Tag Archives: tcm classic film festival

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!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 2

Day 2 of the TCM Classic Film Festival was one filled with laughter. From the first moment the schedule came out, I knew it would be–with The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie on the agenda, there is no other possible outcome. I started the day with The Sunshine Boys, a wonderful screening introduced by Randy Haberkamp of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, with Richard Benjamin as a featured guest afterward. Richard Benjamin plays Walter Matthau’s nephew in the film, an talent agent who represents (and barely tolerates) his ex-vaudeville comic uncle. He tries to reunite his uncle with his old comedy partner, played by George Burns, but there’s one problem…they hate each other.

Randy Haberkamp indicated in his introduction that Richard Benjamin’s performance is often overlooked in favor of the two stars. I find that to be very easy on the small screen, but viewing a film on the big screen can make all the difference. Richard Benjamin’s performance lit up the screen, as did his charisma with Walter Matthau. In his interview afterward, Richard Benjamin discussed how close he came with Walter Matthau in real life, which was very touching to hear.

The George Burns role was originally supposed to go to Jack Benny. Jack, however, had recently been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was too sick to take on the strain of a new film. To replace him, he recommended his longtime best friend George Burns, who had not been in films since 1939. Jack died in late 1974, and George played the role to perfection, earning an Academy Award for his performance and revitalizing his career. A beautiful end to one of show business’ great friendships.

A wonderful crowd showed up for Tootsie, which is always an exceptionally fun movie to see on the big screen. I have always adored Tootsie, finding it to be unexpectedly deep in its social commentary and the acting is superb. There is hardly a single line that isn’t laugh-out-loud funny. Elaine May was an uncredited screenwriter on the film, and I can hear her influence clearly throughout the script.

It was especially fun for me to watch Tootsie with my friend Sara, a Jessica Lange superfan who was seeing it on the big screen for the first time. Jessica Lange won a much-deserved Oscar for her performance, which is so beautifully nuanced. She conveys complex emotions so clearly in her face–in the scene where she tells Dorothy she can’t see her anymore, you feel her pain viscerally.

Following Tootsie, I had an appointment with my friend Priscilla. Months before the fest began, we had discussed getting together to watch The Jack Benny Show sometime during the festival. We’re both ardent fans of Jack and we had bonded over that over Twitter. So we met poolside at the Roosevelt and watched the Peter, Paul, and Mary episode, laughing until our sides hurt. We then proceeded to watch Jack Benny for a good hour and a half together, and Priscilla showed me this sketch, which sent us into even more hysterical fits of laughter:

While some people come to the festival for the movies, many of us consider these kinds of moments an integral part of the experience. There certainly isn’t anyone in my non-classic film life with whom I can watch Jack Benny for hours on end, and I’m grateful to the festival for providing a place where we can be ourselves with like-minded people. It’s hard to overstate how much this part of the festival means to me, and to all of us who often feel that our interests don’t align with our peers in everyday life.

After our Jack Benny marathon, I went to the Doris Day centennial celebration panel at Club TCM. It was a lovely and loving discussion with several of Doris Day’s friends, discussing their personal histories with Doris Day and what she was like offscreen. In my view, Doris Day is one of the most misinterpreted personalities of classic Hollywood. When people think of her, they often think of a virginal girl-next-door, representative of a wholesome mirage of 1950s culture. In contrast, the real Doris Day was a passionate and vibrant woman who devoted her life to the wellbeing of animals. She had a frequently difficult life, surviving an abusive marriage, the death of a child, and a second husband who squandered all her earnings. In regard to her music, people know “Que Sera Sera” and other light songs (though I could write a treatise on why “Que Sera Sera” is not at all the light song it seems), but her career with Les Brown in the early 1940s established her as one of the top female vocalists of her era, a fact that is often overlooked when we remember Doris Day today. Her friends on the panel described a down-to-earth, loving, and generous woman who lived for animals and adored her fans. It was a moving and gentle tribute.

