UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017 in Review: The Ugly
November 22, 2017
Welcome to part 2 of my UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017 review! Last week, I covered the good. This week, I'll tackle the ugly, which ranges from strange to disappointing to WTF and beyond. Regrettably, this edition failed to uncover a gem as absolutely outlandish as 2015 entry Ouanga (1933/35/36/41?), but I will say, some of these movies come close to rivaling Ouanga's ludicrous tale - both in front of the camera and behind the scenes.
Before we begin, I suggest catching up with part 1 of my recap. Then brace yourselves for something sort of different...
Voice of Hollywood (1931)
This chopped up short, unseen since 1931, featured a humorous appearance by young Jean Harlow taking questions on a fake radio program, alongside a song and dance courtesy of Walter Huston (yes, you read that right), among other things. Surviving only in severely fragmented form, the eight minute short was absolutely chaotic and barely coherent, but I still got a kick out of it.
Carole Lombard and the deer show approximately the same level of enthusiasm for this picture.
I Take This Woman (1931)
It may surprise you to hear that a Carole Lombard-Gary Cooper pre-Code exists but is very, very seldomly screened - I mean, they're two pretty distinguished stars now, right? (And no, I'm not talking about Now and Forever with Shirley Temple, which was released post-Code in 1934.) Part of the reason behind I Take This Woman's rarity is due to - what else? - a rights issue. Author Mary Roberts Rinehart took possession of the underlying rights and film elements after a certain number of years, made herself a 16mm copy of the picture... and then tossed the camera negative. (Cue: disgruntled, exasperated sighs from the audience.) Tom Toth, a Lombard fan, later acquired Rinehart's print and screened it once or twice at the Film Forum in NYC, but other than that, this movie hasn't been seen widely since 1931.
With that, I was hoping to rediscover a hidden pre-Code jewel, but.... it was more like a rough, lackluster stone of little real value. I went in ready to love this picture, but the unbelievable plot and stiffness between Lombard and Cooper made it rather difficult. Regardless of my personal opinion, it was a treat sneaking a peek at two future stars before either grew into the screen personas they are now so famously known for.
Tramp Strategy (1911)
Early female-directed shorts always pique my interest, so Tramp Strategy, helmed by Alice Guy, had my attention from the get-go. In this one reel comedy, a woman decides to dress up her fiancée like a tramp so he can save her and impress her father. The reason? The father does not approve of his future son-in-law, so I guess the rationale comes down to: if he saves her by lying and disguising himself as a tramp all will be fine and dandy? Sure, why not. Of course a real-life tramp infiltrates the situation and hilarity ensues. Excusing the short from any semblance of logic, I have to admit Tramp Strategy scores on the entertainment front.
Every single thing about this poster screams exploitation flick.
She-Devil Island (1936)
My fingers were crossed that She-Devil Island would be as off-the-walls bonkers as Ouanga, but sadly it failed to register high on the cray cray barometer. As semi-expected, She-Devil Island wasn't as much an exploitation picture as it was a low-level B-flick, BUT the racy posters and hot title did deliver - to an extent: the native female islander's outfits are indeed very skimpy. Like, beyond pre-Code. I'd love to dive into this picture's Production Code Administration (PCA) file if it exists, because I honestly have no idea how it could have been screened in the US without major cuts or re-edits.
Watch out for those menacing green hands!
The Vampire Bat (1933)
This rather static, dialogue-heavy early 1930s 'horror' flick is by far my least favorite of the cycle. Normally, I wouldn't have attended this screening, but this particular event was special in that the UCLA restoration recreated portrait painter/hand colorist Gustav Brock's short color sequence in the film, which basically no one knew existed... until UCLA's Scott MacQueen found a reference to it while flipping through an issue of Film Daily. The scene in question, a manhunt, takes place mostly in a cave. Though the setting is dim, the fiery yellows and oranges radiating from a group of torches, poking through the dark, deliver a unique, novel effect. And that's all I've got. That was definitely the highlight of this screening for me, as I figured it would be.
Almost Married (1932)
Fox pre-Code alert! I was excited for this entry, not only due to its status as a rare pre-Code, but also because the title appeared so at odds with the summary. Almost Married sounds like a rom-com, right? Nope. Try thriller - in fact, it was actually initially shot as a full-blown horror picture by production designer-turned-director William Cameron Menzies. But according to MacQueen, that version didn't exactly fly with the Production Code, so Fox commissioned a rewrite and hired Marcel Varnel to helm the scenes being re-shot, which explains, well, a lot, since nothing really fully adds up or makes sense in this movie.
That said, here's a short summary, so you can get a sense of how deep the mayhem lies: Anita (Violet Heming) escapes the Bolsheviks with the help of Deene (Ralph Bellamy), who just so happens to be a childhood friend. (Don't ask what she's doing there.) To save herself, she has to get hitched, and cause Deene's in close proximity, he'll do. There's just one tiny problem: Anita is still legally married to pianist Louis Capristi (Alexander Kirkland), a raving mad man who is currently serving time behind bars. Naturally, he does not take the news of his wife's remarriage lightly, and once free, he takes off on a mission after the newlyweds, psychotic-style.
