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February Films at Northwestern

Paul Robeson, Greta Garbo, Fay Wray, John Barrymore, to appear on screen

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Leftist and left-leaning films from the 1930s to 1950s and a series of films that helped propel Paul Robeson, Greta Garbo, Fay Wray and John Barrymore to stardom are part of Block Cinema’s February programming. They complement the Block Museum’s current exhibitions. 

Block Cinema screens new and recent films and revered classics throughout the academic year. All films are screened in the James B. Pick and Rosalyn M. Laudati Auditorium at the Mary and Leigh Block Museum of Art, 40 Arts Circle Drive, on Northwestern University’s Evanston campus. 


The Left Front in Film series coincides with the Block Museum’s exhibition, “The Left Front: Radical Art in the ‘Red Decade,’ 1929-1940,” that runs through June 22. Block Cinema presents a film series featuring leftist and left-leaning films that are both Hollywood productions and independent films made outside of the studio system.

The “Picturing Fame: Moving Pictures” series takes its name from another Block Museum winter exhibition, “Steichen|Warhol: Picturing Fame,” that runs through April 6. It examines the legacies of both artists, including their groundbreaking photos of celebrities of their day. “Steichen|Warhol” presents two major gifts of art to the Block Museum. It highlights the donation of 49 vintage photographs by famed photographer Edward Steichen, donated by collectors Richard and Jackie Hollander to the Block in early 2013. It also showcases gifts of Warhol photographs and prints made in 2008 and 2013 by the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. 

These stunning portraits feature many luminaries from the early part of the 20th century, including artists, models, dancers, socialites and prominent actors of both stage and screen. To celebrate the donation, this corresponding film series features many of Steichen’s glamorous portrait sitters in a different light. They bring to life several of the screen actors that Steichen so lovingly captured in his photos and in movies released around the same time that the photographs were taken. 


Unless otherwise noted, general admission to Block Cinema is $6 for the general public or $4 for Block Museum members, Northwestern faculty, staff and students, students from other schools with valid IDs and individuals 65 and older. Quarterly passes are $20. Tickets are available one hour before show time. For more information, call the Block Cinema Hotline at (847) 491-4000 or visit the Block Cinema.


Picturing Fame: Moving Pictures series, “The Emperor Jones,” 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 7 (Dudley Murphy, 1933, United States, 35mm, 105 minutes). For this screen adaptation of Eugene O’Neill’s 1920 play, actor/singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson reprises his star-making role as Brutus Jones from the London stage. Robeson is electrifying here as a Pullman porter who descends into a life of vice and crime, eventually escaping to a Caribbean island where he becomes the corrupt “emperor.” It’s a powerhouse performance, and an unusually complex role for an African-American actor early in the 20th century (note that the film does frequently and controversially use a racial slur, though). O’Neill and Murphy chart Jones’ emotional and psychological transformation, leading to a devastating conclusion.

The Left Front in Film series, “Force of Evil,” 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 8 (Abraham Polonsky, 1948, United States, 35mm, 78 minutes). Featuring a fierce performance by John Garfield as a crooked lawyer involved in the numbers racket in New York City, and stunning black and white cinematography by George Barnes, “Force of Evil” is one of the greatest and darkest films noir of the 1940s. It’s the first film directed by screenwriter and novelist Abraham Polonsky, a committed Marxist, who would not direct another Hollywood feature until 1969’s revisionist western “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here,” following his blacklisting in Hollywood. A film about moral choices, allegiances and the consequence of one’s actions, it proved to be a prescient work. The 35mm restored print is courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive. Preservation funded by The Film Foundation and the Archive Council. 

Picturing Fame: Moving Pictures series, “Grand Hotel,” 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 14 (Edmund Goulding, 1932, United States, 35mm, 112 minutes). Winner of the 1932 Academy Award for Best Picture, “Grand Hotel” is one of MGM’s most lavish early sound productions. Set in an opulent Berlin hotel, the film follows the intersecting lives of several of the establishment’s residents, guests and employees. Greta Garbo stars in a legendary performance (in which she utters the classic line “I want to be alone”), as the weary Russian ballerina Grusinskaya. John Barrymore is The Baron, her would-be suitor, whose fortunes have fallen. Lionel Barrymore and Joan Crawford also appear. This melodrama presents two of Steichen’s subjects, Garbo and John Barrymore, in their best light. The 35mm print is courtesy of the Academy Film Archive.

