Film Festivals

THE 2011 TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL

By • May 22nd, 2011 •

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SOPHIE’S CHOICE had been mentioned in overheard conversations at the 2nd Annual TCM Classic Film Festival more than any other film. It didn’t screen, but rather was used to convey a sense of the impossible choices attendees were asked to make as the packed schedule consistently clashed at least four “must-see” classics in similar time slots. Where else could you hear people contemplating between seeing Angela Lansbury introducing GASLIGHT or Richard Roundtree introducing SHAFT? Do you choose Kirk Douglas over Roger Corman? Is that even fair to ask? These four pack-full days of screenings provided enough cinephilic dilemmas to last at least until next year.

Day one (Thursday) of the festival kicked off with a gala screening of AN AMERICAN IN PARIS at Grauman’s Chinese, quite possibly the most iconic film theater in the U.S. And how nice it was to see figures such as Leslie Caron, Peter O’Toole, Eva Marie Saint, Mickey Rooney, Jane Powell, and so many others walk the same red carpet they must once have been so familiar with.

My own journey didn’t start in PARIS but in a small seaside village. Somehow, despite my adoration of Gene Tierney, I managed to never before see THE GHOST AND MRS. MUIR, which screened as part of the festival’s tribute to composer Bernard Herrmann (and introduced by his daughter). FIR’s Editor, Roy Frumkes, warned me about the emotional charge of this unlikely story about a young widow who falls in love with the ghost of a sea captain (Rex Harrison). Sure enough, it could squeeze tears out of a rock. Tierney’s features, without a doubt, were carved by the gods to flicker at 24-frames per second.

Joseph von Sternberg’s THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN screened next, starring Marlene Dietrich as a seemingly unredeemable woman who causes a rift between two friends, a Spanish officer (Lionel Atwill) and an outlaw rebel (Cesar Romero). A story reminiscent of Clarence Brown’s 1925 Garbo-starrer, FLESH AND THE DEVIL, and of one of its most memorable lines: “When the Devil can’t reach us through the spirit, he creates a woman beautiful enough to reach us through the flesh.”

The Spanish government found THE DEVIL IS A WOMAN highly offensive and demanded Paramount take it out of circulation. The studio, in return, destroyed the original negative. Luckily for film viewers, it was Dietrich’s favorite film of herself and she kept a print in her safe, which is the source of the copies available today. The jaw-dropping new restoration by the MOMA accentuated the richness and unrestrained sensuality of this masterpiece.

Friday (Day two) started with THE CONSTANT NYMPH, a 1943 Edmund Goulding film starring Joan Fontaine and Charles Boyer. TCM’s host, Robert Osborne, introduced the special screening, noting that due to copyright issues it hasn’t been properly seen since its original release. Osborne was particularly excited about THE CONSTANT NYMPH since TCM has been trying to clear the rights to show it for the past 18 years. It was worth the wait. Fontaine received an Oscar nomination for her role as Tessa, an unhealthy fourteen year-old country girl, hopelessly in love with the much older composer, Lewis Dodd (Boyer). Goulding perfectly balances the melodrama with light-hearted touches. Fontaine’s performance may be one of her best. TCM has yet to announce their premiere date for THE CONSTANT NYMPH, but when they do, set your DVR’s.

Barbara Rush was in attendance to introduce Nick Ray’s 1956 Technicolor melodrama, BIGGER THAN LIFE, the REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE of prescription drug abuse films. James Mason stars as a man diagnosed with a rare condition that leaves him with months to live. His only hope is an experimental cortisone treatment that saves his life but also makes him psychotic. Rush co-stars as his wife. BIGGER THAN LIFE is out on Blu-Ray by Criterion, and while their transfer is supreme (and highly recommended), nothing compares to the real thing. Few directors besides Ray and Douglas Sirk were able to extract such darkness out of the saturation and brightness of the Technicolor process, although Ray’s composition and use of color seems less sentimental and more sinister. Mason, who also produced the film, storms through it with terrifying conviction. Not surprisingly, this intense drama did not find much success upon its initial release, but nevertheless, it is a well-deserved rediscovered classic.

I had to cut Friday short due to a personal engagement. That meant coming to terms with missing, among others, Roger Corman in attendance for LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, Kirk Douglas at SPARTACUS, Mickey Rooney at GIRL CRAZY, a restoration of William Wyler’s great film (and one of Walter Huston’s best performances), DODSWORTH, and one of my most anticipated events, Kevin Brownlow (possibly the greatest living film historian) introducing Erich von Stroheim’s THE MERRY WIDOW.

Saturday (Day 3) found me standing in a line stretching around the block for a 9am screening of Carol Reed’s THE THIRD MAN at The Egyptian, Sid Grauman’s first Hollywood theater (1922). Angela Allen, the script supervisor who worked on the film, stayed for a post-screening discussion. And while the sun never rises too early for a touch of Orson Welles, my heart wasn’t with one of the greatest Noirs ever made. I anxiously awaited the following event, a 50th anniversary screening of THE PARENT TRAP, with Hayley Mills in attendance.

If one film bears responsibility for my falling in love with cinema, it is THE PARENT TRAP. Despite watching it countless times since it originally captured me on VHS as a kid, every repeat viewing carries the emotional impact of the first time. TCM programmed it as the centerpiece of a tribute to Hayley Mills that also included SUMMER MAGIC and WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND. In 1960, Mills received the final (out of 11) Juvenile Awards ever given by the Academy, for POLLYANNA, her first American role. How fitting that her win book-ended an award that originated for Shirley Temple in 1934.

