Almost by definition, any festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are practically a staple at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which held its eighth gathering in the heart of Hollywood this past weekend. The memory of the late Debbie Reynolds, who had made several in-person appearances at TCMFF over the past eight years, was invoked through yet another screening (the festival’s third) of the indisputable classic Singin’ in the Rain, in which Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash back in 1952, and at a screening of Postcards from the Edge (classic status somewhat more disputable), before which Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, were remembered fondly by Todd Fisher, Reynolds’s son.
Even though he wasn’t represented at the festival on screen, Don Rickles, who passed away on April 6, the festival’s opening day, couldn’t be ignored. Rickles’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater complex, and as I made my way through the usual crush of tourists, desperadoes, and TCMFF pass holders toward my first screening on Thursday afternoon I wasn’t surprised to see the little square of sidewalk devoted to Rickles surrounded by flowers, curious bystanders, and entertainment reporters trolling for soundbites, and even adorned by one fan’s thoughtful memorial: a brand-new hockey puck.
The ghost that made its presence felt at almost every turn of this year’s festival belonged, of course, to TCM’s beloved host Robert Osborne, who died one month to the day before the launch of this year’s festival. Osborne began his Hollywood career in the early 1950s as an actor; his highest-profile moments were uncredited, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them appearances in Psycho and Spartacus. But his heart was never in it, and at the encouragement of Lucille Ball he abandoned acting and combined his love of movies and journalism to concentrate on writing and documenting Hollywood history, eventually becoming the genial, knowledgeable, silver-haired host who won the allegiance of TCM fans worldwide.
Osborne had missed the previous two years at TCMFF due to illness and his presence on the channel had greatly diminished, so the announcement of his death came as no great surprise, and just as it should be, TCMFF 2017 was dedicated to his memory and achievements long before the festival’s first frames ever found their way from projector to screen. The very first event of TCMFF 2017 was “Remembering Robert,” a presentation in one of the festival’s biggest multiplex theaters attended by TCM VIPs and celebrity guests and open to all pass holders. Each feature shown on Thursday was also preceded by a short film highlighting Osborne’s talent as an interviewer, but probably more importantly his easygoing relationship with not only superstar guests like Mel Brooks, Eva Marie Saint, Peter O’Toole and, of course, Debbie Reynolds, but also with the considerably lower-wattage TCM fans who always seemed as eager to see him in person as they were any of the other stars usually found on parade at the festival.
Inevitably, some of the spotlight shone on Osborne and his profound influence as the face and spirit of TCM ended up illuminating questions, not so much about the channel, but the direction in which the film festival seems to be headed. In many ways, Osborne—the well-read, informed, semi-erudite and very enthusiastic proponent of all things classic movies—was the perfect distillation of the channel’s audience; he was the ultimate TCM fan, conversant in every aspect of Hollywood lore and rumor and achievement, and yet also in a somehow youthful awe of it all.
It would be imprudent and probably ill-informed to suggest that Osborne had a direct, ongoing influence in programming either the channel or the festival, despite his public image as overlord of a classic movie empire. But certainly Osborne’s diminished presence at TCMFF over the past few years has coincided with the festival’s increased proclivity, undoubtedly inspired at least in part by the understandable need to generate revenue—to feature films that, shall we say, push the outer limits of the definition of the essential term “classic,” or to overly rely on familiar, oft-seen selections that emphasize a classic film aesthetic which Osborne undoubtedly would have approved but which tend to crowd out the rarities and obscure items from the vault that have always been catnip to the more serious cinephiles in attendance.
In comparison to past themes such as “History in the Movies,” “Moving Pictures,” and “Hollywood Style,” the nexus of this year’s festival, “Comedy in the Movies,” seemed unusually broad, and according to festival managing director Genevieve McGillicuddy, that’s apparently at least in part by design. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, she suggested that festival themes must be considered “broad enough to encompass a lot of films, but specific enough to inform who we bring in, in terms of guests.” What’s disturbing about that comment is the acknowledgment of the degree to which festival programmers, particularly this year, seemed to have been guided not as much by whether or not the films were worthy of a showcase in such a setting, but instead by who could be lured out to present and talk about their films.
