MOMA Launches a Spectacular Series: Universal Restorations & Rediscoveries, 1928-1937
Friday the 13th just got lucky.
That’s when the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) kicks off its fabulous series, “Universal Pictures: Restorations and Rediscoveries, 1928-1937,” which runs from May 13 through June 15.
With several gorgeous prints newly struck by the studio, “this seemed a good opportunity to look at the Carl Laemmle Jr. years—which are greatly undervalued—and show how really audacious they were,” said MOMA’s adjunct film curator Dave Kehr, who pulled the program together. “He was very conscious of trying to create art, of doing something unique. He bought truly daring properties and was willing to take the kind of chances a lot of other studios weren’t.”
Derisively known as Junior—the running joke was “The son also rises”—Leammle was widely written off as merely the beneficiary of his father’s notorious nepotism. (Ogden Nash dryly observed, “Uncle Carl Laemmle/Has a very large faemmle.”)
But Junior had a vision—and a plan to see it through. “He cut the number of movies Universal produced by 40% and started focusing on pretty spectacular films he thought would enhance the image of the studio,” Kehr noted.
“In a way, he was reacting against Irving Thalberg, who’d once worked for his father and went on to create almost a production line at MGM, with a strict formula and brand,” he added. “So, for example, where Thalberg fired Erich von Stroheim and drastically cut Greed to ribbons, Junior hired avant garde directors who were considered even crazier, like Paul Fejos—who, before he made the classic Lonesome, had only made one obscure feature, in Budapest.”
Other European émigrés who found a home at Universal—as well as the freedom to spread their wings and hone their own styles—included William Wyler, a distant Laemmle cousin himself, whose A House Divided and The Good Fairy are featured in the series, and John Stahl, whose Only Yesterday—the first film adaptation of Letter from an Unknown Woman—will be shown, along with the popular Back Street and the sophisticated soaper Seed. James Whale has five films in the program, including the lush and mesmerizing The Kiss Before the Mirror and the restoration of a longer version of The Road Back—which Charles Rodgers, who replaced Junior, slashed in an effort to appease the Third Reich and retain the German film market. (Much more on the new print in a future article.)
American directors were also free to let their film flags fly—including John Ford, whose Air Mail will be screened in the series; the wildly energetic Tay Garnett, on tap with Okay, America; and the darkly brilliant Edward L. Cahn, who’ll weigh in with three films, among them his newly rediscovered masterwork, Laughter in Hell.
So much energy crackled through Junior’s brief reign—such a sense of wonder and adventure, of discovering everything movies could do and say and be—that his story deserved a fairy-tale Hollywood ending. But it got a depressingly real one: in 1936, when cost overruns on Whale’s Showboat forced Universal into the grubby hands of its creditors, the Laemmles were drummed out of the studio Carl Sr. had founded in 1912.
With this sensational series, MOMA has added an uplifting coda to the story. It’s hard to pick highlights from a program that reads like one long highlight reel, but here goes:
- The series opens with a dazzling new two-color Technicolor print of John Murray Anderson’s King of Jazz, the first time the full-length version will be seen in over 75 years. (And to give you some idea of Junior’s breadth of taste and style, he produced this film the same year he made All Quiet on the Western Front.) Ironically, the big production number is Rhapsody in Blue—and blue was the one hue Technicolor couldn’t capture. “They played around with it a lot and finally got a sort of gray-green—but if you squint, it looks blue,” laughed Kehr. “But more importantly, the production values are absolutely spectacular.”
- A major new restoration of Fejos’s Broadway, featuring the long-lost Technicolor finale. The film’s million-dollar budget shows up in every shot, as the world’s largest camera crane wends its way through the uber-Deco sets. This is another visual feast from start to finish—and don’t be surprised if your surroundings seem unbearably drab when you get home.
- I love James Whale with the fire of a thousand suns, so I’ll be there for all five of his films—The Road Back and Showboat, of course, as well as Remember Last Night?, The Kiss Before the Mirror and By Candlelight. Among them, they offer a good sampling of his strengths: long, languid tracking shots that loom in for a more intimate view, effortless sophistication, a deep humanity, and an unabashed but grown-up romanticism. The former set designer was also stylistically adventurous; when he decks out a drawing room, you want to move in. That’s especially true in the dark and sumptuous The Kiss Before the Mirror, which opens with a long, winding shot of Walter Pidgeon’s flat as he prepares for a tryst with Gloria Stuart. Walter’s never been my idea of a dream date, but I’d have an affair with him just for that apartment. The other two lesser-known titles—Remember Last Night? with a baby-faced Robert Young and By Candlelight, starring Paul Lukas as a somewhat oily leading man—are luscious confections deserving of more attention.
