I suppose it's inevitable that some of the bloom would have come off the rose that was last year's first annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I am, after all, a year older, and the time spent in between the first festival and this year's model has found life getting more complicated, with less room for the study of cinema, classic or not, than my selfish patterns would prefer. But just because I may be mired in a sophomore slump of sorts doesn't mean that in 2011 the TCM Festival was equally bogged down. Familiarity hardly bred contempt this time around, or complacency. If anything, there was a certain comfort factor built into the festival for me this year, a feeling that, while not radiating the kind of freshman excitement generated by last year's fun (and my own initiation into the rites of festival film-going), certainly resonated with the buzz of discovery, of learning, about films unfamiliar, and blessedly, seemingly genetically remembered, and even of the value of an adrenaline rush of straight-up nostalgia. Without a doubt, this 2011 edition was the film festival experience of the year for me.
Certainly the buzz surrounding the festival had anything but diminished. This may be wishful thinking, I suppose, but it struck me during the course of the year past that the first TCM Festival marked if not an awakening, exactly, then certainly a strengthening of the sense of value held by local cinephiles regarding the availability of classic cinema on big screens around Los Angeles. It remains a niche market as far as the general moviegoing public is concerned, and it's hard not to look upon the advent of TCM moving out into the “real world” with this kind of concentrated theatrical presence as anything but a good thing, not only in the promotion of their own brand and positioning in the ever-broadening cable and satellite markets, but also for sowing the seeds of interest in what's available in the cinema world after Turner leaves town. The 2011 Festival claimed a big upswing in sales of passes at all levels—TCMCFF 2012 is scheduled for this coming April—and the real beneficiaries of the sudden intense focus on classic films from all avenues and genres and nations will certainly be organizations like LACMA and the UCLA Film and Television Archive, and cinemas like the New Beverly and the Cinefamily who depend on the adventurous and contagious spirit of the cinephile to remain vital and engaged on the film exhibition landscape. (They depend on something else too, the future of which is far less certain.)
The TCM Classic Film Festival remains a great place to make connections with people from all over the country, and from around the world as well, but I seemed to run into a lot more people from the greater Los Angeles area this year than I did last—a completely unscientific sampling, of course, but one that gave me reason to be cheerful about the notion of sowing seeds of classic film appreciation in this movie city, one which will set down roots that reach far deeper than the Casablanca/Gone with the Wind fan experience. (As part of the buildup to the festival, TCM took its show on the road this year to several cities in promotion of the festival and of classic film with its Road to Hollywood series which was, by all reports, very well received.)
As I began preparing for my own festival weekend in looking over the schedule, at first I was struck by a number of seemingly impossible choices. Unless I was remembering incorrectly (and believe me, such an occurrence is not out of the realm of possibility), I did not have this much difficulty mapping out what movies were essential to my experience during the first year. Some decisions get made automatically, of course, and this year, just like last, the hanging carrot of red carpet access and admittance to the festival's opening night gala was snatched away almost as soon as it was dangled. So I could count on not having to worry about making it to Hollywood early to get in position for the long celebrity march into the Grauman's Chinese Theater for the kickoff presentation, the 60th-anniversary digital restoration of An American in Paris.
Of course I would gladly have participated in whatever cattle parade I would have been placed into should the opportunity have actually materialized, but much more so than last year I felt a distinct sense of relief at not being committed to being there and taking part. Every celebrity who would be appearing over the next four days would be heading into the theater to see the MGM musical, which announced with as much pomp and circumstance as possible this year's festival theme, Music and the Movies. I won't try to pretend that the prospect of seeing some of these luminaries, from movies both past and present, wasn't tantalizing. But it was also easy to remember that the celebrities, though always exciting to see (especially when they participate in discussions and presentations preceding the movies themselves), never factor heavily into the construction of my plan of attack over the four-day schedule. (As concrete proof of this conviction, I planned to pass on all screenings that comprised the festival's tribute to Hayley Mills, one of my great childhood crushes, because they conflicted with movies that were either more important or more obscure to me. Please believe that there was once a time when I would have killed to see Hayley Mills introduce The Parent Trap or Summer Magic or Whistle Down the Wind, and though the desire remains strong I could only muster a defeated shrug this weekend as opposed to a compulsion to wreak righteous vengeance on the programmer who scheduled her against Roy Rogers, Clint Eastwood, Clara Bow and Cary Grant.)
Night 1: Beauties, Suitors, Fools and Hangers-On
That highfalutin statement stated, I have to admit the alternative programming offered to those of us without the proper stature (or formal wear) to get into the Chinese on opening night just didn't have the curious allure and the sincere evocation of old Hollywood that last year's spectacular evening poolside with Esther Williams and the late Betty Garrett provided in spades. This is not to discount the fun that was surely had by those who opted to kick off the festivities in high style by the Hollywood Roosevelt pool this year. But I never seriously considered attending this year's event, which was a (DVD) screening of Girl Happy (1964), Elvis Presley's answer to the beach movie and, more importantly, Beatlemania, hosted by the movie's costar Mary Ann Mobley and musician/actor Chris Isaak, whose wisecracking persona often consciously evokes that of the King. This is the one block of programming at the festival where I sensed a bit of the sophomore slump, and truly, the appearance of Williams and Garrett poolside, augmented by a performance by the Aqualillies, a water ballet troupe, was so thematically rich and resonant that it really was the essence of A Hard Act to Follow. So I opted to not challenge my memory of 2010 and what was probably as perfect an experience as I could have had and instead decided to wait and see if the folks putting together next year's program can rediscover the inspiration of that poolside encounter with Neptune's Daughter.
