- Posted: 10:25 AM, June 1, 2012
Paramount Pictures is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year -- the studio having long ago reckoned that the 1912 founding of its two principal ancestors, Adolph Zukor's Famous Players and Jesse Lasky's Feature Show production companies, were more important than the 1914 creation of Paramount, the first nationwide distributor and, by the late 1920s, the name of the combined company engineered in a six-way 1918 merger by Zukor.
When Paramount celebrated its 75th anniversary in 1987, there was a six-month retrospective at the Museum of the Modern Art that extensively covered the studio's history, from Zukor's 1912 French acquisition "Queen Elizabeth'' with Sarah Bernardt -- which premiered at the still-extant Lyceum Theatre in Manhattan, not that you'd find a plaque there -- to such then-relatively recent titles as "Chinatown.''
For the centennial though, we're getting "Paramount in the 1970s,'' running from Saturday through July 1 at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens.
Don't get me wrong, there are some very fine films, even if the list isn't especially adventurous (i.e., "Day of the Locust'' and "1900,'' for starters, are missing).
Both "Godfathers'' are playing this weekend, and the lineup includes Hal Asby's "Harold and Maude,'' Peter Bodganovich's "Paper Moon,'' Elaine May's "A New Leaf,'' Walter Hill's "The Warriors,'' Roman Polanski's "The Tenant,'' John Schlesinger's "Marathon Man,'' John Badham's "Saturday Night Fever,'' Peter Yates, "The Friends of Eddie Coyle,'' Robert Altman's "Nashville,'' Terrence Malick's "Days of Heaven'' and David Lynch's "The Elephant Man.''
But why pick just one decade out of the studio's history? Scott Foundas opined in the Village Voice the other day that the 70s were Paramount's peak.
Plenty of cinephiles, including me, think Paramount actually peaked in the 1930s and 1940s, when directors like Ernst Lubitsch, Preston Sturges, Leo McCarey, Cecil B. DeMille, Billy Wilder, Rouben Mamoulian, Elliot Nugent, Frank Tuttle and the criminally underrated Mitchell Leisen were putting a contract list that included Gary Cooper, The Marx Brothers, Miriam Hopkins, Claudette Colbert, Carole Lombard, W.C. Fields, Mae West, Kay Francis, Ruth Chatterton, Frederic March, Sylvia Sidney, Cary Grant, Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake, Ray Milland, Tallulah Bankhead, Charles Laughton, Burns and Allen and Fred MacMurray (just for starters) through their paces.
The press release for the Museum of the Moving Image says Paramount provided archival prints for the series, and that's probably the rub.
Paramount has long seemed vaguely embarrassed that it sold off virtually all of its pre-1950 talkies to MCA (for a ridiculous $28 million) in 1955. With only two major exceptions ("The Buccaneer'' and "The Miracle of Morgan's Creek''), these titles are now owned by Universal Pictures, which is celebrating its own 100th anniversary with a retrospective spanning six decades next month at Film Forum. Paramount seems more interested in promoting titles it can make money from.
Paramount's silents? Most of them (like the 1926 "The Great Gatsby,'' remade twice more by the studio) crumbled to dust in the vaults on Marathon Avenue decades ago, or the nitrate prints were junked at the first sign of deterioration in a single reel. (The only film containing an Oscar-nominated performance not known to exist is Ernst Lubitsch's "The Patriot'' (1928), unseen since Paramount loaned a print to the academy for a 20th-anniversary retrospective in 1947. Most of what's left was salvaged by MOMA, the Library of Congress or UCLA. (Paramount was hardly alone; Universal brass, seeing no value in its silent library, ordered its entirety melted down for its silver content).
During a recent interview about the studio's restoration of "Wings'' (actually outsourced to Warner Bros. Digital Imaging because Paramount laid off its ace restoration expert, Ron Smith), I asked Paramount's vice-president for archives, Andrea Kalas, just how many Paramount silents are known to survive. She's got to know a rough figure, right? She hemmed and hawed about working with "archives around the world'' and changed the subject.
Several years ago, Paramount launched what were labeled a "Centennial Collection'' of DVDs that never went much further than cash cow titles like "Breakfast at Tiffany's'' and "Chinatown'' before the series was abandoned in 2008.
Several of these titles have since turned up on Blu-ray, but for the most part Paramount has decided to ignore its glorious history by licensing its 1950-1980 titles in bulk to Olive Films, which apparently cares about them a lot more than Paramount does.
I'm really not trying to pick on Moving Image, which is ironically in part of what was once Paramount's Long Island Studios. In this financially difficult times, it's hard to resist when a studio comes to you offering its hand-picked titles (like the Film Society of Lincoln Center did a couple of years ago for Fox's dubious "75th anniversary" celebration).
The TCM Classic Film Festival also included a "Paramount in the 70s'' selection, but they also offered the Paramount produced, Universal-controlled "Vertigo'' (long story) and the gorgeous Paramount-sponsored restoration of "Funny Face'' -- the latter showing up at Film Forum later this month.