Into the Vault by matthew c. hoffman

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What is The Rediscovered? It’s a theme-less film series that pulls some of the rarest movies from various studio archives– most noticeably from the Warner Archive. It’s an eclectic group of films, but each title has a reason for being in the program.

The origins of the series go back to the days when I operated the LaSalle Bank Theatre, which was Chicago’s longest-running revival house. One of the programs I put together was Cinema Obscura. This series showcased some of the more obscure titles that were then available on 16mm. So with The Rediscovered, I’m not only calling upon our movie past but also my own past as a classic movie programmer. However, for the Library, I tried not to repeat myself too much. For instance, a rare William Powell film I’ve always enjoyed called High Pressure recently became available on dvd. I had played it at LaSalle, so for the Library I’ve decided to showcase a couple other William Powell films from that same period which I was never able to show previously.

Many years ago I did a retrospective on director William Dieterle and one of his best films was not available– Jewel Robbery. Now, all these years later, it has been released thanks to the “Forbidden Hollywood” dvd collection. Another Powell film we’ll be showcasing is The Key. I had a VHS copy of it somewhere, but only recently has Warner Bros. released it on dvd. It’s another terrific William Powell film from his days at Warner Brothers.

West of Zanzibar
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The Rediscovered opens with West of Zanzibar with Lon Chaney, which is a film I unofficially played at the bank theatre. I made it part of a double feature with Freaks, which was on the official program. There was no sound on the WoZ print that I had in my possession, so when I projected it, I borrowed Philip Glass’s modern score that he had created for 1931’s Dracula. Though I could never watch Dracula with a re-invented film score, it actually worked well for the completely silent film I was showing. However, this time we will have pianist David Drazin performing an accompaniment on March 6 in the Library meeting room. David had performed for me previously at LaSalle, most memorably during a Veteran’s Day screening of Tell It to the Marines– also with Lon Chaney, Sr.

West of Zanzibar is a very disturbing film in which Lon Chaney plays a crippled magician. He winds up punishing the perceived love child of his wife and her lover. There’s a twist we don’t dare give away. I think it’s director Tod Browning’s finest collaboration with Chaney, though few people have seen it. Originally, our 2014 program was going to include many more films set in exotic locations, such as Trader Horn, Kongo (the remake of West of Zanzibar), The Barbarian, Roar of the DragonRed Dust, et al. But this gave way to a more broader view of what we will explore. Only West of Zanzibar and Black Moon remain from this darker concept of The Rediscovered.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is certainly well-known as a recognized classic, but it’s not part of The Rediscovered per se. It’s part of the Films of 1939 series that the Pickwick Theatre Classic Film Series is presenting throughout 2014. The Library will be co-sponsoring this special presentation on March 13.

Walter Huston as Abraham Lincoln
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Our own theme returns the following week at the Library. I will be presenting D. W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln (1930) on March 20. It came out last year on blu-ray, and I would have liked to have shown it then, but there would’ve been too much confusion with Spielberg’s Lincoln, which was still playing in theatres. It’s hard to confuse the two though. One is a three hour movie about talking heads and the other was made by a master filmmaker whose imagery has stood the test of time. Griffith’s version is nearly as good as Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln. I had played it at LaSalle in my Our Cinema Heritage program in which a month was devoted to the father of American narrative film, D. W. Griffith. Abraham Lincoln was the first major historical film in the sound era, so it may appear static to modern audiences. But there are more strengths at play than weaknesses, including a stylish production design by William Cameron Menzies.

On March 27 we have our first William Powell film in Jewel Robbery, which co-stars an actress I profiled a lot at LaSalle: Kay Francis. In an early version of The Rediscovered, it was Kay Francis who had a double feature planned. However, double features are harder to do at the Library– even if they are just over an hour. Jewel Robbery is one of the best films in the entire program and a great pre-Code. It’s just one of several films that would’ve been at home in earlier Library programs like Forbidden Cinema.