I had only two hard and fast rules for mapping my way through this year's schedule. Number one: Try to avoid the familiar in favor of movies that were as yet unfamiliar to me. Number two: I must see at least one Roy Rogers movie. (Fans of old cowboy movies, like me, rejoiced when we found out that the 2011 TCM Festival would focus an entire series on the singing cowpoke's movie career.) My sincere intent was that all my scrambling would be in service to these two streamlined tenets. So naturally I broke both of them right over my knee immediately upon my late arrival into Hollywood on Thursday night. Commitments at my office kept me busy enough that I realized there was no way to get to the nucleus of the festival, the swarming intersection of Hollywood Boulevard and Highland Avenue (a.k.a. Los Angeles's answer to Times Square), in time for any of the opening goodies, which started at 1:00 p.m. with an introductory panel hosted by the people behind the Turner Classic Movies channel, a 4:15 tribute to Hollywood photographer Jack Pashkovsky and a festival welcome party at Club TCM, the nightclub constructed exclusively for the festival inside the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel which would, as it did last year, serve as headquarters for the entire festival.
As it turned out, I wouldn't have been able to make it on time for Girl Happy even if I'd wanted to—I stumbled up the steps and out of the train station into Hollywood around 8:30 p.m., with just enough time to make my way over to the Roosevelt, snap a few photos and be on my way back to the Chinese complex which would, with no exceptions, be my home for the next three days. By arriving late I had already missed Girl Happy (1964), of course, but also a fascinating program of Walt Disney Laugh-o-Gram shorts dating from 1922, when Disney opened his Laugh-o-Gram Studio in Kansas City, as well as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947), A Night at the Opera (1947) and the inaugural volley in the festival's celebration of Roy Rogers, Under Western Skies (1938). I'd seen the Marx Brothers classic many times, and though I didn't remember ever seeing Joseph L. Mankiewicz's popular romantic drama (shown here as part of a tribute to Bernard Herrmann, who provided its memorable score), I knew that if I would have had the chance I would have kicked the festivities off with Roy and Dale and Trigger. Alas, it was not to be, and the evening's second taste of the Rogers universe was actually not a Roy Rogers movie at all but instead a Republic Pictures musical called Casanova in Burlesque (1944), a zippy musical with Joe E. Brown and June Havoc in the lead and a sassy Dale Evans in a supporting role. This is the movie Evans made just before she first teamed with Rogers in The Cowboy and the Senorita, and though it was tempting, I was really jonesing for some wholesome horseback action, and Casanova just didn't fill the bill.
So, my Roy Rogers intentions already dashed (at least for this truncated evening), I turned to considerations of what would be the one and only movie for my Thursday night TCM Festival opener. To hear Dorothy Herrmann speak before a screening of The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) would seem to be an obvious choice, at least for this sci-fi/movie music nerd. But I'd just seen the movie not long ago, and projected as well, so if I was going to be serious about my self-imposed rules, seeing The Day the Earth Stood Still, even on that magnificent big screen inside the Chinese multiplex's auditorium #1, just didn't seem like the right choice. Unfortunately, for the integrity of those rules, the only other choice was also one I'd seen a couple of times, though not at all recently and never in 35mm. The last time I saw Josef Von Sternberg's The Devil is a Woman (1935) was in a shoebox-sized screening room on the University of Oregon campus some 30 or so years ago, and in 16mm, so it made sense that, through a process of elimination that would be far easier to endure than some of the choices that would follow, this was the movie to see.
I grabbed a spot in line along the edge of the corridor that serves as a breezeway into the main lobby of the Chinese multiplex, connecting the entrance of the theater on the Hollywood Boulevard side of the hall to the inner part of the structure where the parking lot can be easily accessed. This year's line-up system seemed immediately less confusing to me than last year's, or at least easier to get used to. Lines designated for auditorium #1 (the big one indoors which holds approximately 500 viewers) and auditoriums #3 and #4 (the tinier, screening room-sized cinemas, each with 177 seats) were easily determined and manned by a cadre of Turner Classic Film Festival volunteers who were, if anything, patient and helpful beyond the call of their undoubtedly meager pay. I was there early enough to get the third position in line, always a bonus for me—I am not allergic to standing in line under most circumstances, especially when I'm waiting to get something as special as this festival under way—and I came manned with my Trader Joe's grocery bag, this evening filled with my note pad and my dog-eared copy of Robert Altman: An Oral Biography, which provided excellent literary sustenance throughout the weekend in situations just this like this one. (The only problem that cropped up from reading the book during my downtime here is that it inexorably stoked my desire to see an Altman movie, none of which were on display at this year's festival. Perhaps an oversight that can be fixed next year…?)
As I waited, friends and fellow festival reporters Ariel Schudson and Bob Westal made it into the line behind me—I would save them a seat, despite the fact that saving seats was largely frowned upon by our friendly staffers (I'm such a rebel!)—and struck up a conversation with four women from San Francisco who were awfully excited about making the trip but showed little interest in me or my methods once I revealed to them that I would be skipping Breakfast at Tiffany's and Now, Voyager (“There's no skipping Bette, dude!” scolded the women, who I would somewhat sarcastically come to think of as the Bette Davis Appreciation Society—BDAS.) Relieved from further caustic examination of my proposed choices as the women turned away from me and toward a couple of their other friends, I returned to my book, its anecdotal structure perfect for simultaneous reading and people-watching, which is an essential part of the fun of attending a film festival which operates smack-dab in the middle of Hollywood.
After a few moments I started to notice an increase in traffic through the breezeway leading to the parking lot, the obvious conclusion being that, it being close to 10:00 p.m., the big American in Paris gala must have just let out. My celebrity spidey-sense was well validated when mere seconds later I glanced up from my book and saw Ron Perlman, who was hosting midnight screenings of The Tingler and The Mummy at the Egyptian Theater on Friday and Saturday nights, glide through the crowd, followed in fairly quick and Hollywood-regal fashion by Rose McGowan, attending the festival to introduce A Place in the Sun, who couldn't have been more lovely in a dress that suggested a cheongsam nightgown stitched by fairy godmothers for an all-girls weekend. At that point the population within the breezeway was getting pretty crowded, what with the line for Devil beginning to snake back around toward its head and the lucky festival-goers who just saw An American in Paris still filing through. And just as I was about to stick my nose back in for one last Altman anecdote before we were admitted to our auditorium, a woman and her party made their way past me in the hallway, quite close despite the fact that all we Marlene Dietrich devotees were separated from the crowd by a velvet rope. I looked up and realized that the person who had just brushed past me was Hayley Mills.
