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Remembering Robeson

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 21st annual “Black Talkies on Parade” festival will commemorate the centennial of the birth of Paul Robeson by screening seven of his films over the weekend at the Autry Museum of Western Heritage, 4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park.

There will be an open forum discussion of Robeson on Friday at 7:15 p.m., following a reception at 6. A Robeson “Sing-and-Look-Alike” contest will be held Saturday at 7 p.m.

With the exception of the 1936 version of “Show Boat,” in which Robeson sang “Ol’ Man River,” his films are largely unknown. The retrospective begins Friday at 10 a.m. with Gil Noble’s 1977 documentary “Paul Robeson: The Tallest Tree in Our Forest.” Clearly made on a shoestring budget, totally laudatory of its subject and given to sweeping, absolute claims, “Paul Robeson” is nonetheless a valuable introduction to a man whose talent and intellect more than matched his imposing physique.

Champion athlete, Phi Beta Kappa and valedictorian of the class of 1919 at Rutgers University and a graduate of Columbia’s law school, Robeson became an internationally acclaimed singer and actor and the first African American performer to use his celebrity as an activist. A skilled linguist and tireless scholar, Robeson became interested in the songs of all nations--and the plight of oppressed people everywhere.

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Like many intellectuals of his generation, Robeson (1898-1976) lauded the Soviet experiment and paid dearly for his support of it in the anti-communist hysteria that swept over post-World War II America.

With his commitment to world peace and justice, Robeson never flinched when confronted with very hard times, but this documentary leaves us wondering what impact the revelations of Stalinist horrors over the years had on his view of the USSR. In performance, Robeson was a towering presence; in interviews, he comes across as man of charm and brilliance.

Among the films in the retrospective is “Emperor Jones” (Friday at 7:15 p.m.), the 1933 Dudley Murphy-directed film version of the 1920 Eugene O’Neill play.

Robeson plays a naive rural Southerner who lands a job as a Pullman porter, gets caught up in Harlem high life, winds up on an island prison only to escape and become the dictator of a nearby Caribbean island. There’s not a whole lot of point in all this, but Robeson swaggers through it all quite impressively, and the film has superior art direction and is drenched in atmosphere, particularly potent in its depiction of Harlem night life.

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In these sequences, Robeson’s love interest is the beautiful Fredi Washington, so memorable in the original “Imitation of Life” as the young light-skinned African American eager to pass for white. In “Emperor Jones,” she was required to wear darkening makeupso audiences wouldn’t think Robeson was involved with a white woman.

In the ‘20s and ‘30s, Robeson enjoyed great success in England, and his 1936 British-made “Song of Freedom” (Saturday at 10 a.m.) is an entertaining, amiably corny musical about a London stevedore who becomes a concert singing star but longs for his African roots, which prove to be suitably royal.

Robeson made his film debut in 1925 under the direction of another African American legend, pioneer filmmaker Oscar Micheaux in “Body and Soul” (Saturday at 8 p.m.). Micheaux always had more passion than skill and was hampered by minuscule budgets, but he often could sear audiences with his images.

The essence of this confusing tale--made even more convoluted when Northern distributors forced on Micheaux an it-was-all-a-bad-dream finish--is a bitter attack on unscrupulous preachers who exploited unsophisticated rural blacks. As one of those preachers, Robeson, especially menacing because of his size and glibness, rapes a young black woman whose suffocatingly naive mother doesn’t believe her daughter’s story. “Body and Soul” is silent melodrama at its most extravagant and awkward, but no Micheaux film is without its moments of power. For full schedule and information: (213) 737-3292.

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All the films in LACMA’s ongoing “Looking at Julie Christie” series are familiar except John Schlesinger’s superb 1983 British TV movie version of Terence Rattigan’s “Separate Tables.” The film screens Friday after the 7:30 p.m. presentation of Schlesinger’s “Darling,” the memorable 1965 film that won Christie an Oscar as a fashion model caught up in the giddy Mod life of the ‘60s.

Schlesinger’s film version of “Separate Tables” is more faithful to Rattigan than the notable 1958 Delbert Mann version, in that it unfolds as two playlets in which Christie and co-star Alan Bates (first teamed in Schlesinger’s “Far from the Madding Crowd”) play different roles.

