Ever since it was announced that Hollywood would host the inaugural (and ostensibly first annual) Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival in April 2010, the general community of film fanatics was set to buzzing. People in the Los Angeles area, and presumably those in other major urban areas like New York and Chicago, seemed enthusiastic, but that enthusiasm also seemed to be tempered by the fact that a certain degree of exposure to revival cinema, of the classic Hollywood and foreign varieties, is a more-or-less everyday phenomenon for these film fans. Even in this age of disappearing repertory screens and evaporating posts for established film critics, we in Los Angeles and New York and Chicago can be, if we choose to be, somewhat spoiled by the opportunities we are offered every month at the venues we frequently haunt. Yes, the announcement was definitely a big deal, backed by the most compelling force in current pop culture for exposing audiences to classic films and making sure those films stay available, but many I imagine suspected that the TCM Classic Film Festival might too readily ride the straight and narrow—didn't the prospect of seeing Casablanca and 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen yet again seem, I don't know, kind of ordinary? And why get excited about seeing a bunch of films you can often see here in theaters, or always on DVD? Then TCM announced the full schedule, and suddenly a lot of that talk evaporated too. Suddenly the Turner Classic Movies 2010 Classic Film Festival had acquired, even for the happily jaded, a bit of cache, not to mention all the earmarks of a major event. And of course, for all the millions of people outside of those urban areas, for whom revival cinema pretty much does boil down, if it boils down at all, to the occasional showing of The Wizard of Oz, or Singin' in the Rain or (shudder) Grease on an outdoor screen at some city-sponsored summer family-oriented gathering, the TCM festival represented not just an occasion for major geographically based cinema envy; for some it would translate into an irresistible lure as well.
Day One: Anticipating Esther
As for me, this would be my very first experience at a "real" film festival. My wife and I took in a single screening at the London Film Festival back in 1993 (we saw Julio Medem's The Red Squirrel), and in 2006 I hightailed it to the outskirts of the Mojave Desert for the Lone Pine Film Festival. But as I hopped the Metrolink train at Universal City for the short ride into Hollywood Thursday night I juggled equal parts giddy excitement and nervous energy at the dawning realization that I was really going to be there—somehow I was lucky enough to get to participate in a gathering that could be the historic first volley in establishing a Hollywood, California, USA film festival that would capture and reflect the historic cinematic roots and riches of the city's very heart and soul. I couldn't possibly be jaded about the privilege of being turned loose at the corner of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue for this party of kindred spirits, and as it turned out I would have no reason to be.
But the party did start out with a bit of disappointment. Getting my press credentials for the festival at large was relatively easy, once I started throwing around names like Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door, Ed Gonzalez, and Slant Magazine, that is. (Shouting my own name would likely have resulted, as it has in the past, in a series of stubbornly unopened doors.) But once I was in, there was a further competition for the limited number of press credentials that would be issued for the festival's opening night gala, the star-studded premiere of the sparkling new digital restoration of George Cukor's A Star Is Born. I have never seen the movie in any form, restored or not, so I was really hoping, above and beyond the fun of being amongst all the glitterati that TCM promised would be there (all the movie stars and V.I.P.s announced for the entire four-day schedule were scheduled to walk the red carpet), that my first exposure to the film would be on the Big Chinese's screen. Alas, I did not make the final cut for media admittance. So, as I emerged from the catacombs of the Hollywood and Highland train station and onto Hollywood Boulevard itself (which looked on this Thursday evening very much the way it usually does—bustling with tourists making their way amongst the usual throng of street performers, street dog vendors, and street survivors) it was with a tinge of melancholy that I would start out the festival by missing the biggest ticket event. I passed the Grauman's Chinese, where the stars and the lucky festival pass holders walked past a gauntlet of fans, reporters, and photographers into the theater together (nice touch, TCM), observed the plastic covering hastily constructed to guard the carpet-walkers against an expected rainstorm that never came, and for some reason Marty Feldman came to mind. I realized that if I was thinking about a Mel Brooks comedy at that particular moment instead of my own pangs of rejection, then I probably wasn't that devastated. Suddenly buoyed, I continued on toward TCM Classic Film Festival Headquarters, otherwise known as the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the luxurious nexus of the spirit (and some say spirits) of old Hollywood.