Breathlessly recounting the story in the bedazzled moments afterward, it was pointed out to me I apparently was so blinded by my encounter that I failed to notice that the woman accompanying her was none other than Juliet Mills, Hayley's older sister and object of my intense Nanny and the Professor fixation of some 40 years past. I offer this story as irrefutable proof that not even living in Los Angeles for 24 years can completely shield one from an unexpected bout of star-struckery, and if attending this festival proves nothing else (and it proves plenty else), I'll still thank TCM for that.
Seeing Hayley was a thrill, but don't let me give the impression that Marlene in any way disappointed. Ariel, Bob and I settled into our seats with about 10 minutes to spare, long enough for me to realize that, as much fun as I had bopping around the festival pretty much on my own last year, it's a much richer, exciting experience seeing these great films in the company of friends whom you know share your fundamental wavelength and openness to the experience. Of course, everyone who waits in line at 10:00 p.m. on a Thursday night to see The Devil is a Woman is likely to share that wavelength, and it's a great relief to know going in that you're not likely to be in for one of those devastating theatrical viewings of a classic film ambushed by the irony-drenched cackling of what my friend Richard Harland Smith recently termed “the porkpie hat set,” those of minimal acquaintance with film history who are in attendance primarily to prove how much smarter they are than the museum pieces trotting around on screen. And the film we saw on Thursday night, despite its 76-year age, played like anything but a dusty relic. Katie Trainor, Film Collections Manager at the Film Preservation Center of the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, provided a fascinating introduction to the von Sternberg film. (Trainor introduced last year's screening of the rare pre-code drama The Story of Temple Drake.) The film was, in 1935, the least well-received of all the von Sternberg/Dietrich collaborations, not least of all by the Spanish government, who cottoned not to the movie's portrayal of the country's police guard as a buffoonish contingent led by their soft brains, corrupt souls and, of course, blind lust. Under Spaniard threat to act against further Paramount releases in their market, Paramount chose the reactionary path, releasing von Sternberg from his contract and spearheading an effort to destroy all negatives of this box-office flop, which was clearly not worth all the international trouble it was causing.
Fortunately, the movie was Dietrich's favorite of all the movies she made with the German director; she loved it so much that she socked away a print of her own before Paramount could destroy the master negative. Many years later Dietrich donated that print to MoMA, who restored the film quite some time ago. But the print we saw at TCM was in fact yet another restoration, this time to a durable polyester stock that Trainor assured us would be viable for projection and further prints for at least another 300 years. It's easy to see why a self-serious government might take exception to their portrayal in such a fashion, but less easy to square that they would have such influence over Paramount's behavior toward its own film. Surely the movie's low box-office take was also important in shaping the studio's indifference, but it's more difficult to understand why they would have such little faith in the movie's aesthetic accord with more beloved von Sternberg jewels like Shanghai Express.
The Devil is a Woman vigorously epitomizes the luminously amoral, sexually voracious Dietrich persona, and it is merciless in its portrayal of the shameless attachments and milquetoast motivations of the men who cross her path. Perhaps the studio didn't appreciate such reverse-shot emasculation, but nearly 80 years later the movie remains an erotic vision of a diva that thrills to toying with men who derive pleasure from willing sublimation to her designs. (Lionel Atwill's Captain Costelar, in recounting of his own obsession with Dietrich to Cesar Romero's Antonio, plays less like a warning siren than a fly wrapped in a spider's silk which on some level enjoys the process of seeing another man taken in by the web.) The movie's atmosphere of perverse carnality is amply echoed in its carnival trappings. Beauties, suitors, fools and hangers-on float through von Sternberg's delirious fantasy of decorous (and claustrophobic) Spanish cityscapes trapped in a web of the director's most feverish design; the images radiate through level upon level of streamers, scrims, lace netting, patterns of ornate lattice and ironworks until one can't imagine the world any other way except as a vast garden of fleeting earthly delights and endless deception.
On the train ride home I already felt sated after one film, exhausted, and with three full days to go my energy and endurance would be taxed and invigorated by the movies yet to come, and I didn't feel like my schedule had really even yet been set in stone. But The Devil is a Woman, so insinuating even within the imposed standards of the recently inaugurated Production Code, couldn't have been a better start, and a stronger hint, of the early gems of the pre-Code era, and some fascinating visions of newer films that found their way to the screen through the cracks of the Hollywood system, which were only a few tantalizing hours away. Literally. It was just after midnight as I hopped one of the last trains out of the station and back toward the Valley. I'd have to be back out of bed by 5:00 a.m. if I expected to be seated for tomorrow morning's first movie, which had a scheduled start time of 8:15.
Day 2: “All I Ever Did Was Change Clothes”
The great glory of navigating the 2011 TCM Classic Film Festival was that the wealth of the unknown and the rarely seen, especially gems from the pre-Code era, were so plentiful that it made mincemeat of what I had initially assumed would be some very tough decisions regarding my own schedule. I had also decided that, unlike last year, I would try to actively minimize high-speed jaunts out of the immediate vicinity of the Chinese complex, which meant that offerings at the Egyptian would automatically become lower priority for me. Friday provided the first real challenge to those expressed resolves to make the festival more about discovery than reassurance, more about geographical efficiency than opportunities for desperate foot races from cinema to cinema. In order to remain true to my plan, the morning's first slot featured two high-profile temptations that I had to scuttle quickly. Peter O'Toole presenting Becket at the Egyptian was a serious temptation, but the movie itself was less the attraction than the star, and that star, no matter how gregarious, couldn't compete with the movie's lengthy running time.
I also tossed out a chance to see a digitally restored A Streetcar Named Desire at the big Chinese on grounds of sheer familiarity. Of course the movie has long been a favorite, but despite the fact that I had never seen it theatrically—and remembering that discovering the breadth of director Elia Kazan's work was one of last year's real highlights for me, peaking with the TCM Festival screening of Wild River—I said no. Which left an opportunity to be entranced by Busby Berkeley (Gold Diggers of 1933) or line up a little later in the morning for one of the festival's big attractions, the rarely seen The Constant Nymph (1943; Edmund Goulding). The movie, long a fan favorite and one of the TCM network's most requested titles, turned out to be a big hit at the festival too, making for one of the longest and earliest-forming lines on the schedule.
