It has been two weeks since I returned from Hollywood and this year’s Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (TCMFF). As has been the case every year running so far, Hollywood has a way of hurting me. This time I returned with something called pes anserine bursitis in my knee. Who knew we had something called a pes anserine in our bodies? Well, at least I did not. All I can say is that it is painful. And it is due to that issue that I have not been in the right frame of mind to tell you how thrilling this year’s Festival was.
The joy of being together again for the TCMFF was palpable throughout the weekend. The Festival kicked off on Thursday April 21 with the customary Meet TCM panel followed by So You Think You Know the Movies game, which is always a hoot. My friend Chris Sturham managed to rope me into being part of a team and we did really well, which means I knew some of the answers.
My Festival screenings kicked off with William Dieterle’s Jewel Robbery (1932) introduced by author/historian Cari Beauchamp who always manages interesting backstories for the beloved pre-codes. It was fantastic watching William Powell and especially Kay Francis strut their stuff on the first big screening of TCMFF in three years.
My second movie on Thursday night was Preston Sturges’ Hail the Conquering Hero (1944) and let me tell ya, I made the perfect choice. What an enchanting time I had watching the film Sturges referred to as having had “the least wrong with it” of all his films. Eddie Bracken, Ella Raines, and Sturges favorite William Demarest star in a story about the son of a WWI hero Woodrow Truesmith (Bracken) who was discharged from the Marine Corps due to chronic hay fever. Woodrow is pretending to be fighting oversees so as not to disappoint and embarrass his mother when he meets a group of Marines who make up an elaborate scheme, so Woodrow is seen as a hero to his small town. The fast-paced story and the entire cast are delights as is Sturges’ Academy Award-nominated screenplay. Producer Michael Uslan introduced Hail the Conquering Hero and had a lot to say about the underrated talents of Eddie Bracken who, I agree, is not given credit for his memorable comedic performances in many movies. This one is his best.
Friday began much as Thursday ended for me as I was enveloped in magic. Leonard Maltin interviewed cartoonist/animator Floyd Norman – who also happens to be a Disney legend – to introduce The Jungle Book (1967). The Maltin-Norman interview was one of the best I attended of all in my years going to TCMFF. Add to that the beautiful El Capitan Theatre, its gorgeous Wurlitzer, the fanfare with which the El Capitan shows classic movies, the music of The Jungle Book, and the TCMFF crowd and what you have is a truly special experience. This was one of my favorite screenings of the entire Festival.
I followed The Jungle Book with the new-to-me Queen Bee (1955) directed by Ranald MacDougall and saw Joan Crawford as I had never seen her. It is no wonder TCM host Alicia Malone looked forward to this screening. What a trip this movie is. Joan is at her evil best and makes no qualms about it. I adore her even more than I did before after seeing her in this melodrama co-starring John Ireland, Betsy Palmer, and Barry Sullivan. Writer William Joyce introduced Queen Bee and mentioned Joan’s Crawford’s eyebrows a lot. To be honest, I was so taken with her viciousness I hardly noticed the eyebrows.
William Wyler’s The Letter (1940) came next, a perfect Joan-Bette one-two punch. The Letter is one of my favorite Bette Davis movies and it did not disappoint. As my friend Alan Hait mentioned, watching a movie on a big screen makes so much difference that we both noticed things in the film we had never noticed before. Introduced by Alicia Malone and author/co-founder of the Bette Davis Foundation, Kathryn Sermak, The Letter shined with its breathtaking cinematography, a leading lady that doesn’t quit, a gut-wrenching Gale Sondergaard, and a particularly alert and insistent moon. This is one of the best.
To end Friday, I went with another old favorite, Mark Sandrich’s The Gay Divorcee (1934) starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. I had my doubts about getting into the tiny House 4 of the multiplex for this popular offering but managed to get in and enjoyed it immensely. The fabulous comedic turns of Edward Everett Horton, Erik Rhodes, Alice Brady, and Eric Blore didn’t hurt nor did a touch of Betty Grable. Chance is a fool’s name for fate and I’m glad this was in my cards.
