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. (Mental note: Blu-ray comes out soon.) 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.
The screening was introduced by Michael Schlesinger, independent producer and consultant at Sony Pictures Entertainment, who began by giving the crowd a crash course on the filmography of director George Marshall—he directed the very similarly-themed The Ghost Breakers (1940) with Bob Hope and Scared Stiff (1950) starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, as well as the excellent film noir The Blue Dahlia (1946) with Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake—and journeyman screenwriter Lou Breslow, touted by Schlesinger as one of those names which when you see it in the credits virtually guarantees a good time.
Schlesinger proved to be a very lively guide into the film, displaying a sharp wit as he placed Marshall’s film into its proper cultural context—the idea of murder as the subject for a comedy was not exactly prevalent in Hollywood at the time, he said, until Arsenic and Old Lace, which ran on Broadway for years and which became a hit film in 1944 for Cary Grant and Frank Capra. By the time Murder, He Says made it to screens, audiences were ready for a comedy with some pretty grisly undercurrents, one which, incredibly, Schlesinger pretty accurately described as a parody of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 30 years before that horror classic was even made. The story involves MacMurray’s Pete Marshall, a representative of the Trotter Polling Company (“We’re like the Gallup Poll, only we’re not in as big of a hurry”) who stumbles onto the spooky lair of the Fleagles, a family of homicidal hillbillies, while searching for a missing colleague. The family is headed by Marjorie Main, in a deranged, whip-cracking dress rehearsal for a career as Ma Kettle (Main and MacMurray would reunite in The Egg and I two years later, the movie that introduced Main’s famous backwoods matriarch). She may be the picture’s Main delight, but she’s not the only one—Peter Whitney, as the Jethro-esque twins Mert and Bert, is equally inspired, as is Porter Hall as Ma Fleagle’s latest put-upon husband, and Jean Heather as poor, mentally unstable daughter Elany Fleagle, who holds the key to the movie’s mystery in her coy refusal to decode the meaning of the movie’s melodic nursery rhyme, which burrows into your head like a haunted-house version of “It’s a Small World.” (Heather previously appeared with MacMurray as Lola Dietrichson, daughter of the scheming Phyllis, in Double Indemnity.)
Schlesinger amply warned those of us in attendance, but it’s hard to believe just how hilarious Murder, He Says is, with its farcical velocity and barrage of sight gags which the movie insists on artfully restaging and then brilliantly topping, until you find yourself swept up in the breezily deadly current, gasping for breath between belly laughs and even a few genuine shivers. For sheer enjoyment and happiness, this was the biggest surprise of the festival for me, and it certainly deserves rescuing from relative obscurity to take its rightful place at the top of the heap which includes Arsenic and Old Lace, The Ghost Breakers, and Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, grand, giddy examples of classic Hollywood’s jones for comic jitters.
The Egyptian Theater is only a couple of blocks away from the Chinese theater complex in Hollywood, but in order to make sure I made it through all the anticipated foot traffic in time for the 3:30 screening of Imitation of Life that was scheduled there, I had to pass on both of the movies I really wanted to see in Friday’s second slot—Alexander Mackendrick’s Sweet Smell of Success (with Tony Curtis in attendance) and Raoul Walsh’s epic western The Big Trail. But again, the situation worked in favor of me seeing a movie I had never seen, so for this particular sort of dilemma it was a pretty easy solution to accept. And the movie I would see—Otto Preminger’s wide-screen adaptation of Carmen Jones (1954)—provided the third part in my brief impromptu overview of the many different permutations of the classic Hollywood musical form.
As I knew next to nothing of the film’s star, Dorothy Dandridge, I was extremely lucky that the film was introduced by film historian and scholar Donald Bogle, author of the seminal 1973 study Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films as well as the definitive biography on Dandridge, who would become the very first African-American to be nominated for the best leading actress Academy Award. Bogle proved to be an integral part of my experience with the film—the details of what Dandridge went through to secure the part, his guidance on observing the tiniest of details in her performance, and how much Carmen contrasted her own rather reserved, insecure personality enriched the tension I felt coming from her as she slipped into the skin of this most unusual of African-American characters (for her time), one with a strong sense of her own sexuality, her own place in the world, one which neither Dandridge nor Preminger invites us to moralize over even as she makes it clear she can and will manipulate the world to get what she wants.
Bogle offered plenty of insight into the production of the film, taking care to note that neither Dandridge nor costar Harry Belafonte were allowed to voice their own singing parts (the lead role of Carmen was sung by a young Marilyn Horne). But both actors were expert at lip-synching and maintaining a strong sense of their characters even though their own voices were absent, and so the movie does not ultimately suffer for this artistic choice. As for the music itself, Hammerstein retained the spirit and the letter of Bizet’s opera, and Preminger trains his wide-screen camera on an alternating series of simple tableau (all the better for soaking in the range and energy of the performers) and elaborate set pieces—the roadhouse sequence where Carmen meets boxer Husky Miller is rich with expressive tracking and other subtle camera movement. The movies Carmen Jones most superficially resembles are those of Minnelli—Preminger’s wide-screen compositions evoke the kind of lived-in yet slightly heightened environments of which Minnelli was a master, but without that director’s pictorial lyricism and sensitivity to the tension between the splashy Technicolor surfaces and the roiling undercurrent of his character’s darker emotions. Preminger provides whatever grit there is in the movie’s mise-en-scène, but his visual scheme is a bit dreary; he’s clearly inspired more by Dandridge’s fire than anything in his own gut. And Dandridge is spectacular; as Carmen, she’s a blithe, tortured beauty who is allowed to enjoy her own transgressions without the requisite hand-wringing, and you can feel the degree to which Dandridge herself must have felt freed by the opportunity to play this sexual tornado of a character.
When Carmen stands above the crowd assessing the heavyweight champion Miller as he arrives in the roadhouse to rapturous attention, she stares down at him with a mixture of desire and disdain, and Dandridge’s naturally insinuating smile takes on a further degree of fascination as the right side of her luscious mouth curls up and seems to join with a small mole on her upper lip into a leer of appropriately operatic grandeur and erotic force. It’s to some degree a trick of the lighting, but Dandridge has already laid the groundwork for that trick to work for her smoldering interpretation of Carmen, and of that scene, in ways that neither she nor her director may have been able to anticipate. Early on she describes herself in lyric to Belafonte as “a streamlined engine that won’t wait,” and Dandridge lives up to that description in every way. Ultimately, the movie seems somewhat conventional—it doesn’t quite take shadowy wing the way I hoped it would, and it might have benefited from the flights of visual fancy that a less literal-minded director would have brought to the material. But Dandridge is plenty reason enough to see Carmen Jones, and the beautiful print that shone here at the festival showcased her better than she’s been showcased in over 50 years.
The lone performer in the film who was capable enough as an actress and as a singer to navigate the musical landscape of the movie was Olga James, who played Cindy Lou, the innocent beauty spurned by Belafonte in favor of Carmen’s irresistible sexual allure. I would never have known who she was had Bogle not acknowledged her presence in the auditorium and introduced her to the crowd. As she stood up to acknowledge the appreciative applause I realized she was sitting in the row directly in front of me. She wasn’t there to be interviewed; she was there to see the film, and her presence made taking in Carmen Jones in this setting even more emotional than it might otherwise have been.
The florid directorial touches of Douglas Sirk always look better on the big screen, and this was true even when presented in a sub-par print (by TCM Classic Film Festival standards, anyway), as was the director’s brilliant Imitation of Life (1959) for its mid-Friday afternoon screening at the Egyptian Theater. Those who praise Sirk often do so with backhanded compliments or by insisting that the movies are somehow coded with irony and undercurrents whose perception is necessary in order to make sense of or otherwise justify the enjoyment of the purple passion which courses through the movies’ veins. But just because the pleasures and tensions and meanings of a movie like Imitation of Life are right there on the surface doesn’t make them less valuable, less valid, less artistically sound.
Sirk had a way of investing every ounce of credibility into the richly sensational and emotionally complex scenarios he chose to film, and I think the many dismissals of it as high-gloss soap opera are ways of not dealing with the fact that Sirk is so successful in delivering the power of other more “legitimate” forms of dramas within his own lush melodramatic spectacles. Written on the Wind, for example, is just about beyond criticism in my mind as an exploration of the chasm between haves and have-nots, and the withering internal destruction of those we’d like to imagine have no cause to be so self-hating, and that’s largely due to the way Sirk pierces his lavish, near-undulating frames, and the actors within them, with a pain that burrows underneath their surface beauty. Imitation of Life is a great movie, although maybe less so than Written on the Wind, and it is a genuine revelation to realize what kind of punch it still packs as a piece of social observation 51 years after its release. It’s hard for me to think of too many other depictions of conflict within a racial group itself that succeed on a purely dramatic level as well as the way Sirk frames and shapes the conflict between Annie Johnson (Juanita Moore), a hard-working mother who is proud of her racial identity, and her light-skinned daughter Sarah Jane (Susan Kohner), who aches to pass as white and resents her mother’s refusal to back away from publicly claiming her daughter as her own. Sirk gently contrasts the friction between Annie and Sarah Jane with the virtual lack thereof between ambitious platinum-blonde actress Lora Meredith (Lana Turner) and her daughter, a striking physical reflection of Lora embodied by Sandra Dee’s Susie. Imitation of Life was Turner’s first picture after the scandal involving the stabbing death of her lover Johnny Stompanato inflicted upon him by her real-life daughter, Cheryl Crane, so it wouldn’t have been much of a leap for audiences of the time to see through the surface happiness projected in the Turner-Dee relationship and inform it with what they knew of Turner’s tempestuous relationship with Crane.