But I didn't see it for myself, because at 7:15 a.m. I arrived to get in line for a pre-Code double feature that would be better than the strongest cup of coffee in jolting me awake for the long day ahead. In the time it would take to see Becket and enjoy Peter O'Toole's surely engaging discussion with Robert Osborne, I would see two vivid, nasty pulp pieces from the early days of Warner Brother and Vitaphone pictures, and that was a deal I couldn't pass up.
Both Taxi! (1932; Roy Del Ruth) and Two Seconds (1932; Mervyn LeRoy) were introduced by Mike Mashon, film historian and curator at the motion picture division of the Library of Congress, who expressed his contagious enthusiasm for these films, and for all the films of the pre-Code era, and got a Starbucks-fueled audience (about half the capacity of the 144-seat auditorium #3) up to speed on their historical context. Taxi! was James Cagney's follow-up to The Public Enemy (1931), and Warners really wanted to capitalize on his man-of-the-people appeal. He stars as Matt Nolan, an independent driver around whom other cabbies gravitate in the fight against the corrupt influence of a big cab company, and the movie is electrified by Cagney's energy. The picture is famous for its scene of Cagney speaking Yiddish, but it should be even more famous for the kind of gritty, bull-headed force personified by Cagney and reflected in Roy Del Ruth's bare-knuckle style, which propels the movie itself like a cab running behind schedule and careening between stops. George Raft, still then a couple of pictures away from Scarface, has an uncredited cameo as a dance contestant, and the movie gets a terrific foundation from reliable pros like Warners stock players Guy Kibbee, George E. Stone and Dorothy Burgess.
But the most astonishing surprise to these eyes offered by Taxi! came via the vibrant Loretta Young, who has never been an actress who held much appeal for me. Young starred in the kind of romantic programmers, titles like Wife Husband and Friend and, yes, The Bishop's Wife that were completely outside my field of interest, and her persona (as I perceived it growing up) was far too stuffy and matronly to stir my interest in the way of, say, Rita Hayworth or Gene Tierney. She didn't seem to have that dark undertow that made me want to come back for more after what little taste that I did get. But Mashon warned us that Young was never more beautiful than in Taxi!, and I have to think he's right. I certainly had no idea that she was so devastatingly lovely as she is here. The kicker in her pairing with Cagney is that she has the necessary astringency as well to survive on screen with him and make her own scorched impression. As Matt's ill-fated lover, Young spins her own vortex of plain-Jane erotic allure around that level-headed center of comely assurance and wisdom, resulting in a combination that encourages Cagney's vitality, all elbows and fists, and gives him, and the audience, occasional respite from the movie's intense, almost documentary-like atmosphere. (Not long after seeing Taxi! I caught up with Young paired with Ray Milland in one of those romantic comedies I'd always avoided, The Doctor Takes a Wife, and found her comic timing delightful. It seems I have further investigation to do on the subject of Loretta Young.)
Two Seconds is primarily a showcase for Edward G. Robinson and, like Cagney's shift from The Public Enemy, it's a change of pace. Robinson starred in three features in 1931 and 1932 in between his star-making triumph as Rico in Little Caesar and his tour de force performance in this pain-drenched morality piece, and what it lacks in Taxi!'s straight-ahead momentum it makes up for in the gravity of Robinson's doomed presence. The movie's conceit is that we're seeing the life of humble (and humbled) construction worker John Allen as fate puts the pieces in place that will lead to a murder conviction and his last dramatic moments in the electric chair. (The movie's title is taken from Nolan's reflection on his situation, all of which takes place in the final two seconds of his life before the executioner flips the switch.)
The picture is based on a Broadway play by Elliot Lester, and its roots on the stage are never fully severed by director Mervyn LeRoy. But again, that nasty, pre-Code Warners (or Vitaphone) style plays directly into the movie's strength, providing plenty of scurrilous attitude to counterbalance the wobbly surety of Allen's worldview. Seems he's far too trustworthy when it comes to the female of the species, and damned if dance hall floozy Shirley (Vivienne Osborne) doesn't take advantage of his every generous impulse, fooling him (and us) at first with her feigned sincerity. Allen's cynical pal and co-worker Clark (Preston Foster) suspects the worst, and he gets dealt the worst too, when Allen falls into alcohol-fueled disillusionment and begins to believe that Clark and Shirley are betraying him. The setup and (pardon me) execution of Two Seconds are, I think, a bit more routine than that of Taxi!, but the movie still has a scrappy vitality. And it also has the invaluable depth of Robinson himself. A great character actor who was able to carry movies that would have scuttled the ambitions of more conventionally handsome lead players, he invests Two Seconds with exactly the kind of melodramatic pathos that seems earned by the character, not bestowed upon by the actor. The wild card he and LeRoy have up their sleeve is an extended, expressionistic monologue delivered by Robinson in the courtroom after the delivery of his death sentence that may be every actor's dream but is specifically Robinson's claim to true movie-acting glory. San Francisco Chronicle critic Mick LaSalle once wrote of the actor's glorious emotional upheaval in Two Seconds:
“(Robinson) endows the speech with the shape and size of melodrama, but maintains the precision of a ballet dancer. Remaining true to his core, and so in control, he goes to a deep place, without fear, hesitation or bluffing, using himself unflinchingly.
Though it has been revealed that the murder for which he will be executed was an accident, Allen recognizes his friend's good intentions as well as the dark undercurrent of rage and jealousy in himself and when he pleads to the judge (while looking straight at the camera, and us) for the harshest possible treatment it's an intensely chilling moment of self-condemnation. “It ain't right to kill a man and let a rat live,” he reasons, and of course we already know which creature is the next to die.
