UCLA film festival a fascinating window into our cinematic past

Kenneth Turan
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Film Critic
Mary Pickford's 'My Best Girl' and Laurel and Hardy's 'Music Box' among offerings at UCLA festival

The UCLA Festival of Preservation doesn't have a motto, but if it did it might be "Give me your tired films, your huddled masses of forgotten and decaying cinema, and I will breathe fire into them and set them free." Really.

Put on every other year by the UCLA Film & Television Archive to showcase the work it has preserved, the 17th edition of the festival begins its monthlong run at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater on March 5 with Anthony Mann's undervalued "Men in War." Forget Cannes, Sundance, even the Oscars: This is the cinematic event I look forward to most of all.

That's because no other movie festival comes close to it in the magnificent breadth of neglected but compelling American film material it puts on display. This year's group includes forgotten classics such as 1927's completely charming "My Best Girl" with Mary Pickford in her final silent role, a surprisingly effective performance by the often-derided Anna Sten in "Exile Express," and even outré exploitation items such as the 1930s undead double bill of "White Zombie" and "Ouanga."

Here you can see familiar faces like Laurel and Hardy in their Oscar-winning "The Music Box" as well as their less-well-known Spanish-language work. You can see and hear 20-year-old clarinetist Benny Goodman in a 1929 "soundie" called "Me and the Boys" and Spencer Tracy in three features made before he became a huge star. Because nothing cinematic is alien to this event, it reminds us of the value in films that others have forgotten, and that is a wonderful thing.

This year's festival includes television classics such as "The Andy Williams Show" and Richard Levinson and William Link's "The Execution of Private Slovik," selections from the archive's extensive Hearst Newsreels collection and even independent cinema from the 1960s. But it is especially strong, as always, in movies from Hollywood's classic decades, with a quartet of films standing out:

•"Men in War." An underrated 1957 epic set during the Korean War (though shot in Malibu and Bronson canyons) and starring Robert Ryan as a lieutenant concerned about his men and Aldo Ray as a reckless loner who balances his complete amorality with peerless combat instincts. Bleak and nihilistic as well as realistic and believable, it re-creates a combat situation so unnerving that only the most paranoid have even a fair chance to stay alive.

•"The Big Broadcast." Given that nothing can date as fast as humor, it's surprising how playful, exuberant and zany to the max this 1932 backstage radio musical is, and how delightful are the appearances of Cab Calloway (singing "Kickin' the Gong Around"), Bing Crosby, a very young Kate Smith and the irrepressible George Burns and Gracie Allen.

•"Her Sister's Secret." No one took deep-dish melodrama more seriously or brought more conviction and skill to its execution than the protean Edgar G. Ulmer. This 1946 effort involving two sisters and the tussle for (gasp!) a child born out of wedlock needs to be seen to be believed.

•"Woman on the Run." Made in 1950 and once believed lost in a studio fire, this is an altogether splendid and distinctive film noir set in San Francisco and shot by the great Hal Mohr (with key sections done on the old Santa Monica Pier). It stars Ann Sheridan as a mordant wife who has to find her estranged husband before contract killers get him in their sights.

Given how sought after noirs are by audiences, it's no surprise to find two more in the UCLA lineup. "Too Late for Tears" stars Lizabeth Scott in one of her signature roles as a woman whose life spins out of control (whose wouldn't?) when $100,000 lands in the back seat of her car, while "The Guilty," based on a story by noir meister Cornell Woolrich, has Bonita Granville playing identical twins who are at each other's throats. Literally. Sample dialogue: "I didn't trust her as far as you could throw a boxcar."

One characteristic of this year's festival is its emphasis on traditionally derided exploitation cinema, delicious items such as 1931's "The Drums of Jeopardy," starring Warner Oland as a mad scientist up to no good, and 1935's "The Crime of Dr. Crespi," which features both an astonishing piece of overacting by Erich von Stroheim and an ambience so low-rent that no one noticed Edgar Allan Poe's name misspelled in the opening credits.

The pièce de résistance in this area is the previously mentioned undead double bill. "Ouanga" (1935) stars the celebrated Fredi Washington in the way-strange story of a black voodoo priestess who turns to zombies for help when the white man she loves insists "you belong to your kind."

