Saved from oblivion, these are the movies worth seeing at UCLA's Festival of Preservation

Hello preservation, my old friend. I’ve come to talk of you again. It’s not just any film conservation project that’s compelled my attention but UCLA’s justly acclaimed Festival of Preservation. Unspooling from Friday through the weekend, it’s one of the great events on the Los Angeles movie calendar and, even in its 21st biennial edition, still as exciting and groundbreaking as ever.

The latest iteration of the festival (which is admission-free but is first come, first serve for screenings in the Billy Wilder Theater at the Hammer Museum) features the qualities that have always made it stand out. It’s not just gorgeous new versions of films you’ve never seen or seen only in diminished condition. The UCLA event inevitably includes remarkable movies you never even knew existed, films that expand our knowledge of the extent of the vast cinematic universe.

Presented, as always, by the UCLA Film & Television Archive, the 2024 edition is spread out over 15 programs. It starts on Friday at 7:30 p.m. on a festive note, with an in-person celebration of director Charles Burnett’s 80th birthday with a screening of his previously unreleased 1999 “The Annihilation of Fish” starring James Earl Jones and Lynn Redgrave.

Those with the stamina to stay up later will be amply rewarded with a 10:25 p.m. showing of 1977’s “The Richard Pryor Special?,” a legendary piece of television that led to Pryor’s own NBC variety show being green-lit. (That series would be canceled after only four episodes of a projected 10.) Pryor is at the height of his comic powers here, as smart and mercilessly funny about issues of race as anyone has ever been. His characters range from real-life Ugandan leader Idi Amin to the fictional TV evangelist Rev. James L. White, upset at “not getting the white folks’ money.” Any television special that finds room for both John Belushi and Maya Angelou is definitely not business as usual.

Also comedic but in a totally different way is Laurel and Hardy’s 1932 “Pack Up Your Troubles,” a feature made during the same year the duo won the short subject Oscar for their classic “The Music Box.” The premise has the boys, the worst soldiers imaginable, coping with being dragooned into the U.S. Army at the start of World War I. Mistakenly delivering kitchen trash to a general’s living room is only the start of their woes.

Approaching 1930s filmmaking from a diametrically opposite point of view is the 1938 exploitation classic “Wages of Sin,” of which critic Benjamin Svetkey has noted, “Seldom in history have so many mortal vices been packed into one poorly lit B movie.” In disrepair for years and preserved by the efforts of TV writer David Stenn, “Wages” is enjoyably lurid to the max as it tells the sad tale of a good girl gone wrong, headed straight into the “sisterhood of sorrow” from which there is no turning back.

As always, the festival does not neglect hidden gems of the silent era, including 1923’s beautifully tinted “Man and Wife,” an early Norma Shearer feature which showcased the New York-based actor before Irving Thalberg and Louis B. Mayer brought her out to Hollywood. Shearer plays Dora, a farmer’s daughter who’s “tired of bringing up the cows.” She decamps for New York, jump-starting a five-alarm-fire of a melodramatic plot. Yes, it defies belief, but that was probably the point.

The other silent drama is a true rarity: a 1925 German version of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It was thought completely lost until a print was discovered in Oregon buried under a cellar floor and coated in machine oil. Really. A prime example of the artistic, sophisticated silents that characterized the best of European cinema, “Dream” has elaborate sets, gorgeous costumes and camera trickery that’s always impressive.

Jumping ahead to the golden age of live television drama is 1957’s “Walk Down the Hill,” a presentation of Westinghouse Studio One. Written by Ernest Kinoy based on his own World War II experience, this taut and thoughtful drama of an American POW conflicted about whether to reveal his Jewish identity to his German captors is impeccably acted by a cast that includes Don Gordon, Ivan Dixon and Clu Gulager. An unexpected treat is the inclusion of the show’s original Westinghouse commercials, presented by the celebrated Betty Furness.

Film noir is often a feature of the UCLA festival and this year is no exception, though the source is a surprise. “No Abras Nunca Esta Puerta/Never Open That Door” was made in 1952 Argentina, its title apparently referring to the door between good and evil. Argentina was fertile ground for noir, and, collaborating with the Film Noir Foundation, the Archive has previously restored the much-admired “Los Tallos Amargos/The Bitter Stems.” This film consists of two bleak tales, both from the short stories of novelist Cornell Woolrich, the master of extreme situations and brutal twists, including his landmark “Somebody on the Phone.”

Closing out the festival is one of its most unexpected offerings, 1962’s “Smog,” an Italian-language drama directed entirely in Los Angeles by Franco Rossi. The plot, about a tourist taking in the city between flights, is not spectacular, but the extensive black-and-white views of how things looked here 60 years ago are a knockout. You may not have known about this film, but watching it will widen your horizons, something this festival has always specialized in.

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