The next movie on the agenda was The Gay Divorcee, the first star pairing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. The movie also features a 17-year-old Betty Grable, who performs a delightful number called “Let’s K-nock K-nees” with Edward Everett Horton, which nearly steals the film out from under Fred and Ginger. It’s been stuck in my head for a full day and I don’t have any particular interest in getting it out.

As I mentioned in a previous post, watching Fred and Ginger on the big screen is one of life’s great treats. One of the interstitials playing before movies throughout the festival this year is a clip of Fred Astaire preparing to jump on a couch in a scene from The Gay Divorcee. It fascinates me, and over the course of the festival I’ve been watching it closely to see what it is that he’s doing that I find so interesting. I think it’s the combination of grace and intense strength, especially in his upper body, a seemingly incongruous combination that Fred has in perfect proportion.

While watching The Gay Divorcee, I paid special attention to how Fred and Ginger moved, together and separately. One thing I noticed is that both “Night and Day” and “The Continental” are danced on a floor with white lines running down it. When Fred and Ginger dance together, their feet never land on lines. They dance over them, jump over them, but their dance routines are orchestrated around those lines and it’s a beautiful detail to watch.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more details from day 3!

TCM Classic Film Festival Day 1

“This California dew is a little heavier than usual tonight,” as Debbie Reynolds said in Singin’ in the Rain, and she might have been talking about this evening in Hollywood, where an unexpected downpour punctuates a full first festival day.

The fun kicked off this afternoon with “So You Think You Know Movies?” Bruce Goldstein’s exceptionally difficult TCM trivia game hosted in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. It was a crowded and excited audience, filled with many veteran festival attendees. I ran into my friend Karen Hannsberry of The Dark Pages, and we formed a trivia team that consisted of several very knowledgeable people. Thanks to some great deduction skills on the part of Stephan Reginald in particular…we won the game! It was the first time I’ve ever come close to winning “So You Think You Know Movies?” We each received a nice TCM tote bag with a book, a DVD, and some magnets, and the thrill of having succeeded in some of the hardest movie trivia there is.

Following the trivia, several friends and I went to dinner at California Pizza Kitchen. Passover is still observed until Saturday evening and I’ve had a bit of a hard time finding good food options. Fortunately, California Pizza Kitchen had a few Passover-friendly options and my friends and I had a delicious meal as we caught up after many long years apart. It is an interesting phenomenon to be back at a festival like this, after 3 years where we’ve lacked mass socialization. I am very conscious of being “out of practice” with socializing, and it’s a strange feeling to want to talk to people without really being sure of what to say. I’ve expressed this to some of my friends, who admit to the same feelings. I’m glad I’m not alone.

My friends from dinner were all going to Jewel Robbery, so we got in line together and sat together in Multiplex 4. The introduction was by Cari Beauchamp, always one of the most popular presenters of the festival. She gave a detailed and engaging talk about the pre-Code era, and its implications for portrayals of women and their sexual freedom. At several points during the introduction, audience members clapped and cheered for her statements about women’s rights, and reacted with enthusiastic laughter at some of the letters from the Hays Office. It was a marvelous introduction fit for an audience that knows movies. A friend who was sitting near me remarked: “Every presenter at the festival should learn from Cari Beauchamp. Her introductions should be the high standard everyone tries to reach.”

The movie itself is pure joy. It tells the story of a woman who falls for a jewel thief after witnessing a robbery, and it is full of double entendre, innuendo, and all the glorious dialogue we expect from pre-Codes. In addition, there are several scenes featuring “drugged cigarettes,” clearly marijuana. In true pre-Code fashion, it’s not at all discreet–characters who smoke these cigarettes are seen laughing at nothing, on a ridiculous high that William Powell says will culminate in “a good appetite.” Something not able to be seen just a few years later, and rare even for this time period.

