One (Spectacular) Movie-Going Week in LA
August 26, 2016
For those who seek titles outside of the mainstream during a trip to the local cinema - such as classic Hollywood, foreign, indie, and/or any type of film not originally produced and released this year- one could glance at a handful of Los Angeles repertoire calendars on any given day and land on a selection that piques their interest. Don't believe me? Check out the schedules for UCLA Film and Television Archive's Billy Wilder Theatre, Cinefamily, New Beverly, the Academy, Egyptian, Aero, Old Town Music Hall, the Rooftop Film Club at the Montalban, Cinespia - and even indie chains like the Arclight, Landmark, Nuart, and Regent. I'm sure there's venues I'm forgetting, but you get the point. LA is truly an oasis for movie-goers of all ages and tastes.
While I regularly frequent several of the above locations, outside of a festival like TCMFF, Cinecon or Noir City, I am rarely in a theater every evening. That's why I was struck by a week recently which found me gazing at movies on the big screen - well, at least a screen bigger than my TV, though not always in a theater - six nights in a row. In particular, three of those evenings involved very unique, memorable cinematic experiences; I'll share more about each below. And just for fun - and in the interest of full movie-going disclosure - the other films I saw that week but won't be talking about here were: Florence Foster Jenkins (2016) at the Academy, Electric Dreams (1984) on a rooftop in Hollywood, and Fun on a Weekend (1947) at the New Beverly.
Leave Her to Heaven's nitrate print (via UCLA Film and Television Archive's website).
What: Original 35mm release prints of Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and Nightmare Alley (1947)...on nitrate
Where: UCLA Film and Television Archive's Billy Wilder Theatre
UCLA Film and Television Archive's nitrate noir evening was unlike anything I'd ever seen, literally and figuratively. Noir, itself notoriously characterized by explosive plots and characters, should be right at home on a (potentially) equally explosive and hazardous film stock, right? I mean, what better pairing of film and format can you get?
The Billy Wilder is the theater I frequent most, thanks to their excellent programming. On a few occasions I've kicked myself for not buying tickets online ahead of time for what turned out to be sold out houses, but never have I witnessed a crowd like this before. My friend Nora texted to tell me a line was forming for standby tickets - 1.5 hours before the screening began - and by the time I arrived, a long line greeted those of us who already had tickets!
According to a Film Comment article published online last year, there are only three venues in the US equipped to screen nitrate. For a film stock that ceased production over 60 years ago, it's surprising that the number of theaters able to show movies on nitrate is increasing rather than decreasing: the Egyptian recently announced plans to retrofit the theater for nitrate capability. According to UCLA programmer Paul Malcolm, the Wilder used to screen nitrate more regularly in the past, but they haven't in a few years. Apparently, one of my favorite film authors, Mark A. Vieira, partly is to thank for pushing UCLA to resume nitrate screenings, and he was on hand to introduce the movies as a tie in to his latest book, Into the Dark: The Hidden World of Film Noir, 1941-1950.
Gene Tierney's Ellen is one of the all-time great femme fatales...in a rare Technicolor noir, Leave Her to Heaven.
I was particularly excited, because I had never seen Leave Her to Heaven before, and I always heard rave reviews about the film's lush color cinematography. Suffice it to say, viewing a movie as lauded as this one for the first time - ON NITRATE, a format I'd been told 'pops' visually - was a real treat. The vibrancy provided by the film's Technicolor cinematography (which, by the way, won an Oscar) contrasted sharply with Ellen (Gene Tierney)'s appalling actions, and the nitrate certainly made that visual distinction that much sharper and crisper. For a woman so jaw-droppingly gorgeous in color, Ellen's as dark and dangerous as they come - even more so, I think, than Phyllis Dietrichson in 1944's Double Indemnity. Yet, I can't imagine watching her and the rest of this movie in black and white, which was the preferable color scheme for noir.
I previously read that nitrate's high silver content would be more noticeable in black and white. Well, that was definitely true for Nightmare Alley, a drama in which the black and white compliments the rather dour, weighty storyline. Ironically, the nitrate brought out some sparkle in an otherwise dark picture, literally: predominantly, I noticed a few of Joan Blondell's costumes glittering in a way that jumped right off the screen. Though I noticed this the first time I watched the movie at TCMFF 2015, the same effect on nitrate made it seem as if Joan Blondell (or her ghost) leapt off the screen, and her dress was gleaming in front of me, in real time. That's something I've never experienced in a movie theater before.
