Few festivals present a selection as thematically and stylistically eclectic as To Save and Project. The seventeenth edition of the Museum of Modern Art’s celebration of film preservation, opening today and running through January 22, offers Technicolor horror, a rediscovered French master, Thai musical numbers, gritty documentaries, Australian melodrama, and home movies by amateurs and cinema legends alike. The headliners this year are the premieres of two new restorations of silent features from MoMA’s archive, D. W. Griffith’s Isn’t Life Wonderful (1924) and Raoul Walsh’s Loves of Carmen (1927).
Adapting a story about a Polish orphan in Berlin by British soldier and writer Geoffrey Moss, Griffith shot most of Isn’t Life Wonderful on location in Germany, a country still reeling from the devastation of the First World War. While Daniel Eagan heartily recommends dozens of films in this year’s program in his overview for Boxoffice Pro, Isn’t Life Wonderful isn’t one of them. “Technically the film feels more dated than those he had made ten years earlier,” finds Eagan, though he does add that the film “has its defenders.” Among them would be Mordaunt Hall, who reviewed Isn’t Life Wonderful for the New York Times when it opened at the famed (and now long gone) Rivoli Theatre nearly a century ago: “Through countless deft and effective touches in this simple yet deeply stirring narrative, Mr. Griffith again proves himself a brilliant director.”
Three years later, Hall wrote up another rave for Loves of Carmen, Walsh’s second adaptation of Prosper Mérimée’s novella. Hall was particularly taken by Dolores Del Rio, who had become one of Hollywood’s first Latinx stars the year before in Walsh’s What Price Glory?: “The alluring Miss Del Rio, with her bright eyes, pretty lips, and lithe figure, gives a decidedly unrestrained portrait of the faithless creature.” Loves of Carmen was the Fox Film Corporation’s biggest hit of 1927, and yet, astonishingly, no domestic prints survive. MoMA has reconstructed the film from an export version preserved by the National Film Archive of the Czech Republic. Screening before Carmen will be Fred L. Guiol’s twenty-minute Duck Soup (1927), which features the first on-screen pairing of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy.
Before we move on from the 1920s, let’s note that preservationist Rob Byrne will introduce Saturday’s screening of Clarence Brown’s The Signal Tower (1924), “a railroad drama made by a man who loved railroads,” as film historian Kevin Brownlow put it an essay for last spring’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival. MoMA will also present The Cheaters (1929), a troubled production from the McDonagh sisters—director Paulette, producer Phyllis, and star Isabel, billed as Marie Lorraine—whose first feature, Those Who Love (1926), was a bigger hit in Australia than Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. The Cheaters hit a snag when the McDonaghs tried to convert it into a talkie, so we can be grateful that Australia’s National Film and Sound Archive has restored the original silent version.
The National Film Archive in Prague won the award for best restoration at last year’s Venice Film Festival for its work on Gustav Machatý’s Ecstasy (1933). Young Hedy Kiesler, before she became Hedy Lamarr, plays a newlywed who finds sexual fulfillment not in her aging husband but in a strapping construction engineer. “Machatý’s gift for visual synecdoche has never been sharper than it is here in his symphonies of trembling bosom and parted lips,” wrote Nick Pinkerton for Artforum in 2017. Also from 1933, Michael Curtiz’s Mystery of the Wax Museum would make for a fine half of a double bill on January 17 or 20 with Roger Corman’s The Masque of the Red Death (1964), shot by Nicolas Roeg, the cinematographer and future director with a penchant for vivid reds.
For the New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg talks with Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg, who has overseen restorations of La belle de nuit (1934) and Escale (Thirteen Days of Love, 1935), directed by the long forgotten Louis Valray. La belle, the story of a playwright taking revenge on his wife and her lover, is “a film stunningly ahead of its time,” writes Kenigsberg. “The use of sound (cutting from a dog’s yapping to a train’s steam whistle, for instance) rivals that of Orson Welles several years later; the shadows of the back streets of Toulon anticipate film noir. If Thirteen Days of Love is a lesser film—an attempt, Bromberg said, to recapture the magic of La belle de nuit—that doesn’t make Valray any less a director in need of serious rediscovery.”
Kenigsberg also recommends Timité Bassori’s The Woman with the Knife, a “brisk 1969 Ivorian feature” about a young man haunted by visions of an angry woman, and talks with Suzanne Desrocher-Romero, the widow of Night of the Living Dead director George A. Romero, about The Amusement Park (1973), Romero’s hour-long public service announcement about the pain inflicted on the elderly by everyday ageism.
A few years ago, the New Yorker’s Richard Brody included Strange Victory (1948), Leo Hurwitz’s disturbing study of racism in postwar America, on his list of the best documentaries of all time. This week, Brody writes briefly about MoMA’s program of three short films Hurwitz made in the 1950s after he was blacklisted. Brody notes that two of them, Emergency Ward (1952) and The Young Fighter (1953), were shot with a camera that allowed for synchronized sound recording “nearly a decade before the rise of cinéma vérité.” Both films, he writes, “reach far beyond their nominal subjects to present a sort of anthropology on the wing—a living history of gestures, inflections, and mores.” In 1972, Symbiopsychotaxiplasm director William Greaves shot Nationtime—Gary, a documentary about that year’s National Black Political Convention featuring such luminaries as Jesse Jackson, Dick Gregory, Coretta Scott King, and Amiri Baraka and narrated by Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte. MoMA notes that the film, considered “too militant” for television at the time, now returns in a new 4K restoration.
From Friday through Sunday, a good handful of To Save and Project programs will roll out as part of Home Movie Weekend, an event presented in conjunction with the hundred-screen exhibition Private Lives Public Spaces, currently on view through July 5. Along with amateur films drawn from the National Film Registry and a collection of films shot by Diné (Navajo) students in 1966, MoMA will screen home movies by Stan Brakhage, Ken Jacobs, and Jan Oxenberg. And next week will offer Thai director Cherd Songsri’s The Scar (1977), featuring “musical numbers and sword fights among the lyrical melodrama,” and Roma (1972), one of Paolo Sorrentino’s favorite films by Federico Fellini. January 20 will mark the hundredth anniversary of Fellini’s birth, and as Daniel Eagan notes, Roma will give New Yorkers “an early taste of a complete Fellini retrospective screening at MoMA in December.”
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