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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.”


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.


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



Happy Easter, readers! On this Easter Sunday, I bring you a look at Here Comes Peter Cottontail, a movie that signifies childhood for many of us. The movie was originally made for television in 1971, but its re-release on VHS in 1990 made it such a huge hit that that many of us who grew up in the era of VHS tapes remember this movie with great fondness.

Featuring the voices of Danny Kaye, Vincent Price, and Casey Kasem, the movie is a family-friendly story told by eccentric narrator Seymour S. Sassafrass (Danny Kaye) about Peter Cottontail, a young bunny in egg-producing April Valley who is about to be named Chief Easter Bunny and supervise all the egg-making that happens there. But his plans are foiled by evil Iron Tail (Vincent Price), who wants to name himself Chief Easter Bunny and ruin Easter, as revenge for his tail being run over by a child and replaced with a ball of iron.

Iron Tail.

As the constitution of April Valley states that whoever delivers the most eggs on Easter morning gets to be Chief Easter Bunny, Iron Tail proposes a contest…and wins. But with the help of Seymour S. Sassafrass and his time machine, along with a few friends he meets along the way, Peter is able to travel back in time and change the outcome of the contest.

Though created as a children’s movie, Here Comes Peter Cottontail has some wonderful things for adults to look out for as well. Those familiar with the personas of Danny Kaye and Vincent Price will notice that Seymour S. Sassafrass displays many of Danny Kaye’s unmistakable features–including his prominent nose and red hair. Vincent Price is the perfect Iron Tail, with his background in macabre pictures and villainous voice.

In addition, the film is a wonderful example of production company Rankin/Bass’ signature stop-motion animation. “Animagic,” as the company called it, was put to use in several Rankin/Bass productions including Willy McBean and His Magic Machine (1965) and Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (1964), and this technique has become synonymous with the company. The animation was nearly all created by pioneer Japanese animator Tadahito Moshinaga, whose MOM Studio in Japan partnered with Rankin/Bass to create animation for the stories written by the studio. Moshinaga has become a legend in Japanese animation circles, and Moshinaga and Rankin/Bass collaborated on over 130 titles.

Tadahito Mochinaga at work on WILLY MCBEAN AND HIS MAGIC MACHINE (1965).

Here Comes Peter Cottontail is a testament to how great films are able to achieve a renaissance because of home viewing media. In addition to its reissue in 1990, it has seen several DVD releases and the entire movie has been uploaded to YouTube. I am embedding it here, so that you and any children in your life may watch this fun movie right here on the site.

Happy Easter! See you next time!