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Devoted to Ramon Novarro

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Although the handsome Mexican-born Ramon Novarro (1899-1968) is remembered almost entirely for the silent “Ben-Hur,” he was second only to Rudolph Valentino as a “Latin lover” of the silver screen. The Silent Movie, at 611 N. Fairfax Ave., will devote four Thursday evenings to “A Tribute to Ramon Novarro,” composed of “The Prisoner of Zenda” (1922), tonight at 8, “Scaramouche” (1923), Feb. 8; “Ben-Hur” (1925), Feb. 15; and an early talkie, “The Pagan” (1929), Feb. 22. Breezy rather than smoldering like Valentino, Novarro successfully attempted a broader range of roles than his early rival in a 43-year career that was gracefully capped with a key role in George Cukor’s “Heller in Pink Tights” (1960), starring Sophia Loren.

The work of director Rex Ingram is seldom seen except for his superb “The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse” (1920), the breakthrough film for both him and its star--Valentino. But Ingram, a master of the historical romance, did well for Novarro and himself in “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “Scaramouche,” both known better for their sound remakes. Both are splendid evocations of period, gloriously photographed by John F. Seitz, and both have Ingram’s beautiful and talented wife, Alice Terry, as leading lady.

“The Prisoner of Zenda” is a classic, a work of enduring poignancy. Lewis Stone, long before his Judge Hardy years, stars as a British aristocrat who travels to the fictional kingdom of Ruritania to attend the coronation of his look-alike cousin--only to find himself taking his cousin’s place. Alcoholic and ineffectual, the king-to-be is nearly finished off by his half-brother Michael (Stuart Holmes), who craves the throne for himself. The king’s intended bride, Princess Flavia (Terry), is amazed and delighted to find she is falling in love with the man she had agreed to marry only out of duty.

But should the impostor king prevail over Michael and his supporters and the real king recover from Michael’s attempt on his life, where does this leave his double and the princess? Novarro’s presence is invaluable as a key supporter of Michael because his villainous Rupert of Hentzau has a sense of humor that lightens the film’s mood of romantic melancholy. The film also features the legendary, ill-fated Barbara La Marr, exquisite as Michael’s castoff lover.

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“Scaramouche” hasn’t the cohesiveness and intimacy of “Zenda” but is an energetic adventure set against the gathering storm of the French Revolution. This time Novarro stars as a dashing aristocrat who casts his lot with the oppressed masses. Terry is his true love, the daughter of his godfather, a provincial nobleman who quickly disowns him; she is coveted by a coldblooded marquis (Lewis Stone), whose callous cruelty to his peasants fires Novarro’s revolutionary zeal. Information: (323) 655-2520.

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The UCLA Film Archive’s “Zurlini’s Diaries,” a series of films by Valerio Zurlini (1926-82), an important Italian director unjustly neglected since his untimely death and rightly hailed as “a voice of loss” in the cinema, continues Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in Melnitz Hall’s James Bridges Theater with “The Girl With a Suitcase” (1961). It is one of the few Zurlini films to have been released in America, and its distribution here surely was largely due to the presence of Claudia Cardinale, whose international acclaim was beginning its ascendancy.

The film has lost none of its power, and it contains what is surely one of Cardinale’s finest performances, as Aida, a flashy, statuesque young woman, poor but hoping to make it as a nightclub singer. She knows of course the power of her sexual desirability but struggles against prostituting herself to get ahead or even to survive. As the film opens, she is about to discover her mistake in trusting and falling for an aristocratic cad about to ditch her as he approaches his home, a superb Palladian palazzo outside Parma that belongs to his vacationing, apparently widowed father. Determined to come to Aida’s rescue is the cad’s sensitive, dreamy 16-year-old brother Lorenzo (Jacques Perrin), a student subject to the dictates and purse strings of his severe, uncaring aunt.

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While his aunt and brother are out, Lorenzo treats the grateful Aida to the use of a splendiferous bathroom and uses money intended to pay his priestly tutor to put her up at a local hotel for a few days. Lorenzo understandably swiftly falls in love with Aida, who knows she must resist returning his feelings. What evolves in this eloquent film, a work of an acutely aware sensibility, is a poignant encounter between innocence and experience, between people of jarringly different classes.

Turning 21 at the time this film was being made, Cardinale was only two years older than Perrin, who spent the ‘60s playing delicately handsome and sensitive youths, but he seems such a boy alongside the voluptuous Cardinale. Zurlini uses this jolting physical contrast to stunning effect, reinforcing the chasm society places between these two lonely souls and underlining how much more she knows about the world’s harsh realities than the sheltered Lorenzo.

This exquisite film will be followed by Zurlini’s second feature film, “Violent Summer” (1959), which also concerns a young man (Jean-Louis Trintignant) falling in love with a somewhat older woman (Eleanora Rossi-Drago) during the fateful wartime summer of 1943. Screening Saturday at 6:30 p.m. are “The Professor” (1972), with Alain Delon in another story of disastrous love, and “The Desert of the Tartars” (1976), set in a remote military outpost threatened by a mysterious, lethal danger. This brooding mood piece features an Ennio Morricone score and a distinguished international cast headed by Jacques Perrin, Philippe Noiret, Max von Sydow and Jean-Louis Trintignant. Information: (310) 206-FILM.

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The American Cinematheque’s “The Method Revolution in American Acting, 1945-1970" commences tonight at 8 with “On the Waterfront” (1954). The highlight is Sunday’s 8 p.m. double feature, “The Goddess” (1958), with Kim Stanley’s superb take on Marilyn Monroe, followed by Jack Garfein’s “The Strange One” (1957), marking Ben Gazzara’s fiery film debut as a malevolent military school student. On Wednesday and Feb. 8, the Cinematheque presents “The Best of the Slamdance International Film Festival 2001" at 6712 Hollywood Blvd. Information: (323) 466-FILM.


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