Laura Boyes saw Howard Hawks’ Scarface for the first time when she was in college. Five years ago she saw it again. And again. Then she dragged her family to see it. The film–the original, not the Al Pacino remake–was released in pre-code Hollywood, an era that fascinates Boyes, a film buff and film curator for the N.C. Museum of Art.
The era came after the start of talking movies in the late 1920s but before the censorship code of 1934. Scarface is among the movies filmed during a time of social upheaval, during the looser constraints of those in-between years. It was condemned for its violence and its glorification and glamorization of Chicago gangster life. Sure, it’s tame by today’s standards. But it broke new ground in 1932.
“It was the American dream turned upside down,” says Boyes, who will show the film Sunday at the Durham County Library and host a discussion afterwards. It was also a classic, which is why the film quickly became part of the Rediscovering Classics series Boyes is curating for the library through the end of the year.
Her selections come from the Carolina Theatre Video Collection, which was purchased by the library after the theater closed its video store in June 2001. “Obviously you can’t survey 100 years of film history with 11 titles,” said Boyes, who watches six or seven films during any given week. “But it’s a way of dipping your toes in.”
Put 10 curators–or 10 people, for that matter–in a room and they’ll come up with 10 different selections for a series. When Boyes made her choices, she paired films that represent certain decades both here and abroad, films that still have relevance today.
In July, for instance, the library will show The Best Years of Our Lives, a 1946 film about American soldiers returning to civilian life after World War II — a theme that is today all too apropos. In June, the film will be Paisan, which depicts the American occupation of Italy during a similar time period.
“It’s two sides of the same coin,” Boyes said. “I hope people will come to see films on the same theme so we can have an ongoing conversation about the films and their effect on thought and cultural context. Movies are entertainment, but they say other things about culture whether they intend to or not.”
She chose to show Charlie Chaplin films because Chaplin, in many ways, is the person who created the culture of celebrity, she said. She chose A Face in the Crowd, because it marks North Carolina icon Andy Griffith’s first appearance in a film. (Attention, Sheriff Taylor fans: He’s not lovable here, Boyes warns; this is a cynical film about media-created celebrity.)
So far she’s held two screenings at the library — the Chaplin double feature and M, a German murder film. Her audience doubled to 60 from the first screening to the second.
“That’s good for a new series,” said Sharon Catlett, the library’s marketing division manager. “I’m sure it’ll grow. We can only hold 100 people.”
At one time, people worried the advent of the Internet would be a threat to America’s libraries. That hasn’t panned out, Catlett said. In the Durham libraries, which saw 1.1 million visits from the public during the last fiscal year, circulation is up. “It’s not just books now,” Catlett said. “It’s everything.” The video collection, of course, is a part of that.
With each film she shows, Boyes provides a resource list of films and books that are part of the library’s collection. After each showing so far, Catlett said, members of the audience have gone straight to the audio-visual room.
Some of the audience members are regular library users. Some are elderly people excited by the chance to see old films on the big screen. And some are regulars at Boyes’ Winter Film Series at the art museum, which continues Saturday with a showing of Bollywood film Kabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham.
“People who love movies will go see them anywhere,” Boyes said.
While the video projections aren’t as pure as, say, 35-millimeter film, they’re still good. “Some things are worth seeing whether they’re the most pristine image or not,” Boyes said. “I think the experience of seeing a film on a big screen, with an audience, is important.”
Boyes, who would never dream of eating something so distracting as popcorn or a Junior Mint while watching a movie, recently presented Bob Hope’s Road to Morocco at the art museum. Before that, “I’d never really thought Bob Hope was all that funny,” she said. But she included the film in a showcase of important people who had recently died. “At this film, people were laughing and I was laughing. I never found [Hope] as funny as I did watching with all of those people. It really changed the way I looked at that particular work.”
Talking about films is important, too, which is why the library series, funded by an N.C. Humanities Council grant secured by the Durham Library Foundation through its annual fund, includes Boyes’ introductions and time for discussion afterward.
People are always willing to talk about movies, Boyes said. They may be hesitant when it comes to literature or poetry, “but everyone thinks they’re an authority when it comes to movies. And now, with all of the DVD extras, everyone’s a film curator. It makes the conversation pretty interesting.”
Boyes, who has been with the museum for five years, became interested in movies when she was in elementary school. It is something she inherited from her mother, who took her to see Orson Welles’ Mr. Arkadin before she had any hope of understanding it. By the time she was 16, Boyes had a job writing introductions for the films aired on the cable television station in Cleveland, Ohio, where she grew up. She was paid $5 a week.
In college, she took film classes and joined the film society, though her major was art. Out of college, her career was fashion, designing and creating wedding dresses. She still runs Ruby Designs, named for her first car, a 1970 Hornet (which was blue, not red). But she’s down to six weddings a year instead of 40. Even that job, she said, was film related; she was inspired by the costumes she’d seen in old movies. “A wedding is the only time people really have those big, fantasy, movie-star moments,” she said.
She’s still interested in costuming, decking out her daughter, Adrian–also a film buff–in vintage-style clothes and Halloween costumes. (When she was 12, Adrian chose to dress as Maria, the robot from Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film Metropolis. Sadly, not a single person knew who she was. The closest guess was an electric stove.)
When they present the Oscar for Best Costume each year on TV, some see it as a convenient time for a bathroom break. Boyes remains glued to her set. “The best costumes of the year weren’t even nominated this year,” she said mournfully. She would have chosen Down with Love. “They really reproduced the 1960s in a mouth-watering way,” she said. “They made you want to go out and get a black and white houndstooth dress and a bright, yellow coat.”
About the time Boyes started working for the art museum, she started her own Web site, www.moviediva.com (a friend came up with the URL), where she pulls together reviews and production details for classic films. The site gets about 5,000 hits a week from all over the world. She receives notes from kids who need help with their Scarlet Letter homework, from a man who noticed she was off by a digit when she listed Holly Golightly’s address in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, from a woman who can remember a movie plot but not the title.
She works from her Durham home, which is comfortably crammed with movies and books and books about movies. On many weekends, she can be found in the museum or the library. Her Rediscovering Classics series is held at 2:30 p.m., most often on Sundays.
“Any time is a good time to watch a movie, as far as I’m concerned,” she said. “I’m not the sort of person who says ‘Oh, it’s a beautiful day, I need to be outside.’ I say ‘It’s a beautiful day. Why don’t I go to the movies?’”
Rediscover the classics
All screenings begin at 2:30 p.m. in the auditorium of the Durham County Library’s Main Branch. Seating is limited to the first 100 patrons.
Sunday, March 28
Sunday, April 25
Rules of the Game (La Regle du Jeu) (1939)
Sunday, May 23
My Man Godfrey (1936)
Saturday, June 19
Saturday, July 24
Best Years of Our Lives (1946)
Sunday, August 22
Sunday, September 26
A Face in the Crowd (1956)
Sunday, October 24
Black Orpheus (1958)
Sunday, November 21
A Raisin in the Sun (1961)