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Sunday, January 10, 2016

Rarely Screened Treasures at the Harvard Film Archive

Last night I had the pleasure to attend a special 'Members' Weekend' screening of two rarely shown classic Hollywood romps in 35mm:  DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939), and HOLLYWOOD OR BUST (1956) at one of our best local arthouse cinemas, the Harvard Film Archive.  Not a bad way to spend a Saturday evening with friends, old and new alike.

The Harvard Film Archive (HFA) houses over 25,000 items in its collection supporting film research and education in partnership with Harvard University.  They have regular public screenings of films in their collection in their 200-seat no-frills auditorium, and often program director retrospectives, sometimes with the director in attendance.  Guy Maddin was a recent guest speaker, although I missed him. In late 2014 I was privileged to attend Dame Angela Lansbury's fascinating in-person remarks after a screening of one of her lesser-known films with Warren Beatty, ALL FALL DOWN.  Among other things, she described what it was like to work with George Sanders in two films she made with him:  "George loved beautiful women.  He never made a pass at me."  And "George was often bored because he was so much brighter than everyone else around."  She was beyond lovely, and an inspiration, still working hard to entertain us at 90 years young.  And last spring I was introduced to the films of Polish auteur Wojciech Has at a multiple film retrospective. His surrealist epic THE SARAGOSSA MANUSCRIPT is not to be missed. Net, the HFA is a great place to indulge a budding film buff's thirst for discovery.  As a member, I received a special invitation to attend their 'Members' Weekend' screenings yesterday, which offered not only the films, but a reception to meet HFA staff and other members.  The event did not disappoint.

The satirical western DESTRY was made in that famous "best" of Hollywood years, 1939, but it is rarely publicly screened and it doesn't enjoy the fame of others made that year, or even of other Westerns.  Directed by George Marshall, it's fantastic.  It's rather a western-screwball comedy, starring a young James Stewart, and Marlene Dietrich in a comeback role for her after being named 'box office poison.'  Brian Donlevy, who I had seen in some Paramount films with Alan Ladd, gained new respect from me as the villain of this one.  He has such swagger, menace, and yet a large helping of likability that keeps your eyes on him.  This film contained Non. Stop. Action in ensemble scenes that were breathtakingly gorgeous and witty.  Well-known character actors of the 30s such as Mischa Auer, Allen Jenkins, and Una Merkel, all played important roles with gusto.

As an Old Hollywood fan, I have never appreciated the popular Stewart as much as some other fans, and often find him too strident and harsh for the leading roles he played (e.g. in IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE, or THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER even).  Here, his characteristic 'edge' is pitch perfect in his role as the new town sheriff's deputy, who is viewed initially as a man not up to the task, but who knows that he is smarter than everyone and makes this clear at his own pace, in his own way.  He even steals the loyalty of Marlene Dietrich, as cabaret singer Frenchy, away from blustery Donlevy.  Dietrich is a force, as she usually is, and going in to the film I was skeptical of her chemistry with Stewart, even knowing that supposedly they had an affair during film.  Well, believe it -- it's there.  Anyway, the film, with plentiful witty inside jokes, raucous musical numbers, and just enough tone variation from humor to pathos, to keep you interested, is a must-see for any Old Hollywood fan.
Opening scenes of hard partying at the Bottleneck Saloon
Marlene and Brian Donlevy plot during an upstairs game of poker
Initial confrontation between Donlevy and Stewart

First encounter between Stewart and Dietrich. 
Close up of Stewart during an emotional moment
Women of the town aim to break up the shootout with various rolling pins and other household weapons


The second film of the double feature, directed by Frank Tashlin, was the last major film ever to star Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis as partners, and featured Anita Ekberg as herself in an extended cameo. Pat Crowley was the ingenue love interest of Martin's.  Essentially the two men meet under somewhat suspicious circumstances surrounding a raffle ticket racket for a new convertible.  They both capture the convertible in NYC and head out on a cross-country road trip to Hollywood and their dreams.   The ride was a lot of fun, but it's a film I won't be rushing out to add to my DVD collection. I must admit, I've not been a devoted fan of this team, in fact to date have seen none of their other pairings so obviously don't have much to compare.  I will say that a little bit of Jerry Lewis goes a long way.  Also, the film is considered a 'musical', but I don't enjoy musical numbers that prominently feature bad or purposely distorted singing voices (Lewis).  On the positive side, the team had a unique chemistry and seemed to anticipate each other's actions just enough to keep the pace of the film fast.  That they supposedly were at great odds and did not speak off-screen wasn't evident in the film at least to me.  The film benefited from some recurring visual jokes and ridiculous situations that did elicit quite a few laughs from the appreciative audience.

Dean Martin opens the film by welcoming fans of Hollywood all over the world (followed by Lewis's non-PC parodies of film fans in various countries)
Dean and Jerry hit the road with Jerry's great dane "Mr. Bascomb"
The sights one apparently sees when driving through the country
An enticing Ekberg as seen by Lewis

Thanks, HFA!

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