Saturday began with a romantic comedy I have seen many, many times but when the couple of Cary Grant and Sophia Loren and the venue is the historic Chinese Theatre is become an entirely new movie. Film critic and journalist Tara McNamara introduced Melville Shavelson’s technicolor gem about the rebellious daughter of a symphony conductor who ends up a nanny to three kids who have an extremely handsome father. The backstory shared by McNamara is replete with juiciness. Cray Grant’s wife at the time, Betsy Drake, wrote the original screenplay but ended up not getting screen credit for it. Then you have the complicated romantic entanglement between Grant and Loren who married Carlo Ponti during the filming of the movie. Anyway, real-life drama aside the screening was a delight, the perfect way to get myself going despite my increasingly painful back.
If you visited my pre-TCMFF plan you noticed I had chosen back-up screenings for Saturday because there was no way I could have made it to the Legion Theatre. But in their infinite wisdom, TCM made shuttles available, so I was able to see two of my primary choices, Jacques Tourneur’s The Flame and the Arrow (1950) and Alfred E. Green’s Baby Face (1933).
I always make it a point to stress that no matter what you end up seeing at TCMFF you cannot lose. It is a fact, but if there are a few things that are absolute musts at this Festival (or anywhere) they are the introductions by Craig Barron and Ben Burtt. Barron, a visual effects artist, and Burtt, a sound designer, never fail to put together wonderfully entertaining and detail-laden presentations that are as good as the movies they are introducing. In the case of The Flame and the Arrow they told of Burt Lancaster’s circus background alongside Nick Cravat, a stunt performer who co-stars in this movie. The story of their relationship and details about how the special effects were created for the film were outstanding. Adding to the charm of the presentation was the attendance of Gordon Gebert who played Lancaster’s son in The Flame and the Arrow and roles in numerous other films like Don Hartman’s Holiday Affair (1949). Gebert is one of those child stars whose performances are indelible.
Only one man could follow Barron and Burtt and make you forget about arrows and flames, and that man is Bruce Goldstein. Founder and co-president of Rialto Pictures and programmer of Film Forum’s iconic repertory schedule, Goldstein is a gem among movie fans because that he is. A wicket sense of humor and infectious knowledge of film history, Goldstein shines when talking about pre-codes, those wickedly entertaining pictures made in the early 1930s. Of all, Bruce’s introduction of “the Citizen Kane of pre-codes” is too delicious to have missed and I am thrilled I did not miss it. With slideshow at hand and jokes at the ready, Bruce offered a deep dive into Baby Face, censorship, and a history of the career of Theresa Harris who co-stars in Baby Face. An enthusiastic audience laughed at his every joke, ready to take on Barbara Stanwyck’s power as professional climber extraordinaire Lily Powers. This was an afternoon to remember, and I shall do so for an exceptionally long time.
Following a memorable pre-code, I prepared for Elvis Presley and Norman Taurog’s Blue Hawaii poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt. To say this screening also exceeded my expectations would be an understatement. I adore Elvis Presley as you may know, and poolside screenings are relaxing and beautiful as palm trees sway to your mood. TCM staff had leis ready to adorn us and the TCM Wine Club table had their best Elvis wine free of charge to get you going. Dave Karger introduced Blue Hawaii and the extremely happy crowd responded in kind with tropical drinks in hand. A fabulous time was had by all especially for the group of mostly TCMParty-ers who danced a mean Elvis throughout.
Sadly, it was after the Blue Hawaii screening that my sore back became my sore knee. I knew they were connected but had not a clue what was wrong. The next morning proved excruciating enough to force me to miss screenings, which upset me immensely. However, staying at rest at the lobby of the Roosevelt lent itself to several happy reunions with friends I would have seen only in passing. In addition, I got to see Margaret O’Brien up close during her interview in the lobby and attended two fantastic events at Club TCM.
Dave Karger hosted A Conversation with Piper Laurie, which proved more than an enjoyable way to make up for missing movies. A poised and charming Laurie discussed some of her films and co-stars with my favorite being her comments about Paul Newman whom she described as a talented, decent man. She described having been an extremely shy child, “almost silent,” and talked about how her mother played an important part of getting her out of the shell. During WWII, Piper and her sister sang patriotic songs in a musical-comedy act they put together, which also helped build her confidence. Dave did a great interview and Piper was charming, warm, and funny. Her comments about playing the mother in Brian De Palma’s Carrie (1976) were wonderful. Especially the stories about her real-life daughter’s friends being afraid of her when they came over to play. Finally, when Piper talked about her daughter taking care of her now that she is older touched me deeply. Piper Laurie moved me immeasurably, and I want to rewatch some of her films.