The Left Front in Film series, “Our Daily Bread,” 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15 (King Vidor, 1934, United States, 35mm, 80 minutes). Amidst looming debts and bills, down-on-their-luck city dwellers, John and Mary Sims (played by Karen Morley, who was later blacklisted), flee the city and try their hand at homesteading. Though they lack farming experience, they are soon joined by other desperate characters, many fleeing the dustbowl, who all pitch in to create a mini socialist utopia via their collective farm. Inspired by a newspaper article, Vidor shopped the idea for the film and was rejected by every major Hollywood studio. Undeterred, Vidor produced this Depression-era classic with his own money. “Our Daily Bread” is a unique film promoting collectivism during America’s economic collapse.

Alice Kaplan Institute for the Humanities Artist-in-Residence Screening: S. Leo Chiang, “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington,” 5:15 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 20 (S. Leo Chiang, 2012, United States, Blu-Ray, 72 minutes). S. Leo Chiang is an Emmy Award-nominated documentarian and is currently a fellow at the Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. His recent documentary, “Mr. Cao Goes to Washington”, won the Inspiration Award at the 2012 Full Frame Documentary Film Festival. His previous film, “A Village Called Versailles,” about the transformation of the Vietnamese American community in post-Katrina New Orleans, picked up eight film festival awards, aired on PBS Independent Lens, and has been acquired by more than 200 universities. Following the screening will be a Q-and-A with the director, moderated by Beth Lew-Williams, visiting assistant professor of history and Asian-American studies, Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.  

Picturing Fame: Moving Pictures series, “King Kong,” 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 21 (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1933, United States, 35mm, 100 minutes). If you’ve seen “King Kong” you already know why you should see it in 35mm on a big screen. If you haven’t seen “King Kong” then you are in for a treat. There are reasons this iconic 80-year-old film still enthralls. Cooper and Schoedsack were positioned to make “Kong,” with the combination of ethnographic documentary experience and their rousing adventure-thriller “The Most Dangerous Game,” made the year before. Willis H. O’Brien’s revolutionary, remarkable stop-motion animation and effects set the standard for decades to come. And lead actress Fay Wray, the beauty for the beast, brought not only her famous scream but also a believably sensitive performance that humanizes Kong and allows for the emotional and tragic ending. The 35mm print is courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The Left Front in Film series, Film & Photo League Shorts + ‘Heart of Spain,” 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 22 (1931-1934, United States, 16mm, approximately 100 minutes). The Film and Photo League was launched in New York in 1930 by a dedicated group of leftist and left-liberal photographers, filmmakers and critics. Branches opened in other cities as the Depression lengthened, with participants documenting the breadlines and Hoovervilles (a popular name for shanty towns built by the homeless during the Great Depression) hunger and unemployment marches, restless protests and disputes. Their films were shown directly to workers’ groups, in union halls or strike headquarters and even outdoors at night. Workers often knew little of similar struggles occurring around the country or abroad, nor of the widespread results of economic crisis and class conflicts. The Film and Photo League films thus became solidifying agents in political education, aiming to inform, to build morale and to agitate. – Anthology Film Archives. This program features a selection of these films as well as the short feature, “Heart of Spain” (1937), documenting the fight against fascism during the Spanish Civil War. Pianist David Drazin will provide live music accompaniment for the silent Film and Photo League short films.

Picturing Fame: Moving Pictures series, “Rebecca,” 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 28 (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940, United States, 35mm, 130 minutes). Hitchcock’s first American film, “Rebecca,” was also his only film to win an Oscar for Best Picture. Based on the novel by Daphne du Maurier, this Gothic thriller tells the story of the second wife (Joan Fontaine) of the recently widowed aristocrat Max de Winter (Laurence Olivier). The new bride lives in the shadow of her husband’s first wife, Rebecca, who died a mysterious death. The sinister housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) torments the second Mrs. De Winters to the brink of madness. Australian-born actress Anderson (seen in a Block Museum Steichen portrait with fellow thespian John Gielgud) spent a majority of her career on stage, but she still gave a number of memorable performances in classic films, including her Oscar-nominated role in “Rebecca.”


A long-term construction project on Northwestern’s south campus has closed vehicle access to the Block Museum and Arts Circle Drive. Free parking is available in the lot directly south of the museum. For directions and parking information, visit the Block Museum.

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