Howard Hughes’ career in Hollywood was checkered, to put it mildly, but the man who made Hell’s Angels and Scarface cannot and should not be written off. Unfortunately, some of his films have been nearly impossible to see over the years while others have not been well cared for. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is presenting a double-bill on Monday night that represents a major restoration effort—and catnip for avid film buffs.
You may think you know the 1931 version of Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s classic play The Front Page, directed with flair by Lewis Milestone. I certainly did, and wrote about its recent home video release HERE. Not only has the Academy found source materials that surpass anything we’ve seen in terms of picture and sound quality. They learned that there were entirely separate versions of the film intended for U.S. and foreign release, and we’ve been watching the backup version all these years. You can learn more by clicking HERE for an explanatory trailer the Academy put together for Monday’s screening.
The second feature on the bill is Cock of the Air (1932), a lavish vehicle for Chester Morris and Hughes’ inamorata Billie Dove. The Academy’s files from the Production Code ran to 139 pages of heated correspondence regarding this risqué romantic comedy. Hughes refused to answer Will Hays’ outraged reaction to the script’s censorable dialogue, not to mention its very title. Then, at the eleventh hour, Hughes relented and cut a total of 12 minutes from the film.
The Academy located an uncensored copy of the picture but the blue-penciled dialogue track was nowhere to be found. That’s when they called on modern technology and a bit of movie magic. Experienced casting directors from the Academy’s youngest branch identified actors who could convincingly read the missing lines as spoken by Morris, Dove, and some supporting players. In some cases they had to replace a few words; in one instance they had to re-create a sustained four-minute scene. With Foley work and deft music editing the restoration team led by Mike Pogorzelski managed to piece Cock of the Air back together. The results are remarkably good.
Academy preservationist Heather Linville told me that she and her colleagues realized audiences might want to know what had been cut and put back, so in the digital print there is an unobtrusive icon at the bottom right-hand corner of the screen whenever there is restored dialogue. The results are fascinating.
I wish I could say the same for the movie itself which, like the womanizing character played by Chester Morris, has an air of self-satisfaction that quickly grows tiresome. It’s hard to believe that this represents a collaboration between the witty Charles Lederer and four-time Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright and screenwriter Robert E. Sherwood.
Cock of the Air is much more interesting to watch for reasons that have nothing to do with writing: a music score by Alfred Newman, including three songs, stunning art direction by Richard Day, and fluid camerawork by Lucien Andriot (most notable during a Carnival in Venice sequence and several long, long tracking shots). Then there is the eye-popping wardrobe that hugs and barely hides Billie Dove’s voluptuous figure. How Will Hays allowed a leading lady to go bra-less in dresses that revealed her nipples we’ll never know.
If you expect aerial sequences from the producer who brought us Hell’s Angels, however, you will be sorely disappointed. Despite being advertised as a “sky-high thriller bombshelled with laughs,” Cock of the Air only gets airborne once and there are no thrills to be had.
But these newly rejuvenated prints of The Front Page and Cock of the Air demand to be seen, especially on the giant screen at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theater. For tickets and more information, click HERE.
Finally, on Wednesday night we Angelenos will get to see the long-awaited restoration of the two-color Technicolor talkie musical extravaganza The King of Jazz (1930) with Paul Whiteman, which debuted last month at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. For me this is the cinematic event of the year. You can find more details HERE.