West Side Story, one of the all-time biggest Oscar-winning films with 10 in 1961, christened the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences new series, Archival Revival – 25 Years Of The Academy Film Archive, which launched Monday night with the Robert Wise- and Jerome Robbins-directed classic. And if subsequent programs are anywhere near the quality of the 70MM and 6 track stereo sound restored film print shown at the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, movie lovers are in for a real treat for the next couple of months (the series runs through September 12).
This is the kind of thing the Academy does best, and it is good to see they are putting their state-of-the-art theatres to use in showing off the cinematic treasures of their world-class archive that now currently holds more than 190,000 elements including trailers, feature films and innumerable film collections of such icons as Alfred Hitchcock, cinematographer James Wong Howe and documentarian Albert Maysles.
The series, curated by Randy Haberkamp, the Academy’s Managing Director Preservation and Foundation Programs, is an eclectic one with other films unspooling at the Goldwyn, including the campy 1961 Roger Corman produced The Pit And The Pendulum (July 26 with Corman in person); 1982’s The Ballad Of Gregorio Cortez (August 1); the 1952 musical classic Singin’ In The Rain (August 8); a rare restored double bill of 1931’s The Front Page and 1932’s Cock Of The Air (August 15) and 1991’s My Own Private Idaho with director Gus Van Sant in person on September 12. The Linwood Dunn Theatre in Hollywood (at the Academy’s Pickford Center where the archive is stored) will also be the site of some of the programs including a pair of restored silents starring Constance Talmadge (August 11).
It’s not often you will hear the names of movies like The Pit And The Pendulum in the same sentence with Constance Talmadge, but the idea here is to show off a particular kind of treasure housed at the Academy, each with its own unique history and challenge. “Each week we are going to be telling a different archival story. Each week we are going to be celebrating a different test, a different collection, a different donor that is the story of 25 years of collecting and preserving. It is also the story of how wonderfully diverse, how sublime and ridiculous the movies can be,” said Haberkamp, adding that since its beginnings in 1991 when the Board Of Governors approved this project to make a world class archive, the collection has been growing and this is a way to show off some of the more recent achievements. “I assure you we are going to put on the best presentation of each one of these films that you will ever see in a theater in your lifetime. That’s our goal.”
Of course West Side Story and Singin’ In The Rain are much acclaimed audience magnets but seeing them in this kind of pristine condition – and on film – is a rare treat. With West Side, the Academy included an archival short detailing the painstaking six- week shoot of Saul Bass’s famous end title credit sequence done in the form of graffiti on the side of a New York building. It was shot by Linwood Dunn (namesake of the Acad’s Hollywood theatre) and was quite remarkable to see. Haberkamp then moderated a panel with 94-year-old producer (and former Academy President) Walter Mirisch, whose Mirisch Corp made the film, co-stars Russ Tamblyn who played Riff, and George Chakiris in his Oscar-winning role of Bernardo, as well as one of the dancers, Maria Jimenez Henley who told an amazing story of sheer will, detailing how she got her big break at 17 in the film and somehow had to perform rigorous dance sequences just two days after an operation to have her appendix out.
Mirisch noted how relevant the 55-year-old film still is, especially with all that is going on today. “I thought this was an extraordinary opportunity to say something about racial relations in America and to say it in a way that would bring audiences in to see it, and perhaps benefit from the lesson of West Side Story. As you see it now, and connect it with what is happening every week now, it is more topical I think, even than it was at that time,” he said. “My efforts in this direction also included my film In The Heat Of The Night, which I hoped would also reach people with the necessity for the races to come together and stop this senseless warfare. It is discouraging that this lesson still not has been learned and I hope others will continue to fight that battle.” In The Heat Of The Night , like West Side Story, also won the Best Picture Oscar.
At the reception before the movie, I mentioned to Mirisch I probably have seen West Side Story 20 times. In a tribute to the preservation work the Academy is encouraging with their archive he simply replied, “You have never seen it like this”.