Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Rare screening of almost the last Universal picture

By Rick Mitchell

As part of its Douglas Sirk retrospective, the American Cinematheque is screening A TIME TO LOVE AND A TIME TO DIE at the Egyptian on Sat. Mar. 3 at 6 pm and at the Aero in Santa Monica on Wed. Mar. 23 at 7:30. According to a number of people I've spoken to who were working there in 1957-58, this could have been the last picture the studio made.

Though only one of them had a theater chain in the late Forties, Universal, RKO, and Republic were the companies most impacted by the post-1946 box office decline, and especially the closing of so many small town theaters, which was their primary market. With the interest in epic films caused by the wide screen revolution, Universal decided to bank everything on Erich Maria Remarque's World War II set followup to its most prestigious film, its adaptation of his ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (1930), directed by its then number one director Sirk, photographed, supposedly entirely on location in Germany in CinemaScope by Russell Metty, ASC (I've never seen the film and so don't know about any uncredited guest appearances by the back lot, good ole Bronson Canyon, or any other local locations), but compromised by a cast of contract players headed by John Gavin instead of the more marketable Rock Hudson. Although pre-production apparently continued on IMITATION OF LIFE and SPARTACUS, studio scuttlebutt had it that when the studio essentially shut down in March, 1958 for the annual inventory tax hiatus, whether or not it would reopen would depend on the commercial reception to A TIME TO LOVE... when it opened around that time. The reaction was negative and the studio was set to go in the direction of RKO the previous year and Republic later that year when MCA stepped in to buy the lot, moving its tv operations over from Republic and accelerating that studio's end. Allowed to just lease space on the lot for its operations and thus relieved of that overhead drag on its finances, Universal Pictures (OK, Universal-International) was able to hang in until IMITATION OF LIFE, PILLOW TALK, and OPERATION PETTICOAT headed a reversal in its corporate fortunes.

A TIME TO LOVE, for which Miklos Rozsa was borrowed from MGM to do his last score for the company, had a stereo dub for its premiere engagements; I once saw a 4 track print in a projection booth at the studio. (It would probably be just a three channel dub like that of THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS as even Fox was apparently not using the surround channel that much after 1955.) However, unless the making of some prints was subcontracted to Technicolor, a practice at the time which explains the existence of IB prints of certain titles credited to other labs, the original release prints were color positive struck by Pathe, so the Cinematheque's print is likely to be a new restoration. Unless it fell victim to vinegar syndrome, Universal is likely to have that stereo master (strangely, for them, they never threw anything away but the negatives to their silent films), but I don't know if they went so far as to do a Dolby SR optical negative, though they've probably done something for the ultimate DVD release. Inquiring minds would like to know.


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