A Feast of Classic Films

A successful film festival needs to have good movies, good people, and a good home. The folks behind the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas have got it all. Their boast of being “The world’s largest classic film festival” is not an idle one; spread over eleven days, it features scores of films from the silent era to the 1980s, shown almost entirely in 35mm, with special guests, outdoor screenings, seminars and more. It’s insanely ambitious but I must say I was genuinely impressed. How can you not admire a festival that precedes its screening of Walt Disney’s Fantasia with the short subject Mickey’s Opera House? (Vintage cartoons and shorts dotted the entire program.)

The beautifully restored Plaza Theatre, with a giant-sized screen and its original—

The Plaza stood empty for thirty years but was never looted or sullied, somehow. It is filled with beautiful detail work.

—1930 Mighty Wurlitzer organ, is a lovely place to watch a film of any era, although the sound can be harsh at times, depending on the print. I didn’t get to experience the inaugural season of “drive-in, walk-up movies” on the tenth story roof of a nearby parking garage, but an awful lot of people did.

Among this year’s guests were Stephen Humphrey Bogart, son of Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, Jason Robards, III, Chicago Sun-Times arts editor Laura Emerick, producer Peter Snell, director Ryan Williams, Sony Pictures archivist Grover Crisp, The Alloy Orchestra (which played for Josef von Sternberg’s Underworld), veteran screenwriter Stewart Stern and esteemed film scholar Jeanine Basinger. Her students at Wesleyan University in Connecticut may be spoiled, but if you’ve never heard Jeanine introduce a film and put it into loving context you’ve really missed out.

In conversation with Stewart Stern.

When I arrived in town last Thursday, artistic director Charles Horak told me how pleased he was with the 35mm print Universal Pictures had provided of Billy Wilder’s Five Graves to Cairo for that afternoon’s screening. That piqued my curiosity, and I wound up offering an impromptu introduction on stage before settling in to enjoy this terrific movie—which I hadn’t seen in years. I had such a good time I stuck around for the next film, Anatole Litvak’s Decision Before Dawn. The turnout was small for these weekday matinees, compared to the 1,400-1,600 people who came to key evening shows, but they made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in size.

In anticipation of my onstage interview Friday night I had a long, lingering lunch with Stewart Stern. I was supposed to acquire enough background material to ask him about writing Rebel Without A Cause, but we roamed far and wide over a vast field of subjects. What a fascinating man! His uncle was Adolph Zukor, and his cousin was Marcus Loew, just for starters. (He has a framed letter Mary Pickford wrote him when he was a little boy and she was his “Aunt Mary.”) When he moved to Hollywood following World War II, and roomed with his cousin Arthur Loew, his first job was as dialogue director for Anthony Mann on the film noir T-Men. Loew subsequently introduced him to director Fred Zinnemann and they shared amazing adventures in Israel, gathering background material for a film that never came to fruition, and Italy, for a film that did,Teresa.

A happy trio: screenwriter Stewart Stern, teacher-author Jeanine Basinger, and yours truly outside the Plaza in El Paso.

He and I might still be sitting in that restaurant were it not for a phone call from my daughter, who urged us to join her and Jeanine Basinger at the El Paso Museum of Art just across the street. There, we gazed in awe at an exhibit called The Ten Commandments: Treasures from the Production Archives, an impressive array of costumes, jewelry and artifacts from the Paramount Pictures Archive, augmented by an equally amazing collection of production artwork and behind the scenes correspondence on loan from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Among my favorite pieces is a memo, written late in the film’s shooting schedule, indicating which animals could now be released and which had to be held for further work. (Hold the ducks!) As icing on the cake, Stewart regaled us with his impression of Cecil B. DeMille, having visited the great man’s set at Paramount. (Paramount archivists Jaci Rohr and Randall Thropp gave a special guided tour of the exhibit during its opening weekend.)

Clearly, the El Paso Community Foundation and Charles Horak think big. Their bill of fare included Frankenstein, Dracula, A Clockwork Orange, Blade Runner, Auntie Mame, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, The Guns of Navarone, The Last Waltz, M, Monterey Pop, Night and The City, Platinum Blonde, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School, Throne of Blood, The Wicker Man and Swing Time, to name just a few.

Each screening was individually sponsored. (I met a nice woman from the El Paso Bar Association who was proud to be funding John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln.) These good people are spreading the gospel of classic cinema to an appreciative audience, and that deserves a huge round of applause.

More images from the The Ten Commandments: Treasures from the Production Archives exhibit at the El Paso Museum of Art.

Paramount was able to loan at least one artifact from the silent version of The Ten Commandments: the scarab beetle seen here.


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June 2024