Reframed: Exploring the Complex Topic of Art vs. Artist was an honest discussion about how and if one should continue to admire the work of people whose behavior and words are harmful (for lack of a better word). Club TCM was so packed that they stopped letting people in. There is a hunger for discussions like these, which inherently leave you with more questions than answers, but they must be had if we are to move forward to a place where everyone is respected. TCM host Jacqueline Stewart moderated a panel that included sociologist Nancy Wang Yuen, writer Roxane Gay, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, and SVP of programming Charlie Tabesh who seemed genuinely concerned about how you balance showing the movies TCM is known for given some of the ugly history behind them. Ben Mankiewicz brought up Charles Coburn as an example. Coburn was a talented character actor who is a delight to watch, but he was an active racist in real life. Sometimes it is difficult to separate and sometimes we choose to. It is all extremely complicated, and everyone agreed there are no easy answers. The important thing is to keep having the conversations and for that I believe everyone who attended this discussion was grateful.
I ended TCMFF having watched only eleven movies due to my leg pain, but I managed to finish strong with the screening of Jack Hill’s Coffy (1973). Jacqueline Stewart interviewed the film’s star, Pam Grier before the movie, and did a wonderful job in between fits of laughter. Pam Grier entered the theater dancing and never let that energy dissipate. Professor Stewart started her introduction of Grier by saying it was a dream come true and so it was too for those of us who grew up watching those kick-ass movies Grier starred in in the 1970s in addition to her outstanding turn in Tarantino’s Jackie Brown (1997), the director’s best.
Pam Grier spoke highly of the crews, the ones who do all the challenging work in movies and spoke about how she got them unionized. She mentioned that Coffy represented the family she forged with all the people who worked on these movies.
“Cary Grant wears the hell out of a tuxedo. I do not know who does his hair, but he is the finest white man I have ever seen.” Lo and behold Ms. Grier was at the screening of Houseboat too. What taste! If I hadn’t already been a fan, I would have become one at that very instant. And in addition to talking about Coffy and her life’s journey, Ms. Grier brought with her fan mail from Russia to show us all. It was an extremely memorable time capping a special TCMFF.
Most of all and what I take away from this year’s event are the people, the friends I had the pleasure of spending time with, the friends whose patience is legendary. Remember, they waited for me as I limped my way through this Festival. To my sisters in arms, Annmarie of Classic Movie Hub, Theresa of Cinemaven’s Essays from the Couch, and Jeanelle Kleveland of Nebraska, thank you for sharing the suffering through our stay at the Hollywood VIP Hotel, which is neither a VIP nor a hotel. If I can give you all a gift it would be the sincere hope that you never have the misfortune of staying at that place. I know we will all laugh about it one day. Mt friend Toni who blogs at Watching Forever also put up with my ailment all weekend. Toni, however, had the extreme good fortune of not staying at the Hollywood VIP.
A special thank you to Laura of Laura’s Miscellaneous Musings and her husband Doug who once again showed us a fantastic time at cemeteries before the Festival. I got to visit Betty Grable’s final resting place, which meant a lot. I was also happy to have had the opportunity to watch several movies with Laura this year, a rarity since we usually have different schedules. It was great too to spend quality time with Joel, Alan, Pam, Iba, Kendahl, and Will who returned to TCMFF after a of six-year absence to much fanfare.
The one small negative at the Festival this year was the confusion at the lines. My suggestion is better training for staff who work them and something about how the lines work in the TCMFF information page. I saw several people frustrated about how things worked and a mother and daughter, first time attendees, who were extremely upset about missing a screening because of the confusion. That said, all those who made in into the screenings of their chose quickly forgot about the lines and basked in big screen glory.
One final thing – about the TCM hosts? They are truly nice people. I usually get a few questions about that every year. Eddie Muller knew me by name. Alicia Malone remembered my being one of the first people she met at her first TCMFF. Dave Karger took the time to fix my mask when he took a picture with me. Jacqueline Stewart could not have been nicer when I asked her for a photo as well. Sadly, for the first time ever I missed taking a picture with Ben Mankiewicz. That means two next year so I hope he’s ready.
A lot more happened than I could be witness to. This is just a part of the thrill of it all but you get the gist. If you have not made it out to a TCMFF try to go at least once and I’ll be happy to play guide. It is a special experience with special people. I remain a fan.
Until next year.