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The Fruits Of Film Preservation

by Leonard Maltin
March 3, 2011 6:30 AM
8 Comments
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A prized moment from Gene Kelly in New York, New York, a 1966 network TV special.


Film buffs in Los Angeles are about to sample a wide range of films and television shows recently preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive. Robert Altman, Cecil B. DeMille, Cleo Madison, Gene Kelly, Charley Chase, Duke Ellington, Dorothy Dandridge, and Roy Rogers are among the directors and performers who will be showcased at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood from March 3-27. (See the full schedule HERE.) Every other year, UCLA unveils its latest work in this eagerly anticipated series, which makes good on a credo expressed by the late film scholar—and one-man archive—William K. Everson: finding, or even rescuing, a movie is pointless if you don’t share it with an audience.

Under the direction of Jan-Christopher Horak, the Archive casts a wide net, from avant-garde and experimental cinema to—

—silent comedy shorts, newsreels, television programs, and even Soundies. They also work in partnership with other organizations and individuals to fund and facilitate their projects. For instance, I am keen about the ongoing restoration of early-talkie Vitaphone shorts, as is UCLA’s longtime preservation officer Robert Gitt, but the twenty films he’s presenting this year (in two separate programs) wouldn’t have been salvageable without the participation of Warner Bros., The Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, the good folks at the Vitaphone Project, and such generous individuals as Dudley Heer, Emily Thompson, and Scott Margolin. The Festival’s program book is filled with acknowledgments to a large number of people and institutions.

Baby Peggy, known today as Diana Serra Cary.

UCLA has also been active in saving our television legacy, and is devoting several programs to small-screen gems this year. One is a tribute to Gene Kelly’s work on television, and another highlights three unusual episodes from Ralph Edwards’ long-running This is Your Life series that, instead of featuring celebrities, brought to American audiences of the 1950s and 60s the first Holocaust survivors to share their stories on national television. These shows have been preserved by UCLA’s television archivist Dan Einstein in collaboration with the Righteous Persons Foundation.

Other groups, ranging from Outfest to the Film Noir Foundation, have joined forces with UCLA to preserve and present a range of programs this year, as they have in the past. I missed the unveiling of Cry Danger (1951) at the Noir City Festival last year so I’m glad UCLA is screening this “orphaned” movie with two of its stars, Rhonda Fleming and Richard Erdman, as special guests. It’s a snappy 79 minutes long with not a wasted moment, and shot on a variety of interesting L.A. locations, including a trailer court on the old Bunker Hill (with City Hall clearly visible in the background). William Bowers’ screenplay is full of sharp dialogue, delivered by experts.

I love Soundies, too, those three-minute mini-musicals that were produced for coin-operated jukebox-type devices in the early-to-mid-1940s. UCLA’s program includes a number I’d never seen before, including Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad and That Ain’t Good,” which even has Duke “acting” briefly, if silently, a politically incorrect “Jungle Jig” with stunning Dorothy Dandridge,” and a lively “Corinne, Corinna” with Spade Cooley and his Western Swing Gang featuring Tex Williams. (I chronicled the history of Soundies in issue 6 of my Leonard Maltin’s Movie Crazy newsletter.) Click HERE for more information.

I’m sorry that because of this year’s Cinefest, in Syracuse, New York, I’ll be out of town when the festival salutes Diana Serra Cary, otherwise known as silent-film star Baby Peggy. Diana has written several excellent film books in recent years, including a biography of her contemporary, Jackie Coogan, but her own career has been neglected because so few of her films managed to survive. Thankfully, UCLA has preserved two complete short subjects, Brownie’s Little Venus (1921) and Sweetie (1923) along with excerpts from four other films which will all be screened on March 19.

Stan Laurel poses with the actresses who played his wife in three different versions of Blotto (1930): Anita Garvin (English-language), Linda Loredo (Spanish), and Georgette Rhodes (French).

On March 27, a program of Laurel and Hardy featuring foreign-language editions of their early-talkie shorts Blotto and Chickens Come Home will be screened, along with the trailer for their long-lost feature The Rogue Song and an excerpt from a 1952 Hearst Metrotone newsreel. This will mark the launch of a major endeavor to return to the 35mm source material and properly preserve Laurel and Hardy’s Hal Roach comedies once and for all. Archivist and lifelong L&H fan Jeff Joseph has kicked off the effort with a generous donation. You’ll read more about this in the months ahead here on my site. No films have been mistreated and mishandled more than Laurel and Hardy’s over the past seventy years, and it’s high time someone did right by them. UCLA will be inviting fans to contribute to the cause and I will be among the first to volunteer.

