Starting today, it’s down the rabbit hole once again to revel in Hollywood’s past glories (and international cinema’s too) at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, unspooling March 26-29. This is the sixth incarnation of the festival, and I have been honored– and downright lucky– to have been able to attend each of those, thanks to the sponsorship of Ed Gonzalez, editor-in-chief at Slant magazine whose daily blog The House Next Door publishes my account of the festival every year. (I’ll be writing an extensive piece on my experience at the festival for The House Next Door, to be published next week.)
And every year part of the excitement and preparation for the festival is, of course, the announcement of the schedule. TCM usually dribbles out five or six big-ticket items far in advance of announcing the slot-by-slot programming, and those are usually the ones that don’t do much to get my heart racing. In accordance with the 2015 festival theme, “History at the Movies,” one of the first pictures announced was… Apollo 13, a perfectly fine movie but not the sort of choice I gravitate to with enthusiasm in this particular situation.
That’s history as Hollywood has chosen to show it, and there are lots of excellent selections this year that fall under that far reaching umbrella– Tony Curtis as Houdini; Dustin Hoffman introducing Lenny; Spike Lee introducing his epic biopic Malcolm X; Doris Day as Calamity Jane; Millie Perkins introducing The Diary of Anne Frank; a digital restoration of the musical hit 1776; Anthony Mann’s Reign of Terror; Greta Garbo as Queen Christina; a whole sub-category entitled “History According to John Ford” including a very rare screening of his 1932 Air Mail with Ralph Bellamy, Gloria Stuart and Pat O’Brien (which beat Howard Hawks’ aeronautic adventure Only Angels Have Wings to the airstrip by seven years), plus My Darling Clementine, Young Mr. Lincoln, They Were Expendable and, of course, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; plus—and why the hell not?—Mel Brooks’ History of the World Part 1.
But what about Hollywood history, a subject TCM knows a little something about? Well, this year is the 50th anniversary of the release of The Sound of Music, which kicks the festival off on the red carpet Thursday night, with all the fanfare and special guests—Julie Andrews, Christopher Plummer—you could wish for… if you’re a fan of the movie, which I am not.
Okay, how about the world premiere of a beautiful restoration of Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr., featuring a brand-new score by maestro Carl Davis, performed live at the screening? Now you’re talking. Or how about a world premiere restoration of a long-thought-lost movie starring Harry Houdini himself, made years before Tony Curtis became a star—The Grim Game (1919)? And let’s not discount the opportunity to see Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo and Maureen O’Hara’s Esmeralda on the big Chinese Theater screen in William Dieterle’s 1939 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Perhaps rarest of all, there’s a very special presentation of a series of hand-cranked 35mm film prints being shown this year, including George Melies’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), the Edison Company’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) and Lois Weber’s split-screen thriller Suspense (1913).
It’s always these little nooks and crannies of the schedule which get filled with rarities, oddities and fascinating panels and presentations that make the TCM Classic Film Festival really worth attending, and this year there are plenty of goodies for cinephiles to seek out and enjoy while others get in line for less-rarely-seen attractions like Dr. Zhivago or The French Connection. (The Important TCM Fest Principle for me in deciding what to see is always: Have I ever seen it? Have I ever seen it projected? Have I ever heard of it? If the answers to any or all of these are “no,” there’s a good chance I’ll want to stand in line for it at TCM.)
Another plus this year—my best friend Bruce will be in town to roam the hallowed halls of Hollywood with me, which will be a dream come true for both of us. I’m sure we’ll be able to reach a peaceful consensus, but in the meantime (not to skew his perspective or anything like that), here’s a quick peek at what I’m imagining my upcoming TCM Classic Film Festival weekend might look like, with the full and open acknowledgement that anything from the butterfly effect to a sold-out screening could monkey-wrench these best-laid plans at a moment’s notice.
Oftentimes I’m not able to make it into Hollywood until early Thursday evening, but since it is Bruce’s first year with the festival, I figured we’d take advantage of everything available on the schedule right from the start. There’s a “Meet TCM” panel at 1:00 p.m., a chance to be introduced to some of the TCM programmers and behind-the-scenes people we’ll be seeing throughout the festival, introducing films and roaming the lobby of the TCL Chinese Theater complex, a trivia contest called “So You Think You Know Movies?” hosted by New York Film Forum programmer Bruce Goldstein, and then the free beer and hors d’oeuvres at the Club TCM Welcome Party, all of them great, lubricating warm-ups for the rest of the fest.
