Screen on the Green Has Room to Grow

By Dan Zak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 4, 2008

Screen on the Green, entering its 10th season, generally shows good films that wilt outdoors (some of us nearly passed out three years ago while suffering through "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre") and bad films that disintegrate.

Occasionally there's a "Rocky" or a "Casablanca," but the lineup is often spotty, with too many unsteady dramas and pickled science-fiction films; only three out-and-out comedies have been shown in nine years. And perhaps it's time to take a vacation from Humphrey Bogart, who's starred in four movies in the last three years. Just saying. Love Bogie, but c'mon.

Granted, Screen on the Green's programmer faces a tricky calculus. New Yorker Jim Byerley, a retired HBO film evaluator who programs the company's outdoor film festivals, must find movies that are family-friendly, at least 30 years old, available in 35mm (it's becoming harder to find showable prints) and licensable by HBO (the titles all came from the Warner Bros. stable during the first five years of Screen on the Green, but the pool has since thankfully expanded).

Plus, the films must be entertaining and digestible in a muggy outdoor atmosphere of brie-eating chitchatters.

"There are helicopters and sirens and all kinds of city noises," Byerley says of the art of programming alfresco. "It's not the perfect way to watch a movie. Subtlely gets lost." He'd love to show "Star Wars," but can't get the rights, and "The African Queen," too (Bogart again!), but can't figure out who owns it. He'd love to show Francis Ford Coppola's "The Conversation," but the movie relies too much on auditory nuance to survive an outdoor viewing.

So to commemorate a decade of Screen on the Green, here is our ideal lineup for a future year. The task of finding them in 35mm we'll leave to Byerley.

Born Yesterday (1950). The sheer novelty of watching this comedy of corruption while sitting near the Capitol and K Street is reason enough to include it. A tycoon (Broderick Crawford) hires a journalist (William Holden) to refine the manners of his brassy girlfriend (Judy Holliday), only to have the girlfriend and her teacher discover the real scoop behind his dealings with corrupt congressmen. Near the end Holden delivers a timeless passage: "You know, when you live in Washington, it's enough to break your heart. You see a perfect piece of machinery: the democratic structure. And someone's always tampering with it, trying to make it hit the jackpot."

Top Hat (1935). Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire have yet to dance together on the Mall, and "Top Hat," the biggest hit of their 10 collaborations, would be the perfect debut. A simple plot -- Astaire tap-dances in a hotel room and Rogers, a floor below, comes up to complain -- provides an excuse to stage some of cinema's most memorable dance numbers in a bracing whirl of feathers, sequins and spats.

Rear Window (1954). Here's a marquee title that cries out to be watched in the heat. We can sweat alongside Jimmy Stewart, playing an injured photographer festering in his apartment during an equatorial Manhattan summer. Stricken with cabin fever, Stewart uses a camera to peer into neighboring apartments and comes to believe he's witnessed a murder. "Rear Window" will draw an enthusiastic crowd and assign some value (however fictional) to the all-too-real heat.

The More the Merrier (1943). Nothing keeps a crowd engaged and smiling like pure slapstick. With World War II triggering a housing shortage, Jean Arthur takes on a sublessee at her tiny $48-per-month apartment at 17th and D streets (gorgeous view of a fake Capitol backdrop). Her new tenant is a peevish Charles Coburn, who throws a wrench into her routine. Coburn stokes the absurdity with his fondness for using Adm. Farragut's phrase: "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!"

Three Days of the Condor (1975). Paranoia has made a comeback in the 21st century, and what better way to quiet a chatting herd of friends than to show a thriller whose theme (moral equivocation in government) could chill the wine they smuggled onto the green via Nalgene. Robert Redford plays a low-level CIA operative hunted by his own agency; Faye Dunaway is the woman who quarters him; and the two find themselves tangled in a archetypal mid-'70s action yarn. It builds to a final scene so prescient it just might take away the collective breath of a thousand Triscuit-munching cynics.

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