In fact, Cheryl Crane had introduced the screening of The Bad and the Beautiful earlier in the day, and my latest acquaintance, Suzanne from Dallas, Texas, a self-proclaimed Lana worshipper who attended that screening, spotted Crane in the Egyptian courtyard mingling and signing autographs before Imitation of Life got under way. But if Crane went inside she did not stand up to acknowledge Robert Osborne when he called out to her from the stage before bringing out the afternoon’s special guests, and it’s probably a good thing too. When Juanita Moore, 94, came into the auditorium with her costar Susan Kohner to discuss the film and their lives in the ensuing years since its release, the feisty actress dished to the genial TCM host perhaps a bit more than he bargained for. After some talk about what the film had meant to Moore and whether her parts got better as a result of the response to Imitation of Life (“Nope!” she quickly responded), Osborne began asking Moore about Turner and her relationship with Crane. He asserted that Crane turned out to be a beautiful woman, Moore begged to differ, insisting that Crane was always kind of a “big” girl and, despite Osborne’s protestations, not particularly attractive. Moore also alluded to the drug problems Crane herself documented in a recent book, and when Osborne expressed a modicum of relief that Turner lived long enough to see Crane begin to straighten herself out, Moore insisted that observation was incorrect as well. As the murmurs began to ripple through the audience—I couldn’t tell if they were bemused ripples or uncomfortable ones—Osborne would begin directing questions to Kohner, who dropped out of show business after 10 films, married the well-known fashioner designer and novelist John Weitz and gave birth to Chris and Paul Weitz, both currently directors of mainstream Hollywood fare like American Pie, About a Boy, and The Twilight Saga: New Moon. But the spotlight always swung back to the brutally forthright Moore, who claimed that Turner had no one to turn to during the production of the film except her and that the troubled star eventually opened up profoundly to Moore about the scandalous difficulties she had recently endured as well as Turner’s relationship with her daughter, which Moore claimed was never fully resolved before she died in 1995. Like her indefatigably spirited character on screen, Juanita Moore proved herself to be equally full of life (no imitation here), if slightly more irascible than Annie ever was. At 94, she could still cause a stir amongst the TCM faithful, who were as undoubtedly glad they came to see her as she clearly was to be there. As Moore herself self-effacingly put it, “I’m just glad to be anywhere!”
After the Imitation of Life Q&A ran understandably long, I ended up having to walk/run back to the Chinese in order to make it on time for the 6:30 p.m. screening of Elia Kazan’s well-regarded but rarely seen Wild River (1960). It turned out to be well worth the effort, even though the sprint itself proved unnecessary. The huge auditorium was packed by the time I arrived, but I had no idea that in addition to a presentation of the film itself by director Curtis Hanson, the festival programmers had built in a bit of extra time for a screening of a nine-minute short produced through The Film Foundation, one of the groups responsible for the restoration of Kazan’s film, exclusively for the TCM Classic Film Festival. Essentially a talking-heads piece that hits point-by-point the urgency of the mission toward an all-encompassing approach to film restoration and preservation, the short proved its worth by emphasizing the need for the preservation not only of major works but also minor ones as well. The well-expressed point, iterated by Martin Scorsese and a few less familiar faces, is that regardless of their relative worth as art, even the most trivial film might still serve as the creative spark for a writer or director somewhere down the line. The Film Foundation itself emphasizes the preservation of any kind of film, including newsreels, shorts, industrial films, news footage—no filmed material is deemed too insignificant for a project whose expressed intent is the preservation not only of physical film specimens but of our own cultural collective memory as well. The piece was introduced by producer and Film Foundation representative Margaret Bodde, who is one of the short’s featured talking heads. By the time I’d seen this piece another three times over the course of the weekend I’d developed a big film geek crush on Bodde, fueled not only by her passion for shepherding films to safety and preservation, but also by the fact that, well, she’s pretty cute. (Good combination!)
Less cute, but no less an authority on film preservation efforts is Hanson, who genially introduced Kazan’s movie to an audience that, it was revealed after his informal poll, was largely unfamiliar with it. (He further endeared himself to the crowd at one point by letting loose an epic Freudian slip in referring to the film as The River Wild.) Hanson made note of the film’s history and put forth some information about the restoration, which was sponsored by the Film Foundation, Fox (who owns the film), and AMPAS, and he had nothing but supportive words for Turner Classic Movies, which he proclaimed “allows time to be on the side of the artists in its backing of film preservation efforts of both high and low profile.” (Such a contrast to a showing of 2001: A Space Odyssey at the Cinerama Dome on the theater’s 25th anniversary, when the man introducing the movie thanked Ted Turner for the print and got roundly booed for his trouble.) Soon Hanson turned to the movie itself and made particular mention of the brilliant, ambivalent character turn by star Montgomery Clift, as a Tennessee Valley Authority agent during the Depression of the 1930s who is sent to convince stubborn matriarch Jo Van Fleet (playing 80 at a time when she was 40) to evacuate her property in order to facilitate the flooding of the river and the creation of a dam. Hanson also suggested that particular attention should be paid to Van Fleet—as if anyone with eyes could turn away from her at any time during this painfully lovely film. She has a speech during which she attempts to explain her apparently irrational stubbornness to Clift near the beginning of the film that had me literally shaking with excitement. How could a performance this rich and powerful not be routinely cited as one of the peaks in the history of screen acting?
That said, Lee Remick delivers as complex a piece of work as I’ve ever seen her produce as Van Fleet’s conflicted daughter, who sees the reason behind Clift’s position as well the emotional hooks the land has embedded in her mother’s coarsened hide. But for a filmmaker known primarily for the performances he manages to coax from his leads, including some of the most iconic performances in film history, I was particularly struck by the delicate structure and pace that Kazan navigates over the course of Wild River. The movie is urgent and demanding without ever resorting to cheap theatrics or histrionics, thanks largely to the sensitivity coaxed from the pages of Paul Osborn’s script. Kazan makes the script’s structure blossom thematically through the ways he integrates his actors and their environment, each expressing degrees of the other through his own eye and that of his brilliant cinematographer, Ellsworth Fredericks. Wild River has the feeling of flowing uninterrupted, like the water that surrounds the island which it may soon engulf, placid on the surface but for the swirling hints of the dark churning underneath. Along with Murder, He Says, Kazan’s film was the major personal discovery I made during the festival.
It had been a long time, probably not since college, since I’d seen this many movies in one day. I had now made it through four, with two still to go, and I was beginning to feel a little weary—after all, I’d been at it since 10:00 a.m. and it was now approaching 9:30 p.m. Even so, I had high hopes from the remaining two selections on my schedule, and I enjoyed talking with a couple from Fort Worth, Texas, named Miles and Jo, film fans whose revival cinemas prospects at home are practically nonexistent. We enjoyed hashing over the highs (no lows to speak of) from the festival so far, and we were all was grateful to see so many people lined up ahead and behind us to see one of the lineup’s least-known offerings, St. John Legh Clowes’s once-notorious British film noir cheapie No Orchids for Miss Blandish (1948). But alas, they cannot all be diamonds, even the ones touted as the more routine and rough-hewn of gems. This movie has been preceded by a lurid reputation that, as it turned out, is far more entertaining than the movie itself, especially when presented by legendary NYC Film Forum programmer and raconteur extraordinaire Bruce Goldstein, as it was before our screening. I met up with pal Bob Westal, who was covering the festival as well, in the lobby before the show commenced. Bob had missed out on The Stunt Man, his film of choice for the evening, and since he and I had already made plans to meet up for the midnight movie later on he decided to make his way to the Chinese #3 for No Orchids.
