibi and was more enamored with how cinematically accomplished the film was so early into the sound period.
A still from The Savages.
The Savages (1967)
This short doc highlighted the struggles African Americans faced in 1960s Venice, from families to young people just letting off steam. For a subject I’m very unfamiliar with, it was staggering to watch how arduous and imbalanced life was for members of this community a mere 50 years ago—in an area then dubbed a “Ghost Town” that is now completely unaffordable, no less.
Operation Bootstrap (1968)
Operation Bootstrap was a South Los Angeles organization founded in the mid-1960s focused on engaging the community while also fostering communication—inside and outside said community. I’m not sure how long the group lasted, but within a few years they founded a welfare center and initiated skill-focused classes for those looking for work. The organization’s motto was “Learn, Baby, Learn” and “Earn, Baby, Earn”—this, just months after the Watts rebellion and “Burn, Baby, Burn.” What I found most absorbing about this documentary were the raw, real, radical community meetings in which blacks and whites spoke their minds in an attempt to understand each other. These conversations, which sometimes got heated, stand 100% relatable in 2019. The tough questions and issues faced back then are still omnipresent today, which was disheartening—and also showed how important Operation Bootstrap was and still would be, if it were around.
Gay USA (1977)
As to be expected, most of this doc capturing footage from Gay Pride parades across the US in 1977 concentrated on the positive, but some dissenting voices were captured too. Watching today, interviews from both sides demonstrated how far we’ve come in some ways with gay rights, and how far we still have to go in other ways. Overall, though, it was a jubilant, eye-opening look at the struggles, journeys, and ultimate triumph so many of these people overcame to live true to themselves in a time and, oftentimes, environments that were still homophobic and hostile.
John Lennon (Ian Hart) and Brian Epstein (David Angus) in The Hours and Times.
The Hours and Times (1991)
I know very little about John Lennon as a person. So, for the most part, I found Lennon, as played by Ian Hart, rather obnoxious and unrelatable in this narrative feature with doc mentalities recounting a 1963 weekend trip Lennon took with Beatles manager Brian Epstein (David Angus). How much is based on truth, and what was the impetus for telling this story? I wasn’t sure; for me, the movie brought up more questions than anything else. That said, the drama, focusing on the two main characters to presumably make it easier to look like 1963 on a tight budget, did keep me thoroughly engaged—and wanting to know more about their relationship in real life.
That’s a wrap on the 2019 UCLA Festival of Preservation. Only two more years until the next celebration! If you attended this year, what were your program highlights?