“It’s the most wonderful time/Of the year…” – Andy Williams
Well, yes and no. There is, after all, still about a week and a half to go before we can put the long national, annual nightmare of the tax season behind us. But it’s also film festival season, which for me specifically means the onset of the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival, the eighth iteration of what has become a perennial moviegoing event. More and more people flock to Hollywood Boulevard each year from all reaches of the country, and from other countries, to revel in the history of Hollywood and international filmmaking, celebrate their favorite stars (including, this year, beloved TCM host Robert Osborne, who died earlier this year and whose presence has been missed at the festival for the past two sessions) and enjoy a long-weekend-sized bout of nostalgia for the movie culture being referred to when someone says “They sure don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
Past themes at the festival have included “History in the Movies,” “The History of Hollywood” and “Moving Pictures,” all themes that are, according to TCMFF managing director Genevieve McGillicuddy in The Hollywood Reporter, “broad enough to encompass a lot of films but specific enough to inform who we bring in, in terms of guests.” And if TCMFF is looking for broad, then this year’s central idea, “Make ‘Em Laugh: Comedy in the Movies,” would seem to tap into a very broad and very rich vein of Hollywood history indeed.
But I have to say, just a few hours before jumping into the first spinning reels of the festival, which begins tonight and runs through Sunday evening, April 9, that despite the presence of some genuine Hollywood comedy royalty such as Laurel and Hardy (Way Out West), the Marx Brothers (Monkey Business) and W.C. Fields (Never Give a Sucker an Even Break), some of the movies chosen to help illustrate the festival’s notion of classic comedy seem to stretch the definition of “classic,” at least further than I’m willing to stretch it. Pictures like The Princess Bride, High Anxiety, Barefoot in the Park, The Jerk, Best in Show, Top Secret!, Broadcast News and The Kentucky Fried Movie are all now 30-40 years old or more, which may make them “classics” from a narrow, chronological perspective. And many have their cult followings or are, like The Princess Bride, more generally beloved. But their presence on the schedule here seems to speak more to what McGillicuddy inferred was an increasing reliance on the availability of guests (both Carl and Rob Reiner will be feted and will be present to introduce The Jerk and The Princess Bride, respectively, and so will Michael Douglas to host a screening of this year’s biggest puzzler, The China Syndrome) to determine what films end up on festival screens..
The apparent concern with broadening the appeal of the TCM Classic Film Festival is one that seems to go beyond just the festival’s theme, however. Much of what the festival has meant to me, and to many other attendees I’ve spoken with over the past eight years, is the opportunity to see films that are rarely screened, or films which have never before even beamed across my radar. But with a heavier reliance this year on favorites like Some Like It Hot, Jezebel, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Maltese Falcon, Born Yesterday, The Last Picture Show, Saturday Night Fever, The Graduate, Singin’ in the Rain and Casablanca, TCMFF, in the past always a festival that has done a fine job walking the line between serving the passions of the cinephile and the more casual film buff, may be feeling the effects of the balance shifting more toward the mainstream.
Which is not to say there aren’t plenty of treats involved in this year’s lineup. But one of the ways I’ve always assessed the quality of past lineups is in the difficulty I’ve had in zeroing in on a plan of attack as far as setting my own viewing schedule. For every decision made, there are usually at least two big sacrifices that have to be made in terms of what has been counter-scheduled in the same time slot. But this year setting my schedule for the four days was disappointingly easy. The biggest challenge, I’d say, was figuring out which of the four undoubtedly gorgeous nitrate prints that will be showing at the Egyptian Theater I would be able to see— to the exclusion of Ginger Rogers in Lady in the Dark, Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney in Laura and (I still can’t believe I’m passing on this one) Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus, I’ve settled on the 1934 version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much. (Tomorrow morning I’ll see The Maltese Falcon and Beat the Devil back-to-back which, with the Hitchcock, will make my festival experience one dedicated at least in part to the memory of the great Peter Lorre, who was, in accordance with the festival theme, routinely a very amusing actor.)
But I’m also experiencing a more generalized, low-level malaise surrounding the festival this year, and I think that’s probably as much attributable to me and the aging process as it is to my indifferent response to this year’s schedule. I’ve not even anticipated physically attending the festival this year with as much excitement as usual, in part because I’ll be missing a couple of school events for my daughters as a result. I am going to skip out early Sunday afternoon to serve spaghetti dinners at my oldest’s musical festival, and if I’d rather sling noodles than see movies, well, maybe I have to conclude that the TCMFF scene isn’t as big a priority for me as it used to be. (Having my best pal along for the ride, as he was two years ago, would be the perfect tonic, one that we may be able to indulge in together next year.)
All that said, it’s off on the train to the heart of Hollywood I go tonight to inaugurate another long weekend of classic movies, and at the risk of sounding like an ingrate who doesn’t know how good he has it, I do remain extremely grateful for the opportunity and I’m sure I’ll have a good time. I’d have to be even more of a churl than I know I am to stare down the list of terrific movies piled up on my plate over the next four days and expect otherwise. And yes, I promise to dutifully report, with undoubtedly bleary eyes, from the other side.
Here’s what’s on tap for me at the 2017 TCM Classic Film Festival:
Love Crazy (1941)
The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934)
The Maltese Falcon (1941)
Beat the Devil (1953)
Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941)
Vigil in the Night (1940)
Those Redheads from Seattle (1953; 3D)
The Art of Subtitling (presentation by programmer and restoration expert Bruce Goldstein)
Way Out West (1937)
Cock of the Air (1932)