Well, here we are, just a few short days away from the kickoff of the 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival. I promise I am excited for what will undoubtedly be yet another stimulating weekend of buzzing about in Hollywood, engaged in an exuberant celebration of all things classic Hollywood with all manner of fellow travelers from the furthest-flung locales around the country and the world. But what I also am is pre-exhausted, which is a condition that has preceded at least the last five TCMFFs I’ve attended, regardless of the quality and consistency of the individual festivals themselves. I’ve attended every TCMFF since the inaugural festival in 2010, am about to dive deep into the tenth such gathering, and after ten years one develops ways of forgetting, in much the same way that, say, a cyclist can allow herself to forget the grueling aspects of a long-distance road trip in favor of a glowing memory of the experience itself, the butt-and-leg-numbing reality of bouncing from movie to movie with very little in-between time for rest or wits-gathering.
The truth is, I’m much less of a social butterfly than I was ten years ago too, never having been much of one to begin with, and in 2019 the dominant vibe of the festival seems to be more party than ever, as people who’ve formed friendships and alliances and groups with shared interests over the course of ten years stake their claim on TCMFF as a weekend built for true believers, during which they can reconnect and rekindle those friendships in the glow of digital and 35mm projections, fueled by enthusiasm, alcohol and unbridled nostalgia for days the way they were, or may never have actually been. (I admit my reluctant first-time membership in a “Going to the TCM Classic Film Festival” Facebook group may be stoking this perception somewhat.) In the past few years I’ve come to realize that I’m probably a whole lot less interested than I ever have been in the ancillary networking and partying and extracurricular get-togethers that for some festival-goers are an intimate and inextricable part of what makes TCMFF such a good time. That said, the festival is still, for me, a yearly indulgence to which I always look forward, regardless of any reservations about the experience or the schedule of films or anything else that I might have, and some of my most cherished memories of the festival over the past ten years, which I will be writing about in some detail later on next week, involve the high quality of people, including some whose writing I have admired for decades, that the festival has provided me an invaluable opportunity to meet and get to know. Best of all, this year, as I have been able to only once before, I’ll be navigating the sometimes choppy cinematic waters of TCMFF in the company of my best friend, whose addiction to movie history and what TCM has been able to do to add to our understanding and experience of that history rivals my own. It’s always fun to see 17 movies in a weekend with him, and as we both begin the process of aging into our 60s that kind of opportunity doesn’t rear its head too often anymore. So pre-exhausted or not, it’s on with the show.
This year’s overriding festival theme is “Follow Your Heart: Love at the Movies,” which is, as far I’m concerned, a perfectly legitimate and interesting theme to pursue, as long as one is fairly elastic as to one’s acceptance of the expansive boundaries of the subject—such elasticity is, no doubt, why Karl Freund’s delightfully perverse horror classic Mad Love (1935), featuring an indelibly weird performance by Peter Lorre which defines his career and his peculiar talent almost as perfectly as his appearance in Fritz Lang’s M did four years earlier, is gracing the TCMFF 2019 schedule. If you’re TCMFF (and if you’re reading this, or you’re heading to Hollywood this coming weekend, you probably are TCM in a very real way), you’d goddamn well better have room in your vision of love at the movies for a movie with that title, if only to offset the preponderance of titles whose vision of romance is a bit more socially endorsable and well, more commonly seen than the relatively under-viewed Mad Love. Of course, following your heart toward an examination of love at the movies almost automatically includes a consideration of mad movie love itself, which is the underlying subtext of every TCMFF, I suppose, no matter the officially announced umbrella which tends to dictate the direction of much of the programming.
I have complained before about TCMFF’s inevitable move toward audience pleasers over artifacts and unusual programming choices meant to please cinephiles, and surely this year is no different. Maybe it’s the inevitable residue of that stated theme, love at the movies, that accounts for what seems like an imbalance toward audience pictures, many of which are qualified as classics primarily on evidence of the 30 years of age they find strapped around their midsections more than any bona fides in anyone’s affections. But I have to admit that hearing the opening night attraction would be a 30th anniversary screening of When Harry Met Sally…, with accompanying hand and footprint ceremony in front of Grauman’s Chinese to honor the movie’s star, Billy Crystal, didn’t inspire a lot of confidence that this year’s lineup would be one of the best of the past decade. The subsequent announcement of appearances by bland ‘80s and ‘90s-era fare like Out of Africa, Working Girl, Sleepless in Seattle and The Shawshank Redemption, not a one of them anywhere near classic status in my book, did nothing to quell my fears, and it made me think about the ways that TCMFF, and our assessments of what films really are considered classics, will inevitably morph with age, experience and adjustments to the mighty force of the marketplace and younger patterns of taste.
