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TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1: FINISHING SCHOOL (1934) and the Opening Night Party

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Yesterday evening, Hollywood Boulevard looked much as it frequently does, decked out in a red carpet with hundreds of spectators trying to get a glimpse of celebrities as they walk down the carpet, talk to the waiting press, and make their way into the Chinese Theatre for an opening. Only last night was no normal night on Hollywood Boulevard, and the celebrities were not the stars of the latest Marvel blockbuster. Instead, they were such figures as Cora Sue Collins, child actress from the 1930s; Nancy Olson, Academy Award nominee for Sunset Boulevard; and Ben Burtt, legendary sound designer. And the movie they were going to see? The Producers, originally released 50 years ago. This was the opening of the TCM Classic Film Festival, which has been an annual event for Backlots for the past 7 years.

The festival attracts classic film fans from all over the world, and when you enter into it, you immerse yourself in a world like no other. You hear snippets of conversation about Katharine Hepburn’s early career (and, if you run in my circles, frequent Hepburn imitations), partake in lively debates about which was Greer Garson’s best movie, and soak up the atmosphere of what seems like a huge family reunion…but where, as my friend puts it, “everyone actually likes each other.”

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At The Producers last night, Martin Scorsese was awarded the first annual Robert Osborne award, in memory of TCM’s beloved host who passed away a year ago last month. My media credential didn’t allow access, but the TCM Festival always provides marvelous alternatives to the opening night movie, so I was very happy to go to Finishing School instead. Starring Frances Dee and Ginger Rogers, it tells the story of a young woman sent to an elite boarding school who is soon corrupted by her free-living roommate, and finds a boyfriend that the school finds unsuitable. It is a roller coaster ride of a pre-code, starting off somewhat dramatically, becoming uproariously funny in the middle, then becoming very dramatic but with a tail end of humor. I enjoyed it immensely. Like a typical pre-code, it was packed with one-liners. My favorite, after a rather skinny and underdeveloped girl asks Ginger’s character to borrow her bra: “It’s like putting a saddle on a Pekingese.”

In the past, I have written about the unique experience of watching a movie with a TCM Festival crowd. Everyone “gets it.” Watching a classic movie on the big screen in normal life often makes the classic film fan feel like a duck out of water. Jokes fly over the audience’s head, people remain silent when a big star comes on the screen, and no one claps when a star’s name appears on the screen. At Finishing School last night, everyone laughed at all the right spots, and coos of recognition erupted when Jane Darwell appeared on the screen in a small role. It’s very validating, and feels like coming home to your people.

Introducing the movie were Jeremy Arnold, a pre-code historian, and Wyatt McCrea, the grandson of Frances Dee (and her husband of 57 years, Joel McCrea). The two of them talked about Dee’s life and career, and how close she remained with Ginger Rogers. It was interesting to me to hear about who Frances was as a person (she was shy and reserved), and seeing Wyatt McCrea in real life made me see just how much he looks like his grandmother.

Following Finishing School, I went back to the hotel to change and made my way over to the opening night party. Because I’m introducing Show People this year, I got an invitation and it was very interesting to see a side of the festival I haven’t seen before. The party is for invited guests and Spotlight passholders only (the highest level pass, the one that costs $2,100 this year), and the festival makes the opening night gala the best party in town. The food was great, the company spectacular–I spent most of my time chatting with good friends. I loved seeing all the phenomenal outfits that people put together, and being part of the scene. It was a wonderful evening.

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Stay tuned for today’s screenings and panels, including a panel on women screenwriters and Leave Her to Heaven on nitrate. Thanks for reading!

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