As far as matters of its own history goes, Los Angeles has a reputation for having one eye set to the rear-view mirror, the other eye focused more intently on what’s happening in the trendy, modern now. Districts like Bunker Hill and neighborhoods like Chavez Ravine remain sobering monuments to aggressive urban development (and residential displacement), though groups like the Los Angeles Conservancy and other organizations dedicated to social responsiveness and representation of the citizenry have been aggressively and successfully raising funds, awareness, and levels of appreciation for Los Angeles history and the city’s landmarks for several decades now. But in the city that once almost exclusively signified the heart of movie production in less globally focused times, while some original studio sites are still in use or at least recognizable, many others have been lost: The historic Pickfair Studios in West Hollywood, where Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks first formed United Artists, the first artist-run movie studio, during the silent era, fell victim to “progress” just three years ago.
Even in the heart of Hollywood, where costumed hustlers and tourists daily trample over sidewalk stars dedicated to the memory of entertainment legends, few are likely to pause over names like Lloyd Bacon, Ralph Bellamy, Stanley Kramer, Gregory La Cava, or Una Merkel. Except, perhaps, during one long weekend near the end of March, when classic-film historians, scholars, and everyday movie buffs gather, as they have since 2010, for the TCM Classic Film Festival, where this year the work of each of these less-well-known actors and directors was greeted with wild enthusiasm. To crib the title of one of the fêted films at this year’s gathering, it may be true, especially in Los Angeles, that nothing lasts forever, but TCMFF seems dedicated to the perception that some things, some people, some films just might be able to buck the inevitable disappearing act into the mists of history.
Speaking of which, the theme of this year’s festival, “History According to Hollywood,” is one that covers a lot of ground in the realm of classic and contemporary film, suggesting the difference between Hollywood’s inevitably fictionalized version of our collective past and that of a work of historical scholarship, or a textbook. And as Selma recently proved, there’s perhaps more tension than ever in the perpetual tug of war between a filmmaker’s fealty to historical accuracy and to the requirements of drama, of personal perspective, of art. The TCMFF atmosphere probably doesn’t inspire a lot of deep-dish contemplation on this sort of tension, as festival pass holders shuttle through the Chinese Theater complex, quickly exiting a screening of the restored 1972 film version of the musical 1776 on their way to securing a place in line to see The Diary of Anne Frank. But it’s in the air anyway, and it’s part of the valuable experience of being able to see movies like Malcolm X and Young Mr. Lincoln projected in very close proximity, measuring the ways that directors as disparate as Spike Lee and John Ford craft their own personal perspective to fit the history and the mythology surrounding their central characters.
Ford’s Lincoln may be a less immediate subject than the continuing significance of the man once known as Malcolm Little, or that of Martin Luther King Jr., and it’s doubtful anyone will accuse Ford of hewing too closely to the historical record on the early life of the great American president. However, both Malcolm X and Young Mr. Lincoln make grabs at the sort of truth that reverberates in the heart as well as the head, a sort which may be more elusive and even more rewarding than what might be yielded by a plain regurgitation of facts.
Hardly a seminar on cinematic historical representation, TCMFF’s overriding focus this year proved to be interesting as much for its subdivisions as for its main idea. In addition to the aforementioned epics and biopics, the umbrella of “History According to Hollywood” covered enough ground to include films of varying historical accuracy such as Apollo 13 (with the movie’s real-life hero, Captain James Lovell, in attendance), Lenny, Patton, Lawrence of Arabia, Calamity Jane, Madame Curie, The Miracle Worker, Queen Christina, Viva Zapata!, A Man for All Seasons, Breaker Morant, Inherit the Wind, Steamboat Bill, Jr. (featuring a beautiful restoration and a brand-new score written and conducted by Carl Davis), Judgment at Nuremberg, and even (points for irreverence, TCM programmers) Mel Brooks’s History of the World: Part 1.
John Ford, an artist so important to the way in which many people have crafted perceptions and even refigured actual memories of an America receding into an ever more distant past, even rated his own category in the TCMFF program this year: “History According to John Ford.” Over the course of the weekend festival, his World War II drama They Were Expendable played alongside Young Mr. Lincoln and two other significant Ford considerations of the crossroads between history and mythology, My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.
I managed to squeeze into a packed screening of the other Ford of the bunch, the rarely seen 1932 adventure picture Air Mail, starring Ralph Bellamy and Pat O’Brien as hotshot pilots with a contentious past who deliver the U.S. mail under treacherous conditions from a lonely desert-airport outpost. Undersold by Leonard Maltin in his pre-film introduction as merely a “bread-and-butter” picture, the film combines familiar themes of honor and trust with juicy pre-code romantic entanglements (courtesy of Gloria Stuart and, especially, the sultry Lilian Bond) and spectacular aerial photography and stunt work; this is the one where you’ll see stunt pilot Paul Mantz fly a plane in and out the open doors of a hangar, the first time this stunt was ever performed for a film. Air Mail was co-written by U.S. navy aviator Frank “Spig” Wead, who was himself the subject of a later biography directed by Ford and starring John Wayne, 1957’s The Wings of Eagles, and it reaps major rewards in the authenticity department from his participation. An early highlight during a festival packed with peak points, Air Mail is yet another strong exhibit in the case for eschewing the familiar at TCMFF in favor of the rare, the unknown or the never before seen. (Of the 14 movies I saw over the weekend, eight of them were new to me.)