At the risk of invoking the spirit of the perpetually weary Lili Von Shtupp from Blazing Saddles, long before I ever hopped the red line train to Hollywood Boulevard in anticipation of the 2018 TCM Classic Film Festival last Thursday night, I had already been beset by a heavy sense of festival fatigue. Such bemoaning might seem misplaced coming from someone who attends exactly one festival a year—this one. But after a noticeable slump last year, in my energy and in the level of the festival’s programming overall, I had begun to worry that after eight TCMFFs in a row the dip in enthusiasm I’d registered last year might blossom into a full-on festival hangover before this year’s fun had even had a chance to begin. However, as news of the specifics of the festival began to trickle out, there became apparent a reason to suspect, if not outright hope, that 2018 might provide a tonic to address the comparatively flat spirits which earmarked the previous gathering.
The organizing principle of last year’s festival had been, I thought, a mite too broad (“Comedy in the Movies”), but the announcement that this year’s TCMFF would be dedicated largely to the theme “Powerful Words: The Page Onscreen” seemed to hold much more promise. In addition to familiar categorizations like “Discoveries,” “Essentials,” and “Festival Tributes,” programmers had devised several interesting subheadings within which to organize or thematically justify their selections.
Under the rubric “The Writer’s Block,” for example, TCMFF 2018 was ready to dish up selections like The Lost Weekend and The Story of G.I. Joe. In a reversal of an old standard, “Screen to Stage” would highlight selections that had begun life as screen sensations and then moved on to Broadway, such as Sunset Boulevard, The Phantom of the Opera, and the festival’s opening-night selection, the world premiere of a 4K digital restoration of Mel Brooks’s The Producers (there was no room for School of Rock, apparently).
And perhaps the most relevant thematic tie between the golden age of Hollywood and our tinfoil present, “The Power of the Press” would highlight the opportunity to see the greatest newspaper comedy ever made, Howard Hawks’s His Girl Friday, itself based on the greatest newspaper play ever written, Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur’s The Front Page. But that’s not all, folks. In the same TCMFF category, you could find Blessed Event, a snappy, rarely screened pre-code take on the influence, for good and bad, of a gossip columnist played by Lee Tracy (and purportedly based on Walter Winchell), and Sam Fuller’s impassioned Park Row, which chronicles an editor’s fight against corruption in the press along New York’s Newspaper Row in the 1880s.
Further self-explanatory subdivisions under the “Powerful Words” umbrella included “Christie’s Mysteries,” “The Poet’s Corner,” and “Shakespeare in the Dark,” as well as a slate of special presentations and a second year of classics shown on vibrant, yet volatile, nitrate film stock (including John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven, which won an Oscar for Leon Shamroy’s color cinematography). And they all seemed to guarantee that a lot of eyes would be popping, either from excitement or exhaustion, once the lights finally went out after the conclusion of the four days of TCMFF 2018.
As is probably apparent, and is as usual for TCMFF, that overriding theme, focusing on the creation of the words which provide the structure and the inspiration for the movies’ hopefully memorable imagery, functioned largely as a sturdy clothesline on which to hang all manner of classic movie laundry rather than as a pathway toward a necessarily more coherent understanding of the writerly craft. Yet the festival’s one attempt to directly address that craft in its original programming, Saturday afternoon’s film-clip compendium of B-movie comebacks, quips, and machine-gun jargon entitled “Crackin’ Wise,” was an intermittently entertaining but ultimately tepid affair.
Assembled from the voluminous Paramount Archives by the studio’s head archivist, Andrea Kalas, the presentation provided some history on the lesser-known veterans of vaudeville, pulp novels, and radio plays behind the studio’s B movies, but also on some better-known writers such as Nathaniel West. And some of the clips provided saucy examples of what gave audiences pleasure when these largely unmemorable titles ended up anchored to double features on their way down the road to relative obscurity. The ironic problem with “Crackin’ Wise,” beside its monotonous one-after-the-other clip format, is that the pool from which Kalas drew apparently just isn’t as wise as advertised; the surprisingly dreary level of the writing sampled in the program inadvertently exposed the reality that sometimes cranking out scripts for relatively uninspired pictures was (and is) just a job.
Though there were gems spread throughout the 90-minute program, the ratio of snappy retorts to less-than-inspired exchanges, often delivered by minor actors in oft-forgotten vehicles, wasn’t favorable. And the sudden appearance by a Paramount production like Ace in the Hole, written by one of the most celebrated wits in Hollywood history, raises the bar to an impossible level of comparison. In the shadow of Billy Wilder, the jig is so up for the other smart guys that it rightly bolts for the exit and the nearest smoke-filled saloon.