This rare encounter with a double feature the likes of Taxi! and Two Seconds threw into vivid relief Mashon's argument that there is a solid pre-Code case to be made for the studio as auteur, Warner Brothers/Vitaphone's sort of industrial-era sociological approach being but one excellent example. But it also presaged my festival experience as one that would lean heavily, and happily, on movies of the pre-Code era and whetted my appetite for more encounters with the movies from this giddy and relatively untamed window of movie history. Citing another of LaSalle's observations, when the critic wrote of an upcoming festival of pre-Code films, “the kick of the pre-Codes is the opposite of nostalgia. Watching them, we don't search for the past in the present. Rather, we discover the present in the past.” This could be a telling truism for the entirety of the TCM Classic Film Festival, or at least a noble aspiration. But in watching Taxi!, Two Seconds and the other delights that were yet to come, LaSalle's notion dawned on me as a sweet revelation, an invitation to explore a rich chapter in film history which hints at the entirely different reality we might be celebrating, had not the forces of censorship insisted on the fork in the road that made it necessary for filmmakers to learn to disguise the more specifically adult aspects of their stories, the fork that has led us to where we are.
Friday afternoon's schedule provided more scheduling challenges. In preparation for the festival, I wrote to a friend, “As much as I'd like to take in the panel on 'The Best Trailers Ever Made' at 2:00 p.m., there's no way I can miss Bigger than Life, screening in the presence of one of my great movie crushes, Barbara Rush… The 4:00 block is another gnarly thicket. You have Girl Crazy—Mickey and Judy with that great Busby Berkeley finish; British Agent, an early Michael Curtiz thriller starring Kay Francis and Cesar Romero; and To Kill a Mockingbird which, like Streetcar earlier, gets bounced simply because I've seen it too many times. So naturally I drifted toward the voyage led by Ray Harryhausen and producer Charles H. Schneer, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad…”
But the sad realities of life have their way of imposing themselves even within the rarified bubble of a film festival. Earlier in the week one of my wife's uncles came to the end of his long life, and his funeral happened to be scheduled a considerable distance away, in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley, for mid-afternoon on this very Friday. I had considered opting for festival-justified funeral exemption status, but I just couldn't do it. As a result, I would have to miss my date with Barbara Rush, not exactly a world-crushing proposition (and I had seen Bigger than Life courtesy of the lovely Criterion Blu-ray very recently). It was a disappointment, but not one to compare with the one I would have felt in myself if I had allowed my love of the movies to overshadow, in this particular moment, my love and respect for my extended family.
Incredibly, Los Angeles traffic on an early Friday afternoon cooperated completely, both to and from the Rose Hills Funeral Home and Mortuary, and by 3:15 I was out of my mourning togs and back inside the Chinese multiplex lobby, where I met up with Ariel and filed into the tiny auditorium for my first 35mm encounter with Ray Harryhausen's seminal and influential Dynamation epic. The pre-show context was provided by film historian Bruce Crawford, who informed the crowd that Harryhausen and Schneer were looking for a simple way to distinguish this new, more lavish and expensive picture from the cheaper films—The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, Earth vs. the Flying Saucers, 20 Million Miles to Earth among them—they had produced before. One way was to use color for the first time; the other was in the approach to the musical score. Harryhausen reportedly wanted to hire Miklos Rosza or Max Steiner, but it was Schneer who insisted upon Bernard Herrmann. Herrmann's score, which some consider to be among the greatest and most influential of all time, would mark the first of four collaborations with the Harryhausen/Schneer team, and according to Raymond it was Herrmann's personal favorite of the four. (The movie screened at TCM as part of a 100th-birthday tribute to Bernard Herrmann; other films in the series included Citizen Kane, The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, The Trouble with Harry, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Taxi Driver.) From its first triumphant fanfare over the movie's credits, Herrmann's score soars and enlivens the drama, elevating the spectacle to a more allusive and sensually ripe plane, even though I have to admit a personal preference for Herrmann's even more thematically adventurous music for Island and Jason. But whether or not they are adorned by Herrmann's grace and grandeur, seeing Harryhausen films projected provides such a distinct experience from the way most movie/fantasy geeks of my generation, myself included, of course, initially took them in—as either Saturday-afternoon matinees perforated by commercials and cuts on TV, or through the magic of super-8mm condensations that could be shown at home anytime we needed a fix. (Remember, youngsters, the days of the very first Betamaxes were still seven or eight years away when I first started recognizing Harryhausen's as a recurring name whose movies could not be missed.)
Seen in a theater, the grandeur and mystery of a movie like Sinbad are largely restored, though my senses were also heightened to the gap between modern technology and more routine achievements of computer-generated imagery. Part of the reason Harryhausen's films had and still have magic in them is due to the fact that they are quite literally hand-made; Harryhausen didn't supervise a battleship-sized effects squadron; he was a crew of one, and he laid down on the miniature sets and moved each creature himself, incrementally, creating the illusion of movement one frame at a time. But those groundbreaking fantasy films are special too because they stood apart on the landscape of the year's release schedule. Though apprentice animators like David Allen and Jim Danforth were eventually part of projects that eventually tried to recapture the allure of their mentor's movies, there was quite simply nothing else like a Harryhausen/Schneer joint at the time. They weren't just one more example of a Hollywood slate overloaded on images aspiring to the awesome, stretched extra-wide to compete for the rapidly deteriorating attention-spans of an audience sated and bored by repeated exposure to the impossible, the fantastic, the absurdly overscaled. Movies like The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Mysterious Island and Jason and the Argonauts were the fountains of imagination from whence sprang the inspiration of an entire generation of filmmakers, for better and most certainly for worse. As I was watching the exploits of Sinbad (Kerwin Matthews), the tiny Princess Parisa (the exquisite Kathryn Grant) and the villainous Sokurah (Torin Thatcher) I fell under the spell of that handmade quality just like always, and seeing the movie writ so large for the very first time I also luxuriated in imagining what it must have been like to be among the first to have ever seen such a marvel unspool on the big screen back in 1957.
