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TCMFF Day 2: The Power of the Pre-Codes

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As any longtime festival attendee knows, a seat at one of the pre-code films at the TCM Classic Film Festival is akin to a ticket for the hottest show in town. Passholders line up hours in advance, hoping to secure a good line number–if they’re lucky and get there early enough, they might even be able to sit next to their friends. “Early enough” for a pre-code film? It can be as much 2 hours early.

For years, I have questioned why the festival didn’t simply put the pre-codes in a larger theater to accommodate the huge crowds that flock to them. It seems natural that, given the numbers that they track, those movies made between 1929 and 1934 should always be at a large theater like the Egyptian or Grauman’s Chinese. But they’re always in the considerably smaller Chinese multiplex theaters. This festival, I brought the question up in conversation with someone in line, who informed me that the multiplex theaters are the only ones that can play 35mm. I have not been able to verify that, but if true, I suppose it makes sense.

Whenever I introduce a new friend to classic movies, I always start with a pre-code. They’re modern in a way that has a tendency to make people change their minds about what they think classic movies are. Frequently, people outside the film world believe classic movies to be wholesome goodness, where people overact and speak in outdated slang, where women are submissive and there’s never a hint of sex. But when they’re confronted with something like Baby Face, it’s a new world.

Because of the difficulties in enforcing the Production Code of 1930, which aimed to sanitize the movies, studios were finding loopholes in the self-policing code and making movies that they knew would sell–namely, movies with strong sexual themes and independent women. Sell they did, and sell they continue to. Very little has changed in the minds of the viewing public between then and now–even today’s sophisticated audiences, when exposed to pre-code Hollywood, go wild. They seem to tap into something primal in our natures

This year I attended two pre-codes, Merrily We Go to Hell and Vanity Street. Both were textbook pre-codes, with Merrily We Go to Hell strongly suggesting an open marriage and Vanity Street condoning crime and adultery. The former was directed by the great Dorothy Arzner, one of the predominant female directors in early Hollywood and the most prolific of the 1930s. In Cari Beauchamp’s introduction of the film (marvelously capped by the line “Enjoy the hell out of Merrily We Go to Hell,”) she traced the biography of Arzner and how it was largely by luck and chance, meeting the right people (several of them women) at the right time, that Arzner was able to rise up the ladder in Hollywood and become the respected director that she ultimately became.

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The story of a young woman who marries the man she loves only to find out that he’s an alcoholic prone to cheating, Merrily We Go to Hell refuses to allow the wife, played by Sylvia Sidney, to be the victim. Instead, she’s a woman with a spine and self-respect. When her husband, played by Fredric March, cheats on her and then tells her to block the door so he can’t leave, she opens the door wide for him. When he returns, she is packed to leave. She remains, on the condition that she, too, be able to have affairs. The result is an open marriage, and they live this way until the wife finally leaves for good, returning all his letters and starting her life anew. The ending, however, was a bit disappointing–I can just see the studios tacking it on at the last minute to make the audience feel better about marriage in general.

After the movie, the general consensus among the audience members I talked to was just that–it was a fantastic movie, empowering and strong up to the very last scene. All the actors did a magnificent job, especially, in my view, Sylvia Sidney. If you haven’t seen it, it is definitely worth scoping out for a hearty dose of pre-code goodness.

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Vanity Street was quite different in its approach. Instead of a marriage drama, this was a crime drama, almost a pre-code noir. It deals with a young woman who breaks a window to be sent to jail (“They feed you there,” she says, reminding us that this is the height of the Depression). She befriends the policeman who arrests her, and he takes pity on her situation, bringing her back to his apartment to stay while and helping her land a chorus job. But the chorus ends up bringing her trouble, as she is ultimately implicated in a murder.

In its style, I would compare Vanity Street to something like Three on a Match or Virtue, with Charles Bickford and Helen Chandler playing the main roles. In a supporting role is Mayo Methot, best known as Humphrey Bogart’s first wife. This one was presented once again by Cari Beauchamp, who has made a name for herself as one of the festival’s most loved presenters. The TCM Festival crowd is known for its passion and extensive movie knowledge, and from Cari Beauchamp’s presentations, I always come away with new stories from behind the scenes.

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One of the things I learned from this presentation is that Helen Chandler, whose movie career was cut short by mental illness and addiction, was cremated in 1965 and her ashes have never been claimed. This made me very sad and being the person I am, I got to thinking–what would it take to claim her ashes and give her a proper burial? If no one has claimed her ashes since 1965, then she belongs to us, the people who work to keep her memory alive. If any of my readers work in this industry and have any advice, I would love to hear from you on how we might get a campaign like this started. I will keep you all posted.

Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for day 3!

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TCM Classic Film Festival Gears Up for April

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It’s getting to be that time of year again–when film fans from around the globe descend on Hollywood Boulevard to attend the TCM Classic Film Festival, a classic Hollywood celebration of epic proportions. This will be the 10th year of this highly anticipated festival, held between April 11-14, and many exciting films and events have already been announced.

THE 2nd ANNUAL ROBERT OSBORNE AWARD–KEVIN BROWNLOW

Last year, Martin Scorsese was bestowed with this film preservation award named for Robert Osborne, beloved journalist and TCM host who passed away two years ago. This year, the award will go to the eminent preservationist and historian Kevin Brownlow, of whom it may be said that he has done more for the preservation of silent film than anyone in history. He won a special Academy Award several years back for his work, interviewed legions of silent film stars, and is known for his generous and humble spirit. He has helped me enormously with my Marion Davies book, and I couldn’t be prouder to say that I know him–as a person and as a professional. This is a most deserved honor.