Bob and I enjoyed immensely Goldstein’s accounts of the film’s initial reception in Britain, both by the press and by bluenoses of the government and royal variety. The movie, an all-British attempt at fashioning a gritty New York-set film noir, revolves around the kidnapping of a heiress who, however improbably, falls in love with her kidnapper, at which point the movie even more improbably begins to emphasize the reciprocally romantic angle with an increasingly treacherous lack of focus. (The parallels to the story line of the following night’s featured pre-code selection The Story of Temple Drake would extend not only to the film’s general plot elements and its roots in William Faulkner’s Sanctuary, but also to the casting—B-movie tough guy Jack la Rue would play virtually the same part, that of a the gangster kidnapper/rapist, in both pictures, though to much more devastating effect in the older film.) Critic Dilys Powell, writing in The Sunday Times, said upon the release of No Orchids that it should have been rated “D for disgusting.” (A slide Goldstein showed of Powell revealed her to appear to be more stiffly laced than even that comment would suggest.) C.A. Lejeune, film critic for The Observer, was no more circumspect when he wrote that the film had “all the morals of an alley cat and the sweetness of a sewer.” Of course the movie did bang-up business in the U.K., and even here in the States where it was released as The Snatch (!). But although it was potent stuff next to Brief Encounter or the average Powell-Pressburger picture of the time—lots of gunplay, some at close range, and the hint of sexual innuendo—it hardly seems the stuff of the end of the British film industry, as it was so touted by one reactionary government official. Nor does it stand up in the rawness department next to any number of American films noir with which it and its makers were so clearly infatuated.
Following Goldstein in front of the curtain before the film commenced was British actor and apparent representative of the British film industry Tim Roth, who had only seen the film for the first time the night before and seemed downright speechless when pressed to speak about it. He nervously rattled on about the poor American accents, the muddy lighting, and the editing, acknowledging that it had been executed at nowhere near the clip of any equivalent routine American crime movie. But he emphasized the observation that No Orchids was created with such love for the form of American movie storytelling as it is manifested in film noir that “if you stick with it” Roth insisted it would eventually get to you. But as the movie unspooled before me, that sentiment seemed like simple wishful thinking and nothing more. No Orchids, despite its rep, never delivers even modestly on its lurid premise, and it’s too much a ragbag production—Roth’s observations about its technique and, shall we say, inconsistent acting were spot on—to bolster much storytelling energy. The movie, at a very long 104 minutes, peters out into a shapeless mess—the shorter U.S. release version would undoubtedly play if not better, then at least quicker, even though both likely run well past the story’s natural stopping point, when Miss Blandish and La Rue’s tough guy initially get together. There’s simply not much to latch onto here—director Clowes hasn’t the talent to back up the relative seriousness with which he takes his heartfelt homage, a seriousness which dampens any possibility for heightened thrills or even camp. No Orchids commits the cardinal sin of any gangster picture, American or British—it’s a bit of a bore. Robert Aldrich would get it right years later when he took the same basic premise and fashioned it into his creepy crime family dissection The Grissom Gang, complete with the requisite bullets and bathtub gin. As for me, I distracted myself by playing a mental game built around recasting the movie with the actors they most reminded me of. La Rue struck me as a George Raft type who closely resembles Jerry Orbach, and Linden Travers as Miss Blandish echoed the face and mannerisms of Miranda Richardson. For the bug-eyed headwaiter Louis (Charles Goldner) I’d go either Joe Turkel or Deep Space Nine’s Alexander Giddings. Macdonald Parke as Doc gets replaced by Richard Dysart, and Alfred Molina could shine as the Italian restaurant owner Tony. The moll La Rue stiffs for Miss Blandish, Margo (Zoe Gail) seemed like a lantern-jawed Rita Hayworth, and I’ll be darned if Hugh McDermott as a nosy reporter didn’t bring to my mind Fred MacMurray. (Or was it just that I wished I was watching Murder, He Says again?) The cast is rounded out by Lilli Molnar as Ma Grisson, gang matriarch, nothing less than a bruised-up ringer for Miriam Margoyles; Walter Crisham, whose high forehead and bug-like demeanor made me think of both Buster Keaton and Reggie Nalder; and finally, what demented cellar dwelling informant like Leslie Bradley’s Ted Bailey couldn’t just as easily have been essayed by Clint Howard? I would have much rather been engaged by the movie, but desperate times call for desperate games.
The evening came to a ceremonious close with yet another mild disappointment. Film restoration expert Mike Hyatt spoke for nearly a half hour and offered a ton of detail (perhaps too much for some who, due to the late hour, were more eager to see the film than to hear him speak) about his personally funded, agonizingly meticulous frame-by-frame restoration of Steve Sekely’s The Day of the Triffids (1962). The technician related how the original film negative was sullied in a bath of none-too-clean water, leaving millions of tiny pieces of sediment grafted to the negative which had to be picked off with unerring precision, lest the negative be permanently damaged. To undertake such a restoration project, which took over four years, is to express one’s love not only for film, but the particular film in question, and Hyatt expressed that love directly to the crowd in attendance as well. But when he finally left the front of the auditorium, the festival attendees were treated to a fabulous reclamation of a beautifully photographed film (cinematography courtesy of Ted Moore, who shot Goldfinger and The Golden Voyage of Sinbad) that, sadly, seems far less than the sum of its parts.
Triffids is bifurcated into competing storylines that never gel—in one, a American military officer (Howard Keel) is hospitalized for an eye operation and doesn’t see the meteor storm that blinds the rest of Britain, leaving them helpless against the mutant plants that radiation from said meteor storm has turned into carnivorous, and quite mobile vegetation; the other (said to be cinematographer Freddie Francis’s first directorial assignment) tracks the efforts of a pair of unhappily married botanists (Kieron Moore and Janette Scott) as they try to ward off the encroaching killer flowers while trapped in a lighthouse. The effects in the film are fairly inconsistent—ominous Val Lewton-ish suggestion is too often followed by long shots of men in plant outfits plodding across the Cinemascope frame or bearing down on the helpless citizenry, none of which would be quite so problematic if the direction weren’t just as inconsistent. The film’s opening, in which a night watchman gets gobbled by one of the triffids, is a terrific exercise in shadowy dread which reinforces the pleasurable anticipation of frights to come. But overall the movie is just too meandering, slack when it needs to be snappy, indifferent when it most needs to be convincing us of the reality of impending doom. The restoration of this movie is a wonderful thing, to be sure, but it may not do much good for the reputation of Triffids itself, which hasn’t been seen theatrically in 50 years and has been left to freely coast on the happy memories of those who were terrified by it at a very young age. So it goes. By the final frames of the picture, in which the revelation of the rather simple solution to the plant problem spurred Bob and I to conjure comparisons with both H.G. Wells (The War of the Worlds) and M. Night Shyamyalan (Signs), I didn’t much care that the Earth had yet again been saved, this time from aggressive, heavily pollinated plant monsters. Movie number six for the day was in the books, and despite the late hour and the relative exhaustion I was feeling, the initial giddiness that had set in the night before while poolside with Esther Williams had not dissipated. I wouldn’t make it into bed until about 4:15 a.m., and I had to be back at the Egyptian Theater at 9:00 a.m. No time to worry about the fizzle of the day’s final offerings. The next day promised much bigger and better things, and that promise would most certainly be fulfilled.
Day Three: Back of the Moon
I bypassed the train in favor of my car on Saturday, like I had the previous day, because I was sure if I stuck to my schedule that the last film, a midnight screening of The Bride of Frankenstein, would let out long past the departure time of the last train back to Universal City. So I woke up as late as I could, grabbed a quick breakfast (no time to pack a lunch like I had yesterday either) and made it to the Egyptian with about 45 seconds to spare before the introduction to the morning’s first feature, Jacques Tati’s Playtime (1967). Of all the M. Hulot comedies, this beautiful spectacle of human behavior in the face of insistent modernization, in every possible way a giant achievement, is the only one I’ve seen, so I was conflicted as to whether or not to make it my breakfast choice. The panel on Casting Secrets was tempting, but not tempting enough, and the other films screening at that time were also ones I’d seen many times, though I must say Peter Bogdanovich introducing The Magnificent Ambersons did make me turn my head ever so slightly. And I would never begrudge anyone the opportunity to hear Nancy Olson talk about making Sunset Blvd. before a screening of that great movie, one of my personal favorites, but I saw Olson in the same capacity several years ago at the Alex Theater in Glendale, so it was in every way a program I felt I’d already fully experienced. Playtime, however, was part of the Egyptian’s 70mm series at the festival, and as I’d only ever seen it on DVD I decided that Tati’s film would be my one festival dip into the exhibition of that increasingly rare format. It was the right choice. On DVD watching Tati’s masterpiece is like being tickled by carbonation from the first appearance of two nuns walking in tandem through a quiet Parisian airport terminal, the wings of their habits flapping in harmonious choreography. But in 70mm every detail of design and performance takes on a surprising clarity, the heightened point of view of a bemused divinity delighting in the movement of his creatures.
