There is so much build-up going into the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival (TCMFF) and it goes by in a flash. From April 13 through April 16 thousands gathered in Hollywood to watch movies, get a glimpse of movie stars, mingle with TCM hosts, and meet up with like-minded friends. It is an event many look forward to every year and in the long run it never disappoints.
I returned to New Jersey having watched 13 movies, two less than I would have wanted. Given I was not even sure I could withstand the long lines, however, I must view that as success at what felt like somewhat of a different festival.
Warner Bros. Discovery, whose umbrella TCM is under, was a presence throughout and clearly on its mind are economic challenges. Aside from the festival theme revolving around the Warner Bros. centennial, for the first time that I remember there was a Warner Bros. presence on the Meet TCM panel. Other noticeable changes included no hand and footprint ceremony, no full orchestra accompaniment for silent movies, the red carpet was a scaled down affair, and media swag bags took a hard hit aside from missing printed programs, which disappointed many. There is no doubt that fans of TCM worry about what the future holds for the network, which still manages to show classic movies without commercials, and I am not sure this year’s festival will quell those worries. Even scaled down, however, TCM put on a good show. Over 100 film screenings, various special guests, and historic venues were on hand for what seemed like the largest number of first-time attendees I have ever noticed. If Warner Bros. paid close attention, I think it would be convinced that the TCMFF means a hell of a lot to a lot of people. Hopefully that will go far in ensuring the festival continues in coming years because as Ben Mankiewicz said, “this is our favorite week of the year”.
Some of the highlights for me include the screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt, an impeccable 4K restoration with a thoughtful, thought-provoking introduction by John Hawkes who joined TCM host Dave Karger. Hawkes mentioned almost every character in the film and what they add to the memorable story written for the screen by Thornton Wilder, Sally Benson, and Alma Reville from an original story by Gordon McDonell. Emphasis was given to Hawkes favorite Joseph Cotton and “the heart of the film,” Teresa Wright.
On Friday I attended two unforgettable screenings, both of which I knew I would enjoy: Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde (1941), which included a preview, cartoon, and short subject prior to the film. Introduced by George Feltenstein who has worked with numerous restorations and classic releases for years, The Strawberry Blonde looked lovely, and its stellar cast shone with new life. As we rose from our seats another audience member commented that he wasn’t too thrilled with the movie. Well, I adore it and watching it on a big screen was special. As was singing along to And the Band Played On at the end.
Next, I went to Penny Serenade (1941), which was restored to perfection. This screening came with another superb introductory discussion by director Alexander Payne and the talented George Stevens, Jr. who had a lot to say about his father’s extraordinary career. I picked up quite a few meaningful tidbits from these guests who joined Ben Mankiewicz for the discussion. For instance, in describing George Stevens, Alexander Payne said, “There are two types of directors, on that says, ‘look at me’ and one that says, ‘look at the story, look at these people.’” I thought wow that really describes George Stevens who happens to be one of my favorites. It is true of all his films, A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), Swing Time (1936), I Remember Mama (1948), just to name a few. What a career.
When Ben Mankiewicz asked Mr. Stevens about the humor in Penny Serenade, which as we all know is the ultimate weepy, Mr. Stevens replied “Comedy can be graceful and human,” something George Stevens learned from working with Laurel and Hardy. I just love that. Finally, “Respect for the audience. That’s what I learned from my father.”
As you can tell I truly enjoyed that conversation. The one I did not enjoy preceded the screening of King Kong (1933) earlier that day mostly because it did not exist. The conversation, I mean. Amy Homma, Chief Audience Officer of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, introduced the 90th anniversary screening of what is a quintessential and influential classic movie, but no discussion was had. King Kong looked great, and he reigned supreme in the historic Chinese Theatre, but by my estimation he deserved much more fanfare.
Friday was a terrific day, one which I ended with Howard Hawks’ Ball of Fire (1941) and an enjoyable introduction by Dana Delany who asked the sell-out audience in House 4 how many had seen Ball of Fire before and every single hand went up. That screening followed a “shelter in place” warning we all received via the festival app that was a bit unnerving. I was watching Penny Serenade at the time, but by all accounts, the TCMFF staff was superb, acting quickly to ensure everyone’s safety. A shooting had occurred outside the Cineplex that did not affect any festival attendees.
Saturday was a much different day. I felt a bit off that morning so decided to pass on Paths of Glory (1957) in favor of some self-care. Unfortunately, I also meant I missed one of my must-sees, the 75th anniversary screening of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Luckily, I managed to make it through a fabulous introduction by Danny Huston who joined TCM host Alicia Malone for the discussion. Danny Huston was clearly moved when talking about the work of his father and grandfather, both of whom won Oscars for their work in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. He mentioned how Walter Huston had told John, “if you ever start writing screenplays, write one for your old man.” John wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Walter won an Oscar.
The Danny Huston interview was big in my eyes, and we learned it was so for the TCM hosts as well. Alicia Malone commented on how she stole the interview from Eddie Muller who was in attendance as an audience member. At the end Danny Huston mentioned having gone on a tour of Warner Bros. earlier in the day and how he touched the vest his grandfather wore in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. We could all tell how much that meant to him.
