The 10th annual TCM Classic Film Festival is finally in the books, yet another fabulous, frustrating and altogether marvelous gathering in the heart of Hollywood to designed to revel in the history of movies and encourage the continued appreciation of the value of understanding where the movies have come from, how they’ve come to the place they are, and even a moment or two to consider possible futures, both for the path on which the movies find themselves and for the future of the festival itself. As always, I have filed my report on this year’s activities—movies watched, schedules contemplated, favorite people visited—for Slant magazine’s blog The House Next Door—and if I came off in that report a little crankier than usual, that dissatisfaction is borne from love for what TCMFF does so well every year and concern for some of the more commerce-oriented choices that seem to get in the way of the festival’s main thrust. Each year it seems more and more like a good idea to keep in mind, as a fellow festivalgoer and friend frequently reminds me, this festival is, more than ever, not for “us,” the more all-consuming cinema addicts and historians, but more for the general audience of film buffs and fans who don’t have as many opportunities to indulge in the wealth of classic, independent, repertory and international cinema that hose of us who live in urban centers like Los Angeles and New York routinely do. And if one can keep that sentiment in mind, the TCM Classic Film Festival will continue to be a place where fans, fanatics and more serious denizens of film culture can co-exist and enjoy the chance to see the familiar and the forgotten in the best possible venues.
As I said, this was the festival’s tenth year, and I have been privileged, through the good graces of TCMFF and my editor at Slant, Ed Gonzalez, to attend all ten. That adds up to a lot of movies–141 so far, on average about 15 movies a festival—and a lot of Vizine. You can read my annual coverage for Slant by clicking here, but for Fear of the Velvet Curtain I thought it might be fun to take a look back and point out the highlights of my festival experiences from each year, from the very beginning straight through last weekend. So, let’s delay no longer. Take a trip back with me over ten years of moviemaking and moviegoing magic, and while we cast a glance over our shoulder we can also begin the process of looking forward to what TCMFF may have in store as they begin their second decade of this unique film festival.
As P.P. Arnold, Cat Stevens and Rod Stewart have been wont to remind us, the first cut is the deepest, and so it was with the inaugural TCM Classic Film Festival in 2010. And though during this festival I saw Juanita Moore and Susan Kohner introduce Imitation of Life, as well as spectacular screenings of Playtime, Leave Her to Heaven, North by Northwest, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and the restored Metropolis, the absolute highlight, and one of my favorite festival memories of all came right out of the gate, poolside at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel:
“As I trailed into the open poolside area, I observed there must have been a couple hundred people buzzing around the edges of the pool, many more than I thought could have fit comfortably. All the seats near the screen were of course snapped up, and the only place I could find to settle in was at the corner of the pool furthest from the screen, which was barely visible to these weary eyes from that distance. But I was just glad to be inside, and so I plopped down on the nicely padded chair and made fast pals with my chaise mates, Roger and Joe, two very excited gentlemen from Atlanta who were staying at the Roosevelt. (Talk about splurging for the full experience.) We traded small talk about the festival, the places we lived, and of course our lousy position re the evening’s events. But as the lights dimmed and the spotlight landed on TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, who would introduce and interview the honored guests of the evening, our attitude began to change. Mankiewicz was positioned about 10 feet from where we were sitting, and as he made his way through his genial introductory repartee I turned to Roger and said, ‘I think we lucked out in a big way’—the understatement of the evening, as it turned out. We heard Mankiewicz say, ‘Ladies and gentlemen, Esther Williams and Betty Garrett!’ and a few seconds later Betty Garrett, 89, with the help of a cane and a lovely escort, and Esther Williams, 87, wheelchair-bound but lively as hell, made their way right past Roger and Joe and I in our now not-so-crummy seats.”
(You can read more about Esther and Betty and me, and everything else 2010 TCMFF-related, by clicking here.)
