UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017 in Review: The Good

November 13, 2017

Well, another successful UCLA Festival of Preservation wrapped... over seven months ago. Apologies for the delay in providing any sort of recap; as readers of this site know, the Festival of Preservation was the first of three consecutive classic film celebrations I attended in March and April, the other two being Noir City and TCMFF. As one fest spilled into another, there was just barely - and sometimes zero - time in between to breathe, let alone gather my thoughts.

Hello again, friend.

Out of the festival's 19 total programs, I made it to 11 (in part or in whole), one short of my plan of 12. By far, the titles I enjoyed most were the pre-Codes, which is on par for my tastes. (I also saw more pre-Code selections than any other type of film.) I'm a bit bummed I didn't get a chance to catch any of the TV entries; my schedule just didn't line up with any, which is unfortunate, because those are usually fascinating and quite rare. I also had to skip out on one evening I was looking forward to, River of Grass (1994) and The Watermelon Woman (1996), due to a scheduling conflict. But so goes the Festival of Preservation... and all festivals, really.

 

Of the movies I did see, I'd call roughly one quarter of them gems and another quarter thoroughly entertaining. The rest? Some were so screwy that I found it hard to suppress my unintentional laughter, while others were simply, well, lackluster. So this year I decided to break my recap down into the good, the bad and the ugly/oddly compelling messes. Yup, just two.

 

First up: the good! (I'll tackle the ugly next week.)

Brilliant Swedish posters strike again. According to Google, Tjuvar I Paradiset translates to Thieves in Paradise

Trouble in Paradise (1932)

There's not much more I can say about this exquisite Ernst Lubitsch picture, except that the theater was packed, so we had to sit in one of the very first rows (as usual, I underestimated the popularity and crowd size). Despite the rather undesirable positioning, the picture still sparkled. Trouble in Paradise is one film that is truly best appreciated with an audience.  Though I've watched this before, I definitely enjoyed round two more than my first viewing of I Take This Woman (1931)... which you can read about next week when I tackle part 2 of my recap.

Peggy, Behave! (1922)

I've only seen a few Baby Peggy shorts, but of that handful, this is my favorite. How could you go wrong with an adorable child goofing around with farm animals? (Probable animal cruelty aside.) This charming little kiddo was a hoot - and she's still with us at age 99!

The ads for The Poor Nut were - dare I say it? - rather nutty. 

The Poor Nut (1927)

Up until this screening, I've only had the chance to enjoy Jean Arthur's sound pictures. Suffice it to say, it was rather hard for me to separate her image from her trademark voice, but I managed to do so while watching The Poor Nut. Here, brunette Arthur (another difference!) is endearing and smart, with a hint of sass thrown in for good measure. I actually found all the lead roles surprisingly well-defined and fleshed out, with the ladies' friendship (Arthur and Jane Winton) in particular rather refreshing and realistic, despite - or considering - the fact that they have their sights set on the same goofy guy. The Poor Nut was a joy from start to finish, and I would savor the chance to see it again!  

He Walked By Night (1948)

Yes, I have seen He Walked By Night before, but man, it is so much more atmospheric on the big screen, particularly the climatic storm drain chase. I highly recommend the scene - and the whole movie - be viewed in a dark theater for maximum effect. So chilling! 

Open Secret (1948)

This "lost" picture echoes other social injustice films of the era that confronted anti-Semitism, with an added noir touch: a couple tries to solve their friend's murder. However, said friend was in possession of a pamphlet calling for “100% white Americans to organize," which leads them down some unexpected roads. Red flag #1. There are also some shady photos involved. Red flag #2. Given the subject, I'm not sure this could be called fun, but it is a taut, enjoyable tale.

A French poster for The Mad Game that translates to Kidnappers. Spoiler alert, France? 

The Mad Game (1933)

Another Festival of Preservation, another Spencer Tracy Fox pre-Code that I fall for, though I enjoyed this particular Tracy outing better than 2015's entry Now I'll Tell from 1934. Tracy again returns to his familiar pre-Code gangster territory, but the second  half of this movie takes a turn... one that requires Tracy to don a disguise AND an accent (both of which are not very believable in real life, but of course the co-stars fall for it). This picture, which features Claire Trevor younger than I've ever seen her (seriously, I didn't recognize her at first), has a tendency to lean towards the wacky end at times, but I had a ball. Oh, and Trevor and Tracy's banter in The Mad Game pops right off each other; this was the only film besides Dante's Inferno (1935) that they appeared in together, and I really wished they teamed up more often because it's obviously they shared a congenial chemistry. I would love to write more about The Mad Game at some point... and hopefully see it again, too.  

 

365 Nights in Hollywood (1934)

As I'm sure I've admitted before, I'm generally not a big musical fan, but seriously, I've enjoyed so many musicals over the past year that I may need to rethink that claim. Put simply: 365 Nights in Hollywood was a delight. Throw in a healthy dose of comedy, a great supporting cast, and some devilish deceit, and you've got a delectable recipe for pre-Code style shenanigans and merriment. I was hesitant going in to this screening, but I can say now with confidence that I'd definitely be willing to spend another evening with this movie. 

I'm convinced the Fleischer Studios staff were all geniuses. (From their short Educated Fish).