If that’s true, it goes a long way toward explaining why TCMFF 2017 featured such vintage “classics” as The Jerk, The Princess Bride, High Anxiety, Broadcast News, Top Secret!, Best in Show, The Kentucky Fried Movie, Saturday Night Fever, and The China Syndrome, and with all of their very high-profile creators in attendance. (Bonnie and Clyde also played this year, but Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway were both absent; no doubt the fiasco that capped this year’s Oscars soured them on public appearances for a while.) If this sort of celebrity trolling is indeed the direction that TCMFF is headed, then it seems reasonable to fear that future festivals might likely be even more dependent, given the ever-decreasing availability of stars and filmmakers from a more genuine era of classic movies, on showcasing more current fare to the exclusion of exploring the rich nooks and crannies of Hollywood history.
Even when addressing that history, however, this year’s edition of TCMFF seemed to come up short of imagination. It seems fairly clear that movies like Arsenic and Old Lace, Born Yesterday, Casablanca, The Graduate, The Great Dictator, Harold and Maude, Jezebel, The Last Picture Show, Rear Window, Red River, Some Like It Hot, and Unfaithfully Yours have a rightful place at any festival which claims classic movie history as its statement purpose. But at the risk of sounding like a spoiled churl, when those none-too-difficult-to-see films are combined on a slate with a roster of popular, in-age-only classics like The Jerk and The China Syndrome, that adds up to a lot of screens which could have been dedicated to less-familiar or less-available films which might also be better qualified as classics. Every one of the movies cited immediately above were directed by filmmakers who all have less well-traveled selections in their respective oeuvres which could have been showcased, and in fact Alfred Hitchcock and Hal Ashby were both more satisfyingly represented in the festival by harder-to-see titles: a luminous nitrate print of 1934’s The Man Who Knew Too Much, superior to the 1956 remake, and 1970’s The Landlord, probably Ashby’s best film and a genuine classic if there ever was one.
Probably the most illuminating thread in TCMFF 2017’s “Comedy in the Movies” theme was not the more predictable selection of films chosen to fulfill it, but the peripheral consideration of what exactly makes a person laugh. I certainly didn’t consciously schedule my own festival experience along TCMFF’s thematic lines, yet the issue of laughter, emanating from the belly as well as the brain, kept bubbling to the surface, and sometimes from unexpected places. Much to my happy surprise, my opening-night selection, the 1941 romantic farce Love Crazy, was an actual laff riot. The film’s setup is typical screwball: An escalating series of improbable misunderstandings leads a couple to break up on their fourth wedding anniversary, all of which inspires Steve Ireland (William Powell) to have himself declared legally insane and eventually pass himself off as his own sister in order to maneuver Susan Ireland (Myrna Loy) back into his graces.
Director Jack Conway and writers William Ludwig, David Hertz, and Charles Lederer display an endearing affinity for sophisticated people falling on their asses in Love Crazy, which suited me just fine. And speaking of being suited just fine, who could have guessed that Powell would make such a grand and dowdy old maid? I’ll go on record with the belief that Powell did drag better and more convincingly than anyone I’ve ever seen, and that includes Dustin Hoffman. (Powell gets bonus points for not having learned hard lessons about becoming a better man by putting on a dress too.) The film also goes a long way toward demonstrating the chemistry between Powell and Loy, both sexual and platonic, which kept them together on screen over the course of 14 movies. Perhaps unexpectedly, Love Crazy is one of their best.
Naturally, TCMFF provides an excellent opportunity to catch classic comedies with appreciative audiences. So this year I lined up for W.C. Fields and the beloved duo of Laurel and Hardy. At only 29 minutes, 1932’s The Music Box is Laurel and Hardy’s masterpiece, a beautiful display of slapstick tension built around the boys’ inept, Sisyphean attempts to push a piano up a ridiculously steep flight of stairs. To the delight of the audience, Stan and Ollie’s difficulties don’t stop once they manage to reach the top, and the film’s reception here in front of a big crowd made me wish I could have been there in 1932 when people were discovering it for the first time. The Music Box, no surprise, turned out to be a hard act to follow. The Laurel and Hardy feature which came next, 1937’s Way Out West, runs twice as long, and I’d estimate it overstays its welcome by about a half hour. By about midway through, despite the occasional chortle, I felt deflated by Way Out West, and the audience around me seemed ready for the revivifying effects of a Starbucks run too.