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Honoring film history for its own glitzy sake

You know you're in for an extravaganza before you even walk through the Denver Art Museum's door. Perched in front of the entrance is ``Way Down East,'' a massive construction by Red Grooms, depicting a larger-than-life D.W. Griffith shooting a classic 1920 movie scene - complete with Lillian Gish floating perilously downriver on an oversize ice floe.

It's implausible, it's corny, it's melodramatic, it's poetic - it's Hollywood all the way. And that makes it a perfect frontispiece for the Denver museum's exhibition ``Hollywood: Legend and Reality.''

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True to its title, this ambitious show encompasses both myths and truths related to Hollywood, paying attention not only to on-screen fantasies - like the adventures of the ``Way Down East'' waif - but also to the people who made them happen, such as the brave Lillian Gish, who actually hopped aboard an ice floe to give Griffith one of his most celebrated scenes.

The exhilarating tension between ``legend and reality'' is a constant presence in the ``Hollywood'' exhibition, which - unlike cinema itself - embodies its myths in solid, touchable, three-dimensional objects.

There's something a bit eerie about standing face to face with the Scarecrow costume Ray Bolger wore in ``The Wizard of Oz,'' or Gary Cooper's gun belt from ``High Noon,'' or a bicycle Buster Keaton rode in ``Our Hospitality,'' or a neon-edged violin from ``Gold Diggers of 1933,'' or an original ``E.T.'' model. They're real, and yet their reality is a borrowed one - turning attention away from itself and back to movie-memory, where these objects have their most profound existences.

This exhibition is a guided tour of movie-memory. It moves in an orderly way from the near-beginnings of American film history to the present, and each stage of the journey has an appropriate label: The early years of 1910-18 are the ``Gold Rush'' time, for example, and Hollywood is called a ``Fountain of Youth'' in its post-1967 period. Other epochs range from the ``Bonanza'' of the '20s to the ``Sound and Fury'' of the first talkies and the ``End of an Era'' as the studio system fell apart in the late '50s and early '60s.

This carefully thought-out structure makes ``Hollywood'' an instructive and even a scholarly show. That's fine, but what makes the exhibition a terrific audience-pleaser has more to do with its lavish representations of old-fashioned glamour and entertainment. The show's organizers have set up many clever juxtapositions, moreover, that allow one artifact to pick up added luster and meaning from others nearby.

Hence a Keystone Kop helmet roosts next to a Tom Mix cowboy hat, and a French poster for ``King Kong'' is echoed by a mink-covered model gorilla that may have been an early Kong prototype. In one inspired bit of placement, three exhibits mirror the cheerful conformity of popular culture in the 1950s: a photo of moviegoers sporting identical 3-D glasses, a picture of cars obediently lined up in a drive-in theater, and a background showing the mass-produced houses of Levittown, N.Y., an archetype of the postwar suburbs that so many American filmgoers called home.

Pop culture isn't all ``Hollywood'' has to offer, though. High art makes some appearances, too, via movie-themed works by artists ranging from Edward Hopper and Reginald Marsh to Robert Rauschenberg and Claes Oldenburg - not to mention a Thomas Hart Benton work commissioned by producer Darryl F. Zanuck, and my favorite, a Salvador Dali pencil sketch of ``Groucho Marx as Shiva, the God of Business.''

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Part of Hollywood's magic, of course, is that pop culture mingles there with pursuits that claim to be, and sometimes are, loftier. Religion and politics aren't exempt, as the exhibition reminds us with items like a huge golden calf from Cecil B. DeMille's most lavish version of ``The Ten Commandments'' and a Jean Louis gown that Marilyn Monroe wore while singing ``Happy Birthday'' to John F. Kennedy at Madison Square Garden.

But the show's main thrust is to celebrate film history for its own glitzy sake. It does so with movie excerpts (on large and small video monitors) and posters as well as costumes, props, and a few technological devices, including an ancient sound-effects machine made from syrup pitchers and a propeller.

Also present are artifacts with dazzling pedigrees, such as memos exchanged by producer Hal Wallis and studio chief Jack Warner - on the subject of whether Humphrey Bogart or George Raft should star in ``Casablanca.''

Add it up and you have an exhibition with lofty standards of fun and instruction alike, all housed in an imaginative museum building that itself recalls a hilltop castle in some antic Hollywood romp.

The ``Hollywood'' exhibition, organized by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is in Denver through Oct. 25.

David Sterritt is the Monitor's film critic.

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