Afterward, I went up to the Hollywood Legion, a beautiful 1940s theater that was renovated in time for the 2019 TCM Festival. I saw Indiscreet there in 2019, and marveled at the uniqueness of this venue that radiates the 1940s. This evening, I saw A Star is Born, the original 1937 version of the story. I wondered what I would notice when I watched it on the big screen, and I found that my eyes were particularly drawn to the color blue. The 1937 A Star is Born is an early example of the 3-strip Technicolor process. Prior to the development of 3-strip technology, the 2-strip Technicolor process had a pastel quality to it, with limitations for blues and reds. Blues appeared green, reds appeared pink. In A Star is Born, we see a scene next to a sparkling clear blue swimming pool, one of the early times an audience could see a color like that on the screen. A dark blue umbrella and the dark blues of Janet Gaynor’s outfit accentuate the brightness of the pool. Putting myself in the place of a 1930s audience member, I can only begin to imagine what a thrill it must have been to see that brilliant color onscreen.

Now I’m back in the room, ready to prepare for another big festival day tomorrow. See you then!

The TCM Classic Film Festival Day 0

Early this morning, operating on minimal sleep (my cat kept tapping my face), I left for the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, joining classic movie fans from around the world for 4 days of films, activities, and memories rebuilt after three years apart.

This where the classic movie faithful converge. The greatest part of the weekend, for me, is reuniting with like-minded people, who speak the same classic movie “language.” Today I realized that this is my tenth festival, and each year I envy the people experiencing it for the first time. In prior years, I have discussed the unrivaled TCM audiences and the special experience of seeing a film here. One of my favorite stories is from several years ago, when Illeana Douglas was introducing Double Wedding and asked if anyone knew how many movies William Powell and Myrna Loy made together. The answer boomed through the Egyptian Theatre, as the entire audience gleefully shouted “FOURTEEN!!!” This kind of enthusiasm is rare, and found in every theater of the TCM Festival. When you’ve experienced it, its absence is palpable anywhere else you go.

The official festival starts tomorrow, Thursday, but I arrived today to attend the media mixer in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel. The site of the first Academy Awards in 1929, the Blossom Room serves as the meeting place for panels and discussions during the TCM Classic Film Festival, a venue known as “Club TCM.”

The media mixer was an opportunity to hear from the five TCM hosts–Eddie Muller, Jacqueline Stewart, Alicia Malone, Dave Karger, and Ben Mankiewicz–on what they were most excited about for the festival, and to hear a special announcement that was teased to media last night.

The hosts all expressed an appreciation for the fans and an excitement for being back in person for the first time since 2019. Eddie Muller singled out the Doris Day centennial celebration as something he was looking forward to, and Jacqueline Stewart said she might “faint at the sight of Pam Grier” when she interviews her before the screening of Coffy on Sunday. Pam Grier is a special focus of the festival this year. The special announcement teased to the media was revealed at the end of the mixer–the fourth season of TCM’s podcast, “The Plot Thickens,” will focus on Grier.

Dave Karger is particularly invested in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, because Topher Grace is a family friend and Karger knows how special the movie is to him. Alicia Malone wishes she could see the pre-Codes, but she is going to make it a point to see Queen Bee, because it’s “Joan Crawford at her Joan Crawfordest,” in her words. Ben Mankiewicz said that the adrenaline rush of the festival immediately came back to him, a sentiment that many of us feel at this moment.

As with previous festivals, I will be enabling livetweets on the blog so that you may follow along with my activities in real time. Here is a rundown of my plans for the first two days:

FESTIVAL SCHEDULE PART I

THURSDAY:

Trivia with Bruce Goldstein: “So You Think You Know Movies?”

Jewel Robbery (1932)

A Star is Born (1937)

Bruce Goldstein is a mainstay at the TCM Festival, and his trivia show is one of the highlights of the festival for many people. Ruthlessly difficult and loaded with jokes and fun facts, it’s a great deal of fun that I never miss.

