Lubitsch at the Stanford

Believe it or not, I went more than 15 years without visiting the Stanford. The problem is geographical; it’s a long drive, often in horrible traffic. I don’t remember when I last visited David Packard’s personal movie palace, but it was before I started writing this blog in 2004.

Saturday afternoon, my wife and I finally got there. I recently read Scott Eyman’s excellent biography, Ernst Lubitsch: Laughter in Paradise, which left me wanting to revisit the great director’s work. A double bill at the Stanford was too much for me to ignore.

The Stanford has been running Lubitsch double bills (along with ” Great British Films”) since mid-January and will continue to do so through March. This weekend, they screened one of my favorite Lubitsch comedies, Design for Living, and one I had not yet seen: The Merry Widow.

Like the Castro, the Stanford is an old movie palace built in the 1920s, still running as a single-screen revival theater. It’s not as large as the Castro, but it’s still very impressive.

The prices are more than reasonable. A ticket costs $7.00. You can buy popcorn for only $2.50.

The Stanford plays a far narrower range of movies than the Castro. It seldom plays anything with subtitles (Kurosawa being the main exception), and as near as I can tell, has never screened a movie made after the mid-1960s.

The theater sticks entirely to 35mm (with occasional 16mm when 35 isn’t available); no digital projection allowed. I realize that a lot of people see that as one of the Stanford’s strengths. I don’t. A lot of classics these days look better on DCP than on any available prints.

On to the movies we saw:

Design for Living

Gary Cooper and Fredric March play Americans in Paris, trying to make names for themselves in the arts. Miriam Hopkins, another American, becomes their friend and muse. She also falls in love with both handsome men, creating an awkward triangle.
Edward Everett Horton plays a disapproving bluenose.

The movie premiered late in 1933; a year later, it couldn’t have been made. Once code enforcement came in, a comedy about a woman juggling two lovers, with no punishment for her sins, would be unthinkable.

Few movies can match Design for Living for sparkly, sophisticated entertainment. Lubitsch can generate laughs from something as simple as a dirty bed. The movie is funny, sexy, and remarkable.

The great Ben Hecht wrote the screenplay, based on a play by Noël Coward. According to Eyman’s biography, Hecht altered the play considerably, so I don’t know who wrote the brilliantly clumsy speech “Immorality may be fun, but it’s not fun enough to take the place of one hundred percent virtue, and three square meals a day.”

I fell in love with Design for Living when I first saw it on Turner Classic Movies ages ago. But Saturday was my first time catching it on the big screen with an audience. My love for the movie only got stronger.

I still give it an A.

The 35mm print was in reasonably good condition, but it wasn’t exceptional.

The Merry Widow

While fun, The Merry Widow can’t compare to Design for Living. A musical based on the Franz Lehár operetta, its plot is too broad and silly for even a Hollywood 30’s musical. By comparison, Top Hat seems plausible. Most of the humor is built around Maurice Chevalier’s infallible ability to seduce women.

Lehár’s music is still beautiful, of course. The new English lyrics – partially written by Lorenz Hart and Richard Rodgers – are fine but not especially clever. I found myself laughing quite a bit, but compared to Design for Living, it felt weak.

This was my first time seeing The Merry Widow. I give it a B.

The 35mm print clearly came from various sources; some shots looked much better than others. The print was often scratched.

The Stanford and geography

The Stanford has a Mightly Wurlitzer pipe organ, used both for silent movies and intermission music. Since we attended the matinee, we only got to hear the organ concert as we left.

We drove home in a pouring rain, on the badly-paved 880 freeway – an experience that reminded us why we so rarely go to the Stanford. It’s a jewel for those who live near Palo Alto. We wish there was a similar jewel in the Berkeley area.

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One thought on “Lubitsch at the Stanford

  1. Glad you made it to one of my favorite venues. Your 880 journey sounds worse than the trips I’ve taken there on 101 or 280. Usually I take CalTrain to get there though.

    Sounds like you saw prints of a below-average quality for the venue. I’ve seen some truly gorgeous ones there (Gigi and The Ghost & Mrs. Muir were recent standouts in that regard). Once in a while they even show nitrate (though as far as I know, not since the 1943 Phantom of the Opera showed in 2012).

    it’s true they don’t often show films made after 1965, but some examples include showing Rio Lobo and El Dorado in a Hawks retro, showing Ran and/or Dersu Uzala in Kurosawa retros, and showing late Satyajit Ray films when they’ve done large series devoted to him (it’s been a while for that, unfortunately.) Packard also seems to approve of the 1970s Agatha Christie adaptations like Murder on the Orient Express (which I’ve seen there) and Death on the Nile (which I haven’t, but recall seeing programmed at least once).

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