Marlon Brando, Cecil B. DeMille, Patricia Neal, Preston Sturges, John Wayne, Billy Wilder. Such names that dreams are made on. Cinema dreams.
Now you can dream deep. The Harvard Film Archive is celebrating a centennial moment in cinema history with a blockbuster film series July 13 through Sept. 3.
One hundred years ago July 12 the Famous Players Film Company aired its first production — an imported four-reeler starring Paris-born Sarah Bernhardt as Elizabeth I. It was the beginning of one of the most important movie studios in American history: Paramount Pictures, as it was so named by 1914.
Paramount was the brainchild of Adolph Zukor, a Hungarian immigrant who by age 21 was already a wealthy New York furrier. He was also an early investor in nickelodeons, the 5-cent theaters popular in the first decade of the 20th century. Paramount — with co-founders Jesse L. Lasky and Cecil B. DeMille — helped establish an organizational template for the modern film business, combining production and distribution under one roof.
In 1912, part of the challenge was to lure famous stage actors into a novel, flickering, silent medium. Zukor bought the American rights to “La Reine Elisabeth” (“Queen Elizabeth”), an hourlong film whose main draw was Bernhardt — already 68, but the most famous actress of the 19th century. After that, well-known stage actors — the “famous players” of the company name — flocked to the new medium.
Paramount followed with a star system of its own, cultivating early screen legends like Mary Pickford, Gloria Swanson, and Douglas Fairbanks. The Harvard festival — 40 films in all — shows them off. The earliest, set for Aug. 26, is “The Cheat” (1915), starring 40-year-old Fannie Ward, whose eerily young looks later earned her the title “perennial flapper.” The most recent film in the series is “S.O.B.” (1981), a Blake Edwards vehicle starring Julie Andrews and, in his last film role, William Holden. Fittingly, it’s a spoof of Hollywood.
The festival does not include Bernhardt’s gyrations and chest-clutching in “Elizabeth.” (You can see the whole film here.) But “The Cheat” is even a more perceptive choice. For one, it’s a melodrama that explored infidelity, sexual tension, and interracial romance — themes that Hollywood two decades later had to deal with in a more muted way.
In 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code banned film scenes involving profanity, nudity, drug use, and other forbidden subject matter. It also listed cautionary images, such as a man and a woman in bed together. On Sept. 1, the Harvard festival offers “Hot Saturday,” an all-night marathon of Paramount films shot in “pre-Code” Hollywood.
So brace for — among others — “White Woman,” “She Done Him Wrong,” and “The Wild Party.” The last is a 1929 Clara Bow vehicle set at an all-girl college, complete with a handsome professor (Fredric March) and a costume party with plenty of drinking.
The Harvard Film Archive series, “100 Years of Paramount Pictures,” runs July 13-Sept. 3 at 24 Quincy St., Cambridge. Ticket prices: general admission $9; non-Harvard students, senior citizens, and Harvard faculty and staff $7; and Harvard students free.