One of the pleasures of UCLA's and the County Museum of Art's giant Paramount retrospective is the discovery of forgotten treasures. This week's gem is "Laughter" (1930), which was written by Donald Ogden Stewart (with Douglas Doty) and directed by Harry d'Abbadie D'Arrast, two of the most sophisticated men who ever worked in Hollywood.
There's no reason why "Laughter," which screens Wednesday at 1 p.m. at the County Museum of Art, shouldn't be as familiar as "Dinner at Eight" and other high society comedies and dramas of the 1930s.
That the ironically titled "Laughter" has the oldest story in the world only underlines the brilliance of Stewart and D'Arrast. Delectable Nancy Carroll plays a Follies alumna who marries middle-aged financier Frank Morgan instead of her true love, happy-go-lucky composer Fredric March.
The film makers judge no one in this triangle and instead display subtle and extraordinary compassion, especially in regard to Morgan, who is never made to seem a blind fool but is instead shown to be understanding of a much-younger wife who respects him rather than loves him.
For these qualities alone, "Laughter" would be admirable, but beyond them it contains a lovely sequence that foreshadows the classic screwball comedies of the rest of the decade. It occurs when Carroll and March go on an innocent ride out to Long Island and take refuge from the rain in a cottage, where they play house in a vignette of immense charm and humor.
Stewart went on to adapt his friend Philip Barry's plays "Holiday" and "The Philadelphia Story" to the screen, winning an Oscar for the latter. But D'Arrast, a French-Basque nobleman who served as an adviser to Chaplin on "A Woman of Paris," was at odds with the Hollywood studio system and was able to make only seven films here, between 1927 and 1933.
In its witty way, "Laughter" raises questions of values, and so does another 1930 Paramount production, Ernst Lubitsch's glittering musical "Monte Carlo," which stars Jeannette MacDonald as a countess on her uppers who falls for her hairdresser (British star Jack Buchanan), who is, of course, really a rich count.
It may sound silly, but this seeming trifle, concocted by Hans Mueller and Ernest Vajda, is as wise as it is exquisite. Sexy and feminine in gossamer gowns, MacDonald in her Paramount period was far more appealing than when Louis B. Mayer teamed her with Nelson Eddy. This is the film in which Macdonald sang "Beyond the Blue Horizon."
"Laughter" screens Saturday at the Museum of Art, following the 8 p.m. screenings of "The Virginian" (1929) and "Cocoanuts" (1929). For full schedule: (213) 857-6010.
Meanwhile, across town at UCLA, its Film Archives will offer five evenings of Paramount productions of the '30s in Melnitz Theater. Among them are such well-known Sternberg-Dietrich classics as "Shanghai Express"--"It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily," Marlene says to Clive Brooks--and "Blonde Venus" (in which Dietrich emerges from a King Kong costume to sing "Hot Voodoo").
Less familiar is the Robert Flaherty-F.W. Murnau collaboration "Tabu," a 1931 silent with a Polynesian score that screens tonight at 6. Like "White Shadows in the South Seas," Flaherty's earlier collaboration with W.S. Van Dyke, "Tabu" represents an attempt to meld documentary and fiction but is more effective. (Both films condemn the corruption of innocence natives by foreigners.)
"Tabu" is a Romeo and Juliet-like poetic tragedy set in the South Seas, in which a handsome young pearl diver (Matahi) and a beautiful maiden (Reri) defy the edict that has designated her a virgin princess. The late Floyd Crosby won an Oscar for his superb black-and-white cinematography.
No studio retrospective is free of camp classics, and "Island of Lost Souls" (1933), derived from H.G. Wells, is a hoot of a horror picture.
"Strange-looking natives you have here," remarks a stranded Richard Arlen to his reluctant host, Charles Laughton, who has been crossing men and beasts in hideous experiments in his island laboratory. "You'll be wanting a cold shower before dinner," Laughton replies briskly.
"Island of Lost Souls" screens Sunday after the 8 p.m. screening of the suspenseful "Four Hours to Kill" (1935), starring Richard Barthelmess and directed by Mitchell Leisen. For full schedule: (213) 825-2581.