Then we’re headed for a Thursday evening double bill of Byron Haskin’s Too Late for Tears (1949), featuring the sultry Lisabeth Scott and the less sultry Dan Duryea in a beautifully restored 35mm print courtesy of the Film Noir Foundation, followed by Errol Flynn, Claude Rains and Brenda Marshall in The Sea Hawk (1940), which I’ve never seen on the big screen. (See aforementioned Important TCM Fest Principle.)
Friday looks to start a couple of hours past dawn at the Egyptian Theater with The Dawn of Technicolor, hosted by David Pierce and James Layton, authors of a book by the same name, the first authoritative history of the two-color Technicolor period from 1915 to 1934. It’s a 90-minute illustrated presentation that covers the development of Technicolor through the boom period of Hollywood’s early sound musicals.
Bruce plans to hang out in the courtyard of the Egyptian to get in line for the Lenny screening, but me, I’m off to see Anthony Mann’s “French Revolution noir” Reign of Terror (1949), with an appearance by TCM Festival stalwart, the beloved character actor Norman Lloyd. Later, the fact that I’m opting to pass on Ann-Margret introducing The Cincinnati Kid means that the alternative is probably a pretty big deal, and, yes, I’d consider the chance to see Orson Welles’ legendary, barely released Chimes at Midnight (1965) kind of a big deal. I’ll say it again. I’m passing on a chance to see Ann-Margret to see Orson Welles. My cinephile credentials should be in good standing till at least next year’s festival.
Friday evening presents a couple of choices I haven’t entirely set myself on just yet. (Bruce, what will you think?) We could see a restoration of William K. Howard’s Don’t Bet on Women (1931), featuring Jeanette Macdonald in a rare dramatic role (and a festival touchstone for me, the martini-dry Roland Young), and hosted by MoMA curator Anne Morra. That would be followed by James Whale’s unimpeachable black comedy The Invisible Man (1933). Or we could see a world-premiere digital restoration of Jules Dassin’s Rififi (1955) which (gasp!) I’ve never seen in any form. (I know, I know… those newly buffed-up cinephile credentials are eroding already.)
But what of the Friday late-evening choices? There’s a big push-pull in my head between the opportunity to see Peter Watkins’ The War Game (1965), a documentary-style depiction of a nuclear attack on Great Britain which was banned by the BBC for 20 years, and one of my favorite James Bond movies, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (1969), introduced by the one-off Bond himself, George Lazenby. Given our mutual, not-so-mysterious attraction to Diana Rigg, who plays Bond’s ill-fated paramour, I suspect that 007 is going to have the upper hand here, but I reserve the right to do a last-minute left-turn into auditorium #4 to check out the Watkins film.
The ultimate goal of the day will be to be able to prop our eyes open by midnight, for at that hour comes the chance to catch Joseph Losey’s ill-regarded adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore, retitled the more marquee-friendly Boom! (1968), starring a post-Virginia Woolf Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor.
Assuming we’re able to slump and lurch out of bed come sunrise, Saturday morning will have a grand array of Hollywood history in store for us. My plan for the day begins in auditorium #1 in the Chinese complex for a screening of the recently restored Why Be Good? (1929). It’s Flaming Youth flapper Colleen Moore’s last silent film (billed as “Flaming Youth, 1929 Model!”), a comedy with early appearances by the likes of Jean Harlow, Andy Devine, Mischa Auer, Grady Sutton and Phil Harris. Then we’ll head straight back into the same auditorium, moving up the timeline four years for a world premiere restoration of Lloyd Bacon’s legendary 42nd Street (1932), which, among many other things, was the Hollywood calling card of a dance choreographer by the name of Busby Berkeley.
