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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!

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TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL DAY 1: Meet TCM, So You Think You Know Movies?, QUEEN CHRISTINA, My Man Godfrey

Exhausted but beyond excited, I arrived in Los Angeles last night for the kickoff of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival, taking place in Hollywood this weekend for its sixth year. The theme this year is “History According to the Movies,” which leaves plenty of room for interpretation…and controversial programming. When the full schedule of the TCM Classic Film Festival was announced several weeks ago, the internet started buzzing. Bloggers and film fans began asking questions–why were there so many modern movies scheduled?  Is TCM changing direction? Today at the annual Meet TCM panel prior to the official start of the festival, a film fan brought the question to the attention of Charlie Tabesh, head of programming at the channel. Tabesh answered that the modern programming of this year’s festival fits into the theme of “History According to the Movies,” and TCM has always operated according to themes. If the channel were paying tribute to the career of Katharine Hepburn, Tabesh continued, they would show not only Hepburn’s admired early work, but also her last film, Love Affair, made in the 1990s and generally acknowledged to be far from great.

MORNING GLORY (top), which won Katharine Hepburn her first Oscar, would get equal attention with LOVE AFFAIR (bottom) on TCM in a tribute to Hepburn’s career.

Much of the discussion centered around the fact that the festival is screening Out of Sight, a film from 1998 edited by Anne V. Coates. Having edited Lawrence of Arabia, Murder on the Orient Express, and several other noteworthy titles that firmly establish her in the landscape of classic Hollywood, Coates is a deserved honoree at the festival this year for her achievements in editing and, Tabesh said, she requested that the festival screen Out of Sight for a look into what editing looks like today. A look into editing from a woman in the business for over 50 years is a remarkable gift to festival goers. As there is no set definition of “classic,” TCM is obligated to identify and adhere to what they as a channel and a brand consider to be classic cinema, and for Tabesh, classic film has no expiration date. This is clear in TCM’s choice of programming on the channel as well as at the festival–for an in-depth discussion of TCM’s programming choices and what makes a classic, see my article TCM Programming and the Definition of Classic Film. After a short break for lunch, which I spent with my friend Spencer and fellow blogger Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film, festivalgoers convened again at Club TCM for an exciting round of So You Think You Know Movies?, TCM’s difficult and rapid-fire trivia competition. So You Think You Know Movies? is designed for the trivia master, with extremely obscure questions about film history and culture. Trivia is my strong suit, and our team did well, but ultimately a team of 8 called The Flickers won the grand prize, and deservedly so. When quizzed on the spot after the game, they knew almost all the answers to the supplementary questions, which were just as difficult as in the regular game.

As those with high-level passes got ready for the big opening night screening of The Sound of Music, I had a few hours to relax wherein I caught up on some preliminary blogging until 5:30, when I decided it was time to get in line for Queen Christina. A word about lines at the festival–passholders must line up in order to gain entrance to a movie, and entrance is first come, first served. Needless to say, lines queue up quickly. As I deduced that Queen Christina, a hugely popular movie with two hugely popular stars (Greta Garbo and John Gilbert), I gave myself an hour to play it safe in case it sold out. The movie began at 6:30, and the audience was treated to two wonderful things–first, an introduction by noted film historian Cari Beauchamp, and then a rare lighting test that showed Greta Garbo acting in a casual manner.  Cari Beauchamp’s talk included details about Greta Garbo’s personal life (“Ernst Lubitsch said that Greta Garbo was the most uninhibited people he knew,” she related), and about her acting in general, in this film and beyond. It was a great introduction to a fascinating film. Queen Christina is one of the last great hurrahs of the days before the full implementation of the Production Code. It tells the true story of Sweden’s queen Christina, who lived in the mid-1600s and who many historians now believe was either transgender or intersex. The film hints gingerly at these subjects, though even in the days before the Production Code, the industry was bound by what it thought the public would accept, so a full examination of a transgender person was out of the question. However, in scenes like these, director Rouben Mamoulian gives the audience an idea of what it is he’s trying to get across.

For a full analysis of the LGBT implications of Queen Christina, feel free to check out my post on the subject for the Queer Film Blogathon in 2011.

Next up was one of my favorites, a showing of the screwball classic My Man Godfrey in a theater that was packed to the gills with enthusiastic fans. This is one that I have seen on the big screen several times, but always seem to come back for more whenever it is showing. One of the zaniest screwball comedies of all time, it is a masterpiece of ensemble acting and director Gregory La Cava directs Carole Lombard and William Powell to perfection. Alice Brady, playing the eccentric and off-the-wall mother, was robbed of an Oscar  in 1936, though the film itself received 6 Oscar nominations including Alice Brady for Best Supporting Actress, and remains one of the best-loved screwballs among devotees of classic cinema. We have a big day tomorrow, so I’d better get to bed. See you tomorrow night!

