Starting Saturday night and running for the rest of May, the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum in Westwood will be showing "Unburied Treasures," classic films preserved by the archive. None of these films is available on DVD and all of them figure among the most unusual works in anyone's collection. Expect the unexpected: You won't be disappointed.
You also won't be lacking in entertainment value, because some of these films are so diverting, it's surprising they're not better known.
Chief among these is 1930's "The Royal Family of Broadway," based on a play by Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman. Only the third film to be directed by George Cukor, it was already bristling with delightful screwball comedy energy and a wonderful off-the-cuff feeling.
A charming valentine to life on the stage based loosely on the celebrated Barrymore family, "Royal Family" stars Ina Claire as an actress who wonders if she can give up acting for the love of one of the world's wealthiest men. But the film is clearly stolen by the irresistible Fredric March, who got a best actor Oscar nomination for playing the movie star in this theatrical group, "a madman in a family of maniacs."
Playing on the same May 18 bill is 1934's "Murder at the Vanities," a wacky musical celebrated for one of its production numbers, "(Sweet) Marijuana," complete with a chorus dressed as cactus buds and lines like "you alone can bring my lover back to me / even though I know its only a fantasy." Not surprisingly, the Hays Office ordered the scene removed from all release prints, but UCLA managed to procure an untouched copy.
The series opens on Saturday night with two atypical films by director Josef von Sternberg, including 1929's early sound "Thunderbolt," starring Fay Wray as Ritzi, "the most decent kid in the rackets," and George Bancroft as the gangster who loves her.
Even more unusual is the rarely seen 1931 "An American Tragedy," Von Sternberg's early version of the Theodore Dreiser novel that later became a huge success for director George Stevens and actors Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor in 1951's "A Place in the Sun."
While Stevens' work was magisterial, Von Sternberg's is so lively it was banned in England, South Africa and Italy and caused Dreiser to sue Paramount for misrepresenting his novel. (He lost.) Notable is the film's sympathy for the wronged girlfriend, played here by Sylvia Sidney and later by Shelley Winters.
Also on the program is a 1930 short called "The Hard Guy," which was one of an impossibly young Spencer Tracy's first film appearances.
If that all sounds too grim, there's the May 28 program, which has Ava Gardner at her loveliest in "One Touch of Venus" and Irene Dunne starring in the 1937 "High, Wide, and Handsome," featuring a score by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II. With Randolph Scott costarring as a man obsessed with drilling for oil in 1859 Pennsylvania, you might think of this as a kindler, gentler version of "There Will Be Blood."
Perhaps the most compelling program of the series is the May 22 double bill of Ernst Lubitsch's "The Man I Killed" and the Noel Coward-starring "The Scoundrel," as unexpected a pair of films as anyone could want.
UCLA is billing 1932's "The Man I Killed" (sometimes known as "Broken Lullaby") as Lubitsch's only dramatic film of the sound era, and that is putting it mildly.
Here the director, known for his exceptional comedies, takes on the poignant, potent story of a French World War I veteran (Phillips Holmes), haunted by a man he killed in battle, who goes to Germany to connect with the devastated family. Lionel Barrymore is excellent as the dead soldier's bitter father and Nancy Carroll is affecting as the bereaved fiancé. But the real star is Lubitsch, who had the daring to make a surprisingly strong antiwar film from deep within the Hollywood system.
"The Scoundrel," written, directed and produced by the team of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur in 1935, has the feeling of a literate, sophisticated independent film half a century before Sundance. Coward stars as a big-deal New York publisher with a caddish heart of ice and steel who is fated to walk the earth undead unless he can find a friend to cry for him after his plane crashes -- as strange as it sounds.
When the Los Angeles Herald Express reviewed "Ramrod" back in 1947, the headline read "Western Goes Psycho," which is not a half-bad description for this brooding vehicle starring Joel McCrea as a man with a past and Veronica Lake, tiny but fierce in Edith Head gowns and cascading hair, as a would-be cattle baroness.
On the same double bill Sunday is the full-length 124-minute version of Budd Boetticher's 1951 Mexican epic, "Bullfighter and the Lady." Originally released at 87 minutes, it stars Robert Stack as a callow American who thinks he wants to be one of "the men who play with death" and Gilbert Roland as the Mexican torero who is the real deal.
Unusual as it is to see any of these films on the big screen, it is almost unheard of to see the two German silents that will be screened on May 11, complete with subtitles and live musical accompaniment. Melodramatic, obsessive, stunningly photographed, the Pola Negri-starring "Sappho" and William Dieterle's "The Saint and Her Fool" are so rare that the second film has been totally lost in its home country.
When UCLA talks about "Unburied Treasures," it's not fooling around.