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BILLY CRYSTAL HONORED WITH HAND AND FOOTPRINT CEREMONY AT GRAUMAN’S CHINESE THEATRE

The featured movie on opening night of what we affectionately call the “TCMFF” is going to be When Harry Met Sally, with Billy Crystal in attendance. The following day, Crystal will be honored with a hand and footprint ceremony at Grauman’s Chinese*

The TCMFF prides itself on bringing the biggest stars from classic Hollywood to the festival. Now that the majority of those stars have passed away or can no longer travel, TCM has expanded its outreach to include stars of popular films from the 1980s and 1990s. There is still a debate within the classic film community around what defines a classic–I wrote a blog post about it several years ago. But I must say that I have always loved Billy Crystal–first becoming aware of him as an Oscar host, then a fan of his comedy routines and when I discovered When Harry Met Sally, it became one of my favorite films of the 1980s.  So on a personal level, I’m delighted that he’s going to be there.

*By the way, the official name of the theater is now TCL Chinese Theatre. But really, it will always be Grauman’s.

ANNOUNCED FILMS

I have heard a number of people say that this year’s lineup is one of the best that the TCMFF has ever had. A friend of mine mentioned that he’s having trouble creating a list of priority films, as he wants to see them all. The actual schedule hasn’t been released yet, so we’re not yet dealing with the yearly agony that comes with schedule conflicts. But if there’s one thing we can count on at the TCMFF, it’s that two or more movies that you desperately want to see will be playing at the same time. Here are some of the movies showing this year that I hope will not conflict with each other:

Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans

Indiscreet

It Happened Here

Holiday

The Sound of Music

A Woman of Affairs

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes

The Clock

For a full list of announced films, here is the link to the site. It is updated regularly when new movies are added.

Passes to the TCMFF sold out unusually early this year. It is a comfort to know that the TCMFF remains popular, but at the same time, I can no longer tell my readers that they may buy a pass if they are in town. However, here are your options if you would like to attend:

  • Get on the waitlist for a pass. It frequently happens that a passholder is unable to attend, and their pass goes back on sale. If you want the all-out festival experience, including all the parties, VIP entrance to the movies, and all the souvenirs, you would splurge on the Spotlight Pass. But personally, I have found the sweet spot to be the Classic Pass. All your basic festival needs are covered, you get full access to all screenings (except the opening night movie), and to Club TCM where there are panels and discussions. And it’s a quarter of the price of the Spotlight Pass.
  • Show up to the theater for the movies you want to see, and position yourself in the standby line. You won’t have guaranteed entrance, but if the theater doesn’t fill up with passholders, you will be given the opportunity to purchase individual tickets.

Aside from the screenings, and perhaps even more than the screenings, one of my favorite parts of the TCMFF is connecting with readers and fellow bloggers. The classic film community is tight knit and devoted, but we are spread out all over the world, connected through the power of the internet and modern technology. For many of us, the TCMFF is the one time a year when we get to spend time with our community. I’m grateful to have been a part of it for so many years.

Thanks for reading, and hope to see you in Hollywood!

BOOK REVIEW: My First Time in Hollywood

The first time Lillian Gish saw Hollywood was after a five day train journey from a blustery New York. She describes Los Angeles as warm and inviting, a city that “smelled like a vast orange grove, and the abundance of roses offered a cheery welcome.”

This was the Hollywood of the early days, before tourist-clogged Hollywood Boulevard, seedy shops and tourist traps kept locals at bay. In these early days, those wishing to make a name for themselves in the budding film industry ventured to an oasis called Hollywood, where orange trees blossomed and the rural landscape was dotted with farmhouses. It is difficult for us to imagine a Hollywood like this, but in My First Time in Hollywood, writer and historian Cari Beauchamp has immortalized the Hollywood of the past by compiling and annotating the words of those who lived it.

Beauchamp, the author of the beautiful Without Lying Down: Frances Marion and the Powerful Women of Early Hollywood, has created a portrait of early Hollywood that is at once nostalgic and poignant. These are the people who built the movie business as we know it, their work and commitment setting the stage for the writers, actors, and directors who would come after them. In reading their words about their Hollywood, we see just how much these men and women were responsible for building the town, and also how the Hollywood of this book has largely disappeared due to the exponential growth and explosion of the entertainment industry, causing a web of traffic, corporate buildings, and overpriced houses.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland, 1907.

The intersection of Hollywood and Highland today.

The book includes stories from familiar names like Mary Pickford and Lionel Barrymore, as well as lesser-known Hollywood figures such as secretary Valeria Belletti and Evelyn Scott, daughter of Beulah Marie Dix. Many of the stories are from the perspectives of women, a refreshing realization in an industry comprised of a mostly male-dominated Hollywood narrative.

My First Time in Hollywood is an ode to a Hollywood gone by, but also a testament to the lineage of the town, how it came to be, and the characters who made it. It is a wonderful and enlightening read, and a must for anyone interested in Hollywood history. One of my favorite lines from the book comes from Colleen Moore:

“For years I had believed, if not in the Never Land of Peter Pan, in the Never Land of Hollywood. Had believed, had thought lovely, wonderful thoughts, and for all that my Never Land was a continent away, it might as well have been second to the right and then straight on till morning.

Until now. Now at last I had found it. I was right here in it, this place of enchanting make-believe. And I was going to stay here and become a star.

How could I possibly go home?

I was home.”

A young Colleen Moore, shortly after she arrived in Hollywood.

If you would like to purchase the book, here is the link to the Amazon site. I enjoyed it thoroughly.

See you next time, and happy reading!