My Dad always loved my definition of a film buff: someone who will intentionally watch a bad movie. My wife and I put that to the test Monday night when we attended the UCLA Film and Television Archives’ Festival of Preservation.
We were treated to a double-bill: crisp, newly-struck prints of the all-star horror cheapie Vampire Bat (1932) with Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas—with a re-creation of its hand-colored fire-torch scene—and the least-known film directed by the great William Cameron Menzies, Almost Married (1932). Menzies’ granddaughters were there along with his biographer James Curtis, who explained that the 51-minute film (yes, 51) brought derisive laughter when it was previewed in December of 1931. This caused Fox to commission Menzies and co-director Marcel Varnel to shoot additional scenes before giving the film a desultory release some months later. It almost certainly hasn’t been screened since then. Ralph Bellamy stars with an overripe Alexander Kirkland (who co-wrote the screenplay with Guy Bolton) and stage actress Violet Heming, whose charms were lost on Hollywood. It is a ridiculous combination of espionage, murder and romance that isn’t worth the time to describe in detail.
The print had to be pieced together from a beat-up 35mm nitrate studio print in the Fox collection and a recently-discovered Italian negative. What’s more, UCLA had to re-create its opening title sequence. If they hadn’t invested this time and effort the film would remain a mere footnote, relegated to second-hand opinions formed 90 years ago. Now we know it’s a stinker…but at least we know it for ourselves.
I hasten to add that UCLA is not in the business of rescuing crummy films. The opening night of the series last Friday, which was sold out, featured one of the greatest movies ever made, Ernst Lubitsch’s Trouble in Paradise. Despite its impeccable reputation this film had preservation issues, as well, and the print that archivist Scott MacQueen supervised resulted from the same kind of exacting effort as the turkey we viewed on Monday.
What I admire most about UCLA’s periodic programs, where they unveil their latest restorations, is the range of material they show: documentaries, newsreels, 1960s television shows, vintage cartoons, silent features, talkie trailers, American avant-garde work and the best of Hollywood’s golden age. The estimable Kenneth Turan never fails to give these shows major coverage in the Los Angeles Times, and for good reason: it’s a rare opportunity to see a wide variety of films in the best prints on earth. You can read his article HERE
I offer a deep bow of gratitude to Dr. Jan-Christopher Horak and his hard-working team at the Archives for the heroic work they do… and thank them for sharing these goodies with an audience on a big screen, where these films belong. You can find the entire schedule HERE.