TCM CLASSIC FILM FESTIVAL UPDATE: Get well soon, Robert Osborne!

The TCM Classic Film Festival, going on its sixth consecutive year later this month, is known for its devoted following and a large, dedicated staff that keeps a monumental event running seamlessly from start to finish. Classic Hollywood guests, behind-the-scenes film programmers and prominent on-air talent bring life to the festival, giving it the vitality that has come to define this event over these past six years. This year, a major component of past festivals will be missing. The legendary Robert Osborne, the face of TCM and a tour-de-force within the film industry, is undergoing surgery the week of the festival and will be unable to appear at the event.

Osborne, approaching his 83rd birthday, still plays an essential and active role in turning the wheels that keep TCM operating. Though he has increasingly delegated hosting duties to Ben Mankiewicz in recent months, he remains a veritable powerhouse on the channel and has achieved the status of a near-deity within the community of classic film aficionados. He will be greatly missed at the festival this year, and Backlots certainly wishes him a speedy recovery.

I have met Robert Osborne a number of times, but I must say that my favorite moment with him was when he asked about my favorite film at the festival. This was a year when they had shown Cover Girl, a movie that I knew was a mutual favorite. We discussed Cover Girl and Rita Hayworth for several minutes, and I walked away thinking “I just talked to Robert Osborne about Rita Hayworth. What a story I have!” So Robert, here’s to your successful surgery–and make way for tomorrow!

The TCM Festival Schedule is Here!

A few days ago TCM released the final schedule of the TCM Classic Film Festival, and there has been a lot of chatter about it already. Much of the discussion has centered around an idea that I have often brought up on this blog, a point of contention among classic film fans–the definition of “classic film” and what constitutes a classic.

This year’s festival features an unusually large number of films from the 1970s and beyond, and for some die-hard TCM fans this has proven a bitter pill to swallow. Many are devoted to films made in the “classical Hollywood era” (an academic designation for films made between 1927 and 1963) and purport that a classic film festival should prioritize films made between the birth of sound on film and the final waning years of the Production Code in order to truly be considered a “classic film festival.”

As I have mentioned before, there is no singular definition for what makes a classic. The term “classic film” is as diverse as the movies themselves, and the vast majority of film fans would not be able to give you a clear-cut definition of what the term means to them–“I know a classic when I see one” is commonly heard among film devotees, perpetuating the enigma of the concept. For me, though I am unabashedly a devotee of the classical Hollywood era, I am familiar with the difficulty of programming a classic film festival that is unbiased and fair to people with varied definitions of “classic,” and trying to make as many attendees happy as possible.

On my part, I have grown to truly love the TCM Festival schedule this year and have already mapped out my timetable. Go to filmfestival.tcm.com for the full schedule, but here is what you may expect from Backlots this year:

THURSDAY:

QUEEN CHRISTINA

MY MAN GODFREY

Friday:

INHERIT THE WIND

THE PROUD REBEL/THE PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO (I’m loyal to my Olivia, but man, Purple Rose of Cairo…and on the big screen…I’m torn on this one.)

LIMELIGHT

STEAMBOAT BILL, JR.

REBECCA

BOOM! (I’ll have to leave Rebecca early, but there is no freaking way I’m missing the camp factor that is Boom!)

Saturday:

WHY BE GOOD? (I saw this a few months ago and it is so fantastic. Viva Colleen Moore!)

42nd STREET

THE MIRACLE WORKER

Hollywood Home Movies

ADAM’S RIB

Sunday:

THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME

GUNGA DIN/THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK (I’ll probably decide the day of)

THE PHILADELPHIA STORY/THE CHILDREN’S HOUR/JUDGMENT AT NUREMBERG

KISS ME, KATE

Backlots at the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival

A few days ago, I received confirmation that Backlots will be covering the TCM Classic Film Festival in Hollywood, as a member of the press for the third year in a row.

Over the past 6 years of its existence, the TCM Classic Film Festival has become synonymous with class and sophistication, and has provided a haven and meeting place for classic film lovers from all over the world. Featuring a plethora of classic film related events to augment the film showings, and world-class guests from all areas of the entertainment world, the TCM Classic Film Festival is truly not to be missed.

Though the full schedule for this year is yet to be released, the theme of “History According to Hollywood” has yielded such exciting programming choices as Gunga Din, Dr. Zhivago, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, and 1776.

