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This article by Phyllis Spiegel was prepared for the January 11, 2006
issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Looking at Jimmy, Post WWII
`The program includes something for every member of the family," says
Bruce Lawton, a motion picture archivist and historian and presenter
of "Post-World War II Films of James Stewart," a film series that
takes place at the Princeton Public Library on Saturday, January 14,
and Saturday, February 18. The January 14 program, is a triple feature
movie marathon. "Only the most stalwart will sit through all three
films," says Lawton, who recommends "Rope" (1 p.m.) and "Winchester
`73" (3 p.m.) for audiences from the early teen years on, and says
"The Spirit of St. Louis" (7 p.m.) will be enjoyed by all age groups.
(The February 18 program will screen "Jackpot" and "Harvey.")
Lawton, 37, who will introduce each film with historical and critical
remarks and host a question and answer session afterwards, points out
the Princeton connection to these programs. "James Stewart was
Princeton, Class of 1932, and was one of the many famous performers
who appeared in McCarter Theater productions. He performed in the 1931
Triangle Club Show at McCarter before he went on to summer stock and
then to a luminous Hollywood career.
"Upon his return from service in WWII, Stewart didn’t know whether he
was an unemployed actor or an unemployed pilot," Lawton says. "He was
at sixes and sevens for quite a while, wondering whether he was still
relevant or even wanted in Hollywood. Stewart’s role choices after the
war were interesting and varied, running the gamut from whimsical
comedy to hardhitting drama, but always showcasing the many facets of
the human condiditon in the American everyman." According to Lawton,
director Frank Capra experienced a similar dilemma after retuning from
his service, and he and Stewart soon collaborated on the independent
production, "It’s a Wonderful Life."
"Rope," a 1948 Hitchcock production, was the first film the two
Hollywood luminaries made in color. "Everyone knows `Rear Window’ and
`Vertigo,’" he says, "but this movie is less well known and
unheralded. To me, `Rope’ is ahead of its time. Its somewhat morbid
subject matter and experimental nature put people off in its time, but
I find it riveting. This is a superb piece of film making from both
sides of the camera that really works, a tight 80-minute film that I
hope will attract more fans in Princeton to join the growing cult who
appreciates it." "Rope" tells the story of two highly impressionable
young men who, fueled by the cynical teachings of their onetime
philosophy professor (Stewart), commit a thrill murder in their
apartment. They then prepare for a party to which the victim’s
parents, girlfriend, rival as well as the professor have been invited
– with the corpse concealed nearby.
"Winchester `73," which runs about two and a half hours, is the first
post-World WarII Western Stewart made after returning from the Air
Force as a multi-decorated Brigadier General. According to Lawton,
Stewart was the first Hollywood star to enlist in the armed forces.
This gritty western is often cited as the example that shows that he
can move beyond the "smooth guy" typecasting of his earlier work.
`The Spirit of St. Louis," made in 1957, tells the story of Charles
Lindbergh’s pioneering trans-Atlantic flight. Lindbergh was the
boyhood hero of both Stewart and director Billy Wilder, who departed
from his sophisticated comedies for this historic story.
Film historian Bruce Lawton’s life has always revolved around film.
He believes that the roots of his career choice are both genetic and
environmental. The oldest of eight children, he was born in Scarsdale,
New York, where his maternal grandfather, Karl Malkames, has a 20-seat
screening room in the basement – "a home theater before anyone thought
of such a thing," Lawton says, "with the same kind of 35-millimeter
projectors that are still used in commercial theaters." Karl Malkames,
it seems, was actually a second-generation film buff. His father, Don
Malkames, was a cinematographer in the days of silent movies. He took
himself to Hollywood when he was 18 and worked with stars like Clara
Bow, Lillian Gish, and Gloria Swanson.
Karl, now 80, and still active in the film industry, is known for a
successful career as a cinematographer as well as a film restoration
specialist and for designing and building machinery that helped save
many of the earliest films for the Museum of Modern Art and other
organizations. In the 1970s he did all the film preservation work for
the Silent Years series, hosted by Orson Welles and Lillian Gish on
Lawton’s great-grandfather, Don Malkames, was also involved with the
saving of early film history and also had a theater in his basement in
Yonkers, New York, where he kept a museum of antique cinemachinery.
Over the years, the family has assembled a collection of vintage
cameras, projectors, and other equipment, as well as countless films,
posters, and print material relevant to the industry.
Lawton’s earliest film memory, when he was three or four, is of being
dropped off at his grandfather’s house so his parents could have an
evening out. "He’d take me downstairs and run Chaplin and Laurel &
Hardy films. To this day, these are my favorites," he says, adding
that Chaplin’s "Modern Times" is his all-time favorite film. In fact,
it is this interest in Chaplin that brought him and his wife, Alice
Artzt, a world-renowned classical guitarist, together. Called
"America’s best player" by Guitar Magazine, Artzt is also a college
professor (she has taught classic guitar both at Mannes College of
Music in New York and the College of New Jersey). Known as an
authority on the films and music of Chaplin, she is the author of
several books about the star and his work. She now teaches classic
guitar at her private studio in Princeton.
