Myrna Loy's lost film -- part of a trend to restore discarded movies

Although she may not be a household name to younger viewers, Myrna Loy has graced the screen longer than almost anybody else. She is the only major living actress, according to her latest publicity, who has starred in films during every decade from the '20s on -- since Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis came along in the '30s, and Lillian Gish skipped a decade or two along the way. During all this time, Miss Loy never won an Oscar nomination. Belatedly making up for this, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has organized a tribute to her, scheduled for tonight at Carnegie Hall. Fellow stars will pay their respects and highlights from her career will be screened. Proceeds will go to the Academy Foundation's education and film-preservation programs.

The centerpiece of the evening will be a showing of ``The Animal Kingdom,'' a Loy vehicle thought for many years to be lost. Produced in 1932 by David O. Selznick, it indicates the flexibility that has contributed to Loy's staying power: Her portrayal of a wife in a rocky marriage marked her turnaround from Fu Manchu-type films to hefty, sophisticated pictures like ``The Thin Man.''

Other aspects of the movie are less impressive. The top-billed players, Leslie Howard and Ann Harding, have their moments as Loy's unconventional husband and his true love; but the supporting performances are contrived and the visual style of director Edward H. Griffith epitomizes the static, stagy qualities of the very worst early talkies. Loy generally keeps her dignity, though, making the film (based on a Philip Barry play) a reasonable if not inspired monument to her early career.

The revival of ``The Animal Kingdom'' also points up the recent trend toward rediscovering and restoring movies that were discarded in the days when commercially played-out features were considered mere rubbish. ``The Animal Kingdom'' dropped from sight after its original distributor, RKO, sold it to Warner Brothers for a remake.

It stayed ``lost'' until a print was stumbled on by an archivist hunting down footage for the academy's reconstruction of ``A Star Is Born,'' which played in theaters a couple of years ago.

Lost or mutilated oldies don't always live up to expectations when restored. But it's good to know that Hollywood's heritage is being actively explored and revived. Who knows when a real treasure might turn up?

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