Classic Animated Shorts from Paramount

I'm not really a musical fan, nor a lover of animation, but once again, the UCLA Festival of Preservation showed me that I really should keep an open mind. The lineup this evening was an eclectic bunch focusing mostly on the works of Max and Dave Fleischer, with a George Pal puppet-toon thrown in for good measure. The colorful Educated Fish (1937), which earned an Oscar nomination for short subject, was brilliant; really, I don't know how these writers and animators came up with a constant stream of clever wordplay and visuals (a lesson in playing hooky with a fish hook - perfect!). I also enjoyed my very first Pal short, Rhythm in the Ranks (1941) - in fact, I'm still in awe. And A Cartoon Travesty of the Raven (1942) was quite uproarious in parts, especially when the vacuum cleaner starts sucking up all the booze and gets drunk. Like, really? That is the sort of offbeat, slightly inappropriate comedy I love, and sometimes I'm blown away to see it employed so heavily in 1930s and 1940s animation.

Bomb, what bomb?! (See: below).

Infernal Machine (1933)

In his introduction, Scott MacQueen pointed out that on paper Infernal Machine reads like a thriller: a transatlantic ship glides through the ocean with a lively band of characters onboard... oh, and someone planted a bomb somewhere. Your run-of-the-mill whodunit, right?  Wrong. Infernal Machine was filmed as a lighthearted, proto screwball comedy. Yes, everyone has a reason for wanting to blow the ship to bits, but this picture paints those tales in a rather frivolous, blithe way. You know, as you do.

 

So before the film even rolled, my interest factor skyrocketed. I'll admit, I have a soft spot for movies that either read or sound like slight/full fledged mayhem. Add to that the fact that we were the first audience to watch this pre-Code rarity in over 80 years, and I was stoked. (I even ducked out of a mini family vacation early to make this screening!)

 

As noted above, the suspense comes in second behind the laughs for most of Infernal Machine, which means there isn't really any tension between the two styles; that said, it's certainly still a curious, genre-bending picture. Besides the colorful characters and the inevitable pre-Code naughtiness (especially at the end when everyone listens in to Chester Morris and Genevieve Tobin in their private quarters), I was surprised to find the film filled with several innovative shots, one early example involving a tight zoom into a keyhole where we actually see the activity, in this case a fight, on the other side. Another inventive, if not totally uncommon, use of cinematography pops up when introducing key characters: a newspaper picture or a snapshot of the subject, for instance, subtly dissolves into the cinematic action and we follow the character from there. I've certainly seen this technique used before, but in this case, it added a comedic effect to the proceedings. As I mentioned with several other entries on this list, I would really love the opportunity to see Infernal Machine again. DVD would be nice. (Fox, can you hear me?)

Something's gonna go down in about 3 seconds in this still from Sleepers East

Sleepers East (1934)

I'll be honest, I didn't know who Wynne Gibson was going in to this screening. My naivety aside, all I have to say is: damn, was she good in Sleepers East. In the picture, released just months prior to the Production Code's strict enforcement, Gibson plays a prostitute trying to stay out of trouble, but she soon finds herself in a pretty bad - OK, deadly - situation and has to take off. Returning home, she learns the unfortunate news of her mother's death, but hey, she runs into a former sweetheart, so not all is doom and gloom, right? The picture deals with some pretty heavy-handed topics, but the overall tale and Gibson's journey is compelling. Not to mention, the bulk of the drama lands squarely on her shoulders, and she holds it up well with her devoted, poignant, and resilient performance.

The Lost Moment (1947)

I took one night off from Noir City to attend the closing evening of the Festival of Preservation, and I'm glad I did! This dreamy gothic fantasy based on Henry James' The Aspern Papers is set in late 1800s Venice. Agnes Moorehead, then 47 years old, played the 105-year-old mistress of a famous, long deceased poet who is in possession of her late lover's sought-after letters. Moorehead was 100% unrecognizable in this role due to the delicate makeup required, and in noir-ish fashion, she's revealed bit by bit and not all at once. As a gifted character actress, Moorehead could do it all, so I wasn't surprised at how sublimely she handled this part.

 

Then there's Susan Hayward. I'm more familiar with a boisterous Hayward in pictures like Smash Up: The Story of a Woman (1947) and I Want To Live! (1958), but here she's intentionally distant, cool, and reserved. Oh, and she harbors a secret fantasy life that Robert Cummings stumbles upon, and he's understandably confused as hell - like I was - at first. The clash between fantasy/reality and the past/present, best portrayed by Hayward's character, is a timely one; indeed, her bizarre fantasy world serves to show how devastatingly closeted the past can keep us and how it can create an insufferable present if we don't choose to move forward.

 

Stay tuned next week for part 2 of my 2017 UCLA Festival of Preservation re-cap: the ugly and the downright nutty!

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I See a Dark Theater is a website dedicated to classic movie-going—and loving—in the City of Angels. Whether it's coverage on screenings, special presentations, or Q&As around Los Angeles that you're looking for, or commentary on the wonderful and sometimes wacky world of classic cinema, you've come to the right place for a variety of pieces written with zeal, awe, and (occasionally) wit. Enjoy.

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