Plot and pacing-wise, it's obvious this picture was slashed to bits; I mean, I love and advocate for short movies, but you know there were serious production problems if a film's run-time is only 51 minutes. But perhaps my favorite part was the fact that half of the characters, mainly Bellamy and Heming, acted as if they were airdropped in from another set - a comedy, I'd guess. I'm assuming most of their scenes were directed by Varnel, or they were given super odd guidance from Menzies, or maybe it was a bit of both? Who knows, but their tone and mannerisms don't jive at all with the type of story being told - and that's just the tip of the disaster-inducing iceberg. If you're in the mood for a full-on train wreck, Almost Married comes with the highest of my recommendations. (But you gotta track down a copy first.)
I can't find posters for Stranded - or much of any media, for that matter. But here's a still from the film, with writer/director/star Juleen Compton in the middle.
Stranded, written, produced, and directed by indie filmmaker Juleen Compton (who was in the audience), provoked me - and sadly, not in a good way. Perhaps that's because the 1960s indie filmmaking examples that come quickly to my mind are TCMFF 2016 programmer One Potato, Two Potato (1964) and 2015 Festival of Preservation selection Private Property (1960), both of which are bold pieces of cinema - visually and story-wise. Whereas Stranded was obviously influenced by the experimentation of the 1960s and the French New Wave (the latter evident in the film's ambiguity, novel editing, and rather carefree leads), in the end I felt the movie's overall tone fell more in line with 1950s cinema, perhaps due to the characters' naiveté. Maya Smuckler, who introduced the film, commented that Stranded captured a precious moment right before the 1960s "exploded," with the characters perched "just on the verge of rebellion but they don't have a moment to fall back on" as they pursued different kinds of quests before the decade embraced the iconography we're so familiar with today.
As much as I wanted to like Stranded, I sadly found myself more frustrated with it than anything. (Fun fact: since I traveled to Cyprus last year, it was amusing to pick out some of the non-subtitled Greek words!) First off, as an American who enjoys traveling, I found the characters thoroughly annoying with their haughty attitudes and discourteous actions, foibles foreigners still complain about in American tourists today. Second, the dialogue felt hackneyed and stiff, quite at odds with the three leads' aimless wandering. I guess I was expecting more edge to Stranded with its 1965 production and release date, but it played out as a rather frivolous 1950s fantasy, albeit mixed with a slight sense of realism in the way the picture was shot. As the credits rolled, I was surprised to learn that Compton also starred in the movie. I honestly had no idea she was the main character, and I wonder if I would have judged Stranded differently had I known the star was also the director. Regardless, the fact that she wrote, produced, directed AND starred in Stranded during a time when the first three occupations were still largely dominated by men is important to remember and honor.
Love the menacing face in the giant wave.
S.O.S. Tidal Wave (1939)
W.T.F. S.O.S. Tidal Wave is a true B-movie extravaganza: there's political fraud, voter corruption, ventriloquists, tidal waves, and some pretty crude special effects all packed into a 62-minute picture. Apparently, the idea for S.O.S. Tidal Wave sprung from Orson Welles' infamous "War of the Worlds" radio broadcast - with one huge addition: TV. (Fun fact: Companies at the time predicted that televisions would flood the market during the next two years, but WWII significantly delayed that forecast.) Though it was a bit peculiar seeing TVs so widely used in a picture from 1939, the manipulation of the medium for political purposes - in this case, convincing voters a tidal wave that just destroyed NYC was headed their way, so stay away from the polls! - is one that sadly seems plausible today. If you find that premise rather unbelievable, then there's this: disaster sequences from Deluge (1933), a film thought lost until recently, were excised from the negative and inserted into S.O.S. Tidal Wave in 1939! Yup, apparently stuff like that happened back then, which makes this picture doubly crazy.
False Faces (1932)
Fox pre-Code alert! Man oh man, Lowell Sherman, you over-achieving rascal, you. (He tackled directing and acting duties on this picture.) Plastic surgery seems like the last profession someone would want to fake their way in to, right? I'd say so. What Sherman's "Dr. Brenton" lacks in actual skills, he makes up with charm, but that will only take him so far: underneath his captivating exterior is a sleazy, scheming fraudster so self-assured that you can't wait for his world to blow-up gloriously in the end. With that, I found the farce pretty damn out there, even considering the period, but what makes False Faces extra unsettling is how Sherman's ethical duplicity doesn't seem to bother him much, even as he destroys lives. Now that's #precode.
That's a wrap on my UCLA Festival of Preservation 2017 coverage. I'm already looking forward to the 2019 festival, which is now less than a year and a half away. If you attended earlier this year, let me know what some of your highlights were!