For those who have never set foot inside, the Hollywood Roosevelt is a dark, richly woody, beautifully maintained hotel of Spanish colonial design, surrounded by palm trees that tend to block out (and ward off) the reality of Hollywood circa 2010 in favor of the vintage distilled some 70-80 years ago. It is an atmosphere to sink oneself into, and that's just what I did. I took a peek at Club TCM, a faux nightclub constructed from the big room just off the main entrance where neon-lit palm trees surrounded the early festival crowd (none of whom got into A Star Is Born either, mind you), a crowd which skewed fairly young and hip, gathered as they were in the huge leather chairs sipping hard liquor from the open happy hour bar. The room was adorned with ever-changing projected images of one-sheets and movie stars, and at the center, anchoring a gazebo-like lounge area, was a giant screen where Gene Kelly danced amongst the raindrops as he will for all eternity, but for some reason here dubbed in French. (Was somebody just being a wise-ass, or did they just hit the wrong button on the DVD projector?) One thing I couldn't help but notice as I grabbed a Bud Light and made my way to the main lobby, which was pure Hollywood Roosevelt leather chairs and sofas—no bright neon lights—was how many times I thought I spotted Karina Longworth, the newly appointed film editor for the L.A. Weekly. What with all the smallish, sweetly film-geeky ladies with mousy-brown hair and giant cat-eyed frames prowling around the Roosevelt on Thursday, I concluded that Karina is going to have to face the fact that she is poised to become the Madonna (in a strictly nonreligious fashion sense, of course) for a whole generation of female movie nerds. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Sipping my tasty complimentary beer (beer always seems to taste better when freely bestowed), I turned my thoughts away from Judy Garland and James Mason and toward Esther Williams and Betty Garrett. My first event at the TCM Classic Film Festival would, it seemed, be a screening of Edward Buzzell's Neptune's Daughter (1949), according to sources one of Williams' most well-received hits. But the kicker is, it was being screened here outdoors and poolside, amongst the Roosevelt's multitude of chaise lounges and cabanas, and Mmes. Williams and Garrett would be in attendance. I have never been more than the most academic appreciator of Williams' splashy (sorry) Technicolor MGM musicals, but really, what better venue or moment could there be to truly enjoy one? Thanks to the crossed wires of a TCM festival staffer, I arrived late for the lineup of pass holders to gain admittance to the pool area and, having never been near the pool at this hotel and guessing that not too many people could be crammed in around its perimeter, I figured the likelihood I would be turned away from the event was pretty high thanks to my status as caboose on this particular train. (The festival staffers would, in my experience, get their wires crossed a few more times over the weekend, but they were unfailingly polite, and what's more, all the snafus were decidedly minor and never caused me anything more than the most insignificant of inconveniences. So salud, I say, to the hard-working TCM film festival staff!)
As I trailed into the open poolside area, I observed there must have been a couple hundred people buzzing around the edges of the pool, many more than I thought could have fit comfortably. All the seats near the screen were of course snapped up, and the only place I could find to settle in was at the corner of the pool furthest from the screen, which was barely visible to these weary eyes from that distance. But I was just glad to be inside, and so I plopped down on the nicely padded chair and made fast pals with my chaise mates, Roger and Joe, two very excited gentlemen from Atlanta who were staying at the Roosevelt. (Talk about splurging for the full experience.) We traded small talk about the festival, the places we lived, and of course our lousy position re the evening's events. But as the lights dimmed and the spotlight landed on TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who would introduce and interview the honored guests of the evening, our attitude began to change. Mankiewicz was positioned about 10 feet from where we were sitting, and as he made his way through his genial introductory repartee I turned to Roger and said, "I think we lucked out in a big way"—the understatement of the evening, as it turned out. We heard Mankiewicz say, "Ladies and gentlemen, Esther Williams and Betty Garrett!" and a few seconds later Betty Garrett, 89, with the help of a cane and a lovely escort, and Esther Williams, 87, wheelchair-bound but lively as hell, made their way right past Roger and Joe and I in our now not-so-crummy seats.
