Last Remaining Seats: North by Northwest & Roman Holiday
The Los Angeles Conservancy (website) will present the 21st Annual Last Remaining Seats film series every Wednesday at 8 p.m. from May 23-June 27. The series is held in the Los Angeles area’s historic movie palaces – the precious few still in existence, that is. This year, the following film classics will be screened:
North by Northwest (1959)
Alfred Hitchcock directed the movie-movie North by Northwest from a screenplay by Ernest Lehman – obviously inspired by The 39 Steps, which Hitchcock himself had directed in 1935. The good news is that Lehman doesn’t take his absurd tale at all seriously; the not-so-good news is that we must suspend disbelief (and most other brain functions as well) from the moment we see Jessie Royce Landis (born 1896) playing mommy to Cary Grant (born 1904) up to and beyond the film’s Mount Rushmore cliffhanger.
Now, the part of your brain that appreciates good acting should remain active: Cary Grant is a delight as the man on the run, and so are Jessie Royce Landis, Eva Marie Saint, James Mason, Leo G. Carroll, and is-he-or-isn’t-he Martin Landau. Saint and Patricia Hitchcock (the director’s daughter) are expected to attend the screening and answer questions from L.A. Confidential director Curtis Hanson.
Roman Holiday (1953)
Directed by William Wyler, Roman Holiday is a light romantic comedy that turned Audrey Hepburn into both a Best Actress Oscar winner and a major Hollywood star. Hepburn deserved the stardom, but, in my view, not the Oscar; despite the actress’ undeniable charm, her young runaway princess – spending one carefree day in the streets of Rome – feels at times more than a tad calculated. As the American reporter accompanying her, Gregory Peck delivers the film’s best and most understated performance. Peck’s performance, however, was bypassed at the Oscars; his fellow Roman Holiday player, Eddie Albert, was luckier, earning a Best Supporting Actor nod.
Although William Wyler’s direction is for the most part disappointingly conventional, Roman Holiday does offer a handful of touching moments including its bittersweet ending. Ironically, blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, one of the Hollywood Ten, penned the escapist, light-as-air “story” (oftentimes, an original screenplay or treatment); Trumbo’s friend Ian McLellan Hunter was his front. John Dighton co-wrote the final screenplay with both Trumbo and McLellan. The Roman Holiday screening will be hosted by film reviewer Leonard Maltin.
Flesh and the Devil (1926)
Considered by some one of Greta Garbo’s best films, Flesh and the Devil is a shameless potboiler about a woman, known in those days as a “vamp,” who gets in the way of a very – and I mean very – intimate friendship between two men. Garbo, of course, is the woman; John Gilbert and Lars Hanson are the two close buddies. Personally, I find this misogynistic silent melodrama all but unwatchable, but there’s an undeniable subversive undercurrent to the narrative, and the film does look great – courtesy of Garbo’s favorite cinematographer, William H. Daniels. Clarence Brown directed Flesh and the Devil from an adaptation by Benjamin Glazer (from Hermann Sudermann’s novel The Undying Past); Marion Ainslee wrote the film’s titles.
Upon its release, Flesh and the Devil made Greta Garbo a star, while reportedly igniting a torrid love affair between the Swedish actress and MGM superstar John Gilbert. At the Last Remaining Seats screening, Robert Israel will provide the film’s musical accompaniment. (See also: Flesh and the Devil among Kevin Brownlow’s list of essential movies of the silent era.)
Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)
Yankee Doodle Dandy was one of the biggest box office hits of the 1940s, garnering a total of eight Academy Award nominations. The film ultimately won three Oscars, including one for star James Cagney.
In this flag-waving musical biography-cum-family melodrama, Cagney, better known for his gangster roles in movies such as The Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces, plays Broadway entertainer George M. Cohan. Thus, Cagney gets the chance to dance in a few scenes, act tough in a few other scenes, and mug for the camera every single moment he’s on screen – abetted by Best Supporting Actor Oscar nominee Walter Huston, who sporadically steps in to gobble up whatever is left of the scenery.
Also featured in Yankee Doodle Dandy are Rosemary DeCamp (as Cagney’s mom) and Joan Leslie – a pretty, charming, and capable Warner Bros. contract player who was usually wasted in thankless roles (including this one, as Cagney’s gal pal). Michael Curtiz, who did much better work elsewhere (The Adventures of Robin Hood, Four Daughters, Mildred Pierce), directed. Rosemary DeCamp, by the way, was 11 years younger than James Cagney.
Randy Haberkamp, director of Education Programs at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, will host the Yankee Doodle Dandy screening.