In the first, Christie is a still-glamorous but now desperate and lonely former fashion model who by chance crosses paths with her ex-husband (Bates), whose love for her derailed his promising career in politics. In trying to get his life together, he has entered a stabilizing affair with the hotel’s astringent, clear-eyed manager (Claire Bloom), who has fallen deeply in love with him.

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In the second part, Christie plays the timid, dowdy daughter of a dominating, possessive grande dame (the esteemed late Irene Worth) who is faced with the decision of whether to stand up to her after her favorite hotel guest, a phony but kindly military type (Bates), has been arrested for having made mild unwelcome advances to women in a local movie theater. (Rattigan’s compassion for the Bates character may not be politically correct, but it seems admirably sensible and humane.)

Under Schlesinger’s flawlessly judicious direction, “Separate Tables” reminds us of the pleasures of the traditional well-made play that allows for performances as brilliant as those of Christie, Bates, Bloom and Worth and their supporting cast. (213) 857-6010.

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The American Cinematheque’s “Recent Spanish Cinema” series continues at Raleigh Studios’ Chaplin Theater Friday at 7:15 p.m. with a repeat screening of the sly and delightful Lope de Vega comedy of romance and manners, “Dog in the Manger.” At 9:30 p.m. “Rio Abajo” (1984) screens as part of its ongoing tribute to director Jose Luis Borau.

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Unfortunately, “Rio Abajo,” also known as “On the Line,” is a casebook illustration of the perils of international filmmaking. Set against the rich background of adjacent border towns Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, “Rio Abajo” offers a trite, under-characterized love triangle involving a racist U.S. border patrolman (Scott Wilson), a beautiful Nuevo Laredo prostitute (Victoria Abril) and a rookie patrolman (Paul Richardson), a sweet, naive kid who falls hard for Abril.

The plight of illegal immigrants, driven to risk their lives with the hope of earning more money in the U.S., takes a back seat to the working out of the fates of three none-too-interesting individuals. Alas, the film’s one strong presence, David Carradine, as patrolman-turned-coyote--and the rookie’s uncle--appears only briefly. Screening Saturday at 8:30 p.m., after a 6:30 program, “Recent Spanish Shorts” is an even less inviting Borau venture with an international cast, “La Sabina” (1979).

Jon Finch, best remembered as the star of Alfred Hitchcock’s “Frenzy” and Roman Polanski’s “Macbeth” in the early ‘70s, stars as an English writer investigating the mysterious disappearance of another English writer more than a century earlier in a remote Andalusian village.

According to local legend, a female dragon, “La Sabina,” inhabits a cave, seducing men and then devouring them once they get too old or boring to please her. In any event, the writer is one of your familiar British types hitting the skids in a picturesque foreign locale. He’s become a gigolo of sorts to a ditsy, apparently rich American (Carol Kane), but he’s become transfixed by a demure local beauty (Angela Molina). Swooping down upon him are his awful, predatory estranged wife (Harriet Andersson) and his erstwhile writing partner (Simon Ward).

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Finch works up a decent, even sympathetic characterization, but everyone else is lousy in even lousier parts, and nothing about this increasingly unwatchable movie is inviting, interesting or credible except the scenery.

Borau is in better form with his 1987 “Tata Mia” (“Nanny Dear”), screening after “La Sabina.” We’re so used to seeing films dealing with the Franco years tragically, or as the subject of dark satire, that this much lighter treatment comes as something of a surprise. It marks a sentimental gathering of three beloved stars of three eras: Imperio Argentina, singing star of the ‘40s; comedian Alfredo Landa, who came to prominence in the ‘60s; and the great Pedro Almodovar discovery, Carmen Maura.

Maura stars as a nun who leaves the convent after 17 years to meet with an English biographer of her late father, a rich, aristocratic general, only to discover quite swiftly that she wants to stay out in the post-Franco world that greets her.

She clashes instantly with her ultra-conservative brother over how their father’s image is to be preserved--"To have been jailed under Franco is an honor!” she exclaims--and demands her rightful portion of her father’s estate.

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Argentina’s warm and loving “Tata” tries to keep the peace; Landa is the onetime boy-next-door grown into sweetly eccentric middle age. “Tata Mia,” which recalls the spirit of ‘30s comedies about the vicissitudes of the rich, is slight, even improbable in its finish, but its cast is beguiling. (213) 466-FILM.


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