That airport terminal is slowly besieged by visitors, all of whom seem not at all like extras but carefully modulated bit players, each with their bit of business, their point of humane reference to help make them stand out against the glistening architecture that Tati will reveal as a central characteristic of a modern Paris that is encroaching upon but still exists alongside the more romanticized historical City of Lights. Tati himself is quietly brilliant sitting among the glass walls, patiently waiting for an appointment that will never be met, and occasionally giving in to his curiosity about his mechanized surroundings. Unlike the Chaplin of Modern Times, Tati finds the glistening, slightly alien architecture and impossibly gleaming landscapes, with their scampering office workers and overly impressed American tourists in attendance, more fascinating than threatening, and he always locates a degree of elegance within even the most uproarious satirical gags. The movie’s central set piece, a wild dinner party at a bustling restaurant into which Hulot is swept, is a masterpiece of cacophony and motion for motion’s sake. You can feel the director’s touch in even the slightest of performers taking up space in the frame here, yet the sequence, full of dancing, singing, torn clothes, misidentification, impatient scurrying about and eventually the partial destruction of the restaurant itself (which, naturally, leads to the fashioning of a new and inviting space) never itself seems fussy or mechanistic. Instead, I was left in awe of how meaningfully Tati contrasts the grand scale of the scene with the manner in which it comes to feel almost intimate, which, I suppose, makes it the perfect microcosm of the larger film within which it so playfully exists.
After my morning Playtime was over, I had nearly an hour for a relatively leisurely walk back to the Chinese complex to get myself positioned for two old favorites, neither of which I had ever seen projected in anything other than 16mm. It was nice, considering how rushed was my drive into Hollywood from Glendale just a few hours before, to be able to take a deep breath amongst the Saturday throng, which was, as it usually goes in this tourist-heavy section of Los Angeles, even heavier on the weekend. I also picked up the agonizingly irresistible aroma of a couple of nearby street dog carts already grilling their delights for the lunch crowd. Street dog vendors can be found wherever foot traffic is most likely to occur in the Los Angeles area, a thought which in itself might seem improbable in this most automobile-oriented of cities. But there are plenty on foot in places like the downtown garment and jewelry districts, outside football games and other sporting events, and yes, right here on Hollywood Boulevard where the names of the greats and not-so-greats are tread upon by folks from all over the world as they snap pictures of people dressed up like familiar costumed movie characters and stare at the sidewalk, scanning the walk of fame for their favorite luminaries.
And wherever there are hungry people on foot, there is usually the tantalizing smell of a freshly grilled street dog wafting through the air, providing its own special pleasures and perhaps even replacing other less savory smells. A street dog is basically a hearty wiener of some sort—all-beef if you’re lucky, but if you’re inclined to eat one it’s probably better than you don’t know for sure—wrapped in bacon and open-air grilled right alongside a hefty pile of green peppers, red peppers and sweet onions. The dog is done to perfection and then augmented with a generous pile of those piquant veggies. The vendors tend to be pretty quick with the condiments, and if the buyer is not careful a far-too-generous slathering of mayo will be applied by rote to a so-far-flawless lunch, so a careful watch is recommended. I like to keep things simple—a noticeable but not overwhelming adornment of mustard along the length of the crest of peppers and onions is all the help this tasty creation would ever need, but there is ketchup available too, of course. The vendor may look at me with disdain if I don’t pile on the full battery of sauces, but I’m never intimidated—it’s my gastrointestinal system, damn it. Since I had no time to bring my own lunch, every moment I spent traveling between theaters on Saturday was one in which I contemplated the street dog, and believe me, when weighing these kinds of lunch choices on the run, the street dog is in every way the better of the average Oscar Meyer concession stand tube steak selection. But they are also very difficult to eat while making your way down a busy sidewalk—the street dog needs a moment or two to be savored. And despite having a few extra of those in between the morning and afternoon schedule, I didn’t want to tempt fate with the possibility of having my shirt branded by a stray glob of mustard or greasy onion which I would have to carry with me all day, the hot dog slob’s equivalent of a scarlet A.” So I vowed to pass for now and catch up with a street dog sometime before I left Hollywood on Sunday evening, opting instead for the far-less-satisfying popcorn and soda menu choice to get me through until my dinner break, for which there would be a very generous hour and a half to use to my culinary advantage.
For now I would head straight to the Chinese #1, a big auditorium (477 seats) that had not been much trouble to get into the three times I had visited it yesterday. But yesterday they weren’t showing John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven (1946). Even without a big-name draw to introduce the film a large portion of the festival crowd seemed to know that, and even with The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (with Anjelica and Danny Huston in person), Pillow Talk and a generous program of restored short subjects hosted by Leonard Maltin competing for their attention, this spectacular Technicolor noir was the only real choice, an assessment reflected by the packed house that greeted me when I arrived, not to mention the long line of walk-ups hoping to get a last-minute ticket. Popcorn and soda in hand, and with a good 15 minutes left before the screening started, for the first time I had to hustle for a decent seat (defined as anything more toward the back of the theater—I can’t abide being too close to the screen anymore) and got one on the aisle near the top of the steeply inclined auditorium.
The empty seat to my left was quickly filled by a very friendly young woman named Jackie, one of only two or three people with whom I struck up a conversation over the weekend who was actually from the Los Angeles area. (TCM did a brilliant job marketing this festival as an event for people not used to being surrounded by venues where they can see this type of programming with anything like regularity, and the enthusiasm with which this festival was greeted by those who were able to build their vacations around it was very gratifying and bode well for the possibility of future events.) Jackie and I quickly related our festival highlights, and within a couple of minutes the familiar TCM Classic Film Festival trailers, which showed on an endless loop before each screening, dimmed and the movie got under way. That same short film on restoration that showed before last night’s presentation of Wild River unspooled again (there’s that sweet-faced Margaret Bodde again!) The film was certainly interesting enough to see twice, but doing so made me a little nervous that time might get a little tight in between the end of this screening and my next scheduled flight, North by Northwest at 2:45 p.m. From a geographic standpoint there wasn’t much to worry about—just a quick dash down a flight of stairs and I would be there in the famous courtyard of cement hand and footprints that greet customers arriving to this still wondrous Hollywood movie palace. But I hadn’t been to the big Grauman’s Chinese yet during the festival and was unsure to what degree there would be a crush of people trying to get in, and I knew that even my press pass was no guarantee against a sold-out house. The only thing to do would be to let the chips fall where they would and make my way out as fast as possible once the lights came up, because there was no way I was leaving before Leave Her to Heaven was over.
I am willing to go so far as to suggest that to have only seen Leave Her to Heaven on TCM or DVD is to have only barely scratched the surface of the splendor this movie offers in a beautifully restored Technicolor print on the big screen. From the first glimpses of its New Mexico locations to the eerily beautiful lakeside lodge retreat known as the Back of the Moon where the movie’s darkest turns are taken (actually Bass Lake in California’s Yosemite National Forest), right down to the unshakably beautiful landscape of star Gene Tierney’s face, with its subtle shifts of topography suggesting that the movement from love and happiness to madness is but by a barely perceptible degree, the movie completely delivers the goods available in each gorgeous frame of Leon Shamroy’s Oscar-winning cinematography. This was the only time during the festival where I was constantly aware of the collective gasps and holding of breath of nearly 500 people for the entire running time of a picture, inspired as much by Shamroy’s achievement as the horrors held within the story. Gene Tierney does deadly obsession like few actors in Hollywood history ever have, and the movie matches the fever running through her, and the relative placidity and confusion of her prey (the indefatigably decent and earnest Cornel Wilde) with the rich, saturated passion of its Technicolor palette.
The cool precision with which director Stahl contrasts noirish heat with the rhythms and measured pace more closely associated with glossy romances of the period is a marvel to behold, as well as far more stylistically daring than it might first seem. This contrast of style and material brought to mind yet another connection to the comparatively meager No Orchids for Miss Blandish, perhaps the least successful of any of the movies I saw during the festival, yet the one to which several TCM Classic Film Festival roads seemed if not to lead then at least point to. Leave Her to Heaven finds that fusion of romance and hard-boiled, mean-spirited character action in the way the entire film has been conceived and executed—it’s a brilliant conceit around which Gene Tierney’s entire performance as the neurotically unhinged Ellen Berent, both as a character and as a perfectly sculpted object for the camera’s infatuated eye, has been built. No Orchids for Miss Blandish, on the other hand, is relatively inept, a cross-cultural stunt, an homage without genuine feeling, and it never finds a way to synthesize its disparate narrative elements into a meaningful whole. A film like No Orchids provides plenty of opportunity to understand why this fusion is a more difficult trick to pull off than just gathering all the familiar tropes into a bag, shaking them up and seeing what falls out. It’s when you surrender fully to the pleasures of a movie like Leave Her to Heaven, a movie so in touch with the expressive possibilities of its relatively seamless and invisible style (assuming you accept that impossibly beautiful Technicolor world as a recognizable representation of “reality”) that you may not realize how deeply you’ve fallen under its spell until you start finding yourself measuring other movies against it.
