NEW YORK — FANS of old movies: Would you like to see Greta Garbo in "The Divine Woman," made by MGM in 1928? Or would you prefer Gary Cooper and Fay Wray in "Legion of the Condemned," released the same year - or maybe Laurel and Hardy in "The Rogue Song," a 1930 color film directed by none other than Lionel Barrymore?
Don't get your hopes up. These juicy-sounding gems are among the thousands of movies that have been lost because nobody bothered to preserve a copy or two - or, even worse, because a studio purposely destroyed them to make room in a storage vault, or to reclaim raw material from the filmstrips.
Fortunately, a growing number of movie lovers have recognized the need for film preservation, and steps are being taken to rectify the situation. Among the heroes of this effort is filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who has taken time away from directing his own projects - such as "GoodFellas," a recent hit, and "The Age of Innocence," coming soon - to establish the Film Foundation, an organization devoted to restoring endangered movies that might otherwise join the list of lost productions.
Now cable television is joining in this good fight. For three days, beginning tomorrow, the American Movie Classics channel (AMC) is collaborating with the Film Foundation for a Film Preservation Festival designed to spotlight recent preservation activities. The schedule includes a number of attention-worthy movies that would probably be unavailable today if the Film Foundation hadn't rescued them from the disintegration that motion-picture film undergoes if not appropriately handled and stored.
Among the most historically interesting works on the agenda is Rouben Mamoulian's celebrated "Becky Sharp," shot with the brand-new Technicolor process in 1935 and praised ever since for its expressive use of color values.
No complete Technicolor print or negative could be found by preservation workers, according to AMC, so a global search was needed to locate various imperfect copies from which a close facsimile of the original film (if not an ideal re-creation) could be assembled. "Becky Sharp" will have its national TV premiere during the AMC festival.
Among the other attractions on the three-day schedule are:
* Showings of more than 25 feature films that have undergone restoration procedures, including two never shown on TV in this form - "The Big Trail," the western that made John Wayne a star, and "His Girl Friday," one of the fastest and funniest comedies in Hollywood history.
* An unusual "Silent Saturday Segment" with four movies produced before the age of talkies, including Charles Chaplin's classic "The Gold Rush" and Cecil B. DeMille's original "The Ten Commandments."
* A number of short movies grouped under the categories of music, comedy, and industrial film, narrated by experts in each of these fields.
* A documentary on film preservation called "Nitrate Won't Wait," various specials on aspects of film restoration, and short documentaries on the five motion-picture archives that are being helped by AMC's activity.
Along with Mr. Scorsese, the Film Foundation's board of directors includes an impressive roster of movie-world figures ranging from Steven Spielberg and George Lucas to Stanley Kubrick and Francis Ford Coppola. Their efforts are urgently needed, given that half of the 21,000 feature films completed in the United States before 1951 - and more than 90 percent of all silent movies - have already been lost.
This is one film festival that deserves the attention and support of moviegoers everywhere. Hats off to AMC, which promises to make it a yearly event.