But all is certainly not lost. Any TCMFF that boasts the inclusion of films like Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975), John Cassavetes’ A Woman Under the Influence (1975), Kevin Brownlow’s It Happened Here (1964), Bud Yorkin’s Cold Turkey (1971), Robert Hamer’s Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949), Dorothy Arzner’s Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), Hobart Henley’s Night World (1932), F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), and Clarence Brown’s A Woman of Affairs (1928), many of them with appearances from some of the creative people involved in their making (Gena Rowlands, Joan Tewkesbury, Kevin Brownlow, Jeff Goldblum, Norman Lear) can’t be considered anything close to a sell-out. (Brownlow, the great film historian and preservationist, will also receive the festival’s second annual Robert Osborne Award for his myriad contributions to the culture of film history.) And that’s to say nothing of the keen stuff stuffed in the nooks and crannies which you can go see while the throngs clog the lines to see not-exactly-rare fare like Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Steel Magnolias (Steel frickin’ Magnolias!), The Sound of Music, and the umpteenth screening of Gone With the Wind, which will at least be offset by a panel discussion focusing on the movie’s “complicated legacy” featuring film scholars Molly Haskell and Donald Bogle. Seems it will be just as easy as ever this year to stick to my annual TCMFF game plan– if I’ve never heard of it or never seen it, then that’s the selection that will get priority from me as I try to formulate my plan of attack on the long weekend’s schedule of treats.
Of course, right out of the gate this year is a choice on Thursday night that will sorely test that ostensibly honorable dictum. Do I jump at the chance to see one of my favorite movies writ large on the big screen at the Egyptian Theater, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), or do I choose the rare pre-code drama Night World, the movie both Boris Karloff and Mae Clarke made immediately after appearing in Frankenstein (1931) together? However, in the second slot of the evening, the choice between Mogambo (1953), The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer (1947) and The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964) is really no choice at all. As much as I love Grace Kelly and Cary Grant, Jacques Demy and Catherine Deneuv win this one in a walk.
Friday morning gets spiked immediately with Merrily We Go to Hell (1932), another juicy pre-code melodrama starring Sylvia Sidney as an heiress who falls for a hard-drinking newspaperman played by Fredric March. But the rest of Friday morning and into the early afternoon is a bit of a dud—a block comprised of Out of Africa (1984), Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), Sleeping Beauty (1959), and Love in the Afternoon (1957), not my favorite Pollack or Spielberg or Disney or Wilder, may have me considering a long lunch break. The opportunity to rest will theoretically well gird me for having to choose between a double of Vanity Street (1932), yet another pre-code rarity, this one a romance between Charles Bickford and Helen Chandler, followed by Open Secret (1948), a film noir with John Ireland and Jane Randolph directed by John Reinhardt, neither picture I’ve seen, or Francois Truffaut’s love letter to the movies (there’s that theme again) Day for Night (1973), which I have seen once or twice (he said coyly). Friday evening will likely end with a screening of Anthony Mann’s excellent 1950 western Winchester ’73, seen here in a U.S. premiere restoration which will probably feature Jimmy Stewart, Shelley Winters, Stephen McNally and Dan Duryea having never looked so good. Afterward, I expect I’ll be too tired to consider the Mexican wrestling epic Santo vs. the Evil Brain (1961), which probably means that I’ll really regret not going when I hear everyone I know talking about it the next day. Bu on TCMFF weekend, a good night’s sleep is almost as good as a smackdown from a masked avenger.
The Saturday slate is a lot stronger, if you ask me, starting off with a particularly tough pick. How to choose between the delightful comedy thriller All Through the Night (1942), which pits Humphrey Bogart against a cadre of Nazi saboteurs introduced by Biffle and Shooster’s inimitable auteur Michael Schlesinger, whose presence is a infallible guarantee of a good movie and an immensely entertaining introduction, and a chance to see 1951’s When World Collide on the big screen? (I’ll tell you later how this dilemma plays out.) At 11:30 comes the most unconscionable block of scheduling this year, TCMFF’s equivalent of Sophie’s choice. This slot features Gena Rowlands in person before a screening of A Woman Under the Influence at the Egyptian Theater. Of course I’m gonna see that! But wait—one of my favorite movies of all time, Kind Hearts and Coronets, is going on back over at the Chinese. Dammit! I must see that. Right? But what about the saucier-than-usual Tarzan and His Mate (1934), in which Johnny Weismuller and Maureen O’Sullivan indulge in racy costumes, a little nudity, and the usual jungle shenanigans? Connoisseurs of movie Tarzans assure me it’s one of the most delightful in the series, and I wouldn’t know because I’ve never seen it. I gotta be there for that, don’t I? Don’t I?! (It remains to be seen whether I will survive to see the rest of the day after having been faced with this sort of no-win situation.)
