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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!

Challenges to the Production Code in “Suddenly Last Summer” (1959)

Katharine Hepburn and Elizabeth Taylor struggle with the mysterious death of Sebastian, Hepburn’s son and Taylor’s cousin in “Suddenly Last Summer.”

The works of Tennessee Williams are notorious for their stark dealings with sensitive subjects. Prostitution, incest, adultery, and homosexuality were regular themes in his works, and yet, interestingly, despite the strict production code in place from 1934 to 1968, his were some of the most frequently adapted plays in classic Hollywood. Williams’ plays have been held in high esteem by Hollywood directors, who often had to invent creative means by which to sneak the “immoral” material past the censors, who would veto any outright mention of behavior going against mainstream Christian values. From A Streetcar Named Desire (1951) to Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and Night of the Iguana (1961), the movies have nearly all become giants of cinema, due in large part to the source material and the skill of the directors in conveying meaning in subtle ways.

After years of gradual erosion, the 1950’s saw films that tested the code outright, questioning the values set down by Joseph Breen in 1934. Suddenly Last Summer (1959), directed by the great Joseph L. Mankiewicz, was a direct hit at those values, barely veiling the original intent of Tennessee Williams in the stage version.

Violet Venable (Katharine Hepburn) is a New Orleans woman who lost her son, Sebastian, in a mysterious accident the summer before. The only person who knows what happened is Violet’s niece, Catherine (Elizabeth Taylor) who is confined to a sanitarium after going insane after the incident. A kindly doctor (Montgomery Clift) who is a specialist on frontal lobotomies is summoned by Violet to analyze her niece for the procedure. He visits Catherine, who likes and trusts him, and when Violet and Catherine get together with the doctor, it is clear that they have animosity. Catherine begins to verbally attack Violet, and in doing so, a portion of Sebastian’s life becomes clear. Slowly, a story begins to emerge of a mother who loved her son intensely and obsessively, and a young man who used his mother and cousin to attract the attention of men.

Confronting Violet.

The subject of what is termed “sexual perversion” was explicitly prohibited in the production code, with the inference of prohibition on the subject of homosexuality and incest, both of which, of course, are central to this story. With dialogue such as this bit, seen in the trailer at the bottom of the page, the audience is left to extract the meaning, which is inherently clear.

CATHERINE: Sebastian only needed you while you were still useful.

DOCTOR: Useful?

CATHERINE: I mean young. Able to attract.

VIOLET: She’s babbling again. Babbling and lying.

CATHERINE: He left her home because she–

VIOLET: Because you stole him!

CATHERINE:–lost her attractiveness!

DOCTOR: What does attractiveness have to do with the son and the mother?

CATHERINE: You see, Doctor…we were both decoys.

Though the subject of homosexuality was not new to cinema, appearing notably, though in in extremely subdued ways, in such movies as Gilda (1946) and Rebel Without a Cause (1955), up until this point it is rarely stated as explicitly as in this film. Catherine’s statement “We were both decoys” all but says to the audience, and the censors, “Sebastian was interested in men.” The fact that it was not cut out, nor the film shut down altogether, is a testament to the weathering of the power of the censors over a film’s content.

One of the final scenes, in which we are privy to the actual circumstances of Sebastian’s death, is quite disturbing, and features Catherine recounting in total graphic detail what happened. This scene is noteworthy in that the character is telling us exactly what circumstances led to her cousin’s death, but the visuals are left to the imagination. What we see is a mild, watered-down version of Catherine’s story, and what we imagine is much worse. In that sense, the scene runs much like it would onstage, and this was, perhaps, Mankiewicz’s way of creatively evading the censors.

Sebastian’s death.

The reception of the film initially was mostly negative. Tennessee Williams denounced the writing and thought Elizabeth Taylor was a horrible choice for Catherine. However, both Taylor and Hepburn went on to Academy Award nominations for their work, and today the film is seen as a great showcase of the talents of both these screen legends.

Suddenly Last Summer plays relatively often on TCM, and it is certainly an interesting film to watch as one that stretches the bounds of the restrictive production code. It is a must-see for fans of any of the three stars, and it keeps you on the edge of your seat for the entirety of the intensely raw story.