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8 Comments

  • EricV | March 13, 2011 5:17 AMReply

    It would be nice if these restorations were shared with audiences outside of Los Angeles or New York City.

  • Brian | March 7, 2011 5:42 AMReply

    I linked this story and some of the highlights on the Laurel & Hardy Forum and the reaction has been euphoric (to say the least) -- hope the Sons of the Desert worldwide can help restore the Boys and friends back to their former glory, per-manently (as Oliver Hardy would have said)

    Reading Jim Harwood's heartbreaking post above can only highlight the fact that there isn't a moment to lose -- I also agree with JLewis' thoughts -- Time Warner are the only company who can handle this work properly and as they were originally distributed through MGM on their original release, by rights, they should be with the rest of the pre-1947 titles. Jim's solution below would be the only way of handling this -- on bluray disc, these movies would be a revelation.

    (Now Leonard....I have been one of your biggest fans and 38 years ago you came out with "The Laurel and Hardy Book", the most compact L&H reference book this side of John McCabe, Randy Skretvedt and all the rest of the L&H scholars -- any chance of a new edition, perhaps a 'restoration special edition'? )

  • Jim Harwood | March 4, 2011 8:54 AMReply

    I cared for all of the original Hal Roach nitrate elements in the 1980's when the Library of Congress was storing the collection. They made brand new 35mm master elements of most of the surviving Roach titles back then. Much has been lost to nitrate decomposition since so future restoration work will likely need to access the Library's preservation elements for some titles. In the 1980's few of the negatives survived of the silent L&H's. I had to junk one of the reels of the original negative of FROM SOUP TO NUTS due to heavy deterioration. It was a very painful thing to do, but the film was crumbling to powder. What would be great is if a wealthy benefactor would pay for scanning the best existing Roach film elements to a digital format, clean up the damage, fix the contrast and then output new polyester based negatives for archival storage. Laurel and Hardy, Our Gang, Charley Chase and the others deserve it!

  • Vincent | March 4, 2011 4:55 AMReply

    For Constance Bennett fans: One of Connie's earliest films, "The Goose Woman" (1925), directed by Clarence Brown and starring Louise Dresser, will be shown in a restored 35mm print tonight (March 4) at 7:30 p.m.

  • JLewis | March 4, 2011 1:25 AMReply

    I second the other Jeff about Time-Warner potentially taking over the Hal Roach product. TCM did a great job airing many of them in January... no other TV channel has shown as much interest in them. Both Roach and the RKO shorts would benefit greatly from a Warner Archive treatment. (The latter are scattered among different "owners" or in public domain in varying condition... Edgar Kennedy, Leon Errol and Clark & McCullough still are bankable to a degree and why should Time-Warner only focus on the RKO features?) Again, it is great that the Vitaphone shorts are still being worked on, one short at a time... eager for the next Archive collection of them.

  • Jeff Heise | March 3, 2011 10:32 AMReply

    I just wish that Turner would purchase or permanently lease the Roach films that are controlled by Artisan/Hallmark/Paramount so they could get the same treatment as the Warner Archive titles.

  • judi davidson | March 3, 2011 10:04 AMReply

    Hi Leonard,
    LACO's Silent Film Gala will be held May 22 at Royce Hall this year.
    The films will be Chaplin's "Shoulder Arms" and "A Dog's Life." And of course, co-chairman will be the "daddy of film preservation," Roger Mayer.
    I'll be sending you a finished release soon and would so appreciate you using it.
    Best regards,
    judi

  • Karen N | March 3, 2011 9:15 AMReply

    My dear dad, a manager at the RKO Keith in Washington DC in the 1940s, was a HUGE Laurel & Hardy fan and taught me to love them too. When other teenaged girls got candy, fancy clothes, records or flowers for graduating junior high, I got a book about L&H--and loved it! Thanks for telling us about the effort to preserve their hilarious shorts, Leonard. It's wonderful to hear!

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