The Yacht Isabel Arrived This Afternoon (1949)
Co-presented with the Latin American Cinemateca of Los Angeles, The Yacht Isabel Arrived This Afternoon / La Balandra Isabel llegó esta tarde is the series’ sole non-Hollywood offering – and its only lesser known (or downright obscure) title. Directed and co-written by Argentinean filmmaker Carlos Hugo Christensen, this 1949 Venezuelan-Argentinean co-production is based on a 1934 short story by Venezuelan writer Guillermo Meneses, and stars top Mexican leading man Arturo de Córdova (The Spanish Main, Luis Buñuel’s El).
The Los Angeles Conservancy site describes The Yacht Isabel Arrived This Afternoon as “an erotic melodrama of stunning cinematography that highlights Venezuela’s natural scenery and its unique Afro-Venezuelan musical heritage.” The film will be presented in Spanish with English subtitles; actor Wilmer Valderrama (That ’70s Show, Fast Food Nation) is tentatively scheduled to host the screening.
Future Warner Bros. star and master scenery-chewer Paul Muni, an actor apparently incapable of delivering a naturalistic performance, plays the Al Capone-like title character, Antonio ‘Tony’ Camonte; Muni is supported by another future Warners contractee, Ann Dvorak, as Tony’s pretty sister, while George Raft and Boris Karloff have secondary roles. Ben Hecht was credited for the Scarface screenplay, though numerous hands were involved in the writing process.
Last Remaining Seats Schedule (Wednesdays at 8 p.m.)
- May 23 North by Northwest Orpheum Theatre
- May 30 Roman Holiday Los Angeles Theatre
- June 6 Flesh and the Devil Orpheum Theatre
- June 13 Yankee Doodle Dandy Los Angeles Theatre
- June 20 The Yacht Isabel Arrived This Afternoon John Anson Ford Amphitheatre
- June 27 Scarface Alex Theatre
Advance tickets are $15 for Los Angeles Conservancy members and $18 for the general public. Group discounts are also available. All programs subject to change. For recorded ticket information, call (213) 430-4219.
Plane attacks Cary Grant in North by Northwest: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Victor Sjöström’s (a.k.a. Victor Seastrom) 1921 classic Körkarlen / The Phantom Carriage (April 27), with accompaniment by Jonathan Richman; and Guy Maddin’s 2006 drama Brand Upon the Brain!, which will be accompanied by “a 13-piece ensemble, foley artists, a benshi-like narrator and a castrato.” All three silent film screenings will be held at the Castro Theatre.
The Iron Mask screening will follow a q&a with silent film historian Kevin Brownlow, who will be the recipient of the Mel Novikoff Award. (“Named in honor of legendary San Francisco film exhibitor Mel Novikoff [1922-1987], this award is given to an individual or organization notable for making significant contributions to the Bay Area’s richly diverse film community.” (See also “essential movies” from the silent era.)
Kevin Brownlow will also host a screening of several film clips. The paragraph below is from the San Francisco Festival’s page Kevin Brownlow: Introduction to Silents:
“When I first became interested in this period, I was told silent films were jerky, flickery, ludicrously acted curiosities. I was dismayed that even some of the old stars and directors believed the propaganda. It was dispelled by showing them the films. They were invariably astonished by the high quality. So I began a campaign to prevent the technicians of the past being regarded as idiots. The entire silent era lasted a little over 30 years, and advances in narrative techniques were extraordinarily fast. These are not necessarily classics, just the top-quality 35mm extracts which have come my way over the years – from the one-minute, one-shot films of the 1900s to the spectaculars of the late ’20s which exploited the entire language of cinema. En route we pay tribute to the fantasies of Maurice Tourneur, the genius of Keaton, the pictorialism of Rex Ingram and the stunning brilliance of so many regular but forgotten releases of the ’20s. Have we advanced as much since 1972?”
Featuring clips from:
Biograph actuality of Ealing Broadway (1900)
Broncho Billy’s Adventure (dir. Gilbert M. “Broncho Billy” Anderson, 1911)
Suspense (dir. Lois Weber, Phillips Smalley, 1913)
The Blue Bird (dir. Maurice Tourneur, 1918)
Home Made (Ford Educational, 1919)
One Week (dir. Buster Keaton and Edward F. Cline, 1920)
Scaramouche (dir. Rex Ingram, 1924; with Ramon Novarro, Alice Terry and Lewis Stone)
Le Joueur d’échecs / The Chess Player (dir. Raymond Bernard, 1926)
The Mysterious Lady (dir. Fred Niblo, 1928; with Greta Garbo, Conrad Nagel and Gustav von Seyffertitz)
The Fire Brigade (dir. William Nigh, 1926; with Charles Ray, May McAvoy)
By the way, among this year’s San Francisco Film Festival’s other special award winners are George Lucas, Peter Morgan, Robin Williams, Heddy Honigmann, and Spike Lee.