Williams and Garrett were utterly delightful, and Mankiewicz was respectful and charming in his conversation with them as well. Both stars marveled at the gathered throng and the atmosphere of the evening. At one point Garrett apologized for the gravelly tone of her voice due to a persistent cold and scoffed when told it was "sexy." Williams piped right up: "Honey, anytime anybody says it's sexy, believe 'em!" As for her own singing voice, which appears unadorned alongside Ricardo Montalban's in Neptune's Daughter's Oscar-winning tune "Baby, It's Cold Outside," all the self-effacing Williams would say is, "Everybody sounds better underwater." At the conclusion of the interview, counting the appearance of Williams and Garrett as two surprises (odd, since everyone in attendance knew they were coming), Mankiewicz announced a third which was equally no surprise, but no less charming for it. The Aqualillies, a synchronized swimming troupe decked out in a line of Esther Williams swimwear, swam-danced three routines to numbers from the MGM mermaid's movies, and I must say it was kind of a goose-bumpy thrill to see such a performance knowing that Williams herself was watching.
The movie stars of the hour made their exit to thunderous applause and a second standing ovation (no festival goers or photographers fell in the pool, I'm sad to report). My new friends Roger and Joe unceremoniously dumped me in favor of a snappy-looking, well-built bald fella in a charcoal-gray suit who claimed to have known Esther Williams personally for the last 10 years. They listened with rapt excitement as Baldy regaled them with stories of up-close-and-personal Hollywood glamour, and at that point, as about half the crowd took their cue from the vanishing movie stars and headed back to Club TCM, I made my way from the back of the pool and up toward the screen where a DVD projection of Neptune's Daughter had just commenced. Some technical difficulties notwithstanding (a short in a cable rendered the first five minutes of the movie a decidedly unsplendiferous and fuzzy black-and-white), the screening was in keen thematic and atmospheric sync with the rest of the evening.
And the movie itself turned out to be a perfectly frothy, delightful, and unexpectedly hilarious concoction, due largely to the inspired antics of Red Skelton. Williams actually plays a swimsuit designer being courted by colleague Keenan Wynn and playboy polo player Jose O'Rourke ("From the country of South America!") played by Ricardo Montalban. But when clumsy masseuse Skelton assumes the polo player's identity in order to charm Williams's sister (Garrett), all manner of confusion and farcical foul play ensue, all of which threaten Williams and Montalban's inevitable romance but thankfully do nothing to impede the movie's splendid songs, riotous comedy set pieces (Skelton trying to mount a polo horse is a classic of sustained hilarity) and, of course, those one-of-a-kind moments when Esther takes a dip. The movie was so entertaining that I didn't mind one bit having to stand under a palm tree near the bushes (so as not to block the view of those still sitting around the pool) in order to watch it. In fact, all the attendant Hollywood magic already doled out on the evening, and the lovely atmosphere of the evening breeze still wafting through the palms, seemed perfectly combined with the glorious recreation on display in Neptune's Daughter, from the silly joy of the swimming sequences to the atmosphere of the polo grounds, hanging out with O'Rourke's Mexican assistant, played by Mel Blanc in full Speedy Gonzalez mode, and especially the rhythmic exuberance of Xavier Cugat's club, where Esther and Ricardo and Red and Betty and Keenan go to shake a tail feather.