Tyrone Power, Joan Blondell and her twinkling dress in Nightmare Alley.
I can't wait to experience the magic of nitrate again soon at either the Billy Wilder or the Egyptian, whichever venue starts programming them first!
What: The 35mm west coast restoration premiere of the rediscovered “American” release version of The Front Page (1931), and the world premiere DCP restoration of the original uncensored pre-Code release version of Cock of the Air (1932).
Where: The Academy's Samuel Goldwyn theater
If you've read - or even glossed over - a few posts on this site, you're probably aware that I adore pre-Code cinema. If there's a pre-Code screening in town, I'm (usually) there. This evening was no different, but there were a few bonuses: 1. I hadn't seen either movie before, 2. Cock of the Air is an especially rare picture, and 3. Though The Front Page is easily accessible, it's one of approximately 2894190411 pictures I've been recommended but haven't gotten around to watching yet.
The Front Page and Cock of the Air screened as part of the Academy's Archival Revival series.
But wait, there's more! What I didn't know going into this evening was just how special the event really was, because both prints were either "rediscovered" or "uncensored" - in other words, versions that hadn't been seen on the big screen in decades.
Since The Front Page was a first time viewing experience for me, I couldn't really tell that the picture we saw was a rediscovery - that is, the film originally shown in America; apparently, the previously available version was one cut for international audiences. My pre-Code trained mind readily identified prime period moments, including but not limited to: Mae Clarke referring to herself as a streetwalker (the Production Code did not like when a word like that was used!), several lines of dialogue (such as Adolphe Menjou's famous last phrase, obscured partly by the clanging of a typewriter: "That son of a bitch stole my watch!") and the fact that the Mayor in the film essentially sends a Governor messenger to a whorehouse. As I've watched the 1940 remake of this tale, His Girl Friday, several times, I already knew the story going in. However, I was struck by the fact that this version is more racially charged and, for the most part, physically confined to the newsroom (much like the play, I imagine). Though at times very snappy, overall this rendition felt slower - or maybe just longer - than it needed to be. (But as far as pre-Code content goes, I was satisfied.)
Adolphe Menjou and Pat O'Brien in The Front Page.
I was already a little tired by the time Cock of the Air started, but it was the main reason I attended the double feature in the first place so I had to stick it out. Though I found the plot one of the thinnest I've ever watched unfold, the screening was epic for two reasons: 1. This was the version of the film that came closest to Howard Hughes' vision and the first time in several decades that an audience got to see it, and 2. When the uncensored picture was unearthed, it was missing something - sound. However, the soundtrack to the censored movie was available, so those restoring the film put that to use, and actors were employed to fill in the missing audio bits where the sound cut out. The dilemma – and experience of hearing modern actors try to match 1930s voices – was similar to that of Frank Capra's first talking picture, The Donovan Affair (1929), which is missing its sound discs and is now (seldom) performed with live actors contributing the dialogue and sound effects. (Side note: I attended a live performance/screening of The Donovan Affair at TCMFF 2013. It was definitely one of the most memorable film experiences I’ve enjoyed in LA.)
Since some of the censored segments occur in the middle of a scene (or even a sentence!), the audible difference between the original cast and current day actors was undeniably apparent. The Academy produced a short video focusing on how this unique restoration was performed and how the actors approached their roles without any prior sense of the picture, story or character motivation – unlike any part they’ve had to tackle before, most of them admitted. Check out the video here; it's both informative and entertaining.
Cartoon versions of Chester Morris and Billie Dove casually hanging out on the wings of a (airborne) plane in a Cock of the Air poster.
Before the movie started, those of us in the audience were informed that a small film slate icon would appear at the bottom of the screen each time censored footage was added back in. I wasn't fond of this idea at first - and neither, it seemed, were some members of the audience - because I thought it would be distracting (and yes, I did find myself occasionally glancing to the picture’s right corner, awaiting the icon). In the end, though, I didn't mind it as much as I thought I would, because the symbol provided a quick heads up that the voices were about to change; without that signal, the transformation would have been rather jarring. Not to mention, the image also served to clearly delineate what the censors found inappropriate, which was sometimes baffling in itself.
Overall, while I wasn't blown away by Cock of the Air, the experience was another one to remember. Oh, and Billie Dove's dresses. Those were pretty memorable too.
