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The Arts Voyager, 3-17: Take Two
Auto-Remakes at Anthology: Twice as Nice

Raoul Walsh's 1941 "High Sierra" (above, with Humphrey Bogart at left), as well as his re-cast 1949 remake "Colorado Territory" starring Joel McCrea, are part of the Auto-Remakes series showing at Anthology Film Archives March 18-31. Image courtesy Warner Brothers.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Why would the art voyager want to spend any part of an excursion inside a darkened room watching movies? Because the films in question can't be seen anywhere else. What's unique about Anthology Film Archives -- even as big-city cinematheques go, including its European counterparts -- is that since its founding more than 40 years ago by internationally renowned avant-garde director Jonas Mekas, the very curatorial focus and encadring of the programming has provided an outlet for films rarely seen anywhere else, 'old' and new, an eclectic sampling all of which usually have at least one thing to offer for every ardent cinephile. And where other major cinematheques -- notably the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris and the Institute Lumiere in Lyon, where films are shown in the former hanger of the supposed first film, shot by the Lumiere brothers -- seem to program with at least an eye to marketability, Anthology follows its own muse which, because it was formulated in its foundation by Mekas, is designed to appeal to the most exacting cinephile. Although Anthology does regularly feature classics like Renoir's "Rules of the Game" and Eisenstein's "Ivan the Terrible, Parts 1 & 2" under the rubric "Essential Cinema," this is not a place where you go merely to see old favorites. (The Institute Lumiere's current major attraction is... a Hitchcock Festival.) Rather, the core of Anthology's mission seems to be consistently turning up films that even die-hard cinephiles have never seen before. (As well as new films you haven't heard of yet... and perhaps never would if not for Anthology.) One of the ways it does this is by thematic festivals that, because they are not tied to one director -- or even one epoch -- offer an eclectic menu, a celluloid kaleidescope sure to turn up a novelty for every taste, even for amateur experts. Auto-Remakes, opening Friday and running through March 31 at Anthology's 2nd Ave. and 2nd Street East Village digs and focusing on directors' attempts to remake their own films, is one such cornucopia.

You've probably seen Leo McCarey's 1957 "An Affair to Remember," starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr as lovers whose history is almost deterred by a serious accident outside the Empire State Building; if you're a New Yorker and haven't, you should probably have your local citizenship revoked. But have you seen "Love Affair," McCarey's 1939 initial swing at the tale, with Charles Boyer and Irene Dunne? (I haven't, but I have seen "Nearest to Heaven" / Au Plus Pres du Paradis, Tonie Marshall's 2002 bilingual tribute to the film, starring Catherine Deneuve and William Hurt, which revolves around the central fateful Empire State RDV.) Both are screening at Anthology Saturday (for separate admission charges, as is the case with all the pairings) and again March 28.

I thought I knew everything there was to know about he filmography of Joel McCrea and Humphrey Bogart until I looked at the Auto-Remake schedule for March 23, 25, and 29, which is when Anthology will be screening Raoul Walsh's 1941 Bogart vehicle "High Sierra" and his 1949 re-casting "Colorado Territory," which also re-casts the story as a Western, pairing perhaps the best actor among late '40s and '50s Westerns, McCrea, with the archetypal female foil of the genre during the period, the sensational flaming redhead Virginia Mayo.


Howard Hawks later re-made the 1941 "Ball of Fire" (above, with Gary Cooper) in 1948 as "A Song as Born," this time with a jazz motif. Image courtesy Anthology Film Archives.

Indeed, I knew Mayo mostly as a femme de '50s Westerns until Anthology let me preview its upcoming screening of the 1948 "A Song is Born," in which Howard Hawks -- the renaissance director of all genres of '40s and '50s cinema if ever there was one -- remade his own 1941 "Ball of Fire." The unifying premise of both films is a group of stuffy academics working on an encyclopedia, for which work they get unexpected help from an authentic street source -- a doll, of course. In the earlier film, Gary Cooper's eggheads putting together a slang dictionary call on new boarder Barbara Stanwyck for counsel. In the latter, Danny Kaye's team, nine years into an encyclopedia of music, for which work they've sequestered themselves in a mansion belonging to the foundation funding the project, suddenly finds out about jazz, grace of a couple of (black) window-washers. Kaye, notebook in hand, ventures out to New York nightclubs, discovering (in 1948, stretching the bounds of credibility), Louis Armstrong, Tommy Dorsey, Lionel Hampton, Mel Powell, and others. He invites them, as well as Mayo -- who plays a smokey-voiced 'blues' singer, a la Lee Wiley, cum mob moll -- back to the mansion to consult and jam, whereupon they're joined by one of the professors, played by Benny Goodman as a sort of ringer finding he has a hidden talent as a jazz clarinetist. If the musical curating here has the air of being a bit behind the curve -- these guys were new in 1928; in 1948, the be-bop of Dizz and Bird would have been more apt -- and if it doesn't come close to 1943's "Stormy Weather" (Fats Waller, Lena Horne, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway, and many others) or even 1940's "Second Chorus" (Fred Astaire and Artie Shaw) in musical potency, it still furnishes a rare opportunity to see some of the giants of early 20th century jazz jam together. And jazz is nicely worked into the plot, the show-stopping ultimate jam also being used to defeat the bad guys with a big bang.

Auto-Remakes also pairs Ernst Lubitsch's 1924 sex farce "The Marriage Circle" with what became its 1932 remake "One Hour With You," Yasuro Ozu's "I was Born, but..." from 1932 with 1959's "Good Morning," and, if you must have your Hitchcock, the inevitable "Man Who Knew Too Much" twins, born 22 years apart (1934 and 1956), with technicolor and Doris Day's "Que sera, sera," not to mention Jimmy Stewart, providing the major additions of the second take. And while we're still in technicolor, a shout needs to go out to Nathalie Kalmus, the color supervisor for "Song is Born" as she was for just about every other film made in technicolor from 1934 to 1949, her husband Herbert having invented it. The other joy of "Song is Born" is to see all these jazz legends in living color. For those who like to take their voyages in film on a more adventurous plane, they might want to delve into Ken Jacobs's triptych of films and video showing March 27, and built around a reconstruction and dissection of the 1905 biograph short "Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son," with Jacobs splicing and dicing to take the filmgoer on a fantastic voyage into the making of a film, doing on a micro scale what Jonas Mekas and his Anthology team have been doing on a macro scale for more than 40 years.


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