TEN THINGS I LEARNED AT TCMFF 2018
Yet another TCM Classic Film Festival is in the bank—the ninth out of nine I’ve been privileged to attend. For those who have a mind to, my extended coverage of the festival—not a blow-by-blow of everything I did, but a look at some of the highlights—is available at Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door, the venue that has sponsored my TCMFF attendance for all of those nine years. As I have said many times, my classic movie education would be considerably less rich without the support of my editor at Slant, Ed Gonzalez, and I would be remiss if he ever had a moment in which the truth of this statement was not perfectly clear in his mind. And as if by way of proving my gain, every year, in addition to the Slant piece, I like to look back on the things I now know that I didn’t know a week ago last Thursday. So, without any further delay, please feel free to peruse ten things I learned while attending TCMFF 2018.
- RUTHIE TOMPSON IS ONE OF THE UNSUNG HEROES OF AMERICAN MOVIES Ruthie Tompson was born in 1910 and, as a young girl, used to hang around outside the Disney Bros. studio on Kingswell Avenue in Los Angeles, where Roy Disney filmed her and some friends, footage she suspects was used for modeling the animation of the studio’s early Alice comedies. When she was 18, Walt Disney offered her a job in the ink-and-paint department where she helped complete the first full-length animated feature in movie history, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It wasn’t long before she was promoted to final checker, a job which gave her the responsibility of reviewing animated cels before they were photographed on film, and then on to animation checking and scene planning, where her skill with guiding camera movements for animated films was noted and led in 1952 to Tompson being the first woman ever invited to join the International Photographers Union, Local 659 of the IATSE. Tompson, now 108 years old and wheelchair-bound, was but one of many distinguished guests who graced author Mindy Johnson’s extensive tribute “An Invisible History: Trailblazing Women in Animation,” which contextualized the mostly unsung (or at least considerably less-sung) contributions of women throughout the history of this vital tributary of American and international film. TCMFF attendees are constantly in the presence of an awe-inspiring collection of history, but to witness it in the personage of a single person like Ruthie Tompson is to consider anew everything that she and others, with no agenda other than their desire to participate, create, express through their art, did to expand and illuminate their craft for everyone who came after, including lauded filmmakers like Brenda Chapman (Brave) and Linda Cook (Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron)who were also part of Johnson’s panel.
- FEW THINGS ARE NEATER THAN A HOLLYWOOD PROFESSIONAL WITH A STYLISTIC SURPRISE UP HIS SLEEVE In 1948 I doubt anyone would have suspected Clarence Brown, MGM signature director responsible for the lush and very popular family-friendly dramas National Velvet (1946) and The Yearling (1948), as well as the early Great Garbo vehicles Anna Christie (1930) and Anna Karenina (1935) and a career in silent films dating back to 1920, might have a strong sense of social conscience in him. But that’s just what was on display when TCMFF featured Brown’s late-period feature, Intruder in the Dust (1948) on Friday morning. The film is a neorealist-influenced adaptation of William Faulkner’s novel from the previous year, about a dominant and unquestioned white (Southern) social structure and mob psychology in the face of a murder, apparently perpetrated by a black man, who refuses to give away his dignity even in the face of his own imminent and unjustified death. Faulkner himself had to concede that Intruder in the Dust was indeed “a pretty good movie.” With all due respect, it’s considerably more than that and deserves a much higher profile in film history than it currently occupies. I certainly think my own first exposure to it here was as profound a revelation as I’ve ever had at TCMFF, and much of that has to do with being able to see unexpected shading in the career of Clarence Brown.
- THERE IS NO WALKING OUT ON PRESTON STURGES As the lights began to go down for the TCMFF screening of Preston Sturges’ manic, deftly sentimental, production code-defying corkscrew classic The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, I turned to my friend and whispered to him that since I’d seen the movie a million times (perhaps an exaggeration) I was probably going duck out about ten minutes or so early, all to ensure that I got a good spot in line for the next attraction, which was scheduled tight against Miracle in the festival’s smallest venue. But as the movie barreled its way toward its conclusion, trading its concern over the location of Ignatz Ratzkywatzky for that of the fates of star-crossed and multiply-blessed lovers Norval Jones (Eddie Bracken) and Trudy Kockenlocker (Betty Hutton), I stayed right where I was. As the credits began to roll, my friend turned to me and said, “You couldn’t do it, could you?” “Nope,” I replied sheepishly, admitting the futility of my original plan. “There is just no walking out on Preston Sturges,” I added as I waved good-bye and bolted out toward the next queue. By the way, I got into the next screening with no problem.
