Skewed views

Not every movie produced by the Hollywood studios during the Golden Age was tied up in neat little bows; it wasn't all boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl.

"Films were more edgy and involved characters that were less than perfect," says UCLA film professor Jonathan Kuntz. "Certainly in the 1930s with the Great Depression, there was a lot of disillusionment with the establishment and society. World War II shook everything up and all kinds of crazy things happen."

That kind of warped world view is on full display at UCLA Film and Television Archive's new retrospective, "The Jaundiced Eye: Hollywood's Sidelong Glances at Human Nature." The festival, which begins Friday and continues through Aug. 22 at UCLA's Billy Wilder Theater, examines the work of four movie "philosophers" with decidedly jaded viewpoints -- W.C. Fields, Ben Hecht, Billy Wilder and Preston Sturges.

Shannon Kelley, programming head at the archive, says that all four artists believed that mankind is "irredeemable. But these men managed to do it very entertainingly." Here's a look at their work:

W.C. Fields

"He is often misunderstood these days as a vaguely comical drunk who doesn't have much to say," Kelley says. "There is little said that he wrote his own material, but in doing so he was developing a worldview -- a sardonic worldview. You begin to understand why this guy needs a drink so badly because he is the only one who sees how things are."

The festival features his 1934 masterwork, "It's a Gift" (Aug. 10), in which Fields plays Harold Bissonette, a hard-working, long-suffering store owner who tries to fulfill his dream of buying an orange grove in California after he gets a sudden inheritance. Also screening is 1940's "The Bank Dick" (Aug. 22), in which he plays Egbert Souse, a small-town drunk and hustler who becomes a hero when he accidentally intercepts a bank robber.

"He is the ultimate portrayer of the kind of frustrations of the lower middle-class male in a small town," Kuntz says. " 'It's a Gift' is a masterpiece. It is almost a great deconstruction of the family."

Ben Hecht

"I don't know if it's actually borne out if he is this bitter individual," Kelley says. "In his autobiography, he talks a lot about God. But there is this kind of thread running through his films -- human beings are naturally falling apart. They can't keep it together as they should. He seems to view them very sympathetically."

"Jaundiced Eye" opens with Hecht's screenplay for the 1937 screwball comedy "Nothing Sacred," directed by William Wellman, starring Fredric March as a tabloid newspaper reporter whose career is saved when he discovers a small-town woman (Carole Lombard) suffering from "radium poisoning."

"These characters are two archetypes -- the country girl and the newspaperman," Kelley says. "But it's kind of a character portrait of New York and modernity and American life and tabloid culture. These characters are pawns in the game. The whole world has gone crazy."

Also screening is the 1940 drama "Angels Over Broadway" (Aug. 10), which Hecht wrote and directed; and Hitchcock's 1946 sexy spy thriller "Notorious" (Aug. 15), for which Hecht wrote the screenplay.

Billy Wilder

"Wilder is a European who comes to the United States before World War II," says Kuntz, and like most emigres of the time, "had a very biting view of society. Wilder loved America, but he could see all of its foibles and silliness."

UCLA is screening his underrated 1951 drama "Ace in the Hole" (Aug. 17), starring Kirk Douglas as a cynical reporter whose career is on the skids until he discovers the perfect story to reinvent his career: A man is trapped inside an ancient cliff dwelling. The event turns into an overblown media circus -- decades before the voracious appetites of 24-hour cable news.

"The movie hinges so much on Douglas and his performance," Kelley says. "But what is significant about the movie in this context is what everybody else does. Everyone is sort of like moths to a flame in and ready participants in this circus."

UCLA is also screening Wilder's 1964 comedy "Kiss Me, Stupid" (Aug. 12) -- presented in the European version featuring a far racier love scene between stars Dean Martin and Felicia Farr -- and his 1944 film noir masterpiece "Double Indemnity" (Aug. 15).

Preston Sturges

"He's the great writer-director of comedy of his generation," Kuntz says.

The festival features 1940's "The Great McGinty" (Aug. 7). "It's a wonderful portrait of corrupt politicians, but in a weird way it's almost a loving portrait of them," Kuntz says. One of his most praised films, 1944's "Hail the Conquering Hero" (Aug. 22) stars Eddie Bracken as a milquetoast discharged from the service because of hay fever who is treated as a town hero when he lies about his discharge.

In both these movies, Sturges finds comedy and pathos in the foibles of American life. It's not surprising that those modern masters of dark comedy, the Coen brothers, titled one of their films, "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?," as a hommage to the great Sturges film "Sullivan's Travels."


Sony's "Icons of Screwball Comedy, Vol. 1 & 2" features eight delicious comedies starring some of the grande dames of farce, including Irene Dunne in "Theodora Goes Wild," Rosalind Russell in "My Sister Eileen" and Jean Arthur in "Too Many Husbands."


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