Kay Francis and William Powell in Jewel Robbery
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On April 3 we have Ann Harding in Gallant Lady (1933), which was the last film to be added to the 2014 schedule. Ann Harding was one of the finest movie actresses to come from the theatre. She’s more than a forgotten name; she’s someone audiences should know. Gallant Lady was recently released through the Fox Archives. Unfortunately, Harding was often relegated to these melodramatic, women’s tear-jerkers, which Gallant Lady certainly is. But I didn’t want to do this series without her. The film also features Clive Brook whom viewers might remember from films like Shanghai Express.

On April 10, it’s Night Flight featuring an all-star cast including John Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Robert Montgomery, Myrna Loy, and Lionel Barrymore. This one film provides enough star power to propel the whole series. It’s another rarity only recently released on dvd. It’s not as good a film as Grand Hotel, which was another MGM star extravaganza, but it’s definitely worth seeing. (Myrna Loy’s The Barbarian was one title cut from The Rediscovered, so I’m glad we’re able to view at least one Myrna Loy film afterall… even if she’s not the star of Night Flight.)

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April 17 features another trip into the unknown with Black Moon starring King Kong‘s Fay Wray, Jack Holt, and Dorothy Burgess as a woman haunted by the spell of voodoo. She eventually returns to the island of her childhood where she becomes a voodoo priestess! The Rediscovered originally featured many more strange oddities like this one, but we didn’t want to scare the Library too much. Black Moon certainly benefits from the presence of Fay Wray, and we love Fay Wray at the PRPL Classic Film Series.

May 8 has William Powell as an officer in British Intelligence during Ireland’s rebellion against Britain in 1920. This little-known melodrama features Colin Clive and Edna Best in a film directed by Michael Curtiz. It’s one of the best films Powell made at Warners before he moved on to MGM.

Irene Dunne in Theodora Goes Wild
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On May 15 we’ll be honoring actress Irene Dunne with a special visit from her granddaughter, Ann-Marie Streibich. We’ll be discussing the life and career of this five-time Oscar nominee before a screening of Theodora Goes Wild. This screwball comedy features Irene Dunne as a small-town writer of a scandalous romance novel. The title had previously been available on VHS but only recently released on dvd through the Warner Archives.

May 22 will showcase John Ford’s The Prisoner of Shark Island with Warner Baxter. This is a film I’ve wanted to show for a number of years but didn’t have a theme in which to work it in. As with films like West of Zanzibar, The Rediscovered gives me that opportunity to play titles that would otherwise be hard to show within the confines of a three-month theme. (A series that features the great directors like Ford is still a few years away.) The Prisoner of Shark Island has an interesting perspective. Not since his mentor, D.W. Griffith, has a director been so sympathetic towards the South. Note the depiction of Union soldiers throughout this one, especially the sadistic John Carradine.

The Prisoner of Shark Island
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The Rediscovered wraps up on May 29  when we skip ahead into the late 1940s with The Unsuspected. This is a little-known film noir that features Claude Rains in a rare leading man role. At this stage in his career Rains was playing mostly character roles, so it’s great to see him have top billing again in this one. Since we will be honoring Claude Rains earlier in the series with our screening of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I thought it would be nice to end the program with him. Audrey Totter, who recently passed away last month, also stars.

The Rediscovered will be a recurring series– if people show up for this first one. Every few years I’d like to do another three months of rarities: The Rediscovered: Series 2 and so forth. A film society, which is what we are, should go beyond the usual classics. The whole point is to explore new material instead of just the classics people are already familiar with. In every program I’ve done previously, I’ve tried to work in a few lesser-known titles. This time around, the whole series is dedicated to them.

You may not have heard of films like Gallant Lady or The Key, but this program is all about exploring new horizons. We encourage friends and patrons to expand their vision beyond the choices in their local Redbox. Life is too short for disposable entertainment. Why waste it watching The Lone Ranger, World War Z, or The Internship? But we know that you’ll have a more rewarding experience rediscovering Ann Harding and William Powell, and so many others in The Rediscovered. For us, these are the things that last.

Once you go into our film vault, you won’t want to come out.

Claude Rains
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