I began to feel like I was in that club too, doing the mambo or whatever it is they do there, as if I'd stepped into, if not the movie itself, then at least an alternate universe poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt where old Hollywood never got old, where the movies and the parties never stopped. (The guy standing next to me for the first half of the movie was a dead ringer for John Marley in full-on Jack Woltz mode, which did nothing to dissipate that alternate Hollywood universe feeling.) Just before Esther and Ricardo began singing their Oscar-winning roundelay, the bushes I was standing near, the ones separating the pool area from the first-floor cabanas, began to rustle, and soon I was surrounded by six of those shapely Aqualillies, still in their Esther Williams swimwear. They had popped out of their cabins just to see and hear "Baby, It's Cold Outside." For them it undoubtedly was, but I was warmed by their presence, just another giddy, unexpected treat to start out the festival. When the number was over they scampered back through the bushes, leaving a cozy residue which was nicely augmented by the nearby heat lamps, just enough to temper the chilled night air and encourage my already broad smile to stick around a while longer. Neptune's Daughter poolside with Esther Williams may not have been my first choice to kick off the festival, but in what game show universe have the consolation prizes ever been this good?
At 10:00 pm, the last fizz of Neptune's Daughter having floated off into the night air, I glided out of the Hollywood Roosevelt, all thoughts of A Star Is Born faded away. There's just no way, I told myself, that premiere could have been nearly as much fun as what I had just experienced. Despite the testimony of several people I talked to who were there and had the time of their lives (at least three of which delighted in reporting seeing Alec Baldwin pounding down the Grauman's Chinese snack bar menu or slipping off to the men's room), I chose to believe that my time with Esther was, unbeknownst to most festival attendees, the way to roll, and I still believe it. Not only was it a grand time, but Neptune's Daughter ended up laying the groundwork, as my schedule would have it, for an unintentional examination of the many forms into which the Hollywood musical could be twisted. (Well, so too would have A Star Is Born, I guess, but don't bother me with the facts right now—I'm busy making a segue.)
Part two of said examination was Friday night's late screening of David Butler's Sunnyside Up (1929), one of the earliest of all Hollywood musicals, and it definitely provided an interesting contrast to the slick, shiny, and soaking-wet filmography of Esther Williams. While not exactly trafficking in realism, the movie is anchored in a distinct sense of place, of community—Sunnyside Up opens with a beautifully orchestrated tracking shot (there may even be a cut here and there, but the effect is still one of seamlessness) as the camera moves along the various levels of a New York City tenement building, setting up vivid introductions to both the central and peripheral players in the story, as well as a whole wide world of neighborhood ambience. From this bustling group emerges silent star Janet Gaynor as a young girl on the low end of the economic scale who practically wills the attention of a flirtatious playboy (played by then-popular but now relatively forgotten Charles Farrell, who starred in 12 movies with Gaynor) who hires her to provide some jealousy-based motivation for his foot-dragging fiancée. It certainly didn't surprise me that these two would eventually end up together, for it's not the plot that makes Sunnyside Up worth noting. What's fascinating is that director Curtis, buoyed by terrific songs from the Broadway team of Buddy DeSylva, Lew Brown, and Ray Henderson, understands instinctively that, even though her voice was quite ordinary, all that was needed was to have Gaynor (and the rest of the cast) simply turn to the camera and sing.
One character quite literally says, "There's a song I know that perfectly expresses the way I feel," and off she goes—this becomes the working model for the entire film. Gaynor is emotionally direct as well—"Sunnyside Up" is a song that resonated strongly with Depression-era audiences and it retains its power to affect modern audiences because of its optimistic tenor, of course, but also because there seems to be nothing separating Gaynor and the audience, least of all the artifice of film. There are other musical highlights as well, including the movie's most notoriously oversexed production number, "Turn On the Heat," in which a chilly arctic landscape is melted down and replaced with a tropical paradise (and a tree full of suggestively blooming bananas) all thanks to the undulating erotic energy of the singers and dancers; Gaynor again plaintively voicing the beautiful "I'm a Dreamer (Aren't We All);" and the recurring love ballad (which could serve as a introductory anthem to the talking picture era itself) "If I Had a Talking Picture of You." Prefiguring the high society talent show that anchors the latter part of the movie, there's even a block party sequence where the residents of the building beat the heat by putting on a show; the sequence is so full of charm and unpolished fun (little Jackie Cooper makes a memorable appearance trying to sputter out a poem) that I wanted it to go on three or four numbers longer than it does. The print on display during the festival was restored by the Museum of Modern Art and it's a beauty—as the movie lingered, fully confident in the spell it casts on its audience (unusual for an early musical, it runs just over two hours), I kept hoping, as I would often over the weekend during many films, that the restoration was some kind of harbinger for an impending DVD release, the miracle of modern technology literally bringing the preservation of movies home. Just as frequently, whenever I ended up attending the smallest house at the festival, as I did for Sunnyside Up (the #3 at the new Chinese multiplex upstairs in the Hollywood and Highland compound), the booming thunder of Clash of the Titans coming from one of the adjacent cinemas not engaged in the festival was always just audible enough to momentarily prompt me to trace a hasty line from the unblemished pleasures of movies out of our collective past all the way up to the cacophony of the average modern Hollywood feature. Rather than compel me to marvel at how far we've come, the comparison only reminded me how much the industry and audiences have lost by no longer routinely putting our trust in the embrace of a movie as sweetly endearing and innocent as this one.