The lights came up, and before Robert Osborne had a chance to introduce Darryll Hickman, who played Cornel Wilde’s ill-fated brother Danny in the movie (Tierney watches from the safety of a rowboat as the crippled boy drowns, the glassy indifference of her eyes hidden behind fashionably heart-shaped sunglasses) I bid farewell to Jackie and headed downstairs to meet my friend Don, who had been in the line to buy a ticket for the 2:45 screening of Alfred Hitchock’s North by Northwest (1959) since 1:00. With plenty of time to spare I saved him a seat and we settled in near the back of the cavernous auditorium. It had been a while since I’d seen a movie here, and the prospect of seeing North by Northwest in such a spectacular venue was far more than I’d ever hoped for. (I’d only seen it in a theater of any kind once, in a tiny art house in Eugene, Oregon during my college days which could hold maybe 75 patrons fully packed.) Don was equally excited, as North by Northwest is not only his favorite Hitchcock, but one of his favorites, period. We both settled in as Robert Osborne (who must have cut that Darryl Hickman interview awfully short!) introduced Eva Marie Saint and Martin Landau, the movie’s two surviving stars, for a genial Q&A that didn’t reveal a lot of new information about the movie or the experience these two had making it, but was fascinating and fun to eavesdrop on nonetheless.
At one point Osborne brought up the old story about Hitchcock being asked about the meaning of the film’s title, to which Hitchcock famously responded that there was no meaning to it—an amusing anecdote, to be sure, and one that has been passed along often enough that it has become one of the go-to items in the standard Hitchcock mythology. But as Don pointed out after the screening, the anecdote may be less amusing than it is indicative of Hitchcock’s tendency throughout his career to dismiss any clever bit of business that could be proven to have not originated from his own cranium. It is pretty well known that Hitchcock and screenwriter Ernest Lehman had a lot of difficulty coming up with a good title for the movie Lehman had written, and right up to the last minute there was indecision. Would it be In a Northwesterly Direction? Or how about The C.I.A. Story? Even the most well-known alternate title, The Man on Lincoln’s Nose, didn’t exactly jump up and shake anyone by the lapels. As the story goes, the title by which this classic film eventually entered into cinema history originated as a suggestion tossed off by a low-level marketing guy at MGM, and in interviews to promote the movie upon its release Hitchcock began responding to questions about the title’s meaning with the claim that it had none, as a way of flexing his muscles, of demeaning the contribution of an underling, especially when that underling’s contribution had resulted in what would eventually be recognized as one of the most iconic and evocative movie titles of all time.
But Don went further—the perpetuation of such an anecdote as simple truth is annoying not only because of Hitchcock’s arrogance, but because it’s clearly not true, a fact that should not so easily escape the attention of those like Osborne, Saint, and Landau, particularly on an occasion such as the showcasing of this movie during the TCM Classic Film Festival. There is, of course, the Shakespearean reference—in Hamlet, the tortured protagonist proclaims, “I am but mad north-northwest; when the wind is southerly I know a hawk from a handsaw,” the implication being that as Hamlet is capable of discerning the reality of his environment and his situation, so too is put-upon Roger Thornhill (Cary Grant), who is swept away in a case of mistaken identity that will lead him into one deadly pickle after another, but who is never less than clear as to his own sarcastic perspective on the swirling madness surrounding him. But then, within the film itself, there is the fact that Thornhill travels in a northwesterly direction to meet his mysterious nemesis Philip Vandamm (James Mason) by way of Northwest Airlines. And even in the trailer, on a map visible directly behind Hitchcock as he addresses the camera there is a line tracing Thornhill’s movement from the northerly Manhattan and New York state locations where the film begins, moving northwest all the way to Mount Rushmore and South Dakota. What’s the mystery? Where’s the missing meaning?
Of course the movie is brilliant, and the screening was for me the definitive experience with North by Northwest. Both Don and I, as die-hard fans of this film, enjoyed its pleasures and the privilege of seeing it this way immensely. It’s hard to imagine a better environment for seeing classic films than the situation constructed for us within the confines of the Turner Classic Film Festival, but even within that framework there is probably no grander place than the big Grauman’s Chinese to see classic movies of a decidedly epic scale. Fortunately, I would have two more opportunities before the weekend was out to test the validity of this grandiose statement. Don and I parted ways after hanging out in the Hollywood and Highland complex for nearly an hour, which meant that I would have to put off my street dog yet again in favor of a more expedient dinner choice (a cheeseburger from the Johnny Rockets located on the third floor right next to the Chinese multiplex), because time was suddenly tight and I had a date with a salacious pre-code Miriam Hopkins for which I did not want to be late.
Based on William Faulkner’s 1931 novel Sanctuary, the same book that was ransacked for the general premise of No Orchids for Miss Blandish (there it is again!), and a book that was widely considered unfilmable in the early days of Hollywood, Stephen Roberts’s The Story of Temple Drake (1933) caused quite an uproar when it finally appeared. This is one of the movies widely considered to have led to the tightened restrictions of the Production Code and the Hays Office in 1934, and it’s pretty easy to see why, because the brutality of the picture is right there on the surface. (It has none of the coyness of No Orchids. )
Temple Drake revolves around the troubles that befall a high-strung society girl (Miriam Hopkins) when she and her boyfriend get into a car accident and are “rescued” by a murderous (and impotent) gangster played by No Orchids’s Jack La Rue, who took the part when George Raft rejected it. Miriam Hopkins (Trouble in Paradise) is simply a revelation in the role, and seeing the movie here made me realize just how much catching up I need to do with her filmography, especially for one who loves her in Lubitsch’s movie as much as I do. A quick glance at IMDb reminds me that Hopkins was no slouch—she appeared in a bunch of terrific movies, including Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), World and the Flesh (1932), Design for Living (1933), Becky Sharp (1935), Virginia City (1940), Old Acquaintance (1943), and The Heiress (1949) before moving her career into the realm of television, where she amassed a solid body of work as a character actor. As good as she was in all those films she was probably best, most vibrant, most alive, most richly conflicted for Lubitsch and here as Temple Drake. But as circumstances and the forces of conservative Hollywood would have it, Hopkins’ work in this unflinching picture would go largely forgotten and unheralded; it truly does seem to be, as the press notes from the festival insist, “one of the greatest ‘lost’ performances in Hollywood history.” It’s a smoldering piece of acting, full of horror, unbridled, confused fury and sexual energy. At one point, Temple’s father, a district judge, bemoans his daughter’s wildness to a sympathetic housemaid who calmly folds the girl’s clothes while her father speaks. The old man, completely unsure of how to rein in Temple’s impulsiveness, shakes his head and leaves, at which point the maid offers to no one in particular (except the audience, of course), “If Judge Drake ever did her laundry, he’d know a lot more about that child!” This is a line that must have sent shivers down the collective spine of the Hays Office, so full of nasty implication as it is, and it serves as a red flag warning that the film will pull no punches regarding the salacious and terrifying ordeal we’re about to see Temple endure. In reading about the reaction to the film by the Hollywood censors, it also seems that the movie became a special cause, an example to be made and flaunted. If so, the in-progress restoration of Temple Drake which was seen Saturday night during the festival was even more an occasion for celebration than it might otherwise have been. The movie’s sins have definitely triumphed over those who would sin against them.
The film was introduced by a film archivist from the Museum of Modern Art, which sponsored the restoration. My ears were not sharp enough to have caught her name, but even my ignorance can’t tarnish the wealth of fascinating information she offered to fill in some of the gaps in the history of this rarely-seen pre-Code classic. One of the first things that the Hays Office demanded when they began their official reign of terror was that Temple Drake be pulled from release under a Class 1 categorization. A Class 3 film was one with would be taken out of circulation briefly, re-edited and then reissued under the Hays Office’s guidelines. If any film was condemned as a Class 2 it meant that all prints of the film would be pulled from circulation after any extant exhibition contracts had been fulfilled. But a Class 1 registration had far more dire consequences. Any film labeled Class 1 would be immediately withdrawn from circulation, all prints shelved, all further plans for release canceled. It was an attempt by Joseph Breen and the Hays Office to literally obliterate any targeted film from the cultural landscape, and in the case of Temple Drake theirs was, for 40-some years, a successful assault. However, in the early ’70s the Museum of Modern Art received a large shipment of nitrate stock from Fox—the studio was interested in making space available by clearing their vaults of what they deemed valueless material. Among that shipment of picture and sound negatives printed on nitrate, a very volatile film stock subject to rapid decomposition, there just happened to be a complete print of Temple Drake. What with the Hays Office long consigned to the dustbin of cinema history and the last remnants of the Production Code having given way to the MPAA ratings system in 1968, the print was stored away to prevent further damage—it would eventually be used to strike the restored print we saw Saturday night at the TCM Classic Film Festival. Those who chose to build their Saturday evening around this film, rather than The Graduate, The Proposition, or Singin’ in the Rain were most definitely rewarded for their willingness to travel off the beaten path yet again, and the packed house proved that a good percentage of TCM Festival attendees were ready to do just that. I was particularly grateful that once again I had somehow been attracted to an unfamiliar title that proved to be one of the festival highlights.