TCM did an interesting thing putting Jewel Robbery opposite E.T., the opening night film. On its own, Jewel Robbery would sell out in an instant. Pre-Codes are notorious sellouts at the festival, and Jewel Robbery stars Kay Francis and William Powell, some of the most popular of the stars for festivalgoers. In addition, the intro is by Cari Beauchamp, who gives some of the most popular introductions of the festival. But by scheduling it opposite the opening night movie, the festival organizers essentially increase the value of the film for the high level passholders–the theater will be filled with Classic passes, but only the most diehard Essential and Spotlight passholders will choose to go. It’s an interesting supply and demand issue, tackled TCM-style.

After Jewel Robbery, I will hurry up the hill to the Hollywood Legion Theatre to see A Star is Born. There have now been four iterations of the story (five if you count the inspirational material, What Price, Hollywood?), but the 1937 version holds a special place in my heart. To me, it’s the most tender and gentle. The 1954 version is big and glamorous, perfect for 1950s audiences and for Judy Garland’s enormous talent. But Janet Gaynor and Fredric March have a softness to them, and the early 3-strip Technicolor adds a meditative beauty that doesn’t exist in subsequent versions of the story.

FRIDAY

The Sunshine Boys (1975)

Tootsie (1982)

Queen Bee (1955)

TCM Celebrates Doris Day

The Gay Divorcee (1934)

This is a day where I plan to laugh a great deal. The Sunshine Boys and Tootsie are both films where just about every line is funny–The Sunshine Boys embodies a rapid-fire, vaudevillian style, and Tootsie is intellectual and sharp. I do think Joan Crawford is at her Joan Crawfordest in Queen Bee, and I think it will be particularly fun to watch it with the festival crowd.

TCM Celebrates Doris Day will be a panel discussion in Club TCM featuring several of Doris Day’s personal friends and representatives from the organizations she founded, the Doris Day Animal League and the Doris Day Animal Foundation. It is sure to be a full house. Though Doris Day’s public image was as a wholesome, all-American girl next door, in reality she was a trailblazing woman who led a passionate, vibrant life devoted to improving the wellbeing of animals. She is a particular favorite among many TCM fans, and I’m very much looking forward to this talk.

I was talking to a friend the other day about movies that are simply meant for the big screen. A few years ago when I saw The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at the TCM Festival, I was blown away and moved to tears. Those bright colors, those beautiful faces. It was as though I had been watching a different movie every time I watched The Umbrellas of Cherbourg at home, and I wondered how I could ever see it the same way again. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers on the big screen is a similar experience. There is a reason that audiences were transfixed by them during the Depression. The viewer is transported and taken into their world as they dance. For that reason, The Gay Divorcee is a must-see for me–especially during these difficult times with COVID and war raging, everyone deserves to be taken out of this cruel world and into Fred and Ginger’s. If only for that one moment.

See you tomorrow!

TCM Classic Film Festival Updates

Next month, for the first time since 2019, Hollywood Boulevard will once again be filled with classic film fans attending the TCM Classic Film Festival. The event is now less than a month away, and announcements from festival organizers are coming fast. My friend Aurora at Once Upon a Screen predicts an official, full schedule tomorrow. It is always an exciting time for festivalgoers, but this year is particularly special. Many of us haven’t seen each other since the last in-person festival, and for niche communities like this one, the separation from kindred spirits can be agonizing.

There are many approaches to the TCM Classic Film Festival–some take the opportunity to see films new to them, others take comfort in old favorites. I tend to fall into the latter camp. Indeed, when I heard that A League of Their Own had been added to the festival lineup, I nearly fell off my chair with excitement.

There has been much debate in recent years about what makes a classic, and according to some philosophies, a film from 1992 is categorically too late to count. But A League of Their Own has been a part of my consciousness for as long as I can remember, and if there ever were a film from this late in movie history to merit the “classic” label, this is it. Set against the backdrop of the real-life All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, it tells the story of two sisters who join the league, and the effect it has on their relationship and the unity of their teams. It has become a much-loved and oft-quoted cult film for a generation of girls, and I fell under its spell at a young age. So much, in fact, that it singlehandedly inspired me to sign up to play baseball on a girls team (I quickly discovered that I was not cut out to be a Rockford Peach).