- Three dark, edgy dramas from Cahn: A brand-new print of Law and Order, a gangster film disguised as a western starring Walter Huston and co-written by his son John; Afraid to Talk, perhaps the most cynical crime drama of the era, where pretty much the whole town’s on the take including the district attorney; and Laughter in Hell, which opens with Pat O’Brien killing his wife and her lover and careens downhill from there. “It’s very much along the lines of La Bete Humaine,” said Kehr. “They cut the last reel because it was too much. It was so grim it pretty much ended Cahn’s career. He wound up directing the Little Rascals.”
- A House Divided. Wyler, who started at Universal as a messenger in 1923, was already a potent creative force just eight years later. Part Ibsen and part Freud with a heavy dose of Oedipus thrown in for good measure, the film stars Walter Huston as a brutal fisherman, Kent Douglass as his (what else?) sensitive son, and the fragile and luminous Helen Chandler as Huston’s mail-order bride (whom he sends for roughly 15 minutes after losing his wife). If you know Wyler mostly from his later, lusher work, this stark drama might surprise you. “Wyler was a better director before he met Sam Goldwyn,” mused Kehr. Well, certainly a grittier one: the film starts out bleak and literally descends from there, following Huston’s character to the floor when he’s laid low with a grievous injury.
- The Good Fairy. Wyler directed the studio’s biggest non-horror star, Margaret Sullavan, in Preston Sturges’s adaptation of Ferenc Molnár’s bonbon about a woman who invents a husband to protect herself from her predatory millionaire (Frank Morgan)—only to meet a struggling barrister with the same name (Herbert Marshall). This is Marshall at the height of his champagne sparkle, before he was relegated to stuffier roles. But in real life, Wyler got the girl, marrying Sullavan during the shoot.
- There’s Always Tomorrow. Later remade with Fred MacMurray and Barbara Stanwyck, this early version stars Frank Morgan as a middle-aged, neglected executive and Binnie Barnes as a former employee who’s always been in love with him. “By the early thirties, Morgan was already starting to age out of leading man roles, but he had that brief period…” said Kehr, his voice drifting off. “And he’s just incredible in this.”
- The Last Warning. German director Paul Leni helped set the style for Universal’s classic horror films, with works like The Cat and the Canary and The Man Who Laughs. His final effort, a lavish murder mystery set backstage at a Broadway play, has been digitally restored and will feature a live piano score.
- Seed was the first of what I call Stahl’s “reluctant adultery trilogy”—sure, these people are stepping out on their spouses, but they feel really, really bad about it. No Pre-Code casually-falling-into-bed romps for these folks. In Seed, the guilt-racked husband (John Boles) strays with the subtly spectacular Genevieve Tobin, and really, who can blame him? (Well, his daughter, a gaspingly young Bette Davis, for starters.) Stahl followed up with Back Street and Only Yesterday, which are also in this series. Both are terrific films, but require a high tolerance for women who drive you insane with their self-sacrifice. Honestly, you’ll want to reach through the screen and shake them, early and often.
- Little Man, What Now? Frank Borzage’s only film for Universal stars Margaret Sullavan and Douglass Montgomery (formerly Kent Douglass) as a secretly married couple struggling through the poverty of post-war Germany. The backdrop of rising militarism, though only hinted at, makes this one of the earliest American films to even allude to the Nazis. Borzage and Sullavan would later reteam at MGM for three much more highly polished affairs: Three Comrades, The Shining Hour and The Mortal Storm. But this earthier film, with the director’s classic love-over-adversity theme at its heart, shows them both at their best.
- Two early Lew Ayres films. Before he got all wholesome and earnest on us, Ayres had a bit of an edge, which is very much on display in Garnett’s breakneck-paced Okay, America, loosely based on the life and times of Walter Winchell, and Monta Bell’s Up for Murder, about a naïve young reporter who becomes entangled with his publisher’s jaded mistress (Genevieve Tobin). Both are steeped in the kind of gaudily corrupt urban stew that was something of an obsession for Junior.
Here’s the link to the entire series. If you make it there, look for me. I’ll be the woman with the wrinkled dress and mussy hair—from sleeping behind the bar at the pub across the street between films, just to make sure I don’t miss anything.
All photos courtesy of the Museum of Modern Art; all rights reserved.
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