Day 2 of the TCM Classic Film Festival was one filled with laughter. From the first moment the schedule came out, I knew it would be–with The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie on the agenda, there is no other possible outcome. I started the day with The Sunshine Boys, a wonderful screening introduced by Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Richard Benjamin as a featured guest afterward. Richard Benjamin plays Walter Matthau’s nephew in the film, an talent agent who represents (and barely tolerates) his ex-vaudeville comic uncle. He tries to reunite his uncle with his old comedy partner, played by George Burns, but there’s one problem…they hate each other.
Randy Haberkamp indicated in his introduction that Richard Benjamin’s performance is often overlooked in favor of the two stars. I find that to be very easy on the small screen, but viewing a film on the big screen can make all the difference. Richard Benjamin’s performance lit up the screen, as did his charisma with Walter Matthau. In his interview afterward, Richard Benjamin discussed how close he came with Walter Matthau in real life, which was very touching to hear.
The George Burns role was originally supposed to go to Jack Benny. Jack, however, had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was too sick to take on the strain of a new film. To replace him, he recommended his longtime best friend George Burns, who had not been in films since 1939. Jack died in late 1974, and George played the role to perfection, earning an Academy Award for his performance and revitalizing his career. A beautiful end to one of show business’ great friendships.
A wonderful crowd showed up for Tootsie, which is always an exceptionally fun movie to see on the big screen. I have always adored Tootsie, finding it to be unexpectedly deep in its social commentary and the acting is superb. There is hardly a single line that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Elaine May was an uncredited screenwriter on the film, and I can hear her influence clearly throughout the script.
It was especially fun for me to watch Tootsie with my friend Sara, a Jessica Lange superfan who was seeing it on the big screen for the first time. Jessica Lange won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance, which is so beautifully nuanced. She conveys complex emotions so clearly in her face–in the scene where she tells Dorothy she can’t see her anymore, you feel her pain viscerally.
Following Tootsie, I had an appointment with my friend Priscilla. Months before the fest began, we had discussed getting together to watch The Jack Benny Show sometime during the festival. We’re both ardent fans of Jack and we had bonded over that over Twitter. So we met poolside at the Roosevelt and watched the Peter, Paul, and Mary episode, laughing until our sides hurt. We then proceeded to watch Jack Benny for a good hour and a half together, and Priscilla showed me this sketch, which sent us into even more hysterical fits of laughter:
While some people come to the festival for the movies, many of us consider these kinds of moments an integral part of the experience. There certainly isn’t anyone in my non-classic film life with whom I can watch Jack Benny for hours on end, and I’m grateful to the festival for providing a place where we can be ourselves with like-minded people. It’s hard to overstate how much this part of the festival means to me, and to all of us who often feel that our interests don’t align with our peers in everyday life.
After our Jack Benny marathon, I went to the Doris Day centennial celebration panel at Club TCM. It was a lovely and loving discussion with several of Doris Day’s friends, discussing their personal histories with Doris Day and what she was like offscreen. In my view, Doris Day is one of the most misinterpreted personalities of classic Hollywood. When people think of her, they often think of a virginal girl-next-door, representative of a wholesome mirage of 1950s culture. In contrast, the real Doris Day was a passionate and vibrant woman who devoted her life to the wellbeing of animals. She had a frequently difficult life, surviving an abusive marriage, the death of a child, and a second husband who squandered all her earnings. In regard to her music, people know “Que Sera Sera” and other light songs (though I could write a treatise on why “Que Sera Sera” is not at all the light song it seems), but her career with Les Brown in the early 1940s established her as one of the top female vocalists of her era, a fact that is often overlooked when we remember Doris Day today. Her friends on the panel described a down-to-earth, loving, and generous woman who lived for animals and adored her fans. It was a moving and gentle tribute.
The next movie on the agenda was The Gay Divorcee, the first star pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie also features a 17-year-old Betty Grable, who performs a delightful number called “Let’s K-nock K-nees” with Edward Everett Horton, which nearly steals the film out from under Fred and Ginger. It’s been stuck in my head for a full day and I don’t have any particular interest in getting it out.
As I mentioned in a previous post, watching Fred and Ginger on the big screen is one of life’s great treats. One of the interstitials playing before movies throughout the festival this year is a clip of Fred Astaire preparing to jump on a couch in a scene from The Gay Divorcee. It fascinates me, and over the course of the festival I’ve been watching it closely to see what it is that he’s doing that I find so interesting. I think it’s the combination of grace and intense strength, especially in his upper body, a seemingly incongruous combination that Fred has in perfect proportion.
While watching The Gay Divorcee, I paid special attention to how Fred and Ginger moved, together and separately. One thing I noticed is that both “Night and Day” and “The Continental” are danced on a floor with white lines running down it. When Fred and Ginger dance together, their feet never land on lines. They dance over them, jump over them, but their dance routines are orchestrated around those lines and it’s a beautiful detail to watch.
I’ll be back tomorrow with more details from day 3!