In attendance will be several stars of the film, including Lori Petty and Megan Cavanagh (Kit Keller and Marla Hooch, respectively), but the absence of director Penny Marshall, who died in 2018, will surely leave a gaping hole in the event. Due to the large contingent of millennial women who attend the festival, and who grew up with A League of Their Own as a beloved comfort film, I expect this to be one of the more popular screenings of the festival.

Penny Marshall, who went from sitcom star on Laverne & Shirley to acclaimed director and the first woman to direct a movie that made $100 million (Big).

Some more festival news–I have a very welcome update from the previous post on Backlots, in which I mused about Drew Barrymore not being at the opening night screening of E.T. It has now been announced that she will indeed be there, as will Henry Thomas. Reflecting on E.T., I am struck by the phenomenal strength of the child actors. Both Drew Barrymore and Henry Thomas give powerhouse performances as the children who bond with an extraterrestrial, with a pathos and emotional maturity far beyond their age. Henry Thomas’ audition is a marvel to watch–he noted later that as he played this scene, he was thinking about his dog who had recently died.

The opening night screening is open to Essential and Spotlight passholders, and attendees will walk the red carpet into Grauman’s Chinese Theater to see the film. It is a fantastic and memorable event for those who have come to the festival for a dream Hollywood experience.

The wonderful Lily Tomlin will also put her hand- and footprints in the forecourt of Grauman’s Chinese Theater, a long overdue honor. This ceremony has come to be a TCM Classic Film Festival tradition, and Tomlin joins her 9 to 5 co-star Jane Fonda in being honored with a handprint ceremony by TCM. It is always an extremely popular event, with passholders lining up hours in advance to see it.

For a full schedule of announced movies and events, you can check out the TCM Classic Film Festival website here. If you are planning on attending the festival, passes are selling out fast. Click here for the latest availability, and remember that there are multiple great ways to attend the festival–with a pass or by purchasing individual tickets.

I’ll be back when we get the full schedule!

TCM Classic Film Festival Returns in 2022

Classic film fans on social media were abuzz this morning as news emerged that the TCM Classic Film Festival will return in person in 2022.

After two years of virtual programming, this announcement was met with palpable joy among long-time festival attendees. Since this morning, I have seen friends making plans about where they’ll meet for meals, and some have already booked their rooms at the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel, the headquarters of the “TCMFF.”

It will not be a complete return to normal, as COVID-19 protocols will be in place to protect festivalgoers. According to the website, this means that among other precautions, the festival will require “mandatory masking, social distancing, capacity limits, negative test results verification, and/or proof of vaccination.” There will be more detailed updates to come, and the festival will be following Los Angeles County guidelines and best practices.

There are still a lot of updates to come, and I will do my best to bring them to you as I learn them. Backlots has attended the festival since 2013, and I am so happy that this year, we finally have a return to the glorious in-person experience of the TCMFF. There is nothing else like it in the world.

More to come!

TCMFF Day 3: The Festival Audience

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Apologies for the lateness of this post, readers. For the past month, I’ve been busy with much planning, for events film-related and not, to the point where I’ve neglected my coverage. More news about upcoming (and now past) events on another post. But in the meantime, here is the latest installment of Backlots’ coverage of the TCM Classic Film Festival.

On the third day of the festival, I started the morning bright and early with a screening of Double Wedding, the 1937 William Powell/Myrna Loy vehicle that was filmed contemporaneously with their more famous Thin Man series. While waiting in line, I received a tweet from a fellow festivalgoer who was incredulous at how long the line was.

One of my pearls of wisdom, as someone who has been coming to the festival for 8 years, is to always line up for 1930s movies at least an hour and 15 minutes before start time. The TCMFF audience absolutely lives for 1930s fare, and those movies always sell out. In my previous post, I discussed the popularity of the pre-codes–but any film made in the 1930s is guaranteed to have a very long line.