Lawton was chief curator for a motion picture archive in the 1990s in
New York City, where he met Artzt, who grew up in Princeton. It was
through their interest in silent films, especially Chaplin, that their
paths crossed. They were introduced in 1990 by a mutual friend, Bonnie
McCourt, who Lawton says is "the ultimate Chaplin enthusiast." They
married in 1996. In 1999, after Artzt’s mother died, the couple moved
back to Princeton to the home she’d grown up in in the Borough.
At the ripe old age of seven Lawton, says he knew that his career
would be in film. "As for me, college never happened," he says. After
attending public schools in Scarsdale and a Catholic school in Putnam
County, New York, Lawton’s mother home-schooled him for the last three
years of high school under a program provided by the Christian Liberty
Academy. "I was a bright kid in school but I was always bringing in
books on the Marx Brothers and Charlie Chaplin. I couldn’t keep my
mind on anything but movies. I’d have done well in a school like the
High School of Music and Art in New York City but that wasn’t
available to me. So my mother, who had many intellectual interests and
had become highly religious, staying at home and raising this large
family, decided to home school me for most of the high school years."
Lawton says his father, a postal worker and newspaper deliverer, was
highly imaginative and unorthodox. "He gave me permission to dream and
follow my own star," said Lawton.
When Lawton was eight years old, he says, "a famous film historian who
was my grandfather’s friend sent the Chaplin family a drawing I had
done of Charlie after seeing many of his movies. I’m still thrilled
when I think of that."
In the early 1990s, Lawton and a musician friend, Ben Model, teamed up
to produce live silent comedy programs and later organized a company
called Silent Cinema Productions, Inc. to introduce the silent
geniuses such as Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, and others
to new audiences. For several years they have presented 12 programs a
season at the New York Historical Society. "These showings are very
popular with young families in the city," he says. In addition, the
company brings showings to college campuses, museums, libraries, and
other organizations throughout the east.
In his Princeton home, Lawton cares for his large film collection as
one would tend fine wines. "Coolness and dryness is vital," he says.
Through colleagues and contacts, he has access to huge numbers of
films, he says. He works with film laboratories in New York on
restoration and archival maintenance. He has produced and edited
documentaries and presentations for television here and abroad. He has
worked on special material with many companies including
Merchant-Ivory Productions, Jazzmedia, HBO, and Turner Entertainment
as well as on productions on Laurel & Hardy, Buster Keaton, D.W.
Griffith, and Chaplin. He has also worked on rare audio recordings
with Lucie Arnez and with Paramount to review their archival
`It’s important for me to look at today’s films," he says. "I love
seeing the connection between the old and the new – how the techniques
and effects come to life in new and expanded ways. For example, one of
my favorite films is the little-known Coen Brothers’ `The Hudsucker
Proxy,’ with Tim Robbins. I don’t think the public really `got’ this
one." The VideoHound Golden Movie Retriever says the movie "is
peppered with obscure references to numerous points on the historical
map of cinematic style."
Perhaps his second favorite art form is music, and of course, music is
part of all films. Lawton attends concerts and listens to film scores
and to a variety of genres of music – classical, rock and roll, and
the Beatles. Singer Sam Phillips, a Christian artist who has moved
into a more secular mode, is one of his favorites and he heard her
last year live at McCarter Theater.
While Lawton appreciates that the technology of video production has
widened the audience for film, he wants viewers to appreciate the
difference between sitting home amid what he calls "an electronic
droning that can put you to sleep and being in a darkened theater in
the dreamlike state achieved by film being projected on a screen."
Lawton considers himself a missionary, bringing the art form of silent
and classic films to new life. He recently co-produced two DVD
collections for Laughsmith Entertainment: "The Forgotten Films of
Roscoe `Fatty’ Arbuckle’ and "Industrial Strength Keaton." "There are
a lot of forgotten films to be rediscovered, lost generations of
people who haven’t been exposed to early film. I’m excited about the
possibilities of renewing interest within new generations of film
Post World War II Films of James Stewart, Saturday, January 14,
Princeton Public Library, 65 Witherspoon Street. Screening of "Rope"
at 1 p.m.; "Winchester `73" at 3 p.m.; and "The Spirit of St. Louis"
at 7 p.m. Discussion facilitated by film archivist and historian Bruce
Lawton. Continues Saturday, February 18, with "The Jackpot" at 3
p.m., and "Harvey" at 7 p.m. Refreshments will be available at the
library cafe outside the screening room. 609-924-9529.
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