The moody and atmospheric "White Zombie," a 1932 follow-up to "Dracula" for Bela Lugosi and considered the first zombie feature ever, is if anything even stranger. The actor is commanding and persuasive as "Murder" Legendre, capable of rousing men from their graves to become his unthinking slaves. When the advertising material insisted "With These Zombie Eyes He Rendered Her Powerless," it wasn't kidding.

For those looking for something a trifle lighter, the festival has restored a pair of pre-Code comedies, both of which focus on the romantic problems of rich people, apparently quite the issue in 1930s cinema.

"Bachelor's Affairs" stars Adolphe Menjou as a millionaire bachelor who first falls for a former marathon dancer from Ypsilanti, Mich., and then has to persuade her to fall in love with someone else. "Society Girl" features the long-forgotten James Dunn as middleweight contender Fighting Johnny Malone and the scintillating Peggy Shannon as the upper-crust femme who fancies him.

Third-billed here, as Malone's feisty manager Doc Briscoe, is the up-and-coming Tracy. UCLA offers two other chances to see Tracy's wonderful naturalism in its early incarnations: In the unusual morality tale "Disorderly Conduct," he plays a good cop turned bad turned good again, and in "Now I'll Tell," based on a memoir "by Mrs. Arnold Rothstein," he plays a gambler with a weakness for fixing major sporting events. Who knew?

Perhaps the most unexpected area UCLA focuses on is films that find the drama in issues of faith and religion. "Journey Into Light" stars Sterling Hayden and Viveca Lindfors in the story of an ambitious preacher who loses his faith, only to rediscover it on Los Angeles' Skid Row, while "The First Legion" benefits from Douglas Sirk's polished direction as it shows what happens to Charles Boyer's character and other Jesuit seminary residents when an apparent miracle takes place in their midst.

My favorite among all the UCLA programs is its most thoroughly eclectic. It's called Fragments, and it features parts of silent films for which only parts remain. These include:

•A reel of a 1921 "Adventures of Tarzan" serial starring Elmo Lincoln and a man in an ape suit.

•A promo reel for "The First National Family of Stars," including "sweet, scintillating, charming Colleen Moore" and "Milton Sills, the screen's great he-man."

•A trailer for "The Silent Flyer" starring Rin Tin Tin knockoff and "king of the dog stars" Silverstreak.

•Random slivers of 24 Vitagraph films, all released in 1908 and adding up to only 10 minutes.

Taken together, these elements provide, as does the entire festival, a window onto cinematic worlds we might not dream existed, worlds whose multitudes the hard-working UCLA preservationists graciously allow us to access, no questions asked.

kenneth.turan@latimes.com

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UCLA Festival of Preservation

Where: Billy Wilder Theater, Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood

When: March 5 through 30

Info: (310) 206-8013 or http://www.cinema.ucla.edu

All screenings at 7:30 p.m. except as noted.

March 5: "Men in War"

March 6: "Dead Pigeon on Beethoven Street"

March 7 at 3 p.m.: "The Midnight Patrol," "The Music Box," "De Bote en Bote"

7:30 p.m.: "Too Late for Tears," "The Guilty"

March 8 at 11 a.m.: "Way Out West," "The Music Box"

3 p.m.: "Bachelor's Affairs," "Society Girl"

7 p.m.: "The Execution of Private Slovik," "Enough Rope"

March 9: The Arab-Israeli conflict as seen through Hearst newsreels

March 11: "Now I'll Tell," "Disorderly Conduct"

March 13: "Private Property"

March 14 at 3 p.m.: "Her Sister's Secret," "Exile Express"

7:30 p.m.: "The First Legion," "Journey Into Light"

March 15 at 7 p.m.: "My Best Girl"

March 16: "The Big Broadcast," "The Milky Way," "Me and the Boys"

March 20: "Brandy in the Wilderness"

March 21 at 3 p.m.: The Voting Rights Act and the Hearst newsreels

7:30 p.m.: "White Zombie," "Ouanga"

March 22 at 3 p.m.: "The Crime of Doctor Crespi," "The Drums of Jeopardy"

7 p.m.: "Silent Fragments"

March 23: "L.A. Rebellion" shorts

March 28 at 3 p.m.: "Playhouse 90: Alas Babylon," "The Passerby: The Safest Place in the World"

7:30 p.m.: "Spring Night, Summer Night"

March 29 at 3 p.m.: "The Andy Williams Show"

7 p.m.: "Woman on the Run"

March 30: "The Long Voyage Home"

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