But I sincerely hope I do, because that evening comes what might predictably be the highlight of the festival for me, a screening of my favorite movie, Nashville, with Jeff Goldblum, Keith Carradine, Ronee Blakely and screenwriter Joan Tewkesbury all in attendance. Now, I’ve seriously seen Nashville about 25 times, many of those times on the big screen, but in my book this still qualifies as a can’t-miss. Yet there is the possibility that I might indeed miss it, as my BFF and TCMFF movie partner this year is lobbying for the poolside screening of The Bad Seed (1956), which lands in a time block smack dab in the middle of Nashville’s big-screen showing. And the Bad Seed herself, Patty McCormack, will be there to provide the proper giddy context for this one-of-a-kind engagement. Will our 40+-year friendship survive this particularly grueling test of wills? Again, I will report back, if I’m not too bitter to type afterward, and I’ll let you know if we stay up to catch director Stephanie Rothman introduce The Student Nurses (1974) at midnight too.
I fully expect that the reward for going to bed early and getting up on Sunday morning even earlier will be that Mad Love screening, introduced by Bill Hader—The Defiant Ones (1958) and a presumably beautiful restoration of George Cukor’s Holiday (1938), both fine movies, won’t be enough to tempt me away from the likes of Lorre and the great, sublimely unhinged Colin Clive. The rest of the final day of TCMFF 2019 is considerably more hit-or-miss, its landscape dotted with the likes of Yours, Mine and Ours (1968), The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Robe (1953), Marty (1955) and Gone With the Wind (1939), no one of which will be able to seduce me away from the rich temptations of Douglas Sirk’s Magnificent Obsession (1954), Cold Turkey (1971), Don Siegel’s The Killers (1964), with Angie Dickinson in the house, or Kevin Brownlow introducing the 1928 silent gem A Woman of Affairs, starring Greta Garbo and John Gilbert, accompanied by a live Carl Davis score. And I’m pretty sure I’ve never had to choose between Francis Ford Coppola and Abbott & Costello, but that the face-off coming up for the Sunday night closing selection between The Godfather Part II (1974) and arguably Bud and Lou’s finest hour, Buck Privates (1941), offers just such a dilemma.
Truthfully though, this year’s Sunday at TCMFF is likely to be dominated, as they all tend to be, by selections we won’t know the names of until the day before they screen. Five time slots over the course of the day are always reserved for the festival’s TBA (To Be Announced) selections, popular titles that enjoyed sold-out screenings and are designated for return engagements so that the hundreds of festival-goers who couldn’t get in the door the first time around will have a second chance to enjoy the goodies. There’s almost always something worth jumbling your day’s plans to see, and it’ll be interesting to note what gets slotted in this year, mainly because what usually ends up in the Sunday TBA lineup are movies which originally played in the festival’s tiniest venue, the 144-seat Chinese #4, which is not being used this year. So whatever ends up getting the Sunday repeat run will likely come from the #6, this year’s smallest house, or from the films slated to show at the VFW Region theater further up Highland Avenue, meaning that those who missed them on Friday or Saturday stand a good chance of getting to catch one or more of titles like All Through the Night (1942), The Little Colonel (1935), Tarzan and His Mate (1934), Love Affair (1939), the Tom Mix double bill of The Great K&A Train Robbery (1926) and Outlaws of Red River (1927), Blood Money (1932), Wuthering Heights (1939), Will Rogers in Life Begins at 40 (1935), Indiscreet (1958), Waterloo Bridge (1931), Goodbye, Mr. Chips (1939), Open Secret (1948), Vanity Street (1931), A Patch of Blue (1965), or The Clock (1945). Odds are those mystery slots are going to bring a jolt of energy to a day when festival-goers traditionally begin to feel the effects to trying to stuff a long weekend full of 18 or more movies.
With choices like these, plus a bunch of excellent panels and a couple of very good bars over at the Hollywood Roosevelt doling out insight, anecdotes and alcohol all weekend long, there probably won’t be a lot of concrete reasons to complain about TCMFF 2019, once the ball starts rolling, unless my dogs start barking about midway through Friday. But until such time, I will endeavor not to take this bounty for granted, enjoy the good company of my best pal and a whole passel of superb art and entertainment, and hope that next year’s fest takes a hard right into Hollywood realism to counter the side effects of the festival’s increasing tendency toward commerce over genuine classics. Why, a slate of neorealist Rossellini or Visconti, or a maybe a peek at Japanese classic cinema from Ozu to Mizoguchi to Kurosawa to Honda, or an Eddie Muller-created roster of noir rarities (all of us can’t make both the TCM and Noir City festivals, you know) might not clog the portals to the big Chinese theater, but they’d damn sure be an attractive and obliterating cure for the blues brought on by excessive exposure to The Sound of Music and (shudder) Steel Magnolias. So, here’s to TCMFF 2020 then, and to the hopes of a tenth year of great movie love on Hollywood Boulevard again in 2019. If you see me please say hi, and if my eyeballs aren’t too bloodshot or glazed over I promise to do the same.