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Unsung auteur gets due with book, DVD and screening

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With ‘The Wormwood Star’ and ‘Puce Moment’

When: 7 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Music Box Theatre, 3733 N. Southport

Admission: $5


Updated: July 30, 2013 6:37AM

Curtis Harrington (1926-2007) is a special case: an experimental filmmaker who scored a commercial career in Hollywood. From his work with fellow avant-garde director Maya Deren to his stint with Fox producer Jerry Wald, Harrington ran the cinema gamut. The Northwest Chicago Film Society will salute his career with screenings Wednesday of “Games” (1967), a Universal Pictures release “Filmed in Techniscope,” and two restored 16mm shorts.

“Games,” an homage to Henri-Georges Clouzot’s 1955 thriller “Diabolique, is set in a Manhattan townhouse where a hipster (James Caan) and an heiress (Katharine Ross) collect Pop Art. Enter a fragrance saleswoman (Simone Sig­noret) with a continental taste for games with guns. Harrington unsuccessfully sought Marlene Dietrich for this role, but “big Hollywood moguls ... make multimillion-dollar mistakes all the time,” he later observed.

Hosted by the Music Box, the screening launches “Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood: The Adventures of an Aesthete in the Movie Business.” Harrington’s posthumous memoir, published the Chicago indie-music company Drag City. This constitutes only the second book ever published about this maverick artist. In 2005, the Anthology Film Archives in New York published “Curtis Harrington: Cinema on the Edge.”

Meanwhile, next week the company Flicker Alley will release “The Curtis Harrington Short Film Collection,” which includes “The Wormwood Star” (1955), an occult 10-minute short. It will be screened Wednesday along with “Puce Moment,” Kenneth Anger’s campy six-minute, 1949 paean to screen glamor. “I operated the camera,” explains Harrington, downplaying his role. “I would press the button. That’s absolutely all.”

The DVD includes an essay by Chicago archivist Lisa Janssen, who also prepared Harrington’s unfinished manuscript for publication. “It was like a puzzle I rearranged a little bit,” said Janssen, a fan of American postwar cinema. She took two weeks off from her job at the Newberry Library to visit the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences archive, where there’s “a psychobiographical report on Edgar Allan Poe” that Harrington wrote for a psychology class at the University of California.???

Harrington grew up in a California town where the librarian let him check out grownup books like “Intellectual America: Ideas on the March.” At age 14, he made his 8mm debut titled “The Fall of the House of Usher”; in 2002, he made “Usher,” his last film. Both times he played the brother and sister in Poe’s 1839 tale.

Working as an usher at his local movie theater taught him Hollywood style, but he aspired to make experimental films. He showed his first effort to profs in 1946: “They were just sort of speechlessly bewildered,” he recalled.

A messenger stint at Paramount Pictures lead to a producer’s assistant job to Jerry Wald at 20th Century Fox. Harrington’s first 35mm feature “Night Tide,” made on the side during his studio tenure, starred Dennis Hopper as a sailor lured by a mermaid. “Was She Human?” hyped the poster. “Sensual ecstasy becomes supernatural terror!”

In “Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood,” Harrington relates his boyhood thrill of getting Hollywood star Jean Arthur’s autograph when she stopped at a local hamburger stand. Decades afterward, Harrington relished directing stars in their twilight years: Joan Blondell, Agnes Moorehead, Debbie Reynolds, Gloria Swanson and Shelley Winters in the television movies (“Who Slew Auntie Roo?”) and TV series (“Dynasty,” “Wonder Woman” and “Charlie’s Angels”).

Harrington resisted the mainstream. “Advertisers did not want a disturbed audience,” he once said. “They did not want a thinking audience. They appealed to a zombie-like mass.” When the American Legion honored him in high school, he admits in his book: “They were giving the award to a monster and didn’t know it.”

Bill Stamets is a Chicagobased free-lance writer and reviewer.

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