2011 was the year that I got to see one of my favorite films, Billy Wilder’s One Two Three (1961), projected in front of an audience for the very first time. And with expert context provided by film historian Michael Schlesinger, it was a home run before a single frame of the film was shown:
“Schlesinger… delivered, with Wilderian brio and delightful deadpan wit, several wonderful anecdotes centered on the director’s personal style and personality related to the making of the movie. He explained to those virgins in the audience who had little idea what they were in for a bit about the pace of the movie, including the indications in Wilder and Diamond’s script (based on an already brisk Ferenc Molnar play) that the movie be relentlessly, breathlessly paced. (Kevin Lally’s biography of the director, Wilder Times, quotes the screenplay as demanding a rapid-fire ‘molto furioso’ tempo—’Suggested speed: 100 miles an hour—on the curves—140 miles an hour on the straightaway.’) And Schlesinger was at his best in piquing the audience’s anticipation in relating a story in which James Cagney as C. R. MacNamara, head of the Berlin branch of the Coca-Cola company, rattles off a manic swath of dialogue during a scene in which he evaluates various pieces of wardrobe central to the makeover of his boss’s new son-in-law, Otto Ludwig Piffl (Horst Bucholz), from youthfully zealous commie to a faux European count worthy of marrying into decadent American capitalism. Cagney applied every ounce of a dancer’s agility and energy to the scene (which, finished, is a marvel of explosive, relentless speed, the essence of molto furioso) but was, not surprisingly, having difficulty with some of the tongue-twisting verbiage. Fifty-two takes later, one perfect run-through of which was ruined by a bit player’s miscue, and Wilder had the scene the way he wanted it, but Cagney was spent, physically and psychologically; his experience on One Two Three led to his 20-year retirement from the movies.”
(Get the full story on Schlesinger and One Two Three, and the entirety of the 2011 TCMFF, right here.)
My writing about 2012 has gone missing, but in lieu of verbiage, here’s a list of the films I saw, in the order that I saw them: Cover Girl (Charles Vidor; 1944), I’m No Angel (Wesley Ruggles; 1933), Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room (Vera Iwerebor; 2012), Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee; 1939); Letter from an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls; 1948), Phase IV (Saul Bass; 1974), Who Done It? (Erle C. Kenton; 1942), Dr. No (Terence Young; 1962), The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer; 1934), Lonesome (Paul Fejos; 1928), Call Her Savage (John Francis Dillon; 1932), Black Narcissus (Michael Powell, Emeric Pressburger; 1947), Trouble in Paradise (Ernst Lubitsch; 1932), Rio Bravo (Howard Hawks; 1959), and Black Sunday (John Frankenheimer; 1977). The best of the lot, seeing Black Narcissus and Rio Bravo in the presence of, respectively, Thelma Schoonmaker and Angie Dickinson—but with a lineup like that no complaints could be possibly be either credible or tolerated.
The Friday of 2013 TCMFF was perhaps the most “movie” I’ve ever crammed into a single day, and probably one of the most rewarding. My coverage came in four parts at my blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule that year, and all four days were crammed with moments to last a lifetime, including a reunion of the cast and director of Deliverance before a grand screening of the film itself. But that came on Saturday. Let me give you a taste of how that glorious Friday ended, and perhaps you’ll want to read more after that.
“The coffee I gulped eight hours earlier was still working its magic, so Richard Harland Smith and I made our way into the TCM Underground-sponsored midnight show, a very rare 35mm presentation, in its proper 1.85:1 aspect ratio, of Edward D. Wood, Jr.’s Plan Nine from Outer Space (1958). Richard, in his own piece for TCM, rightly pointed out, with no small amount of ‘take that!’ satisfaction, that though this movie gained much of its notoriety from the Golden Turkey phenomenon spearheaded by Harry and Michael Medved, who dubbed it the worst movie ever made, it’s the Medved books that now languish in indifference while Ed Wood’s movie is screening at the TCM Film Festival! That ‘Worst Movie Ever’ moniker has stuck like a piece of used gum to Wood’s movie, but, as comedian-writer Dana Gould (The Simpsons) pointed out in his hilarious introduction to the film, it’s one that the movie doesn’t really deserve. No movie that’s as entertaining as this one, inept as it most assuredly is, could possibly be the worst ever made. (I offer the somnambulant Lily Tomlin-John Travolta romance Moment by Moment as one possible replacement for this dishonor.) The key to Wood’s ‘failure’ is, of course, the many well-documented ways in which the movie falls short of even the basest standards of production value and acting discipline, but lording it over such an obviously impaired picture on those grounds is really only part of the fun. As suggested by Tim Burton’s great Ed Wood, what’s fascinating about looking at Plan Nine from Outer Space, especially in a print that probably looks better than the movie has ever been seen by even its most snarkily ardent followers, is its sincerity. He may have been a terrible writer and an insufficient storyteller, but Wood was most definitely a believer. Even as it builds to its gloriously incoherent climax, I was hard-pressed to detect so much as a single frame of cynicism in his demented mise-en-scene. And seeing it at midnight, the capper to a day which saw six films before it, was the perfect, delirious way to end what I’d wager was the single greatest day of movie-watching I’ve ever experienced over my four-year history with the TCM Classic Film Festival, and maybe even of my entire movie-watching life.”
