Sunny California is dark and rainy, just like it so often was in the great film noirs Hollywood churned out in better cinematic times. The atmospheric river that has dispatched days and nights of storms across the state of California this past week and caused flooding in north and south, from mountains to sea, is like a rain-machine on a Warner Brothers soundstage or back lot. Sometimes the downpour is so heavy you can’t see three feet in front of you, but the next minute its bright and sunny—the deluge abating just in time for the closeup. So deftly managed are these sudden scene changes that you’d think it’s got to be a Howard Hawks of a weather god in his director’s chair who’s ordering up the effects as his shooting schedule demands them.
Timed perfectly to coincide with these portentous weather patterns is a series begun last weekend and running through March 3rd at the Stanford Theatre on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto: Humphrey Bogart’s films of the 1940s and 50s.
The movie house hosting the series was built in 1925 as an Orientalist fantasy—a roaring twenties mash-up of what looks to this untrained architectural eye like Greek, Moorish, and Egyptian elements: DeMille’s Ten Commandments (the first one from 1923) meets Valentino’s The Sheikh. This venerable, and now revived movie theatre has always promised escape: tourism to other places or just into other people’s lives—but without the carbon footprint.
The Stanford was restored in the 1980s with money from the Packard Foundation, and under the guidance of David Packard (son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard, also called David). In another bit of fortuitous scheduling, the theatre opened for renewed business just as I arrived in Palo Alto to embark on a Ph.D. in musicology at Stanford University. I saw scores of films there over the next seven years. Packard himself even told me—and rightly so—to get my feet off the seat at a Sunday night screening of Greta Garbo’s “Queen Christina.” Just as memorable was something that happened a few minutes later during the scene in which Garbo, dressed incognito as a man, finds herself about to be put up for the night with another cavalier, who appears interested in her/him romantically. Before the innkeeper leaves the two alone, a wag in the front row shouted “Threesome!” That night at the Stanford Theatre taught me not only to keep me feet off the upholstery, but also that there’s a moment in every classic film when shouting “threesome!” is funny.
Still going, if not quite as vigorously as it did a couple of decades ago, Packard’s theatre remains one of the most important and most visited venues for Golden Age Hollywood movies in the country.
The Packard Humanities Institute of the younger David, now seventy-nine, has long supported the preservation of classic American films, and since 2016 houses and curates the vintage holdings of the UCLA archive in a facility in the hills of Santa Clarita farther south in the Silicon Valley. Not only does Packard’s Stanford Theatre show the films in stunning prints, but also projects them in their proper aspect—the so-called Academy ratio of 1.37 to 1—on a vast screen, bordered by lush curtains to each side, elaborate tapestry above, and a pair of six-foot high burial urns holding perhaps the ashes of some Hollywood pharaoh of a long-gone dynasty. These decorative frolics don’t distract, although I occasionally like to let my eyes wander to watch the silver light play off the sphinx’s wing and acanthus leaf and flicker against the rapt faces below before my attention returns to the screen.
The Stanford is in great condition, aging rather more gracefully than I have in the intervening years since we first made each other’s acquaintance. Tickets and concessions remain cheap, the interior clean and polished. And unlike many old Art Deco cinemas in this country in the Age of Netflix, the Stanford Theatre doesn’t leak.
But this week it has been raining on screen.
At the start of the rainiest film noir, Hawks’ “The Big Sleep” of 1946 (screened this past Wednesday and Thursday at the Stanford), Bogart’s Marlowe enters the Sternwood Mansion and meets the younger of its two daughters, Carmen (Martha Vickers). Wearing the shortest silk shorts possible, she looks him up and down and observes, “You’re not very tall, are you?” At 5’8” Bogart was no giant, and the reference to his relatively diminutive stature is funny, flirtatious, even risky. But we know the actor is big enough to take it. “I tried to be,” Bogart parries. It is impossible to imagine that Tom Cruise—one inch shorter than Bogart—would allow such a crack, even if it had been penned by a William Faulkner—one of three credited writers for the script from Raymond Chandler’s novel. Cruise is no Bogart, and even if the screen got wider, the movies got smaller, as we learn in another non-Bogart film noir, Sunset Boulevard. But from my vantage point, movie-going in this theatre is not an exercise in nostalgia. It’s vibrantly alive in the present. Which is to say, Bogart is immortal—but only on the big screen.
That aura is safe in eternity in no small measure thanks to many a musical score provided by Max Steiner, the Viennese émigré who virtually invented film music for the talkies. Godson of Richard Strauss, Steiner took the heroic and comic pictorialisms of the late-Romantic tone poem and used them to arm heroes and anti-heroes, from Bogart to King Kong to Scarlett O’Hara.
The cataclysmic brass salvo that opens Strauss’s 1903 opera Elektra echoes through decisive moments of films scored by Steiner and many other Europeans who sought refuge on Hollywood’s shores. Also born in the early years of cinema and deeding its idiom to the new art form, Strauss’s “Salome” premiered in 1905. It has a lyricism and violence that Steiner would draw on in his own work for motion pictures. Menace became a vital musical tool. As for the seven veils, they are of cigarette smoke.
Play it again, Sam: the Stanford Bogart series began with Casablanca, one of this theatre’s most popular movies. The cavernous place was nearly full last Sunday night. It doesn’t rain in the desert, but there is much moisture on screen in the form sweat, booze, and tears. Steiner is at his most virtuosic not in the thunderous opening of the title music or the slithering exoticisms (cf. Salomé) that follow, but in the scene in Rick’s bar where the German officers break into the Horst Wessel song which Steiner then brilliantly mobs with the Marseilles. The musical battle results in the humiliating defeat of the strains of the Nazi villains. It’s a Pyrrhic victory that causes Rick’s place to be immediately shut down, but Steiner’s winning mash-up remains one of the most celebrated in the history of the genre.
The California storms had not yet started for “Casablanca,” but by Wednesday’s “Big Sleep” they were at full tilt. Steiner’s music is elemental—orchestral forces at existential odds with one another, the bass often struggling in contrary motion with the upper parts like weather systems colliding, swirling brass and strings ripped through by gusts of harp and shudders of timpani. An Art Deco cinema, or even the multiplex of our time, can’t simulate an earthquake (if you feel one at the Stanford, it’s no simulation), but a Steiner soundtrack can make the ground shake.
The movie rain comes down in great sheets and so does the score. The comic chirps heard early on for bad little sister Carmen give way near the close to pleading romanticism as Bogart and the elder Sternwood daughter, Vivian (Lauren Bacall) declare their love in an oblique, noirish way as they drive through the back roads of still-unspoiled Los Angeles during a break in the weather. Again and again it is symphonic struggle that opens the heavens in the dead of night: atmospheric rivers of sound.
(David Yearsley is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)