When that screening lets out, it’s strategy time. We’ll head for John Ford’s Air Mail, keeping us squarely in 1932 for the moment. There’s precisely one hour between the end of 42nd Street and the beginning of the Ford movie, so while Bruce holds our spot in line I will attempt to run across the street to the Roosevelt Hotel, grab a copy of Scott Eyman’s John Wayne: The Life and Legend and have Eyman sign it, then launch myself back over to the Chinese complex before the friendly TCM Fest volunteers start letting people into the auditorium. The #4 is the tiniest auditorium at the festival—177 seats—and a rarity like Air Mail will fill those seats quickly. So if there’s a big line to see it already formed when we get out of 42nd Street, I’ll just have to forego the trip to see Eyman, because even though it’s only across the street, it could easily take 45 minutes to get there and back, navigating brutal TCM-weekend Hollywood Boulevard foot traffic.
We’ll finish off the afternoon moving into the ‘40s with Preston Sturges’ sophomore directorial effort, the charming (but still sharp-toothed) Christmas in July (1940) starring Dick Powell and Ellen Drew, and featuring Sturges stalwarts William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn.
Something tells me we’ll be ready for something on the order of a steak dinner by this point, and given that the Sturges film is only 67 minutes (!), we’ll be out on the street by 6:00, which will give us plenty of time to grab a bite and get in line at the Hollywood Roosevelt for the evening’s big attraction (or should I say “event”)—the poolside screening of Mark Robson’s immortal disaster classic Earthquake (1974). Did you hear that crinkling sound? That was those fresh cinephile credentials, the ones I earned by passing over Ann-Margret for Orson Welles, crumpling into dust and blowing away on the first stiff breeze.
And it only gets worse, because in order to soak up as much Hollywood ambience and decadence as is possible at the TCM Classic Film Festival with this poolside screening, Bruce and I will be making the conscious decision to ignore the presentation of The French Connection at the big Chinese introduced by William Friedkin (Friedkin was here in the same slot last year with Sorcerer—next year perhaps Cruising? Jade? The Guardian?), as well as Adam’s Rib, Imitation of Life (which I saw here in 2010) and The Loved One, all counterprogrammed in the late Saturday evening slot. The Return of the Dream Machine festival of hand-cranked silent films is scheduled to unspool in the #6 during this slot as well. Sigh. And all just to see Ava Gardner and Charlton Heston get washed away in the Los Angeles sewer system. Maybe I do deserve to have those credentials revoked…!
What movie title could better follow Earthquake? Why, Nothing Lasts Forever (1984), of course. This is the midnight cherry on top of our Saturday, when TCM Underground takes over for a screening of the rarely-seen sci-fi comedy written and directed by the late Tom Schiller, who was partnered with Al Franken during the early days of Saturday Night Live. The movie stars Zach Galligan (who will be on hand to introduce the show, sans Gizmo, I’m assuming) as well as Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Imogene Coca, Mort Sahl and Eddie Fisher. The movie, pulled from distribution by MGM after a couple of less-than-enthusiastic previews, languished in obscurity until its U.S. television debut on TCM earlier this year. This looks to be a real can’t-miss, must-stay-awake affair.
Bruce has to fly home early Sunday, so we’ll have time for only two indulgences that day, but they are big ones, and both at the big and beautifully remodeled TCL Chinese Theater. First off, it’s the aforementioned The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939), and then, a movie that neither of us has ever seen projected, other than from the 16mm prints that used to float around campus during our college days—what we hope will be a beautiful DCP presentation of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).
Then we’ll head for the airport straight outta Hollywood, and if I play my cards right, it’s back to the TCL Chinese for the final screening of the festival, Marriage Italian Style (1964), Vittorio De Sica’s masterful comic drama starring Marcello Mastroianni and, um, somebody… oh, what’s her name. Sofia Coppola? No. Lauren Hutton? No—Oh, yeah. Sophia Loren… who will be there to introduce the film. Yeah. Sophia Loren.
Cinephile credentials or no, that sounds like a pretty good weekend coming up to me. I may have to spend the rest of the year making up for it—too much good stuff all at once may mean the rest of the year could be on the parched side, pleasures-wise– but to see Sophia introduce this movie, and to be with my best pal for all the rest of the treasures in the TCM chest this year, well, that’s a trade-off I’m willing to make. Viva Italia! And viva TCM Classic Film Festival!