The great beyond seemed to loom large at TCMFF 2014, as a recurring theme in the programming I gravitated toward, and also in the spirit of the festival itself, as exemplified by a chance to see Maureen O’Hara interviewed just a few months before her passing, at a screening of How Green Was My Valley:
“In the shadow of the recent death of Hollywood icon Mickey Rooney, who passed away just four days before the festival opened, the actors who could be glimpsed at various TCMFF functions and on stage before the films they starred in were especially appreciative of the attention lavished on them. But one legendary Hollywood actress interviewed by TCM’s own iconic headmaster, Robert Osborne, seemed to be looking as much forward as back toward the past, openly acknowledging and even embracing her own slow approach to the end of the line. Maureen O’Hara, wheelchair-bound at 93, joined Osborne on stage before the screening of How Green Was My Valley (1941), and she, too, was somewhat awed by all the reverence and love directed her way. The Queen of Technicolor, a sobriquet bestowed upon her for her many appearances in splashy, intensely hued swashbucklers like Flame of Araby (1951), At Sword’s Point (1952), and Against All Flags (1952), was feisty right out of the gate too. When Osborne began with a question about John Ford, she played the audience like a well-tuned fiddle by responding with mock indignation: “I thought this was supposed to be about me!”
But further sincere inquiry from the host was more often politely sidelined by the actress, who seemed far more interested in conveying to the audience her deep satisfaction with a life well-lived and also, more importantly, her acceptance of its close and inevitable end. She frequently implored the audience to take stock of their own paths and assured us that this known life was not the last stop, even singling out one woman whose cough O’Hara, a good Irish Catholic with a lovely brogue to match, insisted with seriousness and delight was a happy noise that was floating directly up to God. In such a pristine, digitally restored state as we would witness, How Green Was My Valley itself would even add a bit of convincing evidence to O’Hara’s conviction. As O’Hara’s unspeakably lovely Angharad, daughter of the Morgan clan, leaves the chapel after her wedding to a man she does not love, the wind picks up the train of her veil, causing it to dance and reach skyward with such gorgeous, fortuitous choreography that one could be forgiven for imagining its movement providential, as if God himself was laying the groundwork for the actress’s own heavenly assurance with an invitation that would only be accepted some 50 or so years later.”
(The entirety of my coverage of TCMFF 2014 is available here.)
All great films aside, the best thing about TCMFF 2015 was attending it with my best pal, and TCMFF served up another great poolside screening (and a surprise after the fest was over) which seemed pitched just for the two of us:
“You might initially wonder, as many undoubtedly did (myself included), what the hell a trashy epic like Earthquake was doing among the finery of TCMFF presentations. After all, even those of us who savor it would be hard-pressed to consider it a classic. My favorite comment about the movie came from Pauline Kael’s review, in which she compared it to the studio’s other disaster picture, Airport 1975, which was released only a month earlier: “The picture is swill, but at least it’s not cut-rate swill.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement. Years later, Kael’s comment was used as a pull quote on the DVD, and a single misplaced vowel turned her wisecracking condemnation into a rave: “The picture is swell!” Earthquake’s status as a classic is completely arguable, but as rich opportunities for indulging in all manner of Hollywood decadence go, this event was a doozy. My very first experience with TCMFF in 2010 was taken in beside this same pool, listening to Esther Williams being interviewed, then watching her take in a special presentation of aquatic choreography performed right there in the water, all leading up to a screening of her delightful Neptune’s Daughter from 1947. But I think seeing Earthquake last Saturday night may have eclipsed even that wonderful bit of Hollywood happiness. There was nothing on the four-day schedule to match the welcome relaxation of kicking back in a chaise lounge under palm trees at the edge of a pool in the center of a history-soaked hotel, sipping complimentary gin and tonics like they were soda pop (and they weren’t, as the bartender was in a very generous mood) and tempting fate in the most casually ironic manner. There was a definite sense that any temblor coinciding with the screening would have drawn screams, and then applause even louder than that which greeted star Richard Roundtree, who was interviewed before the show by TCM stalwart and actress Illeana Douglas, granddaughter of actor Melvyn Douglas.”