True to my own word, I made my way over to the Egyptian Theatre and lined up for Double Wedding at 7:45 AM, in preparation for a 9:00 start time. I’m glad I did–when all attendees were let in, the theater was packed. Illeana Douglas, introducing the movie, started off with a question.

“Does anybody know how many movies Myrna Loy and William Powell made together?”

Without the tiniest pause, a thunderous reply from just about every member of the audience reverberated throughout the Egyptian Theatre: “FOURTEEN!!!!”

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This was not unexpected. The TCM Classic Film Festival crowd is a group of the smartest, most passionate movie lovers in the world, and William Powell and Myrna Loy are particular festival favorites. Many of us have been studying the careers of Powell and Loy, independently and together, for decades, and the question of how many movies they made together is akin to asking a mathematician if they know what 6 x 6 is.

Entering the festival is like entering an entirely different world, one that a friend of mine called the “TCM vortex.” In prior festival years, I have made posts about the unique experience of watching a movie with the TCM festival crowd. But this experience at the start of Double Wedding has inspired me to talk about the audience itself–who comes to the festival, and why.

Festival attendees come from nearly every state, as well as Canada, Mexico, Australia, Sweden, and Norway. Many festivalgoers come several days in advance–not for sightseeing in Los Angeles, but for spending time with friends from previous years, and to soak in as much of the “festival vibe” as they can, even before the festival starts.

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If I had to describe the festival using one relatable life experience, it would be summer camp. Friends are made there for life–they room together, eat together, and gather together at predetermined spots for events or just for fun. There have been known to be movie musical sing-a-longs in line, and exaggerated imitations of Katharine Hepburn circa 1973–and those experiences remain injokes from year to year. Friends are an integral part of the festival, due to the fact that for many classic film fans, it’s difficult to find like-minded individuals during the rest of the year. For those of us who are lucky to have found like-minded individuals online, tangibility is limited. The bloggers, for example, all virtually interact with each other throughout the year, but only at the TCMFF do we get to sit down over coffee or lunch and discuss film blogging or the intricacies of Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in Ladies They Talk About.

This clip, of Katharine Hepburn preparing for the Dick Cavett Show in 1973, has become fodder for countless imitations and injokes among the bloggers at the TCMFF.

Schedules are compared, negotiated, and changed based on what friends are doing. This year my friend and I experienced a serious roommate dilemma over whether to see The Opposite Sex poolside or Road House at the Egyptian. We went back and forth, negotiating and compromising, until we finally decided that she would go poolside, I would go to the Egyptian. This is not atypical.

Some of us are fortunate to live in areas where classic films are shown regularly, but many festival attendees come from parts of the country, or the world, where one has to drive hours to see a classic film on the big screen. Not only does the festival give many attendees a once-in-a-lifetime experience, but it gives everyone friends and memories that last a lifetime.

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!

TCMFF Day 1: THE UMBRELLAS OF CHERBOURG

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From the start, day 1 of the TCMFF was the one I was most excited about. The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Jacques Demy’s beautiful Technicolor tribute to the Hollywood musical, is one of my all-time favorite films–one whose complete score I have downloaded in my iTunes. As all dialogue is sung, I have nearly memorized the complete film, and frequently find myself humming the recitatives as I go about my everyday life. However, I had never seen it on the big screen. This was an experience I knew I had to have.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg is Jacques Demy’s second film in his “romantic trilogy,” after his groundbreaking feature debut Lola in 1961. Those two films (plus the final installment of the trilogy, The Young Girls of Rochefort, released in 1967) share many stylistic elements and influences, including the use of a a lush visual scene and, in the case of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and The Young Girls of Rochefort, a bright and vibrant Technicolor that has since become Demy’s signature. One of the main characters in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, the diamond dealer Roland Cassard, is a character who had appeared earlier in Lola–and he recounts the plot in one of his recitative passages about his life. This contributes to a sense of linearity and continuity in Demy’s films that gives them a further 3-dimensional, lifelike quality.