But I also felt myself becoming a little protective of the movie's relative innocence. I've heard enough pseudo-sophisticated complaining about the quaint artificiality of Harryhausen's animation, and always in comparison to the supposedly superior marvels of today's technologically pristine achievement in visual effects, that I begin to shift into defensive mode even when no one is audibly complaining. Today's visual effects largely aim to completely obliterate the need for a suspension of disbelief; and when the subject is a one-eyed Cyclops fighting Sinbad and his scurrying soldiers on a beach, that's a tall order to fill. Harryhausen's movies argue eloquently for the audience's role in filling that gap between what they see and what they understand to be possible. This is admittedly a strange role for a fantasy film to fulfill, and I doubt this was heavy on the minds of Harryhausen and company when 7th Voyage was released. But now, when movies like Sinbad exist as historical artifacts afloat on a sea crowded with increasingly irrelevant big-budget effects extravaganzas, there is, as I see it, increased value in the films of this earlier generation that provided their own miracles but do not insist, as so many modern movies do, on doing all the work, when they deign to do any work at all. The audience must allow itself to be transported in a Harryhausen film, not only to the fantastical world that the film inhabits, but also to a world of the past where audiences sat in rapt anticipation of being swept away instead of in a state of bemused indifference at the prospect of having seen it all, daring the movie to blow them away. And transported we were on that Friday afternoon, back to a Saturday-matinee sensibility that proved that the thrill was far from gone, and that the essence of those thrills was still accessible in the imprecise, soulful fantasy evocations of an effects master whose last work was done 30 years ago but whose ability to transfix willing audiences remains as potent as ever.
Eats at this year's TCM Festival were economically dictated. Each day I packed a cooler bag full of sandwiches and a couple of waters in an attempt to eschew the siren call of the street dog, always a Hollywood temptation, the tempting aroma wafting from the Johnny Rockets burger franchise just around the corner from the Chinese's lobby, and the endless availability of popcorn and Diet Pepsi in the theater itself. The sandwiches worked their space-occupying magic, and they were much cheaper than hitting Johnny Rockets for breakfast, lunch and dinner too. I did allow myself one bag of popcorn and one Diet Pepsi per day, though, and since I only left the friendly confines of the Chinese multiplex once during the entire run of the festival the true value of the refillable large popcorn and soda sizes soon became evident. If part of the subtext of this year's festival was, for me anyway, reducing expenditures, then I had indeed done a pretty good job of making a 15-movie run on my own culinary ingenuity and the fumes emanating from my wallet. A quick bite to eat in between movies, or just as often gobbled during the movie thanks to the bottomless indulgence of my friends and everyone else seated around me (at least I left the egg salad at home!), and I was in good shape. And so it was as I stumbled out of the #3, gobbled my own pre-packed delights and got back in line to go right back in to the same auditorium for dessert in the form of the evening's early indulgence, Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living (1933).
While waiting, those of us who were near the front of the queue were treated to the embarrassing spectacle of a festivalgoer taking the low road of smug entitlement and berating one of the festival's exceedingly friendly staffers over a perceived slight involving his placement in line and the fact that a few people had (accidentally) been admitted ahead of him. The rumpled punk kept loudly insisting, over repeated attempts by the patient staffer to get a word in edgewise and explain what had happened, that the staffer stop treating him as if he were a moron, to which those of us within earshot of his snotty tirade could only think, “Then stop giving her reason to, moron!” It wasn't as if his admittance into the auditorium hung in the balance; he still had the pick of the 140-or-so seats that would be waiting when he finally got inside. No, it was just another exercise in ugly behavior leveled for no reason other than the fact that the opportunity arose and the porkpie-topped bulldog seized it. I had a grand time shaking my head in disbelief and embarrassment over this display along with a couple of exceptionally friendly gentlemen from Illinois who were standing in line with me, Vince Golik and Jim Brooks. It turned out that I would run into these guys a few more times before the weekend was over, and each time we had a grand time talking about the gems of the festival so far, including our discussion before Design for Living in anticipation of yet another Lubitsch classic that none of us had ever seen in such a splendid situation before.
In fact, the commiseration we enjoyed before the movie shines a light on yet another plus regarding the TCM Festival that at first seemed like a muffed opportunity but which in retrospect plays like a calculated gamble that paid off nicely. By now all the festival-goers had become well acquainted with the short rotation of TCM bumpers playing on screen before each feature, my favorite of which laid down a keen pop-up-book visual theme, accompanied aurally by a pleasing and altogether catchy drum-and-bass line which was thrown into relief by the slightest hint of glockenspiel added on top like a dollop of musical cherries. At first I thought that TCM might have put the empty screen time to better use with short films and information much like that which punctuates the airtime in between screenings on the network. But if the audience was all staring up at the screen for a bunch of what would amount to pre-movie commercials, we would be less likely to be spending that time in interaction with each other, trading stories, comparing notes, discovering mutual loves and hates, or otherwise getting to know fellow film fans in the fashion that has quickly become the hallmark of this film festival. I would much rather spend time enjoying the experience of this unique festival with people I've never met, even if it's just to buzz about the bad behavior of other audience members, than by killing time absorbing on-screen factoids that I could access any-ol'-where. The fact is, the enthusiasm of people like Vince and Jim is what makes the TCM Film Festival special to me, and I'd be a fool to let anything distract me from accessing that enthusiasm. It's an essential part of why I wanted to come back for my second year in the first place.
The screening of Design for Living not only continued the theme of pre-Code Hollywood treasures that seemed to be coalescing around the festival, it also gave occasion to add another chapter in my continuing love affair with Miriam Hopkins, which was well stoked last year with the rare presentation of her triumphant turn in The Story of Temple Drake. Hopkins started off her show business career as a dancer, but a broken ankle sidelined an early opportunity to travel with a ballet troupe. So she threw her efforts behind getting an acting career started, leaning on her Georgia lineage to lend her credence and power to Broadway roles such as the original production of Jezebel in 1933. But it was the movies whose call she answered, debuting in 1930's Fast and Loose with Carole Lombard and Frank Morgan (and mouthing Preston Sturges' dialogue). Her very next movie, The Smiling Lieutenant, found her in the employ of Ernst Lubitsch, a writer and director who had a lot to do with the fact that within a couple of years Hopkins was one of the premiere stars at Paramount Studios. (She would also work with Rouben Mamoulian—twice, memorably—William Wyler, King Vidor and Howard Hawks, among many others, before the end of her life in 1972.) Hopkins' star may not shine as brightly today, largely because many of the pre-Code films which made her a star are either unavailable or have only recently emerged in digital form—classics like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), 24 Hours (1931) and The Story of Temple Drake (1933) being prime examples. But her movies with Lubitsch alone would be ample evidence to support a case for her status as one of the premiere actresses of any age, and Design for Living, though less well-regarded overall than Trouble in Paradise, is still a crown jewel in their three-film collaboration.