- THIS YEAR’S PATRON SAINTS: BRUCE GOLDSTEIN AND JOHN SAYLES Each year it seems like there’s one person who shows up once, maybe twice, to introduce screenings which end up being among the richest experiences of the festival—for me, it’s usually writer-producer-director-historian-preservationists Michael Schlesinger, who introduced the screening of Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, my first big-screen experience with the Frank Tashlin comedy. (More on that one in a second). But this year’s TCMFF featured two personal patron saints who made impressions during four separate screenings. Bruce Goldstein, director of repertory programming at NYC’s Film Forum, who I saw last year heading up an informative discussion on subtitling, brought his effusive and encyclopedic acumen to bear on tracing the history of Roy Del Ruth’s Blessed Event (1932), as well as its multitudinous film-and-stage connections to The Front Page and other rapid-fire comedies of the era. He also made a great case for the geographic veracity of The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974), to say nothing of its immense entertainment value, as a foundation for proclaiming it the greatest New York City movie ever made, a claim none in the packed house at the Egyptian were prepared to argue with. And writer-director-novelist-humanitarian John Sayles (Lone Star, Matewan) was on hand to eloquently introduce and expand upon my two favorite experiences at this year’s festival, Sam Fuller’s pugnacious and still-relevant Park Row (1952) and a transcendent screening of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1969), on the giant Chinese Theater screen as majestic and emotionally overwhelming as any movie ever made. Each of the four films would have stood on their own as wonderful experiences, but the presence of these two guiding lights brought dimensions to each screening which accentuated just how illuminating seeing a classic movie can be when sprinkled with just the right mixture of erudition, wit and sincere movie love.
- I HAVE A THING FOR FRANCES DEE Based solely upon the screening of Finishing School (1936), which kicked off this year’s festival for me, I have a newborn big thing for Frances Dee. A strange thing to contemplate, I suppose, considering her grandson, Wyatt McCrea, introduced the screening—Dee’s husband of 57 years, until his death in 1990, was Joel McCrea. (“Sir, your grandmother was, um, really cute.”) A quick sweep through her credits reveals that the only other film of Dee’s I’ve ever seen is, no surprise, I Walked with a Zombie (1943). So, in response to this revelation, I have self-imposed the sort of homework assignment an ignorant film geek should live for.
- ALICIA MALONE AND THE THRONE OF BLOOD-GODZILLA CONNECTION I still haven’t fully acclimated to Alicia Malone as a TCM host—she’s an appealing presence, and a definite improvement upon Tiffany Vasquez, who still seems a bit uncomfortable reading from a teleprompter. But she was an engaging extemporaneous presence in her enthusiastic comments before Thursday night’s screening of Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (1957), and she struck the perfect balance between esoteric appreciation and fangirl glee over Toshiro Mifune and his director’s brilliant reduction and reimagining of Macbeth. As far as the film goes, Shakespeare is in Kurosawa’s every move here, even if the Bard’s language is, by necessity or design, not, and despite a less-than-sparkling print the movie retains as much eerie, sustained power as it ever had. I also had a bit of a jolt in recognizing a connection between Kurosawa’s movie (and not just this one) and his country’s greatest kaiju representative. Of course, Takashi Shimura, who plays Noriyasu Odagura, Kurosawa’s equivalent of Macduff, is a veteran not only of Kurosawa’s other classics, Seven Samurai and Ikiru, but also of the original 1954 version of Godzilla. But in previous viewings I somehow missed that the actor who plays Yoshiteru Miki, who occupies Shakespeare’s universe as Fleance, the son of Macbeth’s betrayed Banquo, is none other than Akira Kubo, veteran of not only Sanjuro (1962) and Chushingura (1962), but much more importantly, Son of Godzilla (1967), Destroy All Monsters! (1968), and my all-time favorite, Invasion of Astro-Monster (1965). Kurosawa or kaiju, Kubo is definitely a klassic.
