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Well-Preserved, Not Mummified

Kenneth Turan is The Times' film critic

Other festivals pretend, but the UCLA Festival of Preservation delivers. Other festivals talk and dream about being the preeminent film event in the world’s movie capital, but it’s only talk. Packed as it is with an impressive range of features in a slew of genres, the UCLA festival is the only can’t-miss occasion on the local cinema calendar.

Starting Saturday night with a showing of 1948’s Ingrid Bergman-starring “Joan of Arc,” the preservation event extends for a full month and showcases more than 35 features restored by UCLA’s protean Film and Television Archive. Now held every other year, the Festival of Preservation specializes in one-of-a-kind gems not to be seen elsewhere while serving as a showcase for a surprising variety of on-screen material.

Animation fans can attend a night of rare cartoons featuring Toby the Pup, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit and the durable Betty Boop. Couch potatoes can luxuriate in extensive clips from “Dinah Shore: The NBC Years.” People passionate about foreign films can witness the astonishing movie debut of Berta Singerman, a legend of Spanish-language theater. And for those who need personal appearances to make a festival a festival, the venerable Rose Hobart is scheduled to attend the Aug. 13 screening of “Liliom,” a film she starred in back in 1930.

Because the archive houses the Hearst Metrotone News collection, the UCLA event is always strong on newsreels, especially so this year. One program, entitled “The 1930s in America,” includes footage of lettuce-strikers battling police in Salinas and the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics. More out of the ordinary is UCLA’s Aug. 27 evening devoted to Marian Anderson’s celebrated 1939 Washington concert given to 75,000 gathered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Using unreleased vault footage as well as newsreels, the archive is aiming to re-create the experience of being at the most famous musical event ever in the nation’s capital.

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As always, the Festival of Preservation has its share of oddities and curiosities. Where else can you watch Warner Oland, who became famous as righteous Chinese detective Charlie Chan, play a celebrated Oriental villain in “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu.” Or see “Can’t Help Singing,” Deanna Durbin’s only film in Technicolor. Or admire George Arliss in “The Green Goddess” as he re-creates the stage role that, yes, apparently inspired the celebrated salad dressing.

UCLA preserves classics as well, and this year’s festival is especially strong on beautiful new copies of beloved films ranging from John Ford’s “Stagecoach” to Sam Fuller’s “Shock Corridor” to comedies like the Harold Lloyd starring “The Freshman” and the screwball treat “Ball of Fire.”

(Playing with 1939’s “Stagecoach” is 1940’s “Dark Command,” a handsomely mounted Raoul Walsh western that also starred John Wayne, this time as an aphorism-quoting Texan who gets caught up in “bleeding Kansas” on his way to California. It’s notable for a celebrated horses-off-a-cliff stunt engineered by Yakima Canutt and an irresistible performance by the greatest comic cowboy of them all, George “Gabby” Hayes.)

Closing the festival on Aug. 29 is a new print that UCLA is especially proud of: documentarian Robert Flaherty’s beloved 1948 look at Cajun culture, “Louisiana Story.” Restored from the original camera negative, this print and its Pulitzer-winning Virgil Thomson score apparently look and sound every bit as good as they did half a century ago.

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Sometimes, the UCLA archivists need to do more than restore a film--they need to put it back together from pieces scattered around the world. This year they’ve done that with Orson Welles’ 1948 “Macbeth” as well as 1937’s famously chopped up “Lost Horizon,” which exists in lengths of 108, 110 and 118 minutes.

The archive has reconstituted the film’s original 132-minute version, using stills to re-create seven minutes that still haven’t been found. UCLA preservation officer Robert Gitt will introduce the Aug. 26 program, which includes an alternate ending that played only during the first three weeks of “Lost Horizon’s” run.

Even more of a restoration challenge (and also to be introduced by Gitt) is the opening-night look at “Joan of Arc.” Originally released at 145 minutes, the film took home three Oscars and was nominated for five more. Yet, in the wake of the moral fuss over married star Ingrid Bergman’s affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini (“in certain quarters,” notes the UCLA program, “her cinematic interpretation of the virgin saint was considered an act of blasphemy”), the film suffered the loss of 45 minutes and the addition of some suspect new material. Now, for the first time in half a century, audiences can see what the original excitement was about.

