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Hollywood’s classic affair with North Africa

Ever since Rudolph Valentino’s nostrils flared and his dark eyes glistened in 1921’s “The Sheik,” Hollywood and movie audiences have been fascinated with North Africa -- or at least the romantic cinematic version of it -- especially during the golden age of the studio system when filmmakers returned again and again to the area between Libya and the western Sahara.

The films were generally exotic and politically incorrect by today’s standards, inhabited by troubled, complex characters -- the men usually had left their homes in America or Europe to join the French foreign legion, and the women had some sort of a shady past as well as possessing such colorful names as Cigarette or Amy Jolly.

UCLA Film & Television Archive’s new retrospective, “From Casablanca to Sahara: Hollywood’s North Africa,” isn’t so much a celebration of these movies as a “closer look at these kind of depictions of the region,” says programmer Mimi Brody. “We are inviting scholars to introduce the films to put them in historical context.”

The festival, which begins Friday with a deliciously fun Marlene Dietrich double bill, 1930’s “Morocco” and 1936’s “The Garden of Allah,” screens at the Billy Wilder Theater.

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The series is being held in connection with the exhibit at UCLA’s Powell Library Rotunda “America’s North Africa,” which explores American Orientalist narratives in North Africa in pop culture. And thanks to the UCLA Center for Near Eastern Studies, the screening series is free.

Brody selected the films with input from the center’s Jonathan Friedlander.

Here’s a look at the films in the series:

* “Morocco,” Dietrich’s first American film, for which she received an Oscar nomination, has, according to Brody, “one of the most memorable endings” in cinema.

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* “Garden of Allah” stars Dietrich as a former Catholic schoolgirl who goes to the Sahara to find a new life and falls in love with a tortured monk (Charles Boyer) on the lam. Brody loves “the over-the-top artificiality of the sets.”

* “The Woman I Stole,” which screens Sunday evening, is a rare 1933 pre-code drama starring Fay Wray.

“It’s very politically incorrect,” says Brody, adding that Wray is “delightfully wicked.” The second feature is 1948’s “Casbah,” the rarely seen remake of 1938’s “Algiers” -- which itself was a remake of 1937’s French classic “Pepe le Moko.”

* William Wellman’s terrific 1939 adaptation of “Beau Geste,” is the famed tale of three wealthy British brothers who join the French foreign legion; Gary Cooper stars. It screens May 9.

* Comedy is king on the May 14 double bill of 1942’s Bing Crosby-Bob Hope comedy “Road to Morocco” and the 1931 Laurel and Hardy hoot “Beau Hunks.”

* On May 31, UCLA is offering a new print of the 1936 melodrama “Under Two Flags,” with Ronald Colman as a legionnaire.

* The series concludes June 6 with a pair of World War II classics starring Humphrey Bogart, 1942’s “Casablanca” and 1943’s “Sahara.”

“Everybody believes they know the film ‘Casablanca,’ ” says Brody, “but what struck me about the film is that it’s ultimately about a man who is struggling with his own moral and ideological issues. Bogart’s character, Rick Blaine, had volunteered to fight against the fascists in Spain, but he is now a jaded capitalist who is profiting from the war.

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“This is not to downplay the epic romance in the film, but I believe the film is about self-sacrifice during the war.”

For more information go to www.cinema.ucla.edu

Elsewhere

* Literary tributes: The award-winning poet-playwright-director Norman Corwin celebrates his 99th birthday, and the equally legendary writer Ray Bradbury also will be honored Sunday at the Writers Guild of America Theater, as the California Artists Radio Theatre performs Bradbury’s space tale “Leviathan 99.”

William Shatner, Sean Astin and Norman Lloyd are scheduled to be among the performers. For more information go to www.CARTaudio.org

* Vintage radio returns: In conjunction with the new Warner Archive Collection of classic films on DVD, Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group has launched a new podcast series, “The Golden History of Hollywood,” hosted by WHV’s George Feltenstein of Warner Home Video and available on iTunes, as well as several online sites for free including www.pod; www.digital; www.podfeed.; podcast.com; and www..

So far, there are seven programs available featuring archival recordings from the WB vault, including “Lux Radio Theater” editions of classic movies, interviews with stars and radio ads.

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susan.king@latimes.com

Classic Hollywood by Susan King is a new weekly feature on the lives, work and influence of legendary artists.


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