Sunnyside Up concluded around 12:15 a.m., just early enough for me to catch the last train out of Hollywood. On the short journey back to Universal City where my car was parked I struck up a happy conversation with a festival worker who was headed home to North Hollywood. She told me how excited she was to be working the festival—unlike many other festivals for which she had volunteered, here she was actually getting paid. I told her a little about Esther Williams and my own sense of excitement, and after that brief train ride whenever we'd run into each other, as we did several times over the next few days, I noticed we both always seemed to be smiling. I hopped off the train around 1:00 a.m., thinking about what time I'd have to get up in order to catch the first screening on Friday morning at 10:00 a.m. Then I remembered that for my daughters it was a school day, which meant that just like every school day I'd be getting up at 6:30 a.m. in order to herd them to school on time. I ran over the next day's schedule in my head, wondering if I could really take in six movies from 10:00 a.m. to 2:30 a.m. on less than five hours of sleep. But that thought didn't last long. Just like I predicted I would, I spent the rest of the journey home trying to convince myself that this festival wasn't just some giddy figment of my Technicolor-addled imagination, that it really was happening, and reminding myself just how lucky I was to get to be part of it.
Day Two: That Streamlined Engine Won't Wait
A look at Friday's scheduled screenings made me realize at a glance that the day would be full of impossible choices and that, as is true of any film festival, there's no way to see it all. So I began the process of reconciliation with this idea fairly early on. How can one best choose between a digital presentation of King Kong (1933) on the Grauman's Chinese screen, The Bad and the Beautiful (1952) in the other large auditorium, the Chinese house #1, and 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) in vibrant 70mm at the Egyptian? Add to that a panel discussion moderated by Anne Thompson on location shooting and you've got, as I suggested before, an impossible dilemma. My solution was to go for the unknown quantity, a strategy I largely stuck with over the course of the four-day festival, with one or two notable exceptions. So I traded the panel, Kong, Kirk and Lana, and Hal 9000 for a last-minute festival addition, Fred MacMurray and Marjorie Main in George Marshall's Murder, He Says (1945), a movie many who knew my taste well had recommended to me in the past. This wild comedy was apparently a staple of late night and afternoon TV in the '70s and '80s, but I managed never to catch up with it, and it had since apparently fallen out of circulation. But a recent restoration made the movie a natural for the TCM festival, and the crowd that filled the 177-seat auditorium, many of whom were fans of the movie and clearly eager to see it again, was buzzing. I struck up a conversation with a woman named Judy from Indiana, who was seeing the film by herself while her husband was off getting into position to see Mel Brooks receive his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. She and I talked about our favorite movies, and she told me about the screening of A Star Is Born which she, as a possessor of one of the festival's high-end passes, was lucky enough to attend. (She ended up seated very close to, yes, Alec Baldwin.) Judy and I would have talked more had the festival programmers not insisted, as they would throughout the weekend, that the movie start on time. But I really enjoyed talking to her and for the rest of my time at the festival I tried to talk to as many strangers as I could, to get a sense of how far people were willing and able to come and participate in this event, but also to enjoy the sense of community that a large group of disparate people who all love one variety or another of classic film could manage to knit together.