What: The west coast premiere restoration of The King of Jazz (1930)
Where: The Academy's Samuel Goldwyn theater
I knew almost nothing about The King of Jazz going into this screening, but the hype of the world premiere restoration in NYC this past May and the special edition book highlighting the making, release and restoration of the picture, James Layton and David Pierce's King of Jazz: Paul Whiteman's Technicolor Revue, sufficiently pumped me up.
The Academy's program for The King of Jazz.
An epic Universal undertaking in terms of production and financing, The King of Jazz was released in 1930, right around the time musicals started losing steam. In 1933, a truncated version made the rounds, and an apparently subpar copy of the picture also showed up on VHS in the 90s. However, this new restoration evidently includes select footage not seen since 1930, which is pretty darn awesome.
On a visual level, the film dazzled. One of the first things I noticed was how gorgeous the print looked (please join me in an internet round of applause for all those who worked on the restoration). Four different prints were used in restoring the picture, and though I could tell a handful of times when the source was switched, for the most part the work appeared seamless. The pure spectacle of many of the song and dance sequences also floored me, especially for 1930, which was just before Busby Berkeley broke into the Hollywood scene. It was clear that Universal pulled out all the stops - with the two-color Technicolor, the sets, the costumes, the choreography, and the effects.
Speaking of the effects, more than one scene employed trick photography. For instance, multiple figures appeared superimposed during one musical interlude early in the movie, and again, for 1930, the visual manipulation appeared pretty flawless. Miniatures were also utilized in a few sequences to great effect. Case in point: during one scene, an entire tiny stage is removed from a bag, with musicians (to scale) climbing out and heading towards the newly set-up stage. Another fantastic miniature example occurs during the "Rhapsody in Blue" number, in which the orchestra is stationed inside the lid of a large piano with five members seated at the enlarged keys.
The "Rhapsody in Blue" performance (more like "Rhapsody in Green" in two-color Technicolor).
Story wise, the film didn't stun as much...because there wasn't really a tale to follow (not to mention, as in several other pictures from this era, hints of racism abounded; make no mistake, this movie dates itself). It seemed Universal simply wanted to cash in on the musical craze by bringing together the biggest bandleader of the 20s, Paul Whiteman (and his "Scrap Book"), and director John Murray Anderson, known for his stage productions, and throw in all in the peaches, salmons, reds, mints, and seafoam greens two-color Technicolor allowed.
Several short interludes, ranging from ten seconds to a few minutes, were sandwiched in between the main song and dance sequences. So despite the 100 minute runtime - originally, it was 105; production stills stand in for lost footage - all the action kept my attention in check. Some of the humorous bits were frankly quite funny and risqué, such as one in which a woman welcomed back a lover during wartime…and then another, and another, and another, each inquiring if they were the only one in her life, until the rooms were filled! In another episode, a woman and a man sit on a couch kissing while a young boy plays with a toy, mere feet from them. When the doorbell rings, the woman exclaims it's her husband and shoves the man in a closet. The boy tells his father about the boogeyman, aka her lover, and when the husband finds the man hiding, all he does is chastise him for scaring the child!
Paul Whiteman taking a page from his own Scrap Book for King of Jazz.
Other sequences that stood out to me included one in which a line of chorus girls (the Russell Markert Dancers, soon to be The Rockettes) performs whilst decked out in black jacket tops and what looked like black bikini underwear. Talk about pre-Code outfitting. And the “Melting Pot” finale, well, that one inspired unintentional laughter, as rounds of singers and dancers representing various nationalities performed short numbers - and then cheerfully took the express elevator down a boiling pot, smoke and all. What was intended as a sequence highlighting how many different cultures across the globe have influenced jazz was curiously missing any representation from African countries…
I'm interested to read what Layton and Pierce have to say about some of those points - such as the "Melting Pot" one I just mentioned - that were left out or overlooked (if they address either of those thoughts; I'm not sure if they do), in addition to their notes on the film's production history and restoration. Though I wouldn't rank King of Jazz among my favorite movies, any film and/or restoration history that can fill a book certainly intrigues me!
The "Melting Pot" number, in black and white. You don't get the full effect of the scalding pot here.
A splendid movie-going week like this reinforces how much I love living in LA - and perhaps how much LA has spoiled me for any other city/town/area I may live in during my life. I know there are other cities that boast great film scenes, but I'm not sure if any of them come close to what Los Angeles has to offer.
Then again, I might be a bit biased.