One of the best examples of hard-boiled, comeback-rich dialogue at this year’s festival, the impossibly entertaining The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, wouldn’t have fit into the limited format of “Crackin’ Wise,” as Joseph Sargent’s subway thriller was a United Artists release from 1974. Nonetheless, it’s loaded with juicy exchanges that illustrate Kalas’s point far better than most of the clips she programmed, spotlighting screenwriter Peter Stone (Charade, Skin Game) and the actors who find his delightfully profane dialogue spilling out of their mouths at the top of their respective games.
Perhaps the peakiest peak in a film full of ’em: Walter Matthau’s transit cop, pleading for cooperation from the spectacularly apoplectic Dick O’Neill as the head of transit operations, protests that all he cares about is saving lives. O’Neill’s machine-gun response is one for the NYC branch of the Comeback Hall of Fame: “Screw the goddamn passengers! What the hell did they expect for their lousy 35 cents—to live forever?” As if that weren’t enough, Bruce Goldstein, lifelong Manhattanite and director of repertory programming at the city’s famed Film Forum, introduced The Taking of Pelham One Two Three at TCMFF with a lively presentation which honored the film’s unprecedented geographical veracity, culminating with Goldstein’s proclamation that the film feels like one made for New Yorkers, given its refusal to act as a tour guide for the city’s familiar landmarks. In fact, Goldstein thinks it’s the best New York City movie ever made. How’s that for crackin’ wise?
Fortunately, TCMFF 2018 did offer various opportunities to celebrate talented, perhaps less zingy writer-directors such as Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career); James Ivory (Maurice); Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer); Melvin van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a salute which makes me happy even though my mind remains boggled that it ever managed to happen); and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), whose gem-laden career bears an inordinate degree of dedication to making sports movies the way Hollywood doesn’t like to make ’em—raunchy, unpredictable, often melancholy—and then proving that audiences would come to see them anyway.
One filmmaker who couldn’t be in attendance was highlighted with a feature so strong and bracing you could practically feel the one-two punches smashing against your torso and smell the cigar smoke from his ever-present stogie wafting down the back of your neck. Sam Fuller, who died in 1997, would have been thrilled with the festival showcase afforded his favorite film, 1952’s Park Row. Fuller’s urgency isn’t an empty exercise designed to get an audience’s collective pulse racing. His own experiences as a newspaper copy boy, coupled with his passion for the primacy and importance of the fourth estate, inform this gloriously claustrophobic, booze-soaked, relentlessly forceful tale of how one (fictional) editor, played by Gene Evans, a veteran of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, flies in the face of corruption and illegal influence, and against the baser instincts of a rival publisher once his boss (Mary Welch), in the pursuit of journalistic standards to honor the statues of Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin which anchor Park Row itself.
Another writer-director who was himself, like Fuller, at the forefront of a particularly important moment in the history of American independent film, John Sayles, used his time introducing Park Row to eloquently characterize the film, in one of the overall best, most informed, beautifully delivered speaker presentations I’ve ever seen at TCMFF, as “Citizen Kane printed on butcher paper.” You could almost hear Fuller chuckle with approval.
The film then blasted out of the gate before its own opening credits with words meant to evoke the 120-point boldface type of the era’s most grave, life-and-death headlines, imposed over a crawl of newspaper banners: “THESE ARE THE NAMES OF 1,772 DAILY NEWSPAPERS IN THE UNITED STATES. ONE OF THE IS THE PAPER YOU READ. ALL OF THEM ARE THE STARS OF THIS STORY.” Then a brief pause while the banners continued to roll, followed in even bigger typeface by a legend which crawled up along with the background to fill the frame: “DEDICATED TO AMERICAN JOURNALISM.”
Fuller, of course, could have had no idea in 1952 the chill those words would deliver to audiences almost 70 years later, but their insistence, their implied defiance, along with Fuller’s conviction and pulp power as a director, ensured that Park Row would emerge from a festival filled with delights and landmarks from the past as perhaps that festival’s most urgent ambassador to the future. On the same Saturday night as Michelle Wolf’s controversial appearance at the White House Correspondents Dinner, where she was roundly criticized by multiple members of the D.C. press for speaking truth to power in a manner completely unfamiliar to them, I’m exceedingly glad that the director’s wife, Christa Fuller, was in the TCMFF auditorium to see for herself just how well the movie was received by modern eyes and ears, how vital its undercurrent of journalistic vigilance remains.