One of the great pleasures of the preservation festival is the discovery of compelling films that have almost fallen from view. At the top of that list is 1934’s “Nada Mas Que Una Mujer (Nothing More Than a Woman),” a steamy Spanish-language melodrama made by Fox in an attempt to corral more of the international market.

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“Mujer” stars Berta Singerman, a Russian-born Argentine who toured the world giving dramatic recitals to stadium-sized audiences. Here she plays Mona Estrada, a been-around woman of mystery who strolls into the toughest dive in the Philippines and gets a job, believe it or not, speaking in verse. Mona’s love affair with the young, handsome, temporarily blinded (don’t ask) young plantation owner is not much more believable, but when Singerman launches into one of her rhythmic, racy, mesmerizing vocal presentations, you’re afraid to so much as blink in case you miss a word.

Also fun is “Working Girls,” a 1931 pre-Code comedy directed by Dorothy Arzner, the most prolific of early Hollywood’s female directors. The tale of how Mae and June Thorpe, good-natured gold-digging sisters from Rockford, Ind., make their mark on New York, “Working Girls” is also known for the double entendre Zoe Akins dialogue that Arzner, who was gay, delighted in. “Say,” one young lady says as she checks out to visit “a relative” for the weekend, “you kids ought to meet a guy like my aunt.”

Much darker is “Hollow Triumph,” also known as “The Scar,” which stars Paul Henreid (who reportedly also did much of the directing) as a brilliant criminal who kills a look-alike psychiatrist and tries to take over his life. The film’s virtues include the film noir cinematography of John Alton, one of the genre’s masters. No one could shoot a shadowy interior, the light from a blinking neon “Hotel” sign flashing on and off across a set of Venetian blinds, like this man.

For fans of rarities, UCLA will be showing a selection of curious hybrid films, half-silent, half-talking, made during the transition to sound. One of the most interesting is 1929’s wonderfully named “Weary River,” starring Richard Barthelmess as the crook who hopes music can change his life and Betty Compson as the moll who loves him. In an early version of the Milli Vanilli scandal, Barthelmess did not do his own singing, though reviews often praised him for it.

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While you wouldn’t necessarily expect it, the Festival of Preservation even has a film for moviegoers obsessed with what’s new and hot. Curious about “Meet Joe Black,” the much-anticipated Brad Pitt vehicle due out this fall? Why not take in “Death Takes a Holiday” and see how the same story was treated back in 1934. Truly, this is a festival for everyone.

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The Festival Schedule

Saturday: “Joan of Arc.”

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Next Sunday: “Stagecoach,” “Dark Command.”

Aug. 5: “Dinah Shore, the NBC Years.”

Aug. 6: “Can’t Help Singing,” “High, Wide and Handsome.”

Aug. 7: “The Freshman,” “Welcome Danger.”

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Aug. 8: “Macbeth.”

Aug. 9: “Evangeline,” “Eternal Love.”

Aug. 11: “Animation Preservation Project.”

Aug. 12: “The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu,” “Old San Francisco.”

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Aug. 13: “Death Takes a Holiday,” “Liliom.”

Aug. 14: “Nana Mas Que Un Mujer,” “No Dejes La Puerta Abierta.”

Aug. 15: “Working Girls,” “Servants’ Entrance.”

Aug. 16: “The Spider Woman,” “Terror by Night.”

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Aug. 19: “The 1930s in America.”

Aug. 20: “Weary River,” “Thunderbolt.”

Aug. 21: “The Bigamist,” “Shock Corridor.”

Aug. 22: “The Enforcer,” “The Scar.”

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Aug. 23: “The Green Goddess,” “Parisian Love.”

Aug. 26: “Lost Horizon.”

Aug. 27: “Marian Anderson’s 1939 Concert.”

Aug. 28: “Ball of Fire,” “It Happened Tomorrow.”

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Aug. 29: “Louisiana Story,” “The Southerner.”

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Screenings will be at 7 p.m. on Sundays, all other days at 7:30 p.m. Dinah Shore program at Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, 5230 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood; all others at UCLA’s Bridges Theater in Melnitz Hall, on the northwest corner of the Westwood campus, near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and Hilgard Avenue. $3-$5. (310) 206-FILM.


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