Just when I thought I was outside, they pulled me up again.
No, unlike Al Pacino in The Godfather III, I’m not a stunned Mafioso who has returned to a life of deadly crime, I’m an offline film critic returned to the realm of deadlines by one of the career’s greatest fans: the UCLA Archives Preservation Festival for Film and Television.
Now firmly hidden in the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum, the festival returns the weekend of May 20-22 with one major new twist. Thanks to a gift from an anonymous donor, all of their offers are free (although reservations are highly recommended).
Now in its twentieth edition, the festival is as true to the core – as it was before Talking Heads – as it has ever been. Time and time again, no movie event in Los Angeles has excited me more than this one, and this latest iteration is no exception.
The scope of the festival is mythically wide, so much so that anyone interested in the film will find their taste buds catered for this year, whether it’s the Harold Lloyd-Preston Sturges collaboration “The Sin of Harold Diddlebock,” a homage to Betty White, Laurel and Hardy’s “Scrum!” Or the messy Tricia’s Wedding.
Not only does the festival showcase the restoration of classic films to their original state, it delights in shedding light on hidden gems and unexpected corners of the cinematic universe, and elements you never knew existed, let alone expect to see on a big screen.
An eight-minute example this year is 1938’s “Buzzy Boop at the Concert,” a maddened, maddened cartoon from Fleischer Studios featuring Betty Boop’s unmanned cousin.
One of two short tapes Buzzy has appeared and unseen for 85 years, this stylish item results from an unexpected collaboration between UCLA, Paramount Pictures and Gosfilmofond, the Russian film archive where a hard copy was discovered in 2019.
While I love the entire save event, I’m particularly fond of going back to the original black and white film glory from the golden age of Hollywood.
Two films in particular caught my eye this year, including the opening night of the festival, the 1941 movie “All That Money Can Buy”, better known by its alternate title “The Devil and Daniel Webster,” a name that has been changed for fear of being confused with the former. Satan and Miss Jones.”
Directed by William Dietrell, based on a short story by screenwriter Stephen Vincent Bennett and featuring the Academy Award-winning score by Bernard Hermann, Money is set in the 1840s in the difficult borderlands of New Hampshire and Massachusetts.
Farmer Jabees Stone (James Craig) spends a long time staying solvent. Unfortunately for him, Mr. Scratch, a.k.a. the devil himself (whom Walter Houston glimpses in his dark, chattering grotesques), happens to be in the neighborhood, and before you can say “he fell in blood”, he’s made a deal for the farmer’s soul.
Dealing with the devil is usually bad, but Gabes is lucky to have the great populist orator and lawmaker Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold) at his side. A treatise on human weakness, greed and the possibility of salvation, “Money” manages to be literary and tirelessly energetic.
If you want to see the power of Hollywood stars in action, you can do no better than another black and white gem, 1949’s “The Power of Evil,” with John Garfield in the lead role.
Co-written by Abraham Polonsky in his directorial debut, “Evil” portrays Garfield as a New York lawyer emerging from poverty. He’s the type to keep a secret phone in a locked desk drawer as he faces a mob trying to turn the number racket into a legitimate lottery.
Few of the actors hold the screen with Garfield’s fierce and mercurial authority, and he’s lucky to face Thomas Gomez as his dismissive older brother. It was their destructive interference, simmering with longstanding mutual resentment, that set the tone for this socially conscious killer noir. Within three years, unfortunately, Garfield died of a heart attack at 39.
It’s also worth taking a look at the black side, 1949’s Cover Up, a quirky melodrama about a top-notch insurance investigator (Dennis O’Keefe) who arrives in a small town to consider a suicide and begins to suspect a reserved place murder. O’Keefe’s arched intersection with “townmates are always in a hurry” (William Bendix) is an unexpected highlight.
It turns out that there are two areas that I don’t always focus on at this year’s festival, one being television and one being documentary.
Although only 26 minutes long, the unsold TV pilot of 1955, The Challenge was a tribute to the combined talents of an exceptional creative team that included writers Reginald Rose and Rod Serling, director Sidney Lumet, and star Jack Warden.
Warden, just a few years before his breakthrough role in “12 Angry Men,” plays a humble school bus driver whose conscience won’t allow him to sign the McCarthy-era oath of allegiance and faces a potential job loss as a result. The issues raised by his actions are as vital and relevant today as they were more than half a century ago.
Also of note on the television side is Hallmark Hall of Fame’s 1964 version of “The Fantasticks,” a musical love story that has been on off-Broadway for more than 17,000 shows over more than 40 years. Bert Lahr and Stanley Holloway play neighbors who pretend to be enemies so their children fall in love, with leading Mexican actor Ricardo Montalbán starring as the mysterious El Gallo.
On the documentary side, look out for Haskell Wexler’s groundbreaking “The Bus,” after a group of concerned citizens who took the Greyhound Scenicruiser from San Francisco to Washington, D.C., to take part in March 1963 in Washington. On the same bill is another cinematic gem, 1968’s “Hey, Mama,” a look from life on Venice’s black Oakwood neighborhood.
Preserving all aspects of film history is what this extraordinary festival – whose slogan for 2022 is “Watch the bigger picture” – is all about.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.