A ‘Bitter Sweet’ touch for ‘Noel Coward Weekend at the Academy’

In 1929, British Pathe shot footage of Noel Coward’s London sensation, the operetta “Bitter Sweet.” Nothing ever happened to the silent celluloid; it gathered dust at the British Pathe film library.

But a few years ago, a Coward scholar contacted Brad Rosenstein, who was curating an exhibition on Coward at the Museum of Performance and Design in San Francisco. The scholar asked if he would be interested in the “Bitter Sweet” footage that totaled about 35 minutes. “It was completely out of order,” says Rosenstein. He put the footage in order so it corresponded to the original recording.

Rosenstein will be introducing the restored “Bitter Sweet” Sunday evening at the Linwood Dunn Theater as part of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Noel Coward Weekend at the Academy.”

The three-day salute, which begins Friday evening, is part of the closing-weekend festivities for the academy’s “Star Quality: The World of Noel Coward,” which Rosenstein co-curated.

Even in its truncated form, says Rosenstein, “you can see Coward the director; the fluidity of the production. The acting is relatively understated, and when you put the music together with it, it’s absolutely astonishing.”

Stephen Fry is the host of the first evening of programming at the Samuel Goldwyn Theater. (The writer-director-actor is vice president of the Noel Coward Society.) Besides a screening of 1933’s “Cavalcade,” the Oscar-winning best picture winner based on Coward’s 1931 play, the evening will also include the live theater presentation by L.A. Theatre Works of the Coward short play “Design for Rehearsing” as well as “Age Cannot Wither,” a fragment from Coward’s last and uncompleted play, which he began in 1967.

Screening Saturday evening at the Linwood Dunn is 1945’s haunting romance “Brief Encounter,” which put David Lean on the map as a major director. Based on Coward’s one-act, “Still Life,” the film revolves around two married people (Celia Johnson, who received a lead actress Oscar nomination, and Trevor Howard) who meet at a railway station café and end up falling in love. The screenplay and play have been recently transformed into a new stage work that has earned rave reviews.

Also screening is 1942’s “In Which We Serve,” Coward’s rousing World War II film that he co-directed with then-first-timer Lean. Not only did Coward co-direct and star, he also wrote the drama, composed the score and produced the film. Nominated for best film and screenplay Oscars, Coward was given a special Oscar for outstanding production achievement for “In Which We Serve.”

Screening with “Bitter Sweet” on Sunday evening is the highly entertaining 1945 adaptation of Coward’s comedy “Blithe Spirit,” also directed by Lean. Shot in vibrant Technicolor, the comedy stars Rex Harrison, Kay Hammond, Margaret Rutherford and Constance Cummings. Thomas Howard earned an Oscar for special effects.

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