Many have commented on Noël Coward's original play being tamed for Hollywood, but as an example of the insouciance of pre-Code Hollywood this adaptation of Design for Living still packs a punch, even if it is wrapped in the gossamer accoutrements of the “Lubitsch touch.” Hard to believe Hollywood in any era could ever be so casual about a ménage-a-trois, explicitly laid out or subtly coded and implied, as Lubitsch was in presenting the romantic intertwining of two bohemian artists, an apprentice playwright and a fledging painter (Fredric March and Gary Cooper, respectively, and both cast quite against type) who meet up with a spunky commercial artist (Hopkins) on a train bound for Paris. The attraction of both men to Hopkins is mutual and obvious from the start, and the actress has a high old time telegraphing both the mutual attraction and the kick of being the object of doubled affection. Having all three fallen in love, they eschew convention and the rather more pressing necessity of money and make the logical/illogical and utterly romantic decision to live together, albeit celibately (there's Will Hays's contribution, thank you) in a futile effort to forestall jealousy and the inevitable fractions of emotion and loyalty.
Part of the resistance to the film at the time was anchored in the recasting of the leads as Americans—the lovers were played by Alfred Lunt, Lynn Fontaine and Coward himself on stage. But the movie also serves as a superb example of the kind of artful camouflage that would become standard operating procedure for writers and directors in response to the impositions of the newly formed Hays Office. The censoring board found Coward's play far too risqué and issued commands to Hecht and Lubitsch to tone down the sexual innuendo and downplay the nature of the characters' relationship. It's difficult to say just how much of the tone and intent of Coward was masked from appreciative audiences in 1933, but in 2011 it's a real tonic that the movie's leisurely depiction of a romantic threesome makes it to the screen and to us unmitigated by prudery or judgment—one critic who penned an appreciation of the movie for the New York Writers Institute, aptly described “Lubitsch's cosmopolitan air” as one that “makes a film about a ménage-a-trois seem about as regular as a nickel streetcar ride.”
Design for Living retains enough of Coward in spirit, combined with the unexpectedly fizzy results from the chemistry of its stars, that it can stand alone as a comedy classic, certainly one that fits in well within Lubitsch's luminous oeuvre. And the movie's unconventional casting, trading in the blasé upper-class cynicism of the Lunt-Fontaine-Coward combo for the chipper fish-out-of-water exuberance of Americans on the road, is a key to its lasting quality. The relatively straight-laced March and Cooper find unexpectedly fertile footing in sophisticated romantic comedy, so much so that they are not entirely upstaged even by the likes of Edward Everett Horton and Franklin Pangborn. One has to believe that their unconventional casting here provided illumination onto aspects of their capabilities that would change the way they were perceived by audiences and casting directors alike for the remainder of their long careers. As for Miriam Hopkins, the bright light generated by her magical flightiness and air of perpetual longing in Design for Living helped to ensure that she would encapsulate the distilled naughtiness and nonchalant spark of the pre-Code era even if her post-'30s career never fully lived up to it.
I filed out of the screening thinking the screen never seemed so silver as when Lubitsch threw light on it. In contrast, the lobby of the Chinese multiplex, packed with people as it had been all day, felt far more tarnished, dense with the battling aromas of body odor, cheap cologne (the halfhearted attempt to counter the inevitable B.O. of a days' worth of cinema sitting) and freshly popped popcorn, the buttery lusciousness of which almost had the strength to deck the forces of those other olfactory offenses. But all was okay, because I was perched high on the Lubitsch cloud, where the real world seemed distant and removed at such an elevation. Which meant that I was in no mood to follow through on my original plan to end Friday's programming with Shirley Clarke's experimental, free-jazz adaptation of Jack Gelber's play The Connection (1961), a critique of the documentary form centering around a group of junkies and their relationship with the documentary crew (including Roscoe Lee Browne in his first film) who are filming them. I opted instead to let the artifice continue and closed the night out with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), a screening that would be graced by surprises both welcome and disconcerting.
Before the screening, I was delighted to make another new friend and bump into an old one as well. I sat down next to a woman whose name I would soon discover was Carrie Specht. Carrie turned out to be, among many other things, an assistant director and a writer who was also covering the festival for her Web site Classic Film School, a self-described “Online Resource for The Classic Movie Fan” which has plenty of links to satisfy precisely the kind of audience packing the house for a grand old MGM musical. Carrie was accompanied by her mother, a delightful lady who seemed to be enjoying herself in the company of so much Hollywood history, as well as that of her attentive and enthusiastic daughter. And joining us before the lights dimmed an old pal, Michael Schlesinger, independent producer and consultant for Sony Pictures Home Entertainment. Michael is a great friend to the interests of the classic film lover and to the promotion of film history, not to mention a raconteur of the first order, which he will amply prove if you're ever lucky enough to spend time talking film with him. It was he who prompted the inclusion of one of the big highlights of last year's festival, the riotously funny Fred MacMurray/Marjorie Main comedy Murder, He Says, which he was quick to point out was yet another terrific comedy from the pen of the reliable classic Hollywood journeyman Lou Breslow, one of the many names that Michael has clued me into since I've gotten to know him. Michael Schlesinger would introduce, in his inimitable and fascinatingly informed way, a highlight yet to come in this year's festival too, but tonight he was here to soak up the majestic romantic comedy of Stanley Donen's musical, enlivened as it is by Michael Kidd's groundbreaking choreography, which fills and sometimes threatens to burst the boundaries of an already bounteous wide-screen frame.
