TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2: The Dawn of Technicolor, STEAMBOAT BILL JR., REBECCA, BOOM!

Dear readers, I’m usually so good about posting right after festival events, but after several late nights, I needed some sleep. The festival is now over, and I’m getting back into the swing of things. I apologize for the delay!

Day 2 was a jam-packed one at the TCM Classic Film Festival, the first day of the festival with a full docket of programming. I started off the day with a beautiful presentation called The Dawn of Technicolor, based on the new book by David Pierce and James Layton. Pierce and Layton were there discussing the facets of early Technicolor, and the differences between the two-strip Technicolor process and the much better-known three-strip process, as seen in movies like The Wizard of Oz. It was a fascinating discussion, touching on such concepts as lighting techniques for early Technicolor and difficulties in getting certain colors to register (blue was especially difficult), and Pierce and Layton showed the audience clips of very early Technicolor musicals that were a delight.

Since many of the early Technicolor clips that the audience saw yesterday are extremely rare, I will instead post here two clips that demonstrate the two-strip process and the three-strip process, respectively.

This is the “Tell Me, Pretty Maiden” number from The Florodora Girl. Pierce and Layton noted that, in addition to the difficulty in photographing blue tints, yellow tints were next to non-existent in the two-strip Technicolor process. The focus was on reds and greens, which came out in beautiful shades and this lends itself to the signature look of two-strip Technicolor.

You can see the difference between two-strip and three-strip Technicolor by looking at this beautiful clip, in which all the colors of the rainbow are represented as Dorothy goes over it. By 1939, three-strip Technicolor had all but replaced two-strip as the color standard in film, though color wouldn’t become industry standard until several decades later.

A wonderful and informative presentation, that I would recommend to anyone interested in film!

Next I went to Club TCM to hear legendary film historian Jeanine Basinger speak about portrayals of history in the movies. Professor Basinger is the head of the film department at Wesleyan University, and founder of the renowned film library there, as well as one of the most respected figures in the world of film studies. She discussed the way history has been portrayed in Hollywood and what devices filmmakers use when trying to depict events for which we may not have all the information, or when trying to make history interesting and screen-worthy. One thing she talked about was what she calls the “letters of transit” device, referring to the plot of Casablanca that hinges on Victor Laszlo getting letters of transit out of Morocco when letters of transit did not exist in reality. The filmmakers used this device to add spice to the story, and it worked brilliantly. No one seems to care that letters of transit did not exist in reality, they existed in Casablanca and that seems to be enough. It was a great discussion, and hearing Professor Basinger speak is something that all students and scholars of film should be able to do.

A scene about “letters of transit” in Casablanca (1942).

Next up was the Buster Keaton classic Steamboat Bill, Jr., complete with a new score by silent composer Carl Davis, who also conducted the orchestra. It was a brilliant score and great fun to watch. Buster Keaton is typically hilarious and, naturally, gets into some real shenanigans. This is the movie with what is probably Buster Keaton’s most famous scene:

Steamboat Bill, Jr. was made in 1928, when Buster Keaton was at the peak of his career. Unfortunately, it was also right before his downfall, with contract switches and the coming of sound essentially putting a halt to what was one of the most glorious careers of the silent era. It was interesting to watch it in this context, as one of the great silent comedians was at the top of the world…only to fall off shortly thereafter.

A personal favorite, Rebecca, came next. I have written about this movie many times before, but it’s such a masterpiece of lighting, cinematography, and acting that I see something new every time. This time, I noticed that director Alfred Hitchcock uses very long lines in his camerawork, perhaps to emphasize the tallness of the estate Manderley. Nearly all the doorways and windows are structured to draw the eyes upward, and even the furniture and shadows are designed to guide the eyes up. Take a look at this scene, and notice the narrow, vertical light on the wall from the window, as well as the narrow structure of the window itself:

It is said that nothing in Hitchcock is accidental. If that adage holds true, this is a genius work of subtlety on his part.

The festival this year features an unusually high number of films that one can read through a queer lens–and Rebecca is certainly one of them. The relationship between the evil Mrs. Danvers and the late Rebecca de Winter can be inferred very clearly in this movie, as evidenced by this scene. Though filmmakers were kept from stating the relationship explicitly, the eerie scenes with Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca’s room do more for a queer reading of the film than anything that could have been stated explicitly.

The next movie, Boom!, is one that I have seen before on the big screen and it is a movie so bad that it’s a lot of fun to watch. I can barely tell you the plot, except that it takes place on a Greek island and Elizabeth Taylor is a drug addict who is visited by death, played by Richard Burton. It features monstrously terrible and nonsensical dialogue, and my friends and I were laughing the whole time. It’s the perfect midnight screening.

I’ll update about Day 3 tomorrow!

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