But the sensual nightmare of Temple Drake was only the beginning of Saturday’s night’s theme of Hollywood’s history with censorship. The next chapter would be one that dealt with films that Hollywood itself took out of circulation for reasons deemed far more destructive than the investigation of a heady young socialite’s sexuality. I made my way over to the Egyptian Theater, passing yet another tempting bacon dog cart along the way, where I would meet up with my pal Ariel for a screening of a collection of very rare cartoons, dating from the early ’30s to the late ’40s, which would serve as inadvertent documents of the prevalent racial attitudes toward African-Americans during that time. Author Donald Bogle, who so movingly contextualized Carmen Jones and the career of Dorothy Dandridge the previous day, would do so again for these eight short Out of Circulation Cartoons (there were 11 in total taken out of circulation in 1968) directed, often brilliantly, by Rudolf Ising, Friz Freleng, Tex Avery and Bob Clampett.
Bogle was able to seize the opportunity to point out how the cartoons utilized many of the stereotypes that he detailed in his book Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies & Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films, undercutting immediately a modern audience’s need/desire to view the cartoons with 20-20 hindsight and moral superiority, both as a way of coping with the sometimes awful and embarrassing imagery the cartoons dealt in but also of letting oneself entirely off the hook in a much more personal way. With Bogle’s expert guidance, the audience was led to examine the things these cartoons say about the way in which African-American culture was framed by white Hollywood, as well as how audiences of the time were instructed to view African-American religious behavior and especially sexuality. What was especially interesting to me was the point that Bogle made regarding not the way white moviegoers reacted to the films—with hearty acceptance and a modicum of derision, I suspect—but the way black moviegoers did. Surprisingly, even the most vile representations, whether found in cartoons like these or in the performances of actors like Stepin Fetchit, were looked upon with not so much disdain as a sort of backhanded appreciation at having been represented at all. In a Hollywood so dominated by white standards of beauty, beliefs and behavior, even something as wildly exaggerated as the sexually precocious Coal Black of Coal Black and the Sebbin Dwarfs was viewed by many blacks as better than nothing at all.
As the eight cartoons rolled out, we would be on the lookout (not that they could have easily been missed even if we hadn’t been warned) for appearances of certain recurring African-American stereotypes. Men were usually shown as being either “coons,” described by Bogle as being “lazy, shiftless, crazy, constantly dancing, in and out of trouble, and constantly gobbling watermelon or stealing fried chicken,” or “toms,” your average nonthreatening, good, docile, likable Negroes. Woman also fell into two categories, the shapely, sexually attractive and slightly lighter-skinned Mulatto (oft termed a “jezebel”), or the “mammy,” generally a bigger, darker, bossy, jolly, cantankerous, and decidedly nonsexual female (think Aunt Jemima or Hattie McDaniel in Gone with the Wind).
Even with such an introduction, it was no less surprising to see the stereotypes hard at work. African-American religion, or more accurately the African-American’s supposed difficulty in choosing between the imperative to worship and the imperative to find the nearest hammock, was the subject of both Rudolf Ising’s relatively crude Hitting the Trail for Hallelujah Land (1931) and Friz Freleng’s somewhat more sophisticated (as animation and as racial tract) Sunday Go-To-Meetin’ Time (1936). The 1936 Hollywood hit Green Pastures was made the stuff of racial parody in Freleng’s Clean Pastures (1937), which trades in the film’s ruralized biblical tint for imagery with a decidedly African-American color. Like Freleng’s previous cartoon, the intent of the use of African American stereotypes here doesn’t seem overtly malicious as much as misinformed and reflective of attitudes that were considered relatively benign at the time. Of course they seem vile and ignorant now, but Bogle was quick to point out that in 1937 black and white audiences both smiled at the sight of the pearly gates demarcating the Negro’s segregated heaven, known as “Pair-O-Dice,” or a Stepin Fetchit-type as Gabriel blowing a lazy tune on his trumpet while slumping back on a tree trunk. Freleng’s final entry in the evening’s collection, Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears (1944) inexplicably mashes together a telling of the familiar story, albeit with Negro jazz combo bears who blow tunes so hot that their instruments threaten to melt, with one featuring a red-hot (and light-skinned) Little Red Riding Hood. (The signature bit here is that the coony wolf, all dressed to kill as Red’s Grandma, is too lazy and shiftless to get out of bed and eat his victims.) Tex Avery’s relatively innocuous faux travelogue The Isle of Pingo-Pongo (1938), which traffics in some pretty familiar jungle savage representations, is followed by the one truly obnoxious entry in the collection, Uncle Tom’s Bungalow, a parody of the Harriet Beecher Stowe novel which offers up all manner of histrionic shuckin’ and jivin’, along with the only overt attempts in any of the eight films featured to make slavery itself a tawdry joke. (At one point two little girls pass a sign advertising “Simon Legree’s Used Slave Company” where the best deals on discounted slaves wait within.)
Arguably the collection’s two best shorts, Bob Clampett’s Tin Pan Alley Cats (1943) and Coal Black and the Sebbin Dwarfs (1943), are punchy, ebullient eight-minute musical revues wrapped in the usual tom-and-coon-foolery, as well as Clampett’s penchant for sexualizing young black women with a salaciousness perhaps unrivalled in animation history except in the work of Ralph Bakshi. In retelling the story of Snow White, Clampett sends up Disney as much as he indulges in prevalent racial prejudice. The evil queen is at one point seen slumped in her throne chair swigging from a bottle labeled “Eli Whitney’s Cotton Gin,” and Prince Chawmin’, decked out in duds that would make Cab Calloway blush, flashes his toothy grin at Coal Black (his front two ivories are dice, naturally) in a ghastly approximation of courtship. Coal herself is about as ripe a vision of rural pulchritude as has ever been put on screen in cartoon form. Even if the dominant imagery renders these cartoons uncomfortable experiences as a whole, it’s hard to deny the pop energy and enthusiasm, even put to such uses, of Clampett’s films.
Ariel and I bumped into Bob Westal on the way out, and we all talked about whether or not censorship, self-applied or not, serves its purpose in the sidelining of films like these, ostensibly to protect the sensitivities of the groups being maligned, or whether we as a culture are better served by being able to see them and contextualize them, as Bogle did, in order to gain some perspective on a period in which an eyebrow was barely raised over these cartoons and others like them. With the presence of the Internet and various video-on-demand sites, can we even consider these cartoons out of circulation? Certainly on 35mm we can, but as you can see it was not difficult to come by them via YouTube for the purposes of this piece. Like many of our demons, I suspect the archaic racial values and stereotypes promoted in these cartoons are best dealt with out in the open. Of course we cannot monitor every use to which persons in a free society could put such cartoons, But it seems that even though race will probably always be an issue for modern Americans, we can still choose to take advantage of the opportunity such artifacts present to us to examine not only history, but also the degree to which we see the old ghosts of racism present in 70-year-old cartoons still haunting our supposedly more enlightened world today.
It was now approaching midnight, and although that screening of The Bride of Frankenstein, with a newly restored soundtrack introduced by Peter Bogdanovich, beckoned to me, the toll of seeing 12 films (and eight cartoons) over the course of three days was finally bearing down on my weary eyes and my barking dogs, which had been motoring around at top speed for much of the time in between screenings. So it was with some hesitation that I bid my friends and Hollywood good night in favor of a decent amount of sleep to help prepare for the closing day of this so-far most wonderful of experiences. I would be back in Hollywood at 9:30 a.m. to see what kind of movie joy the final day would hold.
Day Four: The Mediator Between Head and Hands
I arrived on Hollywood Boulevard out of the mouth of the train station just about an hour before the scheduled 10:30 a.m. start time of the day’s first film, Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) and immediately claimed my place in the line which already extended from the entrance of the theater some 150 feet over the garden of cement footprints and down the sidewalk. This turned out to be the wrong line of pass holders. One of the friendly TCM staffers instructed me to leave this long line and head straight up to the front, where another staffer was taking care of those with media credentials like mine. I arrived at the staff information table, relayed the information given to me by the first staffer, and was greeted with a blank stare, which lasted only as long as it took to find yet another TCM staffer to pass me off to. This person in turn promptly told me to get back in the line I was originally in, which had gained another 50 or so people in the short time it took me to sort out my geographical problem. It was now that I was particularly grateful for the Grauman’s Chinese 1,100-seat capacity—even all these preliminary shenanigans did nothing to pose much of a threat to my getting in to see one of my favorite movies in this most storied of Hollywood movie palaces, and soon I was seated on the center aisle, ready to go.
