Savoring fine old movies: better in theaters than on TV

Have you ever experienced the guilty pleasure of switching on your TV set late at night, flipping the channels, and stumbling on some obscure little movie that really grabs you? You never heard of it. You never heard of the star.m The songs are awful, the acting is worse. And yet you can't quite take your eyes away. . . .

It's a common experience., In the old studio days, Hollywood churned out an enormous number of pictures. The most famous ones -- made at such major studios as Paramount, MGM, and Warner Bros. -- weren't always the best. There were minor studios in those days, too. And there, away from bossy moguls and huge financial risks, some fascinating experiments and bold achievements occurred.

Discovering such hidden treasures is one of the joys of TV watching. Many a viewer has programmed a personalized film festival by checking the listings for favorite B-movie titles and actors that he or she has fortuitously discovered. But it's always an extra treat to see these mini-masterpieces on the silver screen of a real movie theater. That's why everyone, from film buffs to casual channel-hoppers, can rejoice in a new series at the Thalia Cinema here -- an encourage their local movie palaces to consider the same kind of golden-age revivalism.

The program is called "Miracles at the Minors," and it's a celebration of the off-beat and the out-of-the way. The minor Hollywood studios often served as a haven for major directors with cherished "personal projects" that were too risky for the big studios, or for stars who had stumbled into temporary hard times. Though the "Miracles" program contains few famous titles, it's a treasure trove of little-known triumphs -- and occasional wild failures -- by well-known performers and filmmakers. Like your own television set in the wee hours, it's utterly unpredictable.And therein lies the fun.

For example, were else could you see "Driftwood" without commercials? This 1947 beauty features Natalie Wood as a child star, in one of her most obscure performances. It's a melodrama, all right, with every plot device from a plane crash to a love affair, and even a "wonder dog" that saves the heroine's life! Yet it's a humane and touching movie, for all its corniness.

Or take "Moonrise," an old favorite of mine. It's melodrama again, but director Frank Borzage regularly turned melodramatic stories into complex moral parables, by virtue of his ingenious visual style. Hidden complexities also emerge in "Strange Illusion" and "Her Sister's Secret" -- they don't make titles like that any more, do they? -- directed by the underrated Edgar G. Ulmer. And don't forget "The Great Flamarion," with Erich Von Stroheim as a vaudeville sharpshooter who learns the lessons of love too late.

One of the rewards of this series is the chance to check up on old reputations. Does the Von Stroheim image still carry its former weight, positively dripping with stolid Prussian charm? It sure does, even in a piece of fluff like "The Crime of Dr. Crespi," wherein the title character (almost) wreaks a horrible revenge on his rival. Could an old master like John Ford function at a second-rank studio like Republic, away from the moviemaking mainstream? Positively.

Every city should have such a series from time to time, and probably would if moviegoers did more lobbying on behalf of the old classics -- even the forgotten old classics -- as opposed to all the new movies that cost 10 times as much and aren't half as good.

As a Thalia annotator puts it, the minor studios were unique: "Provided a film stayed within its budget, it usually didn't matter how wildly exotic or unconventional it was." The result was a lot of daring fun that has rarely been equaled since the fall of the old Hollywood system. "Miracles at the Minors" provides a deliciously entertaining peek into the old B-hive. Plus, every week, another chapter of John Wayne in "The Hurricane Express"!

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