TCM Classic Film Festival Day 3

Day 3 of the festival was predominantly a pre-Code day for me. Pre-Codes are famously popular at the TCM Festival, but they’re almost always screened in the smallest theaters. The question of why is a point of contention among attendees–some think the organizers simply haven’t learned the audience’s trends, and others think that it’s a strategic marketing decision. Whatever the reason is, seeing a pre-Code at the TCM Festival requires a great deal of planning. To that end, I decided to skip the first block of movies to get in line for Three on a Match at noon. I haven’t seen Three on a Match much since I saw it on the big screen nearly 10 years ago. A rather bizarre movie, in my opinion, and immensely disturbing, but a fascinating pre-Code. It tells the story of three school friends whose lives take them in unexpected directions, and without giving away too much of the plot, the title Three on a Match comes from an old saying: “Three on a match means one will die soon.” The three women as adults are played by Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis, and Joan Blondell, and the young Ann Dvorak is played by a child actress named Dawn O’Day, later known as Anne Shirley. The screening sold out completely, and enough people were turned away that the movie was shown again on Sunday afternoon in one of the TBA slots. This is a recurring theme at every TCM Festival, so it’s difficult for me to believe that there’s not some strategy behind this.

Following Three on a Match, I took the shuttle to the Hollywood Legion to get in line for Baby Face. The movie started at 3–I was in line at 1:45. It is, after all, a pre-Code. And is it ever.

Often hailed as the film that singlehandedly overhauled the Production Code, Baby Face is one of the movies that I tend to show people who are unfamiliar with classic film, or under the impression that old movies are prudish or misogynistic. In Baby Face, Barbara Stanwyck as Lily Powers lives in a saloon in Erie, PA with her father who sells her to customers for sex. When he dies in a gas explosion, she leaves her home with her best friend Chico (Theresa Harris) to start a new life in New York. She is unapologetic about using her body to rise to the top of the business world, regrets nothing, and faces the world with a cold, ruthless ambition.

Baby Face required extensive editing and reshoots to comply with the Code as it existed in 1933, and even after those extensive edits, it pushed the limit of what was acceptable to the censor boards. Following its release, the Production Code was strengthened to include more oversight so that a film like Baby Face wouldn’t be seen as long as the Code was in effect. The original, uncensored film was lost for decades, until it was finally unearthed several years ago and restored.

My favorite moment.

I’ve seen Baby Face more times than I can count, but I never miss it when it’s playing on TCM or at a theater nearby. Barbara Stanwyck is a personal favorite of mine in anything, but this role seemed written for her talents. Bruce Goldstein introduced the movie at the Hollywood Legion, and he presented a revelatory program that included notes from the production office on what was ordered to be changed. After the movie, he showed a 5 minute reel comparing the censored and uncensored versions, including an alternate ending that punished Lily Powers for her actions in compliance with the Code.

I got back in line after that, for another pre-Code called Counsellor at Law, the personal pick of Leonard Maltin, who was receiving the Robert Osborne Award beforehand. The presentation of the award was a wonderful and loving ceremony to one of the most respected critics of all time. Maltin accepted his award with a genuine, sincere speech delivered without the use of notes. After the ceremony, Maltin went right into his introduction of Counsellor at Law, a rarely seen pre-Code from 1932. It is an unusual movie, in which John Barrymore plays an emotionally unstable lawyer who swings between extreme highs and devastating lows. The plot, deceptively thin on the surface, is the gateway into a character’s disturbed mind. If the film were made today, there would inevitably be discussions of bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder, and mental health triggers in a high stress workplace. John Barrymore plays the character to perfection, showing on his face the character’s joy in one moment, utter despair in the next.

I had originally planned to go back to the room and go to bed after Counsellor at Law, but at the last minute I decided to join my friends for the evening show of Singin’ In the Rain at Grauman’s (officially TCL) Chinese Theatre. Singin’ In the Rain was one of the very first movies I ever saw on the big screen, at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland. I nearly wore out my VHS copy as a child, and learned who Calvin Coolidge was from Lina Lamont at the age of 7.

As many times as I’ve seen this movie, there are often new things that I notice. The character of Lina Lamont was originally written for the talents and persona of Judy Holliday (Betty Comden and Adolph Green were good friends and longtime collaborators), and I can see so much of her in Jean Hagen’s performance. I’ve written about how their careers operated in tandem with one another–in addition to the Singin’ in the Rain connection, Jean Hagen was the understudy in Born Yesterday on Broadway, and the two were in Adam’s Rib together. I can’t help but imagine what Lina Lamont would have been if Judy Holliday had played her.

This viewing, I honed in on the brilliant character development that takes place in the opening sequence. Through Dora Bailey’s radio broadcast, the audience learns the backstory of nearly every important character in the movie in the first 10 minutes. Kathy Selden, of course, enters later. When Don tries to seduce her in the car and she pushes him off yelling “Don’t you touch me!” everyone in the audience of Grauman’s Chinese Theatre applauded. A relevant moment indeed.

Stay tuned for day 4!

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