Old Is the New New
What do Sherlock Holmes, Laurel and Hardy, the avant-garde short films of Kenneth Anger and two televised dramas starring a pre–Tonight Show Johnny Carson have in common? The answer is elementary: Absolutely nothing at all, save for the fact that they’re among the unusual suspects rounded up for the UCLA Film and Television Archive’s 13th Festival of Preservation, the biennial showcase of the archive’s ongoing efforts to protect and serve a century’s worth of moving images. Impossible to do justice to in this short space, the 2006 edition features more than 70 films and TV shows of varying lengths and genres, produced between 1911 and 1971 and here restored to their original luster. It’s a mother lode of moviegoing bliss the likes of which even the most encyclopedic home DVD library would be hard-pressed to match.
Among the festival’s first-week highlights is Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1942), the second in the popular Universal-produced series starring Basil Rathbone as the chameleonic super sleuth. Based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story “The Dancing Men,” but updated to echo WWII paranoia, it’s a spiffy, fast-moving (68 minutes!) suspense tale about a brilliant scientist whose prize invention — a precision air-to-ground bomb-guidance device — risks falling into Nazi hands.
Lending the film greater resonance is UCLA’s shrewd decision to program Weapon on a double bill with Fritz Lang’s Cloak and Dagger (1946), another story of brilliant scientists in the grip of Nazi power, this time with Gary Cooper as a Manhattan Project physicist recruited by the OSS to help evacuate two talented colleagues from behind enemy lines. After a first hour of modestly engaging espionage, Lang turns the movie on its head, from geopolitical thriller into an unexpected romance that recalls the title of a later Lang effort: Human Desire. Having blown his cover in Switzerland, Cooper eventually ends up with a band of German resistance fighters, including Lilli Palmer as the beautiful but tragic Gina, who has cauterized her own emotions as a way of surviving the war. “Don’t be somebody I like,” she tells Cooper. “In my job, I kiss without feeling.” But she does like Cooper, and when they kiss the screen explodes with feeling. Hidden away in their little not-so-safe house, they play at what life was like before the war and pretend that they might somehow stay together when it’s over, and in these moments Palmer is nothing short of incandescent. Like Cooper, we fall for Gina’s bravery, her indomitability and finally for the lonely woman desperate to be loved. There is breathless action in Cloak and Dagger, but its romantic scenes are the ones that will leave you spellbound, and which make the movie’s titular spy games seem child’s play by comparison.
Another serendipitous double-header pairs Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) with Anthony Mann’s God’s Little Acre (1958)— two slices of sweltering, eros-charged Southern Gothic dated only inasmuch as they reveal how chaste Hollywood has become in the five decades since they were released. Scripted by Tennessee Williams with his customary mix of the poetic and the perverse, Baby Doll still ranks among the more gleefully amoral of studio-produced fare: a macabre comedy of humiliation about a down-on-his-luck Mississippi cotton miller (Karl Malden) whose 20-year-old “child” bride (Carroll Baker, resplendent in her virginal lust) sleeps in a crib and seems to have eyes for every man around but her own husband. Still, the loonies of Baby Doll can scarcely hold a candle to the deep-fried Georgia eccentrics of God’s Little Acre, in which the family cotton business goes belly-up not because of competition, but because quixotic patriarch Ty Ty (Robert Ryan) has spent the last 15 years digging for buried treasure where he should’ve been planting seeds. Meanwhile, there’s a daughter-in-law who’s in love with her sister-in-law’s husband, an albino with supposedly magical divining abilities and much else that by rights should tip the movie over into self-parody. Instead, God’s Little Acre gets us to take it seriously, thanks in large part to Ryan’s commanding performance as the kind of man so convinced of his own delusional visions that they become contagious. “They” don’t make Southern Gothics much anymore, but these two will have you wishing that they did.
I’ve saved the best for last, even though it’s actually first. The Festival of Preservation’s opening-night selection, Of Mice and Men (1939), remains the greatest screen adaptation of John Steinbeck’s widely read parable of innocence and cruelty, with sensitive performances by Burgess Meredith (as the resourceful George) and Lon Chaney Jr. (as the ill-gated, big lug Lennie) and brilliant direction by Lewis Milestone (All Quiet on the Western Front), whose famously complex tracking shots are like the effortless strokes of a master painter’s brush. The movie was released in the same year as Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and yet to see it today is to discover a film more modern in its style and sensibility than any of those better-known classics. In some respects, it might have been made only yesterday. So what better start for a festival where everything old is new again?
13TH FESTIVAL OF PRESERVATION | At UCLA Film and Television Archive | Through August 19 | www.cinema.ucla.edu
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