I struck up a conversation with the woman seated next to me, one Jody from Philadelphia by way of Brooklyn, who related her most treasured experience of the festival so far (the A Star Is Born gala) and that she had, much as I had, chosen to emphasize the movies that were less familiar to her over the course of the four-day schedule. This of course meant, due to her general disinterest in westerns and Clint Eastwood, that she had never seen The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. I told her that it was slotted somewhere in my top five favorite films of all time and that I felt honored to be able to sit next to someone who claimed to have absolutely no idea what to expect from it. And she admitted that although she was less attracted to individual screenings based on whatever personal appearances might have been scheduled, she was indeed looking forward to this morning’s special guest, Eli Wallach, whose daughter was apparently a schoolmate of hers back in Brooklyn, and whose work she had always admired. I had to marvel to myself that there existed in 2010 an admirer of Wallach’s acting who had yet to experience Tuco. This was a lucky woman, and I began anticipating the fun I was going to have watching her reaction.
Robert Osborne introduced the 94-year-old Eli Wallach to thunderous applause and a well-deserved standing ovation, and I felt that special shiver down my spine which used to come much more frequently, before having lived in Los Angeles for 23 years and becoming somewhat used to the idea of brushing up against my movie idols in real life. Here I was, in the same theater as Eli Wallach—Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (or whatever other aliases he might have) himself—marveling at how vital and funny and exuberant the man still was in relating stories of his career and his love of acting. Clueing the audience in to the personal acting style that would serve him so well with Leone, he drew a comparison with live theater: “The stage is a verbal medium, but the movies (points to eyes) are here.” All you have to do is think about how much there is to survey on Wallach’s face in one of Leone’s patented Techniscope close-ups to understand that this was an inspired match of director and actor that would, for Wallach, be unrepeatable. At Osborne’s prompting, Wallach related his origins as an actor—five years on the stage after serving in World War II, during which time he turned down the role in From Here to Eternity immortalized by Frank Sinatra in favor of doing a Tennessee Williams play. He expressed no regrets over having made the choice, and the fact that his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956) didn’t exactly go unnoticed probably helped soften the blow. By the time he arrived in Spain on Leone’s set Wallach had already done a lot of television, as well as worked with the likes of Don Siegel (The Lineup), John Sturges (The Magnificent Seven), John Huston (The Misfits), Carl Foreman (The Victors) , Richard Brooks (Lord Jim), and William Wyler (How to Steal a Million). Not exactly a novice, he still solicited the advice of Clint Eastwood, who was on his third film with Leone, as to how best to approach working with the director. According to Wallach, Eastwood’s advice was typically to the point: “Don’t show off. Act.”
Given the scale of the production, and how little any actor would have to project in order to make an impression on Leone’s gigantic canvas, the naturally exuberant Wallach might have found such instruction difficult to follow. But seeing his performance again during the festival I was struck by the fact that despite Wallach’s grandiosity in the role, his performance is grounded by so much subtlety and reality that the rather more cartoonish excesses of the characterization are effortlessly balanced out. When Tuco stumbles into town after having traversed 70 miles of desert in the wake of being betrayed and abandoned by Blondie (Eastwood), Wallach makes an acting choice that I found marvelous. Many actors might have stumbled toward the nearest trough of water and milked the moment for all of its thirst-quenching, gratifying release, scooping great handfuls of water into their mouths with relief and abandon. Not Wallach. His approach to the waiting water trough is an exhausted one, and when he reaches the blessed coolness he dips his hand in, he doesn’t scoop, and the first tiny sip is greeted not with a sigh, but a wince. Like anyone so severely dehydrated, the introduction of water into the mouth is a painful one, and so Tuco must temper his relief with a measure of rational behavior that probably flies in the face of every instinct he has at the moment. It was this moment where I remembered with all certainty, especially in the context of the entire film, just how great Eli Wallach is in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and all during the movie, every time I laughed or marveled anew at some familiar line or bit of business I was even happier to reflect back on a comment he made during his talk with Osborne before the film began. When the TCM host asked Wallach if he had ever considered retiring, the actor, who recently appeared in Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer and has yet another movie coming out this year (Oliver Stone’s Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps), barked, “When I die, I’ll stop!” By that measure, the life force we saw on the stage at the Chinese Theater on Sunday morning in Hollywood isn’t likely to stop acting anytime soon.
Basking in the bitter, dusty glow of Leone’s film, I made my way outside, where I ran into my friend Ariel once again, this time in the company of mutual friend Peter, and we all enjoyed the buzz of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which was in no danger of dissipating, in each other’s company. Then I was off to take in my one panel of the festival, a discussion of Hollywood remakes moderated by Pete Hammond and featuring directors John Carpenter (The Thing), Charles Shyer (Alfie), and Dr. Rick Jewell of the USC film studies program. The prevailing sentiment of the panel, no surprise, was that Hollywood remakes are indicative of a general lack of good original ideas. But Dr. Jewell quickly dispatched with the idea that remakes are a new phenomenon, an indicator of Hollywood’s relative state of corruption, when in fact the movie industry has been remaking itself since practically the dawn of movies. (See Leo McCarey spin his own 1939 Love Affair into 1957’s An Affair to Remember for just one of many examples.) The first ten pages alone of the second edition of Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide reveals at least 15-20 remakes or movies that would eventually be remade. And even the generally accepted notion that remaking familiar or beloved titles is an inherently creatively corrupt enterprise was seen as a shakier premise when Jewell pointed out that a remake possibly improving on the original is not a particularly unprecedented notion. (See The Sea Hawk, The Maltese Falcon, and His Girl Friday.)
Of course economics is the chief bugaboo in the argument that Hollywood should concentrate on remaking films that were flawed or flopped to begin with—it’s a keen idea in the abstract, but imagine trying to pitch an Ishtar remake. The panel didn’t reveal a lot of new insight into the notion of remakes, but Carpenter’s apparent impatience for the subject (and perhaps for the panel itself) was amusing, and he related a couple of mind-boggling anecdotes. When asked if he would ever remake any of his own movies, he snapped “No!” and then told of how, in the wake of the financial success of Rob Zombie’s remake of Halloween, Carpenter was actually offered the chance to remake Halloween himself again, to which the director responded, “Are you fucking kidding me?!” And though Shyer made a couple of salient points regarding Hollywood’s rush to remake foreign films (a movement he believes is simply about trying to find stories that work wherever they can be found), by the end of the panel the director seemed unaware of his own role in the escalating silliness of Hollywood business as usual. He claims to have once pitched the idea of The Graduate meets Private Benjamin, which I got the distinct impression he thinks is still a pretty good idea. That sound you hear is Robert Altman shouting “Told you so!” from beyond the grave.
After a quick raid on the TCM Boutique, where I picked up some souvenirs for the family (and an Esther Williams DVD box set for myself), I made my way over to the front of the Grauman’s Chinese Theater yet again, a full two hours early and determined to minimize my chances of somehow not getting in to see the festival’s closing night selection, the North American premiere of Fritz Lang’s newly restored Metropolis (1927), featuring the inclusion of nearly a half-hour of footage long thought lost but discovered in Argentina in 2008. I ended up first in my line of pass holders, and numbers two and three were two ladies with whom I would thoroughly enjoy whiling away the time before the doors opened.
Nancy Shepherd, of Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas, a longtime movie fan, bought passes for herself and her granddaughter, Katie Austin, who is currently studying film at San Diego State University, and the two of them were here in Hollywood on a movie-mad vacation together. I probably talked too much, but the excitement of the festival, knowing that it would soon be over, was starting to boil over and in the company of these two my excitement couldn’t be contained. The two hours passed like lightning, and soon we were all making our way to the best possible seats in the house for this climactic presentation. As I sat in my seat and scanned the crowd, my eyes landed on Leonard Maltin, who was holding court with enthusiastic fans who approached and talked to him for at least a half hour. I also noticed a taller gentleman standing nearby Maltin whom I eventually identified as Kenneth Turan, the film critic for the Los Angeles Times. I sat in my seat for a few moments, weighing the idea of maybe getting up and saying hello to Turan myself. But just as I decided that I would risk embarrassment and approach the writer, I became aware of someone crouching next to my seat on the aisle. “I just want to tell you how much I enjoy reading your blog,” said the very kind young gentleman, whose name was John Damer. I realized that I had exchanged comments with John a couple of weeks earlier, and though it was kind of a disorienting experience being recognized in this crowd, it was also a very nice one. We talked for several minutes, after which all thoughts of meeting Kenneth Turan flew right out the window. As soon as John returned to his seat, the man sitting directly behind me, whose name was Joseph, leaned forward and asked me why I had been scribbling notes furiously all weekend. I guess Joseph and I had overlapped on more screenings than just this one, and he had noticed I was always doing something more than just watching. I explained to him the privilege I had of covering the festival for Slant and The House Next Door, and he vowed to look for the piece when it was posted. Joseph, if you’re reading, see ya next year.