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The Umbrellas of Cherbourg follows the story of 17-year-old Geneviève, who adores her 20-year-old boyfriend, Guy, and the two plan to get married. But Guy is drafted into the Algerian War before they can marry, and after he leaves, Geneviève has found herself pregnant with his child. Her mother, who runs an umbrella shop called The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, is concerned about how society will view her daughter and grandchild. She encourages Geneviève to marry Roland Cassard, a wealthy diamond dealer who helped the two out of a financial bind and has taken an interest in Geneviève. Guy has stopped writing frequently, and Geneviève’s mother convinces her that she’s better off marrying Cassard, who wants to raise the child as his own. They marry, and Geneviève becomes a wealthy woman with a husband to help raise her child. But shortly thereafter, Guy comes back to Cherbourg to find her gone. From there on, it becomes the story of Guy–unable to forget Geneviève, he resorts to quitting his job and becoming an alcoholic, until he realizes that Madeleine, the caretaker of his elderly godmother, has always loved him. They begin to spend time together, and Guy’s life becomes meaningful again. They marry, and the final part of the movie shows their life together with their young son at the gas station they own. One day, Geneviève comes back to Cherbourg, and accidentally runs into Guy at his gas station. She has her daughter with her, and asks Guy if he would like to see her. Guy silently shakes his head no. Geneviève bids him goodbye and leaves, presumably for good.

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It is a story that tugs on the heartstrings, and yet is relatable in so many ways. It shows life how it really is, with all its highs and lows, without the guarantee of a happy ending. Demy, along with his French New Wave contemporaries Godard and Truffaut, was heavily influenced by American filmmaking styles–Demy by musicals, Godard and Truffaut by film noir. However, while the Production Code was a dying ember in Hollywood by 1964, it was still alive enough to say that The Umbrellas of Cherbourg likely could not have been made as a Hollywood film at that time. In code-era Hollywood, a woman pregnant outside of marriage was not something that could have been shown as explicitly as it was in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg–and certainly not with one of the best dialogues in the movie:

GENEVIÈVE: Je suis enceinte, maman (I’m pregnant, mom.)

MME. EMERY: C’est épouvantable. Enceinte de Guy? Comment est-ce possible? (This is horrible. Pregnant by Guy? How could it be possible?)

GENEVIÈVE: Rassure-toi, comme tout le monde (Reassure yourself, the same way as everyone).

As I sat in the theater watching this movie on the big screen, I was taken aback by how spectacular it looked. It was even beyond what I was expecting. I had been told that watching it on the big screen was a whole different experience, and I immediately saw what they meant. The colors were even more vibrant, everything was on an even grander scale than I was used to. It was overwhelmingly beautiful. Much of the credit for the beautiful restoration of Jacques Demy’s work goes to his wife, the magnificently talented filmmaker in her own right, Agnès Varda, who we sadly lost just this past month at the age of 90. TCM host Alicia Malone, who introduced the film, fittingly paid tribute to Varda during her introduction, eliciting loud applause from the festival crowd.

This year we also lost the great Michel Legrand, the genius behind the music of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg and several other Demy films including The Young Girls of Rochefort. He came from a musical family, studied with Nadia Boulanger in Paris, and his sister Christiane Legrand provided the dubbed voice for Geneviève’s mother in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. Michel Legrand became one of France’s most beloved musical personalities, and left a huge footprint in Hollywood film scoring as well, writing the music for such movies as Yentl and The Thomas Crown Affair.

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Agnès Varda, film director, and wife and collaborator of Jacques Demy.

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Michel Legrand in the studio

It has been a tough year for fans of The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, but seeing it on the big screen at the TCM Classic Film Festival was a truly memorable experience, and a fitting tribute to the memories of Varda, Legrand, and Demy himself.

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!