And that surprise I mentioned? A TCM photographer caught a great image of the silhouettes of myself and my pal relaxing by the water while Douglas and Roundtree gabbed on in the background, surely the best TCMFF souvenir I or anyone could have asked for. (Read all about the rest of the best of the fest right https://www.slantmagazine.com/film/the-2015-tcm-classic-film-festival/ here.)
What of 2016, you ask? A chance to see Anna Karina talk before a screening of Band of Outsiders was most definitely a highlight, one that sparked an unexpected train of thought about the nature of nostalgia:
“Early on (in Band of Outsiders), our heroes sit for an English class in which their teacher, readying them for a lesson in Romeo and Juliet, emphasizes T.S. Eliot’s observation that “Everything that is new is thereby automatically traditional” as a way of softening her students’ resistance to material that might seem musty or forbidding in any language. The quote suggests not only the teacher’s belief that new texts can reorganize tradition, but also ways in which classic texts can achieve modernity, not just through themselves, but through constant recontextualization over time. Always one to recognize a movie convention, Godard uses the classroom scene to establish his modus operandi in much the same way as hundreds of films before and since have done. The teacher even spells it out on the chalkboard: to be classic is to be modern.
As Band of Outsiders washed over me, I thought about the apparent swelling of interest in TCMFF among young people, who were noticeably out in droves at this year’s festival and coming close to matching in numbers the relatively elderly population of movie fans who might be expected to most ardently embrace the festival’s riches. If Nora Fiore, a.k.a. Nitrate Diva, a 25-year-old blogger and TCMFF enthusiast is to be believed, it’s possible that classic movie fare of the ‘30s and ‘40s may resonate with millennials more than anyone may have previously understood. ‘I think my generation responds to the subversive sides of old Hollywood, especially pre-Code films and film noir,’ Fiore said in a recent L.A. Weekly piece, ‘Why Young People Go Nuts for the TCM Classic Film Festival,’ adding that ‘studio-era films were often thrilling, shocking and, in some ways, ahead of where Hollywood is now.’
Even if young fans like Fiore are more niche than norm (most young people I know still have an allergic aversion to black-and-white film stock and anything that predates the Marvel Cinematic Universe), it’s hard not to take some degree of encouragement from seeing so many millennials wallowing in so much cinematic history, even if it’s primarily Hollywood-oriented. In fact, what ended up being most exciting for me at TCMFF 2016 was the realization of just how much modernity there was in that wallow, even if some of the more fascinating films in that light had to fight to be noticed over some of the more ostentatious attractions.”
And speaking of unexpected modernity, there was a nearly forgotten pre-Code western that sparked the biggest flame for me at the festival that year:
“Another presumably musty relic, this one from the pre-Code vaults of Universal Pictures and producer Carl Laemmle Jr., was Edward L. Cahn’s excellent, surprisingly moving 1932 western Law and Order, which belies the dominantly jaunty disposable tone that characterized most pre-Stagecoach B-movie westerns and makes unexpected moves forward toward a depth of feeling and technique which links it, however improbably, to The Wild Bunch. The film, essentially the Gunfight at the OK Corral with the names changed (to protect the mythological?), stars Walter Huston as notorious gunslinger-turned-marshal Frame “Saint” Johnson, née Wyatt Earp, and Cahn, who would eventually become a prolific but often mediocre director of agreeable schlock (Dragstrip Girl) and the occasionally noteworthy genre effort (It! The Terror From Beyond Space), lends Law and Order a somber, elegiac attitude toward death. The numerous killings here have a gravitas absent from the average horse opera of the day, and the film’s final shootout set piece has been choreographed and edited with a surprising degree of poetry that made me think of Sam Peckinpah more than once.”
(More on TCMFF 2016 here.)
At TCMFF 2017, I was thinking a lot about the spirits of the dead:
“Almost by definition, any festival dedicated exclusively to the treasures, glories, and the occasional folly of the past is likely to be visited by ghosts, and the spirits of the dead are practically a staple at the TCM Classic Film Festival, which held its eighth gathering in the heart of Hollywood this past weekend. The memory of the late Debbie Reynolds, who had made several in-person appearances at TCMFF over the past eight years, was invoked through yet another screening (the festival’s third) of the indisputable classic Singin’ in the Rain, in which Reynolds made her first big Hollywood splash back in 1952, and at a screening of Postcards from the Edge (classic status somewhat more disputable), before which Reynolds and her daughter, Carrie Fisher, were remembered fondly by Todd Fisher, Reynolds’s son.