Stay tuned, as I will be posting exciting updates to the schedule in these weeks leading up to the festival. In the meantime, if you are in the Los Angeles area, be sure to go to http://www.tcm.com/festival to learn more about the pass options and how to attend. I look forward to seeing you there!

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival Day 4: 5TH AVE GIRL (1939), EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE (1933), THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947), Closing Night Party

The final day of the TCM Classic Film Festival was by far the lightest in terms of screenings, but I also found it to be among the most enjoyable. One of the wonderful things about this festival, speaking for those of us who write about classic film, is that there is never any shortage of community here. The classic film writers’ world is quite a tight-knit one, and I found myself constantly surrounded with fellow bloggers and friends comparing schedules and trying to coordinate screenings, chatting in line about Barbara Stanwyck and Irene Dunne, and updating each other on what’s new on our blogs. The TCM Classic Film Festival is known for valuing bloggers, so many of us in the online classic film community received credentials this year and it was nice to put faces to names, and reunite with those I saw last year.

The first showing today was a repeat, a movie that had sold out in a previous time slot and they scheduled it in another to get more people in. It was a Ginger Rogers movie called 5th Ave Girl, directed by Gregory La Cava (of My Man Godfrey fame) and co-starring Walter Connolly, telling a story about a young woman who is hired by a lonely man to live in his house with his wife and children, and make his life a little less boring. It was not, in my opinion, a hugely successful effort, but it is a feel-good movie and it showcases Ginger’s ability to do some pretty top-notch deadpan comedy.

Interestingly, it was made in 1939, the year known as “the best year for movies,” alongside Gone With the Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Stagecoach. But in those days, studios were an essential factory line for movies, and it’s sobering to think that even in a year like 1939, the sheer amount of movies coming out of Hollywood ensures some troublesome ones. Though it was not a bad movie, it was rather slow with a bit of a loose plot that I found tedious. It is one of the few films I’ve seen at festival that I haven’t particularly liked.

Loretta Young and Walter William in EMPLOYEES’ ENTRANCE.

Next up was Employees’ Entrance, a 1933 film about a corrupt and evil boss that uses people and then throws them out. It stars Warren William as the evil boss and a young Loretta Young as the wife of his next-in-command. The boss is such a tyrant that he won’t let his employees get married, so the two have to keep their marriage secret, and the movie is about their lives and those of everybody else who is privy to the antics of this deranged person.

One of the highlights of the Employees’ Entrance screening was an informative and entertaining lecture about the pre-Code era from the president of the Film Forum in New York City, Bruce Goldstein. Goldstein gave a witty and fun overview on what the pre-Code era meant for Hollywood, and referenced several strong pre-Code films and the strong women characters that are indicative of that era.

As my readers know, I have a real fascination with the pre-Code era and I have just learned that TCM will soon be having a tribute to the women of pre-Code Hollywood, who make up some of the most exciting characters ever to be seen onscreen. Stay tuned for more details as they become available, as I will be doing a series on Backlots related to this.

Rita Hayworth and Orson Welles in THE LADY FROM SHANGHAI (1947).

My final screening of the festival was a movie that I have had the privilege of seeing before on the big screen, but this was a world premiere presentation of a new digital restoration that I was anxious to see. It was The Lady From Shanghai, a movie that presenter Eddie Muller called “noir poetry,” directed by Orson Welles and starring his recently separated wife Rita Hayworth opposite himself. The movie is notable for the brilliant “hall of mirrors” scene, and for the surprise of seeing the beautiful Rita Hayworth with short blonde hair–as well as the magnificent directing of Welles and his innovations in cinematic technique. The plot is a bit muddy, but in this case it doesn’t much matter because the focus is primarily on the visuals and Welles’ beautiful manipulation of the camera.

The restoration was gorgeous. There are some mixed feelings within the classic film community about digital restorations, and in my opinion it’s possible for a film to be “over-restored.” A few years ago I had the privilege of seeing a new digitally restored print of Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, one that was hailed as being such a superb restoration that it was near flawless. And it was a flawless restoration. To my mind, too much so. It looked computerized in how perfect it was, and it didn’t look like it came from film stock. It turned me off a little. But this one was simply a pristine clean-up–it was still clear that this was a movie that had been shot on film, and it was just the restoration that was done digitally. I enjoyed it quite a lot.

And that was the end of the TCM Classic Film Festival. I spent the rest of the evening at the closing night party, talking to friends and preparing to miss them until next year. But the good news is that we all know each other online, so it’s only goodbye to faces–not goodbye to people. Thank goodness for the internet, keeping us all connected though miles away.

A huge thank you to TCM for allowing me to attend this festival, to Chelsea Barredo for all her help with the red carpet credential, and to all the wonderful people I met and reconnected with this year. Here’s to the next one!