A video tribute to Mills played before the screening, followed by a conversation moderated by Leonard Maltin. She still possesses the same charismatic youthful charm that made her a star to begin with. Mills entranced the audience in person as much as immediately after when the beautifully saturated print projected on the screen. THE PARENT TRAP holds up as the quintessential Disney film. On a personal level, it may have been the most meaningful experience I had in a cinema.

From The Egyptian I headed to The Chinese to see the new digital restoration of CITIZEN KANE. A second dose of Welles. The screening followed a lively conversation between TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz (grandson of KANE’s screenwriter, Herman J. Mankiewicz) and Norman Lloyd, a member of Welles’s original Mercury Players. The digital print, which some may find satisfying, seemed offensively sharp to me. In fact, the fake opening documentary sequence almost looked like HD footage masked by digital effects, to make it “look like film”. These films were never meant to look so sharp, and having the power to tweak them doesn’t mean we should abuse it. But, that said, CITIZEN KANE sucks you in. Sharp or soft, it would be a cinematic tour de force even as a slideshow.

Bruce Goldstein of the Film Forum in New York produced several special events for the festival. The first, a day earlier, a screening of William Castle’s THE TINGLER, theatrics included, that ran at the Forum a few months back. On Saturday he organized a screening of Buster Keaton’s THE CAMERAMAN at The Egyptian, with live musical accompaniment by Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks. Giordano’s orchestra channeled the period’s musical style in an educated, authentic, and enticing fashion. In that old-Hollywood theater, the year was 1928 again. And like wine from a particularly good year, when it comes to film, it rarely gets better than ’28.

In need of more light-hearted fare after almost 12-hours in film theaters, I opted for SHAFT over GASLIGHT. A screening that punctuates the incredible diversity of films TCM chose to feature. Film historian Donald Bogle, and Shaft himself, Richard Roundtree, introduced the action classic.

The 10am screening of NIGHT FLIGHT (1933) on Day 4 (Sunday) had been completely packed by 9:20, with only a few lone seats to be snagged by scavengers. Introducing the film, Robert Osborne mentioned it to be the screening he was most excited about alongside THE CONSTANT NYMPH. Another rarely seen picture, it has been out of circulation since 1942. Produced by Darryl Zanuck and directed by Clarence Brown, it featured an all-star cast including John and Lionel Barrymore, Helen Hayes, Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and Robert Montgomery. According to Osborne NIGHT FLIGHT had been planned to be an ensemble film in the vein of GRAND HOTEL, following the story of airmail pilots on a dangerous night flight mission. Seems odd that with so many power players NIGHT FLIGHT remains obscure, but beyond its historical significance and competent cinematography it remains a lackluster affair. A paper-thin storyline and uninspired performances prevent it from truly engaging the viewer. A post-screening conversation took place between Osborne and Drew Barrymore, in which she enthusiastically spoke about her legendary family tree and their works.

Next up, WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND. More Hayley Mills. A 1961 British production directed by Bryan Forbes and produced by Richard Attenborough. Based on a novel by Mills’s mother, Mary Hayley Bell, the story revolves around three children who discover an escaped murderer (Alan Bates) in their family barn and mistake him for Jesus Christ. Mills’s maturity as an actress, even at a young age, could be seen by her unconventional choice of roles. Making a film like WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, a wonderfully contemplative, melancholic coming-of-age tale, in the same year as THE PARENT TRAP. Or in 1966, starring in both THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS as somewhat of a continuation of her Disney characters, and THE FAMILY WAY in England, which explored womanhood and sex. Mills stayed for a lengthy Q&A post-screening. She mentioned that her father, John Mills, originally wanted to direct WHISTLE DOWN THE WIND, but dropped out. Interesting, considering he directed the very similar SKY WEST AND CROOKED in 1966, also starring Mills and written by her mother.

Given that the festival paid tribute to both Mills and Bernard Herrmann, I wished for a screening of TWISTED NERVE, a terrific horror film with her in the lead and the Hermann score made famous by Tarantino’s KILL BILL.

Later on Sunday, Bruce Goldstein hosted a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers, an African-American dance duo who were greatly admired by the likes of Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Michael Jackson, and countless others. Goldstein narrated a selection of clips from films that featured Harold and Fayard Nicholas, such as DOWN ARGENTINE WAY and THE PIRATE, alongside TV appearances, rare film footage shot by the brothers, and interview clips from a 1992 documentary he made about them. Their dance routines were so exhilarating that the audience burst into applause after every single clip, as if we were privy to a live performance. Robert Townsend, director of HOLLYWOOD SHUFFLE, was in attendance, as well as the brothers’ families, which made the presentation all the more touching. Goldstein finished by playing an encore of the “staircase” routine from STORMY WEATHER, a piece Astaire called the greatest musical sequence ever.

The Nicholas Brothers in Action

Sunday ended with a newly restored print of Mike Nichols’ WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF?, with cinematographer Haskell Wexler in attendance. Wexler confided prior to the screening that he originally refused to shoot VIRGINIA WOOLF due to a previous commitment. Jack Warner finally convinced him, assuring him that if he didn’t shoot the film he would never work in Hollywood again. A good choice considering it won him his first Academy Award. VIRGINIA WOOLF, for all its great performances, is elevated from a theater play to cinematic beauty thanks primarily to Wexler’s cinematography. He consistently finds movement in static situations, extracting it directly from the emotional state of the characters. The print restoration, which he supervised, looked magnificent.

When the Academy quietly pulled the lifetime achievement awards from its televised award ceremony, it seemed like the American film industry had finally rid its conscience of its history. Even film festivals in the U.S. rarely juxtapose the current state of cinema with its heritage. A successful future cannot exist without a consideration of the past. The unique way in which the TCM Classic Film Festival celebrates these classics as if they were the hottest films of the moment balances this “out with the old” approach, making it, at least spiritually, the most important film festival in the United States.

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