Even though he wasn’t represented at the festival on screen, Don Rickles, who passed away on April 6, the festival’s opening day, couldn’t be ignored. Rickles’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame is located on Hollywood Boulevard across the street from the Chinese Theater complex, and as I made my way through the usual crush of tourists, desperadoes, and TCMFF pass holders toward my first screening on Thursday afternoon I wasn’t surprised to see the little square of sidewalk devoted to Rickles surrounded by flowers, curious bystanders, and entertainment reporters trolling for soundbites, and even adorned by one fan’s thoughtful memorial: a brand-new hockey puck.
The ghost that made its presence felt at almost every turn of this year’s festival belonged, of course, to TCM’s beloved host Robert Osborne, who died one month to the day before the launch of this year’s festival.”
(More on TCMFF 2017 can be found here.)
TCMFF 2018 was all about the power of words, which made a certain film loom large, perhaps larger than all the others:
“TCMFF 2018 did offer various opportunities to celebrate talented, perhaps less zingy writer-directors such as Gillian Armstrong (My Brilliant Career); James Ivory (Maurice); Robert Benton (Kramer vs. Kramer); Melvin van Peebles (Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song, a salute which makes me happy even though my mind remains boggled that it ever managed to happen); and Ron Shelton (Bull Durham), whose gem-laden career bears an inordinate degree of dedication to making sports movies the way Hollywood doesn’t like to make ’em—raunchy, unpredictable, often melancholy—and then proving that audiences would come to see them anyway.
One filmmaker who couldn’t be in attendance was highlighted with a feature so strong and bracing you could practically feel the one-two punches smashing against your torso and smell the cigar smoke from his ever-present stogie wafting down the back of your neck. Sam Fuller, who died in 1997, would have been thrilled with the festival showcase afforded his favorite film, 1952’s Park Row. Fuller’s urgency isn’t an empty exercise designed to get an audience’s collective pulse racing. His own experiences as a newspaper copy boy, coupled with his passion for the primacy and importance of the fourth estate, inform this gloriously claustrophobic, booze-soaked, relentlessly forceful tale of how one (fictional) editor, played by Gene Evans, a veteran of Fuller’s The Steel Helmet, flies in the face of corruption and illegal influence, and against the baser instincts of a rival publisher once his boss (Mary Welch), in the pursuit of journalistic standards to honor the statues of Horace Greeley and Benjamin Franklin which anchor Park Row itself.
Another writer-director who was himself, like Fuller, at the forefront of a particularly important moment in the history of American independent film, John Sayles, used his time introducing Park Row to eloquently characterize the film, in one of the overall best, most informed, beautifully delivered speaker presentations I’ve ever seen at TCMFF, as ‘Citizen Kane printed on butcher paper.’ You could almost hear Fuller chuckle with approval.”
(Extra! Extra! Read all about the rest of TCMFF 2018 right here.)
And then there’s 2019, year 10 of the festival, when I complained perhaps more openly than ever before, about the festival’s turn toward those audience pictures that haven’t got as much classics credibility:
“While its focus remains on putting classic films in front of appreciative audiences and encouraging the restoration and preservation of widely recognized and relatively obscure films, the festival’s shift toward popular hits and the folks attached to them seems to be in full swing. And from a commercial point of view, who could credibly argue against feting 1980s and ‘90s-era celebrities who can still bring the glitz and glamour, especially as it becomes increasingly more difficult to secure appearances from anyone directly involved in the production of 60-to-80-year-old films? One has to believe that the numbers would favor booking films which could afford “sexier” in-person attendees like Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, and Rob Reiner, and maybe for a good portion of the TCMFF crowd that showed up to celebrate the festival’s 10th anniversary this year, that sort of thinking is perfectly in line with what they expect for their money.
Of course, the flip side of that coin is an opening-night gala devoted to the celebration of …When Harry Met Sally, which isn’t the first film I would think of to announce to the world that TCMFF is celebrating a milestone. It’s been 10 years since the festival launched, and its mother channel is celebrating 25 years on the air this year—and, okay, the Rob Reiner-helmed, Nora Ephron-scripted comedy is now 30 years young. But I really wonder, beyond …When Harry Met Sally’s most famous scene, which is all but stolen by the director’s mother and her delivery of the memorable zinger ‘I’ll have what she’s having,’ if this dated rom-com really means enough to audiences to be included among a TCMFF schedule of films ostensibly more qualified to be considered as classics.”
(The rest of my TCMFF 2019 experience is right here. See you in 2020!)