The news that apparently there will be a next year for the Turner Classic Film Festival came via the ever-present and apparently inexhaustibly poised Robert Osborne, who took the stage before the weekend’s final screening to relate the huge success of the festival and that it had just been announced that Hollywood would host the affair again in 2011. The audience cheered with appreciation, and with that the lights went down, the Alloy Orchestra took their places, and the unveiling of the most complete version of Metropolis that anyone had seen in 80 years finally began. It’s almost impossible to underestimate the level of awe that seeing even the bowdlerized Metropolis can have on a rapt, receptive audience, but this stunning, glowing restoration was an object of awe translated onto an entirely new scale. The 25 minutes or so of new material is interpolated throughout the film—it doesn’t come in one or two big chunks but in the expansion of scenes or in extra looks, at faces, at exquisitely crafted cityscapes. Unfortunately, a full, pristine restoration of the recently found extra source material could not be made. What was found in those nondescript film cans in Argentina was a severely degraded 16mm print. It is from this that the new footage has been generated, and the downgrade from the gloriously restored bulk of the film as we know it to the newly inserted film couldn’t be more obvious. What’s surprising is that the new footage isn’t more jarring as seen in the context of watching the film, which now runs 153 minutes. Strangely, for such a deliberately designed expressionist film, the marred, scratched, grainy footage seems to work on an entirely different level, taking us deeper into the film while simultaneously creating a literal window into a world thought until recently entirely lost. It creates the illusion of an alternate world layered underneath the familiar surfaces of Lang’s dystopian world, much like the subterranean world of the workers who keep the gears of the future city turning, into which we get only brief glimpses before returning to what we feel as the “normal” surface. That vision, so celebrated throughout film history, seems as potent today as ever. And the Alloy Orchestra’s contribution to it cannot be underestimated—the mechanistic, percussive, paradoxically soulful strains of this three-man group seduce the viewer with a seemingly organic understanding of the beauty and tension and fear and oppression underlying the film, as well as on the very streets of the city within it. At times evocative of Angelo Badalamenti’s unsettling score for Twin Peaks while existing entirely in its own mindscape, the Alloy Orchestra leant an extra dimension of sensuality to the film, of tender flesh interacting on metallic surfaces. That musical contrast beautifully, eerily reflects the transformation of Maria (Brigitte Helm, brilliant) from saint to monster, from one who preaches patience to the oppressed city laborers regarding the coming of the one whose heart will mediate between the head (the planners) and the hands (the workers), to one whose image will be appropriated to facilitate the destruction of those workers. Hopefully, the Alloy Orchestra score will be included as an option on the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release. When the movie is released in theaters in May, it will feature a new recording of the original score written for the film by Gottfried Huppertz.
It’s hard to watch this new Metropolis and not imagine that almost every movie that came after it in cinema history, regardless of genre or country of origin, doesn’t somehow have roots in what Lang did here. Of course almost any great film from this period is likely to cast a very long shadow in terms of how it influenced subsequent generations, whether those generations are well-versed in or at all aware of the history of the medium or not. But perhaps it’s the very modernity of Metropolis, its unprecedented sense of scale, of attempting to grapple with the heretofore unseen, its casting a futuristic eye from some 80 years in the past, and that futuristic vision resembling not so much the actual world which evolved but certainly more our persistent projections of the world yet to come, that ties it in so inextricably with the way we see movies today, to say nothing of the movies themselves. This 153-minute silent movie, patched together with battered footage that reaches out to us from a place more rarified even than the world in which the movie saw its first release, moves like lightning. When you see it this month you may think it’s the shortest two-and-a-half-hour movie ever made. To me seeing Metropolis made new was the best possible way to bring such an incredible, eye-opening weekend to a close. And ultimately, Metropolis still points the way toward the future, one less dystopian and nightmarish than populated by lovers of film who will continue to lead the charge toward preserving and restoring lost masterpieces like this one. Lang’s Die Nibelungen was also recently restored. But just as encouraging is news that relatively minor masterpieces like Murder, He Says and Wild River are being saved too. No Orchids for Miss Blandish, a not particularly good film, was worth preserving simply because of the inspiration to others it may provide, in much the same way that its own makers were inspired by the rich, bitter blood of American films noir. Contrary to being a vehicle for unabashed nostalgia, the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival ended up serving as an experience where inspiration for the future could be gleaned through the inspiration of the past; where an understanding of the history of movies began to pave the way for new generations who want to maintain a connection to that past for reasons having nothing to do with fond recollection of the good old days; where even spoiled Los Angeles film fans could see the value in creating a Hollywood community in which they could see films the way they were supposed to be seen, rubbing shoulders with people who traveled thousands of miles for the chance to participate in that rare privilege for themselves. I walked away from the Chinese Theater, bidding goodbye to Nancy and Katie, sincerely thanking them for enhancing an already lovely evening, simultaneously exhausted, exhilarated and abuzz with the thought of what might be in store next year, for the Turner Classic Film festival and for the world of preserving film culture in general.
I approached the train station loaded down with my tote bag, a couple of rolls of posters, and all my vital equipment—camera, phone, voice recorder—and even though I wasn’t sure how I was going to eat one, by God, there was a bacon dog cart right at the opening to the subway stairs. I could resist no longer. I was starving, having skipped dinner entirely in order to hold my place in line for Metropolis, and this was my last chance to grab one of these pungent beauties for the ride home. I ordered one with onions, peppers, and mustard—none of that globby mayo and ketchup for me. I could barely contain my anticipation as the vendor laid the bacon-wrapped beauty into the soft cradle of the bun, draped the onions and peppers on top and laced the length of the dog with a perfect yellow ribbon—yellow mustard, none of that fancy Dijon or even that unforgivably pretentious brown stuff. I forked over the $3.00 plus a dollar tip, which except for the five quarters I had reserved for my train ticket, pretty much cleaned me out. Whoever might decide to mug me tonight would be in for a severe disappointment. But how was I going to eat this thing? And where? I knew Metrolink looked down upon eating food while waiting for the train, and I’d feel kind of dumb just standing there on the street gobbling my delectable late dinner. Maybe I’ll just eat it on the run, I thought, not thinking for a second how that was logistically going to happen with arms as loaded as mine were.
I hopped the escalator, and about halfway down a kid, one of those young guys around 18 or 19 that can always be seen hanging out on Hollywood Boulevard, quickly approached me from behind, and for an instant I thought I was about be robbed. Instead, he said to me, “Hey, mister, you got a couple of quarters so I can get me one of those?” He pointed at my bacon dog, and I noticed that while he was talking to me he was munching furiously on a small bag of Doritos. “Sorry,” I said, “but really I only have enough money to get home.” “Not even 50 cents?” he pressed. “Man, I sure would like to have one of those.” I reiterated my apologies, but I just didn’t have the money to spare, and as often as I’ve blown off people who have approached me on the street for a quick loan, this time it was true. The kid seemed to realize that no matter how much he continued to follow me the answer was not likely to change, and I felt his appropriation of my personal space on the escalator slacken as we neared the bottom. But for some reason, just as I stepped off the moving track and he was about to head back up to the street, I turned and said to him, “I tell you what—you can have this one.” He seemed genuinely shocked, not to mention genuinely appreciative. “Thank you, dude!” he almost yelled, before turning to sprint back up the stairs. I heard him say to someone above, “Hey, look what I got!” before I made my way down into the catacombs. What the hell. I had no easy way to eat it anyway, and despite my initial suspicion that any money I might lend him would probably go toward anything but a fully dressed bacon dog he obviously wanted it—needed it—more than I did. It made me even happy to end my time at the Turner Classic Movies Classic Film Festival on a note of spontaneous generosity, allowing my heart to mediate between my head and my hands. After all, I had spent the entire weekend taking everything in, being treated to wonder after wonder, in the company of a fine and friendly gathering of like-minded people. After being handed a pass into such a luxurious time spent in the world of great movies, it felt good to give a little bit back to the real world, which was still in steady movement outside the doors of the theater.
It was a short ride home, and soon I was asleep in my bed. The next day I returned to the working week, where I couldn’t help but notice the distinct and distressing absence of three-strip Technicolor.
Very Special Thanks
Many sincere thanks must be expressed once again to Keith Uhlich and Ed Gonzalez, both of whom were entirely responsible for my being able to have this wonderful experience at the TCM Classic Film Festival. I literally cannot imagine a way to thank you two enough, except to vow that I will never become so jaded and entitled as to look upon something like this with a shrug. And to my wife Patty and daughters Emma and Nonie, who put up with me being gone for four straight days, I thank you for your indulgence and your understanding. Finally, I’d like to dedicate this account to my friend and fellow blogger Farran Smith Nehme, aka the Self Styled Siren, who more than anyone I know should have been there roaming the streets and screening rooms of Hollywood with all the rest of us. Farran, don’t worry—I’m going to start a PayPal collection to make sure you get a pass and a plane ticket for next year, because the only thing that could possibly beat the joy of this year’s festival is if I could have some coffee or dinner with you and talk about the movie we just saw together next year.
The TCM Classic Film Festival ran from April 22—25.
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