- THE SQUEALING OF JAYNE MANSFIELD IS CAPABLE OF SPLITTING THE UNSUSPECTING EARDRUM I’d never seen Will Success Spoil Rock Hudson? on a big, wide screen before last weekend, yet another first for which I must lay my thanks at the feet of Michael Schlesinger, who introduced the showing with his customary smarts. It was loads of fun watching director Frank Tashlin unpack his visual wit with this satire of American consumerism. But I have to admit I was unprepared for the devastating effect Jayne Mansfield, would have on my hearing. As the post-Marilyn Monroe starlet Rita Marlowe, Mansfield wields an ear-splitting affected squeal of delight that, thanks to the movie’s spiffy digital restoration, rang through the auditorium like cosmic fingernails on God’s chalkboard. I love Mansfield in this movie, but I have to admit that as the movie neared its end I’d come to dread her every appearance because I was nervous she’d let loose another of those atmosphere-rending audio lightning bolts. And she did. To appropriate the catch-phrase of an entirely different horror, in TCMFF Auditorium #6 no one could hear me scream (because I was holding it in). But at home I can at least turn down the volume.
- IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE GILL MAN IN 3D, PERHAPS YOU SHOULD I’ve always loved Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), even though I only saw it projected in 3D (in 16mm) once, back in my college days. But the 3D DCP on display last weekend at TCMFF was a real beauty—crisp and clear, it put all the scares back in their proper place, despite the attempt of some audience members to turn the screening into a post-Medvedian hootfest. Where the underwater sequences in some movies tend to bog down the action (I’m looking at you, Thunderball), the sequences in Arnold’s movie are eerie and to the point, and the 3D really works to heighten the anticipatory dread over the creature’s inevitable appearance. Here we’re worlds separated from the murky, smeary effects that decades later crippled Jaws 3D before audiences even had a chance to tumble to that movie’s baseline stupidity. In Creature, the Gill Man’s every underwater move is rendered with absolute clarity, and when his scary, webbed claw reaches out to the camera from above the surface there can be no doubt the viewer is witnessing a true stereovision wonder.
- THERE’S A PERFECT DRINK For TCMFF—IT’S THE OLD-FASHIONED, OF COURSE Ingredients: One sugar cube (or 1 bar spoon simple syrup)
Two dashes Angostura bitter
Two ounces rye or bourbon
Preparation: Muddle the sugar cube and bitters with one bar spoon of water at the bottom of a chilled rocks glass. Add rye or bourbon. Stir. Add one large ice cube, or three or four smaller cubes. Stir until chilled and properly diluted, about 30 seconds. Slip orange twist on the side of the cube.
Enjoy with friends and immediately proceed to another old-fashioned movie at TCMFF. Thanks, Bob!
- THERE’S NOTHING BETTER THAN WATCHING YOUR DAUGHTER WATCH YOU ON THE BIG SCREEN AT THE CHINESE THEATER After some epic waiting on their part in the standby line, I managed to get my daughter and my wife into the closing-night 40th anniversary cast reunion screening of National Lampoon’s Animal House (1978), which was shot on the campus of the University of Oregon during the fall of 1977. I was lucky enough to wrangle a gig as a long-term extra– I was among the pool of Delta pledges called upon daily to fill in the background and foreground in and around Delta House and the Faber College campus, and I can be seen bopping around all over the first half of the movie. (My best scene is as one of the lucky initiates pledging my allegiance to the frat with liberty and justice for all— my very nervous 17-year-old self is second from the right in the blue plaid bathrobe.) My daughter had never seen the movie before, so I thought, what better first exposure could she have that seeing it with a thousand other fans laughing appreciatively just like it was 1978. And she loved it, of course. But the most fun she had was playing Spot Daddy, me in my yellow sweater and blue bathrobe, sharing screen time with the likes of John Belushi, Tom Hulce and Stephen Furst. It was a priceless thrill for both of us, and I couldn’t imagine a better way to say good-bye to this year’s festival. To Animal House and to TCMFF 2018 I can only say, thanks for the memories.************************************