But before the lights went down, the audience was in for yet another treat, the kind for which the TCM Classic Film Festival has quickly become known—film critic and historian Leonard Maltin took a seat in front of the giant empty screen and promptly introduced one of the stars of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, the vivacious and quick-humored Jane Powell. The anecdotal tenor of the TCM Festival Q&As do much to reinforce the sense of intimate connection the viewer, the fan, has with any certain beloved title, and it was clear from the start that we lucky 800 or 900 audience members felt more like we were in Powell's living room listening to old friends revisit favored memories rather than in a cavernous stadium-type auditorium. Powell recounted how she moved with her family from Portland, Oregon, where she had been singing on the radio since age seven, to Los Angeles, where her singing career gained even more traction on a program called Hollywood Showcase.
The name of the show was a prescient one, and as a result of her appearance there singing an aria from Carmen she ended up on the radio show hosted by Charlie McCarthy, which quickly led to signing an MGM contract. Despite the fact that her movement at a very young age from radio celebrity to possible film stardom seemed almost predestined, Powell was never a performer who radiated pretense—she very much was the essence of the girl next door that her early movies indicated, and her warm demeanor in front of the TCM crowd (at age 82) did nothing to dispel that down-to-earth appeal. The young-at-heart star of Royal Wedding (1951), Hit the Deck (1955) and of course Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, would have us believe that there was little to her blithe and engaging film persona that was the result of anything she specifically brought to the table. “All I ever did was change clothes!” she remarked to Maltin of her many roles, a comment that practically brought the house down with its misplaced (though apparently sincere) modesty. The movie we saw immediately following that claim served as the most profound refutation possible.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers remains one of the great explosions of energy in the MGM musical canon, and Powell's spunky conviction and sharp timing is right at its core, amplified by the movie's mixture of the intimate and the grandiose and its thrilling expansion of the parameters of dance in the movies. (It's hard to believe a standard 1.85 aspect ratio was ever considered for this movie, but the evidence is right there on the movie's 2004 DVD release—one was shot and then, thankfully, abandoned for CinemaScope.) The movie has a robust conviction and lightness of spirit that completely neutralizes any complaints that one might possibly mount regarding the aesthetic choice of staging this musical, which has at its heart a celebration of the possibilities of freedom and change as exemplified by its great Pacific Northwest setting, in such a set-bound manner. Hollywood was still a few years away from the relative realism lent by location shooting for musicals like South Pacific and West Side Story ushered in, and for Donen and Kidd any serious thought of making Seven Brides outdoors was quashed by the status of Brides as a kind of B-picture during production. (MGM was far more interested in the concurrent production of Brigadoon, another musical tied to specific locations that would be forced indoors for its shoot.) But one of the glories of Seven Brides is how it turns that artifice into an advantage—the audience's awareness of the entirety of the movie as a creation heightened by its swooning, sweeping stylization is, I think, central to its success, and it certainly helps the audience leap over some of the occasional benignly boorish behavior of those brothers.
Unfortunately, the print made available for the TCM Film Festival highlighted a more pressing concern, that of film preservation. According to a press release from the Museum of Modern Art trumpeting a 1996 restored print commissioned for Turner Entertainment, MGM, which had not expected the movie to be a major success at the box-office, found itself in the position of having mass-produced release prints from the original camera negative rather than the more customary practice of copying the duplicate negative. Seven Brides was shot (as was Brigadoon) in Ansco Color, and in addition to damage to the original negative, the inferior (and by 1996 obsolete) Ansco Color process resulted in color temperatures that varied wildly and did not match the newer color film stock. Robert Osborne reported in his column of September 12, 1996, that only 40% of the original negative was usable for the restoration and that “the remaining 60% was created by combining elements from duplicate negatives and other sources.” The print shown at the TCM Festival that Friday night, however, was in such disarray in terms of its color timing that it's disconcerting to believe that this could have been one of the best available prints for such a high-profile screening. (The tint of Howard Keel's flame-red beard seems to go through multiple gradations in the first few minutes alone, sometimes varying from shot to shot.) We discussed the print problem with Michael afterward, who was also surprised that this would be the print chosen to show, but not at all surprised that a film processed in Ansco Color would, 56 years down the line, end up looking so shoddy. For all the great efforts in film preservation already logged, it's clear that we, meaning the preservationists who do the work as well as the audience who benefits from it and must continue to support it, have a lot of work left to do.
Day 3: Went the Day Well!
I hopped off the train at the Hollywood and Highland stop on Saturday morning fully revved up. This would be the day that I would finally keep my date with Roy and Dale and Trigger too, and it would make for an amusing and illuminating Saturday matinee double bill at this year's festival built around the humble origins of one cowboy myth and the agonized legacy of yet another.
My first stop was the by-now well-familiar Chinese #3, where inside I would see Cheryl Rogers-Barnett, Roy and Dale's daughter, introduce the movie Rogers always considered his favorite, My Pal Trigger (1946), the picture that purports to tell the origin story of Roy's best four-legged pal. (I don't recall seeing a title card that said anything like “Based on True Events,” so I decided it was best to assume the story had been somewhat fictionalized…) Rogers-Barnett regaled the receptive, smallish crowd with tales of her famous movie parents and growing up in Hollywood, tales which were punctuated by a screening before the feature of Harriet Parsons' Republic Pictures short subject Meet Roy Rogers—Rogers-Barnett can be seen in a couple of shots of these promotional piece on her mom's shoulder, in diapers.
My Pal Trigger is, of course, a romanticized and typically silly picture, but also completely charming in its unabashed embrace of its own modest mythology. Roy Rogers plays a traveling horse trader by the name of Roy Rogers (he was essentially the same character and persona in every movie) who wants to mate his mare with Golden Sovereign, a superb stallion owned by a crusty and cranky rancher named Gabby Kendrick (Gabby Hayes, in his patented, full-on grizzled old fart glory). But Gabby doesn't think Roy's mare is a worthy match and blows him off, which of course doesn't do much to discourage Roy. He hangs around the ranch in the hopes of changing Gabby's mind, unaware that at the same time nefarious gambler Brett Scoville (essayed with oily surety by veteran nasty Jack Holt) has orchestrated the theft of Golden Sovereign. The stallion manages to escape Scoville's clutches long enough to hook up with Roy's mare, at which poi