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Present Past at the Academy Museum

May McAvoy and Ronald Colman in Ernst Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925)

On December 1, the world premiere of the Academy Film Archive’s new restoration of Sam Newfield’s Harlem on the Prairie (1937), a musical western with an all-Black cast, will open Present Past, the Academy Museum’s first festival of preservation. Herbert Jeffrey, a singer with the Earl Hines Orchestra who would later record with the Duke Ellington Orchestra and become known to movie fans as the Bronze Buckaroo, makes his on-screen debut as a crooning cowboy. The hourlong oater also features Spencer Williams, the future director of The Blood of Jesus (1941); the Four Tones, a popular doo-wop quartet; and the comedy team of Mantan Moreland and Flournoy E. Miller.

Counting shorts, a total of fifty films will screen in Los Angeles through December 19. Highlights from the silent era include two gems from Ernst Lubitsch, Forbidden Paradise (1924), starring Pola Negri as Catherine the Great, and Lady Windermere’s Fan (1925), an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1892 play. When Kristin Thompson put the latter on her list of the ten best films of 1925, she noted that it “arguably ranks alongside Trouble in Paradise and The Shop Around the Corner as one of the best films of his entire career.”

Anyone curious as to how Lady Windermere’s Fan was received in its day might turn to literary giant Edmund Wilson, who reviewed the film in the March 24, 1926, issue of the New Republic: “Mr. Lubitsch has cleared away the sparkle of wit and the atmosphere of cynicism which formerly obscured and made tolerable Wilde’s highly conventional comedy; but he has clothed it in such beautiful photography and directed it with so much resource that he has turned out a very attractive film.” Lubitsch’s “ingenuity, his great knack of presenting commonplace incidents from inobvious and illuminating angles, through less amusing than in Kiss Me Again, is as effective as ever. At one of the first showings of Lady Windermere’s Fan, one had an interesting demonstration of another phase of Lubitsch’s genius—his ability to make his actors carry out his ideas.”

The Present Past lineup includes two features we took a look at when they screened last month at the New York Film Festival, Pedro Costa’s O sangue (1989) and Cauleen Smith’s Drylongso (1998). Smith will be at the Museum to discuss Drylongso and her 1990 short, Daily Rains, which K. J. Relth-Miller, an associate director at the Museum, calls “a measured, poetic work that confronts head-on the micro- and macro-aggressions faced by young Black women.”

When Lizzie Borden’s first film, the documentary Regrouping (1976), screened in New York this summer, 4Columns film editor Melissa Anderson called it “an essential study of opposition: to the patriarchy, to the filmmaker, to the notion of a harmonious ‘sisterhood.’ The inaugural installment of what critic So Mayer has called Borden’s ‘New York Feminisms Trilogy’—which includes Born in Flames (1983) and Working Girls (1986)—Regrouping tracks not only the splintering of a cadre but also the breakdown of the filmmaking process itself.”

After Lee Grant was removed from the blacklist in 1964, she not only appeared in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967) but also attended the American Film Institute’s first Directing Workshop for Women. For her first short, she cast Susan Strasberg and Dolores Dorn in The Stronger (1976), an adaptation of August Strindberg’s 1889 play. Writing for the Notebook, Madelyn Sutton calls Grant’s first feature, Tell Me a Riddle (1980), “a devastating portrait of an aging immigrant couple coping with the ravages of time, conformity to patriarchal society, persistent trauma, and the ultimate unknowability of the other.”

In 1982, Andrei Tarkovsky left Russia for Italy, where he made Nostalghia, which premiered at Cannes the following year. Tarkovsky “always insisted on the untranslated title, a term for a distinct Russian melancholy—or even illness—that, he explained, ‘can only be contracted in a foreign country,’” wrote J. Hoberman in the New York Times in 2014. “If Nostalghia is not Tarkovsky’s most personal film, it is arguably his most self-reflexive. He articulates his own uncertain condition. Nostalghia lacks the confidence of his Soviet films. The artist tries too hard to impress—and yet his mastery of the medium is such that he succeeds.”

Joe Dante and producer Jon Davison will be on hand when the Museum presents the world premiere of the American Genre Film Archive’s new restoration of The Movie Orgy (1968), a malleable supercut of found footage that has varied in shape and length over the years as it has toured college campuses and repertory theaters. This new version runs 222 minutes.

Writing for the New York Times in 2011, Dave Kehr called The Movie Orgy “a hilarious metamovie in which five or six stories seem to be going on at once (giant grasshoppers invade Chicago, as flying saucers attack Washington), constantly interrupted by prom night dos and don’ts, stomach-churning commercials for laxative pills, and disturbing excerpts from children’s television shows (including a stuffed cat and mouse who perform ‘Jesus Loves Me’ on piano and drums). In the wild juxtapositions, the outlines of two future careers are apparent: Mr. Dante’s as a director (Gremlins) and Mr. Davison’s as a producer (Airplane!).”

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