Live From the TCM Classic Film Festival, Day 1: Press Roundtable, Red Carpet Coverage, THE HEIRESS (1949)

Readers, I apologize for the delay in this post–I returned from a screening of The Heiress last night to find that my internet had taken a holiday of its own and was on the blink. Unable to post online but determined to get you the coverage you expect from me, I started writing on my phone but it had been such a long day that I fell asleep before the post could be entirely written. Hopefully that won’t be happening again and my internet will behave for the duration of the festival.

Yesterday was the opening day of the TCM Classic Film Festival, and what a day it was! Normally the TCM press events happen the Wednesday before the festival, but due to conflicting events at the Roosevelt Hotel, the powers that be decided to move the press day to Thursday, and into the TCL Chinese 6 theater, upstairs in the Hollywood and Highland mall complex on Hollywood Boulevard. We heard from Robert Osborne, Ben Mankiewicz, Charlie Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy (the latter two work in network programming), and we heard a slew of fantastic questions and fascinating answers. Robert Osborne answered questions about his associations with Lucille Ball and Jane Darwell (“She wasn’t funny,” he said of Lucy, referring to her offscreen demeanor, “but she could BE funny”) as well as a question about what TCM’s greatest gift to him has been. He answered that the TCM family has been a great gift–the fact that there are so many knowledgeable people at the network, as opposed to the staff at previous jobs he has worked–and hearing from fans. He noted that TCM often gets letters from fans who say that the network has helped them through unemployment, hospital stays, and cancer treatments, and that he never realized that part of his job would be that of nurse. Ben Mankiewicz echoed Osborne’s sentiments that the TCM family has been a great gift to him, and added a bit about his own illustrious family having given him the boost that he may have needed to attain the job that has “changed the direction of [his] life.”

Robert Osborne answers questions.

Robert Osborne answers questions.

My question was posed to Charlie Tabesh and Genevieve McGillicuddy, and it related to original programming. I am a big fan of TCM’s programming, and especially love the documentaries that they have produced in the past. I referenced the beautiful Clara Bow documentary that was done many years ago, and asked if there was anything other documentaries on the horizon. They responded that there is a separate department for original programming, and that there are indeed some things on the table, but it was good to hear that there is interest in these documentaries because it spurs action on their part. They said they would pass on my words to the department, so hopefully in the future we will be seeing more of TCM’s beautiful original work.

Notably, during Robert Osborne’s time to speak, he also referred to the Private Screenings interview with Olivia de Havilland that was supposed to have taken place last October. There has been some buzz online that it didn’t happen, and Osborne confirmed that it unfortunately did not. 97-year-old Olivia had taken ill with pneumonia shortly after they arrived in Paris, and was not able to do the interview. Extremely apologetic, she said that she would come to New York and do one–but when that was scheduled, she had another flare-up of pneumonia and ended up in the hospital again. “It’s not meant to be,” said Osborne.

On my end, I had heard that Olivia had been ill and in the hospital with a lung infection, and thus wondered if there was truth to the rumor that the interview did not happen. Obviously, pneumonia at 97 years old is quite serious. Certainly, a Private Screenings with Olivia de Havilland would be a major coup for TCM, but Olivia’s health needs to come first and Backlots sends her great healing wishes.

Next on the agenda was coverage of the red carpet. It was great fun to watch stars such as Shirley Jones and Margaret O’Brien walk down the carpet into the screening of Oklahoma! at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre. Unfortunately I didn’t get to talk to anyone (save a rather awkward exchange with Leonard Maltin, who caught me off guard and for whom I didn’t have any legitimate questions), but I got some fantastic pictures.

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My view.

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Shirley Jones on the red carpet.

After a brief rest following the red carpet, I headed out to see a screening of The Heiress, meeting up with fellow blogger Kristen from Journeys in Classic Film, her friend Michelle, and also TCM notable Lawrence Carter-Long (you may remember him from the marvelous series on disability in film that aired on TCM last year). The Heiress is a movie that I have seen literally dozens of times, but never on the big screen, and seeing it this way was a truly thrilling experience. The audience was laughing and gasping at parts that I had never paid particular attention to, and I heard witty dialogue that simply disappears when one sees the movie on a small screen. Olivia de Havilland’s performance in the magnificent final scene was all the more powerful when viewed on a huge scale, and the expressions on her face magnified to create a grand perspective. The Heiress is a gorgeous film in any size, but like anything else, it is meant to be seen on a screen of these dimensions.

Click here to read my analysis and discussion of the final scene of The Heiress.

Today is a full day, and hopefully my internet will be working when I get home so that I can give you the scoop while it’s still hot!