“You are in the right movie, weekend warriors” said the great Leonard Maltin as he introduced the next highlight of my TCMFF 2023, the 80th anniversary screening of Ernst Lubitsch’s Heaven Can Wait (1943). To say that this Technicolor film is stunning is to fall short. It is beyond that and as Maltin said, “there is only one Ernst Lubitsch.” That’s really all you need to know about this screening. It was a truly exceptional way to start the final day of the festival.
I came across the next highlight quite by accident. Closed out of my intended next screening, I got on line for Arthur Hiller’s The In-Laws (1979) and did not stop laughing for 103 minutes. Cast members Nancy Dussault and Penny Peyser joined Dave Karger for the introduction, which included a letter from the film’s producer/star, Alan Arkin who wrote, “When people ask if it was as much fun to make the movie as it is to watch it, it delights me to no end that I can answer unequivocally – yes!”
The In-Laws came about when friends Arkin and Peter Falk wanted to do a movie together. Warner Bros. brought Andrew Bergman onboard to write it (he wrote Blazing Saddles) and the rest is lunacy. That “SERPENTINE!” scene must be one of the funniest committed to the screen. It occurred to me it’s not dissimilar to the line-up experience at TCMFF. Anyway, what an unexpected treat this was. The entire theater, about two-thirds of which had never seen The In-Laws, walked out on a high.
The next film I saw was “the Citizen Kane of Film Noir,” as Eddie Muller calls Robert Siodmak’s The Killers. Mr. Muller introduced the repeat performance of this essential, which filled in a TBA spot from its sold-out original slot on Friday. The Killers is essential simply because it has everything you want in a film in it. Wonderful stars with electric energy, both of whom take your breath away, by the way. Muller stated that along with The Maltese Falcon and The Asphalt Jungle, The Killers is the best cast film noir ever made. And The Killers is directed by “the greatest director of film noir in Hollywood.” If Eddie Muller says so in his in-depth, educational introductions then so it is.
I ended TCMFF 2023 with the hilarious Mario Cantone introducing Edmund Goulding’s The Old Maid (1939) by doing every conceivable Bette Davis impersonation known to humankind. Although my favorite was, “Miriam Hopkins’ mental illness is evident in her performance. It’s in her eyes” and dammit he’s right. Cantone was so enjoyable he got a standing ovation for introducing a movie. Of course, Bette Davis and Miriam Hopkins are always worth your while.
You can see from my highlights I don’t usually go for the big-ticket items, the Ann-Margrets or Shirley Joneses of the festival, which make TCMFF so special. Or even some guy named George Clooney who had the Chinese Theatre drooling. Still, I managed to have a great time. There’s something in this for everyone and whatever I happen to miss I catch up on later and on social media, where I frenzied for four consecutive days. As is always the case, you are guaranteed a great time at TCMFF because the biggest draw are the people – the people you meet online, the friends you reunite with, the talking movies with strangers, the TCM staff who are happy to see fans return year after year, and the guests some of whom are surprised they are still so adored. Yes, it’s all about the people. I hope to be one of them again next year.
(Note: all photos except Mario Cantone and Dana Delany are courtesy of TCM)
To everyone who has tested positive for COVID since returning from the festival I wish a speedy recovery. This is another reminder of the new world we live in. Please respect each other’s concerns and decisions and stay healthy so we may celebrate movies together again soon.
What a great recap! Thank you for taking the time to post.
Thank you for stopping by!
Great re-cap! I feel as is I was right there with you. Looking forward to next year!
Maybe one day you’ll join me 🙂
Great recap, Aurora. We went to many of the same movies and I agree with each and every one of your comments. It’s always wonderful to read you, and it was even better to see you.
Thank you, Ana. Yea, it is wonderful to see you too.
This is amazing Aurora! Really brought the experience to me. I hope you are feeling okay now. Glad you at least dodged Covid, yikes. George Stevens Jr. is such a remarkable man. He always says the right thing. He just mesmerizes me.
You were so missed, Kendahl!
I loved, loved, loved your write-up, Aurora. We usually have such divergent screening choices, and I enjoy reading about the films and experiences that I didn’t share with you. One that I did have was The Old Maid — I went to the first screening and Mario Cantone was just as funny in that one, so much so that I was literally crying. Fortunately, I thought at some point to start recording, so I have more than five minutes of his awesome hilarity. I didn’t realize that John Hawkes was at the fest (I loved him in Deadwood!). I hope they have his interview on the TCM YouTube channel. And I’m glad you mentioned The In-Laws — I originally had it on my schedule, but it was opposite Casablanca, which I wanted my daughter to see. I made up my mind for Casablanca when I saw it on the TCM schedule later this month. I’m looking even more forward to seeing it after reading your take on it. Really great post. See you next year!
Thanks so much, Karen. I loved, loved spending some time with you and Veronica.
Casablanca was the right choice so she could see it for the first time on the big screen, but I adored laughing at THE IN-LAWS.
The In-Laws is so damned funny. The first time I saw it, one scene had me on the floor in pain from laughing– no exaggeration! Good thing I was in the solitude of my apartment.