When Bette Davis became the first woman to receive the American Film Institute’s life achievement award in 1977, she ended her heartfelt acceptance speech saying, “As I say good night, I would like to quote my favorite line from all of the pictures I have made: ‘Ah’d love to kiss ya but ah just washed mah hair!’ ”
The first of the famous Davis lines occurred in “Cabin in the Cotton” (1932), which screens today at 5:30 p.m. at UCLA’s Melnitz Theater as part of the UCLA Film Archive’s “Directed by Michael Curtiz” retrospective.
Today the film is virtually forgotten except for that line, but “Cabin in the Cotton” is far from the kind of campy item that Davis’ remark suggests. It instead belongs to the Warner Bros. cycle of socially conscious dramas and stars Richard Barthelmess as a serious, dutiful Southerner, the son of a burned-out sharecropper. The local plantation owner (Berton Churchill) takes him under his wing but expects him to become his toadie in return.
An expose of the feudal exploitation of tenants by planters, “Cabin in the Cotton” is hard-hitting and authentic to the extent of showing blacks to be worse off than poor whites--and even reveals the whites’ casual racism. Adapted by Paul Green from a novel by Harry Harrison Kroll, the film becomes very much a message movie, but Davis undercuts its preachiness as Churchill’s uninhibited, shallow blond daughter who comes on strong to the shy Barthelmess, who is the recipient of the famous line, expressed throwaway style.
“Cabin in the Cotton” is talky, often stagy but largely entertaining. “Cabin in the Cotton” will be followed at 7:30 by a “Critic’s Choice” presentation of Richard Rush’s “The Stunt Man” (1978), with Rush and Gentleman’s Quarterly critic Kenneth Turan leading a panel discussion.
On Saturday at 7:30 p.m., the archive honors Hungarian director Gyula Gazdag, currently a visiting professor at UCLA, and his film “Stand Off” (1988). If you missed it at the AFI Fest, it’s well worth catching up with this film that is at once as suspenseful as Hitchcock and a devastating expression of the frustration that has since erupted into revolution all over Eastern Europe. The film opens with a father ordering his son Zoltan (Ary Beri) to get rid of his punk haircut; the son retaliates by having his head shaved.
Before we or anyone in the film realizes it, Zoltan, a tall, rangy youth of about 18, and his younger brother Istvan (Gabor Svidrony) have taken hostage 16 girls in a dormitory in a student hostel in a Hungarian border town. Zoltan demands a flight out of Budapest--and a million dollars. “There isn’t a million dollars in all of Hungary!,” exclaims one of the captives, but Zoltan dreams of “London, Paris, night life--freedom forever!”
In the grueling battle of wills that ensues between Zoltan and a shrewd lieutenant colonel (top Polish actor Zbigniew Zapasiewicz, best-known for Krzysztof Zanussi’s “Camouflage), we learn that the boys are the sons of a pompous, authoritarian frontier guard (who of course taught them to be sharpshooters); we learn from the boys’ bitter mother that the family is much hated in the community, as is every soldier or party official’s family.
There’s a terrific you-are-there documentary quality to this intense and rueful film, in which Oscar-winning Hungarian director Istvan Szabo turns actor in a key role and which has a rich, dramatic score by Istvan Martha reminiscent of Bernard Herrmann.
“Lying Lips” (1939) and “The Girl From Chicago” (1932), which screen today at 1:30 p.m. in the Black Talkies on Parade film festival at the Four Star, are not among black pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux’s better films, to put it kindly. Melodramas with musical interludes, awkwardly constructed and amateurishly acted, they yet are stirring expressions of black middle class aspirations. The first exposes the predicament of nightclub entertainers who are expected to prostitute themselves after hours, while the second condemns the numbers racket. Information: (213) 737-3292, (213) 733-951, (213) 737-3585.